Back to Oaxaca

I'm back on the road this weekend. Sunday morning I'll be boarding a plane to Oaxaca City alone, where I'll eventually meet up with Ansley Coale from Germain Robin and the rest of the folks at Danzantes. I'll be there for four days taking photos, speaking Spanish, drinking mezcal, and getting to know more about the region. Of course, I'll be live blogging the whole time, so make sure you check in over the Memorial Weekend!

Until then,

-David Driscoll


More Shit You Need to Know About

Yes, this is a spirits blog, but really it's a resource dedicated to the art of drinking and all of its glories. I wouldn't be doing my job as an advocate for boozing of all types if I didn't tell you about this stupid, ridiculous deal that our wine buyer Ryan Woodhouse just pulled off. I would feel like a fraud if I let this go unpublished, despite the fact that this is not my category or my deal. K&L just got a container in of direct import wines from the Southern Hemisphere and Ryan may have pulled off the biggest coup of the year in these Sequillo wines. It's a huge fucking deal and I'm going to do my best to convey the significance of these two South African wine bottles pictured above.

To help explain exactly what's going on, let's go back a few weeks to our post from Berry Bros & Rudd in London.

Do you remember this photo from the blog a few weeks back? It's a picture of Doug McIvor standing in front of the window at Berry Bros & Rudd, where David OG and I visited recently on our trip to the UK. Rather than focus on Doug this time around, however, I want you to look at the photo on the bottom right of the frame. It's a small picture of winemaker Eben Sadie sitting on a tractor near his vineyard in South Africa. There's a reason that the most reputable retailer of wine in the UK has a photo of this man on their front window. It's because Eben Sadie is one of the most talented and in-demand winemakers in the entire world right now (in fact, Doug and I were talking about him as I snapped this picture). He's the guy that every retailer who knows anything about wine wants to be doing business with. That's why BBR is bragging about their association with him on their St. James's Street window front. He's a big deal.

Let me share with you the write-up that Ryan just sent me: Eben Sadie is probably the most revered winemaker in South Africa. He just picked up his second Winemaker of the Year award and his wines sell out upon release every year. In fact, we have to fight tooth and nail just to get a few six packs of his legendary "Old Vine Series". That is why we are so excited to be working direct and exclusively with Eben to import one of his other projects: Sequillo. Eben is first and foremost a farmer. He truly lives in the vineyard believing that organic/biodynamic, hand-tending of his vines is far more important than making interventionist adjustments in the cellar. His wines are pretty close to being "natural wines" utilizing only ambient yeast ferments, natural malo, no fining or filtration and very minimal sulphur additions. His wines are true representations of place and season without the heavy handed fingerprints some winemakers leave. 

This is what the Wine Spectator said about him: “There is no doubting both the sensory and intellectual attributes of Swartland wines produced by the likes of Sadie…They appeal to the new generation of wine consumers and sommeliers who demand top-quality wine, ideally crafted by a cool hipster-cum-artisan that goes surfing at weekends, and not some retired oil magnate who in a pique of boredom splashed out on a lifestyle winery so that he can brag about it down at the clubhouse.”

Eben is a dude's dude and everyone who meets him knows it. Although after reading this, Ryan leaned over to me and said: Though I totally get what Neal Martin is saying here (and think it’s pretty funny) I have to add that Eben must have cringed at this comment…he HATES to be called a “hipster”…and surfs whenever the waves are good, not just at the weekends!

