Thursday
Apr112013

Time to Relax (Part II) - Crop Rotation

I ended up grabbing dinner with my co-worker Jim Boyce last night and we sat on his back patio, drinking beer and eating Thai food, taking in the warm evening on the Peninsula. We were talking about consumer burnout, how we could prevent it, and trying to think of the proper analogy to put it into context. I don't know if it was the presence of stars in the night sky or the sight of tomatoes growing in the various pots in Jim's yard, but we started comparing the average booze consumer to a plot of land. Are you ready for some real hippie-dippie philosophical babble?

Crop rotation. That's what will prevent consumer burnout.

What is crop rotation? It's what farmers do to prevent their land from losing its nutrients due to overproduction. Here's a better description from Wikipedia:

In Europe, since the times of Charlemagne, there was a transition from a two-field crop rotation to a three-field crop rotation. Under a two-field rotation, half the land was planted in a year while the other half lay fallow. Then, in the next year, the two fields were reversed. Under three-field rotation, the land was divided into three parts. One section was planted in the autumn with winter wheat or rye. The next spring, the second field was planted with other crops such as peas, lentils, or beans and the third field was left fallow. The three fields were rotated in this manner so that every three years, a field would rest and be fallow. 

Growing the same crop in the same place for many years in a row disproportionately depletes the soil of certain nutrients. With rotation, a crop that leaches the soil of one kind of nutrient is followed during the next growing season by a dissimilar crop that returns that nutrient to the soil or draws a different ratio of nutrients: for example, rice followed by cotton.

What we supposed last night, under the influence, was that alcohol burnout could be prevented by simply rotating the crops at the right time of the year. After a season of single malt drinking, it might be time to let that part of your body lie fallow while you tend to "winter wheat or rye," in the form of a distilled spirit, of course. You might try planting some sugar cane as well, or some savory herbs that could macerated and formulated into a gin. Why not a vineyard as well?

Crop rotation. Is your land completely focused on the production of corn and barley? If so, you might be in danger of sapping its vital nutrients completely. Letting it remain fallow for a while is a time-tested way of preventing complete depletion. 

Or, in other words, of preventing total burnout.

-David Driscoll 

Wednesday
Apr102013

Time to Relax

It's a warm 79 degrees in Redwood City. The memories of Scottish snow are melting away as I walk between the store and warehouse, fetching bottles from the backstock. I'm thinking about the gin and tonic I'm going to have when I get home. I'm wondering if maybe I shouldn't start with a Daiquiri, however. I'm thinking about sitting on the back patio and reading a book before eating dinner, pausing to sip between pages. What I'm not thinking about is whisk(e)y or any of the frustrations that have serious drinkers so angry these days. Obsessing and stressing about whisk(e)y leads to whisk(e)y burnout, something the whisk(e)y industry needs to be very careful about right now. Not financial bubbles, not supply issues, but burnout. More and more people are getting tired of the grind - getting on waitlists, searching for allocated items, the work it takes being a diehard whisk(e)y fan. It's a real issue and it's one we don't talk enough about in the business.

Keeping up with the internet whisk(e)y scene can be absolutely exhausting. You read all the magazine websites, the news pages, the professional blogs, the amateur blogs, the message boards, and all of the comments on each one. You do this because this is simply what whisk(e)y people do, right? By the end of the day you're exhausted and what have you learned? That people take whisk(e)y really, really, really, really fucking seriously. Perhaps a bit too seriously. I've talked to quite a few prominent bloggers lately that are absolutely gassed. They're losing their passion. The same passion that motivated them to start a blog and commune with other drinkers about whisk(e)y has been sucked right out of them. They used to drink whisk(e)y because they liked it. Now their hobby has consumed all of their freetime and their excess bandwidth. This pressure isn't unique to bloggers whatsoever. I've watched some of my best customers buckle under the weight of their collections. Guys who used to come by every week are now merely names from K&L's past. Burnout. Too much whisk(e)y. Not too much drinking of whisk(e)y, but rather too much thinking of whisk(e)y.

