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Tuesday
May202014

Mistaking One-Offs For Continuity

There's an old saying in the wine industry: "There are no great wines, only great bottles." Once a wine has been bottled, there are a number of things that can change, transform, and go wrong that can ultimately influence how the liquid tastes when the bottle is opened. How was the bottle stored? Where was it stored? For how long? Basically, as the statement implies, when you're drinking a bottle of wine (especially an older one) you can't simply depend on the vintage or the name of the producer, or even the reputation of the wine itself; the ultimate flavor can still be a crapshoot because of all these outside variables.

It's not uncommon while working the sales floor to hear a customer say something like, "I don't like _______ wine because I had a bottle one time that tasted terrible." However, like we just discussed, there are a number of things that could have affected that wine that had absolutely nothing to do with the wine or the style of winemaking. It may have been a great wine, but the cork happened to have been infected with bacteria. The bottle may have been left in the sun too long. Who knows? My point is this: it's not a good idea to form conclusions about a particular producer based on a small sample of experiences. This goes for wine, but it also goes for single malt whisky.

There's no distillery in Scotland that hasn't produced a bad barrel of whisky, it's just that those barrels don't always make it to the market. Because of the amount of tasting we do and the access we have to samples, I've probably tasted more than 1,000 casks of single malt whisky over the last five years, and within that experience were plenty of bad Macallans, terrible Clynelishs, and stale Glendronachs; despite the fact that all of these distilleries are known for their consistent quality. It's because a single cask of whisky can vary so wildly in its flavor that producers blend large quantities of barrels together, using the qualities of the "good" whiskies to mask the flaws or off-putting flavors of the "bad" ones. Boring barrels usually go into blends, while those that can function as a solo act are carefully selected.

So, for example, when you taste a bottle of Talisker 18 (a pretty good bottle of Scotch), you're actually tasting both great whisky and subpar whisky together; a marriage of casks balancing out into one consistent flavor. When you taste a single barrel selection, however, the quality control is dependent upon the person bottling the whisky, not the distillery itself. It's for this reason that many producers do not like independent bottlings by labels such as Signatory or Cadenhead; not because they're competing against their own distillery names (like Diageo's Mortlach vs. Signatory's Mortlach or Edrington's Highland Park vs. Cadenhead's Highland Park), but rather because they cannot control the quality level. Therefore, a customer might form an association about a rogue bottling of Highland Park that has nothing to do with Edrington's product. This person may assume that, because it was distilled at Highland Park, that all Highland Park will taste that way, yet the whisky they tasted was really just an odd single cask. That must be incredibly frustrating for some of these companies who are trying to control the reputation of their brands.

Because an independent bottler can legally use the distillery name, many consumers are easily confused between single cask releases by third-party bottlers and distillery-direct expressions. More importantly, they don't realize that one is a raw bottling, and the other a carefully-crafted marriage. Therefore, when I hear someone say, "David, I loved your ________ cask that I bought last year. Do you have any other whiskies by that distillery?" I get a bit nervous. One of the most beloved barrels we've sold in the last few years was a 22 year old sherry cask of Mortlach; a decadent, meaty, first-fill sherry delight. However, the 25 year old Mortlach we currently have in stock tastes nothing like it, whatsoever. You could line up twenty barrels of Mortlach, of various ages and from various types of casks, that may or may not have been used multiple times, and not find any continuity between the whiskies; despite the fact they were all made at the same place.

Like I mentioned before concerning a bottle of wine, there are so many factors that can influence the whisky after it's been distilled. What type of cask was it aged in? For how long? Where was it aged? Who bottled it? It's for that reason that I caution our customers about forming summations about distilleries based on their limited single barrel experiences. There are obviously certain characteristics like peat smoke that will cross over between the distillery expressions and the various single barrel releases, but quality is something that doesn't always begin with the distillate. I've had great single barrels of Glen Scotia and terrible single barrels of Port Ellen. I've even tasted some fairly drinkable casks of Loch Lomand, while spitting out bitter, over-aged samples of Brora in disgust.

