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Saturday
Apr052014

Esperance

With all the excitement we're feeling towards Armagnac, Cognac, and Calvados, I thought I would temper that enthusiasm with a few clear cut statements. One -- I cannot promise you that you are going to love French spirits as much as you love single malt whisky or Bourbon. Two -- I cannot promise you that they will scratch the same itch or satisfy the same cultural craze, fulfilling a life-long desire to taste something you'd previously only read about online. But I can promise you one thing: K&L will have the best selection of French distilled spirits in the United States (and maybe the world!) before 2014 is over. So if you want to geek out about French spirits, we’ll have you covered. If you remember our French harvests of 2012 and 2013, then picture in your mind how many new products we imported in those years. Now quadruple that number. And now quadruple the new number. Once again, quadruple your most recent total. That should give you an idea of how many new products we plan on bringing in this year. We're serious about this. There's a lot of value and a lot of variety within the Cognac and Armagnac game, and the best part is: we buy our spirits directly from the producer. There are no middlemen, no corporations involved, and no fancy marketing fees attached to each bottle price; it's just them, us, and you.

While most of what we featured on the blog won't be available until later this summer, don't think we didn't get this ball rolling last year. Some of the products we were previously interested in didn't make themselves available until recently and they've finally arrived, just in time to quench your recent thirst.

Marquis De Montesquiou is like the Sauza Tequila of Armagnac -- a brand that was sold to a corporate portfolio, allowing the family members to strike out on their own and create more serious, small-production spirits. Much like Guillermo Sauza created Fortaleza Tequila and continued on with the family business, Claire de Montesquiou and her husband decided to purchase a small estate named Domaine d’Esperance and follow tradition. In 1990, the couple began planting grapes in the sand-based soil of their Bas-Armagnac estate (a lovely terrain mixed with clay and iron -- perfect for Baco and Folle Blanche) and get the ball rolling. By 1995, they were distilling again Armagnac again.

Much like an American craft distiller might sell vodka or gin while waiting for their whisky to age, the Montesquious sold wine while their brandy sat in waiting. They planted Ugni Blanc and Colombard along with their distilling varietals to allow for white production on the side. Even with the wine, however, we're not talking about a large production at Domaine d'Esperance. On two small stills -- one over a hundred years old, the other from a traveling-distiller -- the Armagnacs are distilled at an extremely slow speed. They only make enough to fill about four barrels each day. Couple that with the fact that they only distill for one week per year after the wines are ready. You can do the math from there: 4 x 7 = 28 barrels filled per year.

Immediately after distillation, the spirit goes into medium-charred new oak made by a local cooper named Gilles Bartholomo. He's a third generation casker who uses local Gascon oak from the Allier and Limousin forests. Domaine d'Esperance is only filling the choicest of spirit into the best possible wood they can buy. The result is an incredbile brandy that at times can mimic the finest American Bourbons, and at others the richest and darkest of Cognacs. While there are a number of incredible values coming from larger producers in the region, the Armagnacs from Esperance are focused 100% on quality over price. They are more expensive because of what it takes to produce them.

Domaine d'Esperance 5 Year Old Bas Armagnac $54.99 - Distilled from Baco, the five year old is a soft and more gentle distillate, despite its young age. The wood is integrated and the flavors are smoother and more rounded. It's a lovely foray into the world of French spirits, beginning with flavors that are easy to understand, yet absolutely high in quality.

Domaine d'Esperance XO Bas Armagnac $79.99 - The XO is a marriage of four different Baco distillates, the youngest being ten years of age. The flavors are rich and full of spice with a lengthy finish of round fruits and salted caramel. Having seen no additional coloring or sweetening agents, this is what XO Cognac drinkers often think they're drinking, but aren't. This is real XO brandy for people who appreciate nuance.

1998 Domaine d'Esperance 14 Year Old Bas Armagnac $99.99 - Bottled at full proof, the 1998 14 year old Armagnac is distilled from Baco and bottled at cask strength. It resembles a solid cask of 14 year old Four Roses Bourbon, more than it does French brandy. With big toasted wood flavors, bold spice, and a solid backbone of charred oak, this is high-level Armagnac of the highest quality. As much for American whiskey fans as it is for Frenchophiles.

1995 Domaine d'Esperance 17 Year Old Bas Armagnac $109.99The 1995 is the richest and most brandy-like of the line-up -- it's dark, dense, loaded with concentrated vanilla and barrel spices, and decadent on the finish. Bottled at full proof and with no additional sweetners or coloring, this is high-quality French brandy at its finest.

Friday
Apr042014

New K&L Exclusives!

In the pantheon of closed distilleries, Littlemill definitely falls short of top-tier status. Collectors see names like Port Ellen or Brora and they get excited, even reverent about the possiblity of tasting Scotch whisky royalty. Littlemill, however, has never seen its reputation balloon in the new age of romanticism. It's maintained a more working class status, while other lost distillery bottles continue to double and triple in price.

