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Tuesday
Jan142014

The "Kentucky" Bourbon Industry

My buddy Chuck Cowdery wrote something very poignant yesterday concerning the Suntory buyout of Beam:

"The reality is that there is no bourbon industry. There is a worldwide distilled spirits industry, in which bourbon whiskey is one product category. Ultimately, everyone will sell everything everywhere and it may not really matter where the corporate headquarters is located."

I did my share of internet perusal after the news was announced and there was the typical knee-jerk backlash about "this bottle of Maker's Mark" being someone's last and whatnot. The fact that Beam was no longer in "American hands" was an outrage and a travesty. As someone who works for a local business, I'm all for people wanting to support their neighbors and their fellow nationals. I make an effort to do so myself. However, Beam wasn't some tiny American enterprise catering solely to the domestic market. Beam was an American company in possession of its own foreign distilleries, focused intently on the global picture. They owned Laphroaig and Ardmore in Scotland. Cooley distillery in Ireland. The famed French Cognac house of Courvoisier. The Sauza and El Tesoro Tequilas in Mexico. Can you imagine how the people on Islay felt when Bowmore went to Japan? When Laphroaig went to the Americans? How excited they were about Bruichladdich until it took the French corporate money and never looked back? Like Chuck said, there's no such thing as a Scotch or Bourbon industry anymore -- they're simply categories in an overall global portfolio.

But all romanticism and ideology aside, is anyone going to argue that Kirin wasn't the best thing to ever happen to Four Roses? Seagram's, a longstanding North American stalwart, had completely butchered the brand, turning it into the laughing stock of the blended liquor shelf. Jim Rutledge--one of the most red-blooded Kentucky guys I've ever met--thanks his lucky stars every day that Kirin took over the operations. It allowed him to get back to doing what he did best: making traditional American Bourbon. If you talk to Jimmy and Eddy Russell, they're overjoyed that Italian giant Campari decided to jump in, buy the brand, and build them a brand new, state-of-the-art distillery (one that Rutledge himself is envious of). Suntory is a company that values tradition and history as highly as their global revenue. I don't see too many changes in store for Jim Beam, especially considering they've been representing Beam in Japan for years (many brands import foreign companies without owning them, i.e. Remy's representation of Edrington's Macallan and Highland Park here in the U.S.).

The global market is a scary place, but it's the reality of today's spirits industry. Because of the internet and the ability to spread information easily, many of us enthusiasts are aware that other countries are in possession of some rather fine booze. That helps to create a global demand for even the most esoteric of products. Look at the American fascination for unavailable Japanese malts, or the Parisian interest in American Bourbon. Or like when David Hasselhoff's PR team told him he was going to tour Germany as a singer. "Germany?" I imagine he asked. "Dude, you're HUGE there. They'll pay to see you." they told him. Those in search of greater revenue will always seek to expand their market abroad. The demand for fine spirits has become a global phenomenon; hence, why the business itself is no longer a local one, but a global pursuit as well.

Which Kentucky "Bourbon" companies are left? Brown-Foreman: the publically-traded, NYSE company that owns Jack Daniels, Woodford, and Old Forester, but also the French liqueur producer Chambord, Canadian Mist, and the Mexican tequila Herradura. Sazerac: the owner of Buffalo Trace, Barton, and Bowman, headquarted in Louisiana, which also owns the Mexican tequila Siete Leguas, Caribou Crossing Canadian whiskey, and Tortuga rum--distilled on the Cayman Islands. And who could forget the family-owned Heaven Hill company as well: owners of Evan Williams and Elijah Craig, as well as the legendary French aperitif Dubonnet, Ansac Cognac, Arandas tequila, and the Brazilian cachaça Agua Luca.

Of course, there's the up-and-running Willett distillery. They only make Kentucky whiskey, but none of it will be available any time soon.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Jan132014

Comparative Lit: Burgundy

When I was a grad student applying to PhD literature programs (a path I never followed through on), I had to decide between focusing solely on German text, or possibly applying to a "comparative" lit program––a department that takes writings from different origins and compares them to create a better understanding of literature as a whole. It's nice to be seen as an expert in a particular subject, but I've always striven for the greater overall meanings in life. Using another similar subject as a comparative mirror or a point of contrast can be really helpful in gaining further understanding of a topic you're interested in––especially when that topic is booze. Even if you don't drink it, it helps to know a little about wine if you're a fan of whisky.

