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Thursday
Apr042013

England 2013 - Day 1 - A Tale of Two Cities (London)

On the far west side of London, in an unassuming neighborhood, sits a building on Power Road called Chiswick Studios. In that building resides one of the most important businesses in all of boozedom. It's a whisky label we've been big fans of for years. It's a name you know and trust. It's a company we want to be doing more business with of an exclusive nature, if you catch my drift.

See this guy? You may recognize him. His name is John Glaser. He runs one of the coolest, most innovative whisky brands in the business called Compass Box. In the blending world John is a legend. He worked in the Diageo marketing department for years before striking out on his own to create his own expressions. John doesn't own a distillery and he doesn't do any distillation. John does, however, have some very nice connections within the industry that have secured him filling contracts meaning he doesn't have to purchase mature booze. He has his own stock maturing as we speak that he uses to create his own expressions like the Peat Monster and the Oak Cross. Pretty cool, right? That's what twelve years as the industry's leading pioneer can get you. Clout, baby.

We like John. And, luckily, John likes us (we think). Two years ago when my wife and I visited London John took us out for a round of drinks and some fine conversation. When John comes to the Bay Area I try to take him out for beers. He's the kind of guy you want to hangout with. He talks like John Malkovich and blends like John Walker. He's all about building unique blends that are both drinkable and affordable. He and K&L are tailor made for one another. We hit the streets of London to talk shop, eat some food, and maybe discuss a little business. I think the future looks bright for our two companies, if you know what I mean.

After a wonderful lunch with John we met with another bottler whose prices were completely out of league with what we're seeing on the American market. Apparently the Chinese market is hot for his booze. David and I didn't really know what to say except that we would be happy to sample the whiskies and get back to him with an offer. I don't think we'll be doing much offering, however.

That's pretty much it. We're off for the evening and plan to hit the bar scene shortly. Plane leaves at 11:40 tomorrow morning and I'm back in SF by 2:30. I'll be in the store Saturday if anyone wants to come by and shoot the breeze!

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Apr032013

A Few Thoughts

Combining the two trips into one this year was a bold idea. Our owner Clyde thought it might be more cost effective, so we decided to sack up and knock out two and a half week’s worth of booze tasting all at once. The length of the trip and the fatigue that eventually sets in hasn’t really been a problem so far. David and I don’t want to kill each other yet and there hasn’t been any real setback or roadblock to success. It’s all gone quite smoothly, really. What’s been most difficult for me to wrap my head around is the difference between the products we’re buying and how different the processes of buying them can be. When we buy whisky in Scotland, we deal with companies or brokers. When we buy brandy in France, we’re going into people’s homes and into people’s lives. The evaluation process is not the same in both cases.

When we started this trip in Scotland we went right to Pitlochry and eventually up to Tain and the Glenmorangie distillery. While I love LVMH and everyone I deal with in that company, it’s still a multi-national corporation that has purchased an operation and is basically looking to streamline it into as efficient of a system as possible. Let’s not pretend that we’re dealing with a few Scottish farmers who run a small plant out of the North. However, what’s great about LVMH is that they don’t seem to scrimp or savagely cut costs like some whisky companies do. Some other companies like to fire eighty of their distillery employees despite having one of the most successful profit years in history, simply to add an extra penny to each of their shareholder’s profits. In my opinion, when you start to view whisky this way, as a pure commodity, you begin to lose touch with the product itself. Everything becomes focused on doing things more efficiently rather than making the best product possible.

What I like about Glenmorangie is that they have respect for the trade itself. The sixteen men of Tain are still making the whisky today and their legacy is celebrated in the photos along the distillery walls. They haven’t been replaced by computers or robots, even though I’m sure LVMH could save money by doing so. Everyone within the company has great things to say about working there because they feel valued. If you’ve got money to spend on a giant rocket, then you’ve got money to spend on people. It’s simply a question of whether you’re willing to do so. Good people are what make the booze industry so amazing and it’s nice to work with a company like Glenmorangie that is full of them. Just because you’re a large corporation doesn’t mean you can’t be both caring and respectful.

