Weekend Cocktailing

Fall is officially here and the flavors of Autumn are on full display if you go around to some of the Bay Area's best restaurants. My wife and I headed to Flea Street Cafe in Menlo Park on Sunday, a place that once paid me to consult with their spirits department for two months and train their staff on all things liquor. They took much of my advice to heart, but they also ignored a lot of it. Looking back, I'm glad they didn't listen to me about the cocktails because I didn't understand their vibe back then as well as I do now. Flea Street is all about fresh, local produce in their food, so it makes sense that would transition over to their cocktails. I tried to steer them towards the whole pre-Prohibition schtick, but that didn't suit their clientele. Jesse Cool, the owner, is also less pretentious than other restaurant figureheads, so she didn't want to lose the element of fun in place of my more serious school of thought. I tried to get her to ditch the cocktail caddy on the side, but they kept it intact and my wife thinks it's the best thing ever. Shows what I know (very little sometimes).

I dropped in last night to see where Eloy (their humble bartender) had taken the menu and I was blown away. The list featured a number of classic drinks with only a slight variation. Rather than change the spirits or tweak the sweetener, Flea Street just added a bit of seasonal spice. Take the Lavender Lemon Drop for example. The lavender makes the entire drink.

Or the beet-infused mezcal margarita. Eloy boiled fresh beets in a broth of lime juice and sugar to create a beat/citrus simple syrup. Coupled with the smokey tang of the mezcal, it drinks like a harvest time dream.

Mixing cocktails with fresh produce can be as simple as just macerating fresh ginger into your tonic water before adding it to your gin. The Ginger Gin & Tonic was outstanding (because I switched them over to North Shore #11, I will take some credit) and it was just what I felt like sipping on mid-meal. By the way, if you've never eaten at Flea Street you're missing out on one of the Peninsula's great institutions. I've never had a meal there that was anything less than jaw-dropping. Besides the booze, we gorged on wild salmon crudo with fresh slaw, fried green tomatoes with a summer corn salsa, butternut squash soup, and all kinds of other subtle delights. I consider Flea Street to be Chez Panisse West. Jesse Cool is our Alice Waters.

And, of course, sitting around the house I'm just draining this bottle of Singani 63. I've drunk three bottles now in total and I'm still searching for a way to mess it up. It's like the ketchup of the bar. This is the only cocktail I've mixed so far that didn't work--a floral take on a Pimm's Cup that was totally out of whack. Too much soapy violet with the Pimm's in conjunction. But one drink out of fifty-seven isn't so bad! Singani continues to dominate my attention right now.

-David Driscoll


What's Really Good? (Updated 9/20/14)

I remember when the K&L spirits blog used to be just about updating customers on "what's really good" from our current selection. It was a way for David and I to carefully examine our spirits selection and come up with "the best" choices for discerning customers who wanted our personal opinion. But, of course, that was when you had "the best" selections available whenever you wanted them. That was when Black Maple Hill 16 and Vintage 17 Bourbons sat on the shelf all day long. Things are obviously different today, so I don't really see the point in writing that kind of blog anymore (nor am I really interested in that subject these days, anyway). Drinking "the best" spirits in today's market will require one or both of two things:

1) Time to call every store, scour every location, and troll every retailer website around the world.

2) Money to blow on the prices "the best" spirits are demanding (and "the so-so" ones, too).

If you asked me what "the best" Bourbons are—my personal favorites—I'd probably go in this order:

-Four Rose's Limited Edition Small Batch 

-Weller 12 Year Old


-Any of the Pappy Van Winkles

Those are the four Bourbons I would choose to drink if I wanted to drink "the best" American whiskies. Telling that to customers, however, is pointless because none of those whiskies are currently available on my shelf, nor will they be any time soon (if ever again, because most of this stuff either needs to be raffled, or it sells off the web in seconds). So there's no point in talking about what "the best" whiskies are anymore. It's about what you can actually get, and what hasn't doubled in price. I think most of us know that at this point, but it's always good to remind people every now and again.

I stopped worrying about "the best" years ago. It's great to try the best, to know the best, and to understand what makes one spirit "better" than another, but it's often not worth the struggle in my opinion. There are so many interesting things going on with spirits these days that I find I'd rather drink something new, exciting, or different than a better version of something I've already had. I could grab a bottle of Pappy for myself if I wanted to, or build a bunker of great bottles, but the truth is I don't get off on that. I just need a sip to remind myself every now and again—that's it. 

