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Tuesday
Jan212014

Early St. Paddy's Day

Get ready for an Irish celebration in February rather than March this year. I got a chance to taste two of Midleton's most coveted whiskies yesterday that will make their American debuts in just a few short weeks: the single pot still Green Spot distillate, and the ultra-mature Redbreast 21 year old. Given my tendencies for Irish whiskey I was all set to love the Green Spot and tolerate the Redbreast 21. However, the outcome couldn't have been more the opposite. I thought the Redbreast 21 was fantastic--definitely showing its age with extra richness and a lovely marzipan note. It tastes like you think older Irish whiskey should taste; at least it did to me. I've never been a huge fan of the Redbreast line, but this one really hit a sweet spot.

The Green Spot is exactly what you expect from Midleton. It's good, honest, well-made Irish whiskey. I don't get the cult following, but that's just my palate, I guess. Not everyone gets the whole Lot 40 Canadian thing either, so different strokes for different folks. It's definitely worth getting a bottle of Green Spot if you like Irish whiskey, but it didn't change my life or make me jump up and down (which has been known to happen after I taste something I like). Both Kyle and I thought it was simple and tasty.

Look for both of these around mid-February at K&L.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jan212014

Agave Spirits - Part IV: Family Heritage

(all photos courtesy of Mezcal Vago and Joanna B. Pinneo)

I can't tell you how many great products we've "discovered" at K&L simply because the producer took the time to drive by the store and solicit us with a cold call. It's not a practice we generally appreciate, but every now and again it works out. When Judah Kuper came by the store around Christmas time it probably wasn't the best moment for us to chat (me being buried under a deluge of whiskey orders), but we made some time and he told me his story. Then he let me taste his mezcales. I remember saying to him before he left, "I will buy as many bottles of these as you can get me." Over the next few weeks Judah would finalize a deal with an importer, set up California distribution, and get his Vago mezcales ready for us to purchase. Starting tomorrow we'll have the complete line available at K&L.

So what's the deal?

Judah is a surfer and one time while on a surfing trip along the Oaxacan coast, he met a lovely Oaxacan lady who was part of a local mezcal-producing family. He was instantly smitten. Sometime later, he found himself married to this lovely Oaxacan lady and developing an appreciation for her family's traditional distillates. "You know we could probably market these and sell them in the U.S." he said to her one day. Judah had just as much saavy with the computer as he did with the surfboard, so he designed a label (made from 100% agave paper) and created a name for the brand. In the end, it's a story we're very familiar with in the spirits industry. Boy meets girl. Boy discovers family legacy. Boy tells romantic story of the family legacy. Boy creates fancy label that sells that romantic story. I've heard this tale before from many a craft producer. The difference with the story of Mezcal Vago is that it ends with a line-up of incredible booze. To put it shortly, the mezcales from Judah's Oaxacan in-laws are among the most exciting and dynamic we've ever tasted at K&L. We're very excited about their imminent arrival.

This is Aquilino García López, Judah's father-in-law, harvesting an agave plant on his property deep within the Oaxacan mountains (about a three-hour drive from Oaxaca City). Aquilino has never produced
mezcal commercially, rather only for his own consumption and for neighbors living nearby. He cultivates his own espadín and mexicano agave, then forages for cuixe and tobalá to make special distillates from those wild-growing species. He represents the fifth generation of distillers in his family and does all of the work himself. That work starts with a machete. 

Once the agave has been harvested and the leaves and outer layer removed, the piñas are roasted in an underground pit. Aquilino makes field blends of mezcal as well, sometimes combining different species together during the cook, fermenting them and distilling together as well.

Once the piñas are roasted they're crushed with a stone tahona and prepped for fermentation in 1000 liter wooden vats made from pine. Only the agave and water are used as the natural yeasts in the air begin the fermentation process naturally.

Of the six mezcales currently available from Vago, four of them are distilled by Aquilino. The other two are made by Salomón Rey Rodriguez, a family member known as "Uncle Rey." His property is in Sola de
Vega -- the most famous spot in the world for agave tobalá. Like Aliquino, he is not a commercial producer, so his releases for Vago mark the first time his mezcales have been sold commercially. He uses the above trunk of a pine tree, hollowed out in the shape of a canoe, for fermenting his agave. It's been in use for more than ninety years!