When it comes to single barrel malt whisky, it's important to direct our judgement towards the barrel as well as the distillery.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
May182014

Oaxacan Food Summary

One of the best parts of going on the road is the food; no matter where we go -- Scotland, France, the Caribbean -- we always look forward to every meal. David OG can practically recount every single voyage we've ever taken simply by remembering what we ate ("Don't you remember that time in Edinburgh? We had haggis and then you got that sampler plate that had those amazing oysters.") For me personally, Mexican cuisine is what I look forward to more than anything, so the chance to travel through Oaxaca was really exciting, simply because I would get to eat at least a few times while I was there. Food and booze go hand-in-hand; therefore, I think it only appropriate to share some of the experiences I had on this last trip. Above, you can see Jake and Jose talking to a Oaxacan cheese vendor about her delicious, oh-so-salty queso.

Directly behind Mina de Real distillery is a restaurant called La Herencia. It's been there for about five years and the family that runs it is close with Boni and his sons. You just need to step out the back door, and take the bridge over the small river to get there.

At the end of the path you'll come into a clearing and see the small house that contains the dining room and kitchen.

A wood-burning oven is fired up at all times for baking bread and tortillas.

The kitchen opens directly into both the dining room and the courtyard, letting in the breeze from outside and the natural light.

Our own Nicolas Palazzi got to fulfill his lifelong dream at Herencia: to have his picture taken with a live rattlesnake while flashing us with "Blue Steel."

After some home-baked, crunchy corn tortillas, salsa, and bites of Oaxacan cheese, we were served sopa de verdolaga: a stew made with pieces of pork and local green vegetable that looks kind of like a thicker parsley, but tastes more like green beans. Very simple, very good; especially with a cold beer and a glass of Don Amado.

Next was the beef and black beans platter. With this course, the owners brought out their own pitcher of mezcal and began pouring tall shots of self-distilled espadin. "Even with the distillery next door, they're doing their own distillation, eh?" I asked Jake, rhetorically.

We couldn't eat too much at La Herencia because Jake and Jose wanted to stop at one of their all-time favorite places on the drive back to Oaxaca de Juaréz: the house of Doña Mary. "You've never had a quesadilla like this before," they told us as we got out of the car.

What makes Doña Mary's quesadillas so special is that she and her ladies make everything there right on the spot: the cheese is made fresh each day, the tortillas made to order from masa, the fresh squash blossoms picked right out of the backyard, and the mushrooms foraged from a field behind the building. And let me tell you something: those mushrooms are out of this world.

Kwasi was kind enough to pose for a quesadilla close-up: big, thick corn tortillas, soft, salty Oaxacan cheese, sautéed mushrooms. Now you just need to pile on the salsa and you're in heaven.

We gorged. All we did was moan and groan in delight the entire time; not allowing ourselves to pause long enough for any actual words to come out.

When you're driving as much as we do on the road, you've gotta stop and refresh yourself every now and again. Jose spotted a coconut stand by the road and had the local kid scoop out the soft meat, marinate it with lime juice, and sprinkle on hot chili seasoning. You wash that down with fresh coconut water, of course, by chopping off the top and popping in a long straw.

You've also gotta stop for tacos as often as possible. Jose got the crispy cheeks (and a beer despite the fact it was 9:30 AM).

We even met up for meals with other producers! Judah Kuper from Mezcal Vago lives just outside the city, so we called him up and had him meet us on the main zócalo for a plate of chapulines (fried grasshoppers) and a few beers. So what if the grasshopppers came with a deep-fried chile relleno, a pile of Oaxacan cheese, and a giant tortilla smothered in beans?

That concludes the food section of the trip. There were a few other memorable meals, of course, but you can't be taking pictures all of the time. Sometimes you've gotta put the camera down, order a cold beer, and just enjoy yourself.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
May172014

Jalisco: Day 4 - Jesus-Maria & Arandas

Good morning! 

As I once learned from my father-in-law, there's nothing like birria for breakfast after a long night of drinking. The Mexican soup made from stewed goat and red chili is a favorite of his, and now mine as well. We rose from our first real night of slumber at Enrique's house, threw our bags in the car, and headed down into the town of Atotonilco El Alto for some serious goat action; the soft and tender meat falling apart in our mouths as we dunked corn tortillas and drank Coca-Cola (or beer, even at 9:30 AM). Enrique said he would meet us later for lunch, so we departed and headed north, even further into the mountains, to visit the town of Jesus-Maria and the El Paraiso distillery that produces ArteNOM's 1580 blanco tequila.

