Choose Wisely: The Quest for the Cup

I got a lot of emails from readers who enjoyed my usage of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in one of the more recent posts. One response said, "David, I appreciate how you use movies as metaphors to make your point. It really hits home." I appreciate the positive feedback, and I'm glad many of you enjoy reading those posts as much as I enjoy writing them. The Last Crusade has a particularly special place in my heart, and I know that film like the back of my hand. What's funny about Indiana's third adventure is that the film's final scene—where the team must choose the correct grail—is pretty much a metaphor for my everyday life (NOTE: if you've been living under a rock since 1989 and you have no idea what I'm talking about, click on the above video and skip to 1:37 on the timer). While the vast majority of our customers come into the store, look around, grab a few bottles, then head for home, there are always a few who severely struggle with that ultimate decision; staring at the wall in agony, beads of sweat running down their faces. Some, like Donovan, look for the most regal of all bottles, thinking the best booze will be in the most ornate of receptacles"Truly the cup of a king." Others go into pure archeologist mode, thinking they can outsmart the third and final test by choosing the most humble of all labels; as if the entire shelf is a gigantic test of their intelligence—"It would not be made out of gold." But what they all have in common is the fear that, should they "choose poorly", their life is going to end and they'll end up nothing but an exploding pile of dusty old bones; just another victim of the game.

As for me, I'm like the knight: I'm forced to just sit there and watch the process go down; day after day, year after year. It's not always an easy thing to take in. Unlike the knight, however, I'm allowed to offer assistance—and I'm always happy to do so. However, I'm not someone who believes that finding the Holy Grail is the ultimate goal of shopping for a bottle of booze, so in these instances I'm more like Sean Connery when he sees Indy struggling to reach the cup. I'm going to hold your hand, attempt to pull you out of the abyss, and say:

"Indiana.....Indiana......let it go."

It's not about fortune and glory, kid. It's about illumination. 

-David Driscoll


Negroni Week Begins June 1st

My how far we've come over the past eight years. I remember having to ask what a Negroni was in the year 2007. Now there's an entire week being dedicated to its renaissance by Campari. I think if you were to split my wrist open and draw blood from my veins, there would be at least 10% Campari mixed in with all the platelets and plasma. I drink Campari like it's....well, Campari. Or water. Or whatever people drink a lot of these days. Energy drinks? I've watched the would-be substitutes come and go. "This new thing is better than Campari!" people try to tell me, hoping that I'll eventually make the switch. But they never are better, and that liter bottle of red deliciousness continues to go on my K&L tab each week (I probably drink about 52 bottles of Campari a year).

Then Todd Leopold from Leopold Bros. Distillers came to visit me a few weeks back and everything changed. I was totally blown away by his Leopold Aperitivo, to the point that I actually think I might now have to divide my time between both brands. My co-worker Gary Westby and I made Negronis with it last week and were floored. I can safely say that if you're going to celebrate Negroni week, you won't be able to do it right unless you have a bottle of the Leopold on hand.

What's in a Negroni? It's very simple: equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. Stir with ice until cold, then strain into a coup glass or pour it on the rocks with a twist. Make the same recipe with the Leopold Aperitivo and tell me it isn't just as good. I dare you.

Leopold Bros. Aperitivo $34.99- If you're a Campari fan, but have never been able to find something outside of the Italian legend that scratches that same itch, then this might be the one thing that finally captivates you. The Leopold brothers have gone back to the drawing board and created an all natural version of the bitter aperitivo that uses real cochineal (like Campari used to) to color the liquid and brings a much bolder, more bitter flavor. It mixes like a DREAM into a Negroni and works wonders in an Americano. If you think you've got the Negroni cocktail mastered, think again. Until you've used this you can't be sure!

-David Driscoll


Ardbeg Forever

It's finally here! The 200th Anniversary Celebration limited edition bottle of Ardbeg is in stock and ready to go. We've got plenty (for the time being) because we haven't sent out the big email yet, so this is when all you faithful blog readers should grab yours. After the email goes, so does the whisky. This is one of the more soft and savory of the limited edition Ardbegs ever released. There's definitely some sherry action on the finish, with roasted earth and dark cocoa accents, with even a bit of coffee bean. It's unlike any of the other whiskies they make, so it's definitely worth picking up in my book. It's nice to have something under 50% every now and again that isn't lacking for intensity in any way.

Ardbeg "Perpetuum" Limited Edition Single Malt Whisky 750ml $99.99 - The 2015 limited edition Ardbeg release is here, and from what we've heard, Dr. Bill Lumsden dug deep into Ardbeg's remaining stocks of past projects and blended some of them with younger stocks of future projects to create a whisky showcasing both old and new single malt whiskies. Here are the notes from Ardbeg: "The past, present, and future in a glass. Classic notes of Ardbeg's yesteryear on the nose as mellow, rich, and enticing Ardbeggian flavors mingle with dark chocolate, treacle, and nutty oak. Then, like standing on Ardbeg's pier this morning, water brings forth briny sea-spray with a pine resin lime top note for a remarkably fresh bouquet. On the palate, robust peat smoke and savory smoky bacon meet creamy sweet vanilla, milk chocolate with the hint of sherry casks, culminating in a taste of the future…and aftertaste that is never ending."

