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Friday
Jul032015

Big City, Big Names

It was in Paris during the mid-1800s that a bold, young fashion designer named Charles Frederick Worth began signing his clothing creations like an artist would his painting; scribbling his name on a tag of fabric and sewing that signature onto each garment like a placard. Voila!—the first designer name brand was born. It wasn’t long before other ambitious designers—known then couturiers—began following suit. That signed seal of authenticity was instantly seen as exclusive and desirable. It allowed for hasty public recognition, like a nametag helped to portray an identity, and over the next one hundred and fifty years those words would become more important (and more valuable) than the actual look of the fashion itself (creating an entirely new version of the term). Today ambitious people want to wear the hottest name brands, eat at the most famous restaurants, and drink the fanciest wines from the most iconic chateaux, and no city has more big name action than New York.

So in heading to Manhattan this weekend, looking to do a little boozing around the Big Apple, I thought about what my itinerary should be. Should I visit the most-recognized bars in the city? Should I hit up Meehan at the PDT, or maybe order one of the crazy concoctions at Death & Co? Should I pull up a stool at the Gramercy Tavern, or maybe head downtown to Cipriani’s for a Negroni? I wasn’t sure. I’ve been to most of these places already, but I’ve never really done a series of posts about drinking in Manhattan, so I figured maybe it was time to go back and take a few notes. But then I thought about it some more. Do I really need to be the 5,187th person online to post their opinion about a bar so insanely-popular that most people can’t even get a reservation? There are a million great places to eat in New York that are easy-to-access and under-the-radar. Maybe I should focus on those instead? Decisions, decisions.

One place that I've never read an online review about is Bianca on Bleeker St. where it meets the Bowery. No one's ever told me anything about it, and I didn't discover it from a friend's recommendation. My wife and I simply walked by it one night five years ago, stopped in for a bite, and we've been going back ever since. It's the best place to go straight off the plane because you don't need a reservation, and you can't make one anyway. It's all first-come, first-served—cash only. They have four wines: a white, a red, a rose, and a prosecco. Nothing on the menu costs more than $20, and the food is classic Italian trattoria style—hearty, wholesome, and simple.

I just about never eat sausage, but for some reason I was in the mood tonight. Fennel links with cannellini beans in a thick tomato sauce. We did the caprese salad to start, as well as the soup. I was famished after a five hour flight.

Bring the booze, please. Cold prosecco to wash down that grub. We shared a salad, a big bowl of soup, ordered two entrées, downed a bottle of wine, and spent less than $100—in downtown Manhattan on a Friday night! Come on! That's crazy. Especially with the quality of the cuisine and the evening street atmosphere from the open storefront. Because Bianca is so cost-effective it's easy to get carried away quickly. We got so drunk here one time that we had to hit Popeye's up on the walk back to the hotel and stuff our face with biscuits just to soak up the excess hooch.

The Marlton Hotel is a new spot for me, but I'm already a big fan. Located on West 8th St. just north of Washington Square, the downstairs bar has a clever list of interesting cocktails. I did the Lobby Boy (meaning I drank the cocktail called "The Lobby Boy") which was a Laphroaig 10-based sour with Italian amari. I never would have thought to mix bitter liqueur, citrus, and Islay Scotch, but it was both refreshing and robust.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Jul022015

Brandy Bonanza

Lookie, lookie! A big boat of brandy just landed in Oakland, filled with all kinds of goodies for the boys and girls out there who enjoy a glass of brown booze in the evening. We've got some of our greatest hits back in stock, and delicious brandies of all flavors, styles, and price points. There's truly something for everyone here. Check it out:

From Pellehaut (click here if you need a Pellehaut reminder):

