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Friday
Jan042013

Top 10

Now that I've become a human rant factory, I think I've strayed a bit from one of my more useful functions as a spirits specialist - helping you buy quality booze. While I enjoy the philosophizin', my primary role is to taste alcohol and tell you if it's worth your time. When we named the 1979 Glenfarclas as our top whisky of the year our customer service department was inundated with emails from customers who were excited about booze – just not $300 bottles of it.

"Could you please come up with some choices for us everyday folk?" read one of the messages.

Why, I have a whole store full of choices! I've got plenty of whisky selections for less than $60 that are delicious! However, I recognize that navigating a shelf or website full of tasting notes can be perilous, so I will now engage in another list-type breakdown to help those looking for something new. While our "Whisky of the Year" selection was the result of a collective vote of spirits drinkers from all three K&L locations, these choices are solely my own, based upon what is currently available, based upon how I currently feel at this moment: 7:58 AM.

You asked for it, you got it. I know I've done this before at some point, but let's do an updated version. We'll exclude any K&L exclusives and other limited releases to make sure we can help the non-K&L customers out there, too. Here we go:

Top 10 Single Malt/Blended Whiskies Under $60

10. Bank Note Blended Whisky $19.99 - You may have heard Tim Morrison and I talking about this whisky on the most recent podcast episode. It's such a steal I can't stop talking about it. However, we're not talking complexity, depth, or nuance here. We're talking about a drinkin' whisky. Something to pour and enjoy, not analyze and blog about (unless you're blogging about enjoyment). There's a healthy dollop of Bowmore in this, so the subtle smoke adds a nice touch with the classic, rich Scotch profile. I was watching Breakfast at Tiffany's again while home sick in bed this past weekend. I love how parties in the 1960's had nothing but two blended Scotch bottles and a few glasses. Minimalist culture and simplicity at their very best. It makes me want to throw a Bank Note party.

9. BenRiach 12 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $44.99 - This whisky has drastically improved over the years and it's a fantastic choice for anyone looking to avoid heavy sherry and peat. Nothing here but golden fruits, golden grains, and golden color. Supple vanilla with a heavier mouthfeel than one would expect. There's plenty to enjoy in this bottle.

8. Compass Box Oak Cross Blended Single Malt Whisky $54.99 - Another point that Tim and I talked about on the podcast was expanding your comfort zone. If you want to get your money's worth with single malt whisky these days, you're gonna have to avoid the big names. Many purists avoid the Compass Box selections because they want the pedagogical experience – they've got a checklist with every distillery on it and they're looking for the next homework assignment. Blended single malts don't really allow you to learn about one specific distillery's profile. However, John Glaser's blended single malts allow you to drink $80 to $100 whiskies for $40 to $60. The Oak Cross, with all it's oak-influenced goodness, is so explosive, so brimming with everything whisky drinkers love, that it breaks my heart to watch customers pass over it in place of Dalwhinnie or Cragganmore.

7. Ardbeg Uigeadail Single Malt Whisky $58.99 - "David, I've had the Alligator and the Day and the Galileo, but I've never had the Uigeadail. Do you think I should try it?" Uhhh.....you bought those three before buying the Uigeadail? That's like watching the Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith before sitting down with the original Star Wars. The Uigeadail is the trophy whisky from one of the best distilleries in the world. We've just gotten so used to it that we've forgotten how delicious it is. It's also at a much higher proof than most other whiskies, so it's a nice foray into the cask strength whisky realm. If you're looking for a peated whisky, you won't find many better than this for the price.

6. Glendronach 12 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $47.99 - We sell a shit ton of this whisky in Redwood City, mostly because we have a sign hanging below it that says, "Maybe the best whisky in the store for the money." I whole-heartedly believe this might be the case, mainly because just about everyone seems to love this whisky. It's got rich, chewy sherry, lots of cakebread and dried fruit, a supple texture, and a smooth, opulent finish. It's like Macallan 12 on steroids. Actually, it's like Macallan 12 but waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay better.

