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Tuesday
Dec312013

Reading Rainbow

I was all set to type up a long, reflective article about how I finally had time this weekend to relax, hang around, read some books, and think about the perspectives of others, rather than focus on fine-tuning my own. I was ready to tell you about how wonderful that was and what I thought it all meant, but instead I did some more reading and found Frank Bruni's editorial in the New York Times today.

Now I can keep reading, while you read his column instead. He nailed it.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Dec292013

"Is It The Best Or Isn't It?"

Towards the end of the evening yesterday I helped an older gentleman who was in search of some New Year's Eve Champagne. He had read about the increasing wave of grower-producer options (our specialty) and wanted to pick out a few interesting selections. While he was excited about the possibility of heightened character in the wines due to the smaller production and older blends, he was also skeptical about the whole thing. He was heading into uncharted waters and wanted to get it just right.

"If you were going to pick four–your four favorites–in order from the best on down, which four would you give me?" he asked. I proceeded to select a bottle of Pierre Paillard, Launois, Bruno Michel, and Ariston: four of our absolute best grower-producer options and exclusive bottlings to K&L. "Are you sure about those?" he asked again. "If I were to ask that gentleman at the counter would he pick the same four?"

"Probably not," I answered. "You'd have to ask him. He might like some of these other bottles instead." This halted the customer in his tracks. No longer was he confident in my decisions.

"What do you mean?" he asked. "Are you saying these aren't the four best?"

"Those are my four favorites," I replied, "because you wanted to know which bottles I personally liked. I can't speak for my colleague, however, but let's ask him to see what he thinks."

After another twenty minute conversation with Gary, our Champagne buyer, the man was satisfied in our selections and headed out the door a happy customer. Sometimes it's difficult to separate taste from property. There's often a very fine line between personal opinion and inherent quality. Basically, you've got four different options when it comes to differentiating between the two:

- I recognize that the wine/whiskey is well made, but I don't personally like it.

- I think the wine/whiskey is well made and I like it.

- I don't think the wine/whiskey is well made, but I still like it for some reason.

- I think the wine/whiskey isn't well made, therefore I don't like it.

Navigating between these four options can be a minefield because, in the end, all four of them are still open for debate between any discerning appreciators of booze. When we as consumers become dead set on a fail-safe bottle of wine or whiskey (one that can't possibly go wrong and that we will absolutely enjoy because it's absolutely the best) the idea of standard deviation can be frightening. Yet, there's no way around it. Our recent Faultline bottling of Royal Lochnagar is a great example:

- I gave a small sample of the whisky to one of my closest customers who said, "That whisky just isn't for me." He didn't think it was bad, but he was happy he didn't purchase a bottle.

- I received an email from another customer who was overjoyed with the whisky. "The Royal Lochnagar is amazing," he wrote. "It's so light and refreshing, unlike any other whisky I own. I love it. Thank you for bringing it in."

- Personally, I think the hogshead barrel that matured the whisky was probably on its last legs, therefore offering little richness to the malt itself. It probably isn't the best expression of Royal Lochnagar, but I still think it works on so many levels and I love drinking it because of how purely I can taste the distillate.

- Another customer I know well wrote me an email to say he found the whisky bitter, astringent on the back end, and out of balance.

Right there: four completely different takes on the same whisky (following the four examples precisely) from four people who drink whisky often and understand its potential for variance. Different people can like different things. It's going to happen. It might even disappoint you tremendously (like when you buy a special bottle for a special occasion and no one likes it but you). It might cause you to call into doubt your own credentials as a taster (like when you like something and an online review gives it a low score, or vice versa).

Sometimes we allow the personal tastes of others dictate our own views of inherent quality. For that reason finding someone whose opinion you know and trust is important. I have many customers here at K&L whose palates are completely in tune with mine and will buy (and enjoy) what I personally like. I have many more whose palates are not, but I know what they like and can help them to find it. I've likely given many customers bottles they've gone on to hate and for that reason they'll likely never trust me again, but that's how life works.