While we've all become used to the rising prices of single malt whisky, I can assure you that these pale in comparison to the hikes we've seen in the high-end wine world. In fact, when you dabble in the wine business all day like David and I do, the whisky industry looks down right sunny. For one, you can keep a bottle of whisky open indefinitely––choosing to enjoy it as quickly or as slowly as you please. With a bottle of wine you've got a couple of days, if you're lucky (and, let's be honest, most of us are downing that thing in an hour or less). Older bottles can fall apart in minutes after the cork is popped. $50 can buy you a bottle of Glendronach 12 to enjoy over many weeks, or a bottle of mid-range Bordeaux to enjoy over the course of an evening. The thing about whisky is that it's stable. Other than the rare corked bottle, there's not a whole lot that can go wrong once the liquid is in the bottle. Wine, on the other hand, is temperamental and fussy. It can taste differently the longer the bottle is left open, and morph on you completely depending on the temperature in which it is stored and how long it's been allowed to sit. And then there's the whole vintage thing. You might really have enjoyed a specific wine one year, but you came the following vintage to realize that it stinks. 

These are the obvious differences. Wine isn't whisky, and whisky isn't wine, but what about the similarities in the marketplace? What about Burgundy, for example? 

I've become something of a nut for Burgundy over the last year or so––so much so that I volunteered to be our buyer's assistant here in the Redwood City store (a position usually reserved for non-buyers). My owner thought I was crazy. "On top of all the other work you do, you're going to add that responsibility on as well?" he asked rather unconvinced. 

"Yes, sir," I answered.

I really want to learn more about Burgundy because it's the most mysterious of all wines (and the most expensive, so getting to taste samples with vendors goes a long way). It's sensual, hypnotic, and capable of greatness in ways that other wines are not. More importantly, understanding the way Burgundy works has really helped me to put various spirits categories into much better perspective. It's completely terroir-driven, convoluted and difficult to understand, and it can often be a giant minefield in terms of quality. As Karen MacNeil wrote in her Wine Bible: "As spellbinding as a great Burgundy is, a poor one is almost depressing. Burgundy keeps you guessing." I've poured hundreds of dollars into bottles that should have been great (good vintage, good producer, good location), but tasted God-awful. On the flip side, I've had bottles so good they made me want to cry––both whites and reds. In an age where more and more consumers are demanding a guarantee when plopping down their hard-earned money for booze (points, ratings, etc), Burgundy doesn't allow you to be petty or cheap. You've gotta man up and plunk down your money if you want to party in the Burgundy VIP lounge. And there's absolutely no guarantee that you're going to have a good time.

The beauty of Burgundy is its simplicity; really just two grapes: chardonnay and pinot noir. White and red. One or the other. Like the real estate world, it's all about location, location, location. Burgundy's best wines have been determined before they're even made. We know about these special places, these terroirs extraordinaires, due to the painstaking detail in which the Benedictine monks documented their winemaking when they planted the region. They spent most of the Middle Ages systematically going plot-by-plot, planting grapes, studying the wines made from each one, until they determined which sites were best. It took them more than 500 years. The Cistercian monks would later clear and cultivate some of the steepest slopes, understanding that the heavy limestone in the soil made a huge difference. These vineyards all have names and the wines of Burgundy are known by these micro-regions. Yet, it gets crazier because when Napoleon came into power he decided that all inheritances (including property) had to be split evenly among all surviving children. That means that, after centuries of handing down property, one vineyard might have 80 to 100 different owners. They might own a few rows, or maybe as little as a few vines.

This is where the similarities to Scotch whisky start to occur. When a vintner owns only a few measly vines in a number of different vineyards, it sometimes isn't worth the effort to label and market his own wine. That's how the negociants came into play (the blending houses of the Burgundy world)––buying grapes, must, and wine from smaller growers and blending them together to create larger-scale, more-available products. Burgundy is tiny and its wines are coveted around the globe; the most revered being the Domaine de la Romanée Conti wines, where 400 cases a year are expected to satiate collectors world-wide (hence their gigantic, four-figure price tags). Much like the Scotch whisky industry, the 1960s and 70s brought on a demand for Burgundy from smaller producers, rather than blending houses. Much like whisky drinkers wanted to taste and understand the whisky from each single malt distillery, Burgundy nuts wanted to taste the specifics of each vineyard site from a single producer. Even if the producer possessed only a row of vines from the heralded Chambertin vineyard, it was (and still is) in his best interest to make a few cases of Chambertin wine, rather than blend the juice with other vineyards. Consumers were (and still are) willing to pay for quality and scarcity.