What was once known as Rancho El Olvido and NOM 1079 is now known as Rancho Sagrado Corazon de Jesus (the Ranch of the Sacred Heart of Jesus) and goes by the NOM number 1580. The decision to switch the NOM number had to do with a desire to distance the distillery with brands it was no longer doing business with, even though the ownership and tequila remain the same. There are all kinds of liberties distilleries can take with NOM numbers besides filing for a replacement, so you can't depend on them for everything -- even the basic principle they're supposed to represent: where the tequila was actually made. For example, you can use one NOM number, but still purchase tequila from another distillery, mix it in, and never be forced to list that on the label. If you think every drop of Patron is actually made at Patron distillery, well...

Just to make sure I'm up front with you here: El Paraiso makes what is my absolute favorite tequila in the world! I was super-pumped to finally get up into the mountains and get a look at what makes this tequila what it is: the high-elevation agave. As you drive up to the distillery, along the long dirt road extending from the highway, you can see the expansive campos and the vibrant red soil, rich with iron and magnesium.

And then you finally get to see them up close, at the distillery, being hacked up with an ax and fed into the oven. The piñas are incredibly small compared to the agave we saw at the other distilleries, but the flavors are incredibly concentrated as a result. Jake told me he's never seen piñas that look and taste like this anywhere else; it's part of what makes this tequila so special.

Some of the guys working on site pulled one out of the horno and let us rip off a piece. We chewed the fleshy, fibrous pulp and released the intensely-sweet juice into our mouths. The smell of fruity, roasted agave permeated everything at El Paraiso and reminded me almost exactly of the aromas emanating from my bottle of ArteNOM 1580 blanco sitting at home. You know you're at a great distillery when the actual product tastes as good as the distillery smells; it means they're distilling with supreme skill.

The fermentation at El Paraiso takes place in large stainless steel vats, but the entire operation is pretty compact; as Jake said to me, "this is the most boutique distillery we work with in Jalisco." It's a small, but efficient operation.

Just across from the tanks are the five operating pot stills -- three wash stills (which they call destrozadores) and two copper spirit stills. The entire production is all snuggly fit under one roof.

Everything about NOM 1580 is picturesque and beautiful; it's definitely where the romantic idea of a colonial hacienda and serious tequila distillation embrace in passionate, love-filled outpouring of emotion. Or maybe that was just me. The house next door is filled with antique furniture and photos from the olden days of production in Jesus-Maria.

The red soil of Los Altos extends down the hill from Jesus-Maria and into the town of Arandas: a mecca for Highland tequila production that includes Cazadores and La Alteña -- the home of Ocho and Tapatío. We made the short trip in no time at all, pulling into the Feliciano Vivanco distillery; the home of ArteNOM 1414 reposado.

Sergio and Jose Manual Vivanco are quite popular these days. Besides the ArteNOM reposado, they also make the entire line of Siembra Azul tequilas for David Suro and the lovely Gran Dovejo tequilas that we love so much at K&L. There's a reason why people want to work with these guys: their tequila is amazing.

As Sergio Vivanco talked about in my interview with him last September, part of what makes the Vivanco tequilas so special is their yeast production and fermentation process. They actually plant citrus trees along side their agave fields so that the pollen will drop down and spread onto the agave leaves; encouraging the cultivation of natural airborne yeast in the campos. When the agave is harvested, they scrape the leaves and collect the residue in a petri dish where they then begin a strain for fermentation. 

Vivanco distillery ages most of their spirit in used Jack Daniels barrels, adding a soft and subtly-sweet touch to their wonderfully delicate reposado expressions. We tasted their Viva Mexico brand at 38% and found the reposado to be the best of that portfolio as well. It seems Jake and Jose knew exactly what they were doing when they selected the ArteNOM 1414.