You have to respect the craft of what you’re doing if you expect others to have respect for the product you’re making. There is something to be said for cheap, easy whisky. Making something inexpensively on a large scale and selling it in bulk offers a valuable service to those who have to watch their wallets. What’s frustrating to us, however, is watching large producers who have taken short cuts with their product play the artisan card as if they’re in the same category. This is the main reason why David and I visit as many producers as possible when traveling abroad. We want to know whom we can stand behind proudly as knowledgeable merchants, knowing that their message we’re spreading is both honest and true. We hear all the time that so-and-so is “doing things the old fashioned way” or is “making a small-batch, artisan product.” Sometimes we show up and the booze is just as advertised. Sometimes we find out that this person or company is completely full of shit.

We talked a lot with Charles Neal about the nature of what we’re doing during our many hours in the car. We had visited with a man in Cognac who was claiming he didn’t add anything to the Cognacs we were tasting, yet the color of each spirit was equally dark between the ten, twenty and forty year old expressions. Basically, it didn’t seem possible that he hadn’t added anything to the brandies, but what were we going to say? “You, sir, are a LIAR!” When someone invites you into their home or office, gives you an hour of two of their time, lets you taste all of their booze for free, and then sends you home with a small bottle as a memento, should you return that favor with a negative blog post that entirely shreds their credibility? It’s a tough dilemma to be in. On one hand this person is possibly spreading misinformation to customers and we’re in a position to help these same customers make better decisions based on our experience. On the other hand, we’re completely blasting a person who was nothing but polite and generous to us and had no reason to believe we were going to write about him.

Tasting with the small producers in Cognac is a similar experience.There are a few small farmers who do their own bottlings, but almost everyone is selling to one or more of the big houses as well. Not one of them is a fan of the big house products, but all of them rely on that money to continue their own operations. It’s like any magazine in any industry that relies on advertising money, listing only the good reviews and never the bad ones. Everyone has to play ball with these companies if they’re going to earn a living. On top of that, even the guys who don’t believe in caramel or boise are using it. If they don’t use it then no one will buy their brandy because it doesn’t taste right and it doesn’t look right either. Most people aren’t asking the questions that we’re asking, so it can get uncomfortable at times.

The Armagnac region is like backwoods Appalachia compared to Cognac. The people we visit in Gascogny lead a simple life. They farm. They make wine, They jar their own preserves. They make grape juice. They wear dirty jeans and work boots. Their hands are calloused and their days are long. Brandy is but one of many different farm-related products they sell in order to pay the bills. Some producers are larger than others, but none of them compare to what’s going on in the Cognac or single malt industry. If you’re the type of person who likes to go to the farmer’s market and buy directly from the producers, then you should go to Armagnac and meet the Claverie family at Baraillon. Have some foie gras on white bread while you taste and they stand by quietly, looking down at the ground, hoping that you enjoy yourself. Go to Normandy and taste Calvados with the Camut brothers who not only want you to like their brandy, they want to be your friends.

Throughout these last two weeks we’ve tasted with large producers and small producers. We’ve tasted with people who actually make the spirit and with others who are simply intermediaries. We’ve tasted great booze that was designed to taste great and we’ve tasted forgotten booze that was supposed to end up in a bottle of Cutty Sark ten years ago, but got traded out to some broker before that ever happened. Sometimes there’s a great story to be told and sometimes there isn’t. When you taste our bottle of 2002 Bowmore that we plan to bring in from our pal David Stirk, I don’t think you’ll care that it’s simply a barrel of whisky we found in a warehouse outside of Glasgow. When you (hopefully) taste a bottle of the Bladnoch cask we sampled, on the other hand, you’ll be know that we got it directly from the hands of the Armstrong family who have worked so hard to keep that small distillery going.

In each case the criteria for evaluation is different. We might like how a certain whisky tastes, but realize it has no soul. We might find another whisky challenging, but realize that the story of that whisky is more exciting than the actual flavor. To do this for two straight weeks requires one to listen, pay attention, and read between the lines (as well as subject to your mouth to a brutal beatdown by high-proof hooch). We’ve got one more stop to go before we head for home. I’m writing this as we speed through Northern France on our towards the English Channel. These are just a few things that have been on my mind lately.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Apr032013

France 2013 - Day 7 - A Tale of Two Cities (Paris)

Ahhh......Paris. What a beautiful place. The buildings are stunningly gorgeous, the atmosphere is vibrant, and the streets are alive with energy.

