Spicing Up the Peninsula

There is, in my opinion, one restaurant on the San Francisco Peninsula that can hold its own against any Michelin-starred hot spot in the entire Bay Area. That's not to say there's not a bevy of great places to eat south of the city; but most of them don't have the artistry and the creativity to match the quality of a place like State Bird Provisions. Where is this magical place, you ask? It's about a ten minute walk from my house and, if you feel like treating yourself or doing something special for your significant other, then this is where you go: All Spice on El Camino Real in San Mateo. I went with my wife on Tuesday. It was our third visit, but it was just as invigorating and inspiring as our first.

I'm going to let my series of simple iPhone photos speak for itself, but let me at least say that the food is Indian-themed and the menu is seasonal. I can honestly say that I've rarely had vegetables that taste as fresh and as vibrant as I have in this little house near Highway 92. 

Corkage is ridiculously reasonable at $15. We brought a bottle of Riesling and threw it in the ice bucket while we sipped on a glass of Crement d'Alsace. You're gonna blow about $150 for two people, which you'll be begging to pay again and again as you plot your next visit.

The chocolate terrarium is one of my favorite dishes on the menu. It tastes as delightful as it looks.

Salted rosemary cream caramel. I might go back again tonight. It's that good.

-David Driscoll


The Undiscovered Country (No, Not Star Trek VI)

At least once a week I'll hear someone refer to mezcal or Mexican spirits in general as the next big category for booze development. A bartender in Paris asked me about that very subject a few weeks ago, as did a reporter from a reputable magazine during a recent interview I participated in, along with a few random vendors looking to peddle their wares in our store yesterday. "Mezcal is going to be the next big thing," they say. "It's where the market is headed." Is it? I'm not so sure. Despite the fact that I'll be heading to Oaxaca this weekend (yes, there will be live blog posts all next week) in the hopes of putting together a direct-import mezcal program for K&L, I am not one of the people who believes in this popular theory. I love tequila and mezcal with all my heart, as do I the land from which they originate. I drink tequila or mezcal almost every day. If it were up to me, I'd be living in Mexico right now eating huevos rancheros for breakfast and swimming on the beach all day long, with a bottle of madrecuixe by my side and case of Tecate. I'm as big of an advocate for the category as you'll find and I'm willing to devote all the faculties I have to helping consumers understand and appreciate the products. That being said, I do not think that expensive, esoteric, exotic-tasting, and unorganized agave distillates will ever move beyond a small niche category because everything about them is confusing and difficult to approach. I have no evidence in terms of sales that a boom is beginning, and I have yet to see a strong base of knowledgeable consumers begin rallying around mezcal with any sense of real connoisseurship as I have with both Scotch and Bourbon. I can write you an entire dissertation as to why, despite what I hear each week, the mezcal boom isn't coming, but we'll save that for another time.

The next big thing for the K&L spirits department is already here and it's only going to get bigger: Armagnac. I've covered that before, and we'll cover that subject again later this week when another shipment of K&L exclusive selections hits the dock in Oakland. The yet "undiscovered" future of spirits, however—as in stuff that already exists, but we just don't know about—will not come from France. Nor will it come from the U.S. (where everyone's just starting to make new stuff now). It won't come from Scotland, or Ireland, or Mexico, either. The next big thing in spirits (if such a thing exists) cannot be expensive; much of the reason for the Bourbon boom lies in its reasonable and affordable pricing. It can't be weird because that would mean a lag in appreciation time, so it has to be somewhat familiar. It also can't be something without any traditional sense of place or placement. People have to be able to understand why these producers are making it, and how the quality of what they're doing compares to other popular spirits. Italy, my friends, is a veritable gold mine of stuff like this. It's a boot-shaped cornucopia of tasty, diverse, incredibly-inexpensive, and traditionally-made spirits—from wine-based liqueurs, to bitter amari, to fruit distillates, and all the way up to top-notch brandies that rival some of the best expressions from Cognac. The variety of what's being produced from north to south is just mindblowing and I've begun sequestering more and more samples as time has gone by. I hear people talk about Italy's potential from time to time, but is the general public really aware of how much booze is just sitting between the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, waiting for someone to swoop it all up market it correctly? I don't think so. Sure, every month a few bartenders get fired up about a new amaro that adorns a local cocktail menu for a week or two, but I'm not talking about some Bay Area flash in the pan. I'm talking about serious booze that people will get into and purchase again, and again, and again because it's so damn good. I'm talking about something familiar, that isn't completely new, that can be compared and contrasted against other categories of the genre, and then celebrated for its quality and value.