I have to think about whisk(e)y all day, but that's my job. It's a frustrating time. I am now allowed to buy one case (a six pack) of Russell's Reserve 6 Year Old Rye per month. I just learned that I will also be restricted to six bottles of Elijah Craig 12 Year Cask Strength per month. On top of that Anchor has now upped my allotment of Old Potrero to a whopping one bottle a month! That's enough supply to last me about thirty seconds once I send out an email. It's almost not even worth bringing it in because I'm going to piss off more people than I'm going to please. Nevertheless, we shouldn't be crying over these things. They're the result of a growing demand for whisk(e)y, something we all spend our time enjoying as well. I noticed today that another six whiskies took price increases on the invoice I was recently sent. Six more whiskies that I'll either have to change the price on or take the hit. But I'm not going to stress about these things. That leads to burnout and I can't afford to let that happen.

If you're feeling like the whisk(e)y world is getting to be too much for you to handle, like picking fights with people on message boards about the quality levels of recent Stitzel Weller releases is becoming unhealthy, like your anger over missing out on Batch 39 of Aberlour A'Bunadh is simply going to consume you, then you need to take a break. Anyone who spends their time worrying about these things is asking for a heart attack and whisk(e)y isn't worth risking your health over. There are many other great things to do with your evening besides drink, blog, take pictures of your collection, and obsess, obsess, and obsess. Yet, this is where I see more and more whisk(e)y drinkers headed.

Burnout is a real thing. It's what happens when you spend too much time thinking about whisk(e)y, or anything for that matter. With every new release, every new limited edition, every new K&L Exclusive comes the pressure to get one before it's gone forever. We're all responsible for keeping it in check. Producers, distributors, importers, advertisers, retailers, bloggers, me, you, the internet. Everyone who cares about whisk(e)y has a duty to watchout for each other.

I'm watching out for myself tonight. I'm drinking some gin. I'm taking a break. I'm going to read a book and I'm going to forget about whisk(e)y. At least for one evening.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Apr092013

Nic Palazzi's New Fruit Distillates

I got an email from my pal Nic Palazzi a while back about a portfolio of high-end fruit distillates he was considering bringing to the states. You could tell he was a bit apprehensive about the decision. On one hand, he was getting the opportunity to represent one of his favorite distillers in the world. On the other hand, the producer had little notoriety in the United States, despite a stellar reputation in his native France, and the prices were not cheap. In fact, they were three times as high as anything comparable on our shelf.  Nic's question to me was: do you think K&L might carry these products if I decide to move forward?

"That depends on how good they are," I said. That's the standard answer I'll usually give, even though I had total faith in Nic's judgement at the time and he's never sold me anything I haven't liked. Shortly there after I received a package at my desk with two samples: a bottle of quince liqueur and a bottle of cherry liqueur. I brought them home to taste with my wife who wasn't really paying attention to what she had been poured. I walked into the other room with my glass to use the computer when I heard a scream coming from the living room. I ran back in to see what had happened. I saw my wife looking at me with huge eyes and a shocked look on her face. "What the hell is this?" she said to me. "Why? You don't like it?" I asked. "It's without a doubt the best thing I've ever tasted with alcohol in it." she said. "Can you get more?!"

I immediately emailed Nic back to get the scoop. Laurent Cazottes is an artisan distiller in the south of France whose love of produce has spawned into a very serious operation. According to Nic, Laurent's father was a traveling distiller who also grew produce, but this was during a time when Monsanto was convincing farmers to use chemicals to boost their overall yields. Laurent still grew up with a passion for farming, but not for the type of practices he observed during this period. He wanted to take the complete opposite approach of his father. Using the same still, he now farms his own flowers, berries, and grapes around his propery, using rare and unknown varietals like Mauzac Rose and Prunelart to make distilling wine. As his dedication to biodynamic and sustainable farming increased, his reputation for high-quality distillates did as well. All of a sudden you could find Cazottes products on the menu at Pierre Gagnaire, Ducasse, Arpège, and Troisgros, Le Baratin and Le Verre Volé. He also began doing contract work. A restaurant might tell Laurent about a special source of blackberries and ask him to use their produce in a special eau de vie exclusively for their establishment.

