I'm probably the humanistic manifestation of knee-jerk, off-the-cuff behavior. I'm impulsive, spontaneous, and impatient by nature. There is little forethought put into my blog posts, believe it or not. I usually just sit down and it all starts spewing out. While there are advantages to a quick-thinking, rapid-fire mentality, there are just as many drawbacks. You put your foot in your mouth constantly because you say things without thinking about consequences. You rush an important detail that needed more extensive planning. You continue to think about what's next, rather than focusing on enjoying the moment. When it comes to working with the public, these personality traits need to be suppressed and restrained because patience and listening skills are key. More importantly, when it comes to evaluating a wine or whiskey, rushing to a quick conclusion is the absolute worst thing you can do. In order to better understand distilled spirits, I've had to completely remake my personality and fight against all of my instinctual urges.
Despite my attempts to slow down and consider numerous view points, we're living in a society that continues to reward those who think quickly. The modern 24 hour news cycle is a gigantic panic attack of round-the-clock competition to be first. That's turned our internet culture into a similar phenomenon, with brownie points for the first person to post something to Facebook, the first to tweet on Twitter, and, of course, the first reviewer to blog about a certain whiskey. When people report quickly with opinions based on knee-jerk reactions, it usually results in a chasm of polarization, which is why most Yelp reviews about K&L either paint us as the best store in the history of mankind, or the worst place to ever spend your money. Very few reports are based on a history of multiple visits, but rather one quick trip that has not resulted in a balanced opinion over time.
I've rarely found that my thoughts about whiskey are conclusive after an initial sample. There are so many factors that can influence my feelings and my taste buds at any given moment, so it's difficult to know anything from just a few sips. New information or experiences can also change my perspective. A great example happened just this weekend at Anchor's distillery when we tasted the fermenting rye mash. I've never been a big fan of Anchor's rye whiskies, but after dipping my fingers in the tank and getting a taste of the sweet grain, I had a completely different tasting experience afterward. I understood the Anchor whiskies on an entirely different level because I saw how accurately and purely they reflected the flavors of the malted rye. It was similar to my experience at Glen Garioch when I realized how the whisky tasted exactly like the entire town of Oldmeldrum smelled.
One of my favorite customer stories at K&L involves a man who was absolutely livid with me for my review on the initial batch of Kilchoman's Machir Bay. He thought I had completely oversold the whisky and was very unhappy with his purchase. I wrote him back in an email, telling him to wait a few days, take a few more tastes, and if he still felt displeased to come by the store with the open bottle; I was willing to buy it back from him myself. A few days later the customer sent me an email, writing "I don't know if it was psychological or just that the whisky had changed, but I tried the Kilchoman again on Friday and I absolutely loved it. Am I crazy? Or can the flavors of a whisky change with oxidation? Thank you for bearing with me on this." No, sir, you are not crazy! Whisky can definitely change with oxygen, as it can change depending on what you've eaten that day, or the type of mood you're in. Rushing to a final analysis rarely results in any form of truth or helpful information.
Yet, I've sat on tasting panels where "experts" plowed through a trough of whisky samples like they were oysters, wrote down definitive notes, and awarded medals to brands based on an hour's worth of oversaturated sampling. This is no way to understand whisky, which is why it's often silly to purchase a bottle based purely on accolades and awards. But, of course, the market rewards the fastest buyer as well. We're becoming quick on the review, quick on the response, and even faster on the purchase. If you don't buy a hot new bottle when you see it, you might never get a second chance. It reminds me of my current experiences with house hunting. We've been unsuccessful with all of our bids because we're not willing to overpay and remove contingency.
"You've gotta move quickly," the expert realtors tell me. But that's exactly what I've learned not to do. Being first might initially get you what you want, but you may find out later that what you wanted wasn't exactly what you thought it to be. That's why I'm fighting all of my Pavlovian urges in favor of more careful consideration. There's really no point in getting something if you're getting it wrong.
