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Thursday
Jun122014

More From the Mailbag

Here are some more repeat questions from the Spirits Department inbox:

David - Do you think there's a conflict of interest being both a retailer and a blogger?

Good question! Let me say this: those who feel that retailers are automatically free from criticism or are less responsible than independent blogs or publications are absolutely crazy. Retail is a neverending onslaught of people giving you feedback about your service--day and night--either in the store, via the telephone, or in an email.  We are the people dealing directly with the consumer every single day! As a blogger and a retailer, I do double-duty. Hell, I spend 15% of my day answering questions from people who have no intention of ever shopping at K&L. If a blogger says he likes a whisky and someone buys a bottle based on that opinion, the worst thing that could happen to that particular blogger is an unhappy email or disagreeable comment from the person who feels the information was inaccurate. If I say I like a particular whisky and a customer buys the bottle based on my opinion, that person will bring that bottle right back to the store and demand a refund if the selection doesn't work out. If our reviews and opinions are not accurate, we lose customers, which means we lose money and possibly our jobs. If we mislead people, we deal with the resulting wrath face-to-face, not anonymously via some made-up handle on a message board.

Ultimately, we are the people who deal with unhappy drinkers when a bottle doesn't work out, even if they bought the bottle based on Robert Parker's review. If you think unhappy shoppers are writing the Wine Spectator asking for a direct refund on the bottle they purchased, they're not; they're going back to the store where they bought the bottle, no matter whose opinion influenced the decision. That means we're apologizing for a "bad" bottle even when we didn't recommend it. You can imagine what happens when we're directly responsible. It's the same argument with the comments on the blog. I laugh myself silly every time someone says the lack of a comment field shields me from criticism. You think people don't call, email, or walk into the store where I work? You think people don't complain directly to us about mistakes or misinformation when we get it wrong? It's tough to say there's a conflict of interest in whisky reviewing when the person recommending you the bottle is 100% liable for your overall satisfaction.

David - Why do you think Jim Beam gets left out of serious discussions about Bourbon by collectors and enthusiasts?

That's a great question. I don't think it's solely a matter of quality because most of their higher-end expressions (Booker's, Baker's, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden) are tasty, reasonably-priced, and sell very well. People like Jim Beam whiskey. I think the reason they don't get more love from the insiders is due to their size. When you're the biggest producer of anything it's difficult to tap into the niche market. Big, commercial rock bands don't get much love from insider music fans. Big, commercial movies don't get much love from independent film geeks. There's no way to be cool with the discerning crowd that prides itself on its eclectic and out-of-the-ordinary taste when you're the ubiquitous brand.

I'd say it has something to do with that, but I definitely know a few people who feel like Beam's whiskies are a bit lackluster when compared to other brands. Personally, I'd say any gap in quality has shrunk significantly over the last year, however. I've noticed a decline of quality in a number of noteworthy brands, while tasting a few over-achieving Beam whiskies. The Knob Creek Single Barrel, for example, I thought was much better than I ever expected it to be.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jun112014

Drink Your Way Through the 2014 World Cup: Day 1

As I told some of my colleagues earlier this morning, this year's World Cup at K&L is going to divide the store into two distinct groups: those who record the games at home to watch later, and those who keep track online as we work. I am definitely going to be part of the former, so that means I'll have to go all day without checking the internet, looking at incoming text messages, and participating in the discussions on the sales floor. Part of my strict adherence to avoiding the spoilers stems from the fact that World Cup soccer games are such a rarity that I want each one of them to be an exciting mystery to me. The other reason is that each game is an opportunity to drink both heavily and culturally -- to the point that you can tailor your beverages to the countries playing on the screen.

This year, with so many different forms of booze at my fingertips, I'm going to drink my way through the entire World Cup. I'm going to imbibe something different for each game; even when there are three to four games in one day. For those of you who want to play along, I'll make sure to post the menus for each day in advance just in case you want to snag some of these things for yourself. It's going to be one hell of a month for my liver and kidneys, but man is it going to be fun!

Let's start with tomorrow's opener:

Thursday - June 12th

Brazil vs. Croatia

I already wrote a bit about cachaça yesterday, so I won't go into too much detail here. To start off the World Cup in Brazil and celebrate the first game for the home country in the tournament, I think we're all pretty much obligated to drink a caipirinha. I mean, it's pretty much required, don't you think? I've got the ingredients laid out on my cutting board at home: a glass, limes, sugar, a muddler, and some ice. Now we just need the booze.

