Scotland: Day 1 - Pitlochry to Glasgow

Last year when we visited Edradour distillery and tasted through all the Signatory selections we froze our asses off. There was snow on the ground, ice clinging to everything we touched, and we had to take breaks outside of the frigid warehouse to warm our hands in between samples. This time, however, couldn't have been more the opposite. Spring has sprung in Scotland and we were treated to California-like weather all day long. Edradour is absolutely picturesque as is, but with the sun shining and the flowers in bloom, it was like a fairy tale setting.

The mountain stream was flowing through the main campus and our friends Des and Andrew were in fine spirits and even better form. We were all bubbling with positivity and enthusiasm as we shook hands and said our hellos. That's always a good thing when you're trying to politely pry barrels of rare and interesting whisky away from men doing their best to hold on to it.

We started in the main store with a few new Edradour selections and some vials of newly-acquired casks, but after about thirty minutes it was time to put on our big boy pants and head up to the main warehouse. We knew what we were in store for, and we were up to the challenge.

McCagherty was in the zone; rushing from cask to cask and grabbing samples like a man possessed. We blew through forty different possibilities over the course of four hours. It was a marathon and I was gassed by the end of it. Expect a rehashing of the past: more Imperial, more sherried Glenlivet, more old Glenlivet, more Glen Elgin, and more ancient Caol Ila. All those whiskies are simply too good not to bring back around once more. Don't worry though, we've got you covered if you're into new things. There was plenty of exciting fresh stuff to be had in addition to the familiar faces. I think we're even going to buy a few peated Ballechin barrels. Maybe some thirty year old Linkwood, too. There's a lot to think about, and a lot to look forward to.

It's funny: for all the time we've spent at Edradour we've never actually bought any Edradour whisky. That might also change this year. There's now a new 21 year sherry butt to consider. Andrew let us take a bottle for the road, so I'll have to get back to you when I've spent some time tasting it. We said our goodbyes, made the drive to Glasgow, and got in around 4 PM to sit down with Douglas Laing and start another long round of tasting and negotiations. I think we got enough booze today to last until 2018. 

I hope you're all thirsty. We're pinning ourselves into a corner and we're going to have to drink our way out! Off to eat dinner and have a few pints. More on Glasgow tomorrow.

-David Driscoll


Scotland: Day 1 - Christmas Morning

Awakening at the Craigatin House in Pitlochry each Spring has become my own personal version of Christmas morning. For five years counting now, I have woken up at the crack of dawn, crept down the creaky stairs, let myself out of the main building, and gone off on foot into town to enjoy the serenity of Scotland's most beautiful village. It's become such an important tradition for me that I was almost a bit teary-eyed this morning thinking about it, laying there awake underneath the covers in my darkened room, waiting for the first sign of light to sneak in from behind the curtains. 

At around 4 AM the birds start chirping. It's not yet dawn, but they know the moon is setting and that the sun will soon sneak up from behind the Perthshire's majestic hills. I slowly rolled out of bed, made a few calls to the states, and placed an order with a vendor before putting my walking shoes on. 

By about six it's almost completely light and you can walk safely through town. The mountain air is crisp and cool against your cheeks, the sound of birds is now a symphony of tweets, and there's not another person out and about but yourself. It's completely tranquil. Everything seems idyllic. Your heart begins to swell with happiness.

Just outside town, running almost parallel to the main street, is the River Tummel and the gigantic hydrodam that controls the flow down stream. Every year I take the same road underneath the railway, down the hillside, and towards the stairs leading to the main platform.

Each year I take the same photo from atop the giant barrier and look down into the trees. Each time I hope I can take a better picture than the year before; something that will finally capture the glory of that place at that early morning moment. Each year I fail.

Crossing the river via the dam, you eventually come to the Pitlochry Theater (Scotland's version of Ashland, Oregon) and pass the wonderful Port-Na-Craig restaurant, before coming to the pedestrian suspension bridge—the best vantage point for a look back at the dam.

Something about Pitlochry gets inside my soul and hits every nostalgic button in my brain. I have great memories of being with my grandparents at their cabin in the Pacific Northwest, putting leaves in the small mountain stream near the cottage, and doing my best to follow their progress as they made their way towards the nearby lake. There's something almost Twin Peaks-esque as well about the area, which of course tugs at my romantic heart strings. I love being here. I love being alone on the main path along the river outlet and looking at all the colors—the darkness of the water and the green hue of the foilage. If this doesn't put you in the mood to drink Scotch whisky, then you must be absolutely dead inside.

By the time I get back it's time to eat my traditional Scottish breakfast and drink my coffee in the main dining room. The birds are still chirping. The air is still crisp. But I'm changed. I'm ready to take on the world. I'm ready to go to Edradour, give my old friend Des a big hug, and do the barrel tasting of my life. 