It is a little embarrassing that, even though I've lived in the Bay Area since 2001 and have been drinking Anchor Steam beer since I can remember, I've never been to the Potrero Hill brewery for a tour. On top of that, I've been the spirits buyer at K&L since 2009 and have been working closely with Anchor's distilling arm since that time. Yet, I've never found the time to stop by their head office and check out the scene at San Francisco's pioneering craft distillery. How lame is that?
Since David OG was going to be in town this weekend, I figured we both needed to check this little task off our list of things to do. We headed up to the city this morning to meet with our friends at Anchor and take a tour of the place. The distillery is actually in the brewery on Mariposa Street; it's located in the back of the warehouse at the end of a long walkway. The small pot stills were installed by Fritz Maytag in the early 1990's and the rye whiskey production began – long before anyone cared about craft distillation, American whiskey heritage, and the rye renaissance.
What's great about Anchor is that they actually buy malted rye and ferment it there on site. Many small distilleries don't do their own cook, but rather contract that part out to a brewery. Since Anchor is a brewery they can handle it all in-house. We got to dip our fingers in and have a taste. Deliciously sweet!
Almost all of Anchor's distillates are transported via tankers to Sonoma, where the barreling and warehouse maturation takes place, but they do have a few casks aging at the distillery. There were a few rye barrels and what seemed to be some experimental projects. We never got full confirmation, but we believe that a bit of the White Christmas distillate has been put into wood.
After retasting the entire portfolio, my enthusiasm for the entire Anchor portfolio was refreshed and reinvigorated. These guys really know what they're doing up there on Potrero Hill and they've been doing it for more than twenty years. And they're in our own backyard!
I'm glad we finally got around to a visit. It was long overdue.
Judging from the feedback I hear from sales reps and brand vendors in the business, we're a pretty easy account to deal with for distribution companies – especially liquor. I wouldn't know for sure, however, because I've never worked for another retailer outside of K&L, and I don't even know anyone who works in another store. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we're never worried about the other guy. Personally, I have no idea what other shops are selling, what their prices are, or what special deals they're offering. I don't keep tabs on the competition and I don't have time to worry about anyone but ourselves (which is already enough to worry about). All I know is based off of what I hear from the vendors who travel from store to store and they always tell me how relieved they are to finally be at K&L.
Sales reps like to gossip a little bit, so I'll usually pick up a fun tidbit about the Bay Area liquor industry while I'm putting in an order or tasting a new product. Apparently, the hot story right now on the scene is us: the K&L spirits department. And when I say "hot" I mean hot with anger, agitation, and annoyance. "You know everyone hates you, right?" one vendor told me the other day. "Me?" I said shocked. "I don't even know anyone! How do they know who I am and what did I ever do to them?" Another rep told me that every time he goes into a certain store they have our webpage up and they scream at him to match pricing while complaining about specialty items. "Are you serious?" I said, laughing out of disbelief. "It's terrible," he replied. One director of marketing told me last week that another store called me "the devil" while she was tasting with them. "How did that even come up?" I asked, half-smiling. "They always bring it up. You're the bane of their existence, offering an exciting lineup of new products at good prices, and it's making them upset," she said.
If some stores hate K&L because they're jealous, or because we're giving them stiff competition, then I'm totally fine with that! That just means we're doing our job well. However, if gaining more recognition from the consumer marketplace is going to piss people off, then I can't wait to see what happens later this year when David OG and I roll out a new super secret project. I'm actually picking him up at the airport in a few hours to start working on it and it's going to be interesting to see where it leads. If it works out like we hope it will, then I think you'll be really excited by the result. And if pushing your job to new limits means that people are going to hate you for it, then we're going to be the two most hated spirits buyers in the world when the news hits. We're going to be absolutely despised.
It keeps rolling in...
2003 Evan Williams K&L Exclusive Single Barrel #1072 Bourbon $26.99 - This monstrous cask of bourbon was the first that we popped after our tour of the Heaven Hill facility. Out of the cask this stuff was thick like syrup. While the proof has come down, the richness is still apparent. This is classic EWSB, strong on the maple, vanilla, and subtle warming spice. It's incredible how texturally different this is to our last barrel even with the exact same proof. Even though we didn't convince them to bottle it at cask strength, showing up in KY certainly has its benefits, they really rolled out a couple of gems for us. Only 144 bottles of this magnificent little whiskey will ever exist.
