Oaxaca: Day 1 - Setting the Scene

Touching down into Oaxaca, you can see clearly the three valleys that make up the heart of the region; the mountains dividing the terrain into separate quadrants that even today are rarely breached. There are more than fifteen different indigenous cultures that live together within the state, making it one of the most culturally diverse regions of Mexico. Despite their close proximity, many of the villages scattered throughout the area do not interact with one other communes nearby; according to Jake they often prefer to keep to themselves.

Jake Lustig grew up dividing his time between his mother, who moved to Oaxaca City, and his father in the Bay Area. Thirty years later, after spending many a summer meandering through the eclectic and colorful streets, he is a veritable tour guide; a wealth of information about the many sights and sounds happening around you. He'll tell you about the beautiful Catedral Santo Domingo.

And about how the Spanish completely looted the south of Mexico so that they could line the inside of the chapel with pure gold, resulting in one of the most intricate religious artworks outside of the Sistine Chapel. Of course, we're in an old colonial town, so what wasn't originally taken by the former conquerors?

He'll also tell you that the new boutique mezcal business popping up around the city is brand-spanking new. "These stores weren't here six months ago," he mentioned as we popped by a fun little outlet near our hotel.

Yet, it appears Oaxaca knows the world is catching on to its delicious spirits. Gracing the stores of the tiny bodega were numerous brands I had never before heard of, with wonderfully-creative labels that were hip, fresh, and exciting. The wealthier part of downtown definitely reflects an up-and-coming trend towards metropolitan life -- small cafes, courtyard restaurants, and a variety of well-curated shops specializing in local crafts.

We had a lot of things we wanted to do today, but since Nicolas wasn't due in until later in the evening, we decided to take it easy and schedule most of the booze-related activities for Thursday. That meant it was time to kick back, order a Michelada and a shot of local Tobala, and order some of that famous Oaxacan cuisine. "Back in the day you would never have been able to find Tobala at a normal restaurant. It was something reserved for special occasions," Jake added. Of course, we live in the new world of drinking where everyone wants "the best." For that reason, supplies of Tobala -- a wild species of agave with limited availability -- are drying up more rapidly due to global demand.

Seafood sounded good. How about shrimp, scallops, and abalone smothered in a red chile sauce and served fresh from a wood-burning clay oven?

After lunch we decided to hit up the gigantic market downtown; a complex and dizzying maze spanning more than eight city blocks. Don't dare allow yourself to get separated within the narrow throughways and dark alleys because finding your way out may take hours, if not days. If you do get lost, however, just meet back at the carneceria.

Or near the counter with all the fresh chicken.

Or in the voodoo-esque vendor of the occult, equipped with a number of candles and potions you can use to appease the proper saint or spirit of the over-world. There are so many mercaditos scattered within this complex it's amazing that any one of them can survive. You could spend weeks in there and never see it all.

All that walking makes a man tired, so we needed to refresh ourselves with a delicious beverage that has nearly gone extinct in the modern era of distillation: pulque. Before the people of Mexico learned to distill their agave, they drank it like a typical fermented beer. However, because freshly-fermented agave doesn't hold very long before bacteria begins to set in (maybe two days max), you can't store it with pasteurizing it; hence, why few cantinas offer it as a regular option. We found a fantastic place that had plenty of pulque on hand, however, so we ordered multiple rounds. It looks like lemonade, but has absolutely no citrus character whatsoever; rather a slightly-sweet fermented flavor and a mild disposition. You can easily put down four glasses before you've realized what you've done.

As we continued to walk into the evening, I was utterly captivated with the vibrant colors and the electric energy of the Oaxacan streets. There is artwork on every corner; adorning the walls of every alley. 

Everyone was out and about, the mountains looming behind them, enjoying the cool breeze of the afternoon. There's a lot of action in Oaxaca de Juárez; much more than simply mezcal. It has the traditional feel of a small Mexican town with the population and culture of a bustling city. I can see why it's long been a haven for adventurous tourists. I'm already in love.

-David Driscoll


Mexico: Day 1 - Benito Juarez

This is not my photo, as it was much darker when I landed, but it's pretty similar in feel

I have always wanted to come to Mexico City. In reality, I'm only at the airport and that's as far as I'll be going into D.F. while I'm here, but when the pilot announced we were making our descent I ripped open the window shade and began searching for signs of life below. It was about 6:45 AM when we made it below the cloud line -- the orange hues of the sun tickling the horizon, the contrast turning the puffy, rain-filled cotton into grey, brooding columns of smoke. There was enough light to make out the topography, but the early morning was still in its initial phase and the city lights still flickered like stars.

