Friday
May242013

Defining Craft

I had dinner with John Glaser on Wednesday night and he said something that has stuck with me over the past few days. He said that the point of "craft" spirits was simply to make better spirits, not to give us more options. That's what the term "craft" means: using smaller production, hands-on techniques that result in higher quality products. For example, "craft fashion," if there was such a term, should refer to hand-stitched, hand-measured, and perfectly-fitted clothing. Any profession using the term "craft" should be taking an assembly-line process and scaling it down to a micro-managed operation. The idea is that one perfectly "crafted" product should be of a higher quality than a product being pumped out quickly to maximize profitability. The result should be noticable, otherwise it's probably not worth doing.

If the final product is actually higher in quality, then it should be more expensive. I think everyone is on board with that. The better the booze, the more it will cost. My question, however, is: how many craft spirits producers are actually giving us "craft" spirits?

I do think craft spirits exist, but maybe not in the way that we think they do. For example, I think craft gins are absolutely a reality, but not because of the distillation. Craft gins exist because of the time and thought put into the sourcing of botanicals. Our most recent batch of Faultline Gin, for example, was a small batch of gin macerated with freshly-smoked citrus peels. We did that by hand and in small amounts to make sure it tasted right. It wasn't something we would have been able to produce continually on a large scale, but since we were only making one batch it wasn't a problem.

I think craft fruit liqueurs and eau-de-vies exist. There are simply some fruits that are too expensive and delicate to distill on a large, profitable scale. Some liqueurs use actual fresh fruit rather than artificial flavors and coloring to create a cassis or framboise. That takes time and attention.

I think craft tequila is real. There are simply different ways of shredding the agave into a fermentable pulp. The distilleries that use machines and shred in large quantities have pulp that oxidizes faster. Those using mortar and pestal with manual or horse-drawn labor have more control over each crush, much like a winery pressing its grapes. That ultimately affects the freshness of the spirit. The same could be said for rum made from fresh sugarcane juice.

What about whisk(e)y, however? Does craft whisk(e)y exist? Has anyone proven that the type of grain used is actually important? I think Bruichladdich has, but do many people consider Bruichladdich to be a "craft" distillery?

The blending side of production is what makes John Glaser's Compass Box a "craft" whisky company. He marries whiskies on a much smaller scale, creating more finessed flavors that might not have been possible with larger amounts of barrels. However, do people consider Compass Box a "craft" whisky producer?

It's the size of the distillery that seems to decide who's "craft" and who isn't these days. But does the scale of distillation matter when it comes to whisk(e)y? I don't think so. I think what ultimately matters is which cuts and which distillates are used in the final product. If you distill pot still whisky on a large scale it's probably going to taste as good as a smaller scale operation, as long as both are using the finest heart cuts. Kilchoman comes to mind as a producer that uses a very focused percentage of their actual heart and the result is amazing. If you're talking about column still American whiskey, however, then I'm not sure if it even matters. Yet, we're hearing about new "craft" American whiskey distilleries all the time. Are they distilling micro amounts of whiskey that tastes better than Jim Beam?

The problem with making craft whiskey is that it takes time to find out the answers to these questions. Time is money, however, and most small distilleries cannot afford to use small percentages of their distillates or work slowly in the name of quality. They consider themselves "craft" because they are small, not because they're better. This is ultimately going to tarnish the "craft" whisk(e)y industry because the term will become ironic.

Have you tasted a "craft" whisk(e)y before?

Yes! It was terrible!

Shouldn't it be the opposite?

-David Driscoll

Thursday
May232013

Karma

I like to think that I'm a pretty honest salesman. That's not to say that I don't employ tactics like enthusiasm or excitement (it is genuine, by the way), it's to say that I'll never sell you something you don't need and I know you won't like. If you've ever worked with me in the store, you'll know that I often spend more time trying to talk you out of buying things, rather than into them. We don't need the extra ten bucks on a sale. What we do want is for our customers to be satisfied with whatever it is they buy and to have to best experience possible.

Nevertheless, there's a lot of skepticism that goes along with wine and whiskey sales, especially for people who know nothing about either one. How do you know I'm not just selling you some over-oaked, over-priced Cabernet that we're making a fat margin on? A similar comparison might be auto repair. If you're like me and know nothing about fixing cars, then how are you to know if a mechanic is actually fixing your car, or simply adding on additional charges to hike up the bill? It's tough to decipher if you're auto illiterate.

So you can imagine my despair when, while leaving St. George distillery in Alameda this past Tuesday, my car started overheating at the Oakland airport where I was picking up my mother on the way back to the peninsula. I was able to make it to the terminal, but after throwing mom's bags into the trunk and getting her in the front seat, we couldn't make it much further without blowing a gasket. A security guard told us about a gas station just outside the airport on 98th where we might find service. I proceeded cautiously, using as little throttle as possible, while the warning kept beeping away. After making the right turn there was no gas station in site, but I did see a sign that read, "Smog checks and oil changes" so I pulled into the driveway hoping for some help.