5. Springbank 10 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $54.99 - One of my all-time favorite whiskies, I will never let my house go without an open bottle. How can you not enjoy the combination of oily fruit, gum-smacking viscosity, heady sherry, and a few whisps of peat smoke on the finish? This whisky has everything going on and it's always different - literally. Springbank only bottles to order and they vat everything beforehand. So, if the U.S. doesn't order any for six months, that whisky just sits in the barrel longer, never in a stainless steel tank to maintain the flavor. Sometimes you're actually getting Springbank 11 or 12 year old.

4. Arran 10 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $44.99 - This whisky has really grown on me lately. It seemed rather one-dimensional in the past, but like I've been saying as of late, the Isle of Arran distillery really has their shit together right now. They're on a winning streak like no other producer (Devil's Punchbowl, Single Sherry Barrel, Single Bourbon Barrel, 12 year cask strength) and the 10 year really showcases what they do well - easy, light, delicious, yet complex single malt whisky. This whisky is great for beginners because it's so easy to understand, but advanced enough for veterans because of the subtlety underneath it all.

3. Aberlour 12 Year Old Non-Chillfiltered Single Malt Whisky $49.99 - I cannot overstate how important it is for whisky companies to stop chill-filtering their whiskies and start raising the proof. Example #1 - the new Aberlour 12 year old. A whisky that went from tasty, but pedestrian, to absolutely fantastic. Glenrothes Select Reserve and Balvenie Doublewood can't even come close to the new and improved Aberlour. Textural, rich, bursting with sherry and spice, oily on the backend. YUM. Don't buy the one in the red cannister. That's the old one. The white tube is the one for you.

2. Kilchoman Machir Bay Single Malt Whisky $53.99 - We're running a little low on this whisky right now, but our new shipment is coming soon. What else can I say that hasn't been said a million times on this blog? Kilchoman's Machir Bay would have been my "Whisky of the Year" if we had never found that Glenfarclas cask. I love this whisky. Love it. It tastes different every time I drink it. It's like watching Arrested Development for the 30th time. This time I'm laughing at George Sr., whereas last time I was obsessed with Buster. Like Arrested Development, I never get tired of it.

1. Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $46.99 - Example #2 - Bunnahabhain 12. This whisky went from a chillfiltered 43% to a non-chillfiltered 46%. A world of difference lies between the two. When we did our big Burns Stewart dinner last Fall, we tasted a ton of whisky. Bunnahabhain 12, 18, 25, Tobermorey 10, 15, etc. At the end of the night, with the whole bar at their disposal, most of our customers went back for the Bunnahabhain 12. It was just so balanced and tasty. It's got a bit of everything going on. Soft sherry, round fruits, earthy and resinous notes, a bit of brine, the whole shebang. Bunnahabhain 12 is one of the most overlooked whiskies I can think of. It's a whisky we're going to look back on later and say, "You know, that's some really good shit." Not everyone gets it the first time, but eventually it clicks. When it does, it's a beautiful thing.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Jan032013

Not All Bottles Are Equal

Someone emailed me the other day about our single barrel of Port Ellen that currently sells for $600. He was asking me why our bottle was so expensive compared to earlier independent bottlings that were still available on the market. Apparently he had done some investigating on Wine Searcher and had discovered some different Port Ellen offerings that were significantly cheaper.

If you do the same search right now you'll come up with a few hits:

A 1983 Scott's Selection for $199.99 in Rhode Island.

A 27 year old Douglas Laing bottle for $270 in Connecticut.

A 1982 Signatory cask for $314 in New York. And so on.

"Why should I pay $600 for your cask when I can get these for less?" he asked.

Where do I even start?

First of all, no one is forcing you to buy our Port Ellen. You're under no obligation to get one. Honestly! You can use your money to buy whatever you like. It sounds crazy, I know. Secondly, not one of these other whiskies is the K&L Exclusive 30 year Port Ellen. They're all from younger casks and were all bottled years ago. They're not 30 years old and they're not even the same whisky! All casks are different. We happened to think ours was pretty good. Third of all, those prices are based off wholesale costs from years ago when Port Ellen was more "affordable." Fourth of all, some of those stores appear to be closing out the products, maybe because no one wants to buy them. Fifth, you'll have to pay for shipping and hope that they're willing (and/or able) to ship to your home state (if they actually have the bottle).