If you think the allocations for Pappy are stressful, you haven't been around K&L when the DRC or Domaine Dujac wines get parcelled out. Keith about has a heart attack before it's all said and done. There are only 62,000 total acres of grapes growing in Burgundy. Compare that to 100,000 acres of just chardonnay in California alone. With more than a millennium of demand built up for Burgundian wines (the hype really growing when the papal residence moved to Avignon in 1309), consumer lust far outweighs anything we're witnessing in the whisky world––even with a new vintage around the corner each year. You see, part of what makes Burgundy special is that it lies in a relatively cold, inland climate, which means getting the grapes to ripen each year is a challenge. Many growers have to decide whether to pick before or after the Fall rain. Pick early and you might end up with thin, flavorless wine. Pick later and risk the waterlog and rot caused by rainy weather. This is where vintage comes into play. The great wines of Burgundy are going to sell every year, regardless. Great vintages, however, will only double that demand and triple the price tags. For example, a bottle of 1989 La Tache will run you $1700, whereas the incredible 1990 vintage will cost you $4200.

As a consumer looking to expand your horizons, the ways one can attack Burgundy highly resemble the strategies applied to single malt: region, age, producer. Most vigneron have multiple properties, so one can get a sense for the winemaker's signature style––heavy oak or stainless steel (similar to sherry-aged or hogshead)? Ripe, juicy fruit or more savory, earthy notes? Since terroir is so important, many producers use the hands-off approach and let the wines speak for themselves. In these cases, it's good to use the regional approach––choosing hands-off producers from the various communes and vineyard sites to understand what makes them different. How does Volnay differ from Chorey-les-Beaune? Or how does a premier cru site differ from a grand cru site? Then, of course, there are maturity levels. While whisky ages in the barrel before it's bottled, wine ages only after it's been put into glass. Many (if not all) of the best Burgundian wines will taste better 3-10 years after the vintage (even the whites). This is where a vertical tasting can be absolutely mindblowing; tasting the the same wine from the same site year after year to see how it progresses and changes.

Much like hardcore whisky fans are grumbling at the price hikes, long-time fans of Burgundy have already dealt with rising costs and increased demand. Much like whisky fans, they're still waiting for the bubble to pop and for prices to go back down where they used to be. I don't think it's going to, however, because Burgundy is all a matter of fixed real estate––terroir is about location and there aren't enough penthouses to go around. My friend Brian, who works in the SF property business, once told me, "You're never going to see too big of a dip in San Francisco property prices because, as soon as they even slightly drop, all those people who moved to Oakland are going to move right back over and we'll be back where we started. There's no room for growth." The increased demand for Burgundy isn't just about the free market, however, it's also due to consumer education and increased awareness. With the internet and its wine blogs, forums, and rating sites, more wine afficionados are aware of what's going on in Burgundy than ever before (even with the smallest little upstarts). Once you're aware that there's a better and more interesting way of drinking available to you, it's difficult to ever go back.

So why even deal with Burgundy? Why waste your time and money on the possibility of severe disappointment, inconsistent quality, and rising costs? Because it's all about the hunt. It's about using newly-acquired knowledge and experience to help guide you towards better bottles and new flavors. It's about the enjoyment of an incredible wine that might have taken you years to find, and that you've been saving for the right moment. It's about the highs and lows that come from any type of of hobby or collection. In the wine world, Burgundy is the ultimate high and, sometimes, the lowest of lows.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Jan132014

This Should Be Interesting

In a move that I never saw coming, Japanese whisky company Suntory purchased Beam Global for 13.6 billion dollars this morning. Not only does that give them three Kentucky distilleries (Boston, Clermont, Maker's Mark), but also Laphroaig and the Irish distillery Cooley. I'm a big fan of the Suntory whiskies and, of course, Bowmore as well, so I'm quite curious to see where this goes. 