Let me give you an example:

I'm not sure how many of you follow our Italian wine department here at K&L, but Greg St. Clair (the "Mayor of Montalcino" as he's known in Tuscany) has created the best retail collection of interesting and reasonably-priced Italian selections in the United States, bar none; and most of them are exclusive imports to K&L. He's been traveling to Italy for more than two decades, speaks the language fluently, and knows every producer in every state from top to bottom ("he'll blend in, disappear, with any luck he's got the grail already!") I'm only just now (for some reason) beginning to exploit some of his strongest relationships for the spirits department, and I'm flabbergasted about what's just lying there on the surface (imagine if we really dug deeper!). One of his many wine suppliers just recently introduced me to a producer who is going to be a huge new player for the spirits department: Villa Zarri—a distiller in Emilia Romagna with a stunning portfolio of traditional Italian spirits and impeccable aged brandies. The Cognac-style spirits are distilled on an alembic pot still by Guido Zarri from trebbiano (the Italian version of ugni blanc) and aged in French Limousin oak for at least ten years. They even have vintage releases, like the 1988 version from the photo above that clocks in at 21 years of age and will run you about $84. They are unadulterated, have no added caramel or sugar, and are bottled at 45% ABV with plenty of spice and gusto.

The great thing about these brandies is that they're:

1) delicious

2) ridiculously inexpensive for what they are, and

3) made in a style that's familiar and easy to understand for any lover of aged spirits

That's the trifecta for any new brand trying to make a splash on the market today (see West Cork Distillers as another example) and—because all of this is crystal clear to me—I've already secured everything I can from their entire portfolio for K&L. And this is just the tip of the Italian iceberg! Check it out:

Villa Zarri 10 Year Old Italian Brandy $52.99 - This is the Dudognon Reserve Cognac of Italy; a Cognac-style brandy with ten years of age, and nothing standing in the way of the pure, unadulterated flavor. It's a burst of soft stonefruit with just enough vanilla to balance it out from the Limousin oak maturation. It's basically a delicious and value-oriented version of top-notch Cognac, distilled with extreme precision and care by Guido Zarri.

1988 Villa Zarri 21 Year Old Italian Brandy $84.99 - Just a stunning deal in the modern world of high-end mature spirits. The 1988 vintage brandy from Guido Zarri is a burst of elegant fruit, rich oak, and full-bodied weight without the use of any coloring or sweetening agents like we see with many Cognacs. It tastes like a more fruit-forward version of the Dudognon Reserve Cognac, at a higher proof and with more panache. Considering the age and the provenance, the sub-$100 price point is almost too good to be true.

Besides value-priced brandies of stunning quality and extreme value, Guido Zarri is also distilling a number of traditional Italian liqueurs and digestivos. His Amaro Zarri is like a darker, stronger version of Amaro Nonino. It's not hard to see the thread being sown through his entire line-up of products. Each one you taste exhibits the same attention to detail and supreme grace as the one previous to it.

Villa Zarri Amaro $39.99 - Imagine the citrus and the soft spice of Nonino Amaro, but at a higher proof, with more bitterness, and more weight. This classic recipe from Guido Zarri's grandfather is a must-have for after dinner sipping. An instant contender for top amaro at K&L.

Villa Zarri Brandy alla Ciliegia $39.99 - A maceration of six year old brandy aged in small French oak barrels for six years with cherries from Castello di Serravalle; a small town known for having the best Vignola cherries in Italy. The result is everything you hope it will be: soft cherrie flavor, but without too much sweetness, with the quality of the brandy carrying spice and richness through to the finish. This would be a great way to end a long and decadent Italian meal.