-David Driscoll


London: Day 2 - Keeping Pace With Macgyver

You have to be a drinking professional to attempt this type of journey that David and I do each year. I know a lot of people think it’s just jet-setting and tasting Scotch (and that’s definitely a big part of it), but doing business with people in the liquor industry involves serious levels of boozing—morning, noon, and night. If you can’t hang with the big boys when it comes to handling your liquor, then you’re not going to get anything done. We realized quickly last night that Doug “Macgyver” McIvor wasn’t just a serious industry professional; he was a real contender for the pub crawl hall of fame. Seeing that both of us had been up since 3 AM, I decided that I needed to get a serious walk in before our morning meeting at the Berry Bros & Rudd storefront, so I hiked on down to the Thames and did a four mile loop. David OG went for a run. We had to get the blood flowing and the old hearts pumping.

We met Doug outside the James Street store at 10 AM (at that point I’d already been up for seven hours) to take a tour of the grounds. This was my second visit to BBR (maybe you remember this blog post from 2011), but I had forgotten much of what I had previously learned, so it was nice to get reacquainted. Berry Bros & Rudd isn’t just a historic merchant dating back to 1698. It’s a national landmark located in London’s most prestigious and storied neighborhood.

For example, just across the street are the grounds of the Royal Family: St James’s Palace. Built by Henry VIII in the 1530s, the fortress—according to Doug—is where all the serious royal business goes down. Meetings, business negotiations, and all matters of the high court are handled not at Buckingham Palace, but rather at the James Street locale. Imagine having Prince Charles as your next-door neighbor.

Then, just behind the main store building, there’s Pickering Place: once the location of the Texas Embassy in the 1800s (when Texas was still a country) and the site of London’s last ever official duel. When I say that business in the UK requires a serious commitment to drinking, I mean there’s a hardcore historical precedent already set. The man who lost that final duel in the late 19th century actually went to the pub next door, ordered a pint, and drank until he eventually bled to death right there on the bar stool. That’s the type of bloodline (pardon the pun) we were up against today with Doug.

So what were we doing today at BBR besides drinking? Just shooting the breeze, taking in the sites, and talking shop with the world’s most iconic retailer. If you weren’t aware, the laws in the UK allow merchants to take part in the production side of the business as well, so Berry Bros & Rudd actually owns a number of famous products. They invented Cutty Sark Blended Scotch, which they traded to Edrington a few years back for the single malt label they currently own today: Glenrothes. They also do a number of their own gins and things like the King’s Ginger, which we carry at K&L. BBR also owns a part of Anchor Distilling in San Francisco, so there’s a serious partnership already with the Bay Area and California. We were here out of respect, and out of a desire to begin working together on some exclusive retailer-to-retailer business.

Before sitting down for a serious chat, it’s always fun to check out the BBR family stash downstairs in the cellar. Just a few bottles for weddings, birthdays and celebrations.

And, of course, the vast stocks of aging claret.

One part of the cellar was once used by Napoleon to plan his recovery of France after exile. Perhaps he spent too much time drinking and not enough time strategizing. Another part was used by Henry VIII as a squash court. And I thought the history of the K&L Redwood City store was interesting! We’ve got nothing on this.

You could do an entire tour at BBR just based on old bottles and ancient labels. The amount of historic glassware on display is a history lesson in itself. There’s a legend that the term “the real McCoy” originates from a rum-runner during Prohibition named Bill McCoy, who helped BBR (and a number of other brands) sneak bottles of Cutty Sark into the New York harbor. He was known for having all the best booze, never watered down, hence the term used in reference to his booty.

Then it was time to talk shop. We started with a few drams of BBR Blue Hangar in the main retail shop, before heading over to the local pub for a pint of London Pride. After beers, it was time to grab some food, so we went across the street for lunch and a glass of Champagne, followed by a bottle of white wine, and then—of course—a few glasses of single malt. This is all before 12 PM mind you. Now we’ve got to fly to Edinburgh, rent a car, and drive to Pitlochry for our appointment with Signatory tomorrow. I passed out for the entire ride to the airport, then fell asleep in a chair for about forty minutes before waking up to type this. But that's OK. That's the job. What matters is that we did the meeting earlier today, took our drink like professionals, kept up with Macgyver, and got the serious business done. There will be some trade later this year between two of the world’s leading wine retailers. It just won’t involve any wine. It came at the expense of our livers and the rest of our productivity for the afternoon, but we represented America well. Doug is amazing. I hope some of you can visit the store in London and pick his brain someday. He's a true gentleman and a wealth of incredible information. I appreciated his company even more this time around.