Those are the quick points. The most important one being the second.

While all of the whiskies he had searched were made at Port Ellen and said Port Ellen on the label, they were not the K&L Exclusive 30 year Port Ellen. Let me give you an analogy.

Let's say I come into work wearing my brand new Levi's (the 511 Skinny Fit with Stretch that I buy from the main store in Union Square) and my co-worker asks, "How much did you pay for those jeans?" I answer him with, "That's really none of your business, but I paid $69.99 per pair." He says in reply, "HAAA! You got ripped off! I just got this pair of Levi's at Marshall's for twenty bucks!" I look at my jeans - sleek, classic dark denim, perfectly fitted, and stylish. I look at his jeans - an ugly shade of bronze, baggy on the sides, with a seam mis-sewn on the leg. "Wow, you got quite a deal," I say.

Not really.

I know people that think this way. They're constantly worried that the entire world is conspiring to rip them off. When they go to an all-you-can-eat buffet, they eat six plates to make sure they get their money's worth. They price check everything and compete with me to see if I paid more than them. As concerns the price for our Port Ellen, we paid a premium for three reasons:

1) It's freakin' delicious. We tasted it and we even like it more than the official Diageo release. We've tasted other independents that are not up to snuff, but nonetheless are still expensive. Rather than save $200 or $300 per bottle, we paid extra to get the good one. Why pay $350 for sub-standard Port Ellen? If you're going to shell out for something like that, it had better be good.

2) Prices today are not what they were last year.

3) Have fun even finding a cask of Port Ellen. If you find someone willing to even sell you a cask, let me know. It took us three years to even get this offer, let alone complete the purchase.

That's why our cask of Port Ellen costs $600 a bottle. Because it's delicious. Because when you spend the money you're going to get a really good whisky that's worthy of the reputation. Because we didn't feel that being cheap was in our best interest, nor the interest of our customers.

I love shopping at TJ Maxx and finding a Ben Sherman shirt for $20. It's a great feeling. However, this isn't TJ Maxx. We want top quality stuff on the rack at all times. Stuff that fits, that makes you look good, and makes you feel like you got your money's worth. Most of the time, I'd rather pay my money and know I got something of quality than feel like I got a deal. Deals are great as long as the product is the same one I wanted originally. Not all Port Ellens are equal, however. Not all bottles are the same.

If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I can't promise anyone that our Port Ellen is going to fulfill their $600 expectations. I can only say that I have tasted it against other expressions and it stands above them. I'm willing to pay more to get the product I want. But that's just me.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jan022013

When Being Booze Knowledgable is/isn't Helpful

This past Sunday I went to Modesto for my father-in-law's birthday celebration. We ended up going out for dinner to a fairly nice restaurant (really nice by Modesto standards) and having a few bottles of wine in the process. When the waitress dropped off the wine list everyone expected me to make the decision. They wanted red. No problem! We're not having the McManis, the Rombauer, or the Mondavi, so I guess we'll go with the Greek selection. Easy.

While I don't mind using my experience to make family decisions about booze, I really (really) don't like to put them on display while I'm out. There's nothing worse than dealing with some prick who thinks he knows everything (and that goes for me at K&L or any waiter in a restaurant). I like to keep it mellow and nonchalant.

"Let's do the Greek red."

A few minutes later, the waitress delivered the bottle and asked who would like to taste first to show their approval. I deferred to the birthday boy. The wine would be fine. No need for me to make a big deal out of checking its quality, giving my expert opinion, or some such nonsense.

My father-in-law tasted, nodded, but seemed unsure, as the waitress began to pour glasses for the rest of the table. I swirled my glass quietly while the others continued to talk, took in a whiff of the aromas, and suddenly felt an impending sense of dread in the pit of my stomach. Musty, moldy, damp closet smell. This wine was corked. We needed a new bottle, but how in the hell was I going to explain to the waitress that we needed a new bottle without sounding like a pompous wine snob?

