Navigation
Saturday
Feb152014

What's New? 

I think, for me personally, the best moment in wrestling history was when Chris Jericho debuted on Monday Night RAW back in 1999. It was such a big deal for us wrestling geeks (there are as many wrestling blogs, as there are whiskey) who were waiting for him to break out and it marked the beginning of a new era in the war between WWF and WCW -- when wrestlers would begin jumping ship back to the WWF. However, Jericho's entrance was so good and so thrilling that we became addicted to it. The excitement of seeing a new face on Monday night's best wrestling program was such an incredible high that nothing else became as important to us rabid fans. We couldn't wait to see who else might show up and if someone didn't, it was kind of a letdown. The WWF knew they had to keep the fresh faces coming to take advantage of this increased interest. Today's whiskey companies are following the same gameplan.

What's new? Do you have anything new? Any new whiskies coming out this week? Oh. That's it? I've already had that. What do you have that's new?

I've been hearing a lot of this lately. There have been so many new whiskies released over the last few years that I feel we're in a similar situation as the wrestling version I described above: we're not happy as whiskey fans unless we have something new and different to drink -- good or bad. It's not just about separating ourselves from the pack, either. If a new whiskey is good, we can talk about how awesome it is, do whatever it takes to track it down, and tell our friends we finally got a chance to taste it. If it's bad, we can talk about how overpriced it is, how it's just another example of bad marketing, and how whiskey isn't as good as it used to be. In either case, it's something to do and that's what the passionate whiskey community out there wants -- a buzz. The online wrestling world at that time wanted the exact same thing, and it's an eerily familiar feeling -- the way that in-the-know excitement turns casual fans into serious fanatics (I converted at least thirty of my friends into serious wrestling geeks by simply explaining to them how exciting this all was and why). For many people, whiskey is exciting because there's so much out there to experience and they want to experience it all. The more new experiences there are to try, the more they want to try them. Buying the same bottle twice isn't even a consideration. It's more about that wave of energy that lights up their day when a new product gets released.

However, there hasn't been a lot of new, every-day whiskey on the marketplace and that's not a coincidence. There's plenty of affordable whiskey available. Good affordable whiskey, too. But the new stuff? The exciting limited editions and heavily-hyped releases? Those are going to cost you. The WWF quickly realized that their big moments were being given away for free on cable television and made a few significant adjustments. Since Jericho's arrival almost fifteen years ago, the WWE (as it's now called) has saved all major comebacks, new arrivals, and big returns for pay-per-view television events. If the Rock is going to come back for a match, it's going to happen at Wrestlemania, not on Raw. If you, as a wrestling fan, want to see what's new and be a part of something fresh and exciting, you're going to have to pay extra for it. The same goes for whiskey drinkers (and fashionistas, for whom all of this is nothing new).

We're at the point right now where any new whisk(e)y is selling quickly just because it's new. Just because it's something different than what you can usually get. If there is a burst to the bubble coming (which I don't see, yet), I think it's going to happen when people get tired of having to do what it takes to keep whiskey exciting for them personally. The WWF eventually ran out of new wrestlers to sign and had to work with what they had. For those casual fans tuning in just to see what would happen next, this marked the end of their interest because they never really cared about the product in the first place, just the excitement surrounding it. If some people out there are only interested in new whiskies and limited edition releases, what happens when they become too expensive or hard to find? Does that make them more exciting, or does that ruin the buzz?

How many people out there are just tuning in to see what's next? And how long can the whiskey industry keep coming up with fresh faces?

-David Driscoll

Friday
Feb142014

Plight #2

 After showing this to a friend, he told me there actually was a website called All Things Whisky (.com rather than .net, however). I was trying to make up a random blog name, but that's diffifcult these days with so many whisky blogs!

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Feb132014

The Road to El Dorado: Guyana Preview

On Monday night, David OG and I will be boarding red-eye flights to Miami where we'll catch a morning connection to Trinidad. After a seven hour layover on the island, we'll finally catch our last flight into Georgetown that evening. Almost twenty-four hours later we'll finally arrive in Guyana -- the home of Demerara Distillers and El Dorado rum. We'll only be in South America for three days before we turn right around and fly back Saturday morning. Yet, we're willing to do what it takes to get there because both David and I have a strong feeling that rum is due for a big resurgence and that the lynch pin of that movement is going to be the Demerara Distilling Company Ltd. No other producer of rum has a legacy like DDL and no other distiller is in a position to make as serious of an impact on the booze industry.

We'll get into the history of rum distillation in Guyana later; about how production dates back to the 1670s and how all the estates have now been consolidated into one company. We'll also break down how each of their four stills works and how long they've been in operation. I'm sure we'll learn more in-depth and fascinating details once we're physically there and those details will definitely be more interesting when supported by photography. What makes Demerara Distillers an exciting company to work with goes far beyond tradition, heritage, and history, however. We're partnering with a producer that is self-owned and is not part of a larger corporate group. They make the ultimate decisions about any future developments without having to worry about how those actions are going to affect other parts of their whisky, brandy, or wine portfolios. They're not looking to expand their empire or join up with another beverage group. They're looking to do one thing and one thing only at Demerara Distilling Company: make really good rum.

