Keeping the Sizzle in your Booze Life

Has the romance gone out of your love affair lately? Are you coming home, saying nothing to your Scotch collection, and then sleeping in the guest room while the Ardbeg watches TV in the living room? Does your Bourbon not even try anymore, simply settling for sweatpants and no makeup while it dumps itself into a plastic cup? These are signs that your relationship with alcohol might be in need of a jump start - especially if you're no longer enjoying each other's company.

I know a number of people who have had come-to-Jesus moments with booze lately. Some people simply took a month off. Others made it clear that they were tired of the whole "scene." Many found more important and meaningful uses for their time. What was clear to me, however, when it came down to it, was that none of these folks had balance in their booze relationship - some time for themselves, alone, and then time spent together with booze. It's not an all or nothing type of situation. No one likes to be smothered, neither people nor cases of alcohol. You don't have to be crazy "into" whiskey, pour your whole life into it, and then finally decide that whiskey is a stupid waste of time. That's not a booze issue, that's a time management problem. I've gone through all these emotions before, myself. I spend a lot of time with the bottle. I know what it's like to feel completely inspired by alcohol and then suddenly like a total loser, wasting his time in a sea of liquor.

I don't have any choice in the matter, however. Liquor will be a permanent part of my life for as long as I continue to work at K&L. Therefore, I've found some ways to keep my booze relationship hot and heavy. It totally grosses some people out, but it's completely revitalized my love life. We can't keep our hands off each other, whiskey and me. Here are a few tips for making sure you keep the balance in your liquor life:

1) EXERCISE! - Booze will totally bring you down if you don't make some time to exercise. Booze wants you to make the effort, show booze that you care about yourself and your health. That doesn't mean you have to be thin with washboard abs, it just means that exercise seems to be a good way for keeping yourself and your relationship fresh. I've realized there's a very good reason why alcohol is categorized as a depressant - it will depress you. For me, running three to four times a week seems to help detox my body a bit. It also gives me some alone time to think about other things in my life. Another aspect is that I won't run if I'm hungover, so that means no heavy drinking on Sunday, Tuesday, or Thursday nights.

2) Don't rely on the internet for your socialization - It's great to get ideas, tasting notes, reviews, and information from people on the internet. It's great to keep up with people on the internet. However, my customers tell me all the time about how they love meeting up in person to drink. Some of us have a tasting group together that meets every couple of months to socialize and share our booze with. It makes a huge difference in our enjoyment of spirits. If you're bulking up on bottles at home alone, wondering why you're not enjoying your relationship, it's because booze likes to go out. You need to take booze dancing, introduce it to new people, make date nights with friends who also know booze. You can't spent your whole life pent up in the same stuffy apartment with booze. It just doesn't work. I find that spending at least one night out a week with my boozefriend makes for a happy life.

3) Remember why you first fell in love - You both may be different people now, but at some point you loved each other, right? What was it that drew you to single malt originally? Try to think about how you felt during those early years when everything seemed new, honest, and fresh. I deal with that on a regular basis whenever I start to feel jaded in my relationship. "You're not the bottle I married anymore!" I think to myself, but would never have the guts to say outloud. My bottle would slap the shit out of me. Nevertheless, I have to think about what made us such a great couple in the past and continue to work within that mindset.

4) Understand that all relationships are different and be honest - Just because you've had a long and successful relationship based on certain tastes and desires, doesn't mean they'll work for others. Just because John and his bottle are able to drink together seven days a week doesn't mean your relationship will work out the same way. You need a bottle that's right for you. A bottle that will appreciate you as much as you appreciate it. You don't want some amazing, expensive, high-end bottle that looks great on your shelf, but goes and drinks with your friend behind your back when you're working late. Make sure you're honest about what kind of booze you're looking for and what type will work for your own personal lifestyle.