-David Driscoll


Oaxaca 2015: Day 4 – Los Danzantes - Part II

It was in Coyoacán, a well-to-do neighborhood of Mexico City, that Jaime and Gustavo Muñoz opened their first Los Danzantes restaurant; not too far from Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul. The two brothers (identical twins) wanted to showcase the quality of fine Mexican cuisine, and that meant sourcing all the best foods along with the best tequilas. The spirits game in Jalisco, however, proved difficult for these two newcomers. In looking to source an exclusive house product neither brother was able to find a reliable or trustworthy source of tequila, of a quality they were happy with. At that time—around 1996—due to a bad burn on a tequila barrel deal, they decided to look towards Oaxaca instead. It wasn’t long before their affection for the region and its potent potion of mezcales took hold. Less than a year later they had purchased a distillery site (a palenque) and begun branding their own spirits under the Danzantes name. Not long after that, a man named Hector Vázquez began collaborating with Jaime in Mexico City on sales of the brand. Both had worked in the field of sports marketing, and Hector figured he could translate that passion over to Mexican spirits as well. The grind of living in D.F., however, was too much, so Hector eventually moved to Barcelona to do his MA in communications. Upon returning to Mexico, he decided to move to Oaxaca—a region he had been fond of while working with the Danzantes mezcales. It didn’t take long before Hector ran into Jaime again, this time at the new Danzantes restaurant recently established downtown. He needed a job and his old friend Jaime was happy to oblige.

Jaime originally offered Hector the manager position at the restaurant, but Hector had grown tired of the restaurant lifestyle. He had spent the last few years washing dishes while finishing school, so he wanted to try something different. “What if you manage the distillery instead?” Jaime asked. Hector was intrigued. At this time, the Alipus project was just getting started and Danzantes had begun working with remote producers in Santiago, San Juan del Rio, and Santa Ana del Rio. Hector began driving out to the villages to buy the mezcales in bulk, then haul them back to Jaime’s apartment where they would ultimately fill the bottles by hand. After watching this fly-by-night mezcal operation cut corners and costs to stay profitable, Hector decided he should help streamline the operation. He was integral in building a new production center at the distillery site, with a real bottling team, and he started working with chefs in other restaurants to increase the sales output beyond Danzantes. Mezcal wasn’t all that popular in the early 2000s. It was the Armagnac of Mexico—maybe you’d see one or two selections at the bottom of the vast tequila list—so getting on to the menu at top restaurants wasn’t easy. Reposado and añejo were the drinks of choice, so Hector and Jaime decided they should make their own aged versions of Danzantes to compete. That’s when their mezcal business really began to blossom.

If Hector was going to be an effective manager, judging the work of his distillers and problem-shooting their methods, he was going to have to learn more about alcohol production. He began studying wine as a primer (because wine really is the closest thing to mezcal). He stopped smoking in order to improve his taste. He began learning more about chemistry, and through this realized that the wood-fired stills at the distillery could be changed to gas to maximize control of the process. The change was made and the spirits Danzantes produced instantly became cleaner and more focused. For the next ten years, Hector would run the production of all the Danzantes mezcales, including the management of the remote producers from whom they were contracting, while continuing to increase his knowledge of disitllation. In 2012, however, he fell in love with an Italian woman, got married, and moved to Italy. His protege, the current head of production Karina Abad, would take over the management job from then on. Even drinking fine Italian wines and living along the Mediterranean couldn’t keep Hector’s mind off of mezcal, however. Only a few years after leaving, he would move back to Oaxaca, return to Danzantes, and this time take a job as director of commercialization. Now Hector is the guy flying around the world, building markets, forming new relationships, and using his detailed and nuanced background to educate, and open new hearts and minds to mezcal globally. He’s an incredible ambassador for Oaxaca and its diverse set of distilled spirits.