-David Driscoll


London: Day 1 – Jet Lagged Reality

Of all the international cities I semi-frequently travel to, London always feels the least foreign. That's partly because all the signs are in English and the sights seem somewhat familiar—the West End is just Broadway with shorter buildings. There's something very routine about being here, despite the fact that I'm completely out of my element. When we come to London for business, it's usually where we begin the trip, so maybe the jet lag has something to do with my inability to come to terms with reality. But this being my fourth time to London, I still don't really feel like I'm here. I don't know how else to explain it. When I'm in Paris, I know I'm in Paris. When I'm in Rome, I know I'm in Rome. London, however, seems difficult to pin down. It doesn't scream London. I don't really feel like I'm in London right now. I feel like I'm in some weird middle dimension, somewhere between modern day New York and Oliver Twist. 

Our hotel, the Hixton in Holborn, is hip, happening, and very familiar. I could be at the Grove on Mission Street, or in an open cafe near Williamsburg. Lots of closely-sheared heads with long shaggy beards. Lots of tailored jeans with dress shoes. Lots of internet surfing and coffee drinking.

You walk by a crowded square and there are tourists camped out with their suitcases getting ready for their next activity. I could be at the end of Powell St. near Union Square, or even at a subway stop somewhere in uptown Manhattan. I'm completely oblivious to the fact that I'm thousands of miles away from these places.

Reality does begin to kick in, however, once you step inside a small bar or restaurant. With so many new American bars looking to do the whole British gimmick though, I have to try and remember that I'm not visiting an imitation or an homage. This is the real thing. This tiny cocktail lounge in the Dukes Hotel is actually more than 100 years old.

And when we go for pints, I'm not visiting a "British-style" pub. I'm just visiting a pub. That's it.

There is an incredible energy here at night. People are out walking, there's a bar or packed restaurant on every corner, and you feel like you're somewhere very electric. There's a very modern edge to London's age-old, historic, cobblestone streets. With all the technology and scenester fashion, it's easy to forget just how old they are. 

-David Driscoll


London: Day 1 – Transatlanticism

The Airbus 380 is an incredible machine. Two decks of pure humanity. A flying fortress. The quietest and most deceptive takeoff known to man. What a flight! I never even realized we were in the air. That million ton monolith just carves through the sky with impeccible force. And when we came down, state of the art metal and mechanics grinding upon the runway, suddenly I was in jolly old London town. What a trip! The weather was perfect. The air was crisp and clean. I couldn't wait to get out there.

Which London blender had been working on samples for good ole K&L? How many London-based bottlers do you know of? I caught a cab out of terminal five and OG got his ride from terminal three. We met at the Compass Box headquarters, prepared to taste some serious hooch.

John Glaser was out of the office, so we met with assistant whiskymaker Gregg Glass. He had prepared a few possible K&L concoctions in preparation for our arrival. When we sat down we were presented with two initial possibilities. The glass on the left was the clear winner. We didn't need to taste anything else after it. How about a blend of 30 year old Caol Ila with a first-fill sherry butt of 19 year old Glen Ord? Mother of God! Burnt campfire smoke, twigs, savory leaves and foresty notes, rich creme brulee, a note of smoldering ashes. WOW!!! David and I about freaked out. "Yes! We'll take it." Duh. Get ready for this as-of-yet-to-be-named little whisky later this summer.

We had jetted straight over to Compass Box from the airport, so we still needed to get to our hotel and lay down our luggage before the next appointment. We had a 5 PM martini session scheduled with Doug McIvor (better known as Macgyver) at the Dukes Hotel, located in one of the more posh London locales. We were cutting it close. It didn't help that David OG lost his brand, spanking new iPhone 6 in the cab, which required us to track down the driver and get it back. Nerves don't fail me now!

No sooner did we sit down and shake hands with Doug, when our friend Alessandro Palazzi pulled up the martini car, broke out a frozen bottle of BBR No. 3 gin, a container of house-made vermouth, and proceeded to whip up some epic libations. Given my state of exhaustion and current level of nourishment, I was quickly taken under the spell of this potent potion. I was flat out debilitated. But, boy oh boy, was that one tasty martini!

The Dukes Hotel is a pretty legendary place to grab a drink. It's an old-fashioned joint. The type of place that does things the "right" way according to tradition. In fact, the Dukes Hotel is where famed British spy novelist Ian Fleming would sit and order martinis, the likes of which would be repicated in the famed James Bond novels. This was the original inspiration!

After some bar snacks and some serious boozing, the three of us headed over to the local pub for a pint of bitter, before David and I walked back through Chinatown and helped ourselves to some spicy goat and roasted duck. What a first night! One K&L exclusive already in the bag and some serious drinking with old friends to round out the experience. Can't wait to see what tomorrow brings! I'm zonked. Signing off!

-David Driscoll