We have four pretty good choices for cachaça at the store right now. Let's go through them briefly:

Novo Fogo Organic Cachaça Brasil $27.99 - Novo Fogo is the first cachaça with a distinct sense of place.  Coming from the Southern jungle town of Morretes, Novo Fogo represents 300 years of cachaça experience from an organic and sustainable distillery.  Everything is used and reused never wasted.  The quality of the estate grown cane is unparalleled and distillation is of free run, first press cane juice only.  Needless to say this is not your industrially produced cachaça (i.e. the stuff used to power most of Brazils vehicles), although they do use the heads and tails to run their cars and power the distillery.  The cane juice is distilled in small alembic pot stills, instead of the industrial column stills like 95% of the world's cachaca.  Using only gravity to move the spirit, it is then rested in steel for at least a year to allow it to mature and mellow.  Each bottle is hand produced from recycled glass and even the decorative neck cover is created by hand from recycled cane fiber.  One of the finest cane based spirits I've tasted.  Costs more than the industrial stuff, but it's in a whole different league. The depth and complexity make Novo Fogo a mixologist's dream.

Velho Barreiro Cachaca 1L $15.99 - It's not often I'm on the lookout for a new cachaca, but my good friend Val brought me this absolutely delicious, strikingly-labeled liter bottle of pure bargain-priced booze. Velho Barreiro Cachaca is only $15.99 and is briefly aged in Brazilian wood (I think oak, but as we talked about in yesterday's post, who really knows since most of them are not allowed via the TTB approval system). It's full of real rum character and should make killer drinks for those looking for a new mixer. And the price...my God!

Avua Prata Cachaça Brasil $34.99 - The very special Avua Cachaca is from one of Brasil's highest quality cachaca producers. There are essentially two types of Cachaca, industrial and artisanal. This is truly the artisanal style, hand crafted from field to bottle. Because of the small scale and seasonal nature of production, each batch will be a unique expression of the soil, sun, and stills. This is not the stinky harsh Cachaca that some many people are used to. Instead, this is clean and bright with incredibly precise aromas of fresh tropical fruits and lush floral tones. A brilliant example of why cachaca should be considered a world class spirits category.

Avua Amburana Cachaça Brasil $44.99 - Avuá is a small batch, single-sourced cachaça lovingly crafted by one of Brazil’s few female distillers. She uses a family recipe honed to perfection over three generations. The lush, crisp spirit, which offers up subtle botanical notes, is perfect for the art of mixology or simply shaking up a classic caipirinha. What sets Avuá apart from other cachacas is that it originates from cane that has been single-sourced from a farm in the rolling hills near Rio de Janeiro before ending up in an ancient alembic still in along thin valley between hills in Carmo, Brazil. Avuá Amburana Cachaça is aged in Amburana wood, found only in the forests of Latin America. Resting in this indigenous wood produces a stunning mix of warm and savory notes on the nose and palate that provides a truly unique taste experience for cocktail experimentation or sipping neat.

I'm going to cut one of those limes up into quarters, squeeze each one into the glass, then drop the piece into the glass with a tablespoon of sugar and muddle that together into a citrusy syrup. Then I'm going to pour in a little more than 2 oz. of cachaça, drop in the ice, and stir everything up.

That should get me through the first three minutes of the opening ceremony.

Once the game gets going, however, I'm going to need more than just a rum cocktail to sustain me through ninety minutes of play. It will then be time to open some dry Croatian red wine -- Plavac Mali, if you will. It's inexpensive, shows great typicity of character, and did I mention that it's inexpensive?

2010 Dingac Vinarija Plavac Peljesac Peninsula Croatia $9.99 - Grapevines have been adorning the southern slopes of the Peljesac Peninsula on the Dalmatian Coast since the beginning of mankind. The Plavac Mali grape variety thrives remarkably well in such sunny Karst soil. This one is a terrific introduction to the grape. Lingering and long, spicy and a bit rustic, it's a natural with red meat, and washes down grilled burgers exceptionally well.

I'll have to grill up some meats to go with all this wine. I haven't decided if I should do some chorizo sausages or maybe a flat iron steak? Decisions, decisions.