As "The Dude" Jeffrey Lebowski would say: "Strikes and gutters." Just do your best.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Dec282013

More History: Contract Whisky

The fact that single malt distilleries once operated on a contract basis, rather than by an ownership actively promoting its own product, is difficult to wrap one's head around for those used to the corporate structure we're familiar with today. However, contract production still continues today in regions like Champagne and Cognac, where brands like Hennessey, Remy Martin, Veuve Clicquot, and Dom Perignon purchase grapes, must, wine, and distillates from smaller farmers, vintners, and distillers and blend them to create their own line of products. Scotland, on the other hand, is full of companies with no interest in renting--they want to own their own source of production to ensure their demands are being met. What if one day the distillery decided to cut off your contract? Where would you go for whisky after that?

This exact problem happened to Lagavulin owner Peter Mackie back in 1908. For more than seventy years the Mackie family had acted as Laphroaig's marketing agent, purchasing the peated whisky on contract and taking responsibility for its financial growth. When Laphroaig owners the Hunters decided to put their son Ian in charge of the distillery, training him to become its eventual manager, he chose to take marketing responsibilities into his own hands (leading to a slew of legal battles) and cut off the contract with Mackie. So incensed was the former contractor with this new development (and unable to secure the whisky he had been representing to clients), Mackie decided to build his own version of Laphroaig inside of his own distillery. He immediately hired Laphroaig's distiller away from Hunter and put him to work at his new custom-built-to-Laphroaig's-specifications still, calling the mini-production Malt Mill.

Hunter went on to hire another agency to help with marketing, but would begin to travel the world in an attempt to sell Laphroaig whisky directly to the public. He convinced the U.S. government during Prohibition that Laphroaig's medicinal flavors were actually medicinal and managed to export product to America for doctors to prescribe. The man knew how to market his booze. Mackie, on the other hand, was never able to get the Laphroaig flavor exactly right and in 1960 DCL closed down the site and turned Malt Mill into the Lagavulin visitor's center. When Mackie passed away in 1924 his company name changed from Mackie & Co. to White Horse Distillers, in honor of the blended label Mackie had created with his peated Lagavulin and Malt Mill whiskies.

We've got an old imperial gallon that's been hanging around K&L since the 1970s. Maybe it's time to open it?

-David Driscoll

Friday
Dec272013

Regional Specialties

I don't read many columns on the internet these days (mostly because I'm so busy writing one), but if there's one guy's work I absolutely do not miss it's David Shoemaker's. As a sports fan, I'm a big admirer of the writing on the ESPN-spinoff Grantland. As a wrestling fan, Shoemaker's approach to the squared-circle is what I wish the K&L Spirits Blog could be–a modern, well-written attempt to take something considered off-beat, esoteric, or cultlish and present it to the masses with clever analogies and easy-to-understand metaphors. My mother, who had no idea what a big fan I was, ended up getting me Shoemaker's new book for my birthday and I've been devouring it over the last week. Don't worry: you don't need to be a wresting fan to appreciate the rest of this article, but I did want to use its history as a purely-regional sport to make a point about alcohol. Shoemaker's presentation of wrestling's territorial days portrays an industry operating quite similarly to the way the booze business has functioned over the last century.

My first memories of the WWF begin in the mid-1980s–about the time Andre the Giant decided to betray his friend Hulk Hogan, ripping the crucifix off his neck, and setting up their long-awaited superfight at Wrestlemania III. What I never fully understood as a child, however, was that Vince McMahon Jr's World Wrestling Federation was something quite new and bold for the sport at that time. No one had ever tried to form a national promotion before. Wrestling in America had been much like liquor distribution in America: regional companies controlled the product in the geographical territories of the country. You had Verne Gagne controlling the Northern Midwest in Minnesota. Bill Watts controlled the Mid-South. The Von Erichs ran most of Texas, and Jerry Lawler operated out of Memphis. Sometimes these associations would loan out their talent, allowing new heroes and dastardly villians to wander into town like something out of an old cowboy movie, but there were no guaranteed contracts for wrestlers, no exclusivity clauses, and you would never try to operate a rival show in their territory. That was completely off-limits and akin to dealing on another dealer's turf.

