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Thursday
May012014

Storytelling

When I was studying film back in college, Todd Solandz was the big deal director my peers and I were obsessed with. His incredibly perverse, yet tragically sympathetic film Happiness was my absolute obsession at that time. I was drawn to the way he could make terrible people somewhat relatable, forcing you to think about your own humanity as a result. In 2001, during my final year at UCSD, Solandz released Storytelling -- a film that was not nearly as well-received as his first two, but to me was his most important and thought-provoking. The film is divided into two halves: Fiction -- a short piece focusing on a literature student who writes a fictional story about a real event; and Non-Fiction -- a longer film about a documentary filmmaker who ends up straying from objectivity. The ultimate takeaway from Storytelling is the irony that fiction is often based on truth, while an attempt at a non-fictional narative can take all kinds of subjective strays.

Nothing that Solandz presents in any of his films is ever spelled out for the viewer; you have to form your own conclusions about what he's showing you. I'll never forget some of the conversations that spewed out of the media center after watching one of his movies. Some people were repulsed, others enthralled, and many just plain bewildered. That was the excitement, however; that someone could present something bold and daring that could be interpreted a number of different ways. Solandz never wanted to force anything down your throat; his films were conversation starters, destined for heated arguments and dastardly disagreements. I must have watched Welcome to the Dollhouse fifty times during those years; each viewing with a different group of friends who all took something different away from it.

Thirteen years later, I still think of Storytelling almost every week; when I sit down to type a new blog post, or when I meet with a producer who's looking to craft his or her own narrative. Not everyone tells their story the same way, and sometimes they're not what we think them to be.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Apr302014

Vague Vagaries

I was catching up on American whiskey expert Chuck Cowdery's blog this week and I saw this very appropriate post about the TTB -- the government agency that approves liquor labels for the domestic market. Chuck's best point about the issues we face with labelling was this one:

One big problem is that the COLA process is largely run on the honor system. They expect producers to know and obey the rules. They usually only question something on a COLA application if it is wrong on its face, and sometimes not even then. The problem has gotten nothing but worse. Clearly, TTB is overwhelmed, and their 'honor system' is crumbling. When it comes to consumers being able to trust that the alcoholic beverage products they buy and consume are labeled correctly, we simply cannot.

This is entirely true (as I know from experience) which is how K&L managed to get a 120 year old Armagnac into the United States last year (even though we explicitly told them and the people who bought it that it wasn't actually that old).

But something I've been alluding to lately that some people have seemed to pick up on is that everything in the booze industry is based on the honor system. EVERYTHING. Everything we know is based on what brands tell us. Everything techincal you've read on this blog, or any other blog about booze, was gleaned from the producer. There is no independent quality control agency making sure the whiskies are as old as the labels say they are, or checking up on claims that state the whisky doesn't have additives; no one knows for sure what's in any bottle except for the people who put it in there. We as whiskey retailers (and whiskey fans) and you as whiskey drinkers are taking the brand's word for it every time you buy one of their products. When I say that the K&L spirits blog is not a journalistic resource, this is what I mean. It doesn't mean I'm lying, it means I don't know if I'm lying because everything I "know" is based on what I'm being told (and, no, tasting notes do not count as journalism).

To many of us this isn't old news, but I'm not sure how many spirits fans knew just how lax the regulations were. I'm not insinuating that any one company is lying about their specs, nor am I looking to start controversy; I'm merely looking to out-cynic the cynics. There are people out there who think they're too smart to be fooled, or too on-top-of-it to be tricked into anything (wink, wink). Yet, there are no third-party journalists going around, visiting each distillery to make sure each barrel meets the age statement minimum. The entire business is, like Chuck said, built on the honor system; there are no industry watchdogs looking out for you other than those of us who write about spirits (but who would be stupid enough to believe a retailer, right?) Spirits companies closely guard their secrets, so as a result there are only two forms of writing when it comes to booze -- that which takes the word of the producer for granted, and that which questions it.

