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Tuesday
May192015

Nikka Coffey Plentiful

Nikka's Coffey still is so big I can't even fit it all in the frame

I hate being the guy giving you a panic attack about your whisky-purchasing options, but the availability of the Nikka single malt whiskies from Japan are about to go the way of Suntory; meaning you're going to come to K&L and find a big fat, gaping hole where your favorite bottle of Yoichi 15 used to be. The austerity measures are carrying over to Asahi. Their mature supplies can't keep up with demand, which means everything is going on lockdown and all of our purchasing will be done on allocation from this point on. Instead of full-time access to the 17 and 21 year old Pure Malts, we'll be on the standard "six bottles per week" while supplies last. That's bad news, of course, but it's no one's fault. It's just the inevitable fate of the whisky fashion tornado, moving its way from Scotland, through the American heartland, and now across the Pacific to Japan.

The good news, however, is that there's still plenty of Nikka's outstanding Coffey Grain whisky in stock. No, it's not made with coffee, but rather on a type of column still, originally designed by an Irishman named Aeneas Coffey (the gigantic piece of machinery from my photo above), located at Nikka's Miyagikyo distillery. Aged about ten years in refill Bourbon casks, the whisky is soft, mellow, and utterly enticing. While I love the Pure Malt series, as well as the single malts from Miyagikyo and Yoichi, I drink about three bottles of the Nikka Coffey for every half bottle I drink of the former expressions. It just goes down so fast, and so smoothly. How does it differ from Scottish grain whisky, or Canadian whisky? It doesn't really. It's made from corn, it's distilled through a monstrous piece of metal to an incredibly high proof, and it can be made on a large and economical scale. It's just that the Nikka version tastes so much better than anyone else's.

Because they can make a lot of column still whisky, there's still plenty of this stuff to go around (for the moment). The REALLY good news, however, is that Nikka's Coffey Malt is expected to hit the U.S. later this winter. That's right: they actually run a 100% malted barley mash through their column still (resulting in a two-story, sludgy mess that needs to be meticulously cleaned out by hand). While I'm sure some other distillery has tried this before, I've never heard of another column-distilled malt whisky being available on the general market. The Nikka version is absolutely ungodly. It's like a liquid biscuit, full of buttery shortbread with a cookie-like finish. I smuggled two bottles back from my trip to Japan last November. Later this year I'll be able to buy it at K&L.

In the meantime, I'll make do with the delicious grain version:

Nikka Coffey Still Japanese Grain Whisky $62.99- Grain whisky is one of the least understood components of the whisky world. When you sip a blended Scotch like Johnnie Walker or Suntory's Hibiki, you're drinking a blend of two types of whisky -- both single malt and grain -- hence the term "blend" (many people assume the "blend" refers to the blend of various distilleries). While we've gone out of our way here at K&L to help our customers understand 100% malted barley single malt whisky, we've never really talked very much about grain whisky -- mostly because there's very little of it available! Grain whisky is made from corn, wheat, and unmalted barley on a continuous still -- much like vodka is produced. The Coffey Still is a type of continuous still that can pump out grain whisky without having to alternate batches. Because of the efficiency and cheaper production cost, grain whisky has taken on a bit of a bad rap. This reputation is entirely undeserved, however, especially when delicious grain whisky like the new Nikka Coffey Still is available. This is classic grain whisky -- round vanilla, hints of caramel, and an herbaceous, spicy note that brings some pop on the finish. NOTE: while grain whisky can be enjoyed on its own, I find it's flavors are much more impressive on the rocks and when splashed with a bit of soda. The Nikka Coffey Still is perhaps the best grain whisky we've yet seen available on the American market. We need more whiskies like this! ASAP!