You can read more about it here.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Jan122014

Duty Free Observations

One of my favorite parts of international travel is perusing the liquor department at the airport's duty free shop. It's neat to see weird expressions of brands you know and check out what's available that you normally can't get back at home. One thing that really impressed me about the Cancun duty free shop was the Johnnie Walker Royal Route display. Diageo and Johnnie Walker released what I thought was one of the worst booze advertisements last Spring during Mad Men season. However, their attempt to market their duty free line of Explorers' Club blends is absolutely genius. To me, anyway. It depends on what kind of marketing you're susceptible to. You might be more of an outdoorsy, kayaking, North Face type. Or you might be a classic, old school, whisky and a cigar guy. Personally, I romanticize the jet-setting, globe-travelling, well-dressed businessman. I like to pretend I am one of these guys sometimes. The billboard above was practically calling my name.

"That's me!" my inner child screamed out inside my head. "I have all of those things when I travel: shave kit, iPhone, 35mm camera, nice ties, a leather-bound journal for whisky notes, sunglasses, headphones, and whatnot. The only thing missing is the bottle of Johnnie Walker!" When you head inside to the display it's set up like a lounge in the middle of the store with a girl holding a tray of samples next to a big leather chair. It's called the Explorers' Club: based off the journeys of famous historic explorers, designed for men in constant search of modern-day adventure (the most recent release being The Royal Route). I didn't try the whiskies (as I had gum in my mouth), but I didn't need to. I was sold already. I needed to complete the set. I needed to start with that new Royal Route release. But my inner adult knew when I got home I wouldn't really want it, having 100 other open bottles already. "Sigh," I said in defeat. "Let's go wait by our gate, honey."

Every single one of us is succeptable to marketing in some way. Newbies often gravitate towards connoisseurship and pointed reviews because they want to be in the know. Super geeks usually hate on all marketing because they're too smart to be duped in their mind. But there are, of course, all kinds of brands that market towards that "Hey, we can see you know what you're talking about" type of drinker, too. It's a nice little ego rub. In this case, Johnnie Walker nailed my own internal weakness concerning fashion and travel on the head. I love dressing up in suits and doing whisky business abroad. This whisky made total sense! It made me question who I was by forcing me to ask myself, "Can I really be as cool as I hope to be without that bottle of Royal Route in my suitcase?" It had all the right romantic elements. I don't really care how it tastes, to be honest. I just like what it represents (on the billboard, at least).

Well played.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Jan112014

Viva El Lenguaje

My entire relationship to the German language was based on my upbringing as a child. We weren't German, but my mother was a high school German teacher; having learned the language while spending time abroad in Germany after college. I learned German from her, continued on with it in college, and used those language skills to live in Europe for more than a year during the early millennium. I lived in Germany, spoke German at a high level, but used it mostly to speak with other internationals who lived in the dorm housing with me. German was the language that united us. I learned how to cook Thai food that year from the seven Thai giris living on my floor. I hung out with Japanese girls after class was over and watched Kurosawa films. I met Spanish guys who I would go drinking with and watch soccer matches. I have always been a talker, which has helped me pick up languages quickly simply because I have no fear in using them – mistakes be damned. If you can't speak English I will do everything in my power to find a way to talk to you.

To increase my amount of potential interlocutors, I've been learning Spanish over the last ten years, off and on, when I have time to take a class. It has been the best investment of time, money, and resources I have ever made. I've gone from no relationship with my mother-in-law (based on an inability to communicate) to a budding and enjoyable friendship. I'm on a first-name basis with every taqueria worker within ten miles of where I live. I try to use Spanish whenever I can, make friends with people who speak Spanish, and use it to further my appreciation of Mexican food and booze. I eat a lot of Mexican food and I drink a lot of Mexican spirits. If you like to eat and drink these things as well, then you need to find a week to spend at the Mayan Riviera on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. If you can even remotely speak Spanish, then you can by-pass many of the tourist traps and American hang-outs and ask the locals for help navigating the backroads. My Spanish lingual skills (along with my wife's first-language fluency, of course) turned what could have been a typical vacation in a tourist resort into one of the best weeks I've had in recent memory.

If I hadn't been able to speak Spanish, I wouldn't have been able to ask Marco the bartender about his favorite spot in town to eat panuchos (which I found as you can see in the above photo). I wouldn't have been able to ask the girls working there if I could go back into the kitchen and photograph them making the fresh masa for the empanadas. See...