That driveway turned out to be North American Motors, a local garage that happened to be in the right spot at the right time. The general manager Romeo came right out to look at my car and assess the situation. Like me, Romeo drives a Volkswagen GTI (parked right next to where I was) and knew the problem could be one of many possibilities. Since I needed to get back to work and my mother needed to get to her car, Romeo immediately called the nearby Hertz Rent-a-car and got us set up for transportation. Within twenty minutes a NAM employee had given us a ride to the rental and we were back on the road towards San Mateo. Romeo said he would call me later with an update.

It turned out there were multiple issues. I needed a new water pump. I needed a new temperature module on my radiator. I might as well do the fan belt since I was paying for labor now. Within two days my car was ready to go, so I headed back over to Oakland this morning for payment and pick-up. It turns out the North American Motors had paid for my rental car, so there was no charge for two and a half days of Suburu action. My co-worker Armando, who is familiar with car repair, said the bill should have been far more than it was. How could it happen that, when breaking down in an unfamiliar part of the Bay Area, I had overheated next to one of the most honest and helpful garages in existence?

Not only was my car fixed, but it had been washed, the oil changed, and all of the fluids topped off and checked for levels. I couldn't believe it. These guys could have taken me to the cleaners and I would have paid it (unknowingly), but they didn't. You could tell that Romeo and his crew were happy that I was happy. My satisfaction was their primary goal.

So there. Karma. I make an effort to be as honest and helpful as possible with all K&L customers and the universe provided me with the same level of service. What goes around does come around, eh?

That being said, if you need help with your car I can't recommend this place highly enough:

North American Motors

132-98th Ave

Oakland, CA

(510) 635-9191

-David Driscoll

Thursday
May232013

In Stock and Going Fast

I had no idea how pent up the demand was for weird, wild, esoteric whisky! All I can say is that we sold more than half of what we we're getting before I even sent out an email, let alone posted it here on the blog.

I'm just going to paste what I put in the email here before it's too late!

The new whiskies from Lost Spirits are here and they’re already selling like hotcakes, despite the fact that I haven’t even sent out an email. I’ve sold 30 bottles already this morning, so I guess my blog post got people excited! WARNING: Most people who didn’t like the last batch of Lost Spirits whiskies do NOT like these either. Don’t expect a radical change in flavor profile. However, people who were intrigued or found the last batch “interesting” will definitely like these. They’re far more polished and the oak/sherry aging are much more like traditional single malt than the wine barrels he used last time around. The Bohemian Bonfire is like the Bruichladdich Bere Barley, but infused with plant matter and smoke. The peat in these whiskies is more mossy and earthy, than smoky. It’s classic Lost Spirits flavor. I can’t promise you that you’ll like these. I can only tell you that I do.

We’ve got an exclusive on the “Bohemian Bonfire,” as Bryan only made one barrel and we bought it. I like this one better. My friends Dave and Anthony from St. George agreed.

Lost Spirits "Bohemian Bonfire" K&L Exclusive Peated California Single Malt $55.99 - After the release of his first California single malts, Bryan Davis was looking for inspiration and doing a bit of soul-searching. That's when he stumbled upon a single barrel of Kilchoman at a whisky tasting he attended. The flavors were bright, clean, and surprisingly drinkable, despite the youth of the whisky itself. When Bryan inquired into what Kilchoman's magic consisted of, he learned that the distillery takes one of the smallest heart cuts in the business (with pot still distillation, the distiller usually takes the middle cut, dumping off the heads and tails for redistillation). Bryan didn't add the cuts back in, however. He took a small middle cut and left it at that. That was step one. The next step was to get better cooperage. Rather than use the wine-soaked casks for extra flavor, Bryan wanted mild oak aging as to not detract from the high-quality distillate. He scrubbed out his wine barrels and cleaned profusely, leaving only the wood in its place. His new, ultra-spirit was placed into the barrel and laid down to rest. The result is the Bohemian Bonfire, the same whisky as Leviathan with a smaller heart cut and normal oak aging. It's by far the best whisky Bryan has ever made and it's much more mainstream without losing the Lost Spirits character. It's also, without a doubt, the best peated American whiskey I've ever tasted. Only 160 bottles were made.

This one is more palatable to the mainstream due to the sherry. It’s dark and rich, but spicy underneath. I’ve already sold through the 24 bottles I had in SF this morning alone! CRAZY!

Lost Spirits Ouroboros Peated Sherry Aged 100% California Single Malt $55.99 - When Bryan David visited the store recently he had a whisky with him called Ouroboros and it was dark like sherry. When Bryan was unable to secure fresh sherry butts to mature his single malt, he decided to create his own. He took his own cooperage, filled them with sherry, let the barrels sit, emptied them out, and filled them with a new distillate - comprised of 100% California single malt and smoked with 100% California peat (sourced from the San Joaquin delta). Again, the result is outstanding. It's all of the plant-like, beery flavor of Lost Spirits distillery with the mellowing agent of sherry to help balance it out.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
May222013

Why American Whiskey is Getting Harder to Get

We got an allocation of Angel's Envy 100 proof rye whiskey last week and it sold out about two minutes after we sent out an email alert. Many long-time customers were absolutely confounded.

