Monday
Jun172013

Mexico: Day 1 - Guadalajara

I'm standing at the gate about two minutes before the airplane doors are going to close, searching the terminal walkways for Lou Palatella. There was a line from hell at security this morning, so backed up and slow moving that even the hour-plus leeway we gave ourselves was meaningless. Luckily, just after the attendents told me they couldn't wait any longer, I see a pastel pink polo shirt on a lineman's figure working its way down the escalator. It's Lou. We were going to make our flight.

Four hours later we landed in Guadalajara City where we were met by Juan Núñez, the gerente general of El Viejito distillery, the home of Campeón tequila. He and his co-worker Pancho had a car waiting outfront where they would be whisking us away to a downtown lunch. I couldn't wait having only nibbled on some crackers with hummus all morning. We pulled into an upscale, yet traditional Mexican restaurant with a tequila collection that featured hundreds of different selections.

There were all kinds of crazy bottles on the shelves. Old school Don Julio botellas, a vintage label called Tequila Marijuana, adorned with a Farrah Fawcett-looking, feathered-hair belle from the 1970s. The four of us perused the cornucopia of booze before sitting down for lunch.

The most important bottle, however, was Juan's El Viejito blanco tequila, a botella we had brought to the table for our enjoyment. I had it neat and also with Squirt. Lou poured his on the rocks. Pancho shot it straight. Juan actually mixed it with ice and water. Tequila is such a versatile drink with so many different ways to enjoy its flavor, as was evident after we all chose completely different methods of imbibing. After a fifteen minute drive where Juan, Lou, and I shared our passionate views for the spirit, we were ready to finally drink some actual tequila.

The original El Viejito distillery was founded by Indalecio Núñez in 1937 in Atotonlico, located in the highlands of Jalisco known for having the best land, climate, and altitude for growing quality agave. It has remained a family-operated affair since that time. However, after Patrón ended its relationship with Siete Leguas distillery the tequila giant needed a source for its spirit – fast. That's when Juan and his father entered into a contract with the company and began distilling Patrón at their El Viejito site. Having been burned in the past by an ever-increasing contract price for its tequila, Patrón wasn't eager to repeat past difficulties. After deciding it was happy at its new home in Atotonilco, the company made a bid to buy the distillery from the Núñez family – a deal Juan and his father were all too happy to make since they had already begun discussions on a new facility. Patrón would take the old El Viejito, while the Núñez family would build another.

However, seeing that I'm spending all day at the distillery tomorrow, we can cover all those basics in a later post. What I found most endearing at lunch time was Juan's passion for quality, unadulterated tequila with no additives or artifical coloring. He got super pissed at one point when we were talking about a competitor that doctored their tequila to increase sales. Whether or not Juan was putting on a show, I was impressed. I think he was relieved that I cared.

And I really liked the El Viejito's rustic nature. It's old school tequila in an old school package. And it went particularly well with a dish I had been dying to try for years, especially after two failed trips to Oaxaca: Tacos de Chapulines. Yes, you translated that correctly, that would be grasshopper tacos.

Earthy. Tangy. Absolutely stunning when paired along side the tequila. 

Lou about fell over watching me eat it. "You're actually eating it!" he screamed with glee.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Jun162013

A Tequila Adventure

This is a photo of the 1955 San Francisco Forty-Niners. 1955 was the first year that a young guard out of Pittsburgh protected a future-hall-of-fame quarterback named Y.A. Tittle. That rookie lineman's name was Louis Palatella. Or Lou for short.

Lou Palatella played four seasons for the 49ers before his football career came to an end. What was a young, tough, charismatic athlete supposed to do after the gridiron? 

Liquor. 

Lou Palatella is a 79 year old booze legend in the Bay Area. He's even more beloved as an industry veteran than as a former 49er. A few years back Lou thought he would ride that booze horse into the sunset with his own tequila brand – Campeón. However, Lou's old-school, brand-focused ways of doing things weren't adapted to thrive in the new world of "craft," artisan spirits. He was doing alright with the brand, but definitely wanted some help with the boutique market.