Enjoying "the best" whiskies available to man is a futile task in this current shortage. But the vacuum left in their absence is allowing for an entirely new wave of producers to try their hand at this whiskey thing. There's so much new stuff going on right now in the industry that you'd be crazy to sit on the sidelines and let it all pass you by (needless to say, I know plenty of grumpy grouches doing just that). With that philosophy in mind, I'll give you a list of a few things that I think are really fantastic right now and that I personally really enjoy:

1) Corbin Cash Rye Whiskey $46.99 - If you're going to compare this against that Van Winkle Reserve 13 year bottle you've got at home, then fuck off. This isn't for you. The Corbin rye is for people who think it's awesome that the liquid in this very interesting bottle comes from local rye grain, planted and harvested by David Souza in Atwater, CA as a cover crop for his sweet potato fields. The fact that it tastes great is an afterthought. It's all about the concept and the functionality. That's what makes drinking the Corbin rye enjoyable, in my opinion. If you're so pissed off about Templeton sourcing MGP whiskey, then go out and support someone like David doing everything from scratch simply because he loves it.

2) Westland Single Malt Whiskey $69.99 - I got to have lunch with Emerson Lamb from Westland Distillery a few weeks ago and I was very impressed with what he had to say. The guys at Westland in Seattle understand everything about this business in a very honest and positive way. They didn't jump into this adventure blindly. They dotted their i's and crossed their t's before investing in their infrastructure and it shows in their product. Their standard single malt whiskey is right there with Cut Spike as one of the best American versions on the market. Emerson brought me a sample of a new peated expression that was also stunning. Again, if you're going to compare this against Glendronach 12 or other older Scottish expressions, then you're missing the point. Those looking for price-performing comparisons need not apply. The Westland is for those of us who love trying new things from enterprising new producers. It transcends the abysmal craft scene, and extends to a new range of young new producers who respect their customers too much to offer them anything less than top-quality whiskey. 

3) Kavalan King Car Conductor Taiwanese Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - Sherry, sherry, and more sherry. Get over the fact that it's young and from Taiwan, and revel in its spectacular flavor. Sure, you could get a bottle of Glenmorangie 18 instead, and maybe the Glenmo 18 is a better whisky. But I'm not going to eat pizza every night just because it's better and cheaper than sushi. 

4) Nikka Coffey Still Japanese Grain Whisky $62.99 - YUM! Japanese grain whisky distilled on a Coffey column still, aged in sherry! Nope, there's no age statement. That's right—you don't know how old it is. Yes, it is more expensive than Aberlour 12 NCF, by about $13 per bottle. What would I choose? I think you know the answer. If you're hung up on the whole grain thing, then don't get one. No one's twisting your arm. There's not enough of it for those of us who love it, anyway. We had to slap an allocation on it a few weeks back. In fact, don't get a bottle. This whisky sucks. No one likes it but me.

5) Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Gin 375ml $44.99 - Our old German wine buyer Jeff Vierra emailed me this week to ask me if Christoph Keller was actually going to be in the SF store this Wednesday for the big Monkey 47 tasting. "Indeed, he will be," I replied. "That guy makes the best schnapps in the world, hands down," he answered back. Believe the hype. It's on another level. You want "the best" gin? It's here right now.

-David Driscoll


In the Name of Better Relations

Last night I watched an old episode of Monsters where two men end up killing an alien they think is hostile, only to see that he's holding a sign that says "Merry Christmas" after he's dead. They walk around the corner of the hallway to find a decorated Christmas tree and discover that one of the guy's daughter helped with the festivities.

"Daddy, where's my friend Glim-Glim?" she says. "You didn't hurt him did you?"

I remember watching that episode when I was eight years old and crying uncontrollably. "If they had only stopped for a second to see he was trying to be their friend", I thought to myself. Sometimes, however, people shoot first and ask questions later. I find this type of scenario can happen often around the retail store, so I thought I'd try to explain a few things that in-store shoppers may not be aware of—in the name of better relations.

Every morning when I get to K&L, the first thing I do after dropping my wallet and phone down on my desk is head to the warehouse for stocking. It's not only about filling the shelves and making the store look nice, it's also about emptying boxes so that we have enough carry-out materials for the day. I spend at least two hours each day cutting off the tops, pulling out the bottles, and getting a stack of empties ready for the retail grind. When people buy wine at a wine store, they expect an empty box will be available at purchase time to help facilitate the journey back to their car. Boxes are always an issue for us, however. Think of it this way: they come in with twelve bottles inside, but often leave with six or seven.

