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Thursday
Jan302014

Anthropomorphism

If you have relationships in your life with people, and a relationship with booze in all its forms, you've probably noticed some similarities in the way both have made you feel over time. I was thinking about this idea while running this morning. I've had a number of friends come and go in my life; some of them parted on bad terms, others grew apart, and some passed away. Nevertheless, we spent time together at some point – for years, or maybe just a few days – and they impacted my life in some shape or form. In breaking down the different types of experiences I've had with people over the last three decades, I can probably apply all of those situations to booze as well. You tell me: am I talking about a person or a bottle of whiskey?

The Honeymoon Period Friend - You just met someone and they're super-cool, exciting, and fun. You hang out all the time for a week or two, but then you realize this person isn't as great as you thought they were. You discover some uncomfortable secret about them that wasn't apparent at first and it totally kills the buzz. A few weeks later you're no longer calling that person and you never see them again.

Early Friends Who Change Over Time - You have a friend that you've known since you were young and shared early experiences with, but now that you're older you realize that whatever you once had in common is no longer enough to continue maintaining a strong relationship.

Friends That Are Fun, But Not Close - Some people you know are great to hang out with after work or on a more casual basis. You don't ever talk about anything serious, but you share a few superficial interests and that's enough to create a few great hours of fun.

Friends That You Lose - Sometimes we lose a friend to a tragedy, long before their time. We mourn these relationships often because they were so good for so long and we weren't ready for them to end.

Friends That Get High And Mighty - Some of our friends achieve success in life and forget about the people who truly care for them. They're so worried about money and fortune that they lose track of what actually made them interesting.

Friends That No One Else Likes, But You Do - We all have that friend that no one understands. "How in the hell can you stand that guy?" our other friends ask. Nevertheless, we find something redeeming about them.

Friends That You Might Be Embarrassed Of - Maybe in high school you had a friend that you knew from class, but who didn't fit into your social group. When other people made fun of that friend you struggled with standing up for their reputation as a cool person, or risking being seen as someone uncool for doing so.

The Friend That Changes Your Perspective - We've all met a person who was so different from us that we couldn't understand where they were coming from. Over time, however, we began to respect and enjoy their unique perspective and original qualities.

Friends You Feel Sorry For - Some of our friends go down paths that are darker than others. When they emerge years later they're a shell of what they once were. They look the same and they have the same name, but the person you once knew no longer exists.

I can name multiple friends from my past who fall into each of these categories. Likewise, I can think of a wine or whiskey that also fits into these descriptions. Maybe that's why we love booze so much: because there's something so human about our relationship with it.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jan292014

Order

Human beings in general seem to love order (or maybe it's just an American thing). I don't mean "order" as in law and order, or a system of checks and balances, but rather as in succinct, reliable, rules-of-thumb that are the end-all, be-all answers to things. Eat this and you'll be healthy. Eat that and you'll be overweight. Follow these rules and you'll get into heaven. Break these rules and you're going to hell. The idea that there may not be one clear-cut way of doing things in life is enough to send most people into convulsions. Most of the time when I listen to people argue, or read antagonistic comments online, it stems from a disagreement as to the way things work. People cling to what they know--their experiences and beliefs acquired through living--like security blankets, and if you take that blankee away from them, forcing them to consider another point of view, it can be scary.

Every day it seems that someone has a new theory about how our bodies react to carbs, fat, and processed sugar. Or a new theory about the best forms of exercise. Or a new idea about how to raise your kids. Or a new concept about keeping your relationship exciting. Some of these people seem to write as if their answer is the one correct choice. They publish guide books to help the general public understand why their answers are correct. I get a bit nervous, however, when people look to someone else's rules for their own well-being. Not everyone interprets these theories as a guideline or advice, but rather as answers. A final truth. Some followers internalize these concepts and proselytize with blind fury, mainly because (I think) the idea that these answers may not be definite scares the hell out of them (that or they just like to pick fights, but that's an entirely different conversation). The more we repeat these theories and argue in their favor, the more comfortable we feel about their validity.

The wine and spirits world, because so much of it is based on opinion and personal taste, is constantly searching for new ways to objectify things and organize it all into one tidy little package. We want to simplify whisky into categories and geographical regions that make sense. In the Highlands they do it this way. On Islay, they do it that way. Many wine regions in the world have laws that force producers to keep things traditional, but even within these confines there can be a gigantic variance between the final products. I have been asked repeatedly over the last few years if I would be interested in writing a book--both by publishers and friends who have experience in the industry. My answer has always been "no," simply because I don't believe that there's anything else to add to the genre. We know where whisky is being made. We know where grapes are being grown. To try and summarize what I know about wine and spirits into a book is pointless because it would be outdated from the moment I was finished writing it.