Unlike most brand owners I know in the tequila industry, however, Lou actually wanted to embrace the authentic side of his spirit. Lou himself is one of the most authentic spirits I know! I told him I was interested in doing some research on the tequila distilleries of Mexico and that, if he wanted, I would buy a ticket and fly down with him the next time he planned on traveling to Jalisco. That way I could document the NOM 1107 El Viejito distillery and do some research on the highlands, while perhaps giving Lou an opinion of what might help the brand.

It would be an adventure to say the least. Me, a 79-year-old ex-49er, and an overnight bag on the 6 AM out of SFO to Jalisco. Two nights. Guadalajara City. 

I was up for it. Lou said he was going to visit the distillery on Monday, June 17th. I took a few days off and booked myself onto his flight. 

Let's see what happens.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Jun152013

Drinking to Drink - Part IV

When I was in college I studied film. I wanted to be a director. I loved movies and I loved making video projects with friends. Hence, why not turn that hobby into a career?

Like many kids from my generation, however, I thought that getting into a good school with a good film program was all I had to do. Many of my friends thought that getting into Stanford or UC Berkeley was the prize and that a great life with a rewarding career would simply follow. We didn't realize that these fine institutions would not provide us with the answer to life, but merely help us learn how to help ourselves. Therefore, when I began my film training I learned how to use a camera. I learned how to record audio. I learned how to edit digitally. I learned how to make a movie, but it was my job to come up with the idea for one. Oh.....you mean I have to do that on my own? It turns out that being an art major doesn't necessarily make you an artist.

I've never really been the best at anything I've done in my life. I was always good at sports, but never a star. I was always good at making quirky videos, but I lacked the patience and the perseverance to perfect them. Like other kids I knew, I tried to make up for that lack of effort or talent with better equipment. I always had a great aluminum bat and a top-of-the-line catchers mitt. I had the latest Apple computers with the best copies of Final Cut Pro. I had the means to afford the best tools and the finest teachers, but those things can only take you so far. It's never the guys like me who achieve greatness. The best kid on the little league team was always the scrappy kid with the beat-up glove who was good because he lived to play ball. The best movies in my film class were always made by the quiet kid who had to borrow equipment from friends.

Having the best possible equipment doesn't mean you understand how to use it. There I was, nineteen years old, loaded up with a couple grand worth of editing software, when I probably only needed a cheap DV camera and a stripped down version of iMovie to make the films I was making. Whereas some kids knew how to do special effects and computer animation with Adobe Illustrator that took hours, if not days of extra work, I just wanted to point and shoot. Speaking of cameras: how many people out there actually know how to use every function of their Canon T2i Rebel SLR camera? Yet, you see guys everywhere with fancy lenses and heavy equipment bags. How many people are actually out there, scaling a mountain with their Asolo hiking boots and North Face outdoor apparel? While we like to think that the best equipment makes the for the best experience, it's no good to you if you don't know what to do with it.

More so than any of the analogies above, wine may be the absolute best example of a type of "equipment" where people pay in excess for qualities they don't understand, need, or appreciate. I spend most of my time talking people out of bottles rather than into them. You don't want that 1988 Lynch Bages, trust me. But I want to spend $100 on something nice! What do you think nice tastes like? Smooth, rich, and fruity, right? That's not what the 1988 Lynch Bages tastes like. Then why would it be so expensive? We all know that society equates quality with expense, even if it's often undeserved. With wine there's the added caveat that older is also better. This isn't always true, however. Older is simply different. The older a wine gets, the more its flavors change, but not necessarily in a way that's favorable to a large majority of the public. Old wine is an acquired taste. It can be appreciated only after experience. You're not going to drop a hundred bucks on an old Bordeaux and instantly love it. I know this because many people bring back these bottles thinking there's something wrong with the wine.