When you walk around Oaxaca City with Hector, there’s no one he doesn’t know. As we hopped from bar to bar yesterday, we’d stroll down a side street where Hector would shake hands with a number of country farmers in town to handle some business. We’d grab a bite to eat and Hector would greet the entire kitchen staff as we ordered. When getting drinks, the bartender would almost always leave the bar to come around and offer Hector a huge hug of friendship. Everyone likes this guy—and more importantly they respect him. He’s been a salesman, worked in the restaurant, managed the distillery, spearheaded new production, created lasting relationships with important growers, and acted as a mentor to the villagers who collaborate with his company. Besides the Oaxacan Alipus selections, there’s now an entirely new set of regional agave spirits from Sonora, Michoacan, Durango, and Guerrero under the label. They’re not for sale in the U.S., but I got a chance to try them at the Danzantes store and they’re outstanding. Hector is one of the main people moving the company forward, anchoring the business, and working closely with Karina to create exciting new projects. I’m telling you all this about Hector because it’s important to understand the people behind these products. I didn’t think anyone could be nicer and more charming than Karina after I first met her, but Hector is right there with her neck and neck. I am utterly excited to begin working with both of these people on new mezcal projects between Danzantes and K&L; not only because I’ve never met two professionals with more knowledge about the product, but also because I’ve rarely met people in this business with whom I get along so well. I felt like I was hanging out with old friends as we ate dinner late last night. I didn’t want the night to end, and I definitely did not want to head home today. 

While Gustavo and Jaime were the original driving forces of the Danzantes restaurants, the mezcal side of the business is being handled mostly by these two incredible people. You can see why everything about the Danzantes brand is amazing—the quality, the creativity, the packaging, and the pricing. You’ve got two highly-intelligent people who really know what they’re doing behind this brand. I can’t wait to get back to the store tomorrow and begin selling more of their stuff because it makes me so happy knowing exactly who made these mezcales. I want to convey that story to my customers. This was a fantastic trip, but most of what made it great were the people. A big thank you to everyone from Danzantes who helped make it happen—Marcelo and Lorena, too—and I hope to see you all again soon.

-David Driscoll


Oaxaca 2015: Day 4 – Mezcalerias de Oaxaca

I'm not sure how many people are aware that Mexico passed a certification requirement for all products labeled as "mezcal" a few years back. It was a rather controversial decision, from what I understand, and the law stated that all producers wanting to classify their spirits as mezcal would have to keep strict records of production, declare all of their stocks, and present the government with consistant lab analysis to ensure the standard of quality.  It all sounds pretty simple and straightforward to those familiar with the basic responsibilities of alcohol production, but imagine you're one of these remote village distillers, way out in the mountains, without running water, let alone access to a professional lab. How in the hell are people who can barely read and write going to keep detailed records and do the math required to keep accurate stock counts? Where's the local lab in Santa Ana, a village two and a half hours away from the nearest highway? The idea seemed a bit discriminatory to some in the industry, but the requirement passed, and today—if you want to export your mezcal out of the country, or even sell it in Mexico as "mezcal"—you have to be certified. But that's where the local mezcalerias come in. Like the one pictured above, for example.

En Situ is one of numerous mezcalerias in Oaxaca that purchases what no longer counts as "mezcal" from these remote producers and pours them directly to discerning customers. It's basically like a giant bar that only serves "mezcal" (certified and uncertified) and it's one of the best avenues for country producers that either can't or won't comply to standard practices. You can specify which type of agave you want to try, and from which region, and it's all but given that En Situ has a bottle of it somewhere on their shelves. It's not just about complying to certification for some of these producers; it's about not wanting to change their tradition. For example, the new certification requires all mezcal to be double-distilled, but many producers have long diluted their spirits down to 45% with a bit of the head from the first distillate (a much more flavorful reducer than spring water). Since the heads are only once distilled, that practice is no longer allowed.

En Situ also has various types of drinking receptacles, along side a vast menu that also exists in print if you don't want to stare for an hour at overwhelming number of bottles and strain your eyes to read the tags hanging from them.

I spent most of today barhopping with Hector Vázquez, the former head of production for Danzantes before Karina took over. He's just as wonderful as she is, and he's just as knowledgeable (like I did with Karina, I'll have more to tell you about Hector later). Next on our list of mezcalerias was La Mezcaloteca, a very sophisticated speakeasy-type lounge run by a man named Marco Ochoa. He's very passionate—both about mezcal and education—and we talked for a good hour about the state of the industry and the potential for relaying our passion to consumers. 

Marco also has his own private label for "mezcal" and does his best to support the more remote producers who no longer qualify as mezcaleros. Some of his selections were absolutely heartstopping. It's a must-visit spot for anyone visiting Oaxaca; mezcal fan or not.

Besides selling directly to the local mezcalerias, some remote village producers do have another option: the education of their youth. Part of what makes Danzantes (and many other larger distillers) so amazing is their commitment to the health and survival of their artisansal producers. This is Cirilo Hernandez, the son of distiller Don Hernandez who makes the San Baltazar expression for Alipus. With the support of Danzantes, Cirilo went to school and was eventually groomed to handle all of the complicated logistics concerning certification for his family's mezcal. He's incredibly sharp, has poignant ideas about the future of the business, and isn't afraid to speak his mind about changing the long-standing traditions in his village. It's because of his involvement, and therefore his education, that Danzantes is able to maintain the certification for the Baltazar brand and export it to us here in the states. Without him, his family could never comply with the procedures.

That's pretty cool.

-David Driscoll