After lunch it was time to head back into town and meet up with Enrique and Chava one last time before we left for Guadalajara. Chava brought more cheese with him!! If that wasn't enough, we were eating at the spot in Arandas known for the best carnitas in the area. 

We said our goodbyes, piled into the car, our bellies full, and made our way back west, through the beautiful valleys of the Highlands, and into the sprawling metropolis. We're lodged up at the hotel downtown, finally catching our breath after what has been a whirlwind, four-day tour through Mexico's most famous spirits-producing regions. I've got a few more photos to post before we're all said and done, but we'll be home early tomorrow morning to enjoy a Sunday back with family and friends.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
May172014

Jalisco: Day 3 - La Tequileña - Part II

While Enrique Fonseca's distillery, La Tequileña is in the town of Tequila, his agave fields and barrel warehouses are located in the Highlands region, near the village of Atotonilco. After spending the morning touring the distillation side of Enrique's production, we drove the three hours east into the mountains, past the 5,000 foot elevation point, and into the fields of agave known for their incredible terroir.  

As we looked over the balcony, into the hillsides of Atotonilco, we felt the cool breeze against our faces; a marked difference from the sweltering heat of the Lowlands and the town of Tequila. It's this temperate climate that helps the agave to ripen more slowly, to create better sugar levels, and to make the most delicate tequila possible. Much like the best wines are often made with mountain fruit, there are many who feel the best tequilas are made with mountain agave.

The cooler breezes of the higher altitude also affect how the tequila matures in barrel; which is why Enrique stores most of his aging stock at his home, rather than at his distillery. He has more than 20,000 barrels of Tequileña spirit in wood; hence, why we were able to choose so many different expressions for our Fuenteseca blend. The fact that he has a cooler warehouse in Atotonilco has a lot to do with why his tequilas can withstand so much time in barrique.

Enrique has much more than just a beautiful home with loads of tequila, however. He raises all kinds of different animals, like cows, pigs, various crops, and one of his biggest passions: roosters! Luis, the son of one of his assistants, loves coming to the hacienda to play with the birds.

Enrique also loves to cook, so he invited us to have dinner on his veranda, overlooking the mountains and his agave fields in the distance. It was absolutely magical and the food was exquisite.

He heated up the grill and threw on fresh-picked green onions from his garden, carne asada, house-made chorizo (from a combination of beef, chicken, and pork), and various other vegetables.

It was all absolutely stupendous. The real surprise was Enrique's cousin, Chava, who lives next door and is an artisanal cheesemaker. When I say "artisinal" I mean that he's won "Best Cheese in Mexico" for three years running. He gets invited to Italy and France each year to judge competitions and lend his advise. He brought a plate of his freshest stuff and we all went wild. It felt like an Anthony Bourdain episode where he's hanging out with someone important, until that person's friend shows up and does something even better. Is there anything this family can't do?!

I've never eaten so much cheese in my life. All of his selections were better than anything I've ever tasted in France; even with all the cheese I've eaten on our trips to Armagnac. As I type this right now, there's an ice chest in my hotel room with four of his best cheeses resting until I can pack them in my carry-on.

As we continued to devour Chava's creations, Enrique got up and came back with two impressive looking tequila bottles. It took me a minute before I realized that one of them was the famed Del Dueño Jerezito -- the now-legendary Oloroso-aged añejo. We sipped it slowly with the cheese, and Chave busted out Cuban cigars. I wish I smoked cigars because it sounded like a good combination. The quality would have been lost on me, however.

We sat and talked for hours until it was time to finally call it a night. Enrique and Chave had plenty of guestrooms for us to use so it was a short walk to our beds; thank goodness.

-David Driscoll 

Saturday
May172014

Jalisco: Day 3 - La Tequileña - Part I

Enrique Fonseca's family has been growing agave in Jalisco since the 1880s; each new generation learning how to cultivate the plant in the fertile soils of the Highland region. Today Enrique, from the fourth generation of Fonseca farmers, is the largest private owner of agave in Jalisco. However, while most of his holdings lie near his amazing hacienda near the town of Atotonilco, his distillery is on the complete opposite side of Guadalajara in the town of Tequila -- a three hour drive from where he lives. Purchased from Bacardi in the late 1980s, La Tequileña Distillery isn't the most romantic-looking distillery, but it is one of the best-equipped. With five pot stills and even a large column still (on which he does distill tequila; making him the only producer I know of to use one for quality spirits), Enrique is cranking out high-quality distillates using many strategies that set him apart from other tequileros.

