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Friday
Apr102015

Scotland: Day 2 - Glasgow to Campbeltown

Driving from Glasgow to Campbeltown takes a little over three hours and is not a straight shot by any means. It's a curvy, meandering, often single lane trek that shoots through Loch Lomand National Park and around the lip of Loch Fyne, before turning south and hugging the coast line all the way down to the Mull of Kintyre. Visiting Springbank distillery therefore takes both courage and strong desire. Or, as Mark Watt said to us today, "It's a pilgrimage for most folks. They have to really want to come here."

We really love Springbank, Cadenhead's, and Campbeltown, so we got up early, ate a hearty breakfast, and jumped in the car. It had been two years since our last visit, so we were excited about our return. The road, however, quickly tempered our enthusiasm. You'd think with so much experience driving on winding, single lane roads that the Scots would be experts at passing slower movers. That's not the case, however. They're terrible at judging a safe distance before making their move. More than once we were forced to slam on the breaks while coming around a blind curve to find some daredevil heading right towards us at speeds not recommended. A yellow Mustang came within inches of killing us all. That being said, the beautiful scenery more than made up for the induced terror.

Once you pass Inveraray you're about halfway there. The surroundings go from mountainous to sea worthy quite quickly. The road to Campbeltown, like the Campbeltown whiskies themselves, is a combination of both Highland and Island flare.

Campbeltown itself had never looked better. A new infusion of outside money has slightly turned the economic tide in town. Buildings had been renovated and cleaned up since our last visit. The facelift was remarkable and apparent right from the moment we parked next to the Cadenhead office.

Mark Watt and Ranald Watson were right there to meet us. We didn't waste any time, and they knew what we were there to do. It was time to taste some single casks from Cadenhead's vast and available supply. There were a lot of winners and we made a quick list of condenders. While we were there, we thought, why not taste some Springbank Local Barley and a new vatting of the 21 year? I mean, the casks were just sitting right there, and we did drive all the way over. Let's just take a wee dram. Mmmm....Local Barley.

Visiting Springbank always puts your mind right when it comes to quality over economics. Nothing done by the company makes economic sense from a profit-based perspective. Everything is about continuing to support community and tradition first. It's a mindset so noble and rare-to-see in this industry that you forget there are people in the world that still care about those committments. I asked Ranald if Springbank was meeting its goals, to which he said, "We're not just paying our workers more than minimum wage, we're paying them a living wage. That's always our number one goal and I'm happy to say we're more than meeting it." Springbank still malts all their own barley and pays Campbeltown locals to do it all the old-fashioned way. 

After a lenghty tasting and a quick tour around the buildings, it was time for pints and lunch. Haggis nachos? Why not? When in Campbeltown.

We headed back to Glasgow at around 1:30. I fell asleep immediately, but woke up when David honked at another passing driver hell bent on ending both his life and ours. That kept me up the rest of the way!

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Apr092015

Scotland: Day 1 - Glaswegian Nights

While I'm a firm believer that Paris is the center of the European universe when it comes to fashion, food, and general cosmopolitan cool, there's something wonderful about Glasgow that I couldn't quite put my finger on until last night. Much like Berlin, there's a sort of raw urban chíc at work—a shift away from staunch traditionalism and more towards the eclectic and artistic. Whereas Edinburgh is polished, pristine, and classically beautiful—castles and cobblestones for the traditional traveling tourist—Glasgow is a city with a distinctly-youthful edge. The sandstone architecture is orderly enough, but within those buildings exists a spunky creativity that feels unforced and seems to brim from a collective Glaswegian synergy.

People are out socializing and using the city space in interesting ways. There are contemporary bars, shops, and restaurants all over, specializing in forward-thinking versions of traditional Scottish fare. Everywhere you look there's a clear juxtaposition of new modernity with a wink towards the 19th century. When you walk around, you feel like you're eavesdropping on something very new and very cutting edge; like there's a secret in Glasgow that few others have yet to discover. 

But there's nothing hoity-toity, or snobbish about what's happening around you. People are well-dressed and they care about presentation, but there's no hipster element or tragically trendy over-exertion. No one's trying too hard. Everyone seems comfortable in their own skin and there's no trace of attitute in their execution. Everyone's taking themself seriously, but not at your expense. It's like Glaswegians are working together just for the sake of building a better community, rather than for validation or positive online reviews. We randomly stopped by a fantastic spot called Gannett on Argyle Street in the Finnieston neighborhood and were blown away by both the professionalism of the bar and the quality of the cuisine. And this was just one of thirty or so intriguing options in the area! We had trouble deciding where to finally spend our evening. It was overwhelming to say the least.

Scotch eggs of the highest order, along with a selection of great beers on tap and a wine list with plenty of reasonable options by the glass. People often say that Edinburgh is the more sophisticated of the two main Scottish cities, but I'm not sure they've ever really walked around Glasgow. To me it's not even a debate. 