What I am definitely not saying (because sometimes you have to be clear and not leave anything up for interpretation) is that there is some giant conspiracy going on, where brands are trying to lie to you, fool you, and cheat you out of your money. I'm just saying that I've been around long enough to understand that things are not black and white in life, nor are they with whisky. I've been to Cognac and had producers tell me they don't use additives, only to see those very additives in their distillery and taste those very additives in their brandy. I know people who have worked at wineries that produce 100% pinot noir, yet remember dumping buckets of syrah into the vat to add extra richness. What I'm saying is that some producers will inevitably fudge the numbers every now and again.

But we live in a world that is increasingly interested in black and white specs -- what exactly is in my whiskey?! I want to know exactly what I'm drinking. We think that by forcing more information on to the label we'll know the answer to this question. Yet, as the TTB has shown us, the label doesn't mean anything. Even if the label says you're drinking 100% single malt, how do you know that the producer didn't dump something else into the vat that he conveniently left off the label? You don't. You'll never know. The only people who will know are the people who put the liquid in the bottle and, believe me, if putting more information on the bottle will help them sell more whisky, they're willing to do it. You want it to say "single barrel, cask strength" on the front? Sure, we'll do that.

Ironically enough, while most people will assume big companies would be the first to cheat the system, I think the conglomorates are probably more honest with their labels because of the greater potential for whistle blowers and the broader effect of the penalties for violating such a law. There are more people involved with the process that likely wouldn't stand for such treachery. But is it "treachery"? It's been going on since the invention of the booze industry! It's only recently that we wanted answers to these specific questions, to bask in the holy purity of a 100% transparent product. We want this information so that we can help justify spending our money, to help us make a decision, and to ultimately increase the enjoyment of our appreciation.

I'm with you here, believe me. I want these things, too.

But I've realized that many of these purities don't actually exist. Things that I thought were clear became much more cloudy when I dug deeper. Which is why I say to you, "just enjoy it." Not because anyone might be taking things too seriously, but because if you're depending on the specs to make or break your experience, you're depending on the honor of the people who made the product. If you're skeptical that brands can be trusted, then you might as well not trust anything you read either.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Apr302014

New Lost Spirits Polynesian Rum

It's here! I know a number of you were waiting patiently, so I thought I'd get it on to the blog and into our stock as fast as I could!

Lost Spirits Distillery Polynesian Style Rum $39.99 - Bryan Davis presents us with a second rum from his Lost Spirits distillery -- a Polynesian-inspired rum that brings the funk and rummy goodness without the sweetness or the richness we experienced in his navy strength. Once again, Bryan states that their are no additives involved with the making of the rum, just natural cask color and pure spirit. The palate is much more fiery and, at 66%, the earthiness of the molasses takes center stage. It reminds me of the Mount Gilboa pot still rum, albeit a drier version of it. The possibilities for mixing are endless. I can imagine Mai Tais, Daiquris, punches, just about anything with rum in it! It's a fantastic contrast to the Navy Style expression and another notch in Bryan's ever-expanding belt.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Apr292014

Detailed Kavalan Preview

With my stuffy nose finally drained, and a much better environment for detailed tasting available to me (our tasting bar), Kyle, Angie (our own Taiwanese-born K&Ler), and I met up with Ian Chang and Wan-Lun Wu from Kavalan in the Redwood City store for some serious sampling. We had Ian all to ourselves for more than a half-hour of questions, discussion, and dealing. Let me start by saying this -- we all left the appointment very impressed. The whiskies from Kavalan are of a very high quality, especially for whiskies between the four and seven year maturity range. What we're facing, however, is another Kilchoman situation -- one that presents consumers with low age statements combined with high price tags, forcing them to decide for themselves if the whisky is worth the extra cash.

Thankfully, much like with Kilchoman, the whiskies are fantastic, so that helps make the decision a bit easier. They're so good that, even though they're quite pricey, you can't help but want to throw down your money right then and there after tasting (don't worry, we'll get them into the tasting bar for a public event so that you can decide for yourself). But I'll tell you this right off -- I am ALL IN on the Kavalan whiskies. I'm throwing all my chips into the stack and betting on them to win big. Let me take you through a detailed account of each whisky to tell you why.