Mopeds and scooters are constantly zipping in between the cars, the roundabouts are like warzones, and even the bicyclists are well-dressed and full of gusto. We saw a woman peddling her way around a bus with an Yves St. Laurent handbag. That blew my mind.

You may not think of Paris as a whisky capital, but it's home to one of the most impressive collections of single malt we've ever seen: La Maison du Whisky. We headed over to the original store location this morning and met with Salvatore Mannino – the brand ambassador for the company. He explained how their operation worked while David and I sat there with our mouths open, practically drooling over every word.

There's all kinds of shit you can do in Europe that would be completely forbidden in the United States. First off, you can be an importer and a retailer. Basically, you can buy it directly from the producer and sell your product to yourself, along with other retailers. La Maison du Whisky is the importer for Compass Box, Glendronach, Benriach, Gordon & MacPhail, Nikka, and a number of other producers for France. In other words, they make money by selling it directly to you as well as to every restaurant and retailer in the region. It also means they're free to do all kinds of mix and match gift sets like the ones pictured above. You can get a sample pack of ten different whiskies all in little vials for a variety of different flavors. It's absolutely genius.

While we're stuck with the three-tiered system in America, where retailers are beholded to importers and distributors, there is something to be said for both systems. The French market allows retailers to buy directly and sell to restaurants. That's great if you're the one in control. However, if you're a small retailer who wants to get into the business you have to buy your booze from your competitor, La Maison du Whisky. What if Wally's or Beltramos had to buy their booze from K&L every time a customer asked for Kilchoman? They could never advance beyond us or be competitive with pricing because we would determine what they paid. The American system adds extra tiers into the market, but at least we all have to buy from the same people who are not competing with us. Distributors cannot sell directly to the public for that reason.

Quite an interesting education today! We're headed to London in about forty minutes. The next time you're in Paris you should definitely stop by Maison du Whisky and check out their old and rare collection. It's jaw-dropping. They can buy bottles directly from private customers, so they work as high-end whisky pawn shop as well. It's an amazing store and we want to thank Salvadore for taking the time with us.

You should go there. And you should go here:

L'as du Falafel. David OG's favorite restaurant in all of Paris. There's a line to get in all day long, but it's totally worth waiting. The best falafel in the world? Perhaps.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Apr032013

France 2013 - Day 6 - Back in Normandy

Today is going to be another day where I let the photos do most of the talking. We're in Paris now, we've been up late because we got here late, we couldn't find a place to stay for about an hour and a half, and we didn't eat dinner until midnight. Now I've gotta pack and check out of the hotel in about twenty minutes and I couldn't find the cord to connect the camera to the computer until now. Jeez! The stress! We've got about five hours here before we catch the train to London, so it should be nice to have a little bit of down time. Here's what happened yesterday in Normandy.

We arrived at the Camut house two days ago for an evening of food and business. These houses always look straight out of fairy tales. This is their grandfather's old home where the estate is today.

You might remember these two brothers that get along extremely well. Jean Gabriel and Emmanual. Two seriously cool dudes who like to cook meat over fire. This time it was a rack of lamb.

Norman cheese goes with 25 year old Camut Calvados. Remember that when you pick up a bottle.

The next day it was off to find some new producers. We started at Pierre Huet, which is one of the larger distillers in the Pays d'Auge. They've got a serious warehouse. Remember that Calvados is often stored in gigantic barrels to minimize the wood influence.

They work with 30-40 varieties of apple, some grown on bastige and some on hautige plantings (low and high - high is better because the trees take longer to grow and the fruit is ultimately better). They purchase some fruit as well from the town nearby.

After Huet it was on to Hubert which has been taken over by the daughter Astrid. Her property is absolutely gorgeous and her booze is good too!

