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Wednesday
Nov142012

Holiday Buying Guide - Part I

It's that time of the year - awards and buying guides time (speaking of which, our printed 2012 K&L Exclusive Single Malt guide just hit the store so come and pick one up). I'm going to try and make this a bit more interesting, however, and give you an actual list of bottles you would normally never buy. We all know about the hot new whiskies out there. Heck, the distilleries are probably emailing you directly! We know Lagavulin 16 is a classic malt. We know the Handy Rye is now the best whiskey in the world (factually and literally). But what about some of these guys below? With so much booze landing everyday, it's easy for a really good bottle of whisky to get lost in all the shuffle. We're a drinking culture that's fascinated with the latest releases, so we continue to look towards the new and exciting, rather than last month's calendar girl. So, without further ado, let's get going.

Part I - The Really Good Shit That People Either Forgot About, or Never Knew About to Begin With that Costs Less than $100

Rattray's Selection 19 Year Old Batch No. 01 Cask Strength Blended Single Malt Scotch Whisky $89.99 - In order to make a serious splash in the independent market, the Morrison family started offering some serious older whiskies at ridiculously low prices. Do you all remember that 20 year Auchroisk we had at cask strength for like sixty bucks? Then there was the 21 year old Auchentoshan for around $70. I'm always calling up Stan Morrison and telling him, "You're giving this stuff away!" Not that I'm really complaining, but I want to see this family succeed. As the former owners of Bowmore, Auchentoshan, and Glen Garioch, they've got some serious stocks and, while they specialize in the single barrel releases, their best product is probably the 19 year vatting of four different malts: '91 Auchentoshan, '90 Balblair, '89 Benriach, and '91 Bowmore.

Everyone I know who's tasted this whisky has absolutely loved it. Not just liked it, but loved it. For the price, it's a no brainer. Bottled at 55.8% cask strength, the malty flavors are powerful and intense, with a splash of water really opening up the fruit aromas. There's a pinch of smoke from the Bowmore, but this whisky is really about the layers of richness and the concentrated core of malty goodness. When we did an in-store tasting some time ago with Stan, we were selling cases of this every week. Since then, however, people have moved on to newer, flashier releases that have big hype or glowing reviews.

This whisky is still sitting here, however. The Morrison's are working on Batch 2 right now because they're getting to the end of this inaugural release. This is an easy choice for your single malt lover because it's very traditional in flavor, it's interesting and unique, and I guarantee you they've probably no idea as to what it is. An easy choice for the sub-$100 shopper.

Arran 14 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $69.99 - This whisky is so under-the-radar that I just realized we don't even offer any notes about it on our website, other than a printed review from the Whisky Advocate. Arran has really been stepping it up as of late, offering single cask barrels of impeccable quality, a light and mellow peated expression, and a solid core built around the 10 and 14 year expressions. The richness of the 14 year is quite delightful, full of dried stonefruit with waves of vanilla and salt. I'm a big fan of this whisky. It tastes good and it comes from a good place.

Benrinnes 12 Year Old K&L Exclusive Signatory Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $75.99 - We're never going to get through this barrel, I fear. It doesn't matter how good it is (and it's really good) because no one is excited about 12 year old Benrinnes. We weren't either.  While we were stumbling around the Signatory warehouse we asked Des, our very own Liam Neeson lookalike, if there was anything exciting we should know about. He mentioned this 12 year cask of Benrinnes that was particularly stunning. Whoopie. We were not really too blown away by this suggestion, but we tasted it out of politeness. What lovely richness, concentration of fruit, and subtle sweetness. This whisky is delicious! Hopefully our word is enough. We called Des later and said the Benrinnes was "about to get taken." He didn't get the joke.

Macallan 13 Year Old Hart Brothers Single Malt Whisky $75.99 - It's probably not worth an entire entry because I only have a few left, but this whisky is freakin' delicious. Really, really classic Macallan.  Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay better than the standard 12 year, hence the higher price. One of my best customers has pretty much bought all of it himself. He'll be mad I'm letting you in on the secret. Lots of supple toffee and chewy caramel going on here. Yum.

Suntory Hakushu 12 Year Old Japanese Peated Single Malt Whisky $54.99 - How are we not selling cases of this stuff everyday?! It's delicious, smoky, elegant, and dangerously drinkable whisky from Japan - the hottest epicenter of single malt in the business right now. I'm really shell-shocked that this whisky doesn't move faster. I've polished off at least three bottles of Hakushu myself and I almost never drink whisky at home anymore. Nor do I buy the same bottle twice. This whisky is a double exception!