Although I find that older whiskies tend to be more impressive, even for the beginning drinker, there are plenty of odd, esoteric, and subtlely flavored spirits that don't necessarily speak to the average aficionado. You might think that spending $100 is the only way to drink good whiskey, but you'll only know that if you've already spent $20, $40, $60, and $80 first. You'll only need the Canon T2i if you're finding that the Powershot S90 doesn't do everything you want it to do. Do you really need the manual focus, added depth of field, and the versatility of wide-angle versus portrait lenses, or does it just make you feel like a pro knowing you have them?

In the end, unless you do everything in life completely alone, there's no hiding a lack of experience. At the end of the semester we all had to screen our films at the university theater. It was clear who had talent and who didn't. If the students that made terrible films did so with the finest possible equipment, the irony of that failure made it twice as embarrassing. But that wouldn't be the only time I experienced something like that in my life. If you head out to the golf course with the most expensive clubs available, then double bogey every hole that afternoon, expect a lot of snickering behind your back when you're not looking. If you've got a garage full of the priciest tools, but your kid's treehouse looks like a condemned construction site, don't be surprised if your craftsmanship becomes a practical joke around the office.

On the same page, if your bar is only full of prestige bottles, but you chose the Glenlivet 12 as the best malt in a blind tasting, what does that say about your palate? It doesn't necessarily say that you don't appreciate fine whisky, but it may mean that you're spending far too much.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Jun142013

New K&L Single Barrel Bourbon!

Our Weller barrel from earlier this week sold out so fast I didn't even have time to post it on the blog! That's because it's Weller though, so it's to be expected. This, on the other, has got to be one of the goofiest bottles of all time. A piece of felt with some construction paper glued on – hey, wait a minute? Am I dreaming? Am I back teaching elementary school again?

Oh...no, it's just the crazy-looking Henry McKenna Bottled In Bond label. Despite its odd exterior, this is one of the best single barrel Bourbons I've ever tasted from Heaven Hill. It's absolutely glorious.

David OG is on a roll lately. I don’t know if it’s his amazing palate or that fact that he just gets better samples than I do (probably the former), but he’s been digging up some gems lately. I’ve been sending most of my Kentucky barrel samples back from where they came. David, on the other hand, has been delivering cask after cask. First the Weller from earlier this week, now this guy. Single barrel selections are one of the only ways we can offer our customers fun, unique, and exciting selections of American whiskey right now. There’s nothing more fun than finding that inexpensive overachiever, bottling it up, and watching it fly.

Henry Mckenna 10 Year Old K&L Exclusive Single Barrel #982 BIB Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey $26.99 - Mckenna is one of the most underappreciated brands on the market today. Essentially, this is Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams recipe bottled in bond and aged a minimum of 10 years. Ours was barreled in October of 2002 and bottled earlier this year. We got incredibly lucky with this little single barrel. It stood out of the crowd from many samples we'd tasted over the last few months. Here we have the typical Heaven Hill spicy oak nose, soft citrus peel, . There's this fresh vanilla bean character that seems almost unreal. The powerful spice is accented by subtle floral aromas, but it does not seem perfumy, just as if you've walked by an incredible wild rose bush. The palate goes in the exact opposite direction. Instead of being astringent or overly spiced, we get tons of sweet candied fruit (cherries especially). The baking spices come back on the end and coat all that cherry in a dark spicy cocoa. What a spectacular find! Remember if you're reading this now, so are THOUSANDS of other people. We only got 16 cases of this whiskey and it will undoubtedly be sold out in a matter of days if not hours. (David OG)

Since this came out of the SoCal distribution, I just finally got my hands on a bottle today. It’s no joke. Seriously good Bourbon that you can sip neat. This isn’t a mixer, this is rich, textural, nuanced, spicy, dark-fruited whiskey for a hot price. I’m going to stash a few away since I’m into value whiskey right now. If you thought the Weller barrel was good, this will outshine it - guaranteed.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Jun132013

Drinking to Drink - Part III

I'm glad people are feeling the need to respond to these posts. I like getting a tad contraversial every now and again to keep our creative juices flowing and our minds thinking.