You walk around at night and there are young people everywhere—talking, walking, drinking, smoking, playing music in the streets, and participating in the local scene. They're more than aware of what's happening globally in terms of modern culture because Glasgow is completely up to speed on fashionable bar etiquette and food trends. At the same time, however, you get the feeling that they don't care about what's going on anywhere else but right there. They're not copying New York, or LA, or even London. It's very much a distinct and localized movement and that feels wonderful as an outsider. It feels like you're somewhere real and authentic, surrounded by people who have something unique and special to offer. When you've got an entire city free from any chip-on-the-shoulder insecurity—unburdoned by that we're-just-as-good-as-anywhere-else type of mentallythen wonderful things can happen. Glasgow is a perfect example of that condition.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Apr092015

Scotland: Day 1 - Pitlochry to Glasgow

Last year when we visited Edradour distillery and tasted through all the Signatory selections we froze our asses off. There was snow on the ground, ice clinging to everything we touched, and we had to take breaks outside of the frigid warehouse to warm our hands in between samples. This time, however, couldn't have been more the opposite. Spring has sprung in Scotland and we were treated to California-like weather all day long. Edradour is absolutely picturesque as is, but with the sun shining and the flowers in bloom, it was like a fairy tale setting.

The mountain stream was flowing through the main campus and our friends Des and Andrew were in fine spirits and even better form. We were all bubbling with positivity and enthusiasm as we shook hands and said our hellos. That's always a good thing when you're trying to politely pry barrels of rare and interesting whisky away from men doing their best to hold on to it.

We started in the main store with a few new Edradour selections and some vials of newly-acquired casks, but after about thirty minutes it was time to put on our big boy pants and head up to the main warehouse. We knew what we were in store for, and we were up to the challenge.

McCagherty was in the zone; rushing from cask to cask and grabbing samples like a man possessed. We blew through forty different possibilities over the course of four hours. It was a marathon and I was gassed by the end of it. Expect a rehashing of the past: more Imperial, more sherried Glenlivet, more old Glenlivet, more Glen Elgin, and more ancient Caol Ila. All those whiskies are simply too good not to bring back around once more. Don't worry though, we've got you covered if you're into new things. There was plenty of exciting fresh stuff to be had in addition to the familiar faces. I think we're even going to buy a few peated Ballechin barrels. Maybe some thirty year old Linkwood, too. There's a lot to think about, and a lot to look forward to.

It's funny: for all the time we've spent at Edradour we've never actually bought any Edradour whisky. That might also change this year. There's now a new 21 year sherry butt to consider. Andrew let us take a bottle for the road, so I'll have to get back to you when I've spent some time tasting it. We said our goodbyes, made the drive to Glasgow, and got in around 4 PM to sit down with Douglas Laing and start another long round of tasting and negotiations. I think we got enough booze today to last until 2018. 

I hope you're all thirsty. We're pinning ourselves into a corner and we're going to have to drink our way out! Off to eat dinner and have a few pints. More on Glasgow tomorrow.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Apr092015

Scotland: Day 1 - Christmas Morning

Awakening at the Craigatin House in Pitlochry each Spring has become my own personal version of Christmas morning. For five years counting now, I have woken up at the crack of dawn, crept down the creaky stairs, let myself out of the main building, and gone off on foot into town to enjoy the serenity of Scotland's most beautiful village. It's become such an important tradition for me that I was almost a bit teary-eyed this morning thinking about it, laying there awake underneath the covers in my darkened room, waiting for the first sign of light to sneak in from behind the curtains. 

At around 4 AM the birds start chirping. It's not yet dawn, but they know the moon is setting and that the sun will soon sneak up from behind the Perthshire's majestic hills. I slowly rolled out of bed, made a few calls to the states, and placed an order with a vendor before putting my walking shoes on. 

By about six it's almost completely light and you can walk safely through town. The mountain air is crisp and cool against your cheeks, the sound of birds is now a symphony of tweets, and there's not another person out and about but yourself. It's completely tranquil. Everything seems idyllic. Your heart begins to swell with happiness.

Just outside town, running almost parallel to the main street, is the River Tummel and the gigantic hydrodam that controls the flow down stream. Every year I take the same road underneath the railway, down the hillside, and towards the stairs leading to the main platform.

Each year I take the same photo from atop the giant barrier and look down into the trees. Each time I hope I can take a better picture than the year before; something that will finally capture the glory of that place at that early morning moment. Each year I fail.

Crossing the river via the dam, you eventually come to the Pitlochry Theater (Scotland's version of Ashland, Oregon) and pass the wonderful Port-Na-Craig restaurant, before coming to the pedestrian suspension bridge—the best vantage point for a look back at the dam.

Something about Pitlochry gets inside my soul and hits every nostalgic button in my brain. I have great memories of being with my grandparents at their cabin in the Pacific Northwest, putting leaves in the small mountain stream near the cottage, and doing my best to follow their progress as they made their way towards the nearby lake. There's something almost Twin Peaks-esque as well about the area, which of course tugs at my romantic heart strings. I love being here. I love being alone on the main path along the river outlet and looking at all the colors—the darkness of the water and the green hue of the foilage. If this doesn't put you in the mood to drink Scotch whisky, then you must be absolutely dead inside.

