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Friday
Dec202013

Bladnoch's-A-Go-Go

I woke up a bit ago, checked my email, and saw a note from Bladnoch distillery's Hazel Barnes (behind every operation there's always a very smart woman running things):

Hi David

I am pleased to let you know that your order was shipped out yesterday, I hope you have every success with your first Bladnoch order.

Have a great Christmas!

Hazel

What fantastic news. Last March we weren't sure if this deal was going to happen, but we did everything in our power to make it so. We helped the distillery find 750ml bottles, we designed new labels, we printed the labels, and we helped them find an importer who would walk them through federal registration. We were so excited about becoming the first American retailer to carry distillery-direct single malt from Bladnoch that there was practically nothing we wouldn't do to make this happen.

We also really enjoyed our time with Colin Armstrong while visiting the distillery and have continued to enjoy his emails since. He's such a funny guy with a very direct and old school manner of speaking his mind. Raymond Armstrong and I have also shared some poignant emails and I'm hoping we can do a podcast one day that describes the hard work that turned what was supposed to be a real estate venture into the renaissance of Scotland's true Lowland distillery.

All in good time. Look for three official Bladnoch selections at K&L this coming February!

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Dec192013

2013: Money Changes Everything

Since we're all taking turns on the whisky blogosphere exchanging summaries and rehashing the year that was, let me add my own observation to the mix. For me, the big story of 2013 was that whisky producers began to realize how much their product was actually worth. It was also the year that whisky enthusiasts realized whisky companies don't produce whisky for the fun of it, but rather with the intention of making money. If people were willing to pay more money for their product, then why would they offer it for less? With the exception of a few old-school producers, any company with whisky to sell probably sat down, had a meeting, and explored the idea that they could all be making a lot more coin than they were currently earning. Prices had been creeping up for the past two years, but 2013 was the moment that everyone realized this whole whiskey explosion wasn't a bubble--prices were here to stay, so long as the inventory remained low.

Money has a strange way of affecting the way we think as humans. When the profits begin to roll in there's a certain complacency that tends to take over--a laziness that eventually ruins those who allow it to consume them.  I won't lie. There were moments in 2013 where David OG and I tasted casks, looked at the price, and said, "we could sell this for double what we paid and no one would care." There were moments in 2013 where we began to think about profit projections and total gross sales rather than how we could find something new and exciting. But thank God we quickly came back down to earth. There isn't a retailer out there who didn't experience a huge boost in spirits sales during 2013--the world is simply rediscovering its love affair with liquor and they've got no choice but to buy it from a licensed retailer. But if you let those dollars cloud your judgement, ruin your customer service skills, and trick you into thinking your customers need you more than you need them, you're headed for certain doom. For this reason, David and I made sure never to mark any product up more than our standard margin, no matter how much more we could have sold it for, and we upped our customer service hours to make sure we were communicating directly with this new influx of customers.

Nevertheless, there were plenty of producers, distributors, importers, and retailers who saw the potential cash grab available to them in 2013 and decided they were going to milk this baby for everything it was worth. I won't name names (because ultimately I still have to do business with all of these people), but you know who they are. They're the companies who abandoned any devotion to their core constituency and began catering to those who were willing to pay. Who's to say that a company shouldn't look out for its shareholders? And who's to say what any one company can or cannot sell their products for? As consumers we can simply choose not to buy them. Nevertheless, the idea of selling whisky for large sums of money made some people very upset. When those high-priced bottles actually sold out those people were even more incredulous. Why? Because it confirmed what they didn't want to admit was the case--there actually was a market for $350 bottles of Bourbon and $2000 bottles of Scotch. And if there's a market for something there will always be someone out there to profit from it.

Money changes everything, and change tends to scare people into mad fits of bitter rage. We're seeing it here in the Bay Area right now with the anger being directed towards the tech industry. Rents are going up. But who's actually raising them? Not the tech workers, but the landlords renting to them. Why are they raising them? Because they know they can get more money. Housing prices are going up. People who bought in for $200,000 are cashing out for a million. Why? Because they can. Whisky collectors are choosing to send their beloved bottles of Pappy to the auction houses. Why? Because who doesn't want a $3000 check when you've got extra bottles laying around unopened? Money, money, money, money, money!!! Who can say no when it's being thrown right there at your feet? 2013 was the year when many producers simply said, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Even the "fiercely independent."

But you know who could have cashed in and didn't? The Van Winkles. There are people out there paying $500 for a bottle of Pappy 20 on the black market, yet Sazerac sold us our allocation for about the same price as they usually do. And we sold our bottles at K&L for $120 -- about 1/4 of what we could have sold it for. The Van Winkles could have tripled the price and millions of people would have gladly paid it. We had plenty of email offers from customers willing to shell out if we would forgo the raffle and sell directly to them. In fact, most of Kentucky kept their pricing relatively the same despite a shortage of product. We got the vibe this past October that there was a sense of pride among producers in remaining traditional and creating a product for the working class. The numbers show that customers responded to this philosophy by increasing their business with these companies, but you don't need to check the stats to know that more people are crossing over to Bourbon than ever before. While there is a bit of anger about decreased availability and the rise of trophy-hunting consumers, there are still more than thirty quality selections of Kentucky whiskey on our shelves at K&L for less than $30 a bottle.