Then we cleared the clouds entirely and there it was: sprawling for miles, weaving in-between mountains and valleys, the headlights from a million cars racing wildly through the avenues like worker ants. Mexico City seems like the biggest city in the world, and as the plane hung a sharp left, turning the fuselage towards the towering buildings and frantic streets, I could see the scope of what I was dealing with; it was awe-inspiring. Even if I never get to venture into the many calles and edificios of the Distrito Federal, I'm happy with this one moment for now. At least I can now see Mexico City in my mind when I hear it mentioned.

There's not much for food at Benito Juarez aeropuerto, so I just grabbed the familiar cup of Starbucks, planted myself in a chair, and broke out the laptop. The one nice thing about Mexico City is that the dialect of Spanish is perfectly clear. That's why I love watching telanovelas that take place here; because I can actually understand what the actors are saying. Ordering a tall Pike's Place is like watching Amores Veraderos (my favorite soap opera no longer running); they're not over-enunciating because they're on TV, but rather simply because that's how they talk -- every syllable is pronounced perfectly. I'm eavesdropping on about four different people as I type this. The businessman next to me is talking to his wife about his kids. I feel much more fluent than I actually am.

Palazzi isn't due in until later tonight, and it's too early for Jake to check in, so I've got about another hour before I head over to the gate. I think it's duty free time. There's nothing more fun for an obsessive spirits geek than perusing the various big box selections and limited edition packaging in the airport liquor store.

-David Driscoll


Finding Your Niche

Five years ago the idea of craft distillation was a new and exciting possibility; we hoped maybe a gang of small producers could make something better in quality than what was currently dominating the marketplace. Today, after half a decade of white whiskey, designer moonshine, and quarter cask oak juice, there's a rather sardonic outlook that dominates the scene. Unlike the craft beer movement, which brought big flavor and clever innovation to a stale category, very few craft whiskies (if any) have managed to convince die-hard consumers to switch over from the big brand alternatives. The pricing has been too high, the availability too scarce, and the quality too inconsistent to maintain momentum. However, the main reason craft whiskey has failed to make a bigger impact, in my opinion, is because they are seeking to replace a mainstay flavor that doesn't need replacing. Pliny the Elder didn't become an overnight sensation by creating a Budweiser substitute. By the same logic, no American craft whiskey is going to make headway by looking to unseat Jack Daniels.

What craft distilleries need to do is find a niche and do that one thing better than anyone else. One genre of whiskey that is absolutely ripe for exploration is distilled beer. Why not follow in the footsteps of the craft beer movement by distilling that movement into a bottle? There have been many attempts to bring attention to this idea already. Charbay has obviously pioneered this concept with a number of exciting distilled beer whiskies. Anchor recently distilled their Christmas Ale into a bierschnapps called "White Christmas." However, most of these expressions have suffered from practicality -- they were interesting, but no one knew when or how to drink them. Yet, if someone could successfully capture the flavor of really good beer, age that spirit in wood so that the texture was softened, but the freshness of the beer never muted, they could be on to something big.

More importantly, if someone could make a drinkable whiskey that tasted like beer, while catering towards beer lovers, rather than whiskey geeks, I'd be really excited. I've been waiting to taste such a whiskey for more than three years now. Last week, I finally did.

Clint Potter, the distiller for Seven Stills in San Francisco, brought me his delicious Whipnose Whiskey and the Redwood City store fell in love. A collaboration with Pacific Brew Lab, this whiskey has all the hoppy, citrusy flavor of a real IPA, but with the richness and weight of a well-aged Bourbon. It's perfectly integrated -- there's never any intrusive wood flavor or sawdust overpowering the inherent aromas. It's wonderful stuff.

Not only is the whiskey good, but the packaging is clever and reminiscent of what we're seeing with the current beer culture. The Whipnose looks the part, and plays the part extremely well.  We've got a bit available right now in 375ml half-bottles, but this was a limited release. Clint and his gang plan on distilling more beer into whiskey very soon. I can't wait to taste what's ahead.

Seven Stills Whipnose Whiskey 375ml $35.99 - Whipnose is the first in Seven Stills’ Collaboration Series; a project that partnered them with Pacific Brewing Laboratory, located in San Francisco.  They began by distilling each of Pac Brew Lab’s beers individually to see if they could make a unique whiskey. As soon as they tasted the results from the double IPA, they knew they were on to something. 60 barrels of Whipnose IPA were then brewed, distilled into 165 gallons of whiskey, and aged in new American Oak Barrels. The name Whipnose aptly describes the whip of hop aroma this whiskey opens up with.The taste is rich malt, dark, dried fruits, light vanilla, toasted oak, and with a smooth, lingering maple syrup note on the finish.This project was a one-off and yielded less than 2000 bottles.

-David Driscoll


K&L Whisky Dinner w/David Stirk - May 20th

Have you ever wanted to meet one of rogue independent bottlers in the Scottish single malt industry? Have you ever wanted to ask questions about how these guys find new barrels, and what they have to do to get them? If so, you should buy a ticket and join us a week from now at Donato in Redwood City when we host David Stirk from the Creative Whisky Company. This should be quite an eventful dinner.

