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Saturday
Dec282013

More History: Contract Whisky

The fact that single malt distilleries once operated on a contract basis, rather than by an ownership actively promoting its own product, is difficult to wrap one's head around for those used to the corporate structure we're familiar with today. However, contract production still continues today in regions like Champagne and Cognac, where brands like Hennessey, Remy Martin, Veuve Clicquot, and Dom Perignon purchase grapes, must, wine, and distillates from smaller farmers, vintners, and distillers and blend them to create their own line of products. Scotland, on the other hand, is full of companies with no interest in renting--they want to own their own source of production to ensure their demands are being met. What if one day the distillery decided to cut off your contract? Where would you go for whisky after that?

This exact problem happened to Lagavulin owner Peter Mackie back in 1908. For more than seventy years the Mackie family had acted as Laphroaig's marketing agent, purchasing the peated whisky on contract and taking responsibility for its financial growth. When Laphroaig owners the Hunters decided to put their son Ian in charge of the distillery, training him to become its eventual manager, he chose to take marketing responsibilities into his own hands (leading to a slew of legal battles) and cut off the contract with Mackie. So incensed was the former contractor with this new development (and unable to secure the whisky he had been representing to clients), Mackie decided to build his own version of Laphroaig inside of his own distillery. He immediately hired Laphroaig's distiller away from Hunter and put him to work at his new custom-built-to-Laphroaig's-specifications still, calling the mini-production Malt Mill.

Hunter went on to hire another agency to help with marketing, but would begin to travel the world in an attempt to sell Laphroaig whisky directly to the public. He convinced the U.S. government during Prohibition that Laphroaig's medicinal flavors were actually medicinal and managed to export product to America for doctors to prescribe. The man knew how to market his booze. Mackie, on the other hand, was never able to get the Laphroaig flavor exactly right and in 1960 DCL closed down the site and turned Malt Mill into the Lagavulin visitor's center. When Mackie passed away in 1924 his company name changed from Mackie & Co. to White Horse Distillers, in honor of the blended label Mackie had created with his peated Lagavulin and Malt Mill whiskies.

We've got an old imperial gallon that's been hanging around K&L since the 1970s. Maybe it's time to open it?

-David Driscoll

Friday
Dec272013

Regional Specialties

I don't read many columns on the internet these days (mostly because I'm so busy writing one), but if there's one guy's work I absolutely do not miss it's David Shoemaker's. As a sports fan, I'm a big admirer of the writing on the ESPN-spinoff Grantland. As a wrestling fan, Shoemaker's approach to the squared-circle is what I wish the K&L Spirits Blog could be–a modern, well-written attempt to take something considered off-beat, esoteric, or cultlish and present it to the masses with clever analogies and easy-to-understand metaphors. My mother, who had no idea what a big fan I was, ended up getting me Shoemaker's new book for my birthday and I've been devouring it over the last week. Don't worry: you don't need to be a wresting fan to appreciate the rest of this article, but I did want to use its history as a purely-regional sport to make a point about alcohol. Shoemaker's presentation of wrestling's territorial days portrays an industry operating quite similarly to the way the booze business has functioned over the last century.

My first memories of the WWF begin in the mid-1980s–about the time Andre the Giant decided to betray his friend Hulk Hogan, ripping the crucifix off his neck, and setting up their long-awaited superfight at Wrestlemania III. What I never fully understood as a child, however, was that Vince McMahon Jr's World Wrestling Federation was something quite new and bold for the sport at that time. No one had ever tried to form a national promotion before. Wrestling in America had been much like liquor distribution in America: regional companies controlled the product in the geographical territories of the country. You had Verne Gagne controlling the Northern Midwest in Minnesota. Bill Watts controlled the Mid-South. The Von Erichs ran most of Texas, and Jerry Lawler operated out of Memphis. Sometimes these associations would loan out their talent, allowing new heroes and dastardly villians to wander into town like something out of an old cowboy movie, but there were no guaranteed contracts for wrestlers, no exclusivity clauses, and you would never try to operate a rival show in their territory. That was completely off-limits and akin to dealing on another dealer's turf.