And they make a lot of rum. About 20 million liters worth a year, of which 75% goes to bulk rum sales abroad. They make their money up front on the white goods, which allows them the freedom and the ability to concentrate their full attention on making sure the other 25% is as brilliant as can be; the rum that eventually goes into the El Dorado expressions. DDL has so much rum laying down in its warehouses that it's actually reminiscent of where single malt whisky was fifteen to twenty years ago -- when producers would carelessly dump older barrels into their standard twelve or fifteen year expressions to add richness and texture. When you buy a bottle of El Dorado 12, 15, or 21 year, you're not just getting the bare minimum of maturity. They're definitely blending in older rums to these expressions because they have plenty of rum to do so with. This also means you're not going to pay all that much, either (we currently have the 12 year for $25.99, which is just crazy considering how good that rum is).

What makes rum such an intriguing spirit is that it offers drinkers the best of both worlds: light, fragrant, and flavorful white rums for mixing cocktails, as well as dark, barrel-aged rums of various maturity levels that allow for contemplative sipping. Despite our trip to Barbados last year and our continued work to source interesting casks (like the very expressive Faultline St. Lucia), I feel like we don't really understand rum's true potential. More importantly, I feel like because of our lack of understanding, we haven't been able to clearly communicate to customers how amazing rum can be and why we find it so compelling. That's why I'm going to get on that plane Monday night and brave the long trip south to a small country tucked between Venezuela and Brazil, just north of the equator. It's the most historic rum producing region on the planet and the Mecca of molasses for serious rum distillation.

Demerara sugar is some of the most-coveted due to its crystallized form and caramel-like flavor. The molasses from the refinement process of Demerara sugar, however, is only sold to one customer: Demerara Distillers. The only company allowed to distill rum from Demerara molasses is DDL and the quality of that molasses plays a large part in making their rum so delicious and flavorful. I want to better understand sugar and molasses and how they can affect flavor. I want a better breakdown of column still distillation vs. pot still distillation and how maturation in severely humid conditions creates a different flavor. I want to experience the blending process first hand and decipher between different types of rum distillates. I want to process that information, write it down, document it with my camera, and share it with all of you. That means I've got to go to Guyana.

In my personal opinion, DDL is going to be the epicenter of a serious tremor that will soon shock the booze business. With pricing and availability continuing to frustrate whiskey drinkers, I think rum is poised to play spoiler to what has so far been a very small party.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Feb132014

Price Hikes

My friend SKU took a poll this week among whisky enthusiasts, asking whether they would rather keep whiskey pricing the same, but drink a younger and possibly lesser product, or face price increases and shortages, but keep the whiskey the same. The majority of responses seemed to prefer the latter. I'm glad that's what consumers would rather have because that's exactly what they're going to get (and you still might get the lesser quality thing along with it!). There have been another series of price hikes recently and there are more on the way. Why haven't you noticed them, possibly? Because as a retailer you absolutely do not want to be the first one to raise your prices, so we generally eat the difference to keep stability. You want to buy in against the increase so that you can maintain your costs for as long as possible. For example, if your William Grant rep tells you that Balvenie is taking an increase in price, you might want to go deep on the Balvenie 12 Doublewood. That's a competitively-priced whisky with wide availability.

So, being relatively intelligent whisky buyers, David OG and I have done our best to buy in and buttress against these increases. However, as the old Led Zeppelin song goes, "cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good, when the levee breaks, mama, you got to move." Here's a list of a few whiskies that have recently taken price increases or have increases planned for March 1st (at least for CA distribution). Some might only go up a few bucks, others might be in the neighborhood of $7 to $10 a bottle.

Ardbeg - all expressions

Aberlour - all expressions

Balvenie - all expressions

Bruichladdich - all expressions

Diageo malts - all expressions

Glenlivet - all expressions

Glenfiddich - all expressions

Highland Park - all expressions

Macallan - all expressions

Laphroaig - all expressions

Yamazaki - all expressions

So far Kentucky is remaining relatively stable. We haven't seen anything more than a dollar or so a bottle increase from any one producer. There's been very little to complain about with the American whiskey market, in my opinion, especially when compared to some of the huge increases we've seen with Scottish single malt. In any case, there's no sign of slowing down the money train. David OG and I have to go over all of our pricing this weekend to see what we can do to prevent any upward response on our part.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Feb122014

New American Whiskey Stuff

I met up with Diageo today to get an update on our three forthcoming George Dickel 9 year old single barrels. They brought me the final samples, which came with a nice little wooden box and an updated label. Things got a little hairy over the holidays, so we pushed back the delivery date, but we should expect to see our bottles in late April/early May. Keep these on your radar. They're really, really tasty with big candy corn sweetness and lots of spice.

Since they were in the neighborhood, the Diageo boys let me sample the new Orphan Barrel lineup as well, including this 20 year little gem called Barterhouse. It's tasty stuff, much better than I was expecting from other reports. It tastes like some of the better Jefferson's 18 Reserve bottles we had a few years back with lots of baking spice notes and a palate that hasn't lost much of its freshness over time. It's going to be a big hit.

The 26 year Old Blowhard was much more gentle and ghostly in nature (and the sample bottle came in this beautiful book for a case). It's much less intense with a subtle flavor profile that makes me think the barrel had some serious evaporation. It's going to make someone out there very happy, but it didn't stand a chance next to the fantastic Barterhouse. No word on when these will be available, but we'll keep you posted.

And, of course, let's not forget the latest incarnation of a straight rye and Bourbon blend: Jefferson's Chef's Collaboration $34.99. There's a lot to like in the Jefferson version. Bright barrel spices abound on the entry with a leaner palate that never gets too rich or flabby. The finish offers a hint of that sweet banana note, but it's entirely in check and balanced by more clove and cinnamon notes. All in all, it's well done and well priced for what it is.

-David Driscoll