West Cork Arrives

What's that thing whisky consumers are always asking for? Oh, I remember what it is. They want new and interesting products, from small, independent producers, who do everything from scratch and make whisky that tastes better in quality than the mass-produced stuff the big boys make, but ultimately costs less and represents a better value, and isn't necessarily hard to find, but hard enough to find so that they can get a bottle before the rest of the whisky community finds out how cool it is. You knowthe whole fucking package.

If you had asked me for such a product earlier in the week I would have laughed in your face and sighed. Today, I'm posting about such a whiskey here on this blog. Enter West Cork Distillers. The West Cork distillery started as a pet project by John O’ Connell, Denis McCarthy and Ger McCarthy in 2003 in Union Hall, West Cork. In 2013 after much expansion WCD moved to a larger distillery in Skibbereen, West Cork where it now resides. It now operates as only one of two independent distilleries in Ireland. That means they can actually make their own ten year old single malt whisky (currently married with whisky from another distilllery) that somehow, someway costs about the same as a bottle of ten year old Bushmills, despite the fact that they're an independent distillery with heaven knows how much debt and overhead to account for. They're also the only producer in Ireland to actually malt their own barley and use Irish spring water for the production process, resulting in a softer, more delicate spirit.

If that wasn't enough information to get you excited, West Cork has now added the ultimate in whisky street cred by hiring on former Springbank master distiller Frank McHardy; a man known for making some of the best single malt on the planet. So how does it taste? Really good actually. I'm still wondering how a small distillery can make whiskey this good for this price, but apparently it's not just some crazy dream. Pinch me in an hour to remind me this is all real.

West Cork Original Classic Blend Irish Whiskey $26.99 - Gobs of fruit vanilla on the nose turn into a pleasantly mixture of fresh fruit and grain on the palate. The finish is clean and malty with more sweet grains on the back end. Jameson who?

West Cork 10 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey $36.99 - The nose is all malted barley, along the lines of Glenmorangie 10, which is fitting because both are lighter, ten year old, Bourbon-aged single malts. The palate is creamy and soft with short flutters of oak spice, and the finish is robust, rich, and lasting with warming notes of burnt sugar and creme brulee. Good God. Where in the hell did this come from?

-David Driscoll


The Nation Rises

Last night was our first single malt event at Bar Agricole and it went off just as smoothly as we could have hoped. We had thirteen outstanding whiskies to pour, unlimited Faultline whisky cocktails, and all the snacks you could stomach. All of this and we even had the weather on our side. It's been warm this week in the Bay Area, so we camped out on the patio and invited our small group of forty ticket holders into the event.

I put the pour spouts into the bottles, threw on my "Malternative Nation" T-shirt (Thad even made the font just like the old "Alternative Nation" program on MTV from which it was inspired), and got behind the counter; ready to pour some fine Scotch whisky for eager and excited guests.

Eric Johnson was right there with me, pouring glasses of Faultline Blended Scotch, prepping his cocktails. This time around, however (unlike with the rum and brandy events), there were far fewer folks in the house, which made Eric's job much easier. He had time to perfectly craft each individual glass and the drinks were incredible. I went back for seconds and thirds.

Our San Francisco store's Jeff Jones and Dulcinea Gonzalez were there with me, making people happy, talking booze, shooting the shit with all the lovely attendees. There was no bravado from the crowd last night; none of that "how does this whisky compare to the fourth release of Brora?" bullshit. We had a group of people who were there to drink, experience, enjoy, and just let their hair down. I had an absolute blast visiting with everyone (and having the time and space to visit with everyone). It was so easy-going and laid back, with people talking about their favorite whiskies in a light-hearted manner. I really needed this experience to remind me of how fun whisky can be when you eliminate the egos from the equation. And the food we ate! You can see Akeem there in the background shucking oysters. His snacks were exquisite. He made ribs, sausages, and these little fritters that had mushy peas with mint and tumeric inside. I had like seven of those.

What really wowed me, however, were the cocktails. I never imagine blended whisky being something one could mix well into a classic drink, but Eric made these Old Fashioneds with our peated formula, some Small Hand Foods gum syrup, a dash of house-made bitters, and a small amount of maraschino cherry liqueur; all swirled up with a pungent rind of fresh lemon. "We have to post this recipe!" I told him. "People will go crazy for this drink if they can make it at home!" I'll get the recipe for you all later. 