That's it for today. Just a few things to think about here.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Nov132012

Living in Denial Part II

Sometimes you have so many ideas going in your head that you can't figure out how to weave them together. That's what happened to me yesterday while writing that article about addiction problems. I wanted to talk about denial with life and alcohol, doing things that aren't healthy while trying to justify a reason to continue doing so. At the same time I began thinking about a less serious form of denial that I see in the wine and spirits world every single day. It's the denial that we don't like or enjoy certain things we wish we really did. I suffered from George T. Stagg denial for over a year, trying to convince myself I liked the high proof because I knew other people loved it. I found it difficult however to transition from something more serious into something rather naive and childish, so I decided to break it up into two pieces about denial.

Whereas people who have addiction problems with alcohol might deny the severity of the disease, people with self-esteem issues deny themselves true pleasure because they want to fit in. What I mean by this is that they're too afraid to do the things they really enjoy because they're worried about how others may view it. They simply do what's socially accepted to avoid this conflict. I touched on this briefly via my own issues a few posts back, but I think it's important to elaborate on this subject a bit. There's a certain amount of the population out there that thinks wine, cocktails and food are pretty cool. Not "cool" as in they're merely things to be enjoyed, but rather they're things to define oneself by – the same way a teenager might wear ripped jeans and a Ramones shirt and identify as a rocker. Food and drink have become full-time hobbies, travel industries, and media-oriented pastimes. Over the past five years or so we've seen the rise of celebrity chefs, food travel shows, celebrity bartenders, and booze travel shows. It's now seen as cool to know something about wine, about whisky, and about general drinking culture. Having this knowledge seems to elevate one's status in certain social circles, where knowledge is valued and respected. There is something pretty cool about Anthony Bourdain, I must admit. However, what makes him cool is not the fact that he's a chef or a food blogger or an famous traveling critic – it's that he doesn't care about what other people think so he eats and drinks whatever he wants.  

My friend Steve and I have written a decent amount about what we think is a growing whisky bubble. However, while most whisky enthusiasts await the impending crash with anticipation of lower prices and less competition for bottles, I'm hoping that spirits (along with food and wine in general) become less cool as a result. There is so much denial in the booze world that stems from trying to impress others and it's embarrassing, so I want it to end as quickly as possible. There are too many rules for what you can and can't drink, what you can and can't like, that it's almost like a fraternity initiation ceremony. The rules, however, extend completely beyond the beverage and into the overall lifestyle. If I thought most people were actually enjoying themselves within these guidelines, I wouldn't care so much. However, I hear it in bars, on the sales floor, and I read it on blogs, message boards, and in advertisements - the fear of not following the rules of cool drinking.  There are no rules to drinking, however. They're simply a way for people to feel superior to others. They allow us to think we understand when other people don't. They help us to feel special, intelligent, and educated. We use them to point out the folly of others. Rules have never been cool, however. Breaking them is.

The biggest problem with rules is that they stand to prevent fun, rather than promote it. This drinking dogma is often used to intimidate and condescend rather than foster an educated enjoyment ("You can't drink white wine with that! You can't drink a vodka martini, it has to be gin!"). Have you ever heard someone tell you they don't own a TV? That they don't eat fast food? That they only read books, work on learning foreign languages, and go for hikes up in the mountains? That's the sure sign of someone who has work and fun completely backwards. The people who honestly don't enjoy watching TV aren't telling you about it. They're too busy doing what they really enjoy. It's this odd, fun-depriving portion of society that feels like enjoying themselves is off limits. You're supposed to be exercising or studying at all times, except for when you are mixing a cocktail or having a glass of wine. These people are so serious about it that they wear exercise clothes everywhere because they need you to know that they're either on their way to work out, or they just finished at the gym. Once the exercise is done, it's on to more education. We're at the point where even people who don't exercise are wearing the uniform just because they think they're supposed to!  It's totally crazy!

Guess what? Smart people watch TV. So do physically fit and healthy people. So do cultured, multilinguists. They play video games. They eat McDonald's. They relax every now and then with a bottle of Budweiser or a vodka tonic, despite the fact that it isn't something hip, healthy, or holistic (this was supposed to tie in with Robert DeNiro enjoying his chicken yesterday). Going back to Anthony Bourdain, one of key celebrities of this culture, he completely gets off on bucking the foodie trend despite the fact that he is worshipped by this same sect. Have you ever watched his show (to those of you with TVs)? He loves shooting vodka, eating fried dough, and drinking cheap, cold beer until 3 AM, breaking every rule that serious wine and food people hold dearly. True, he also enjoys fine Burgundy and haute cuisine, but there's always a balance. It's OK to like vodka. It's OK to drink Jack Daniels. It's OK to go against what foodie culture says you're supposed to do. That's what makes Bourdain so enjoyable. Every religion has their own set of rules about what you can and can't do and the food and wine scripture is really no different. It's a form of living in denial that seems utterly ridiculous. Why not just eat and drink whatever you feel like, whenever you feel like it? Bourdain isn't doing it to be ironic, either.  The flipside of this is obviously the ironic backlash - the contingent that does what isn't cool just because it's the opposite of what people expect. To me, that's just as bad. You're drinking PBR because it's the opposite of a glass of Bordeaux, but do you really like PBR? Are you drinking Pabst because it tastes good to you or are you still trying to pad your ironic public perception?