While there are plenty of other tequila distilleries with column stills, very few of them (if any) use the still for anything beyond neutralizing their agave spirits at super-high proofs. A column still is a great way to make green, unripe agave taste like flavorless, odorless, burn-free "tequila." Enrique, on the other hand, uses only one or two plates in the column and makes delicious, peppery, and slightly vegetal expressions with the equipment left by Bacardi. The still itself is an experimental model that allows him to play around with different proofs. Up until this point, I had no idea that column stills were even allowed in tequila production; the main requirement is that it be double-distilled. 

Getting to sample the different distillates right off the stills was one of the most amazing parts of the tour today. The high-proof pot still tequila was almost like white whiskey -- fruity and expressive, yet entirely tangy in a way. The column still tequila was intensely spicy. Neither tasted like I expected them to. "These are the spirits that go into the incredible Purasangre and Cimmaron tequilas?" I asked completely shocked. "They're still very tender as we just distilled them," he said to me, "We need to wait a few more weeks for them to settle." I also learned that, like our friends down in Guyana, most of Enrique's expressions are marriages of both pot and column still, which prompted me to mix both together and sample the result. "Ah," I exclaimed, "that tastes right." It's amazing to think that the ancient Fuenteseca we mixed a while back likely has both distillates within it.

What else sets Tequileña apart from other distilleries? How about the fact that Enrique uses autoclaves for ovens? "That's kind of controversial," I said, "because people see the idea of pressure cookers as accelerators, a way to get more in less time." To which Enrique smiled and said, "Yes, David, but we only use it on the lowest level (under 1.0 atmospheres), to create the longest possible cook." It was never Enrique's idea to use these steel containers, but much like with the column still, if they came with the distillery and they work, why not use them? As long as you're making tequila the right way, who cares what the equipment looks like?

And what does that statement even mean: to make tequila the right way? It's tough to know unless you're aware of what many other distilleries are doing that, to me, constitute the wrong way; like adding glycerol to the final product, creating an artificially-smooth mouthfeel. Like adding urea into the fermenting wash, accelerating the yeast to convert the sugars at a more rapid pace. Like the now commonly-practiced technique called diffusing: a process introduced by the big boys that moves the agave along a conveyor belt while hot water is sprayed along the top, basically liquifying the important contents of the agave and eliminating the need for roasting or steaming. The liquids are simply collected, cooked, fermented, and distilled without all that chopping, shredding, or baking. You can make a lot more tequila that way, but of course it will taste like…well.

Enrique uses a patented, self-engineered screwpress (which I cannot show here as Enrique is protective about this proprietary technique) to essentially squeezes the juice out of the agave without the need for shredding or mashing -- processes that can easily strip essential sugars from the juice. What that means is that while other tequila distilleries are getting 6-8% ABV out of their fermento (or wash, or mosto), Enrique is putting his into the still at 15% ABV due to the extra sugar. He ferments only in large stainless steel tanks, allowing him to control the temperature and create a long, slow process to obtain that extraordinary percentage.

Yet another aspect that separates Tequileña from the pack are Enrique's various maturation vessels. He uses large foudre-like, wooden vats to age some of his reposado expressions, and he loves to experiment with different wood-types. Legend has it that he created a special, limited-edition tequila for William Grant back in the day that used Oloroso sherry butts.

Perhaps the thing I love most about Enrique, however, is his penchant for fun over stuffy booze behavior. He is such an interesting, well-rounded renaissance man that you would think he'd be above something like drinking his delicious Purasangre blanco out of a lime with spicy fruit seasoning on top. But he isn't. This man owns land all over Jalisco, is a renowned architect, a supplier of various meats, and a scientist developing new kinds of homeopathic treatments from his many agricultural projects. He's like a real version of the Dos Equis "most interesting man in the world.

-David Driscoll