All of the fruits used by Cazottes in his spirits are hand-picked, hand-macerated, and distilled on his double pot still with only a small percentage of heart cut kept for the final product. You can taste his dedication to quality immediately in both the Mauzac Rose and Prunelart eau de vies. Both are almost ethereal and ghostly (true spirits!) in their aroma and quite dainty in their flavor profile. They're unlike anything I've ever tasted, almost more like grappa than standard eau de vies. Nicolas has also brought in the quince and cherry liqueurs that need no further description because they simply scream quince and cherry. They're not inexpensive, but they're also the best I've ever had, so I'm not in any position to tell Laurent what they're worth. The amount of work and detail that goes into creating them may not be worth it to the average consumer, but these products are not for everyone. They're for a very specific client who enjoys fruit brandies and fruit liqueurs, and appreciates the efforts that Laurent is taking to use only chemical-free produce of the highest quality to create them.

The first four Laurant Cazottes products have arrived at K&L. Nicolas has told me he plans to expand the selection once these four catch on, hoping for the pear and stonefruit distillates in the near future. While I consider myself a retailer that attempts to focus on value, I also feel a responsibility to carry the best products available. The Laurent Cazotte products are perhaps the best in their class. The pricing is as follows:

Laurent Cazottes Prunelard Eau de Vie 375ml $79.99 - The Prunelard eau de vie is breathtakingly pure. It's delicate and nuanced in a way that almost seems impossible with more funky and herbaceous notes, yet total elegance.

Laurent Cazottes Mauzac Rose Eau de Vie 375ml $79.99 - The Rose eau de vie is light on its feet and ethereal in its profile. It has subtlety that goes beyond anything I've ever tasted in an eau de vie.

Laurent Cazottes Wild Quince Liqueur 375ml $59.99 - The Wild Quince liqueur is an odd duck, but it's one that grows on you with each sip. Never having tasted anything near to its flavor, the spice and character of the fruit becomes more clear as you sip, until you almost can't believe how pure it is.

Laurent Cazottes Wild Sour Cherry Liqueur 375ml $59.99 - The Wild Cherry is without a doubt the best cherry liqueur I have ever tasted. It transcends what we think cherry liqueur can be and makes any competitor look foolish for even trying. The tangy vibrancy of the fruit is front and center, with a sweetness that pops with each sip.

Whether these are worth the price of admission will eventually be up to the consumer, but there's no arguing that these spirits are in a category to themselves.

If you don't know who Nicolas Palazzi is he's the guy who brings us as many additive-free Cognacs as possible from his native France. We like him a lot. So does my pal Steve Ury over at SKU's Recent Eats who recently sent me this awesome Meme he created while I was in France. I've been waiting for the right opportunity to post it and this seems like as good of a time as ever.

Magnificant.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Apr082013

New K&L Single Cask of Clynelish

This is a fun one that we picked out from the Morrisons a while back. It showed up while we were gone, so there wasn't much time to hype it. If you like the Clynelish 14 year old, then this is a slightly older, single barrel, cask strength version of that flavor. Fruit, wax, vanilla, all that. Delish. From a refill sherry butt.