The whole reason I even sat down to write this piece was because my boss asked me about David Foster Wallace the other day. I guess there was a segment on NPR about his biographer and he wanted to know if I had read Infinite Jest. I told him that reading that book was what ultimately taught me the important lesson about doing what I want in life, rather than slugging my way through something I hate just to impress other people. I've been there. I grew up around these people and they made me feel guilty about my own behavior. I followed the rules, got my master's degree in German literature, and fell right into the wine world with the same sense of idealism. What I found, however, is that the pedantry made my life less fun. I wish I liked Infinite Jest, that way it would have been a more enjoyable use of my time. There are some parts that literally made me laugh out loud, but overall I felt it was too long and too full of itself.  In my opinion, Wallace wrote that book for the same reason I wanted to read it - it's an impressive accomplishment.

However, who really cares about these achievements? I did. I cared if I got the Pappy. I cared if I got the Stagg. I wanted other people to think I was smart. To think I was cultivated. To think I was interesting, different, unique, capable of greatness, better than the average person. I was the guy who always had the great bottle of wine, or the rare bottle of whisky. In my own eyes, these were the things that made me special.  However, they didn't bring me more enjoyment or pleasure. I had forgotten how to simply have a drink and talk about something basic and everyday. Conversation became a way to impress other people rather than connect with them.  It's a form of denial. We want to enjoy the things that other people enjoy, talk about how much we love them, but it turns out they're not really enjoying them either.  It's like pouring a glass of wine and waiting for someone else to say it's good before you add your own comment. No one wants to be first. No one wants to be the one who doesn't get it. Until you realize that no one really gets it because there is nothing to get. It's just a bunch of people sitting around drinking - nothing more.

I spent six months going through Infinite Jest, banging my head against the wall, dozing off, losing my concentration, thinking about other things I actually wanted to be doing. It was such a waste of time. I felt guilty for giving up. "I need to tough this out," I thought to myself. But why in the heck would I use my free time to do something that I wasn't enjoying? It's called denial. Denial that I didn't like something I was supposed to like. Denial that I wasn't cool enough. Denial that perhaps other people saw something I didn't. Denial that maybe I wasn't smart enough to "get it." It's this same sort of denial that's going on inside the wine and spirits world and it's ruining all the fun. Drinking is not supposed to be work. It's not supposed to make you frustrated or feel like a novice. It's supposed to bring you enjoyment, just like reading a book or watching a movie.

Look at vodka. People in the whisky crowd won't touch vodka. Neither will the wine people. It's so uncool to drink vodka right now if you're part of the foodie crowd. Vodka is so dead among hipsters it doesn't even have a pulse. It's worse than Merlot after Sideways. However, I went out to a party with my wife the other night and danced until the early morning hours. Everyone was drinking vodka, opening bottles of Belvedere, doing shots, and having a blast. I hadn't had fun like that in years. There was no denial in this room.  Everyone was doing exactly what they wanted to be doing, drinking whatever they wanted. No rules, no food pairings, no snobbery, no condescension. Just fun.

Living in denial is forcing yourself to eat organ meat because it's rustic and traditional, when you know you'd rather have a burger. Living in denial is saying you only like dry wines, despite the fact that you love to guzzle sweet California chardonnay. Living in denial is using your former Comcast money to buy yoga pants when you know you love watching the Real Housewives.

Living in denial is no fun.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Nov122012

Living in Denial

If you're not familiar with the above clip, you should really just go and rent Midnight Run rather than ruin the surprise now. It's one of the greatest films of the past thirty years and it still holds up well today. I remember watching this in the Modesto theater with my dad in 1987 and this was one of his favorite scenes. I didn't really understand what made it so funny at the age of seven, but at the age of thirty-two I'm really beginning to get the gist of it.

There seems to be a lot of "living in denial" going on around us right now. Mitt Romney's advisers and strategists must have been living in denial.  They thought they were actually going to win despite dozens of polls in swing states showing them otherwise. Those are just the statistics of biased pollsters! Don't listen to them! Go out and buy $40,000 worth of fireworks because we're going to win this thing! By reading ESPN.com this morning, it seems that many NFL fans are living in denial. The fact that starting quarterbacks Jay Cutler, Michael Vick, and our own Alex Smith are out with concussions right now is just a funny coincidence according to a majority of poll participants. It has nothing to do with the fact that our football culture as a whole celebrates and worships the big hit at the expense of the players. In fact, if you read the comments, many fans think Alex brought a vicious helmet to helmet hit upon himself by sliding incorrectly! That's just part of the game - getting concussed by a helmet to helmet hit because you left yourself vulnerable. They'll be fine. Just walk it off. I don't want to miss out on the game I love because these guys are too whimpy to keep playing it. You need to think about me, Alex. I'll do and say anything to justify the status quo.

