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Wednesday
Feb122014

New Wahaka Gift Packs

As many of you well know, we're not big fans of packaging or gift sets at K&L because they take up valuable space and they're a pain to ship. However, we will make exceptions now and again -- especially if it truly benefits the customer. In the case of mezcal, we know how curious many spirits fans are about the different flavor profiles and the various species of agave. Wouldn't it be great if a fantastic producer, known for making traditional and rustic mezcal, offered three smaller-sized bottles in a gift pack with appropriate glassware?

That's why we picked up a large chunk of Wahaka's new gift set, featuring the standard Espadin, the super rare Tobala, and the lovely Ensemble; which is a field blend of 50% Espadin, 25% Tobala, and 25% Madre Cuishe. You get three 200ml bottles and two old school tasting glasses for $84.99.

If you don't feel like blowing $215 to try a full bottle of each, why not get the gift pack and try them out first. It's a great way to get your feet wet and decipher between standard cultivated agave, a rare wild species of agave, and a blend of various cultivated and wild species together.

I'm pumped.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Feb112014

A New Comic Strip

In the tradition of other great whisky blog cartoon strips, like Pete McPeat and Jack Washback, I give you a new vision: The Plight of the Whiskey Blogger.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Feb112014

Fighting the Urge

I'm probably the humanistic manifestation of knee-jerk, off-the-cuff behavior. I'm impulsive, spontaneous, and impatient by nature. There is little forethought put into my blog posts, believe it or not. I usually just sit down and it all starts spewing out. While there are advantages to a quick-thinking, rapid-fire mentality, there are just as many drawbacks. You put your foot in your mouth constantly because you say things without thinking about consequences. You rush an important detail that needed more extensive planning. You continue to think about what's next, rather than focusing on enjoying the moment. When it comes to working with the public, these personality traits need to be suppressed and restrained because patience and listening skills are key. More importantly, when it comes to evaluating a wine or whiskey, rushing to a quick conclusion is the absolute worst thing you can do. In order to better understand distilled spirits, I've had to completely remake my personality and fight against all of my instinctual urges.

Despite my attempts to slow down and consider numerous view points, we're living in a society that continues to reward those who think quickly. The modern 24 hour news cycle is a gigantic panic attack of round-the-clock competition to be first. That's turned our internet culture into a similar phenomenon, with brownie points for the first person to post something to Facebook, the first to tweet on Twitter, and, of course, the first reviewer to blog about a certain whiskey. When people report quickly with opinions based on knee-jerk reactions, it usually results in a chasm of polarization, which is why most Yelp reviews about K&L either paint us as the best store in the history of mankind, or the worst place to ever spend your money. Very few reports are based on a history of multiple visits, but rather one quick trip that has not resulted in a balanced opinion over time.

I've rarely found that my thoughts about whiskey are conclusive after an initial sample. There are so many factors that can influence my feelings and my taste buds at any given moment, so it's difficult to know anything from just a few sips. New information or experiences can also change my perspective. A great example happened just this weekend at Anchor's distillery when we tasted the fermenting rye mash. I've never been a big fan of Anchor's rye whiskies, but after dipping my fingers in the tank and getting a taste of the sweet grain, I had a completely different tasting experience afterward. I understood the Anchor whiskies on an entirely different level because I saw how accurately and purely they reflected the flavors of the malted rye. It was similar to my experience at Glen Garioch when I realized how the whisky tasted exactly like the entire town of Oldmeldrum smelled.

One of my favorite customer stories at K&L involves a man who was absolutely livid with me for my review on the initial batch of Kilchoman's Machir Bay. He thought I had completely oversold the whisky and was very unhappy with his purchase. I wrote him back in an email, telling him to wait a few days, take a few more tastes, and if he still felt displeased to come by the store with the open bottle; I was willing to buy it back from him myself. A few days later the customer sent me an email, writing "I don't know if it was psychological or just that the whisky had changed, but I tried the Kilchoman again on Friday and I absolutely loved it. Am I crazy? Or can the flavors of a whisky change with oxidation? Thank you for bearing with me on this." No, sir, you are not crazy! Whisky can definitely change with oxygen, as it can change depending on what you've eaten that day, or the type of mood you're in. Rushing to a final analysis rarely results in any form of truth or helpful information.