1996 Clynelish 16 Year Old K&L Exclusive A.D. Rattray Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - When we go on the hunt for top quality single barrels at K&L, we do our best to provide variety as well. We try not to double up on too many names and we're always looking for whisky that's a bit different than last time around. That being said, we're now introducing our third barrel of privately-bottled Clynelish in less than four years because we just can't say no to this delicious single malt no matter how many times we've bottled it in the past. Unlike the two previous casks, however, this version of 16 year old Clynelish from a refill-sherry butt is the most classic of the three. Our 27 year barrel offered maturity, the 20 year old brought rich and heavy sherry flavor, but this 16 year barrel tops them all. It does everything the distillery is renowned for and it does it extremely well. Lemony citrus, candle wax, oily fruits, and rich vanilla round out this lightly supple spirit. The wax is what makes Clynelish so famous and has made the whisky an insider favorite (many distillers from rival companies will secretly confide that Clynelish is the best single malt in the business). We loved the two previous barrels because they were very un-Clynelish. We love this cask because it's vintage Clynelish. For $100, this is as good as whisky gets. At full proof, this malt needs a bit of water, so add a few drops when you pour it. Then sit back, nurse your dram, and enjoy the complexity of one of Scotland's finest single malt whiskies.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Apr072013

Wrestlemania & The K&L Spirits Blog

Today is Wrestlemania 29 – the biggest event in all of professional wrestling. While I no longer watch the WWE or smaller promotions like TNA regularly, I usually tune in for Wrestlemania simply out of nostalgia. This year I am choosing to abstain from the extravaganza, mainly because I haven't seen my wife in over two weeks and she would kill me if I went to go watch wrestling today, but also because there isn't much mystery about what's going to happen in New Jersey tonight. Triple H will almost certainly get his revenge on Brock Lesnar (and I don't see him losing for a third straight year at the big dance). The Undertaker will definitely beat CM Punk (if not then I will order the replay to watch later). And I don't think there's any doubt that John Cena pins the Rock to take the WWE strap. Those are the three matches I really want to see and I already know how they're going to end. It's too predictable of an event tonight.

So what does wrestling have to do with the K&L spirits blog? A lot, actually. You may not know this (or you might if you've been reading this thing for a while), but the entire model I've used to build this website is based on my years of experience as a super wrestling fan. When I was big into wrestling (mainly 1996-2003), I was a rabid internet reader (yes, there are many wrestling blogs, just like whisky blogs). As scripted and "fake" as the WWE can be, there is a lot of action going on behind the scenes. Basically, politicking. You might think it's as simple as writing a plot line and choosing a winner, but there are some serious egos in the wrestling business (as there are in any business). "Hulk, you're scheduled to lose tonight. Make something happen in fifteen minutes or so." What if Hulk Hogan doesn't want to lose to Randy Savage? What if Kevin Nash goes off the script and says something controversial? What if they can't decide on who's going to be champion? It sounds trivial, I know, but back then it was hugely compelling. When both the WWF and WCW were going head-to-head there were all kinds of rumors about which wrestlers were unhappy and might switch promotions. When one finally did it could be rather amazing, because you never knew for sure if it was going to happen until it did.

I used to run a small wrestling news site in college just for fun, but it fell apart rather quickly because all I really had to offer was analysis. I didn't know anyone in the business. I didn't have any insider sources. Most of what I posted was taken from other people's websites and reposted on mine. I might read what someone else wrote and then offer a counter-argument, but that's as far as I could go. Even with those limited abilities I still had a small readership because I updated it everyday. In the world of internet wrestling geeks "insider" information was golden. We all wanted to know what was happening behind the scenes of our favorite business. Flash-forward to 2009 when I began writing this blog. What was I going to offer that other spirits websites didn't? Industry access. I would make the booze version of a pro-wrestling website and see if that interested people. I knew it would be fun to write, so it wasn't going to be a waste of time if no one liked it. Flash-forward to 2013 and we're getting nearly 20,000 hits a day. 