5) Spend quality time together and alone - Booze can tell when you're not paying attention to it, when you're just spacing out while it's talking to you, or when you're drinking it, but really you're focusing on your job. It doesn't like it, either. When you're with booze, make sure that you're giving it your full attention and appreciation. Don't just sit down for dinner, stuff a bunch of food into your mouth, and go watch TV without so much as giving booze a thought. Time together should be special. At the same time, make sure you spend some time away from booze as well. Booze doesn't always want to be around you. It needs time to rest, recover, and gossip about its own interests, about how it doesn't like sunlight and how it appreciates air-tight seals. Those are just interests you're not as passionate about, so don't feel like you have to understand everything about it. Take some time to read, write, play music, do whatever. But do it without booze. Then, when you're together again, you'll really appreciate those tender moments.

These are five easy steps that I follow for my booze relationship. I couldn't be happier with my current situation as a result. It's not easy sometimes and, of course, we have our ups and downs. We fight. We throw things at each other. We kiss and make up. Yes, sometimes we sit alone together in the dark (and you know what happens then!). It takes work, however. Like any relationship, you have to work at booze to make booze work for you. Doing so is completely rewarding and worth the effort, however.

There's no need to give up, walk away, or act like it's not cool anymore. Booze will always be cool. It just needs you to understand it.

-David Driscoll


Tastings Tonight

We've got Darroze in Redwood City tonight pouring the 8 year, 20 year Assemblage, and one of their vintage expressions. Should be dynamite (the 20 year dominated at my tasting group last night). In San Francisco this evening we'll have MacKinlay's Rare Blended Single Malt whisky. Only one thing to taste, but it's a really, really good one thing!

Tastings start at 5 PM and run until 6:30. Free of charge as always.

-David Driscoll


More New Armagnac (and Cognac, too!)

We've just received another big drop of French spirits from the 2013 trip, so I thought I'd take some time to tell you about what's new. I've been very excited about getting the latest batch of Pellehaut Armagnacs, mainly because of the post about Armagnac's down-home appeal I wrote a week or so ago. I received a lot of feedback from people who were curious about Armagnac, but didn't think it represented as good of a value for the money as whiskey. That, or they didn't see anything exclusive from K&L that was in their price range. To be frank, young Armagnac will never be as inexpensive as Bourbon because of the agriculture involved. Grapes cost more than grains, that's just the reality of the situation, plus there's a lot of work that goes into making the wine and the fact that we have to import the bottles across the Atlantic. Then take into consideration the size and scale of these operations - these farmers can never make brandy in the volume that Kentucky produces whiskey, so their sliding scale costs are higher. When we start talking aged expressions, however, you go and find me another 30 year old spirit as good as our 1983 Pellehaut for $84.99. With this new shipment from Pellehaut, we now have three awesome expressions of Armagnac for well under $100. Let's talk about them, shall we? (NOTE: these are in our warehouse right now, but haven't yet made it to retail, meaning you can order them, but you can't pick them up today)

We've got three new selections from Chateau Pellehaut, which is a producer located in the Tenereze region of Armagnac. If you want a bit more info about them check our blog post here from this past March, and also this one here from 2012.

Chateau Pellehaut L'Age de Glace $27.99 - This is the one I've been most excited about receiving, not only because it's inexpensive, but because it's a young Armagnac meant for mixing and drinking with ice (hence the name "Ice Age"). The fruit of the brandy takes center stage here, melding wonderfully with the small hint of vanilla from the wood. It's all Folle Blanche and it's soft, round, fruity, but it still has that little bit of rustic brandy flavor that I associate with Armagnac. At 41%, it's light and easy going, but there's still a lot of character. I have a feeling I'll personally be going through bottles of this. Bottles.

1996 Chateau de Pellehaut K&L Exclusive Vintage Tenareze Armagnac $59.99 - Big, spicy, woody flavor explodes right off the bat from this 17 year old, 50.4% brandy. This is another crossover Armagnac, the one you'll want to buy if you like Bourbon and think Armagnac might be something you want to try. The raisiny fruit aspect of the Folle Blanche comes in on the finish, but this is all about the concentration of the wood and the spice. $60 for all this punch. And someone actually emailed me last week to say that most Armagnac was a rip-off! Come on, man!