Villa Zarri Nocino Liquore $36.99 - The husks of organically-grown walnuts in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy are gather and macerated with high-proof spirit for sixty days, then rested in stainless steel for one year to create the Villa Zarri Nocino liqueur. Black like midnight from the steeping, the pure walnut flavor is balanced by a subtle sweetness, making it the perfect pairing for a dessert course of simple cakes and cookies.

One of the stereotypes holding back Italian spirits is the grappa association. While I love grappa and grew up drinking it with my parents, the majority of the world does not. So when you're out at your local Italian restaurant, and you've had a glass of Prosecco to start, along with a bottle of Rosso di Montalcino for dinner, what do you sip on for dessert at the end of the night? Scotch, most likely. Or maybe a shot of Bourbon. Now, however, there are some serious brown options for finishing your Italian meal authentically and with style. The Villa Zarri products are simply superb and they represent just one of hundreds of small, boutique spirits producers across the Italian peninsula.

And, like I said, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

-David Driscoll


Nikka Coffey Plentiful

Nikka's Coffey still is so big I can't even fit it all in the frame

I hate being the guy giving you a panic attack about your whisky-purchasing options, but the availability of the Nikka single malt whiskies from Japan are about to go the way of Suntory; meaning you're going to come to K&L and find a big fat, gaping hole where your favorite bottle of Yoichi 15 used to be. The austerity measures are carrying over to Asahi. Their mature supplies can't keep up with demand, which means everything is going on lockdown and all of our purchasing will be done on allocation from this point on. Instead of full-time access to the 17 and 21 year old Pure Malts, we'll be on the standard "six bottles per week" while supplies last. That's bad news, of course, but it's no one's fault. It's just the inevitable fate of the whisky fashion tornado, moving its way from Scotland, through the American heartland, and now across the Pacific to Japan.

The good news, however, is that there's still plenty of Nikka's outstanding Coffey Grain whisky in stock. No, it's not made with coffee, but rather on a type of column still, originally designed by an Irishman named Aeneas Coffey (the gigantic piece of machinery from my photo above), located at Nikka's Miyagikyo distillery. Aged about ten years in refill Bourbon casks, the whisky is soft, mellow, and utterly enticing. While I love the Pure Malt series, as well as the single malts from Miyagikyo and Yoichi, I drink about three bottles of the Nikka Coffey for every half bottle I drink of the former expressions. It just goes down so fast, and so smoothly. How does it differ from Scottish grain whisky, or Canadian whisky? It doesn't really. It's made from corn, it's distilled through a monstrous piece of metal to an incredibly high proof, and it can be made on a large and economical scale. It's just that the Nikka version tastes so much better than anyone else's.

Because they can make a lot of column still whisky, there's still plenty of this stuff to go around (for the moment). The REALLY good news, however, is that Nikka's Coffey Malt is expected to hit the U.S. later this winter. That's right: they actually run a 100% malted barley mash through their column still (resulting in a two-story, sludgy mess that needs to be meticulously cleaned out by hand). While I'm sure some other distillery has tried this before, I've never heard of another column-distilled malt whisky being available on the general market. The Nikka version is absolutely ungodly. It's like a liquid biscuit, full of buttery shortbread with a cookie-like finish. I smuggled two bottles back from my trip to Japan last November. Later this year I'll be able to buy it at K&L.

In the meantime, I'll make do with the delicious grain version:

Nikka Coffey Still Japanese Grain Whisky $62.99- Grain whisky is one of the least understood components of the whisky world. When you sip a blended Scotch like Johnnie Walker or Suntory's Hibiki, you're drinking a blend of two types of whisky -- both single malt and grain -- hence the term "blend" (many people assume the "blend" refers to the blend of various distilleries). While we've gone out of our way here at K&L to help our customers understand 100% malted barley single malt whisky, we've never really talked very much about grain whisky -- mostly because there's very little of it available! Grain whisky is made from corn, wheat, and unmalted barley on a continuous still -- much like vodka is produced. The Coffey Still is a type of continuous still that can pump out grain whisky without having to alternate batches. Because of the efficiency and cheaper production cost, grain whisky has taken on a bit of a bad rap. This reputation is entirely undeserved, however, especially when delicious grain whisky like the new Nikka Coffey Still is available. This is classic grain whisky -- round vanilla, hints of caramel, and an herbaceous, spicy note that brings some pop on the finish. NOTE: while grain whisky can be enjoyed on its own, I find it's flavors are much more impressive on the rocks and when splashed with a bit of soda. The Nikka Coffey Still is perhaps the best grain whisky we've yet seen available on the American market. We need more whiskies like this! ASAP!