There were two things running through my mind at this moment:

1) I was perhaps being a total condescending and rather prejudiced jerk by assuming that a waitress in Modesto wouldn't know what a corked bottle of wine was. She might know way more about wine than I do.

2) If she questioned me or didn't agree, would I have to pull the whole "I work in the field" card? I was really hoping it wouldn't come to that.

What is a corked bottle of wine, you ask? First off, it has nothing to do with the quality of the cork. "Corked" is one of those terms that gets thrown around at parties or dinners, and then immediately misused so that people come walking back into K&L with pieces of cork floating in their wine claiming the wine is "corked." The term refers to the byproduct of a fungus called TCA that gets into the cork before the wine is bottled. It can result in a musty or damp aroma and flavor, but sometimes it may be so minor as to go unnoticed. Sometimes the wine may simply taste like nothing. It's very controversial at K&L wine dinners where some of us think a wine might simply be earthy or terroir-driven, while others think the wine is TCA-laden. If you want to know why more producers are switching to screwtops, this is the main reason. Some experts believe that as many as 1 in 10 bottles of wine have TCA cork taint. However, a bleeded, crumbling, falling-apart cork has nothing to do with TCA.

Back to the situation. When my sister-in-law asked me what I thought of the wine, I said it was corked and that we needed to get a new bottle. What? What did that mean? Was it harmful to drink? Was she going to get sick? No, no, no, we just needed to get the waitress over so that I could ask for a new bottle. When our server finally came back by the table, I began to explain that there was something wrong with the wine.

"What's the problem?"

"Well, you see, there's this thing called cork taint and it gets into the....," I replied, but I was quickly cut off.

"I know what it is," she said politely, but defensively.

"Oh, good, well then this wine is corked," I said, rather relieved, and handed her my glass. She ignored my offering and picked up the bottle to check the aroma.

"Hmm, maybe it just needs to open up. I don't smell anything wrong with the bottle and the cork isn't showing any signs of leakage."

Oh no. This was even worse than I had imagined. We've got a defensive server with a chip on her shoulder about wine knowledge, but who actually doesn't know what she's talking about. There's no way that I can get us a new bottle without being completely pedantic. What do I do? No time to sit here and think about it.

"Here, why don't you smell my glass? It's pretty clear that this wine is off when you put your nose into this."

"Ma'am, he's a sommelier and he knows what he's talking about," my sister-in-law chimed in. Goddammit! Not at all what we needed right now.

"Did you want to pick out another bottle?" the waitress asked with an unconvincing attempt at civility.

"I think we would just like another of the same." I answered.

"You don't think there might be something wrong with that one, too?" Oh man. This is getting worse. By the way, cork taint is totally random. It usually doesn't affect batches or cases of the same wine.

The waitress left and went back behind the bar where I could see her talking to one of her co-workers about the situation. The face of the other server immediately contorted into a combination of "What the F?" and "You've got to be kidding me!" There was obviously some mad shit-talking going on outside the range of our hearing. Wonderful. Would my food come with a healthy dollop of spit, as well?

"Here you are, sir." The second bottle was fine. The difference was night and day. I said nothing more about the situation and thanked her for her help, but the damage had been done. The serving staff was polite, but employed nothing but brevity for the rest of the evening.

My sister-in-law's boyfriend was utterly fascinated with the whole situation. "I never would have known there was something flawed, I would have thought it was just bad wine!"

Therein lies the problem. Most people, including most people who drink wine, have absolutely no idea when the bottle they're drinking is flawed. They simply blame the winemaker or they don't even notice. I'm sure that I've probably recommended at least 100 wines over the five years I've worked at K&L that ended up being corked. What did the customer take from the situation? Did they understand what was happening? Did they blame me for giving them a bad bottle? Did they think it was the wine? Did they decide that they didn't like pinot or Rioja because of it?

If you think cork taint affects only wine, think again! I've had at least ten bottles of corked whisky at K&L in my half-decade there. It can happen. It's important, however, to know what it is so that you can feel confident in asking for a replacement when the situation warrants one. However, just be aware that by bringing this to the attention of the retail store or restaurant, you might be in for a bit of a fight. People get very defensive about corked bottles. I don't know why, but they do.