1983 Chateau de Pellehaut K&L Exclusive Vintage Tenareze Armagnac $84.99 - Rich, dark-fruited flavors and barrel spices come fast, but the texture is soft and round on the palate. This 30 year old brandy was distilled from Ugni Blanc, but still clocks in at 47.8% despite three decades in wood. I can't imagine this guy hanging around for too long. It's just so far beyond any other mature spirit option we have right in terms of quality and price.

And then we've got our two new work horse Cognac expressions. These aren't quite as value-priced as the Pellehaut, but that's the difference between Cognac and Armagnac, isn't it? Despite the price tags, these are still exemplary brandies that represent the best of what we have to offer from Grande Champagne. As I wrote this past March, "They easily form one of the most polished GC collections I've ever tasted. Refined, rich, but elegant." You can read more about that here.

Putting age statements on your Cognac is a slippery slope when it comes to getting label approval (I know that some people do it, but I don't really think it's legal), so Ragnaud Sabourin decided to call these two No. 35 and No. 20. I'll leave it to you to figure out what those numbers represent.

Ragnaud Sabourin K&L Exclusive Reserve Speciale #20 Cognac $89.99 - Soft, round, with a seamless transition between vanilla and fruit, and a long, lasting finish. This is legit Cognac. It's the real deal. Nuanced enough to please the most seasoned aficionado, but polished enough to excite newcomers to the genre.

Ragnaud Sabourin K&L Exclusive Reserve Speciale #35 Cognac $169.99 - We bought a lot of this Cognac, despite the fact that it's $170. Normally, we're a bit more cautious with expensive booze (because with Cognac we're not obligated to take full casks, we can buy as little or as much as we want), but this Yak is just too good. We know that one sip is all it's going to take to create a number of return buyers. A 35 year old masterpiece of dried apricots, rich toffee, barrel spice, resinous oils, that finishes like velvet. Lord help me, I might drown myself in this shit.

These will be in stock at SF and RWC tomorrow, with our Hollywood store receiving their transfer later this week. And there's still more coming!!

-David Driscoll


Revisiting Sideways - Eight Years Later

In case you haven't come to realize the psychology behind snobbery at this point in your life, snobs usually resort to snobbery because they hate the idea they were once a novice. They so despise being looked down upon, that they go out of their way to be the one looking down. They want to separate themselves as far as humanly possible from the newcomer, the guy who's out-of-the-loop, and there's no better way to do that than to act like a snob – in essence, they're trying to show you how far they've come. The irony of snobbery, however (besides the obvious reality that we all were novices at some point) is the fact that many of the worst snobs are usually far from knowledgable. The snobbery itself is a shield against their own insecurities, a manifestation of the idea that the best defense is a good offense – hence, the pedantic way in which they need to prove themselves.

When I first watched Sideways back in 2005, I was a budding wine enthusiast. I didn't know much about wine and I didn't have much money to spend on discovering it, but I liked the idea of it. Watching a movie about wine only increased my enthusiasm. I saw how passionate Miles was about pinot noir and I thought, "Here's a guy who loves wine, cares about wine, and knows a lot about it. I wish I cared that much about it." That's what I thought back then. Having watched Sideways again this past weekend, however, I have a much different persepctive after six years in the wine business: I now realize that Miles is an obnoxious snob who embodies the worst parts of this hobby. His snobbish attitudes on wine stem from a fear of his own basic inadequacies. What's amazing to me now is how accurately the film portrays these pathetic character flaws and how well developed their roots are. The script reads like a case study in the origins of booze pedantry.