McMahon's father, Vince Sr, had long controlled the New York scene, but Vince Jr had a grander vision when he took control: he would poach the best possible talent from each territory's roster and create one super-promotion with national TV exposure: the WWF would go mainstream, leaving the regional wrasslin' operations in the dust, and offer exclusive contracts with guaranteed money. He would run shows nationwide, infiltrating areas once off limits to the New York roster, and feature Cyndi Lauper, Mr. T, and other MTV-era celebrities to add legitimacy to his product. Using that model, the WWF grew to become pretty much the only game in town, eiliminating its competition with ruthless promotion or simply by buying it out, which turned out to be bad news for wrestling fans searching for alternatives when the product grew stale. This drought of excitement has recently lead enthusiasts towards a renaissance of interest in the pre-WWF regional promotions–with online DVD trading and YouTube clips allowing access to previously unavailable footage for wrestling fans everywhere. Diehard enthusiasts can now read a book like Shoemaker's, learn about legendary feuds like Bruiser Brody vs. Abdullah the Butcher, and instantly find a clip of their battles online.

With an appreciation for wrestling's history and its regional foundations comes a new appreciation for the art--something that might interest whisky fans as well were they to learn about the olden days of whisky distribution. The early era of whisky marketing in Scotland was much like the era of regional wrasslin' with local operations offering different styles of product -- brand-owned single malts are a relatively new phenomenon for the business and were never something available on a global scale, nor were they owned by multi-national corporations. When you look at the old-timey Gordon & MacPhail labels for Glenlivet, Macallan, Mortlach, and Old Pulteney, you aren't looking at artistic throwbacks; these were the actual labels used for these whiskies back in the early days of distribution. G&M was a company with filling contracts who created labels for the distilleries and marketed their products as such. There was little branding by the distillery itself in that era (Laphroaig was one of the few), as most focused solely on producing different styles of whisky, which they could sell to blending companies. It was up to the buyer of the whisky to decide how they would bring their product to the masses–either in a special blend (a la Johnnie Walker) or as a single distillery product. You might call United Distillers the Vince McMahon of the Scotch whisky industry, as it looked to unite the best distilleries of DCL, Bell, and others under one umbrella and utilize them exclusively for its own blending. Buying the whisky from a distillery with the intention of marketing it was one thing, but monopolizing that talent by owning it? Wow, what an idea!

Perhaps the history of American distribution, with its regional boundaries and mafia-based roots, is an even better comparison to the early wrestling federations. To this day each state still has its own proclaimed turf and its own set of laws about what can and can't happen concerning liquor within its territory. Each state's distribution companies will determine pricing, which is why shipping laws are so complicated. Why would one distribution company want to acquire the rights to a product in one state if another state operation, with lower prices and better deals, could simply send product in to customers via the mail? The formation of the WWE was a huge blow to regional federations because that's exactly what happened to them–via the television set. Up until that point fans had no choice but to go and watch their regional act at a local arena, or perhaps on a local television station. There was little knowledge about what was happening in other promotions outside the area. With a national cable contract, Vince was able to penetrate each regional market and draw fans into his New York-based storyline with all the biggest stars in the business. Imagine Costco selling Glenlivet 12 for $39.99 in Washington state, but K&L shipping it in for $23.50 (which we can't do, obviously), then opening up their customers' eyes to a whole new world of exclusive whisky selections.

However, with the standardization of any business often comes the loss of creativity and diversity. Today's WWE product is lackluster compared to the shows I grew up watching in the 1980s and 90s because there's currently little competition forcing them to do better. For this reason, many fans like myself are choosing to go back instead of forward--to the old stuff we missed out on instead (much like collectors drinking Michter's or Stitzel-Weller from the 1960s–although getting a hold of a video clip is much easier and less expensive than finding an old bottle) and embracing what's now considered a Golden Era for the sport. It's the sterilization of national distribution (big distributors that represent the same products in all 50 states) that sent David OG and I on our global quest to find new spirits outside the norm. Being forced to choose from an importer's selections was stifiling–we wanted to choose our own products from everything possibly available.

And where did we end up going? To find regional specialties like Barallion Armagnac, or Esteve Cognac–products that were not available in the United States until we made them so. K&L sends its buyers all over the world to find Champagnes like Franck Bonville or Ariston, to find Spanish wines like Puelles and Señor de Lesmos, and to bring in the Tuscan secrets like Sesta di Sopra and Ferrero. In essence, we're attempting to build our own all-star stable of wrestlers from regional federations globally, just like McMahon did in the 1980s–only our product is alcohol and our bottles aren't available on a national scale due to shipping laws. In the end, the business models are the same: watch for an exciting grassroots product that you find captivating and attempt to showcase it to the public with your available platform.