The recent bag law in San Mateo County has only made this worse. By law, we have to charge customers ten cents if they would like a paper bag—even just a one bottle sleeve to walk out the door with. It's not like ten cents is a big deal, but you wouldn't believe (or maybe you would) what people will do to get out of paying it. The first thing they'll say is: well can I have a box instead? Because of this inevitable daily situation, we had to start enforcing a six bottle or more rule for all empty boxes, just to cut down on the losses. We also started paying a large truck to deliver empty wine boxes from wineries once a week—our manager coordinating delivery before the store opens each Tuesday. We began stashing what little extras we did have in the attic for winter rations, and we even ordered a set of do-it-yourself, put-them-together box kits just in case things get really hairy. It's at the point where boxes cause us a great deal of stress.

So when a customer comes in and says, "Hey, I'm moving and I was wondering if I could take a bunch of your empty boxes," we all get instantly sensitive.

"No, you can't. We need these for our in-store customers, unfortunately."

Then we both sit there, looking at the gigantic stack of boxes we've just amassed next to the register, and suddenly we look like petty assholes. Why? Because every morning there is indeed a humongous pile of cardboard that makes it look like we have boxes coming out of our ears. That isn't the case, however. It's usually only enough to get through the first hour or two of the morning. Sometimes customers will walk over and start helping themselves, only to have one of us quickly intervene and ask them what they need.

"Just taking a few boxes."

"You can't, I'm sorry."

And then we launch into the whole explanation all over again. If you knew what it took to get these boxes ready—the hours of cutting in the warehouse, the money we had to pay to get extras delivered, and the back-and-forth between the other building—constantly running to get more—then I think you would understand our sensitivity. But, of course, there's no way you would understand this issue unless you worked at K&L. Most people just end up thinking we're assholes or we're cheap. There are many assholes who work in the wine industry—people who are snooty just for the sake of it—but when it comes to empty boxes, it's just plain fear. You should see what happens when we run out. It isn't pretty.

Empty boxes: one of the many sources of frustration between retailers and customers. Hopefully now that you understand our plight, we can all work together in the name of getting your wine safely to your car without any hassle or hurt feelings.

-David Driscoll



With all the talk about Scottish independence today and the possible effect it could have on single malt whisky (I don't know anything about what the consequences will be for whisky drinkers if they secede, by the way), I thought it was a good moment to talk about the power of group mentality—especially when it comes to booze. Many of us like to think that we are independent thinkers, deciding for ourselves what we want and do not, but often that isn't the case. It definitely isn't the case for me when it comes to certain passions I exude for drinking. Like many of the Scottish voters participating in today's ballot, I'm easily swayed by the excitement exhibited by others. Let me explain:

I'm more than willing to pay extra cash for French Burgundy, even if there's a better pinot noir from California, Oregon, or New Zealand for less. Why? Because wine from California, Oregon, or New Zealand isn't Burgundy. I can't wholly explain why I'm so intrigued by the Cote d'Or, but it goes beyond simple flavor. If I was only concerned with flavor I would simply choose the best tasting wine for the price. But there's a mystique surrounding Burgundy and most of my curiosity with it stems from what I've read in books, magazines, and online forums. My desire to understand Burgundy, its complexity, and why its so coveted by collectors all over the world plays a large role in my enthusiasm. Simply put: sometimes I want to be part of the group. If there weren't so many other people out there apparently getting some huge satisfaction from drinking these incredibly-limited wines, I don't think I would be nearly as interested. I definitely wouldn't be spending that kind of cash were it not the case.

I spend half of my work day helping whisky drinkers find different/cheaper/interesting alternatives to the whiskies they already know and love. "If you like this, then you should try this." Customers interested solely in flavor are happy to receive this advice and are crucial to our independent barrel business. However, there are plenty of other drinkers who want the name as well as the flavor. It's not necessarily "cool" to be a brand name shopper when it comes to whisky, so no one likes to admit that. In my mind, though, desiring a particular brand over a "superior" flavor doesn't make someone a label whore entirely. I get why people want Pappy. Everyone's talking about it all the time! Doesn't that make you the least bit curious if you haven't had it? For many drinkers, the enjoyment of tasting and experiencing certain big name spirits is simply the satisfaction of entering into a larger group dynamic. 