1973 Chateau Pellehaut 40 Year Old K&L Exclusive Tenareze Vintage Armagnac $149.99 - This is the last of the 1973, so grab a bottle while they're here. While Bas-Armagnac gets all the press, and the Haut-Armagnac gets completely ignored, the Tenareze region of Armagnac is quietly producing some of the best brandies in the world. Much like the Borderies region in Cognac, the Tenareze brandies seem to have more fruit and a bit more life than the more classic  Armagnac style. We visited Chateau Pellehaut on our first day in Armagnac last January and were completely overwelmed by the quality of spirit.  Using only new or first fill barrels for the beginning years of maturation, the Armagnacs have richness, weight, and spice. While Pellehaut has since switched to entirely Folle Blanche grape varietals, the 1973 vintage is composed of 90% Ugni Blanc. The palate opens with loads of caramel and a creamy richness the spreads quickly. The aromas are quite Bourbon-esque, with hints of soft vanilla and charred oak drifting out of the glass. The complexity of the brandy is astounding - candied fruit, stewed prunes, toasted almond, baking spices, and earthy warehouse notes, all swirling around at the same time. For an Armagnac of this quality, at an age of more than 40 years old, the price we negotiated is amazing. I'm expecting this to be one of our best selling Armagnacs ever and I expect it to really put Pellehaut on the map stateside.

2000 Chateau de Pellehaut 14 Year Old K&L Exclusive Folle Blanche Vintage Tenareze Armagnac $49.99 - The 2000 vintage still showcases plenty of fruit despite the 14 years of age. It's lighter on its feet than the 96 or 94 vintages we also carry, with bits of pencil shavings and wood spice, balanced by the fruit of the Folle Blanche. A fantastic value that melds old world flavor with the freshness of a new world spirit.

From Baraillon (click here if you need a Baraillon reminder):

Domaine de Baraillon 10 Year Old K&L Exclusive Armagnac $52.99 - After so much success with the older vintage Armagnacs from Domaine de Baraillon, we thought it was time to introduce you to their younger selections. This 10 year old marriage of brandies was created specifically for K&L and offers the richer, rounder mouthfeel, but without the big burst of caramel. It's more vinous, more oily, more earthy in style and rounder on the finish. Compared to our other selections this one is far more gentle. It's a great entry level foray into country Armagnac as it's entirely unpolished in style. This tastes like it was made on a farm in the middle of the country by a rustic family who might also have chickens and pigs. And guess what: it was!!

Domaine de Baraillon 20 Year Old K&L Exclusive Armagnac $69.99 - We've been carrying the Baraillon Armagnacs for three years now and it's been a match made in heaven for K&L, the Claverie family, and our customers—we're their biggest account and their biggest fans. There's something special about walking into the tasting room at Baraillon, which is really just a little hut next to their home with plastic furniture and humble offerings (like fresh fois gros straight from the farm next door). Mr. Baraillon will come in from feeding the pigs wearing rubber boots, while his daughter Laurence stands by quietly, yet does most of the talking. It's as "real" of a rustic French experience as I think exists, in that there's absolutely no romantic marketing or salesmanship going on in the room. You're simply stopping by a small farm in the Bas-Armagnac that sells meat, preserves, and also happens to have a little reserve Armagnac in the chai outside--some amazingly-delicious Armagnac, no less. If you like big, bold, chewy, meaty, mouth-filling spirits, then this 20 year old Baraillon is for you. It's a big, teeth-gripping Armagnac that packs caramel and fruit into one monstrous mouthfeel.

From Ognoas (click here if you need an Ognoas reminder):

Domaine d' Ognoas K&L Exclusive XO Armagnac $49.99 - We're back with another new release from one of our favorite French producers from whom we buy spirits directly! The seigneury of Ognoas dates back to the 11th century. For more than seven hundred years it was occupied by various lords and viscountesses until 1847, when the last remaining heir donated the property to the church. In 1905, the Domaine was passed over to the regional government and today the 565 hectare estate is run by the Conseul General des Landes and is operated as an agricultural school. The distillery at Ognoas is considered the oldest in Gascony and has been in operation since 1780. The estate has baco, ugni blanc, and folle blanche planted on site. Perhaps the coolest part of the operation is that Ognoas uses its own trees (from the 300 hectares of forest on the property) to make their own oak casks for maturation. A local cooper does all the work at the Domaine and selects the trees himself. Rather than another vintage selection, this year we opted for an XO marriage of vintages that brought heaps of rich flavor at a very affordable price point. Softer fruit and rich woody flavors permeate the intial sip, and the accents of spice and dark caramel carry through to the finish. There's no better deal in the $50 range.