Kavalan Classic Single Malt Whisky (expected retail circa $90) The first release from Kavalan back in 2008 was their classic expression that uses ex-sherry, ex-Bourbon, and ex-wine casks of between four and four and a half years of age for the marriage. The American release will be bumped up from 40% to 46% ABV as well. The first thing that strikes you as you taste it is how un-youthful it is. It might as well be a 12 year from the Highlands, but with an incredible supple-fruited character. It tastes like well-made, mature, Scottish single malt with extra concentration. It's new and exciting, yet familiar and easy-to-place.

At the moment, Kavalan is producing about 1.5 million liters of spirit a year and they've got about 65K barrels laying down in their warehouses. However, they plan on expanding to 4.5 million liters within the next two years to keep up with global demand. I think there's going to be big demand, too. 

Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask Finish (expected retail circa $95) The Concertmaster is aged in ex-Bourbon casks for the first three years of its maturation, before being transfered to Ruby Port pipes for an additional year of finishing. The integration is flawless and perfectly balanced -- there's enough malty texture from the Bourbon maturation with just enough red-fruited sweetness to round out the edges. It never tastes gimmicky or overdone. It's somewhere in between the Glenmorangie Quinta Rubin and the Balvenie 21 year. The Concertmaster is less decadent than the Balvenie, but has more chocolate and cocoa flavors than the GlenMo. Lovely.

Kavalan imports their barley from England, Scotland, and Sweden, but the water is all from Taiwan. They also have their own cooperage on sight with six employees who have all travelled to Scotland, Kentucky, and Spain to learn the techniques of each particular region.

King Car Conductor (expected retail price circa $110) Much like Suntory owns Yamazaki and Hakushu, Kavalan is owned by the King Car Group, which wanted a namesake whisky that would represent the company's involvment with the distillery. The formula is similar to the classic expression, but uses about twice the amount of sherry. The result is a whisky that reminds me quite a bit of something in-between the Yamazaki 18 and the Glendronach 12. It's chewy, but not sweet. There's barrel spice, but also richness. It's going to be a big hit.

Kavalan Ex-Bourbon Cask Strength (expected retail circa $160) The American TTB has rejected the word "Solist" for the Kavalan expressions (no one knows exactly why), so the U.S. bottles will not feature the name. The whiskies, however, will remain the same. Kavalan uses ex-Bourbon casks from Beam, Buffalo Trace, and Heaven Hill to mature their full proof Bourbon expression. The flavors are much lighter with tropical hints of coconut and mango. The high proof keeps those flavors from dominating, however. Great stuff.

Kavalan Fino Sherry Cask Strength (expected retail circa $360) I know what you're thinking: "$360 for seven year old whisky??!!" It's expensive, there's no doubt. But there's also no doubt that this is the best whisky in the Kavalan portfolio -- hands down, no bones about it. It's not like it's the most expensive because of the proof or the age. It's actually the most expensive because it's the best -- and also because getting fino sherry butts isn't an easy task these days. The palate is incredibily round and supple, even at 57.8% alcohol. The richness turns into sweet honey, decadent caramel, and soft butterscotch. It's a total delight. It's like nectar of the gods. Incredbile.

Kavalan Vinho Barrique Cask Strength (expected retail circa $160) Kavalan uses a process, not unlike Lagavulin for their Vinho Barrique expression, called STR: shave, toast, and re-char. In the case of Kavalan, they take old wine casks from Portugal and reseason them to create a dark, heavily-oaked, intense flavor of whisky. It couldn't be further from all the quarter-cask, super-oaked craft stuff we see here in the U.S. This is like a more concentrated version of Macallan Fine Oak that has way more intensity. It's actually quite spectacular, especially with the extra proof to balance the spice.