Angel's Envy rye? Really? Two minutes?

Are you telling me that we have to be ready to pounce on things like Angel's Envy rye from now on? Not just Pappy, or Stagg, or Black Maple Hill, but fucking Angel's Envy rye for a costly $67.99 a bottle?

Yes. That's what I'm telling you. I can't speak for other stores, but this is the reality at K&L.

We all know that there's a bit of a whiskey shortage in the states right now, but that's not the whole problem (if you didn't know you should read this - scary!). The popularity of American whiskey is through the roof right now, and the fact that Robert Parker is dipping his toe in these waters is only more evidence of this.

However, that's not the whole problem either.

The problem is the increase in accounts looking to sell American whiskey - as in retailers, bars, and restaurants.

Remember that a large chunk of all spirits end up behind a counter, not just on a retail shelf. With every new whiskey bar or cocktail lounge that opens up (about five a day in San Francisco alone, it seems), that's another account that wants part of what's available. They want Buffalo Trace products, they want Heaven Hill products, they want popular whiskies on their menu - period. I've watched the upswing in Bay Area booze-related businesses drain K&L allocations steadily over the past three years. We used to get Black Maple Hill whenever we wanted it. Then it was down to 120 a month. Then 60. Now it's a case here and and case there whenever it's back in stock.

Willett Bourbon is another casualty of this phenomenon. It's not anyone's fault. I don't blame Pacific Edge or any one at the distribution center. They've got more customers than whiskey, plain and simple. That's the same problem we have! Everytime a new whiskey customer starts shopping at K&L, another name goes on the email list, another person clicks on the hotlink, and another competitor for these whiskies joins your ranks. The distribution game works the same way. K&L is competing with other retailers, bars, and restaurants for the hottest products on the market, i.e. American whiskey.

I used to get about 60 bottles of every Willett expression as it was released. More if I asked for something in particular. Sometimes I didn't even take my entire allocation! With the immenent arrival of the new Willett 4, 6, and 10 year old Bourbons, I'm looking at less than 25 bottles total of each expression. That's less than half of what I used to get, simply because Pacific Edge has to spread the wealth a little more these days. And, believe me, these bottles will sell out in two minutes or less.

This is the same reason we have to put "one bottle per customer" limits on things like Russell's Reserve Single Barrel, Elijah Craig Cask Strength, or other super-limited releases. We're getting paltry allocations of rare American whiskey right now, almost to the point that it's not worth the time or effort to take care of three bottle drops (i.e EC 12 cask strength). It's frustrating. It's tough. But it's the reality of the business right now.

We're in the same situation as all of you.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
May212013

Planning Ahead

I know that those of you who read the Spirits Journal for news rather than product information have probably been a little miffed as of late. There's so much action going on that actually has to do with what K&L pays me for, however, which has left me little time for writing. Not that I've got that much news to tell you, anyway. Do you want to hear more about price increases? Because that's all that's going on right now, but I figured we'd pretty much run that topic into the ground. All Diageo Classic Malts are taking price hikes this summer, not that it really matters. We're all competing to be the low price-leader when it comes to these whiskies, so we'll have to take the hit, not you - and certainly not Diageo.

In any case, most of the emails I've received over that past few weeks have pertained to budgeting. Namely, how does one know what to pull the trigger on when there may be something better and more exciting around the corner? I can tell you this: there are no trophy malts on the table right now. There may be something in the works, but it's not looking too promising at the moment, mainly because of the asking prices. It's going to be hard to beat the current Mortlach 22 Year when it comes to sherry-aged malt, and there's still not a whisky I've tasted this year that outshines the 1979 Glenfarclas from last year's haul. Those bottles are fairly priced for what they are. We've still got about forty bottles of Port Ellen and Glenlochy lying around, as well, and those whiskies are damn fine for those looking to splurge. Everyone who's had a taste agrees. That being said, why splurge for less exciting casks with higher price tags when we're pretty set for the moment? Value continues to be the focus.

Here's what is still coming:

- A flurry of affordable deals from the Exclusive Malts: six casks in total, all under $100.

- Another peated Benriach, another sherried Glendronach, another hogshead of Glen Garioch.

- A stunning sleeper from the Isle of Arran. The type of whisky that won't sell as a pre-order, but will go out the door fast once people taste it.

- Bladnoch. Three casks. Just got more samples in the mail, so I think this is happening. I'm keeping quiet until this is over.

- New casks from new producers. Some ancient malts from some not so familiar faces. Cheeeeeeeap.

If you're holding out for that Brora or Ardbeg super announcement, don't hold your breath. Those days are over. We were thinking about a 22 year old Ardbeg cask until we realized we'd have to retail it for $500 a bottle. Yikes.

That's the news for now. We might do a new podcast soon. Faultline Bourbon labels just went to the TTB for approval. Faultline Rum labels are being designed. New Faultline Gin Batch #3 is in development. New Lost Spirits whiskies should show up this week. There's plenty to keep you busy.

Myself, as well.

-David Driscoll