It's no secret that Miles is an anxious, insecure, pessimistic guy. That part was clear to me eight years ago. What I didn't catch back then, however, was how he uses his wine knowledge to bully his friend, buoying his ego against Jack's good looks and natural charm. When they first hit the road towards the Central Coast, Jack reaches back to grab a sparkling wine, which Miles describes as "100% pinot noir." When Jack pops the bottle and pours himself a glass, to Miles's complete dismay, he asks why the wine is white if it's made from pinot noir. Immediately, Miles rolls his eyes, sneers, and says: "Don't ask those kind of questions when we get up to wine country; they'll think you're some sort of dumbass." Obviously, there was a point in time when Miles didn't understand the concept of skin color maceration either, but instead of simply telling his friend why the red grape produced a white wine, he first took the opportunity to belittle Jack's naiveté. That's some Wine Snob 101 right there: explain your knowledge only after you point out how little the other person knows.

What becomes clear, however, upon their arrival to wine country is that Miles isn't as much of an expert as he wishes he was. He definitely wants Jack to think of him as such though, so he continues to put on the charade. When they walk into the Hitching Post in Buellton, Miles says with faux casualty, "This is where I eat when I come here. It's practically my office." This comment is also an example of classic wine snobbery in that it paints Miles as someone "in-the-know" – an insider with all the locals. The bartender recognizes him as he sits down and it's clear that Miles is revelling in this. When he tastes the new vintage of pinot noir at the bar, he instantly says, "Tighter than a nun's asshole. Good fruit," as a seeming compliment to the wine's flavor. "Tight," however, is how we describe a wine with little flavor – a wine that needs time in the cellar to unravel and reveal its potential for splendor. It's not necessarily a negative descriptor, it just means the wine isn't quite ready to be consumed. It seems that Miles is simply parroting a term he's picked up in a local tasting bar, hoping to sound more educated in front of a true wine professional. What's even funnier is that Jack immediately chimes in, not wanting his silence to be mistaken for stupidity: "'s tight."

Back in 2005, I had no idea what "tight" meant, just like I wasn't as aware of Miles's profound snobbish behavior. I was just a guy enjoying a movie about wine. Today, however, I see that type of act in tasting bars everywhere: guys talking loudly about the brix level of the grapes, making bold assessments of the vintage, contradicting the authority opinion to make themselves sound more knowledgeable in return. With my six years of exposure to this type of personality, my respect for Paul Giamatti's acting job has gone way, way up. He's absolutely nailed the insecure wine snob, right down to the facial expressions. One of my new favorite moments from the film is when Mya and Miles decide to open a bottle of Andrew Murray Syrah. Miles swirls, smells, tastes and declares: "Oh wow. We need to give it a minute, but it's there alright." Mya isn't as needy as Miles, however, and doesn't have the chip on the shoulder he does. She's more thoughtful and observant: "I don't know," she counters, "I think they overdid it. Too much alcohol masks the fruit." All of a sudden, Miles changes direction, tastes again, and totally jumps ship to side with Mya's perspective. "Yeah," he says, "I'd say you're spot on. Very good." It's clear that Miles often has an opinion simply to have one, but can be swayed easily or overruled by a more authoritative voice because ultimately he's unsure of himself.

Perhaps the most telling moment of the film, however, is when Miles learns his last chance at a book deal for his novel has been rejected. After making a gigantic scene with the winery dump bucket, he sits with Jack at a picnic table outside and says, "The world doesn't give a shit about what I have to say. I'm unnecessary. Half my life is over and I have nothing to show for it." This scene really resonated with me because, ultimately, that's what I feel the core of snobbery is: a desire to be listened to, for people to pay attention to you, to be the real expert that the world should be recognizing, but isn't. If we didn't care so much about people's opinions of us (or of others for that matter), there would be no need for snobbery, or pedantry, or attention-seeking behavior. That's pretty much the root of it. Miles's biggest fear is that he'll end up meaningless in the game of life, as merely "a thumbprint on the window of a skyscraper." Half of the people who criticize guys like Robert Parker do so not out of any real disagreement, but because ultimately they're upset no one's listening to them. They're afraid that no one cares about what they think or values their opinions, so they continuously make us aware of them. The movie captures that mentality honestly and sincerely, in a fashion that I never could have appreciated back then.