Sometimes hyperbole isn't enough to get your point across. Shouting "This is the BEST, ever, ever, ever, ever!" wouldn't really even do these wines justice. The quality of Eben Sadie's wines speaks for itself, but usually you'll have to pony up about $40-$60 a bottle to test out that quality for yourself. Somehow, someway, our wine buyer Ryan Woodhouse worked out a deal to bring in Sadie's Sequillo wines direct: for $19 freakin' 99!!! That's just unreal. It’s about half of what they should cost. The Sequillo white is like elegance in a bottle. It's soft and seamless, yet never lacking in acidity or minerality. I took a bottle of his T'Voetpad white (the single vineyard version of this wine) to my anniversary dinner with my wife this year. She fawned over that bottle like a school girl at a New Kids on the Block concert in 1989. Get a bottle of this wine. Get two cases. Get in while it's here. ASAP. You won't be sorry. The Sequillo red blend is soft, juicy, incredibly balanced, and elegant in its profile. It's a testament to quality winemaking and dedicated vineyard practices that manifests itself clearly in the bottle. You won't wonder one bit why Even Sadie is a superstar after tasting this bottle. You'll be wondering why you didn't buy another ten cases for your cellar.

We are the only store in the United States with these wines. Ryan went surfing with Eben on a trip to the region and the two happened to hit it off while riding the waves and talking about booze. It was huge victory for K&L. These wines are a testament to what we do best as a company. Imagine if we landed a cask of Yamazaki for like $40 a bottle, or a barrel of Weller for $14.99. That’s pretty much the whiskey equivalent of what’s happening below, and it's a testament to Ryan's skill and knowledge as a wine buyer. He's doing for Australia, New Zealand, and South African wines what David OG and I have done for the spirits department: bring you the most exciting things to drink on the entire planet for prices you can afford. That's some news-worthy shit. It's some shit you need to know about.

2012 Sequillo Red Blend (Eben Sadie) Swartland South Africa $19.99 - A blend of Syrah, Cinsault and Tinta Barocca. Sourced from vines (many of them old) planted on schist, granite and gravelly soils. Fermented (wild) in large cement tanks and left on skins for six weeks before being basket pressed to large format wood casks for 12 months and another 12 months in cement tank. The wine has pure, bright aromatics of deep, spicy crushed berries, ripe currants, red fleshy plum, granite, and toasted spices and dark red floral tones. The wine is rich and layered but precise and focused. The fruit shows macerated raspberries, logan fruit, dark cherry hints with subtle leather, charred meat and dusty mineral tones showing through the purity of fruit. There is an intense soil quality to this wine that is equally impressive as the quality and fruit and floral tones. A complex wine that I love for its combination of power, purity and subtlety.

2013 Sequillo White Blend (Eben Sadie) Swartland South Africa $19.99 - Phenomenal white wine. The nose is dominated by ripe, roasted orchard fruit, poach pears, preserved apricot and yellow peach. On the palate the wine has a rich, round palate weight, a creamy dense texture that fills the mouth. Beyond the fruit profile there is wonderful savory lees character with toasted grains and pie crust nuances. Underpinning all of this is a dynamic minerality from the ancient decomposed granite soils of the region. A serious multidimensional wine that is rich and crowd pleasing in texture but also detailed, nuanced and bursting with minerality.

-David Driscoll


Spicing Up the Peninsula

There is, in my opinion, one restaurant on the San Francisco Peninsula that can hold its own against any Michelin-starred hot spot in the entire Bay Area. That's not to say there's not a bevy of great places to eat south of the city; but most of them don't have the artistry and the creativity to match the quality of a place like State Bird Provisions. Where is this magical place, you ask? It's about a ten minute walk from my house and, if you feel like treating yourself or doing something special for your significant other, then this is where you go: All Spice on El Camino Real in San Mateo. I went with my wife on Tuesday. It was our third visit, but it was just as invigorating and inspiring as our first.

I'm going to let my series of simple iPhone photos speak for itself, but let me at least say that the food is Indian-themed and the menu is seasonal. I can honestly say that I've rarely had vegetables that taste as fresh and as vibrant as I have in this little house near Highway 92. 

Corkage is ridiculously reasonable at $15. We brought a bottle of Riesling and threw it in the ice bucket while we sipped on a glass of Crement d'Alsace. You're gonna blow about $150 for two people, which you'll be begging to pay again and again as you plot your next visit.

The chocolate terrarium is one of my favorite dishes on the menu. It tastes as delightful as it looks.

Salted rosemary cream caramel. I might go back again tonight. It's that good.