The hope, however, is that each regional specialty won't become so popular that it eventually plays itself out due to oversaturation (see WCW's NWO gimmick during the late 90s or any currently available white whiskey). As a consumer, you pray that whichever steward takes that product under its wing and towards a larger audience simultaneously seeks to keep that product authentic and honest (see Paul Heyman's ECW promotion, or hopefully the K&L spirits department). Sometimes, however, a larger company recognizes a regional product's desirability and seeks to acquire that magic as part of its own (see Remy's acquisition of Bruichladdich, the WWF's acquisition of ECW, or the New York Yankee's acquisition of Jason Giambi), thereby stripping the once captivating product of everything that made it captivating in the name of greater business. It takes a specific combination of timing and balance to take a regional speciality towards a national audience--it takes a certain build-up, education, and clear explanation before people will play along, and sometimes even that's not enough.

Because to compete on a national scale can often mean streamlining your product to fit the needs of the masses. Sometimes that means the birth of a cultural phenomenon (see "real American" Hulk Hogan or Stone Cold Steve Austin) and commercial success beyond one's wildest dreams. Other times, it can be a complete flop (see Lex Luger's Narcissus or the American whiskey industry's attempt to make "white lighting" a craft spirit). Sometimes a smaller whisky can compete on a global scale if you can maintain its inherent quality in the process (see Kilchoman), but sometimes the demands of the global market can stretch that whisky too thinly (see the new Walker Platinum or Macallan's new NAS series).

It's clear from the effects of globalization that it's often in the best interest of the consumer for a regional specialty to remain strictly that. But, as the history of both wrestling and whisky show us, the dreams of superstardom are often too alluring for a big fish to remain in a small pond for long. The educated public, however, is beginning to revolt a bit against the status quo, demanding more quality and diversity even within their national, spoon-fed marketing. Regional craft breweries are beginning to outshine (and even outsell) the larger producers on a national scale. Wrestling fans are demanding the smaller-in-stature, yet-technically-proficient Daniel Bryan as their hero instead of the cartoon-muscled, all-American John Cena. Information via the internet has connected the world like never before, but it's also helped to open its collective set of eyes to the wonders happening on smaller scales around the globe. It's allowed WWE fans to monitor up-and-coming wrestlers in Japan and Mexico, building a fanbase for these superstars before they've even debuted on television. It's also introduced beer drinkers on the East Coast to the splendor of the Bay Area's most-coveted Pliny the Elder beer, despite the fact it's unavailable outside of the state.

Information is helping to shrink the boundaries that separate us, while simultaneously demanding they remain the same--in terms of quality at least. A growing number of consumers now want the authentic Mexico City street taco, not the Americanized, crunchy-shelled, Taco-Bell version. They want the authentic Bingo-hall, extreme rules wrestling match, not the glamourized WWE version of it. They want access to the regional specialties of the world, but they want the quality and the intimate experience that comes with it. I have to ask, however: is such a thing even possible? Can the specific detail and characteristic eccentricites of the regional product be maintained under the growing global demand for its consumption? As WWE CEO Vince McMahon might answer, "If that's what's best for business."

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Dec262013

Coming in 2014

In 2009, my first year as spirits buyer here at K&L, the Edrington Group (owners of Macallan and Highland Park) decided they were going to shutdown their Tamdhu distillery, which caught many people off guard considering at that time we were at the beginning of the whole shortage paranoia. Then the property went up for sale and our friends at Ian Macleod ended up purchasing the site in 2011. Seeing that Chieftain's and Isle of Skye wouldn't be enough to sustain the company much longer, they added Glengoyne to their portfolio as well (actually before they purchased Tamdhu). Production began again at Tamdhu in 2012 and now, on January 1st 2014, we can begin selling the new, repackaged Tamdhu 10 year old single at K&L from its new owners.

I got a chance to taste the whisky today and I was thoroughly impressed. There's more sherry than I remember from previous editions and the oiliness of the whisky is on full display. Think of it as a cross between Glenrothes and Glenfiddich, but with more texture and nuance. The price will be somewhere in the mid-$50s, which won't please fans of affordable 10 year old whiskies, but isn't outlandish for the quality of the juice.

I'm looking forward to adding it to our shelf.

-David Driscoll