When wrestling blogs were a big deal the industry paid attention (just like the liquor companies do now). The WWF would peruse the message boards, trying to get a grasp of what the public was thinking. If they read enough negative feedback about an angle, they might change the direction. If they noticed grassroots support for an underdog, they might give that wrestler a push. Basically, the emergence of the internet was beginning to change the way that the WWF and WCW were scripted. There were two schools of fans: the "smart" fans (or "smarks") and the ones who just followed on TV. Wrestlers began to acknowledge these "insider" fans on live television when talking on the microphone. They enjoyed misleading them as well, acting like one thing was going to happen, but then switching it up. While the "smarks" were definitely having an impact on the industry, they didn't have nearly as much influence as some believed. This was proven with disastrous consequences when Ted Turner's WCW promotion got desperate.

In 1998, the WWF (which had been dominated by WCW during the mid-90s) was clearly back on top after the Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and other big names had brought the federation back to life. In 1999, WCW was clearly trailing in the competition and had hired a writer named Vince Russo away from the WWF to give them an edge. Russo was a big reader of internet blogs and he thought catering to the "smarks" would be a way to get business back. It would go down as one of the worst and most costly experiments of all time and would eventually bankrupt what was left of the company. By reading the message boards, listening to the input of wrestling geeks, and pushing critical darlings to the top of the card, Vince Russo lost WCW nearly $60 million in less than twelve months. His new strategy had greatly overestimated the importance of the internet. With obscure mentions toward insider conflicts, esoteric angles that mirrored internal polical strife, and long-winded promos that talked more about business than wrestling, the insider fans became the focus. The casual fans were absolutely bewildered, however. They had no idea what was going on. They began switching the channel over to the WWF in record numbers. 

By 2001, WCW could no longer sustain its business and was purchased by Vince McMahon and the WWE. While WCW was in ruins, the industry had learned an invaluable lesson from Russo's direction: internet wrestling geeks do not pay the bills. The web was (and still is) full of guys who said things like, "If I was in charge, I would do this..." or "WCW is wasting their time with so-and-so, and they need to do this...." Vince Russo had used some of those ideas to terrible results. It turned out that being a wrestling fan and running a wrestling business were two totally different things. The guys who obsessed about wrestling, knew the outcome of every match dating back to 1967, wrote out dream scenarios, and spent every waking hour on the message boards were knowledgable about the wrestling side of wrestling, but they were bad for business. The majority of the population just wanted to have fun. Wrestling wasn't nearly as important to them and they didn't want to participate on that level.

I learned a huge lesson that day as well: in any business you should never solely speak to the initiated. If I were to write a blog that catered only to whisky geeks, then I would lose the readership of the general public I am trying to reach. If I were to write only for the general public, then I would lose the attention of those who I relate with most: the passionate and knowledgeable drinkers. There would have to be a balance between the two. I would have to provide information that whisky geeks cared about, but write it in such a way that anyone could understand it. There would need to be a bit of drama, as well. Like wrestling, there would need to be some sensationalism. Who wants to watch a boring, scientific, well-crafted wrestling match with two uncharismatic, straight-faced athletes? Me, actually. But not many people would! To this day, the best wrestlers are the ones who can tell a story in the ring, not simply execute technically-sound movements. The best wrestlers are the ones who connect with the audience, not simply focus on the details of the match. My favorite wrestler of all time is Shawn Michaels and that man was a master at both aspects. He was charasmatic and over-the-top, but he backed it up in the ring every night. I have a great respect for that.

Today is Wrestlemania, but rather than prepare for this evening's event I am typing up another blog post. While I no longer watch wrestling full-time, I feel its influence everyday when I sit down to write. Part show, part business. Partly scripted, yet sometimes off the cuff. The lessons of wrestling are still deeply entrenched within my psyche. The biggest shows are under the biggest of tents. Everyone needs to feel welcome and everyone needs to have fun. That's what Wrestlemania is all about. It's the Superbowl of the wrestling business. Supergeeks and casual fans gathering together to enjoy something they all appreciate on different levels. That's what I wanted this blog to be about as well. 

-David Driscoll