Before bed last night, I was watching Rehab with Dr. Drew and it's amazing to see what addicts will do to justify using. One of my best friends from childhood is still the same way with prescription pills. There's nothing you can do or say to make him understand that he's killing himself. The most chilling part of this particular episode was the presentation from Audrey Kishline, a former alcoholic who became famous for her moderate drinking program in the mid-90's. She wrote a book, landed on Oprah, and cultivated a following for her claim that alcoholics didn't need to be 100% sober in order to manage their disease. She was quite a credible source for this point of view, countering AA with her own MM (Moderation Management), until she relapsed, got behind the wheel, drove the wrong way down the interstate, and killed a father and his daughter in the process. It's not always easy to admit you have a problem with alcohol, especially when you really love the taste of it, but this had to be the worst possible way one could have it spelled out for them.

Going back to the scene from Midnight Run, what makes the dialogue between Jonathan Mardukas and Jack Walsh so entertaining is the tremendous seriousness with which Charles Grodin's character analyzes Robert De Niro's every move. He might as well be discussing concussions or alcoholism with the weight of his words, but in reality it's just a simple man trying to enjoy his plate of fried chicken. While Jack Walsh isn't the healthiest individual with his chain-smoking, high-stress lifestyle, it's not clear that this one act is going to forever doom his arteries. When asked why he would eat the fried chicken, despite the knowledge that it isn't good for him, he answers, "Because I don't think about it." When Walsh turns the table on Mardukas and asks why he would steal mob money and give it to charity, he says, "I didn't think I'd get caught." 

Ultimately, our unhealthy decisions in life boil down to the above logic. We either choose not to think about the consequences or we think the rules somehow will not apply to us. We can let our egos believe that we're the exception to the statistics, but the numbers don't often lie. We can act like concussions are not a big deal, but yet we sit back and watch as more football players commit suicide from trauma-related brain injuries. For those of us who enjoy and promote alcohol usage, we have to make sure that we don't live in denial of abuse and addiction. For as much as I imbibe, I'm very careful to watch for any warning signs of possible addiction - both in myself and in those around me. The decisions we make not only affect us, but they can affect others who have nothing to do with our enjoyment of liquor. Make sure you think about this before you get out your keys after the annual holiday party.

It's better to be living in denial than to be dead and realistic. 

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Nov102012

Holiday Alert: K&L Armagnac Back in Stock

Just got our latest (and last?) load of 1973 Pellehaut.  We've been sold out for the last two months or so. This Armagnac is top notch - easily one of the best we've ever carried.  With the extra richness from the wood it definitely appeals more to Bourbon drinkers, with more rustic producers like Baraillon and Ognoas for the hard-core, country-style loyalists. Plus, if your special friend is turning 40 next year, this is the only affordable bottle you'll find that tastes this damn good.  We've bought everything we can so far, but this may be drying up soon.

1973 Chateau Pellehaut K&L Exclusive Tenereze Armagnac $129.99 - While Bas-Armagnac gets all the press, and the Haut-Armagnac gets completely ignored, the Tenareze region of Armagnac is quietly producing some of the best brandies in the world. Much like the Borderies region in Cognac, the Tenareze brandies seem to have more fruit and a bit more life than the more classic Armagnac style. We visited Chateau Pellehaut on our first day in Armagnac last January and were completely overwelmed by the quality of spirit. Using only new or first fill barrels for the beginning years of maturation, the Armagnacs have richness, weight, and spice. While Pellehaut has since switched to entirely Folle Blanche grape varietals, the 1973 vintage is composed of 90% Ugni Blanc. The palate opens with loads of caramel and a creamy richness the spreads quickly. The aromas are quite Bourbon-esque, with hints of soft vanilla and charred oak drifting out of the glass. The complexity of the brandy is astounding - candied fruit, stewed prunes, toasted almond, baking spices, and earthy warehouse notes, all swirling around at the same time. For an Armagnac of this quality, at an age of nearly 40 years old, the price we negotiated is amazing. I'm expecting this to be one of our best selling Armagnacs ever and I expect it to really put Pellehaut on the map stateside.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Nov102012

Dogsitting

Gotta keep on answering those emails, but at least I've got a friendly old dog keeping me company. My co-worker Ryan is away this weekend so I'm in charge of Buddy. We've made our way through some New Zealand Pinot Noir and a few glasses of Glen Garioch. He's pooped. I'm just getting started! It's gonna be a long night. 

-David Driscoll