This is where things get really interesting. For distillation, Uncle Rey uses a series of fifty liter clay pots. According to Judah, "Each pair of pots shares a fire. The stills are made of stacks of two pots: one that holds the mash and has an open top, and another with an open bottom that rests on top of the first one. On the top pot there is an upside-down stainless steel bowl that water continually runs in and out of. When the heat from the mash rises and hits the cool top created by the water, condensation occurs. An agave leaf works as a large spoon to catch the dripping condensation (Mezcal) and runs into a piece of bamboo and into the collection container. This whole process is really laborious and takes probably 4 times the effort of a copper still and stone tahona process."

Personally, I am on a quest to help explain to customers why agave spirits are more than just tasty ingredients in a margarita. Much like the Vinos de Agave series from Wahaka I wrote about earlier, the Vago mezcales represent a portfolio of agave distillates, all completely different from the next, with clear explanations as to which agave they were made from, how they were made, and why they taste the way they do. They have character, depth, complexity, a hell of a romantic story, and they showcase the potential for terroir in the spirits world more than any whiskey could ever hope to. More importantly, they're accessible, reasonably-priced, and relatively-unknown, which will make it easier for you to try them.

I'll, of course, post tasting notes and the full array of selections once these arrive. We think they're going to be very, very popular. Stay tuned.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Jan172014

New El Dorado Single Still Rums

I mentioned I'd be back to provide more information about these single still rums from Guyana so here I am! These are on the shelf as of now and are moving quickly, despite the fact we haven't included many notes so far. Before we break down the flavors, however, let me tell you a bit about why these rums are so fascinating and why David and I will be reporting live from Guyana starting February 18th. I will paraphrase the information I know about El Dorado and give you a bit of background.

The foundations of Guyana go back to Christopher Columbus and the cultivation of sugar cane around the Caribbean. 150 years after the explorer sited the land along the north coast of South America, the Dutch returned to found a colony and cultivate cane along the coastal plain and on the banks of Guyana's many rivers. After the British began distilling sometime around 1650, the practice spread to Guyana and by the 1700s almost every sugar mill had a small still nearby, leading to more than 300 different estates making their own style of rum from molasses. 

The Royal Navy began handing out a daily ration of rum in 1677, a practice that would continue in England until July 1st, 1970. When the British tasted the rum from Port Mourant - a site established in 1732 - they made it their official rum of choice. The character of the rum, stemming from the double wooden pot still in which it was made, stood out from other rums of its kind with its heavy, earthier flavor. The British would eventually take over all three Guyanese colonies in 1831 (Demerara being one of them) and create British Guyana, leading to an implementation of the blending practices long used for whisky in the production of rum. As time went on, the sugar estates began to close and the production of rum became more finely detailed. Top estates were given their own mark (SWR, ICBU, PM, EHP, LBI, or AN, for example) and the rums were shipped off to the UK where they would be blended together as Demerara rum. 

Some of the original stills from the early estate days still exist in Guyana and have been consolidated under one roof:

- the Edward Henry Porter still from the Enmore sugar estate. It was built in the 1800s and may be identical to the first Coffey still ever built by Aeneas Coffey in 1832.

- the double wooden pot still from the Port Mourant estate along with a single wooden pot still from Versailles. They produce heavy, flavorful rums like the Royal Navy once used. The PM rum is a single distillate from double wooden still.

- a four-column French Savalle still from the Uitvlught estate, founded in the 1700s. The distillate is utilized in blends to add fresh cane character.

You can see now why David and I are so eager to get out to Guyana. These are serious, historic, museum-worthy pieces of equipment that have seen centuries of use and are still running today! That's why we're always pushing El Dorado 12 year rum into your hands when you ask us for suggestions. In any case, we just picked up the three single-still selections. Here they are:

El Dorado Single Barrel EHP Guyana Rum $79.99 - The EHP was created for the Edward Henry Porter Estate, nearly identical to Aeneas Coffey's original patent (continuous), crafted in native greenheart and nearly two centuries old. It is refined, balanced with subtle toffee notes.