I love Mexican street food. Getting to swim in the Caribbean all day is amazing. It's something that everyone should do at least once. However, for someone like me who loves to stuff his face and bloat his liver, these moments like the one pictured above are the most memorable for me. Just making a small effort to speak to people in their own language, with a respect for their own culture, can help create a lifetime of wonderful experiences. That's why my mom wanted to be a language teacher and that's why I was on the path for sometime.

However, the absolute, hands-down, number-one, best reason for learning another language is that it allows you to enjoy the beautiful aspects of foreign culture without having to deal with other American tourists. I don't hate America, or other Americans, whatsoever. I don't think I'm better than them, or that they're stupid and I'm smart. I just find that they're often full of useless, incorrect information when travelling abroad and cannot help babbling about it when you're in earshot:

- "Hey man, you should listen to this guy. He helped us rent a scooter and he knows what he's talking about. It's a really good deal. You should hear what he has to say."

This was said to me after exiting the ferry to Cozumel by another American. I had just told a local guy that we weren't interested in renting a car or scooter, and this American guy felt the need to chime in. We knew where we were going already and how to get there, so we didn't need help (you get hassled big time for tours and taxis in these locations). To be honest, I don't know who he was trying to convince: me or himself. About ten seconds after he said that the sky opened up and began pouring down rain. "A scooter, huh?" I thought to myself, "Great idea. Thanks for trying to entrap me along with you." 

- "You know you don't have to pay, right? It's all-inclusive. All this stuff is free!"

This was said to me at the hotel bar when I gave the bartender a few bucks for making us our second round of piña coladas. "Yeah, I know," I replied. "I'm just giving him a tip." 

"You don't have to tip either, man!"

Thanks for that advise, fellow American. I'm sure they love you around here.

I think the ultimate moment came when we were at the bar watching the 49ers/Packers game. My wife and I were sitting next to a guy from Wisconsin (who was a real sport and a nice guy), translating the play-by-play for him and his friend (the announcing was in Spanish). His friend said, "Wow, you guys really understand all this, huh?" 

"Yes," I said.

"I don't know." came a voice at the other end. "I speak Spanish too and I can only pick up about every fifth word." 

This guy had been spouting nonsense since the moment we came in. My wife turned and said to me, "What?! So because your Spanish isn't good enough and you feel self-conscious, you think we're faking all of this? WTF?" We ignored him. 

There were numerous embarrassing, American tourist moments at the resort that week, but you can avoid all of this typical American tourist bullshit by leaving them to sort through their insecurities and speaking directly to the friendly locals. The area around Playa del Carmen is full of some of the most wonderful people, delicious food, and beautiful scenery. It's a veritable paradise.

What was the best thing we ate? Here it is. This was a new one for me:

Ladies and gentlemen: the pambaso. A normal French roll, soaked in red chili, then fried until it's crispy. That roll is then topped with fried potatoes, spicy chorizo, and chopped cabbage. You can choose to add habanero salsa as well (which I did). Pure and absolute bliss. We found it only by talking to one of the waiters at the hotel about Mexico City street food. He drew us a map through town where we could find this local stand:

When people ask me how I got into the liquor business, I usually tell them I began by learning languages and becoming a teacher. "Oh, what a waste," people sometimes say. "You don't ever get to use all that German anymore." Except that I do use it. There are five Redwood City customers from Austria and we talk every week about grüner veltliner and riesling. I've learned about their lives, their families, their interests, and their personal stories. It's one of my favorite things about working the floor. Or maybe you've seen me run to the back to find the Presidente Brandy I hide in the rear warehouse for the local gardeners who stop by every Saturday. They don't speak one word of English, but we're now fast friends. Our relationship began one day when I started talking to them in Spanish and they asked for Presidente. "No lo tengo, pero vuelve en una semana," I said (we don't, but come back in a week). Everyone in the store knows them at this point.

I have always been an advocate for language learning and, despite the fact I'm no longer a teacher, I still advocate. Language is more than just nouns, verbs, and adjectives. It's a doorway to new relationships and experiences. Learn how to talk. Learn how to write. You may not know this, but David OG's first language was French. Without his communication skills we wouldn't be working out deals for new Cognac and Armagnac like we are now. Heck, look at this blog! We're getting more than 10,000 people a day reading this thing because of our use of language! 

It's never too late, either. Don't think you're too old. I start my next Advanced Spanish class at Cañada Community College next Tuesday night. I'm still learning, too.

In any case, I'm back from Mexico. I'm refreshed and ready. Let's get back to it.

-David Driscoll