McMahon's father, Vince Sr, had long controlled the New York scene, but Vince Jr had a grander vision when he took control: he would poach the best possible talent from each territory's roster and create one super-promotion with national TV exposure: the WWF would go mainstream, leaving the regional wrasslin' operations in the dust, and offer exclusive contracts with guaranteed money. He would run shows nationwide, infiltrating areas once off limits to the New York roster, and feature Cyndi Lauper, Mr. T, and other MTV-era celebrities to add legitimacy to his product. Using that model, the WWF grew to become pretty much the only game in town, eiliminating its competition with ruthless promotion or simply by buying it out, which turned out to be bad news for wrestling fans searching for alternatives when the product grew stale. This drought of excitement has recently lead enthusiasts towards a renaissance of interest in the pre-WWF regional promotions–with online DVD trading and YouTube clips allowing access to previously unavailable footage for wrestling fans everywhere. Diehard enthusiasts can now read a book like Shoemaker's, learn about legendary feuds like Bruiser Brody vs. Abdullah the Butcher, and instantly find a clip of their battles online.

With an appreciation for wrestling's history and its regional foundations comes a new appreciation for the art--something that might interest whisky fans as well were they to learn about the olden days of whisky distribution. The early era of whisky marketing in Scotland was much like the era of regional wrasslin' with local operations offering different styles of product -- brand-owned single malts are a relatively new phenomenon for the business and were never something available on a global scale, nor were they owned by multi-national corporations. When you look at the old-timey Gordon & MacPhail labels for Glenlivet, Macallan, Mortlach, and Old Pulteney, you aren't looking at artistic throwbacks; these were the actual labels used for these whiskies back in the early days of distribution. G&M was a company with filling contracts who created labels for the distilleries and marketed their products as such. There was little branding by the distillery itself in that era (Laphroaig was one of the few), as most focused solely on producing different styles of whisky, which they could sell to blending companies. It was up to the buyer of the whisky to decide how they would bring their product to the masses–either in a special blend (a la Johnnie Walker) or as a single distillery product. You might call United Distillers the Vince McMahon of the Scotch whisky industry, as it looked to unite the best distilleries of DCL, Bell, and others under one umbrella and utilize them exclusively for its own blending. Buying the whisky from a distillery with the intention of marketing it was one thing, but monopolizing that talent by owning it? Wow, what an idea!

Perhaps the history of American distribution, with its regional boundaries and mafia-based roots, is an even better comparison to the early wrestling federations. To this day each state still has its own proclaimed turf and its own set of laws about what can and can't happen concerning liquor within its territory. Each state's distribution companies will determine pricing, which is why shipping laws are so complicated. Why would one distribution company want to acquire the rights to a product in one state if another state operation, with lower prices and better deals, could simply send product in to customers via the mail? The formation of the WWE was a huge blow to regional federations because that's exactly what happened to them–via the television set. Up until that point fans had no choice but to go and watch their regional act at a local arena, or perhaps on a local television station. There was little knowledge about what was happening in other promotions outside the area. With a national cable contract, Vince was able to penetrate each regional market and draw fans into his New York-based storyline with all the biggest stars in the business. Imagine Costco selling Glenlivet 12 for $39.99 in Washington state, but K&L shipping it in for $23.50 (which we can't do, obviously), then opening up their customers' eyes to a whole new world of exclusive whisky selections.

However, with the standardization of any business often comes the loss of creativity and diversity. Today's WWE product is lackluster compared to the shows I grew up watching in the 1980s and 90s because there's currently little competition forcing them to do better. For this reason, many fans like myself are choosing to go back instead of forward--to the old stuff we missed out on instead (much like collectors drinking Michter's or Stitzel-Weller from the 1960s–although getting a hold of a video clip is much easier and less expensive than finding an old bottle) and embracing what's now considered a Golden Era for the sport. It's the sterilization of national distribution (big distributors that represent the same products in all 50 states) that sent David OG and I on our global quest to find new spirits outside the norm. Being forced to choose from an importer's selections was stifiling–we wanted to choose our own products from everything possibly available.

And where did we end up going? To find regional specialties like Barallion Armagnac, or Esteve Cognac–products that were not available in the United States until we made them so. K&L sends its buyers all over the world to find Champagnes like Franck Bonville or Ariston, to find Spanish wines like Puelles and Señor de Lesmos, and to bring in the Tuscan secrets like Sesta di Sopra and Ferrero. In essence, we're attempting to build our own all-star stable of wrestlers from regional federations globally, just like McMahon did in the 1980s–only our product is alcohol and our bottles aren't available on a national scale due to shipping laws. In the end, the business models are the same: watch for an exciting grassroots product that you find captivating and attempt to showcase it to the public with your available platform.