From Laballe (click here if you need a Laballe reminder):

Chateau de Laballe K&L Exclusive VS Armagnac $34.99 - Armagnac has been distilled at Domaine de Laballe since Jean-Dominique Laudet returned from the Caribbean to his native Gascony and purchased the estate in Parleboscq. It was Noel Laudet, however, who modernized the operation in the 1970s when he left his position as director at famed Bordeaux producer Chateau Beycheville in St. Julien and returned home to expand his family's estate into wine production, as well as Armagnac. After Noel, however, production at Laballe stopped until the 8th generation came back to take the reins. Today, Cyril Laudet and his wife Julie have restarted operations at the Domaine and have recommitted to the tradition of their ancestors. The VS is going to be a fan favorite -- it has all the varietal flavor of the fruit, but enough richness to round out the palate and give the wooded spirits fans their dessert. It's spicy and dry on the finish, making it perfect for rocks drinks or cocktails.

From Ragnaud-Sabourin (click here if you need a Ragnaud-Sabourin reminder):

Ragnaud Sabourin K&L Exclusive Reserve Speciale #20 Cognac $89.99 - The vineyards of Ragnaud-Sabourin stretch far over the hills in Grand Champage. 33 hectares of Ugni Blanc with a bit of Folle Blanche as far as the eye can see. This estate is known throughout France for having the goods and we couldn't have been more impressed after visiting the property this past Spring. Today the estate is run by Annie Sabourin, who is the daughter of the late Marcel Ragnaud, and she makes sure every drop lives up to the property's reputation. The collection of Ragnaud-Sabourin selections we tasted were spellbinding, easily one of the most polished portfolios we've ever come across. The Reserve Speciale No. 20 is a 20 year old expression with supreme delicacy and elegance. The fruit is dainty, but never faint or flat, while the vanilla and caramel provide the backbone of the brandy's structure. It's simply delightful Cognac, but never overly rich or sumptuous. It's not decadent, but yet it's memorable and haunting. I think it perfectly represents the quality for which Ragnaud-Sabourin is widely recognized.

Ragnaud Sabourin K&L Exclusive Fontevieille #35 Cognac $169.99 - The No. 35 is a 35 year old Cognac of immense quality and seamless character. It's named after a special property (Fontevielle) from where the fruit is sourced. Locals in the area say "the Cognac is perfect" and we couldn't agree more. It's rich, supple-fruited, and textural, almost luxuriously so, and the caramel comes in on the finish to warm your mouth. It goes on forever. I think it's easy to say that this is the one of the best Cognacs we've found from this year's trip and it should make many aficionados very happy. All it takes is one sip to realize why Ragnaud-Sabourin is widely respected throughout Grande Champagne. We couldn't be more pleased to represent them here stateside.

From Giboin (if you need a Giboin reminder click here):

1996 Giboin K&L Exclusive Fins Bois Vintage Cognac $54.99 - It's one thing to have heard that Grand Champagne fruit makes for "better" Cognac, but it's an entirely different thing to actually know that through your own tasting experiences. If Grand Champagne is the best then why bother with anything else, right? But how do you know it's the best? Have you ever tasted Petit Champagne or Borderies expressions? When's the last time you even saw a Cognac from the Borderies at your local shop? And what about the other three satellite regions: the Bon Bois, Fins Bois, and Bois Ordinaires? Have you ever tasted anything from those inferior terrains to compare against the pre-ordained superiority of Grand Champagne Cognac? Giboin's estate is a classic Cognac millieu: gigantic country house, scattered papers and books, that smell that reminds you of your grandparents, and wooden antique furniture. It's the romantic ideal and a helluva place to go Cognac spelunking. The fact that we were so far outside the realm of "normal" Cognac producers sent an adventurous tingle through our spines. We found a lovely 1996 vintage expression that went down almost too easily. A simple, easy, to-the-point Cognac with lovely richness, but with a less-refined and more robust "Fins Bois" character. There's a weight and a boldness that the Grand Champagne brandies lack, but that's what makes the Giboin so interesting. We definitely need to spend more time in these outer satellites, searching for Cognac like this.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jul012015

Marketing or Truth?