By the time I get back it's time to eat my traditional Scottish breakfast and drink my coffee in the main dining room. The birds are still chirping. The air is still crisp. But I'm changed. I'm ready to take on the world. I'm ready to go to Edradour, give my old friend Des a big hug, and do the barrel tasting of my life. 

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Apr082015

London: Day 2 - Keeping Pace With Macgyver

You have to be a drinking professional to attempt this type of journey that David and I do each year. I know a lot of people think it’s just jet-setting and tasting Scotch (and that’s definitely a big part of it), but doing business with people in the liquor industry involves serious levels of boozing—morning, noon, and night. If you can’t hang with the big boys when it comes to handling your liquor, then you’re not going to get anything done. We realized quickly last night that Doug “Macgyver” McIvor wasn’t just a serious industry professional; he was a real contender for the pub crawl hall of fame. Seeing that both of us had been up since 3 AM, I decided that I needed to get a serious walk in before our morning meeting at the Berry Bros & Rudd storefront, so I hiked on down to the Thames and did a four mile loop. David OG went for a run. We had to get the blood flowing and the old hearts pumping.

We met Doug outside the James Street store at 10 AM (at that point I’d already been up for seven hours) to take a tour of the grounds. This was my second visit to BBR (maybe you remember this blog post from 2011), but I had forgotten much of what I had previously learned, so it was nice to get reacquainted. Berry Bros & Rudd isn’t just a historic merchant dating back to 1698. It’s a national landmark located in London’s most prestigious and storied neighborhood.

For example, just across the street are the grounds of the Royal Family: St James’s Palace. Built by Henry VIII in the 1530s, the fortress—according to Doug—is where all the serious royal business goes down. Meetings, business negotiations, and all matters of the high court are handled not at Buckingham Palace, but rather at the James Street locale. Imagine having Prince Charles as your next-door neighbor.

Then, just behind the main store building, there’s Pickering Place: once the location of the Texas Embassy in the 1800s (when Texas was still a country) and the site of London’s last ever official duel. When I say that business in the UK requires a serious commitment to drinking, I mean there’s a hardcore historical precedent already set. The man who lost that final duel in the late 19th century actually went to the pub next door, ordered a pint, and drank until he eventually bled to death right there on the bar stool. That’s the type of bloodline (pardon the pun) we were up against today with Doug.

So what were we doing today at BBR besides drinking? Just shooting the breeze, taking in the sites, and talking shop with the world’s most iconic retailer. If you weren’t aware, the laws in the UK allow merchants to take part in the production side of the business as well, so Berry Bros & Rudd actually owns a number of famous products. They invented Cutty Sark Blended Scotch, which they traded to Edrington a few years back for the single malt label they currently own today: Glenrothes. They also do a number of their own gins and things like the King’s Ginger, which we carry at K&L. BBR also owns a part of Anchor Distilling in San Francisco, so there’s a serious partnership already with the Bay Area and California. We were here out of respect, and out of a desire to begin working together on some exclusive retailer-to-retailer business.

Before sitting down for a serious chat, it’s always fun to check out the BBR family stash downstairs in the cellar. Just a few bottles for weddings, birthdays and celebrations.

And, of course, the vast stocks of aging claret.

One part of the cellar was once used by Napoleon to plan his recovery of France after exile. Perhaps he spent too much time drinking and not enough time strategizing. Another part was used by Henry VIII as a squash court. And I thought the history of the K&L Redwood City store was interesting! We’ve got nothing on this.

You could do an entire tour at BBR just based on old bottles and ancient labels. The amount of historic glassware on display is a history lesson in itself. There’s a legend that the term “the real McCoy” originates from a rum-runner during Prohibition named Bill McCoy, who helped BBR (and a number of other brands) sneak bottles of Cutty Sark into the New York harbor. He was known for having all the best booze, never watered down, hence the term used in reference to his booty.

Then it was time to talk shop. We started with a few drams of BBR Blue Hangar in the main retail shop, before heading over to the local pub for a pint of London Pride. After beers, it was time to grab some food, so we went across the street for lunch and a glass of Champagne, followed by a bottle of white wine, and then—of course—a few glasses of single malt. This is all before 12 PM mind you. Now we’ve got to fly to Edinburgh, rent a car, and drive to Pitlochry for our appointment with Signatory tomorrow. I passed out for the entire ride to the airport, then fell asleep in a chair for about forty minutes before waking up to type this. But that's OK. That's the job. What matters is that we did the meeting earlier today, took our drink like professionals, kept up with Macgyver, and got the serious business done. There will be some trade later this year between two of the world’s leading wine retailers. It just won’t involve any wine. It came at the expense of our livers and the rest of our productivity for the afternoon, but we represented America well. Doug is amazing. I hope some of you can visit the store in London and pick his brain someday. He's a true gentleman and a wealth of incredible information. I appreciated his company even more this time around.

-David Driscoll