As someone who writes a blog, I get a bit nervous watching Miles because there are many things about him that I recognize in myself – those same desires for attention and for people to like what I have to say. It's embarrassing to think about them, and even more embarrassing to write about them here – publicly. Ultimately, however, I like to think that I've learned from watching people like Miles exactly what not to do and how not to behave when it comes to wine appreciation. One of my colleagues once told me, "I couldn't watch Sideways, not because it was a bad film, but because it was too good and accurate of a film." I completely understand that opinion today. However, it's nice to revisit the movie now and again, if not for the sheer entertainment of the adventure, then for the sheer brilliance of how it explains the mentality of the wine snob, why he is who he is, with all of his innermost insecurities on display.

-David Driscoll


California Cuisine

What is California cuisine? I hear that term thrown around a lot, but I've never been quite sure what it meant. I think it refers to the way we infuse various styles of cooking from the many cultures represented here, but I've never thought of that as uniquely-Californian. I've always thought that regional food specialties should strive to represent something you can't get anywhere else, or at least a concept that one does better than the rest of the world. When a certain culture has been making certain dishes for hundreds of years that experience shows when you take a bite. The best pasta I've ever eaten was in Tuscany. The best tortillas I've ever tasted were in Mexico. I would expect that to be the case. But what are people travelling to California for? What do we do better out here than anyone else?

Judging from the menus in today's hip Bay Area restaurants you would think it's duck liver mousse or bone marrow on toast. But are tourists from all over the world obsessing over our vast selection of organ meat and charcuterie? That always seems bizarre to me, especially since I don't ever remember a tradition of sweet breads or pigs feet growing up here as a kid. It seems like we're pandering to the recent Anthony Bourdain explosion or trying to impress our Francophile friends, rather than cook what we know best. That's why, when my wife and I ate at Flea St. Cafe in Menlo Park this past weekend, we finally got a glimpse at what California cuisine might look like. It was simply prepared, it didn't have a chip on its shoulder about culture, and it wasn't aspiring to be anything but itself. I can't tell you how refreshing that is today.

You might remember that Flea St. is the place right near our Redwood City store where I consulted briefly this past winter, working with their staff on spirits education. For all the time I spent there, however, I had never taken the time to eat a formal dinner. As my wife and I finally sat down at the organic produce-focused institution, we were impressed by how casual and confident the menu was about its selections. The kitchen staff at Flea St. is meticulous about their fruits and vegetables – almost obsessive. But there's never any attempt to preach about sustainability, or write "locally-sourced" next to every single entree, throwing it in your face like many spots do today. They trust that you're smart enough to figure out why each bite tastes so good. And each bite does taste really good. At one point my wife said, "They must be tasting every single fruit and vegetable before putting it into each dish because there's no way each this could taste so good otherwise."

The produce department is definitely where Flea St shines. My wife and I both had a full vegetarian dinner and the simplest things, like a single mushroom or a bite of a peach, were the most incredible aspects of each course. When we were in New York a few weeks back, we talked to a bartender who had just visited California and just gushed about all of our fresh berries, stonefruit, and farmer's markets. He and his wife had driven across the whole state, stopped at various fruit stands, and eaten their way from North to South. That's what he missed about California – the freshness of everything. After hearing that outsider perspective, I was proud to be sitting at Flea St. where I can enjoy all of these flavors without the charade. There was a bit of fusion going on – my wife had the gnocci, while part of my veggie sampler featured a tofu block with a hoisin glaze – but mostly it all just seemed so effortless. It was all familiar and nostalgic – ultimately comfort food, just a really spectacular version of it.

Usually when someone asks me for a fun restaurant recommendation on the Peninsula, I send them to Donato's (an Italian place), Santa Ramen (a Japanese soup house), or Pancho Villa (a Mexican taqueria). These are some great places for Italian, Japanese, and Mexican food. But what about a place that's uniquely Californian? A place that showcases all of the culture with all of the great produce? That's Flea St. Cafe, and that's where I'll be sending people from now on. I had one of the best meals of my life there this past weekend and still can't stop thinking about it.

-David Driscoll