Let's look at this phenomenon through a different analogy. Let's say you show up to the office and everyone's talking about the latest episode of True Detective. You don't watch the show, so you're unable to offer your opinion about the previous night's events. You notice that everyone else, however, is enjoying the communal conversation. They're bonding over a shared experience. All of a sudden, you feel a desire to check out this show that everyone is talking about—both to see what all the fuss is, and to bond with the office group later that week (this is the case for me both with True Detective and red Burgundy). Jumping on board with the latest trend doesn't necessarily make you a band-wagoner or a poser (acting like you were there from the beginning does, however). True enjoyment isn't always about appreciating each element on the purest, most-unadulterated level possible; though some wine and whisky drinkers will tell you the opposite, that you should be drinking something less-coveted. It's like someone telling you, "Actually I watch Top of the Lake instead of True Detective because the writing's better, the acting's more believable, and it's pretty much the same show except it doesn't have all that ridiculous hype." In the end, it's all a superiority contest anyway.

So when I ask one of my colleagues if they've had any good Burgundy lately, and they say, "No, I haven't, but there's this great new vintage of Eyrie pinot noir from Oregon you should try," I don't get all that excited because I'm not always looking for a Burgundy substitute, or a cooler, less-cliched alternative. It's no different than when I try to steer a Bordeaux customer to Rioja, or a Bourbon drinker towards Armagnac. Some people are looking for a specific experience, rather than the best possible flavor—me included. That's not to say that I don't ever drink purely based on flavor and inherent quality. I drink a number of wines, spirits, and cocktails based solely on flavor. But sometimes, I admit, I do buy bottles of extremely expensive red Burgundy solely for the name, and the experience of drinking that name. That way I can speak somewhat confidently about Burgundy when I have a conversation with someone about it. You can't have an educated dialogue about something you've never experienced, can you?

I've read many opinions about the Scottish vote today. A few of them claim the "yes" advocates are making a naive choice based on the group fervor for independence, rather than carefully considering the possible consequences of economic sovereignty. I don't know enough about the situation to say either way. What I can say is that people don't always know what they want in life until others who exude a certain passion help to enlighten them. Going with the group isn't always the naive decision. I wasn't born with a thirst for Burgundy; it was nurtured slowly through my years working around other passionate thinkers. The same might be the case for Scottish independence. 

-David Driscoll


News and Notes

Here's what's going on in the Spirits Department this week.

- New peated Benriach cask is here. It's awesome. Like single barrel, cask strength Talisker 18. You can check out the post from Tuesday for more notes. 

- New K&L Exclusive vatting from Michel Couvreur will be here by the end of the month. It's a very sherried whisky with Islay whisky added in for extra peat. This is the bottler in Burgundy with the gigantic cellar built into the side of a mountain. Click here if you didn't catch that post from this past Spring. We're really pumped about this.

- Glenfarclas K&L Exclusive whiskies should also be here by October. Considering the 1983 Family Cask is selling for $350, that 1990 at $150 on pre-arrival looks like an even better deal. I'm guessing that's why a bunch of orders were put into the queue yesterday.

- Signatory Part II hits at the end of October and there are nine new whiskies on that container. Get ready to get your mind blown. Now that Highland Park 25 is $500 and Macallan 30 Fine Oak $2500, I think you'll all be pretty excited to see what we'll be offering and for how much. There's some sherry-finished Mortlach, a crazy 25 year old Blair Athol, and some other gems in that batch.

- Kilchoman's new 2014 edition of Machir Bay is here and, if you pick up in the store, it comes with two free Glencairn glasses like it did last year. Hot deal, good whisky. More saline and briney than it was last time around.

- David OG snagged a few casks of Old Scout Rye (MGP stuff) from Smooth Ambler that should be here shortly. The samples he sent me were fantastic.

- The rest of our Wild Turkey barrels will be here before the month is over. Considering how well that last batch of Russell's Reserve went over (especially barrel #19) I'm expecting these to be a big hit.

- Our one single barrel of 14 year old Dickel will be here by October, if not sooner. I'm surprised we still have any of the 9 year old casks left because there's nothing that good at that price on the American market right now. I think Dickel hasn't convinced enough people yet about their new single cask program, but all it should take is one sip. These destroy anything we've bottled from Buffalo Trace or Heaven Hill over the last few years (they do cost twice as much though).

- No Supernova until Friday at the very earliest, so you can cool your jets for now.

- It's always interesting to see how many moles are on our insider whiskey email list. And how they whine like the little whiney bitches they are when they see something they don't like, thus giving themselves away as spies. I would be embarrassed to be on another retailer's list, but that's just me. Focus on yourself, boys. There's a reason we're smoking you right now (hint: it's because we don't care about what you're doing).

-David Driscoll