-David Driscoll

Sunday
May172015

The End of the Mad Men Era

Tonight is a very big night for whiskey drinkers (whether you know it or not). It's the end of an era—the final accent on the most influential television program of the last decade, and possibly the death knell of the spirits revival it helped to create. American whiskey began its big boom in 2007—the exact moment that AMC aired the first few episodes of Mad Men. Viewers instantly gravitated to its hard-drinking, fast-living, booze-pounding cast of characters; none more mysterious and romantic than Don Draper himself. By 2008, thanks to the public's new-found fascination with classic American cool, rye whiskey would become the drink de jour and we at the K&L spirits department would begin buckling up for the brown booze ride of a lifetime. As a whiskey drinker, you may have never even seen an episode of Mad Men in your life, yet you've undoubtedly been affected by it. Mad Men has had more of an impact on upscale American drinking over the last ten years than any advertisement or critical endorsement could ever dream of.

And it's not just the style and the romance. Personally, my intimate relationship with Don Draper goes far beyond our mutual affinity for strong drink. I see aspects of his personality creep into my own—both in my desire to reinvent myself as a different person from my past, and in the way I've dealt with the consequences from chosing work over the more meaningful relationships outside of it. I see familiarites to K&L within the offices of Sterling-Cooper, and I see connections to the spirits industry from the business being done within them. For me, watching Mad Men is like going to church—it's an allegory for me; a way to analyze the track my own life is taking and come to terms with my decisions by looking at the actions of others. I do this, of course, while having a cocktail and putting my feet up at the end of another long, hard week. Sunday nights, instead of Sunday mornings.

All this fanaticism and sadness in the media right now about the end of a television program may seem silly to you, but it isn't for many of us Mad Men devotees (especially those of us in the booze business). This little program has had a huge impact on our lives and our livelihood, and now it's all coming to an uncertain end. The bigger question for tonight's finale, rather than how Don's story will end, is: what does the end of Mad Men mean for the American spirits revival, and will the public continue its fascination with hard booze in the post-Draper era?

I'm dying to find out the answer to both. Even if it means tragedy on both accounts.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
May162015

Glasgow Comes to Cali

If I can't bring you all whisky fans to Glasgow with me, in the hopes of showing you the city that's captured my heart since our last visit, I figured we could at least bring a little bit of Glasgow to some of you. People ask me all the time to make plans—to grab lunch, have a drink, or watch the game after work. As much as I want to see my friends and family, I'm almost always doing some kind of liquor-related event post-K&L. I don't always advertise them or sell tickets, some of them are secret, and others might be thrown together last minute, but I'm simply addicted to doing events with great consumers and I've got all kinds of networks moving 24/7—like a series of underground rivers. I love bringing good people to good booze. So when our long-time partner Andrew Laing, from Hunter Laing—the folks behind our exclusive Hepburn's Choice and Sovereign labels—said he was going to be in town last night, I wanted to show him how wonderful a private K&L dinner event could be.

Big tastings are fun, but you can never have an intimate conversation when there are hundreds of other drunken whisky fans clammering for the attention of a few producers. In the privacy of a secret dining location, Andrew was able to talk about some of the 2015 K&L selections, as well as go into detail about how the independent game works for those interested in what's behind the curtain.

And so we drank, and dined, and got a little heady on the delicious bottle of soon-to-be-a-K&L-exclusive-single-cask Springbank 18 that Andrew smuggled into the country. People flipped out for the whisky, Andrew got a taste of the Cali lifestyle, and a few loyal K&L customers got to drink ridiculously good Scotch with one of Glasgow's most-entrenched independent bottlers.

"If those people are your actual customers, then you've got an easy gig," Andrew said to me as I drove him back to San Francisco late last night. "They were very charming."

Indeed.

-David Driscoll

Friday
May152015

It Used To Be Really Cool: Scenes From St. Elmo's Fire

Oh, brat pack; where have you gone? In 1984, Ally Sheedy and Demi Moore were on top of the world, drinking Absolut Vodka straight, no chaser, feeding the fire of St. Elmo's in their yuppie guts. Today? No self-respecting hipster under the age of thirty would dare break out of bottle of vodka for cocktail hour. It's funny how things change, right?

When her buddy Andrew McCarthy comes over late night, Demi breaks out the vodka once again—along with a pack of Pall Malls and a wall mural that looks straight out of an old Vidal Sassoon ad. 

