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Kilchoman K&L Exclusive Single Bourbon Barrel #74 Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky IN STOCK NOW!


Friday
May242013

The John's Lane Distillery

It's common today to see a producer in a particular region rename one of their whiskies after an old, regional distillery no longer in existence. Springbank, for example, makes two single malts called Longrow and Hazelburn, named after the former Campbeltown distilleries. Bruichladdich has Port Charlotte, named after what was once an old neighbor. However, I didn't realize until today that the new Powers Irish whiskey, the 12 Year Old John Lane, was named after an old Irish producer in Dublin, which was the original home of Powers beginning back in the late 1700s.

James Power, an innkeeper from Dublin, established the John's Lane distillery in 1791. Our old pal Alfred Barnard once visited John's Lane (and provided some wonderful sketches) and had this to say:

In the year 1791 this hostelry was converted into a small distillery, making about 6,000 gallons annually, its chief motive power being a horse mill. But it did not remain long at that small output. The founder was a man of energy and enterprise, and year by year, as his business increased, he continued to extend the distillery. Since 1871 the whole place has been rebuilt in a handsome and modern style, and every known appliance in the art of distilling added thereto. The establishment now covers a six-and-a-quarter acres of ground, and the offices, which abut on the busy thoroughfare of Thomas Street, form and substantial frontage to it.

Passing through the lofty and spacious public offices, we crossed a paved court and entered the noble block of buildings devoted to the storage of grain. They are five stories high, well lighted, and measure 192 feet long by 100 feet broad. The barley is carted to the distillery by the farmers, and lifted by hydraulic hoists to the receiving rooms. At the entrance to this department there is an enclosed office, with glass roof and sides, in which sits the corn-sampling clerk; a portion of each delivery is handed to him for comparison with the samples of the purchase, which hang in bags upon a frame on the wall. If the sample is not up to the mark he refuses delivery, and reports the fact through the telephone to the corn-buyers office.

The first process of the manufacture of whisky now begins, by the corn being sent from these two floors to the to kilns adjoining, whither we next bent our steps. These kilns are indeed elegant buildings, each measuring 57 feet by 30 feet, with open groined roofs, lined with wood and stained oak, like small English parish churches, in fact far superior to many we've seen. Iron doors shut off these kilns, which are heated by open furnaces, and floored with the patent perforated Worcester tiles.

What's interesting about this description is that Barnard is describing the grain component of Irish whiskey, in this case the "corn." Barnard goes on to describe the malt side of the distillation as well, since Irish whiskies are almost always blends.

A noble-looking building is the still house. It is 68 feet long, 66 feet wide, and 57 feet high, containing five pot stills, all kept as bright and clean as burnished gold; the wash flows by gravitation to two wash stills, each holding 25,000 gallons, and said to be the largest pot stills ever made.

The detail with which Barnard goes on concerning the process at John's Lane distillery is about five times as long as he spends with most other producers, leading one to believe he was quite impressed with the distillery.

Does he describe the whisky? Yes, indeed.

On completing our tour of inspection over the distillery, we accepted the hospitality of the partners and did ample justice to a substantial luncheon. We had previously sampled the firm's make of 1885, which we thought good and most useful, either as a blending or single whisky. The old make, which we drank with our luncheon, was delicious, and finer than anything we had hitherto tasted. It was perfect in flavour, and as pronounced in the ancient aroma of Irish whisky so dear to the hearts fo connoisseurs, as once could possibly desire, and we found a small flask of it very useful afterwards on our travels.

Since John's Lane distillery made pot still Irish whiskey, the new Power's 12 Year Old John Lane edition is also 100% pot still whiskey, unlike the standard Powers 12 Year old. It's made today at Midleton distillery, the home of Jameson, Paddy, Midleton, and Redbreast. It's unlike any other Irish out on the market currently with its leathery, tobacco notes on the finish. Quite potent stuff. It seems that Irish whiskey was once quite a populated market. Alas, there are only a handful of Irish whisky distilleries around today. Check out this list from Barnard's time, however:

Dublin

Bow Street - John Jameson & Son

John's Lane - Sir John Power & Son

Thomas Street - George Row & Co.

Marrowbone Lane - Wm. Jameson & Co.

Jones Road - The Dublin Whisky Distillery Company, Limited

Phoenix Park - The Distillers Company, Limited

That's just in Dublin! Nearly twice as many than exist today. Then there's another 22 scattered all over the rest of the country that I need to read through and research.