The hope, however, is that each regional specialty won't become so popular that it eventually plays itself out due to oversaturation (see WCW's NWO gimmick during the late 90s or any currently available white whiskey). As a consumer, you pray that whichever steward takes that product under its wing and towards a larger audience simultaneously seeks to keep that product authentic and honest (see Paul Heyman's ECW promotion, or hopefully the K&L spirits department). Sometimes, however, a larger company recognizes a regional product's desirability and seeks to acquire that magic as part of its own (see Remy's acquisition of Bruichladdich, the WWF's acquisition of ECW, or the New York Yankee's acquisition of Jason Giambi), thereby stripping the once captivating product of everything that made it captivating in the name of greater business. It takes a specific combination of timing and balance to take a regional speciality towards a national audience--it takes a certain build-up, education, and clear explanation before people will play along, and sometimes even that's not enough.

Because to compete on a national scale can often mean streamlining your product to fit the needs of the masses. Sometimes that means the birth of a cultural phenomenon (see "real American" Hulk Hogan or Stone Cold Steve Austin) and commercial success beyond one's wildest dreams. Other times, it can be a complete flop (see Lex Luger's Narcissus or the American whiskey industry's attempt to make "white lighting" a craft spirit). Sometimes a smaller whisky can compete on a global scale if you can maintain its inherent quality in the process (see Kilchoman), but sometimes the demands of the global market can stretch that whisky too thinly (see the new Walker Platinum or Macallan's new NAS series).

It's clear from the effects of globalization that it's often in the best interest of the consumer for a regional specialty to remain strictly that. But, as the history of both wrestling and whisky show us, the dreams of superstardom are often too alluring for a big fish to remain in a small pond for long. The educated public, however, is beginning to revolt a bit against the status quo, demanding more quality and diversity even within their national, spoon-fed marketing. Regional craft breweries are beginning to outshine (and even outsell) the larger producers on a national scale. Wrestling fans are demanding the smaller-in-stature, yet-technically-proficient Daniel Bryan as their hero instead of the cartoon-muscled, all-American John Cena. Information via the internet has connected the world like never before, but it's also helped to open its collective set of eyes to the wonders happening on smaller scales around the globe. It's allowed WWE fans to monitor up-and-coming wrestlers in Japan and Mexico, building a fanbase for these superstars before they've even debuted on television. It's also introduced beer drinkers on the East Coast to the splendor of the Bay Area's most-coveted Pliny the Elder beer, despite the fact it's unavailable outside of the state.

Information is helping to shrink the boundaries that separate us, while simultaneously demanding they remain the same--in terms of quality at least. A growing number of consumers now want the authentic Mexico City street taco, not the Americanized, crunchy-shelled, Taco-Bell version. They want the authentic Bingo-hall, extreme rules wrestling match, not the glamourized WWE version of it. They want access to the regional specialties of the world, but they want the quality and the intimate experience that comes with it. I have to ask, however: is such a thing even possible? Can the specific detail and characteristic eccentricites of the regional product be maintained under the growing global demand for its consumption? As WWE CEO Vince McMahon might answer, "If that's what's best for business."

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Dec262013

Coming in 2014

In 2009, my first year as spirits buyer here at K&L, the Edrington Group (owners of Macallan and Highland Park) decided they were going to shutdown their Tamdhu distillery, which caught many people off guard considering at that time we were at the beginning of the whole shortage paranoia. Then the property went up for sale and our friends at Ian Macleod ended up purchasing the site in 2011. Seeing that Chieftain's and Isle of Skye wouldn't be enough to sustain the company much longer, they added Glengoyne to their portfolio as well (actually before they purchased Tamdhu). Production began again at Tamdhu in 2012 and now, on January 1st 2014, we can begin selling the new, repackaged Tamdhu 10 year old single at K&L from its new owners.

I got a chance to taste the whisky today and I was thoroughly impressed. There's more sherry than I remember from previous editions and the oiliness of the whisky is on full display. Think of it as a cross between Glenrothes and Glenfiddich, but with more texture and nuance. The price will be somewhere in the mid-$50s, which won't please fans of affordable 10 year old whiskies, but isn't outlandish for the quality of the juice.