There are five whisky regions in Scotland: the Highlands, Speyside, the Islands (and Islay), the Lowlands, and Campbeltown. You would be doing yourself a great disservice, however, by trying to understand Scottish whisky in these terms. None of these regions has any system of order. Producers are free to make whatever type of whisky they want and many of them do. While there are historical precedents and traditional practices associated with each region, the industry is not centered around these constraints. Peated whisky comes from the Islands? That's true. But it also comes from Ardmore, Benriach, Braeval, Edradour, Bladnoch, and Springbank--none of which are Island producers. That's not to say there's no reason to learn about the geography of Scotland and the history behind each region, it's just to say that you're never going to be able to summarize single malt whisky in that manner. Even within the workings of a single distillery there can be a large variety of different flavors, so the only way to understand a whisky is to taste each one and evaluate it on its own specific character.

But who has time to do that? Who has time to taste every wine from Bordeaux in 2010, then go back and taste each wine again in 2011, 2012, and 2013? No one, except for wine professionals, of course, and that's why these professionals write their summaries and guides: to save you time, money, and trouble. However, all three of those nuisances you're being relieved of are what build an understanding of wine and whisky. Tasting repeatedly creates experience, which allows for context, which results in wisdom. If there's one thing I've learned from tasting wine, it's that "good vintages" and "bad vintages" don't exist. Competent producers, however, do exist--those who are able to make good wine under a variety of conditions. Show me a "bad" vintage and I'll give you a great wine from it. You just have to know where to look. Avoiding a vintage all together because it's "not good" is some of the worst advise you can follow, yet it's something guide books will print to help quickly summarize and contrast vintages from one another. That's just one example of how a synopsis can be misleading.

There are great books out there about wine and spirits, but I personally find the best ones focus on history and tradition, rather than education and evaluation. I'm not a historian, however, and I'm not an expert on the cultures of other countries, so I've got no place publishing anything about those subjects. All I can do is offer my own personal thoughts about individual producers and explain how what they do affects flavor. We're living in a world with fewer and fewer boundries. You can buy Bourbon from Massachussetts. You can buy peated single malt from Oregon. You can drink gin from Barcelona, or Bordeaux-style blends from New Zealand. As culture continues to permeate the far reaches of the globe, traditions continue to change, expand, or morph into something new. Although it may be comforting to attempt an understanding based on clear concepts of evaluation, it's less and less the case that these evaluations hold true.

I find that a blog is a great way to stay current, up-to-speed, and in touch with the public. It's also free for anyone to read. There's so much to know and so much that I don't. I can't imagine ever being in a position where I'll be able to break spirits down into a simple and easy-to-understand lesson. If anything, I like constantly reminding people to forget the confines of what they think is true and open their minds to new ideas. It might be scary and daunting, but it's also exhilarating.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jan282014

Adventures on El Camino: Agave

The Cochinita Pibil at AgaveI am obsessed with a traditional Mexican dish from the Yucatan called Cochinita Pibil--slow-roasted pork marinated with achiote paste (a savory and flavorful spice derived from the seeds of the Bixa orellana tree). You eat it with corn tortillas and top the taco with pickled red onions (and habanero peppers if you can handle it). We had it every day when we first went to Playa del Carmen back in 2005 and we've been eating it at Manhattan's La Esquina each time we visit New York. While I knew there must be some Bay Area restaurants that feature Cochinita on their menu, I hadn't heard any feedback from anyone I knew, until a customer at the store (also obsessed with Cochinita) told me about Agave in Mountain View. I don't often get further south on the Peninsula than Redwood City, but since I had to hit up Palo Alto Medical Facility yesterday to get my Guyana immunizations (they had pulled the list for Ghana and almost shot me up with five extra boosters), I figured why not continue on down El Camino and give this place a shot?

The decor at Agave is modern with a traditional twist. They have flat screens in HD if you want to watch the game, but high-end, gourmet-esque dinner plates if you want to get fancy. Their list of agave spirits is expansive and impressive and they have a menu with dozens of different margarita variations depending on which tequila you use. My wife and I opted for the lime-guava margarita with macerated jalapeno. It was tangy, tropical, spicy and perfectly balanced. I was impressed. For a starter, we got the fiesta shrimp cocktail, which uses the standard bay shrimp with tomato/horseradish, but adds lime and pico de gallo as well. Delish. 

The Cochinita Pibil was dead on--exactly like I remember it tasting in Mexico and just as good, if not better, than La Esquina's version. I was in hog heaven. My wife opted for the prawns with garlic, spinach and corn, along side a salad of pickled vegetables.

If you don't feel like going high-end, however, Agave has a lunch menu of $10 options that include gigantic wet burritos and a number of interesting variations. I could spend all week just going down the list and ordering each one (not to mention all the margarita variations). This place has its act together.

I highly, highly, highly recommend checking it out. The patio out back must be an amazing locale when the weather is nice. It might be the perfect place to do a K&L tequila event. I'll be heading back soon, if not tomorrow, to try the other fantastic selections.

Another great joint along the El Camino corridor.

Agave is at 194 Castro Street in downtown Mountain View.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Jan252014

Why Not Sell?