What a time that must have been for Irish whiskey! In any case, I'll have to sip my bottle of the Powers John Lane edition in the meantime and think about what it must have been like.

-David Driscoll

Friday
May242013

Defining Craft

I had dinner with John Glaser on Wednesday night and he said something that has stuck with me over the past few days. He said that the point of "craft" spirits was simply to make better spirits, not to give us more options. That's what the term "craft" means: using smaller production, hands-on techniques that result in higher quality products. For example, "craft fashion," if there was such a term, should refer to hand-stitched, hand-measured, and perfectly-fitted clothing. Any profession using the term "craft" should be taking an assembly-line process and scaling it down to a micro-managed operation. The idea is that one perfectly "crafted" product should be of a higher quality than a product being pumped out quickly to maximize profitability. The result should be noticable, otherwise it's probably not worth doing.

If the final product is actually higher in quality, then it should be more expensive. I think everyone is on board with that. The better the booze, the more it will cost. My question, however, is: how many craft spirits producers are actually giving us "craft" spirits?

I do think craft spirits exist, but maybe not in the way that we think they do. For example, I think craft gins are absolutely a reality, but not because of the distillation. Craft gins exist because of the time and thought put into the sourcing of botanicals. Our most recent batch of Faultline Gin, for example, was a small batch of gin macerated with freshly-smoked citrus peels. We did that by hand and in small amounts to make sure it tasted right. It wasn't something we would have been able to produce continually on a large scale, but since we were only making one batch it wasn't a problem.

I think craft fruit liqueurs and eau-de-vies exist. There are simply some fruits that are too expensive and delicate to distill on a large, profitable scale. Some liqueurs use actual fresh fruit rather than artificial flavors and coloring to create a cassis or framboise. That takes time and attention.

I think craft tequila is real. There are simply different ways of shredding the agave into a fermentable pulp. The distilleries that use machines and shred in large quantities have pulp that oxidizes faster. Those using mortar and pestal with manual or horse-drawn labor have more control over each crush, much like a winery pressing its grapes. That ultimately affects the freshness of the spirit. The same could be said for rum made from fresh sugarcane juice.

What about whisk(e)y, however? Does craft whisk(e)y exist? Has anyone proven that the type of grain used is actually important? I think Bruichladdich has, but do many people consider Bruichladdich to be a "craft" distillery?

The blending side of production is what makes John Glaser's Compass Box a "craft" whisky company. He marries whiskies on a much smaller scale, creating more finessed flavors that might not have been possible with larger amounts of barrels. However, do people consider Compass Box a "craft" whisky producer?

It's the size of the distillery that seems to decide who's "craft" and who isn't these days. But does the scale of distillation matter when it comes to whisk(e)y? I don't think so. I think what ultimately matters is which cuts and which distillates are used in the final product. If you distill pot still whisky on a large scale it's probably going to taste as good as a smaller scale operation, as long as both are using the finest heart cuts. Kilchoman comes to mind as a producer that uses a very focused percentage of their actual heart and the result is amazing. If you're talking about column still American whiskey, however, then I'm not sure if it even matters. Yet, we're hearing about new "craft" American whiskey distilleries all the time. Are they distilling micro amounts of whiskey that tastes better than Jim Beam?

The problem with making craft whiskey is that it takes time to find out the answers to these questions. Time is money, however, and most small distilleries cannot afford to use small percentages of their distillates or work slowly in the name of quality. They consider themselves "craft" because they are small, not because they're better. This is ultimately going to tarnish the "craft" whisk(e)y industry because the term will become ironic.

Have you tasted a "craft" whisk(e)y before?

Yes! It was terrible!

Shouldn't it be the opposite?

-David Driscoll

Thursday
May232013

Karma

I like to think that I'm a pretty honest salesman. That's not to say that I don't employ tactics like enthusiasm or excitement (it is genuine, by the way), it's to say that I'll never sell you something you don't need and I know you won't like. If you've ever worked with me in the store, you'll know that I often spend more time trying to talk you out of buying things, rather than into them. We don't need the extra ten bucks on a sale. What we do want is for our customers to be satisfied with whatever it is they buy and to have to best experience possible.