I'm looking forward to adding it to our shelf.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Dec262013

Great Expectations

The whisk(e)y world is feeling a little Dickensian right now (or maybe it's just me after attending the Dickens Fair at the Cow Palace last weekend). Depending on who you talk to (or listen to, or read) we might be living in the best of times for whiskey drinkers, or the worst of times (or both simultaneously if you read A Tale of Two Cities). For me, it's a matter of expectations: the greater one's expectations are, the more likely one is to find disappointment. That's why managing expectations has become the absolute, number-one, prime focus of my job here at K&L--making sure the customer knows what to expect and to make sure it's what they're expecting. Heading into 2014, the world of fine spirits appreciation can be whatever you want it to be–it all depends on your outlook.

Some drinkers out there see nothing but unfortunate events before them, yet young David Copperfield didn't let any of those mishaps stop him from living. You simply do the best you can with the cards you're dealt. The world isn't always fair, but what can you do about it other than move forward in spite of it? I met many unhappy whisk(e)y drinkers during 2013 who lamented the fact that their precious commodities were becoming harder to find and more expensive. The competition from budding whisk(e)y enthusiasts was taking all the fun out of their hobby. But, of course, no matter how many times Estella told young Pip she had no heart, he couldn't help but yearn for the unattainable–unable to see any other beauty around him. Or perhaps the situation is more like Miss Havisham–living in the past, jilted by the changing whiskey industry, and bent on ruining everyone else's good time as well.

But hopefully Christmas time has helped us to become more thankful for the wonderful spirits we do have, and not bitter about those we don't. Ebenezer still lurks out there among the disdainful (for those claiming UPS ruined their Christmas, I've got two words for you: SHOP EARLIER -- it's all about expectations, remember, and to expect UPS to save Christmas for you when millions of other people are sending gifts at the last minute is a bit unrealistic), but young Tiny Tim's spirit still shines through in others. It's a matter of choice in these choicest of matters. You can tell the rest of the whisk(e)y world "Bah humbug!" and go home to your castle of prestige bottles, but ultimately you're likely to be wandering the streets alone; looking on through a frozen window while those enjoying themselves celebrate their companionship with whatever means available.

Because to assume that the spirit in the bottle determines the man, the occasion, or the quality of one's experience is to become the most Dickensian of Dickens's many antagonists. The easiest way to prevent that is to manage one's expectations, no matter how great they may seem, and this is the best time of the year to do that. I'm making a list of my new year's resolutions and number one on that list is: try to simply enjoy what you have, rather than constantly strive for more. To expect the world of the world is a recipe for disappointment. To expect more from yourself is a better, and more managable, path to happiness.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Dec232013

Whisky-Related Movie of the Month: Breakfast at Tiffany's

I would kill to go to a cocktail party like the one Holly Golightly throws in Breakfast at Tiffany's–everyone dressed up, dancing, talking, socializing, and drinking brown booze straight from a highball glass. I've longed to host a similarly-themed soirée where I offer no meal, no ice, no beer or wine, and no cocktails: just various bowls of snacks and handles of Bourbon, Scotch, and gin. Girls: get your Kate Spade dress on and your hair up. Guys: sport a tailored suit and slick that hair back. We're gonna drink some serious booze and we're going to look damned good doing it. Just because we're in our evening attire doesn't mean we can't get a little nuts. Music, a packed room, and a little hooch to loosen us all up.

I love the aesthetic of straight liquor in a small highball glass, hence why I've begun discarding my Riedel Sommelier single malt glasses and the various Glencairn varieties I've picked up at tastings here and there. I never use them and they're taking up valuable space in my bar. Those glasses might provide me with the ultimate aroma and the best possible flavor experience, but they're also ugly, stuffy, and no fun whatsoever. There's no sense of style in most "serious" whisky glassware. To me, they're the drinking equivalent of socks with sandals–comfortable perhaps, but that's about it. We in the liquor industry would all be doing ourselves a favor by watching Breakfast at Tiffany's again and reminding ourselves why we drink in the first place. Because it's fun?

By the way, if you are looking for beautiful glassware, Kate Spade offers fantastic barware as well as fashionable women's clothing. I've bought Champagne glasses, a bottle chiller, and various bottle openers from them over the past few months. And, if anyone is willing to host a party like this and invite me, I will gladly provide all the liquor.

-David Driscoll