That being said, if you ever think you have a corked bottle and you bought it from K&L (or even if you didn't) we can always help you access the situation and hopefully rectify it – without all the drama.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Dec302012

K&L Spirits Journal Podcast #24 - Tim Morrison

Tim Morrison, former owner of the Morrison-Bowmore portfolio (Bowmore, Glen Garioch, & Auchentoshan) and current owner of A.D. Rattray stops in for a chat. We talk about the whisky glut of the early 1980's, the closure of Port Ellen, the state of the independent cask market, and the future of owning a whisky brand. I know I said I wouldn't write anything new about the industry, but I never said I wouldn't talk about it! This is a very open discussion, perhaps a bit too open. Nothing is off the table. If you've ever wondered about what we're talking about behind the scenes, this is it.

You can download this episode of the Spirits Journal podcast here or via our iTunes site. You can also listen via our embedded player above.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Dec292012

Things to Think About

I've been perusing the various whisk(e)y blogs and message boards this morning, reading the comments from various drinkers all over the country. It seems that many of us are a bit sarcastic about what to expect in 2013 (me included). Most are predicting more non-descript whisky, more gimmicky BS, more costly bottles, and more frustration (me included). What can you do about this?

- Pledge to buy more booze from the little guys: This is a tough one for many of us. We look at the shelf and we know that we can buy Bulleit for $22 compared to something like the new Dad's Hat Rye for $50. I noticed a few optimisitic readers hoping for craft distilleries to start releasing older, larger barrel whiskies in the near future. This isn't going to happen if these companies go bankrupt, however. If you don't buy their whiskies now, you're definitely not going to be purchasing them later. Meanwhile, we're giving our money to Diageo (Bulleit) who is doing everything they can to undercut these little guys, while continuing to offer us more NAS whiskies! It's the whole Amazon problem. People lament the loss of local businesses, but they keep on buying from Amazon because it's less expensive (me included). When things are simply cheaper there's nothing you can do to convince anyone. I would have written a huge dossier this year about what will happen when Diageo rules the world, but I knew it wouldn't matter. We whisky blog readers are but .00000001% of the drinking public. Even if everyone of us pledged to buy local we wouldn't affect Diageo's trajectory.

- Expand your horizons: Our trip to France this year was a real eye-opener. Like the wine business, there are some really terrific spirits that are affordable coming from tiny farmers. France has a craft spirit industry (albeit not whisky) that is loaded with backstock. There are tons of great products that simply need to be bottled in 750ml, put on a boat, and shipped over the Atlantic. There's not a lot of money in doing this and it's a ton of work to promote brands that no one has heard of. Sounds like a job for us! In all seriousness, we will be heading back to France in March and we'll really be loading up this time around. If you don't think Cognac could ever excite you like whisky, check out what my man SKU had to say earlier this year about our Esteve. While $90 isn't inexpensive, most of the brandy in the Esteve CdC is from 1979. Our Glenfarclas 1979 is $300 and that's currently a deal for old single malt, so it's something to keep in mind. Start looking at rum and tequila as well. These markets are getting ready to explode and you can still find quality hooch for cheeeeeap. Zafra 21 year, anyone? Mount Gay Extra Old? These are 15+ year old, quality spirits for $35.

- Stay Involved and Support Brands That Support You: I read some enthusiasts were planning to sit out 2013 and simply drink what they have. That's a great idea because booze is don' meant to get drunk! However, you can't sit out simply because you're discouraged that times are changing. You need to push on. My grandmother is upset that people don't write letters anymore, but she hasn't stopped writing them. My Dad is upset that fish and chips costs more than it did in 1983, but he hasn't stopped eating it. The only way that more companies will evolve and populate the marketplace with more selection is if we continue to foster it and nurture it. Pay attention to who is making what. Learn about what you're drinking. Tell your friends and spread the word about products you like. Look what the internet is starting to do for Four Roses! We might not be able to stop the brands that are screwing us, but we CAN support the ones that aren't!

-David Driscoll