Nevertheless, there's a lot of skepticism that goes along with wine and whiskey sales, especially for people who know nothing about either one. How do you know I'm not just selling you some over-oaked, over-priced Cabernet that we're making a fat margin on? A similar comparison might be auto repair. If you're like me and know nothing about fixing cars, then how are you to know if a mechanic is actually fixing your car, or simply adding on additional charges to hike up the bill? It's tough to decipher if you're auto illiterate.

So you can imagine my despair when, while leaving St. George distillery in Alameda this past Tuesday, my car started overheating at the Oakland airport where I was picking up my mother on the way back to the peninsula. I was able to make it to the terminal, but after throwing mom's bags into the trunk and getting her in the front seat, we couldn't make it much further without blowing a gasket. A security guard told us about a gas station just outside the airport on 98th where we might find service. I proceeded cautiously, using as little throttle as possible, while the warning kept beeping away. After making the right turn there was no gas station in site, but I did see a sign that read, "Smog checks and oil changes" so I pulled into the driveway hoping for some help.

That driveway turned out to be North American Motors, a local garage that happened to be in the right spot at the right time. The general manager Romeo came right out to look at my car and assess the situation. Like me, Romeo drives a Volkswagen GTI (parked right next to where I was) and knew the problem could be one of many possibilities. Since I needed to get back to work and my mother needed to get to her car, Romeo immediately called the nearby Hertz Rent-a-car and got us set up for transportation. Within twenty minutes a NAM employee had given us a ride to the rental and we were back on the road towards San Mateo. Romeo said he would call me later with an update.

It turned out there were multiple issues. I needed a new water pump. I needed a new temperature module on my radiator. I might as well do the fan belt since I was paying for labor now. Within two days my car was ready to go, so I headed back over to Oakland this morning for payment and pick-up. It turns out the North American Motors had paid for my rental car, so there was no charge for two and a half days of Suburu action. My co-worker Armando, who is familiar with car repair, said the bill should have been far more than it was. How could it happen that, when breaking down in an unfamiliar part of the Bay Area, I had overheated next to one of the most honest and helpful garages in existence?

Not only was my car fixed, but it had been washed, the oil changed, and all of the fluids topped off and checked for levels. I couldn't believe it. These guys could have taken me to the cleaners and I would have paid it (unknowingly), but they didn't. You could tell that Romeo and his crew were happy that I was happy. My satisfaction was their primary goal.

So there. Karma. I make an effort to be as honest and helpful as possible with all K&L customers and the universe provided me with the same level of service. What goes around does come around, eh?

That being said, if you need help with your car I can't recommend this place highly enough:

North American Motors

132-98th Ave

Oakland, CA

(510) 635-9191

-David Driscoll

Thursday
May232013

In Stock and Going Fast

I had no idea how pent up the demand was for weird, wild, esoteric whisky! All I can say is that we sold more than half of what we we're getting before I even sent out an email, let alone posted it here on the blog.

I'm just going to paste what I put in the email here before it's too late!

The new whiskies from Lost Spirits are here and they’re already selling like hotcakes, despite the fact that I haven’t even sent out an email. I’ve sold 30 bottles already this morning, so I guess my blog post got people excited! WARNING: Most people who didn’t like the last batch of Lost Spirits whiskies do NOT like these either. Don’t expect a radical change in flavor profile. However, people who were intrigued or found the last batch “interesting” will definitely like these. They’re far more polished and the oak/sherry aging are much more like traditional single malt than the wine barrels he used last time around. The Bohemian Bonfire is like the Bruichladdich Bere Barley, but infused with plant matter and smoke. The peat in these whiskies is more mossy and earthy, than smoky. It’s classic Lost Spirits flavor. I can’t promise you that you’ll like these. I can only tell you that I do.

We’ve got an exclusive on the “Bohemian Bonfire,” as Bryan only made one barrel and we bought it. I like this one better. My friends Dave and Anthony from St. George agreed.