And this is all just for one game! Imagine this Friday night when I power through three straight games! I'll do that menu tomorrow.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jun102014

Get Ready to Hear a Lot About Cachaça

With the 2014 World Cup slated to begin this Thursday in Brazil, the booze-marketing companies are readying their press releases and shiny handouts to give you 1,001 ways to use cachaça in a cocktail. What is cachaça, you ask? The oft-overlooked rum of Brazil, distilled from sugar cane juice, also known as aguardente, pinga, and caninha, but more commonly-known for its role in the caipirinha cocktail––essentially, the Daiquiri of South America.

You can use Brazilian cachaça in the exact same way you use any white rum. The taste profiles can vary from clean and simple, to a more earthy, agricole style (which is more often the case, seeing that cachaça is made in a similar manner to agricole rum). While most aged rums are put into oak, most aged cachaça, from what I've been told, is usually not aged in oak but rather in a wide variety of exotic woods, about ninety-nine of them documented. These include chestnut, amburana, jequitibá, ipê, grápia, balsam wood, almond, jatobá, guanandi, brazilwood, cabreúva, tibiriçá, garapeira, or cherry and yes occasionally even oak (but not usually).

That's utterly fascinating to me.

So why don't we see more cachaça in the United States, especially with the big push for World Cup cachaça parties beginning this week? According to a few producers I've talked with, while cachaça is now recognized as its own category of spirits by the TTB, the requirement that "rum" be aged in oak has thrown up a few roadblocks. The TTB doesn't recognize the exotic woods used for aging cachaça as legal vessels for aging spirits. Thus, the low variety available in the states and why domestic selections like Novo Fogo have crossed over to Bourbon barrels for their aged expressions. Others have simply left the wood designation off the label, so we don't know if it was aged in oak or something more interesting.

My source at Avua Cachaça told me recently, however, that "somebody cleared the way for amburana wood, so we didn’t have a problem." That's good for those of you who want to have a fun, tasty, and authentic World Cup party this week because the Avua Amburana is one of the tastiest cachaças I've ever tasted. There's so much potential for unique rum flavor with all of these crazy woods being used in Brazil that I'm almost bursting with excitement just thinking about it.

If you're interested in getting some ideas about cachaça cocktails, flavors, and history, then you should come by the Redwood City store this Wednesday and meet the guys from Avua. They'll be pouring samples and mixing up some cocktail ideas in our tasting bar from 5 PM to 6:30 PM for free!

If you can't make it, check out this great article about Avua that was in Gourmet magazine recently. There are few things that make drinking more fun than a television and booze pairing; whether it's Mad Men and whiskey, Entourage and tequila, or the World Cup and cachaça.

Get ready to hear a lot more about cachaça starting this week. Get ready to start drinking some of it, too. You can start by making one of these:

Caipirinha

- Squeeze four quarters of a lime into a glass and then drop the pieces into the bottom

- Add a tablespoon of sugar (or more if you want it sweeter) and muddle the sugar into the lime juice

- Add 2 oz. of cachaça (or more if you want to get more excited about the soccer match you're watching)

- Add plenty of ice and then stir everything up.

Then get your drink on. I'll be recording this Thursday's opening game and drinking one of these babies the moment I get home to watch it.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Jun082014

Happy Weekend!

You know you're doing the same thing!

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Jun072014

Questions From the Mailbox

Lot's of the same questions over and over again, so let's answer them here where everyone can read them together!

David – I didn't like the new ________ whisky, but others like yourself thought that it was good. Am I missing something?

I'm sure you've seen an Academy Award winning movie that you didn't like. How can it not be good, though? It won the film industry's highest honor! Personally, I didn't like The Artist or Crash, so how is it that they both won "Best Picture"? This is why the idea of taking subjective opinions and branding them with factual credibility is so dangerous––it sends the message that customer satisfaction is almost guaranteed. If you don't like it, then there must be something wrong with you because everyone else liked it––including a number of experts, right? You can't look at awards, reviews, or ratings that way, however.

As the late Patrick Swayze said to Terry Funk in the critically-acclaimed masterpiece Roadhouse: "Opinions vary." You find me five guys who like a certain whisky, and I'll find you ten who hate it. You show me a review for the worst whisky ever, and I'll show you twenty emails from K&L customers writing to tell me how much they loved it. We're never all going to agree and there will always be people who like something more than others. The only reason we're even having this discussion is because people are spending money based on these opinions and they get mad when the product isn't as advertised. That's what happens, however, when quality is a somewhat subjective issue. Expectations can easily be led astray.