This is fitting, however, when you visit the site where the distillery once stood. The hamlet of Bowling, where Littlemill once operated, has built affordable housing on the ghostly grounds. A bit of ruins still remain, but there's nothing left to let you know of their importance other than a street sign that reads "Littlemill Place." You would drive right by it without noticing if you weren't looking for it, which is exactly the case with this 25 year old cask of Littlemill whisky. If you weren't looking for delicacy and subtle nuance, you could drink this single malt down quickly and think it was cask strength Jameson.

But the drinker who appreciates the pure malt flavors on the palate, the little hint of vanilla on the back, and the burst of richness that tickles the finish, will understand its merit. Littlemill will never be recognized like Port Ellen because its flavors and attributes aren't obvious.This cask is a last gasp at greatness from a name soon to be forgotten; a good-bye gift to whisky lovers who long for the past.

We've got less than 300 total bottles from this cask that, to us, is a diamond in the rough. It's not for those looking for big richness or powerful flavor, however; this whisky is of a dying style from a distillery already long dead.

1998 Littlemill 25 Year Old K&L "Exclusive Malts" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $139.99

Astrid Hubert has taken over her family's apple distillation business with a desire to bring Calvados into the modern generation. She wants to make her estate's brandy more fruit-forward and more feminine in style -- "After all, I am a woman!" she told us during our visit in 2013. It took us a year to come up with a marriage of casks we thought worked, but the wait was worth it: for $29.99 there has never been an apple brandy this good on the American market.

The juicy apple flavor simply bursts on the first sip, the fruit taking front and center stage as the cider-like acidity helps balance out the richness of the wood. Try making a Jack Rose cocktail with this! Considering the cost of most Calvados (even those without the quality of the Hubert) this is the type of spirit you buy two or three bottles of, rather than just one. Our problem won't be convincing people to buy it, it will be getting enough of it across the Atlantic to satisfy demand.

Look at Astrid! Look at how jovial and down-to-earth she is. This is the type of person we love buying spirits from.

2006 Domaine Hubert K&L Exclusive Vieux Calvados $29.99

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Apr032014

New Faces/Old Faces

You want to take maritime whisky to the next level? Try using ocean water for your fermentation and aging the spirit in "navy" strength rum. That's what Bryan Davis did for Batch II of his Salinas Seascape single malt. It's intense, as always!

Lost Spirits Distillery Seascape II Single Malt Whiskey $44.99 - The latest batch of peated single malt from local Salinas distillery Bryan Davis is here -- the follow-up to the beloved Seascape, this time fermented with Pacific Ocean seawater and aged in rum casks. The result is a cleaner spirit, but an even peatier, earthier concentration. While the whisky is lighter in richness, it's twice as intense as before. Burnt leaves, resinous smoke, scorched earth, and hints of baking spice overwhelm the palate like a tidal wave. At 65%, it's one intense ride. But we wouldn't expect anything less from Bryan, would we? WARNING: this whiskey is absolutely not for the unadventurous.

And one of our most-successful and beloved Cognac selections has returned! The Ragnaud family makes some good freakin' Cognac.

Raymond Ragnaud K&L Exclusive Reserve Rare Cognac $115.99 - This Grand Champagne Cognac from Ragnaud represents our dedicated efforts to find excellent Cognac without the use of additional sweetners or traditional boise. Distiller Jean-Marie has spent the last thirty years perfecting his pot-still brandies into delicate expressions of the fantastic terroir in the area. He is a firm believer in the idea that the limestone-rich soils of Grande Champagne produce wines that, when distilled, create brandies capable of aging in barrel for eternity. While we originally came in search of single barrel Cognac, we tasted a few out of the cask and soon realized that Grand Champagne Cognac doesn't taste all that great in its youth--and by "youth" I mean anytime in the first 20 years of its life--nor does it taste too great out of the barrel. Usually the blends have more complexity because the expressive "young" brandy is balanced with the richness from older vintages. The Reserve Rare was our favorite of the expressions, exhibiting beautiful concentration and the elegance we've come to expect from world-class Cognac producers. Gentle richness on the entry leads into flavors of toasted nuts, stone fruit and vanilla, before finishing with a soft dash of baking spices. A masterful Cognac that managed to seduce us with subtlety and style, rather than with sweetness and weight.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Apr022014

2014 Sneak Peaks

Just a little teaser from this year's trip, since I know some of you are chomping at the bit to see what we're going to bring in. Very little has been secured in our first few days back, but these selections have been locked down and we've got the ball rolling. I'm not sure yet when we can start offering them on pre-order, but trust me: you're all going to be very happy. George Grant, David OG, and I worked very hard to make sure we got this done the right way: good casks, good blending, good prices. The proofs are not confirmed yet, but you get the idea. Both selections will be comprised of two single butts married together, so they're double-barrel rather than single barrel expressions (but not "double-barreled" as in transfered from one cask to another).

 

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Apr012014

Tasting Tomorrow!

Don't forget to stop by the Redwood City store tomorrow for our Wednesday night spirits tasting with Glenlivet Single Malt Whisky!

They'll be pouring the 12, 15, and 18 year old expressions for free, of course. We start at 5 PM and finish at 6:30.

Free whisky rules.

-David Driscoll