Stirk is a character and this is the first time we've hosted him up North. He's the total opposite of the song and dance, kilt-wearing guy teaching you how to taste and how to nose the glass. He's a no-BS kind of dude, which should make this evening a very interesting one. $50 gets you lots of food and lots of booze.

Don't miss it.

K&L Whisky Dinner w/The Exclusive Malts @ Donato, Tuesday May 20th, 7 PM $50.00 - Come and meet one of the most important partners to the K&L single barrel program: Mr. David Stirk -- the owner of the Creative Whisky Company and the man behind the Exclusive Malt whiskies. We've been working with David and his Glasgow-based label for more than three years now, and his warehouse is always one of the most important stops of our trip. We'll be featuring our new 25 year old Littlemill cask as well as some new selections to arrive at JVS -- the American importer for Mr. Stirk. Rather than talk production, like we feature at most dinners, this is a chance to learn more about the independent barrel trade and what it takes to stay alive in this fierce market. David will be chatting about sourcing new casks, maturation techniques, and a number of other interesting stories concerning the trade. He's a straight-shooter, as well, which should make this one very interesting evening. The tasting will be accompanied, per the usual, by the fantastic cuisine of Donato in Redwood City. NOTE: There are no paper tickets for this event. By purchasing a ticket your name will be placed on a guest list.

-David Driscoll



I spent Mother's Day with my wife's family; playing with my young nephews, or at least trying to while they fought off the distraction and delved directly back into their iPad adventures. These days there is little bike-riding in the street or intermingling with the other kids on the block. "Why don't you guys go outside?" I asked them.

"Are you crazy?" my sister-in-law said to me. "They can't go outside by themselves."

Maybe I am crazy. By the time I was in second grade I was riding my bike around Modesto on my own; often making a beeline for my cousin's house about a half-mile away. We would meet up with other kids in the neighborhood and do whatever came to mind; maybe that would involve riding a bit further to the park for a baseball game, or perhaps down to the grocery store to buy candy. There were few rules back then, other than: avoid the busy avenues and be home by sundown. I've read that times are different now, and that the streets are more dangerous for unsupervised children. But I don't know if anything has actually changed, other than our mindset about reality. Today, most activities for kids are insanely mapped out; down to the smallest detail. There's little room for improvisation.

In 2004, after getting bogged down in a post-graduate malaise, I decided to sell my car, most of my worldly possessions, buy a sturdy backpack, and head over to Europe; where I would stay for more than a year. For seven straight years I had gone to college, done what I was supposed to do, entered the job force, followed the rules, and abided by the general guidelines for young twenty-something living. Something was missing, however. I had somehow lost a step or forgotten a part of myself along the way. Now I'm not about to go all Eat, Pray, Love on you here, detailing a melodramatic chronicle about my spiritual discoveries and cultural educations, most of which are nothing new or revolutionary for anyone who grew up outside of American suburbia. What did happen in Eastern Europe that summer, however, was a renaissance of by-the-seat-of-my-pants living. Everyday was up for interpretation, and nothing was scheduled in advance.

Should I stay in Budapest another day, or should I head further east towards Romania? What's that? You're headed back towards Poland? Maybe I'll go with you.

All I had to advise me during that glorious period was an old copy of Let's Go! Eastern Europe and the suggestions of those I met in the various hostels. Decisions were spontaneous, exciting, and unpredictable. One day I was sitting in the breakfast nook of a Czech family residence eating potato dumplings, the next evening I'm in a small home outside of Krakow, drinking Polish beer and watching the local soccer club take on Manchester United in the opening round of the Euro Cup. "Hey, you might want to check out Olomouc," someone might mention, "it's a pretty cool little town with a great guesthouse." Sign me up. I'll buy my ticket at the station tomorrow morning.

Now obviously life can't always be a carefree wanderlust of foundationless living (or can it be?), but there's definitely something to be gained by letting it come to you and learning to love the unknown. I try to remember these experiences when I get overwhelmed by the internet. I watch people obsessively calculate every route on Google Maps, or research every meal on Yelp before committing to a reservation. Yet, the best trips I've ever taken involved getting lost at some point, and the best meals I've ever eaten were the result of little expectation. All of this information is supposed to make life better, but I often find that, for me personally, the more that my life becomes scripted and thought out, the less I enjoy it. The same goes for my drinking.

However, it's possible that my enjoyment of extemporaneous activities stems entirely from my childhood -- a formative era that instilled in me a desire for ad-libbed adventure. It may turn out that this current generation of American kids will enjoy the memories of a safe and insulated upbringing. In the end, most of us are enticed by the memories of childhood and a simpler time, when little responsibility liberated us from the constraints of adulthood. Each era has its own version of what that means.

For me, that means living.

-David Driscoll