I'd be the first person to tell you that the alcohol industry is built on marketing necessity. When there's a glut of old whiskey to be sold, age matters. When there's a shortage, maybe flavor is more important. When Bordeaux has great weather for the year, it's the "vintage of a lifetime". When the weather isn't so great, they'll tell you "great producers can make great wine from any vintage." There's an endless supply of marketing spin in this business. I could keep going like this for hours. I could tell you how the only reason we even have single cask single malts at K&L is because the bottom dropped out of the blending market and all these guys didn't know what to do with the leftover barrels, but that would take all the fun out of drinking, wouldn't it?

When it comes to marketing, you play with the hand you're dealt. You try and turn something unique into something positive, or put a happy spin on circumstance. That's just the nature of the game. The goal is to tell a story and to make people feel excited about being a part of the process. Sometimes those stories are accurate, and other times they're a bit of a stretch. But there is one popular slogan making the rounds lately that isn't just ballyhoo, and deals with the truth of the situation staring all of us directly in the face: the quality of alcohol has never been better than it is today. That's not marketing; it's reality. There's so much good booze being produced today—from craft beer to craft whiskey, and from that little co-op in Napa Valley to the finest chateaux in Bordeaux—that we're running out of space at K&L. Five years ago I would taste maybe five new products a week. Now I'm tasting five new products every few hours. Where the hell is all this stuff coming from?! And how is it that so many of these new products are absolutely delicious?

Some whiskey drinkers have a hard time dealing with this issue because in their mind the retail shelves have never been barer. Where's the affordable Brora? Where's the Pappy? Where's all that old whiskey I used to be able to buy? Here's the thing: many of those whiskies we grew to love were also based on necessity, or simply the surplus of a stagnant economy. Most of these producers did not originally set out to make twenty or thirty year old whiskies back in the day. They just happened to make more than they could sell, so they sat on their inventory until the market came back around (and come back around it did). Now that the whiskey business is booming again they're no longer holding back—"let's sell while the sellin's good" is the mantra of the day. Sure, that comes at the expense of all the really old stuff. That's a given. But if you only drink really old whiskey and you think whiskey only tastes good when it's really old, then you're fucked. I don't know what else to tell you, other than there are 5,000,000 other delicious things out there to drink other than really old whiskey.

However, if you drink more than just old whiskey, and your interests span across all genres, then there's no doubt that we're living in a new renaissance of alcohol. When you look at the quality of what's being produced, and the amount that's being produced each day, I don't think anyone can argue the fact that there are more quality options of wine, beer, and spirits to choose from than ever before. Talk to our Bordeaux experts at K&L. They'll tell you they've never before tasted so much good wine from the region as they have recently. Winemaking practices have improved, smaller producers have taken the necessary steps to clean up their act, and the category has taken a huge step forward as a result. "Today you can get great Bordeaux for $20-$30, and there are so many small producers making excellent wines," our senior specialist Ralph Sands told me the other day. "That's what I'm filling my cellar with," he added. Not only are the wines better, but they're more approachable in their youth. Many of them don't need much maturity, which marks a huge change from the hugely-tannic wines of the past. If you need examples, there's no better proof than this bottle of St. Estephe—the 2009 Tronquoy de St. Anne—for $16.99. The property is located across the street from Chateau Montrose (a wine that sold for $300 that vintage), and is capable of aging for the next five to seven years. I honestly can't tell you if I've ever tasted a Bordeaux this good, for this cheap. Why is it so inexpensive? Because there's too much strong competition out there to justify charging more. When the market floods itself with quality products, then prices eventually go down.