Normally when prices rise it creates the opportunity for new companies to come in and undercut the margin to win over new consumers. The craft whiskey industry, however, used 2013 to prove they were completely inept in their ability to offer consumers a better value. We mostly just got whiskey that was actually more expensive and tasted worse. Whoops! But some of it sold nonetheless and that's the real message we were confronted with in 2013 here at K&L: vendors repeatedly telling us that quality was less important than potential profit. How many times did I hear: "But David, you and I both know you can sell this! People will buy it!" And that's when I would shake my head, shrug my shoulders, and say, "You really have no idea what's going on at this store, do you?" We know what we could sell, but at what cost? At the cost of our reputation for selecting quality products? At the cost of ruining the rapport we have with customers who trust our advice and council?

"Uhhh......yes. You want to make money, right?"

And that's when I think of the old mantra made famous by our former president George W. Bush:

"Fool me once, shame on..........you? If you fool me you can't get fooled again."

2013 was the year that many a whisky producer were able to sell their exclusive, old, rare, mature, once-in-a-lifetime bottles for record prices. But, the question is, will the public return again to buy another in 2014? Maybe we were the ones being fooled into thinking whisky should be less expensive than it is. As long as the customer feels like they got their money's worth, who can really argue? I get ridiculed every now and again for hyperbolic statements concerning my excitement for good whiskey, but ultimately our customers return again, and again, and again, and again. Why? Because the booze is good, well-priced, and it meets our customers' expectations.

How many new whiskies in 2014 will meet those three criteria? We'll have to wait and see.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Dec182013

SMWS Comes to K&L

Remember when your favorite superheroes would team up together–like when Batman and Superman worked side by side, or when the Harlem Globetrotters helped Scooby Doo and the gang solve the mystery? Teamwork has been the new name of the game in the booze industry and the beer guys were actually the ones to start us off, collaborating to make multi-branded ales in the name of bearded fantasies across the country. Why shouldn't K&L team up with another crew in the name of bringing good booze to the masses? Why couldn't we team up with other well-respected establishments in the whisky industry?

Earlier this year the Scotch Malt Whisky Society reached out to us (and three other retailers) asking if we would carry exclusive casks on behalf of the organization. We wouldn't have a choice as to which ones, but since they were the ones supplying the hooch we figured beggers couldn't be choosers. Our cask for K&L finally showed up today with the secret code: 35.100. The label reads: "Cool and refreshing as a waterfall." I popped a bottle, poured a glass, and took it all in: fruity, hints of wood spice, and sweet barley on the nose. The palate is classic unsherried Speyside: fresh fruit, melon (canteloupe?), and soft malty notes with a bit of pepper on the finish. Overall, a very enjoyable little cask in the vein of the Arran cask strength whiskies. Distilled in 2003, weighing in at 57.1%, and running $115.99 on the till. 

The distillery? If you want to figure it out yourself based on the code then stop reading now. If you want me to ruin it for you then read David OG's description below:

SMWS 35.100 (Glen Moray) "Rare Release" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $115.99 -- The illustrious Scotch Malt Whisky Society finally comes to a retail store. Do not fret if you're already a member, the amount of whisky being released to the public is a tiny drop in the bucket, just a taste to show the world what the Society has for those who are not aware. We were lucky enough to be selected as one of the four retailers to carry SMWS, along with a few key on-premise accounts, and will be your only source for SMWS bottlings for non-members. This outstanding cask is highly collectable not simply because it's the 100th cask from this little distillery to be bottled by the Society, but also because it's one of the best whiskies I've had all year. Glen Moray is not a well known distillery in the states, but I think the utter freshness of this whisky will shock even those who know it well. Vibrant and brimming with life, it spent 10 years in a fresh bourbon barrel. The Society's stringent cask selection system is on display here, so it will certainly be sought out by SMWS members who pride themselves on procuring special casks like this one. Get yours now or wait and lose out on one of our most interesting casks of the year. SMWS tasting notes, "Fruity and Fresh, the nose has lime pastilles, apple sours and Midori, coriander leaf, flowers and rhubarb tart - refreshing as a waterfall. The palate has lime, orange sherbet, apple turnover and kiwi - wood shavings, pepper and chilli provide a punchy finish."

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Dec182013

The Caddyshack Effect

My co-workers and I were discussing Caddyshack at work the other day—how much we enjoy the scene where Bill Murray tells his story of caddying for the Dalai Lama–so I couldn't help but press "play" last night when I noticed the film was available to watch on Comcast's free movie list. While the performances by Chevy Chase and Bill Murray have gone on to be legendary among fans of the genre, it's the dichotomy of Rodney Dangerfield and Ted Knight that I have grown to appreciate. Knight's portrayal of Judge Smails—the pedantic, elitist, classist, nit-picky, cheap, hot-tempered, insecure know-it-all of Bushwood Estates—is so well done that I can't help but laugh out loud every time I watch it. Working in the wine and spirits industry you encounter a lot of similar personalities and Judge Smails is the epitome of that type. To see Rodney Dangerfield come in and mock that mentality right to its face creates what are, to me, the ultimate feel-good moments of Caddyshack.