In response to the claim that consumers are missing out by avoiding the great entry level bottles, I heard from a number of different readers who had one consistent reason for choosing to step up the quality instead: when they do decide to have a drink of whiskey they want it to be really, really good. One of the great things about liquor is that it keeps. You don't have to drink it all at once for fear of spoilage. This allows consumers that don't imbibe in high volume to nip off the bottle from time to time without worry.

My concern, however, was that some of these drinkers might be moving right up the ladder without deciding whether it was actually worth doing so or not. Could they maybe scratch that itch and spend only a fraction of what they're used to paying? There are numerous studies that show an increase of overall wealth often doesn't lead to an increase in general happiness. Might the same correlation apply to whisky and the enjoyment of it? Not that the expensive malts aren't actually higher in quality, but rather that the increase in quality doesn't necessarily lead to an increased enjoyment?

I was hoping to hear from a few people. Keith in Southern California had this to say:

I am a surgeon in Los Angeles. When I was in college - late 1980's - I decided that I wanted something better to drink at the bar than the terrible generic beers that were plentiful and tasteless. So I decided a sophisticated drinker would drink scotch. I was in college and had no money so I figured Johnny Walker Red is probably as good as anything more expensive and so drank a great volume of bad scotch. I thought it tasted terrible but thought drinking scotch must be an acquired taste and probably no one likes it when they start so continued drinking. It didn't get any better but I thought I should probably keep drinking until it tasted good. It never did. I was ill well into the next day. The smell of scotch made me ill for the next ten years.

Ten years later I was in training in Philadelphia. I decided now that I had some money (in residency I earned - literally - pennies per hour for the first year but worked about 100 or more hours per week so made a living. Later it was a few dollars per hour not because I earned a lot more but because the hours came down to a more reasonable 80-90 after the first year.) I was going to try scotch again but the sky was the limit! I would buy the very best bottle available. (I had no idea how expensive scotch could be.) So I went crazy and spent - if I recall - about $30-40 for a bottle of Glenmorangie. (I also had no idea that different regions of Scotland produced different tasting scotch.) It tasted terrible. I was certain it was an acquired taste and so made myself drink just a taste every night to acquire it. Every night a taste. Every night was terrible. Two weeks later I gave up. It was just gross.

Ten years later my wife and I with some friends were out to dinner on New Year's Eve. Everyone had something to drink. Everyone but me. The waiter asked what would I like and I really didn't have any preference for any particular drink. I mentioned that scotch sounds interesting but I am one of those people who just doesn't like scotch.

The waiter said "There is no such thing. Everyone likes scotch. They may not have had the right scotch yet."

I told him again I would like to like scotch but I just don't

He said "I am going to bring you a drink. You are going to love it. If you love it, pay for it. If you don't, it's on me."

How can you turn that down?

It was the most delicious drink I think I have ever drunk. Macallan 18.

That was the day I became a scotch drinker.

However Macallan 18 cost around $135 then. Since the bottle, I figured, would last 3 or 4 years I wanted to make sure that if I were going to spend such an enormous sum of money and that would be all I drank for the next three or four years I better make sure it was what I really wanted. I tried a dozen or two scotches in bars the next month or two but really loved the Macallan. I bought the bottle. Three months later it was gone.

From my perspective I am not always in the mood for a drink of hard liquor. It is so strong I really have to be in the mood. However thank goodness I am in a place now where I can afford good stuff. I don't drink it every day (I'd say most weekends but not all weekends I'll have a small drink and almost always when friends come over). So if I am having a small drink once a week or twice a week and I have an option to drink drinkable good stuff or really great stuff, I figure I am 44 years old and choose the best stuff I have. Not to be macabre, but I don't know how many years left I have. Hopefully lots and hopefully good ones. In that case if there is a Talisker 10 (I thought it was OK but didn't love it), Lagavulin 16, and Port Ellen 9th release available, why would I drink the Talisker if I know there is something I truly love? (Lagavulin 16 is one of my favorites though)

Anyway I wanted to give an alternative thought. I usually have about 4-5 bottles open at any one time but if there is a really good bottle that comes out I know I will not be able to drink it ten years from now because it will be gone so I would buy it now, expecting to open it up to drink whenever the current stash runs low. I drink regularly but not daily so if I am going to have a drink I want to drink whatever I would enjoy the most.