The other drink he made was kind of an "Army Navy" variation with peaty Scotch instead of gin. He used orgeat and lemon juice, then shook and strained into a nice little coup. It was also delicious. Almost like a mezcal sour, but with a creaminess from the sweet malted flavor. Next time we might have to do a simple Scotch cocktail event, rather than a full-out tasting. If you want to try these recipes, however, we are allowing Bar Agricole to stock the Faultline Blended Scotch, so you can probably grab either of these cocktails the next time you're there.

C-Diddy was in the house. We taught Charles the Islay way of eating oysters. A little five year old Caol Ila on that half shell, and voila!

I was most happy about the fact that everyone got their money's worth. The tickets were $100 because we had to divide the cost of the event by 40 guests rather than the usual 80; hopefully resulting in a smaller, more intimate group. At the same time, we definitely wanted people to feel satisfied with their experience and squeeze every last nickel out of that entrance fee. K&L super-customer Jeff Green told me, "Hell, I ate five dozen oysters. That's easily $100 right there." People had three hours to take their time, mingle, savor the spirits, and toss down a few cold drinks. No crowds, no lines, no nonsense. God, what fun!

We're really putting together some great events over at Bar Agricole; as long as you're there to eat, drink, and relax, that is. The quality of the booze being poured at our tastings can speak for itself. If you're looking to impress other guests by grilling a master distiller with ridiculous comments about the batch differences between A'bunadh releases, or ask esoteric questions about the history of Pappy bottle barcodes, then these are not the events for you. Personally, I'm over that type of tasting and so are a lot of our customers. From here on out, it's all about party time. I hope you'll join us next time!

-David Driscoll


Model Behavior

When David and I visit Gascony with Charles Neal each Spring, there's a reason we spend so much time with Charles's brother-in-law, Bernard Daubin. He's hilarious, over-the-top, outspoken, he knows a lot about Armagnac, and he's always got a drink his hand. Bernard is the epitome of la vie de gascogne. He's not only a world-renowned chef (featured in famous hardback books about cooking, like the one above); he's also a man who appreciates both sides of the spectrum. He likes to eat and drink, and he likes to eat and drink nice things, but he cares more about the actual eating and drinking than anything else. We can't get enough of him because he reminds us of everything that's right about gustatory pleasure. Visiting his restaurant is like reseting your mind and body back to a time when food and booze were things you consumed rather than Instagramed.

There are people out there who like to eat, but don't really know anything about food. And there are people out there who like to talk about fancy food, but obviously don't know how to enjoy a meal. Ditto with booze. Everyone's talking about what they want to drink, moping about what they can't have or what they can't get, when there's a world full of great products available at their fingertips right now; at this very moment. Bernard's restaurant in Montreal du Gers makes this realization shockingly clear; it's a combination of two wonderful phenomena: simple, but amazing food, served with a serious, yet simultaneously unpretentious attitude. He'll talk your ear off about how he raises his pork and how dedicated he is to natural methods, but all while pouring you glass after glass of inexpensive, local wine served with bowls of fresh razor clams. He wants you to understand his food and to appreciate it, but ultimately he wants to do this so that you'll eat it (not to impress you).

Does he care about the good stuff? The big names? The fancy labels? The prestigious estates? Sure, to the extent that any of us do. When David and I dug out a bottle of 2001 Raveneau Chablis, Bernard was over the moon about drinking a glass with us because he appreciated the opportunity and the experience. He immediately ran back to the kitchen and broke out the oysters to pair with it. True, his restaurant is more about simple dishes and simple wines, but that doesn't mean he won't splurge every now and again. I love that about people; when they can recognize both the high and low pleasures of the greater spectrum. I thought he might shit all over the Raveneau because it was an expensive prestige bottle, but he was seriously pumped. Charles, on the other hand, was a bit more annoyed that we weren't drinking one of his portfolio wines, hence his reaction.