When I first started working at K&L I was way too over the top for many of my co-workers. I was loud, outspoken, carefree, and I didn't care about letting people know if I liked something—i.e. showing emotion or enthusiasm. That's a big no-no in the wine and spirits world. You're supposed to be tempered, reserved, studious, and guarded. That way you'll appear more knowledgeable and people will take you seriously. My views were completely the opposite, however. In my opinion, if you were open, not too serious, fun, and generally positive you could help people who may have been a bit nervous about the wine experience feel comfortable. Respect would come later based on whether you gave them good advise or not (if you didn't, they wouldn't come back). Most people are weary of walking into a fancy booze store and making a selection for themselves. I definitely wanted to be more like Rodney Dangerfield's Al Czervik; using humor to make the whole experience a party that everyone could be invited to and making sure we weren't catering purely to Bushwood members.

As you watch the film you can see Dangerfield simply getting off on Knight's anger. The madder Judge Smails gets, the funnier Dangerfield thinks it is. That's because the more angry Knight becomes, the more he reveals what an utter asshole he is, embarrassing himself in front of his counterparts. I have to admit I have a bit of the same desire inside of me. The more uptight and rigid a person is about wine or spirits, the more I want to loosen them up. I can't help but be drawn into the opportunity.

And Czervik can't either. Dangerfield's carefree character continuously antagonizes Knight's stuffy temperament and it drives the poor guy mad. While Judge Smails is out on the fairway trying to impress his golfing buddies (after moving the ball around with his foot), Al Czervik is drinking beer out of the mini-keg in his golf bag and blasting the radio. While Smails wants to have a structured dinner with proper attire and civilized conversation, Dangerfield turns it into a rock and roll dance floor. What ultimately sends Smails through the roof is the idea that a man like Czervik would be accepted at Bushwood by the other golfers. That's where most of his anxiety stems from, in my opinion.

But there are people out there who enjoy wine and spirits (and golf) who don't want to lectured. They don't want to feel small. They don't want to argue about little details or compete with one another. They're too busy enjoying themselves—or at least they're trying to without their own version of Ted Knight telling them what they can and cannot do with their own bottle of whiskey. And that's where I feel the new generation of drinkers will take the hobby. We're seeing edgier labels, bolder flavors, and less conservative approaches to single malt marketing. Younger aficionados care less about having the proper glassware and more about having fun with their new pastime. I see it in the store every day and it makes me very, very happy. They're not reading "The Ten Best Whiskies" list, they're not reading blogs, and they're not chasing points or trophy bottles; they're simply asking questions and taking chances.

That type of behavior makes people like Judge Smails very angry. As a judge, he wants respect for the rules. As an elitist, he wants his superior understanding and acceptance of those rules to make him important. The fact that someone would just not care about his ideals is beyond him. Yet, it's happening in the whisky world right now and, while it's making the professorial-minded a bit uncomfortable, it's putting a smile on my face.

That's the Caddyshack effect: fun changing the face of rigidity. It makes for a funny movie and even funnier whisky encounters, if you find antagonizing that type of person amusing. Which I do.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Dec162013

Morning News and Notes

I woke up this morning, logged in, checked our whisky inventory, and realized that we're already sold out of our Ardbeg and Laphroaig casks from Sovereign. Wow, those went fast. These were small casks (only about 130-140 bottles in each), so I guess I shouldn't be too surprised, but thank you to those of you who bought one (or three). I can't tell you how much it helps us to project what we can handle inventory-wise by offering pre-sale items. It's only because of you guys who trust us enough to buy in advance that we're even able to get casks like 21 year old Ardbeg or older casks of Karuizawa. Many thanks again. We really appreciate all the support and your faith in what we're doing out here.

For those of you asking about St. George's new spiced pear liqueur I'm expecting this to hit the shelves tomorrow. Keep your eyes peeled!

The Tapatio Excelencia tequila has finally arrived stateside--Carlos Camarena's oldest and richest agave expression. It's very round and butterscotchy with hints of pepper and spice. I think Don Julio 1942 fans will dig it. Demand must have been pent up because people came in asking for it as soon as it arrived--and we hadn't told anyone we were getting it.

I gave a few samples out of the new Faultline Bowmore and Royal Lochnagar, thinking the Bowmore would be the clear winner, but many people came back loving the Lochnager (at least according to the emails I read this morning). I was beginning to think the appreciation of lighter, leaner, more fruit-driven whiskies was beginning to fade, but apparently there are still enough people out there drinking them to justify finding more casks like this.

Another new product that showed up last week, for you Cognac drinkers, is a new nondescript brandy from Maison Surrenne (Germain Robin guys) simply called "Cognac." It tastes like a big, fruity, expressive Borderies Cognac and has all the candied orange peel and sweet caramel you can handle, but without ever going over the top. At $44.99 it's one of our least-expensive offerings and a total bargain.

I'm off to get some Xmas shopping done and enjoy the day. Stay calm and collected out there. Only ten more days and we can all relax.

-David Driscoll