In this case, the increase in quality certainly made a difference for Keith. Pre-Macallan, there was no enjoyment whatsoever. Post-Macallan, there was passion. The reason I particularly enjoyed his letter is because for years he tried to like Scotch, but didn't. Only after finding the right whisky was his love eventually able to blossom. For those who don't drink whisky all that often having one or two nice bottles they truly enjoy is probably the way to go.

I can give you a similar account with the opposite effect, however. I tried this approach with my wine consumption and found that my enjoyment actually decreased as a result (which is why I began Part I of this conversation with the wine analogy).

My alcohol intake since working at K&L has gone through the roof, not surprisingly. At times, I'll make strides to cut back on what I ingest, mainly for health reasons or to stay fit. I'm a dedicated runner, usually logging about 25 miles a week or more habitually. About a year ago, as part of an effort to increase my distances, I decided I was going to drink less wine (maybe only once or twice a week), but that the wine I would consume would just be of a higher quality. Instead of spending $6-$12 per day on a reasonable bottle, I would concentrate those funds on a $30-$50 bottle of serious quality for the weekend. That way my increased enjoyment from the higher-end wine would counteract the decreased enjoyment I would feel from the fewer occasions to sip.

Or so I thought.

What I soon realized, however, was that my enjoyment of alcohol didn't stem so much from appreciating its quality as it did from appreciating the general experience of tasting it. I ended up putting more importance on to each encounter, making the potential for disappointment even greater when the wine didn't live up to expectations. I also discovered that part of the fun in drinking, for me, was finding that great bottle of $10 wine or $20 booze that truly transcended its price. Bargains were simply more fun.

In my world, I don't necessarily derive a greater amount of pleasure from a glass of Port Ellen than I do from a glass of Caol Ila. I can recognize the difference in quality and enjoy the contrast of flavor, but I'm not necessarily happier as a result. Ultimately, my greatest sense of enjoyment comes from the ritual of drinking itself, finding pleasure in what each experience can offer individually. Even though I was opening incredible bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy, each one delicious and far better than what I was used to drinking, I didn't wake up the next morning with an extra spring in my step. In fact, I felt bad about having spent the extra cash.

For some people, the pleasure derived from drinking alcohol is in direct correlation to the perceived quality of the beverage. Keith's experience is a great example of this phenomenon. However, for others, like myself, the pleasure of drinking alcohol comes simply from the act and the experience itself. Personally, I'm as happy eating tacos from Chavez Market as I am filet mignon from a Michelin-starred French bistro. But I wouldn't want to do either on a regular basis because that would mean missing out on everything from Indian curries to Chinese dumplings.

The same scenario works for liquor. There's simply too much fun stuff out there that shouldn't be missed, in my opinion. If I watched only "the best" movies I would never have time for hilarious romps like Cabin Boy or Super Troopers. If I listened to only "the best" music, I wouldn't be able to enjoy my morning commute with yacht rock classics like Toto's "Africa." Such things have their time and place, and I enjoy each of them for what they bring to the table. Therefore, I think it's important to stress to customers the idea that there are some fantastic "every day" bottles out there that we shouldn't necessarily overlook on account of their low price tags.

With some things, however, I am just like Keith. I don't really care about my coffee as long as it doesn't taste like tar. I don't really feel like backpacking around Europe anymore when I could just stay in a nice resort. Alcohol is just something that I feel differently about because it's my biggest passion.

Some people just want it to taste good. Some of us just want to taste as much of it as possible.

-David Driscoll