Yet, I've sat on tasting panels where "experts" plowed through a trough of whisky samples like they were oysters, wrote down definitive notes, and awarded medals to brands based on an hour's worth of oversaturated sampling. This is no way to understand whisky, which is why it's often silly to purchase a bottle based purely on accolades and awards. But, of course, the market rewards the fastest buyer as well. We're becoming quick on the review, quick on the response, and even faster on the purchase. If you don't buy a hot new bottle when you see it, you might never get a second chance. It reminds me of my current experiences with house hunting. We've been unsuccessful with all of our bids because we're not willing to overpay and remove contingency.

"You've gotta move quickly," the expert realtors tell me. But that's exactly what I've learned not to do. Being first might initially get you what you want, but you may find out later that what you wanted wasn't exactly what you thought it to be. That's why I'm fighting all of my Pavlovian urges in favor of more careful consideration.  There's really no point in getting something if you're getting it wrong.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Feb102014

Dropping (By) Anchor

It is a little embarrassing that, even though I've lived in the Bay Area since 2001 and have been drinking Anchor Steam beer since I can remember, I've never been to the Potrero Hill brewery for a tour. On top of that, I've been the spirits buyer at K&L since 2009 and have been working closely with Anchor's distilling arm since that time. Yet, I've never found the time to stop by their head office and check out the scene at San Francisco's pioneering craft distillery. How lame is that?

Since David OG was going to be in town this weekend, I figured we both needed to check this little task off our list of things to do. We headed up to the city this morning to meet with our friends at Anchor and take a tour of the place. The distillery is actually in the brewery on Mariposa Street; it's located in the back of the warehouse at the end of a long walkway. The small pot stills were installed by Fritz Maytag in the early 1990's and the rye whiskey production began – long before anyone cared about craft distillation, American whiskey heritage, and the rye renaissance.

What's great about Anchor is that they actually buy malted rye and ferment it there on site. Many small distilleries don't do their own cook, but rather contract that part out to a brewery. Since Anchor is a brewery they can handle it all in-house. We got to dip our fingers in and have a taste. Deliciously sweet!

Almost all of Anchor's distillates are transported via tankers to Sonoma, where the barreling and warehouse maturation takes place, but they do have a few casks aging at the distillery. There were a few rye barrels and what seemed to be some experimental projects. We never got full confirmation, but we believe that a bit of the White Christmas distillate has been put into wood.

After retasting the entire portfolio, my enthusiasm for the entire Anchor portfolio was refreshed and reinvigorated. These guys really know what they're doing up there on Potrero Hill and they've been doing it for more than twenty years. And they're in our own backyard!

I'm glad we finally got around to a visit. It was long overdue.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Feb092014

Retail Gossip

Judging from the feedback I hear from sales reps and brand vendors in the business, we're a pretty easy account to deal with for distribution companies – especially liquor. I wouldn't know for sure, however, because I've never worked for another retailer outside of K&L, and I don't even know anyone who works in another store. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we're never worried about the other guy. Personally, I have no idea what other shops are selling, what their prices are, or what special deals they're offering. I don't keep tabs on the competition and I don't have time to worry about anyone but ourselves (which is already enough to worry about).  All I know is based off of what I hear from the vendors who travel from store to store and they always tell me how relieved they are to finally be at K&L.

Sales reps like to gossip a little bit, so I'll usually pick up a fun tidbit about the Bay Area liquor industry while I'm putting in an order or tasting a new product. Apparently, the hot story right now on the scene is us: the K&L spirits department. And when I say "hot" I mean hot with anger, agitation, and annoyance. "You know everyone hates you, right?" one vendor told me the other day. "Me?" I said shocked. "I don't even know anyone! How do they know who I am and what did I ever do to them?" Another rep told me that every time he goes into a certain store they have our webpage up and they scream at him to match pricing while complaining about specialty items. "Are you serious?" I said, laughing out of disbelief. "It's terrible," he replied. One director of marketing told me last week that another store called me "the devil" while she was tasting with them. "How did that even come up?" I asked, half-smiling. "They always bring it up. You're the bane of their existence, offering an exciting lineup of new products at good prices, and it's making them upset," she said.

If some stores hate K&L because they're jealous, or because we're giving them stiff competition, then I'm totally fine with that! That just means we're doing our job well. However, if gaining more recognition from the consumer marketplace is going to piss people off, then I can't wait to see what happens later this year when David OG and I roll out a new super secret project. I'm actually picking him up at the airport in a few hours to start working on it and it's going to be interesting to see where it leads. If it works out like we hope it will, then I think you'll be really excited by the result. And if pushing your job to new limits means that people are going to hate you for it, then we're going to be the two most hated spirits buyers in the world when the news hits. We're going to be absolutely despised.

-David Driscoll