El Dorado Single Barrel ICBU Guyana Rum $79.99 - The ICBU comes from the Dutch Uitvlugt (literally/figuratively "to fly away") Estate, a French Savalle four column metal continuous still. The rum shows sweet sugarcane on the nose with a rich medium-bodied palate.

El Dorado Single Barrel PM Guyana Rum $79.99 - The PM comes from the Port Mourant still, a double-pot greenheart still that provided rum for nearly two centuries to the British Royal Navy. The flavors are of rich molassses with deep. dark caramel.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Jan162014

New K&L Burgundy Exclusives

NOTE: This is also on K&L's wine blog.

As you all know, this isn't my official department, but I have taken a side role as the Burgundy assistant here in the Redwood City store due to my insatiable thirst for it. I figured our buyer Keith could use the help as he's usually answering phones and I'd pick up some pointers along the way. It's exciting to learn about, so I figured I'd share some of those lessons here on the blog for those interesting in learning a bit more as well.

As I mentioned before in the Comp Lit post, there's a finite amount of wine in Burgundy (about 62,000 acres) and the best wines are never brands, but rather vineyards. Due to Napoleonic inheritance laws, the best vineyards can be split between more than 100 different owners--many of whom sell their small lot (sometimes no more than a few vines) to negociants who blend them to make larger batches. For example, if they can get twenty different Gevrey-Chambertin producers to sell them grapes they can dump all the wine into one cuvee and still call it "Gevrey-Chambertin." That way they can sell 400 cases of one wine, rather than twenty different versions of it with different labels. However, much like with whisky today, there's a growing desire among consumers to taste the wine directly from the grower, rather than as part of a greater blend.

Finding small producers with whom we can work directly is our bread and butter here at K&L. Our wine model was the basis for what David and I set out to do in the whiskey department. Finding them in Burgundy, however, with demand already high and supply so very low, isn't easy. Most wines are spoken for long in advance and most producers already have contracts with a larger importer. Keith, however, has managed to find some outstanding growers from whom we can purchase directly and offer outstanding value to our customers. Two of them, Jacques Bavard and Chateau de la Charriere, were featured in today's staff tasting as we just received a huge shipment of new 2011 vintage wines. There was a ton of great wine in that bar this morning. If you're like me--interested in Burgundy, but not quite ready to start investing in $100 bottles you can't drink for ten years--then you might want to check some of these out. 2011 is looking to be one of the better vintages for the money, especially considering that the 2013 vintage--with its hail storms that destroyed a number of vineyards--will likely limit supplies for the future.

Your money always goes farther at K&L when you buy the direct-import stuff (because no one has ever heard of it). Before you start picking off the big guns, start with these more reasonably-priced selections to get more bang for your buck.

2011 Château de la Charrière Bourgogne Chardonnay Domaine Yves Girardin $14.99 - There's a lot of wine for your money in this bottle. It's earthier on the entry, but slowly eases into a rich and mineral-laden palate that finishes cleanly and with finesse. It's much more than a simple drinker. It's a hint of what makes white Burgundy what it is.

2011 Château de la Charrière Savigny-les-Beaune Blanc "Vermots Dessus" Domaine Yves Girardin $23.99 - I'm always a big fan of this wine every vintage. It's so light on its feet and fresh on the finish, but without sacrificing flavor or complexity. There's not nearly as much richness or texture as most fuller-bodied Burgundian whites, but there's a fresh fruit and floral note on the finish, possibly added by the small percentage of pinot blanc in the mix. Lovely stuff.

2011 Château de la Charrière Bourgogne Rouge Domaine Yves Girardin $15.99 - The pinot noir fruit for this wine comes from the village of Marange, which is south of the Cote de Nuits, near Santaney. It's important because it's where the so-called "Golden Slope" comes to an end--meaning the chalky limestone in the soil (part of what makes great Burgundy wines what they are) turns more brown. It's not so much a lesser wine growing area as it is just unknown. That's why you only have to pay $15.99 for this little gem. It's juicy and full of dark berries on the nose with a bit of structure and an earthiness on the palate. I love it for the price.

