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Wednesday
May212014

Whisky Season 2014 Kicks Into High Gear

The Signatory warehouse in Pitlochry is the warehouse that keeps on giving. This should wrap up the first batch of barrels due in at the end of summer. We'll get back to you in a few weeks about the second drop planned for later this winter.

Now get ready for more barrels from someone besides Signatory! But, of course, check through these first:

1992 Bruichladdich 21/22 Year Old Signatory K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $139.99 - Now that Bruichladdich has been purchased by Remy and the older stocks have become harder to find, we just couldn't pass up the opportunity to bottle a 20+ year old hogshead of the unpeated Islay distillate -- especially for a price this hot! At 53% cask strength, the malt is bold enough to offer a bit of a kick, yet reduced enough to allow the more delicate side of the whisky to shine. The salty, supple notes are apparent right on the initial sip, bringing back memories of Bruichladdich's "Waves" expression, albeit with much more complexity and age. The stone fruits are soft and enticing, with more saline, maritime notes undulated under "waves" of richness and oily textures. If you were ever a fan of Bruichladdich from the old Susan Purnell days here at K&L, then this whisky is like a nostalgic ride down memory lane. This is the flavor that many a K&L customer cut their teeth upon, and at the price we're selling it for, it's not all that much more than it cost back then. For all the whiskies we taste in Scotland each year, this is the flavor profile I've found most difficult to duplicate -- mature Island whisky without smoke. (David Driscoll, K&L Spirits Buyer)

2002 Bowmore 12/13 Year Old Signatory K&L Exclusive Single Refill Sherry Hogshead Single Malt Whisky $74.99 - Bowmore is ALWAYS such a sleeper for us. Each year, we find a cask or two of Bowmore that we absolutely fall in love with. There are so many reasons why Bowmore is special, it's hard to pinpoint why exactly we love it so much. Is it because they are malting more than 25% of the barley on site? Or perhaps it's the fact that the distilleries main warehouse sit below sea level. Maybe it's the incredible resources and expertise that the distillery has or the peculiarity of the stills. Either way, we are absolutely entranced by most millennial Bowmore. This 2002 was so taught and powerful at full strength that we decided to experiment with bottling at lower proof. When we added water the whisky turned around and smacked us right in the face! What started as a sharp spear of smoky and peat seemed more like a catapult with a flaming ordinance. Not as bracing or angular, the lower proof actually broadens the whisky considerably. It's smoked seawater, strange spices, and wisps of wild dried fruits. Bowmore deserves to be expensive, but this whisky delivers far beyond its price point. Inevitably it will go unnoticed, until you know, someone notices and buys it all. It's always the same with Bowmore, so get a head of it. (David Girard, K&L Spirits Buyer)

1983 Caol Ila 30/31 Year Old Signatory K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $259.99 - We just can't stay away from these old Caol Ilas. Maybe it's because they're the last old Islays available, but we keep coming across these casks of Caol Ila that are just on fire. Caol Ila (arguably the most unsung Islay distillery) was spared closure in 1983, while its sister distillery Port Ellen was not so lucky, and reliably churned out whisky throughout the 80's whisky slump to provide a smoky base to the big name blends. While collectors the world over search for the final few bottles of Port Ellen left out there, few realize that if they just expanded their horizons slightly, they'll find equally wonderful old Islay whisky is still being produced and I might even call it affordable. This spectacular cask from the Signatory warehouses is strikingly different from the 32 year we released last year. Here, we have much less focus on the exotic wood, earth and funk and much more classic Islay in every sense. We can go down the list and describe the expected and clearly evident flavors, smoke, ash, brine, lemon peel, oyster shell, nuts, it's all there. It takes a slightly herbal turn on the finish, but remains above all other things powerful yet balanced. Of course, that doesn't tell you anything about how special this whisky actually is. All I can say is that Caol Ila is one of our favorite distilleries and this malt is exactly why. (David Girard, K&L Spirits Buyer)

1998 Laphroaig 15/16 Year Old Signatory K&L Exclusive Single Refill Sherry Butt Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $159.99 - Des McCagherty is a man of few words, but when he said to us, "You might want to load up on Laphroaig this year," we listened. Apparently, this is one of the most difficult and costly distillates to purchase on the independent market and stocks are depleting faster than ever from Signatory's Pitlochry warehouse. A yearly barrel of two of Laphroaig at K&L has become commonplace since we started our barrel program and we don't want that to change -- at least not while we can help it. That's why we snagged this 16 year old sherry butt of peaty goodness, full of big smoke, cinnamon, tar, and brine, but rounded out by a rich, sherry-laden note that fans of Laphroaig's PX edition will recognize. That combination of sweet and peat is one of the most popular flavor profiles on the market right now, which always adds a few dollars to the cost. In this case, it's fully worth it. The sherry adds the perfect raisiny balance to the bold, ashy flavors of the 61% spirit. If you've already loaded your cabinet with numerous, collectable bottles from Islay's iconic distillery, then I won't say that this bottle will offer anything new to your selection. However, if you've been taking mature, full proof, relatively-affordable, single barrel expressions of Laphroaig for granted, you might want to start thinking about snagging a few of these. That's what we did, at least. (David Driscoll, Spirits Buyer)

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
May212014

The Disease is Spreading

Yes, my friends, the Faultline virus is now expanding its gene pool and infecting other locations besides just the three K&L retail stores. I've allowed a few choice accounts (and close friends) to dip into our inventory and feature some of our selections in their drink-oriented establishments.

Starting right now you can head over to the Coachman on Mission Street in downtown San Francisco and order a glass of our Miltonduff 30 year, Bowmore 16 year, Talisker Speakeasy, and Caol Ila 32 year from Sovereign right off the menu. When you've got the coolest, tastiest selections in town, why not share the wealth?

If you're a Bay Area bar that wants to stock some of our stuff, then hit me up. You know where to find me.

-David Driscoll

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