-David Driscoll


The Undiscovered Country (No, Not Star Trek VI)

At least once a week I'll hear someone refer to mezcal or Mexican spirits in general as the next big category for booze development. A bartender in Paris asked me about that very subject a few weeks ago, as did a reporter from a reputable magazine during a recent interview I participated in, along with a few random vendors looking to peddle their wares in our store yesterday. "Mezcal is going to be the next big thing," they say. "It's where the market is headed." Is it? I'm not so sure. Despite the fact that I'll be heading to Oaxaca this weekend (yes, there will be live blog posts all next week) in the hopes of putting together a direct-import mezcal program for K&L, I am not one of the people who believes in this popular theory. I love tequila and mezcal with all my heart, as do I the land from which they originate. I drink tequila or mezcal almost every day. If it were up to me, I'd be living in Mexico right now eating huevos rancheros for breakfast and swimming on the beach all day long, with a bottle of madrecuixe by my side and case of Tecate. I'm as big of an advocate for the category as you'll find and I'm willing to devote all the faculties I have to helping consumers understand and appreciate the products. That being said, I do not think that expensive, esoteric, exotic-tasting, and unorganized agave distillates will ever move beyond a small niche category because everything about them is confusing and difficult to approach. I have no evidence in terms of sales that a boom is beginning, and I have yet to see a strong base of knowledgeable consumers begin rallying around mezcal with any sense of real connoisseurship as I have with both Scotch and Bourbon. I can write you an entire dissertation as to why, despite what I hear each week, the mezcal boom isn't coming, but we'll save that for another time.

The next big thing for the K&L spirits department is already here and it's only going to get bigger: Armagnac. I've covered that before, and we'll cover that subject again later this week when another shipment of K&L exclusive selections hits the dock in Oakland. The yet "undiscovered" future of spirits, however—as in stuff that already exists, but we just don't know about—will not come from France. Nor will it come from the U.S. (where everyone's just starting to make new stuff now). It won't come from Scotland, or Ireland, or Mexico, either. The next big thing in spirits (if such a thing exists) cannot be expensive; much of the reason for the Bourbon boom lies in its reasonable and affordable pricing. It can't be weird because that would mean a lag in appreciation time, so it has to be somewhat familiar. It also can't be something without any traditional sense of place or placement. People have to be able to understand why these producers are making it, and how the quality of what they're doing compares to other popular spirits. Italy, my friends, is a veritable gold mine of stuff like this. It's a boot-shaped cornucopia of tasty, diverse, incredibly-inexpensive, and traditionally-made spirits—from wine-based liqueurs, to bitter amari, to fruit distillates, and all the way up to top-notch brandies that rival some of the best expressions from Cognac. The variety of what's being produced from north to south is just mindblowing and I've begun sequestering more and more samples as time has gone by. I hear people talk about Italy's potential from time to time, but is the general public really aware of how much booze is just sitting between the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, waiting for someone to swoop it all up market it correctly? I don't think so. Sure, every month a few bartenders get fired up about a new amaro that adorns a local cocktail menu for a week or two, but I'm not talking about some Bay Area flash in the pan. I'm talking about serious booze that people will get into and purchase again, and again, and again because it's so damn good. I'm talking about something familiar, that isn't completely new, that can be compared and contrasted against other categories of the genre, and then celebrated for its quality and value.

Let me give you an example:

I'm not sure how many of you follow our Italian wine department here at K&L, but Greg St. Clair (the "Mayor of Montalcino" as he's known in Tuscany) has created the best retail collection of interesting and reasonably-priced Italian selections in the United States, bar none; and most of them are exclusive imports to K&L. He's been traveling to Italy for more than two decades, speaks the language fluently, and knows every producer in every state from top to bottom ("he'll blend in, disappear, with any luck he's got the grail already!") I'm only just now (for some reason) beginning to exploit some of his strongest relationships for the spirits department, and I'm flabbergasted about what's just lying there on the surface (imagine if we really dug deeper!). One of his many wine suppliers just recently introduced me to a producer who is going to be a huge new player for the spirits department: Villa Zarri—a distiller in Emilia Romagna with a stunning portfolio of traditional Italian spirits and impeccable aged brandies. The Cognac-style spirits are distilled on an alembic pot still by Guido Zarri from trebbiano (the Italian version of ugni blanc) and aged in French Limousin oak for at least ten years. They even have vintage releases, like the 1988 version from the photo above that clocks in at 21 years of age and will run you about $84. They are unadulterated, have no added caramel or sugar, and are bottled at 45% ABV with plenty of spice and gusto.

The great thing about these brandies is that they're:

1) delicious

2) ridiculously inexpensive for what they are, and

3) made in a style that's familiar and easy to understand for any lover of aged spirits

That's the trifecta for any new brand trying to make a splash on the market today (see West Cork Distillers as another example) and—because all of this is crystal clear to me—I've already secured everything I can from their entire portfolio for K&L. And this is just the tip of the Italian iceberg! Check it out:

Villa Zarri 10 Year Old Italian Brandy $52.99 - This is the Dudognon Reserve Cognac of Italy; a Cognac-style brandy with ten years of age, and nothing standing in the way of the pure, unadulterated flavor. It's a burst of soft stonefruit with just enough vanilla to balance it out from the Limousin oak maturation. It's basically a delicious and value-oriented version of top-notch Cognac, distilled with extreme precision and care by Guido Zarri.

1988 Villa Zarri 21 Year Old Italian Brandy $84.99 - Just a stunning deal in the modern world of high-end mature spirits. The 1988 vintage brandy from Guido Zarri is a burst of elegant fruit, rich oak, and full-bodied weight without the use of any coloring or sweetening agents like we see with many Cognacs. It tastes like a more fruit-forward version of the Dudognon Reserve Cognac, at a higher proof and with more panache. Considering the age and the provenance, the sub-$100 price point is almost too good to be true.

Besides value-priced brandies of stunning quality and extreme value, Guido Zarri is also distilling a number of traditional Italian liqueurs and digestivos. His Amaro Zarri is like a darker, stronger version of Amaro Nonino. It's not hard to see the thread being sown through his entire line-up of products. Each one you taste exhibits the same attention to detail and supreme grace as the one previous to it.

Villa Zarri Amaro $39.99 - Imagine the citrus and the soft spice of Nonino Amaro, but at a higher proof, with more bitterness, and more weight. This classic recipe from Guido Zarri's grandfather is a must-have for after dinner sipping. An instant contender for top amaro at K&L.

Villa Zarri Brandy alla Ciliegia $39.99 - A maceration of six year old brandy aged in small French oak barrels for six years with cherries from Castello di Serravalle; a small town known for having the best Vignola cherries in Italy. The result is everything you hope it will be: soft cherrie flavor, but without too much sweetness, with the quality of the brandy carrying spice and richness through to the finish. This would be a great way to end a long and decadent Italian meal.

Villa Zarri Nocino Liquore $36.99 - The husks of organically-grown walnuts in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy are gather and macerated with high-proof spirit for sixty days, then rested in stainless steel for one year to create the Villa Zarri Nocino liqueur. Black like midnight from the steeping, the pure walnut flavor is balanced by a subtle sweetness, making it the perfect pairing for a dessert course of simple cakes and cookies.

One of the stereotypes holding back Italian spirits is the grappa association. While I love grappa and grew up drinking it with my parents, the majority of the world does not. So when you're out at your local Italian restaurant, and you've had a glass of Prosecco to start, along with a bottle of Rosso di Montalcino for dinner, what do you sip on for dessert at the end of the night? Scotch, most likely. Or maybe a shot of Bourbon. Now, however, there are some serious brown options for finishing your Italian meal authentically and with style. The Villa Zarri products are simply superb and they represent just one of hundreds of small, boutique spirits producers across the Italian peninsula.

And, like I said, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

-David Driscoll


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