If you're Google-searching Yves Girardin, don't get him confused with his brother Vincent who is a big negociant in the region. Yves is a grower who and the wines are domaine-bottled.

2011 Château de la Charrière Pommard "Cuvee Tradition" Domaine Yves Girardin $34.99 - This is a combination of wines from four different sites around Pommard, from whom Girardin was able to source fruit. The nose is pure cherry with a meaty and savory note on the palate, along with dark fruit. It's mineral on the finish, almost with a hint of graphite. It's good now. It will be great in a few years and, compared to the $60 price tags we usually see for Pommard, it's a steal.

2011 Jacques Bavard Bourgogne Blanc $21.99 - A complete and utter steal. This is seamless wine. This wine should serve as the definition of what that means. It means it starts with fresh acidity, transitions flawlessly into rich texture and soft fruit, and then morphs into mineral and saline notes on the finish without a hitch. Top notch Chardonnay that left most of the staff buzzing.

2011 Jacques Bavard Monthelie Rouge $29.99 - This is always one of the staff's favorite wines and it's easy to see why. Just a gorgeous nose of fresh cranberry, a vibrant acidity on the mid-palate, and a fresh, fruity finish. Monthelie is a small village that lies between the better-known communes of Volnay and Auxey-Duresses in the Cote de Beaune. There are fifteen premier cru sites in Monthelie, but I've never tasted a wine from them as pretty as this Bavard.

Bavard is an interesting producer because he doesn't own most of the land from which he makes his wine, but he doesn't sharecrop either. Instead, he buys rows or specific plots from vineyards and then manages those sections to his own specific standards. In Burgundy this is called sur piece. It gives Bavard estate-like control without control of the estate. If he wants to pick earlier or later he's not reliant on the decisions of the grower.

2011 Jacques Bavard Meursault $41.99 - Meursault seems to get more expensive every vintage, as Burgundy fans are flocking to its richer mouthfeel and pronounced character. I'm not always a fan of that extra richness, but I found Bavard's version quite striking. It's clean on the entry with fresh fruit flavors and zippy acidity before moving later into richer, nutty flavors of toasted almond and mineral accents. I would be hard pressed to keep my hands off of this one, even though I know it will taste better in a few years. Great wine.

We have many more wines from Charriere and Bavard, so check out the website. These were just some of my personal favorites.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jan152014

Lot 40 Rye Whiskey: The Rye You Never Knew You Needed

I can't say that I'm much up to speed on Canadian whiskey. I look at the Whisky Advocate reviews when they post them, and I read my friend SKU's reviews (his take on Lot 40 is here) when he gets a sample. However, when I read the write-up on the Advocate's 2013 "Canadian Whiskey of the Year," I found Davin de Kergommeaux's personal blog with much more information behind the brand. It was a heck of a tale and suddenly I was very interested in Canadian whiskey, even though I couldn't get it or sell it here at K&L. The story behind Lot 40 reads a lot like the American version of Pappy, albeit not quite as neurotic.

It would be another few months before I got the chance to actually taste the Lot 40. It just kind of showed up at the store. "Oh! I've been wanting to taste this!" I told my Pernod Ricard rep. Then it hit my lips. Then Kyle tasted it and jerked his head in my direction, giving me this "what the heck is this?" look, but in a good way. Then the staff went in to taste. Our Italian buyer Greg came out raving, saying "You need to buy as much of that as you can. How much is it? A hundred bucks?"

"It's gonna be around $60," I said.

"I'm in for two" he replied.

We've got a little in stock right now. We're getting a WHOLE bunch tomorrow. A WHOLE bunch.

This is a must-own bottle even if you just kinda like whiskey. And its got a great story. I won't bother to retread the history here, considering I'm no expert anyway. Just read Davin's blog post and then try and tell me you don't want one, too.

Lot 40 2012 Release Canadian Rye Whiskey $59.99

-David Driscoll