David - I keep reading that there's a whisky shortage, but then I read that it's all marketing hype. Which one is it?

Good God, do I even want to touch this one? Let's handle these product by product. Why can't you find Weller 12, Weller 107, Blanton's, Elmer T. Lee, or Buffalo Trace Bourbon at K&L right now? Uhh....it's not that there's a shortage, it's because aliens landed in Frankfort, Kentucky recently and decided to raid the closest available stocks. Why is there a one bottle limit on Yamazaki 12 (if it's even in stock) and why did the price of Yamazaki 18 double? It's not that there's a greater demand for mature Yamazaki whisky, it's that Suntory bet Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd one dollar that they could double their prices and still grow their business. Why did independent labels like Black Maple Hill and Vintage 17 disappear? It's not that there's a shortage of available Bourbon for these companies to purchase, it's that they just got tired of making tons of money and decided to get out of the game.

In all seriousness, I don't think you have to worry about there being a shortage of whisk(e)y. You will, however, have to worry about a shortage of certain whiskies due to increased demand and lack of mature stock. This issue, however, is becoming a bit like climate change with plenty of people doubting its existence. The problem with both topics is that they're being presented incorrectly (on purpose). You have to be a bit more specific and clarify just exactly what's going on so that people don't say something stupid like, "If there's a shortage then why is all that whisky sitting on your shelf over there?" No one ever said there was a shortage on all whiskey, just a shortage on specific brands and products that have seen their reputations increase over the last few years (which in turn affects third-party labels and independent bottlings).

I think the more annoying part of this story is the inability of some drinkers to simply move on and drink something else. There's a lot of good available whisk(e)y out there that is neither limited, nor in short supply. Which leads me to this question...

David – With prices going up and quality apparently going down, I'm thinking about putting a halt on my whisky buying and simply drinking my supplies. What do you think? Am I missing anything?

I think that's a great idea! That's why you save your money, right? So that one day you can retire and live off of what you earned? There's no doubt in my mind that single malt whisky as a whole was better ten years ago, but there's a very simple reason for that: there was more of it available so the producers could be choosy with their stocks. Today, people are throwing millions of dollars at them faster than they can fill a bottle, so it's not the same game. It's a lot like my level of customer service has changed over the years. In 2007, you could walk into the store and talk to me about whisky for two hours if you wanted to. Today, I'm lucky if I can spare ten minutes because we're constantly getting mobbed. That makes some people sad, but that's the way things have turned. If you're sitting on a heap of whisky from 2000-2007, then there's no way anything from the current market of single malt whisky can compete with that juice: both qualitatively-speaking and price-wise. If you're disappointed with the state of the current market then you should definitely back out. My wife and I did the same thing with our house-hunting; we simply couldn't justify it and it wasn't making us happy.

Personally, however, I don't bunker bottles and I don't live my life looking in the rear-view mirror. I think that's a terrible way to find happiness. I don't have the patience, the space, or the money to save more than a few bottles and I'm one of those people who finds more excitement in the next shiny new thing, rather than the dust-covered antique. That's me, however. I'm always going to try new things, buy new things, and write about new things because that's where I find inspiration. While I lament the loss of old favorites, I find today's market twice as exciting as it was seven years ago. There's more innovation, more expertise, and more consumer education than there was when I first started at K&L. The customer is better-equipped, more open-minded, and more-knowledgeable than ever and that makes my job twice as fun. All of a sudden, David OG and I can start buying delicious, no-name casks of Balmenach 25 and Dailuaine 16 because people have finally moved beyond the big brands. We've crossed our clientele over to new categories like Armagnac and mezcal. Because of the current whisk(e)y market, we're no longer stuck in the same brown box; we've opened new doors and created more awareness for drinks in general. That's so much more fun than drinking Pappy every day.

What's that old saying? You close one door and you open another? Something like that. I would encourage anyone who's fed up with the whisk(e)y market to explore wine (Bordeaux is loaded with hot deals right now after the 2011 and 2012 gluts––that bubble has popped and is giving up the goods), brandy, or even beer (our fridge in Redwood City is jam-packed with new delicious craft stuff). It's a great time to be a drinker. Hell, it's a great time to be alive! Don't let the growing demand for one specific category of drinks ruin the party for you. Find another party. The exploration is half the fun.

-David Driscoll