2003 Evan Williams K&L Exclusive Single Barrel #869 Bourbon $26.99 – Here we have another delightful cask coming from Heaven Hill. This one is coming in just under 10 years old, but it's got the complexity to make up for it. The nose is brimming with oak spice, minty sweetness, and an enchanting bouquet of dried fruits. On the palate what once seemed like a spice monster is much more subtle and balanced. Truly one of the most balanced casks of EW that we've come across. The palate isn't sugary per say, but we have absolutely no heat present and the soft oakiness is nearly overpowered by the persistent fruit. Proof that bourbon can be one of the world's great delicate spirits.
Buffalo Trace K&L Exclusive Single Cask #43 Lot 4669 Kentucky Straight Bourbon $24.99 - Last October we toured Buffalo Trace distillery for the first time and got to select samples directly from the distillery. Getting to bottle our own selections from one of the nation's best and most-popular distilleries is a fantastic way for us to provide something unique and interesting for our loyal whiskey customers. Now that the word is out that Pappy Van Winkle is made at the Frankfort facility, tourists have begun flocking to Buffalo Trace to conduct their own whiskey pilgrimages. When we were there in the Fall the campus was a madhouse of Bourbon aficionados and die-hard enthusiasts. We were lucky to taste anything as the gift shop was completely sold out of everything except cream liqueur. Luckily, there were three solid, classic Buffalo Trace casks there for the taking and we snatched them up. The #43 barrel offered plenty of burnt sugar, toasted nuts, and barrel spice right on the nose, with more on the palate right afterward. The cask yielded a little more than 200 bottles and we're pumped to finally have them on our shelves.
Buffalo Trace K&L Exclusive Single Cask #45 Lot 4669 Kentucky Straight Bourbon $24.99 - The #45 was more herbaceous and full of bold rye flavor with plenty of wood spices on the finish. It's a more intense version of the standard formula with everything dialed up a bit. We're excited to have it all to ourselves!
Buffalo Trace K&L Exclusive Single Cask #79 Lot 4320 Kentucky Straight Bourbon $24.99 - When we visited the Buffalo Trace distillery, we were struck by the historical nature of the distillery. No other distillery felt quite like the majestic brick warehouses that responsible for some of the countries greatest bourbons. While, the crowds were plentiful, hoping to get a glimpse of the new "home" of Pappy, we were more interested why Buffalo Trace was so special. It's clear that their standard line up offer the absolute most diverse and delicious values in American Whisky bar none. This cask #79 is brimming with spice and full of concentration in a way that could only come from a single barrel. There's a balance of richness and barrel spice that really carries through all the way to the finish.
And Faultline returns!!!!
Faultline Straight Bourbon Whiskey $39.99 - We've been doing gin and single malt for years, and now rum, so why not throw our hat in the Bourbon pool? One of the obstacles that kept us from making a Faultline Bourbon earlier was availability: the current demand has made the extra barrel a thing of the past. One of the only distilleries that would sell us a cask for a private label was the old LDI distillery in Indiana, but with the already overcrowded LDI market (Bulleit Rye, Templeton Rye, High West, etc) we didn't think our product would be different enough, or of the quality we desired, for the Faultline name. That's when John Little from Smooth Ambler stepped in and said he'd be happy to help us do something special. If we were going to work with LDI casks, then we needed the capability to blend something special to taste - the specs wouldn't sell this baby. John had some incredible 10 year old low rye formula that we used in conjunction with some 7 year high rye. We kept tasting and tasting until we found the sweet spot at 100 proof. It's FAR better than I ever thought it would be. I hoped we could provide something fun and different, but the final whiskey is phenomenal. It's rich, with sweet fruit right on the entry, a full-bodied mid-palate, and a long, rich, spicy finish. It tastes like it came from Four Roses or somewhere fancy and at 50% it pops in all the right places. I hope we can make another batch like this because this Bourbon is the new king of K&L. Taste it if you don't believe me.
....and we're not done yet!