In what wasn't big or important news to most people, what I thought was one of the most significant spirits stories of the past year occurred yesterday in the Pacific Northwest: my friend Steve McCarthy decided to sell his beloved Clear Creek Distillery to Hood River Inc. I was completely caught off guard; especially as I had just done an interview earlier that week about craft distillers where I said most producers will eventually fold or sell, except for a handful of long-established guys like Clear Creek. I didn't see a distillery that centered itself around locally-sourced fruit and esoteric eau-de-vies having much value to a larger company. Nor did I think Steve was looking to get out. And I'm not sure that he was, actually. Hood River might have just come in with an offer that was too good to turn down. I haven't talked to Steve yet, so I don't know for sure.

The money is still flying out there for small producers who have proven they can create a cult following. We're nowhere near the end of this trend. I don't know how many of you noticed that Diageo and P. Diddy bought out Deleon tequila a few weeks back (then completely revamped the staff). Deleon was a family-owned operation that, ironically enough, I thought was Puff Daddy's brand when I first tasted it in 2010. Now it's the Mexican Ron Zacapa. While craft brewing has really put a dent into the international corporate beer business, with a group of die-hard, integrity-focused producers looking to stick it to big cervesa, the craft distillation game seems much easier to co-opt. It's a lot like the model of the Silicon Valley start-up game where a few guys get together, start a tech business, and then sell it to Google for ten million. The costs are higher for a distillery, as are the taxes and the restrictions. It's tougher to get traction in bars and restaurants that are dominated by larger distributors and their numerous perks like extra ad revenue for product placements.

So after working so hard to establish yourself, if a big company comes calling with a big check, why not sell? Especially if you're getting older and your children have no interest in carrying the torch. Many of us on the Peninsula were extremely sad when Joe's of Westlake, a legendary and historic local diner, sold the restaurant and closed down this month. However, the family didn't want to operate it anymore. It wasn't a matter of rent or financial issues. They just wanted to retire and enjoy what years they had left in life. Sometimes selling makes sense--especially right now when people are paying big bucks for distilleries and real estate.

If Clear Creek can be purchased, then anyone is up for grabs. Anyone.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Jan242014

The Return of Michel Couvreur

It's funny that in this age of internet access and extreme whisky fandom there are still a few single malt outliers that fly under the general radar.  The malt whiskies from Michel Couvreur might be one of the best examples of high-quality hooch that few people have ever heard of. We've carried his products on and off for years, as the portfolio bounced around between a handful of local distributors, and availability would come and go. Then, last year, we heard the tragic news that Michel had passed away and the future of his estate was unknown. We weren't sure if there would be more Couvreur products coming or if his passing marked the end of an era. However, a few weeks ago, we learned that his son-in-law (who is 69 years old) had taken up the mantle and soldiered on in the name of the label. We immediately placed an order when we heard the whiskies were once again available in California.

Who was Michel Couvreur, you ask? Let me tell you. Michel Couvreur was a Belgian wine dealer who moved to Beaune (in the heart of France's Burgundy region) in the 1950s. Always an avid outdoorsman, he took frequent trips to Scotland where he enjoyed the quality hunting and fishing--and afterward, a fine dram of whisky. In the 1960s, he actually moved to Scotland to become more involved with the Scotch whisky industry, as he had developed a taste for sherry-aged single malt. He worked out a few contracts from suppliers and began purchasing whisky to mature in his own sherry butts that he secured from Jerez. In the 70s, Michel decided to move back to Beaune, in order to focus more on quality cooperage (Beaune was closer to Spain and easier to work out of) and that's when he decided to mature his own casks, in his own cellar, built deeply into the side of a nearby hill. Michel would contract whisky from Scotland, barrels from Spain, and make his own expressions of single malt whisky from the heart of French wine country.

Michel Couvreur tasting from barrels in his Beaune cellarFor four decades now, there have been whiskies aging in the hillside of Bouze-les-Beaune. I'm absolutely dying to get into that warehouse, personally, and see what's left. Couvreur was a big fan of PX sherry butts, as well as ex-Palomino casks, which he used to make a whisky called the "Pale Single." While I'm sure there are still some incredible barrels lying around in that 500 foot tunnel, Michel's real skill was evident in his blending. If you're a fan of sherry-aged whisky, you might want to check out the 12 Year Overaged Malt Whisky, vatted from 54 whiskies aged more than 12 years (up to 27 years, actually). It's a rich, textural, sherry-laden delight with depth and complexity--reminiscent of the best Glenfarclas and Glendronach expressions.

Michel's whiskies were never popular with the SWA, however, who were litigous in making sure Michel did not call his whisky "Scottish" single malt. The whiskies were definitely made in Scotland, but they weren't aged there, which disqualified Michel from using the term according to the association. Today the label says "Distilled in Scotland, vatted from various over 12 year old whiskies, traditionally ennobled with sherry oak casks and bottled in our French Burgundian caves."

We're heartbroken that Michel has passed on, but we're happy his whiskies will continue to honor his memory. For how much longer, we're not sure, but let's enjoy them while they're here.

-David Driscoll