Lost Spirits "Bohemian Bonfire" K&L Exclusive Peated California Single Malt $55.99 - After the release of his first California single malts, Bryan Davis was looking for inspiration and doing a bit of soul-searching. That's when he stumbled upon a single barrel of Kilchoman at a whisky tasting he attended. The flavors were bright, clean, and surprisingly drinkable, despite the youth of the whisky itself. When Bryan inquired into what Kilchoman's magic consisted of, he learned that the distillery takes one of the smallest heart cuts in the business (with pot still distillation, the distiller usually takes the middle cut, dumping off the heads and tails for redistillation). Bryan didn't add the cuts back in, however. He took a small middle cut and left it at that. That was step one. The next step was to get better cooperage. Rather than use the wine-soaked casks for extra flavor, Bryan wanted mild oak aging as to not detract from the high-quality distillate. He scrubbed out his wine barrels and cleaned profusely, leaving only the wood in its place. His new, ultra-spirit was placed into the barrel and laid down to rest. The result is the Bohemian Bonfire, the same whisky as Leviathan with a smaller heart cut and normal oak aging. It's by far the best whisky Bryan has ever made and it's much more mainstream without losing the Lost Spirits character. It's also, without a doubt, the best peated American whiskey I've ever tasted. Only 160 bottles were made.

This one is more palatable to the mainstream due to the sherry. It’s dark and rich, but spicy underneath. I’ve already sold through the 24 bottles I had in SF this morning alone! CRAZY!

Lost Spirits Ouroboros Peated Sherry Aged 100% California Single Malt $55.99 - When Bryan David visited the store recently he had a whisky with him called Ouroboros and it was dark like sherry. When Bryan was unable to secure fresh sherry butts to mature his single malt, he decided to create his own. He took his own cooperage, filled them with sherry, let the barrels sit, emptied them out, and filled them with a new distillate - comprised of 100% California single malt and smoked with 100% California peat (sourced from the San Joaquin delta). Again, the result is outstanding. It's all of the plant-like, beery flavor of Lost Spirits distillery with the mellowing agent of sherry to help balance it out.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
May222013

Why American Whiskey is Getting Harder to Get

We got an allocation of Angel's Envy 100 proof rye whiskey last week and it sold out about two minutes after we sent out an email alert. Many long-time customers were absolutely confounded.

Angel's Envy rye? Really? Two minutes?

Are you telling me that we have to be ready to pounce on things like Angel's Envy rye from now on? Not just Pappy, or Stagg, or Black Maple Hill, but fucking Angel's Envy rye for a costly $67.99 a bottle?

Yes. That's what I'm telling you. I can't speak for other stores, but this is the reality at K&L.

We all know that there's a bit of a whiskey shortage in the states right now, but that's not the whole problem (if you didn't know you should read this - scary!). The popularity of American whiskey is through the roof right now, and the fact that Robert Parker is dipping his toe in these waters is only more evidence of this.

However, that's not the whole problem either.

The problem is the increase in accounts looking to sell American whiskey - as in retailers, bars, and restaurants.

Remember that a large chunk of all spirits end up behind a counter, not just on a retail shelf. With every new whiskey bar or cocktail lounge that opens up (about five a day in San Francisco alone, it seems), that's another account that wants part of what's available. They want Buffalo Trace products, they want Heaven Hill products, they want popular whiskies on their menu - period. I've watched the upswing in Bay Area booze-related businesses drain K&L allocations steadily over the past three years. We used to get Black Maple Hill whenever we wanted it. Then it was down to 120 a month. Then 60. Now it's a case here and and case there whenever it's back in stock.

Willett Bourbon is another casualty of this phenomenon. It's not anyone's fault. I don't blame Pacific Edge or any one at the distribution center. They've got more customers than whiskey, plain and simple. That's the same problem we have! Everytime a new whiskey customer starts shopping at K&L, another name goes on the email list, another person clicks on the hotlink, and another competitor for these whiskies joins your ranks. The distribution game works the same way. K&L is competing with other retailers, bars, and restaurants for the hottest products on the market, i.e. American whiskey.

I used to get about 60 bottles of every Willett expression as it was released. More if I asked for something in particular. Sometimes I didn't even take my entire allocation! With the immenent arrival of the new Willett 4, 6, and 10 year old Bourbons, I'm looking at less than 25 bottles total of each expression. That's less than half of what I used to get, simply because Pacific Edge has to spread the wealth a little more these days. And, believe me, these bottles will sell out in two minutes or less.

This is the same reason we have to put "one bottle per customer" limits on things like Russell's Reserve Single Barrel, Elijah Craig Cask Strength, or other super-limited releases. We're getting paltry allocations of rare American whiskey right now, almost to the point that it's not worth the time or effort to take care of three bottle drops (i.e EC 12 cask strength). It's frustrating. It's tough. But it's the reality of the business right now.

We're in the same situation as all of you.

-David Driscoll