Yes, that's right my friends—whisky was an old man's drink back in the mid-1980s and vodka was the hip choice of a new generation. My how times have changed (and how they'll probably change again). I can see a new horizon underneath the blazin' sky. I'll be where the eagle's flyin' higher and higher. I can climb the highest mountain, cross the wildest sea. I can feel St. Elmo's fire burning in me. It's either that, or the glass of Absolut Elyx I just downed while watching a sweaty Rob Lowe play the cheesiest sax solo of all time. 

-David Driscoll

Thursday
May142015

The Proof is in the Pudding

I'm very sensitive about manners, ethics, and behavior as it pertains to doing everyday business. As many of you know, I'm the guy in the restaurant who can't help but eavesdrop on the terrible jerk behind me, behaving at his very worst because his soup was a little too cold. When people go out of their way to make others uncomfortable, it makes me uncomfortable in turn because I don't want to be associated with an asshole by proximity. When some retailer out there jacks up the price of Pappy to $1000, I end up hearing about it for some reason from consumers; as if I'm the spokesperson for all retailers in the world or something. "Don't lump me in with that guy," I'm thinking in the back of my mind. That being said, I feel sorry for distillers and blenders who make top-quality NAS or non-descript whiskies, who may be unfairly demonized by the neo-witch-hunt against the lack of transparency in the industry right now. There are people out there like John Glaser from Compass Box and the Morrisons over at A.D. Rattray who are making top-notch whiskies for great prices, but who either can't or aren't interested in revealing the greater specifics due to industry politics. They're not trying to hide anything. They're just not in the business of selling specs. That's not their game.

Despite the new era's obsession with details, I've been overjoyed with the reaction that our customers have had to the exclusive malt whisky project we've been producing with Michel Couvreur in Burgundy (see our visit from 2014 on the blog here); a Scotch whisky blender with a huge inventory of top-quality, first-fill sherry-aged single malt. Everything about this whisky is based on blind faith—our faith in Couvreur to make something great, their faith in us to pay up when the invoice arrives, and our customers' faith in K&L to put good booze on the shelf. There are no specifics about this whisky, other than that the whiskies used to comprise the blend are at least 12 years old (when in reality many of them are much older). Our customers don't know which distilleries were used, or in what quantities. All they know is that we say it tastes good and that we vouch for its quality. And the result? Two massive sellouts of batch one and two in K&L record times. The word is out on the street: despite the anonymity of the details, this whisky is the real fucking deal. Big, sopping wet sherry with a firm dagger of Islay peat smoke right in the gut. Batch three just landed today. It won't be here long.

I want to send a big thank you to everyone out there for the blind faith you've had in this project, and for putting aside your hatred of non-descript whisky in the name of what is obviously some high-end hooch. I'm glad you're all as enthused as we are.

Michel Couvreur K&L Exclusive Overaged Peat Malt Whisky $89.99 - The chance to work with Michel Couvreur on a special K&L whisky project was something that David and I had been dreaming of for years. We had heard the stories. This crazy Belgian had moved to Burgundy in the 60s, carved out a wine cellar inside a mountain, only to fill it with Scottish single malt whisky instead of pinot noir. He set up camp in Beaune, ordered new-make spirit to be delivered by tanker, and drove down to Jerez himself; selecting his own sherry butts to insure only the finest quality casks for his contracted spirit. Unfortunately, Michel Couvreur passed away last year from pancreatic cancer, thus ending the career of one of the industry's most courageous pioneers. Luckily for us, however, apprentice Jean-Arnaud has carried on after studying under Michel for more than a decade. When we visited the underground cave this past Spring, we were all in total awe. The tunnels of dripping stone go on forever, and the amount of whisky stored in this secret lair is jawdropping. We put our trust completely in Jean-Arnaud and are happy we did. Our peated version of the incredible sherry expression is a seamless creation that drinks like the best version of Johnnie Black ever, mixed with the most supple and soft expressions of Macallan. It's a lush, unfiltered, creamy, caramel-laden dream of a whisky composed only of malts 12 years and older. There's a bit of peat on the finish, but the soft sherry is the star. (NOTE: do NOT cut the hard wax seal, tap it so that it breaks)

-David Driscoll