If you need more evidence then look at the emergence of high-quality canned beer, or wine-in-a-box (hell, even wine in a can!). Every night, when we close the Redwood City store, I walk over to the cooler and I look at the 500+ beers we now stock (none of which we carried five years ago), and I choose one of many delicious, ice cold, aluminium cans to enjoy as I count the registers. Avery Brewing "Joe's Pilsner, or maybe the Ballast Point "Scuplin" IPA. Beer has never been as diverse or exciting of a category as it is right now, and there's a new label out there every thirty seconds. There's no way you can possibly keep up with the innovation currently being seen in the American brewing scene. It's growing at an unheard of rate and it doesn't look to be slowing down any time soon. I could drink a new beer every single day for the next year and never come close to working through our complete inventory. There are now more internet message boards about brewing than distilling, and beer geeks are far more die-hard about getting their Pliny than the Bourbon guys ever were about Pappy.

We have so much new gin at K&L that half of it doesn't even fit on the shelf. We found so much new Armagnac this year in Gascony, we might have to start recruiting college kids at parties to help drink it all. I've already been solicited with fourteen new agave spirits just this week. There's a sheet on my desk about ten new rums from the Caribbean. A guy from New Zealand just sent me an email about his latest single malt project, and another guy from the Central Valley just asked if I'd be interested in custom-made liqueurs. Come to one of our California wine tastings—you'd never believe this much good Chardonnay existed in the entire history of the state. Or talk to our New Zealand buyer Ryan Woodhouse—every day he finds a new pinot noir that beats out the one he found last week (which at that point was the best pinot noir we carried). It's absolutely crazy. I don't know how people keep up. And that's the point! There's so much good booze out there right now that you'll never even come close to tasting 1/1000th of it. In fact, it's so overwhelming at times that I often just pour myself a vodka on the rocks and try to numb myself to death. I have to just forget about it, or risk permanently floating my liver.

Of course, when you have this much good stuff, it means you have twice as much bad stuff. So in turn, I guess I would also have to say: there's never been as much bad booze as there is today. But you know how to read between the lines.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jun302015

2015 Single Malt Whisky Casks

Remember when this blog was primarily about whisky? Ah, those were heady days. Never fear though single malt fans because we're still bringing in tons of new K&L exclusive barrels for you to enjoy this calender year. We're just finalizing some of our purchase orders as we speak (or as I type this), so I thought I'd give you a small peak at what we're working on. We've got a boat full of hooch ready to leave Scotland very, very soon, and since I know some of you like to get your finances in order before landing, let's take a look at some of the forthcoming K&L releases.

From Signatory:

1981 Glenlivet in sherry

1995 Benrinnes hogshead

1988 Blair Athol in sherry

1990 Glen Elgin ex-Bourbon

1996 Glenlivet in sherry

1985 Linkwood hogshead (the star of the show)

1995 Imperial hogshead

There will be a few other surprises in this group, but you can count on these babies right out of the gate. Four of them are the sister casks to barrels we imported last year; whiskies so good we had people literally begging us for more.

From Hepburn's Choice:

More young peated whiskies (i.e. Caol Ila, Talisker, etc)

More affordable Highland whiskies in their high teens (including an 18 year Clynelish hogshead, and a sherry butt of Inchgower that will make your fucking head spin)

More older grains under the Sovereign label

A smattering of old and rare whiskies (including an 18 year old Springbank in sherry that lit the room on fire at my last private tasting, plus a pair of 40+ year olds in sherry)

We've trimmed down the list a bit this year to include only whiskies of supreme value, supreme quality, and supreme decadence. You'll have the choice of young and interesting, old and unknown, or really old and really good.

You're going to be happy. Trust me.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jun302015

Every Day Give Yourself a Present

I was definitely overwhelmed by the response yesterday’s tribute to my grandmother garnered. I had almost one hundred emails by the day’s end from customers all over the country who took the time to drop me a line; many who felt a certain kinship with Helen and her love affair with gin martinis. Let me say this: my grandmother would have been absolutely thrilled had she been alive to read all of these messages. She would have been downright giddy. So thank you to everyone who chimed in. My family is extremely thankful for your sympathy and well wishes.