Kavalan Oloroso Sherry Cask Strength (expected retail circa $180) If you're a fan of the heavily-sherried Karuizawa whiskies, then this whisky is going to light your fire. It's a total sherry bomb, dark and dense, and loaded with big, heavy Oloroso flavor. It's totally concentrated as well, despite only seven years in the butt. That's that Taiwanese heat, I guess. I don't know how else to explain it. It's not youthful or hot or out of whack. It's the real deal -- lots of cakey baking spices, dark fudge, and rich decadent sherry action. All of Kavalan's casks are filled at 59%, so despite losing 10% to the angel's share each year, the whisky still maintains its proof quite well -- neither increasing nor decreasing, really.

So there you have it! I'm sure much of the enthusiasm has drained from your initial curiosity now that you see what these bottles are going to sell for, but we'll make sure to organize a few public events so that you can form your own conclusions about whether or not to purchase. I can tell you this with complete honesty -- I will be buying a few of these for myself.

We're still a few weeks away from delivery, but we'll be back before then for an interview with Ian Chang and some more photos of the production process.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Apr292014

Uncouth Vermouth is Here!

I had read about these in the New York Times last year, but it wasn't until today that I was able to finally try the Uncouth Vermouths for myself. Made in Brooklyn by Bianca Miraglia and dedicated to both transparency and sustainability, the wines are made with ingredients either personally foraged by Bianca herself, or purchased from a nearby farm. You can read more about her mission statement here and further explore the Uncouth Vermouth site here to see photos and learn more about their production.

Having just tasted through the lineup of five, I was quite impressed. These are very much aromatized wines and not liqueurs, much like a more heavily-flavored Lillet. In no way are they sweet or over-the-top, rather focusing on subtle intensity and purity of flavor. I thought the eucalyptus-beet and lavender-chile expressions were the stand-outs, but they're all pretty great. We're not getting any more beyond what we were able to purchase, so these are quite limited to what we have on hand.

David OG's notes are below:

Uncouth Apple Mint Vermouth 500ml $39.99 - The vermouth renaissance is upon us. As excitement builds for aromatized and aperitif wines, there's no question that Uncouth's founder Bianca Miraglia will be heralded as a pioneer if not a visionary. These spectacular products are the result of an unwavering commitment to transparency, sustainability, and creating the best possible vermouth. All ingredients are foraged or sourced farm-direct, while the wines are sourced from top quality vineyards in Long Island and the Finger Lakes. There is never any coloring, sugar, or any other additives in any Uncouth products making them perhaps the only producer of vermouth who can make such a claim. The apple mint vermouth is somewhat of a misnomer because it actually contains no apple. Instead, it uses a variety of mint that has a distinct apple character. Absolutely refreshing and delicious.

Uncouth Beet Eucalyptus Vermouth 500ml $39.99 - Here the eucalyptus takes a back seat to the sweet earthiness of the beets. The color is a vibrant pink and the flavors are perfect for pairing with all types of summer fair or mixing with whiskey!

Uncouth Butternut Squash Vermouth 500ml $39.99 - This is by far the most esoteric flavor profile from the line. The fresh sweet aroma of peeled butternut pops right out of the glass. On the palate and subtle earthiness balances out that strong aromatic element. Seems like this is the perfect accompaniment for your ham or turkey!

Uncouth Pear Ginger Vermouth 500ml $39.99 - This is perhaps the easiest of the bunch to wrap your head around. Straight forward, but incredibly delicious - the creative combo of fresh pear and spicy ginger works wonders. While this is perfectly wonderful on it's own, I'm desperate to experiment with this in my cocktails. There's lots of potential to mix with rum, agave & definitely gin.

Uncouth Serrano Chile Lavender Vermouth 500ml $39.99 - The Serrano Chile Lavender is a wild concoction, using a base wine of sweet racy riesling from the Finger Lakes, the lavender is very subtle, which is good because I was worried it would go soapy. It doesn't! It's the perfect balance of sweetness, acid, heat, and bitter. For some weird reason this kind of reminds me of amontillado sherry or madeira, but then the chile comes in and smacks you around a bit. A triumph.

-David Driscoll