When you dine at Chez Bernard, you really get more than traditional, flavorful, wonderfully-authentic, Gascogne cuisine. It's more a lesson in how to live, rather than how to eat and drink. It's about enjoying what you have to the fullest, whether it's a bottle of cheap Beaujolais and a plate of almonds, a glass of champagne and a bit of caviar, or a 100 year old bottle of Armagnac and a conversation about the local history of distillation. It's about letting the moment dictate the moment, enjoying what's in front of us, and not giving a flying fuck about whether some giant foreign booze corporation has removed another age statement from their latest overpriced Scotch label. Hanging out with Bernard helps me to better do what I already love doing: to eat and drink good shit with people who actually appreciate the good shit and actually want to consume it and enjoy it, rather than prove something to the world. Cheap stuff. Expensive stuff. Everyday stuff. Rare stuff. All of it. In all forms. The best and the basic, from top to bottom, because we love the ceremony.

It seems crazy to think that doing something so simple would be so difficult these days. But I guess that's what happens when simple things, like eating and drinking, become more than just present participles.

-David Driscoll


Booze For Dinner

At French wine-centric K&L, we as a store tend to fall into the camp of folks who would advise you to start your meal with a bottle of white, transition into the heavier red, and then finish with a glass of something brown. It's the classic way of doing things (even though we're all Americans with absolutely no traditional way of doing anything as it pertains to eating). A bottle of bubbly to start, some Claret with the meat course, and a glass of whisky to help with digestion when all is said and done. Orderly. Logically. By the book. 

While we're definitely following Western Europe's protocol, I'm one of the few K&L buyers who has business outside of that highly-conservative zone, so I've had my horizons expanded just a bit further when it comes to drinking with one's meal. When David and I travel through Cognac and Armagnac country, we never, ever stray from the above discipline. However, in my journeys to Taiwan, Japan, and Mexico—where Western wine culture is much more minute in stature—I've found that hard drink is quite often consumed with dinner. Whereas we might open a bottle of Napa Chardonnay with our salad here in California, in Japan they give you a glass of whisky with soda. Then they put the open bottle on the table, just like we place the wine along with the rest of the food. 

In Taiwan we almost always double-fisted. We were given four glasses with every meal: one for wine, one for water, a large shot glass for the basic whisky, and a smaller shot glass for the really expensive whisky. Various bottles were placed on the rotating Lazy Susan and we consumed full bottles of both wine and whisky with each course. I thought it was absolutely fabulous. Who in the U.S. would bring a bottle of Kavalan whisky over for dinner? We might give it as a hostess gift, or take a little nip when we finish eating, but we would never think to place it along side the Sauvignon Blanc, the water pitcher, and the ketchup—right smack in the middle of the meal. Is it really all that crazy?

The purists will tell you that hard spirits don't pair with most foods. The high alcohol of hard liquor overpowers any sense of delicacy, so those who care about the inherent flavors of their cuisine don't want to pulverize their palate in between bites. But that's why the Japanese add water to their whisky. You could argue that Japanese food is the most delicate cuisine in the world, with many raw ingredients meant to add subtlety and nuance to each plate, but that doesn't stop them from going brown mid-meal. When proofed down to 15%, a glass of Nikka Coffey Grain on the rocks is surprisingly refreshing and complementary alongside a plate of local Hokkaido sushi.

In Jalisco, while dining with my friend Enrique Fonseca, we paired tequila with toasted bread and locally-produced goat chesses. When the carne asada was served and the rice and beans plated, a few bottles of Cimarron Blanco were placed in the center of the table along with mixers like Coca-Cola, Squirt, and sparkling water, so that we could create our own cocktails while we ate. I have to say I've never looked back since that experience. That's how I eat at home on most occasions these days, and I'm not alone here. There was a guy in the store on Saturday who was purchasing an entire shopping cart full of different whiskies, of all types from all places. I asked him what the occassion was, and he said: "Each time I have friends over we eat dinner and we go through a different bottle of whiskey. Each time we talk about it as we eat, and each bottle creates a different experience. I'm addicted to it now." 

"You treat whiskey like other people treat wine," I replied, "but it's a much more efficient way to move through your home inventory." I used to like serving three or four different whiskies to my friends when they came over for dinner, but these days I like ploughing through one entire bottle and really focusing on that unique singularity. Why not go through an entire bottle in one night? Have an experience, talk about it with friends, and move on to the next one. It's not weird. People are doing it all over world.

-David Driscoll


My Rating System

I stopped to relieve myself at Heathrow Airport this past Monday and noticed that the English have a fantastic new machine to help customers leave feedback about the cleanliness of their lavatories. This is about as systematic as I get when rating my wine or whisky, so I'm now looking to implement this fantastic technology into my own dealings here at K&L. I love it. Bravo.

-David Driscoll