Astrid is also quite a character and a go-getter. She wants to modernize the package of the bottles and make it more elegant. A feminine style, you might say. "After all, I am a woman!" she exclaimed. We plan on buying a few things from her collection of fine booze.

After Hubert we visited a small farmer named Gerard Perigault. "Mr. Driscoll, did you touch any livestock while you were abroad?" Uhhhhh.......no.

Pierre makes an old and rustic style of Calvados. Very light, very lean, with minimal oak. We thought they were very interesting, but we didn't find anything that fit the bill.

Gotta run! Gotta get my clothes packed!

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Apr022013

France 2013 - Day 5 - Hennessy

Since we had to pass back through Cognac on the way north to Normandy, we thought we should visit the largest producer in the region seeing we had spent so much time at the smaller ones. At least for the sake of perspective. Hennessy owns 200 hectares of vineyards in the Grand Champagne region alone (pretty much all of it) and they work with another 2500 or so producers from whom they purchase either distillate or the wine from their various grapes. They're owned by LVMH, the same company that owns Ardbeg and Glenmorangie, so we knew we'd get a great response if we asked to stop by. As usual, the people at LVMH set us up with an outstanding tour.

While there is no distillation on site at the Hennessy headquarters in downtown Cognac, there is a fantastic museum. It's great to visit the smaller farms like Jacques Esteve or Bouju, but you're not going to see a whole lot of production happening in late March. The models that are in the Hennessy museum, however, make understanding the entire process – from vineyard to bottle – quite simple and fun. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more because you reall get a grasp of what's happening. Hennessy does do some of their own distillation from three different sites all equipped with ten stills or so like the alambic pictured above.

One of the coolest displays at the museum is the breakdown of soils between the various regions in Cognac. You can see the limestone directly underneath the top soil in Grand Champagne.

Whereas Fin Bois has much more clay, producing wines with lower acidity levels that aren't quite as good for distillation. This all makes a big difference in the flavor of the final eau-de-vie.

Hennessy still has insanely old Cognacs sitting in barrel at their warehouses. They also have a guy whose sole job is the write the name of the distillate and the vintage upon each one. Our guide Fay told us he has a master's degree in calligraphy just to do this one job!

They also have really old Cognac resting in glass demijohns so that they don't mature any further in wood. Two hundred and twelve years in a barrel might be a bit too long for some brandies.

If you really want to get crazy you can purchase one of these super exclusive Cognac packages. This one sells for $100,000 and they only made 100 for the world. Who's in?

The story of Hennessy as a producer is really quite interesting. Richard Hennessy himself was not French, but rather an Irishman who came over to found the company in 1765. You can still see the date scratched on the original warehouse he bought in 1774. Today it's grown into a company that sells 63 million bottles a year worldwide. You can see why they need to work with so many farmers and producers to maintain a solid stock of distillate. They've got 300,000 barrels aging in fifty large warehouses today and all of the expressions are still blended by the Filloux family, who have been doing so for seven generations.

It's crazy to think about how large businesses develop. We were talking about it in the car on the long drive yesterday. You buy some land, make some Cognac, sell it to a few locals, and then you need some more. If you sell more bottles then you can buy some more land in order to make more product, but then you'll have to hire more help. You want to spend some more time with your family, so you need to hire some workers. If you make enough money to hire more help you can spend more time finding new customers. You know how it goes from there. It's amazing to think that Hennessy started that way. Just a guy from Ireland using his successes from the brandy business to expand an empire.

Today the top market for Hennessy is the United States, believe it or not. China and Taiwan are right behind us, but we drink the most VS in America. It's still quite popular with the young club scene and the hip-hop movement, so there's no sign of Hennessy losing business as their customer base matures over the next decade. They're going to have to worry about what most brown booze businesses are currently freaking out over – where are they going to find more product? Unlike single malt, you can't just buy more base ingredient and distill it. It has to come from a specific designated region and there's only so much of it. Crazy!

We spent last night with the Camut brothers and we're all a bit hung at the moment. It was a long and crazy night. Lots of cheese, lots of apple-based products. We're out in Normandy today if we can drag ourselves out of bed and into the car.

More on our adventures later today.

-David Driscoll