-David Driscoll


The End of the Mad Men Era

Tonight is a very big night for whiskey drinkers (whether you know it or not). It's the end of an era—the final accent on the most influential television program of the last decade, and possibly the death knell of the spirits revival it helped to create. American whiskey began its big boom in 2007—the exact moment that AMC aired the first few episodes of Mad Men. Viewers instantly gravitated to its hard-drinking, fast-living, booze-pounding cast of characters; none more mysterious and romantic than Don Draper himself. By 2008, thanks to the public's new-found fascination with classic American cool, rye whiskey would become the drink de jour and we at the K&L spirits department would begin buckling up for the brown booze ride of a lifetime. As a whiskey drinker, you may have never even seen an episode of Mad Men in your life, yet you've undoubtedly been affected by it. Mad Men has had more of an impact on upscale American drinking over the last ten years than any advertisement or critical endorsement could ever dream of.

And it's not just the style and the romance. Personally, my intimate relationship with Don Draper goes far beyond our mutual affinity for strong drink. I see aspects of his personality creep into my own—both in my desire to reinvent myself as a different person from my past, and in the way I've dealt with the consequences from chosing work over the more meaningful relationships outside of it. I see familiarites to K&L within the offices of Sterling-Cooper, and I see connections to the spirits industry from the business being done within them. For me, watching Mad Men is like going to church—it's an allegory for me; a way to analyze the track my own life is taking and come to terms with my decisions by looking at the actions of others. I do this, of course, while having a cocktail and putting my feet up at the end of another long, hard week. Sunday nights, instead of Sunday mornings.

All this fanaticism and sadness in the media right now about the end of a television program may seem silly to you, but it isn't for many of us Mad Men devotees (especially those of us in the booze business). This little program has had a huge impact on our lives and our livelihood, and now it's all coming to an uncertain end. The bigger question for tonight's finale, rather than how Don's story will end, is: what does the end of Mad Men mean for the American spirits revival, and will the public continue its fascination with hard booze in the post-Draper era?

I'm dying to find out the answer to both. Even if it means tragedy on both accounts.

-David Driscoll


Glasgow Comes to Cali

If I can't bring you all whisky fans to Glasgow with me, in the hopes of showing you the city that's captured my heart since our last visit, I figured we could at least bring a little bit of Glasgow to some of you. People ask me all the time to make plans—to grab lunch, have a drink, or watch the game after work. As much as I want to see my friends and family, I'm almost always doing some kind of liquor-related event post-K&L. I don't always advertise them or sell tickets, some of them are secret, and others might be thrown together last minute, but I'm simply addicted to doing events with great consumers and I've got all kinds of networks moving 24/7—like a series of underground rivers. I love bringing good people to good booze. So when our long-time partner Andrew Laing, from Hunter Laing—the folks behind our exclusive Hepburn's Choice and Sovereign labels—said he was going to be in town last night, I wanted to show him how wonderful a private K&L dinner event could be.

Big tastings are fun, but you can never have an intimate conversation when there are hundreds of other drunken whisky fans clammering for the attention of a few producers. In the privacy of a secret dining location, Andrew was able to talk about some of the 2015 K&L selections, as well as go into detail about how the independent game works for those interested in what's behind the curtain.

And so we drank, and dined, and got a little heady on the delicious bottle of soon-to-be-a-K&L-exclusive-single-cask Springbank 18 that Andrew smuggled into the country. People flipped out for the whisky, Andrew got a taste of the Cali lifestyle, and a few loyal K&L customers got to drink ridiculously good Scotch with one of Glasgow's most-entrenched independent bottlers.

"If those people are your actual customers, then you've got an easy gig," Andrew said to me as I drove him back to San Francisco late last night. "They were very charming."


-David Driscoll