I learned one of the most important lessons in my booze career from my grandmother, when she taught me that giving people exactly what they want is sometimes more rewarding than expanding their horizons. When I first got the job at K&L I told her specifically how much great Champagne we had in stock, and how I couldn’t wait to send her some; Helen being a big fan of the bubbly. She responded by telling me she had always wanted to try Dom Perignon, but had never been able to afford it. She had always pictured the monks out in the field (back when that was still happening), tending to the vines, making one of the world’s most revered liquids, and she would tell me how just the thought of having a glass would often send chills up her spine. Me being new to the industry and eager to show off my chops, I told her about all the other incredible K&L exclusive Champagnes we carried; many of which were cheaper in price and higher in quality than Dom Perignon, in my opinion. She thought that was interesting, so I sent her a bottle of Frank Bonville “Belles Voyes” (the best Champagne we carry, in my opinion) which I know she enjoyed. She told me later on “it was nice.” She thanked me profusely. “Oh, it was just lovely,” were her words. But I could tell from the tone in her voice that it hadn't really moved her the way a bottle of Dom would have. Drinking the Bonville wasn’t going to go down in history as a memorable moment for her, which is ultimately the experience I had hoped to give her.

The next year when my mother went up to visit Helen, it was Mother’s Day weekend and a Champagne shipment was most definitely in order. This time around I didn’t make the same mistake. I sent the Dom Perignon—a Champagne that wasn’t nearly as delicious as the “Belles Voyes” in my opinion, but was what I ultimately knew she wanted. At that point, I was completely focused on my grandmother’s dream of living out one of her most-coveted fantasies, and the romanticism she felt towards Dom Perignon the brand, which was far more powerful than the elegant and refined flavors of the Bonville. It wasn’t about drinking “the best” for her, or deciphering quality. It was about feeling special, and getting the chance to experience something she never thought she would have the chance to enjoy for herself. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with her the next day after she and my mother drained that bottle. She was so happy. She was absolutely thrilled. That bottle of Dom Perignon had made her entire year.

That moment created a serious sea change in my customer service philosophy, and ultimately in the way I looked at the intentions of my job. Up until that point I considered my responsibilities as a wine store specialist to include both knowing which wines were best, and informing our customers of my own personal opinions as to which selections represented a better value. If someone came in and said, “My dad loves Johnnie Walker Blue, what can we get him?” I figured it was my job to say in return, “Well, I have something even better.” After realizing how happy the Dom Perignon made my grandmother, however, I started asking people what they specifically wanted, and then did my best to give them just that. Being a specialist of any kind can cause some of us to get a little preachy. We think our main purpose is to enlighten people and educate them, but it's not. We're just here to connect the dots. If someone asks me a question, I'll be happy to answer it, but I'll never force my opinion upon anyone at this point. Because let tell you about my grandmother and the time I tried to convince her there was a Champagne "better" than Dom Perignon. It didn't work out the way I had hoped, unfortunately.

The other thing my grandmother believed in deeply was a daily ritual—a moment each day when she would stop, sit down, relax, and give herself something special. That moment usually included a gin martini, as you all know. One of the emails I received yesterday actually recommended that I lobby to make June 29th “National Helen Felber Gin Martini Day”; an honor which I can tell you my grandmother would have enjoyed whole-heartedly. Except that Helen Felber didn’t believe in indulging herself merely one day per year. She never even considered the word “annual” when thinking about her martini. She believed in the idea of daily indulgence—that every afternoon was an opportunity for reflection and reward. So I say to you—those of us who want to do the memory of my gin-loving grandmother a certain dignity—we should make each day a memorial. Or maybe I should leave you with this classic line from Twin Peaks; a show my grandmother enjoyed greatly seeing that it was filmed in her own backyard:

Every single day should be "Helen Felber Gin Martini Day" because every single day we're alive to celebrate with a cold drink is worth recognizing.

-David Driscoll