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Friday
Aug152014

You Be The Judge

Just got off the phone with my buddy Erik Adkins, the manager for Hard Water in San Francisco. I've agreed to let him be the sole on-premise outlet to sell Cut Spike by the pour. That means, in the near future, you'll be able to walk into the best American whiskey bar on the planet and order the best American single malt by the glass. Even better, I'm going to schedule a launch event where we do $4 pours of Cut Spike to let as many people as possible taste what we think is the most exciting new small producer in the U.S.

That way you can be the judge and you won't have to rely solely on my own heavily-biased opinion. I'll let you know when we set a date.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Aug142014

Cut Spike Arrives

After all that hype, you can finally try Cut Spike for yourselves. I don't think you'll be disappointed. We wouldn't have taken on this much responsibility and product (being their sole online retail outpost) if we didn't think this was something special. However, if you're expecting 12 year old Scottish single malt that tastes exactly like Macallan, then you might be a bit bummed out. It's a honeyed, sweet vanilla profile with a rich malty mouthfeel, but it's still young. Nevertheless, we think it's the next big thing.

Cut Spike Nebraska Single Malt Whisky $59.99 - At first we couldn't believe our mouths. We knew that Cut Spike single malt had just taken Double Gold honors at the 2014 San Francisco Spirits competition (the highest possible honor), so obviously other people thought it was good, too. But after tasting so many mediocre American attempts at single malt whisky, we had become accustomed to the idea that the Scottish style of distillation would never be recreated here at home. There would be spin-offs, and experimental gasps at greatness, but that supple, malty profile would simply be something we needed to import from abroad. Then the folks at Cut Spike sent us a sample of their two year old Nebraskan single malt whisky made from 100% malted barley on a pot still crafted in Rothes, Scotland. Fermented at the brewery next door to Cut Spike in La Vista, the malt was matured for two years in new American oak with varying levels of char. The result is an incredible hybrid: soft, barley and vanilla-laden whisky that tastes somewhat like your standard Scottish single malt, but has its own unique character simultaneously. It's the kind of whisky that you taste once and enjoy, but then the next day suddenly crave intensely. It impresses you instantly, yet doesn't really reveal its full character until weeks later. The new oak blurs seamlessly into the malty mouthfeel, adding a richness on the finish normally not tasted in standard Scottish selections. The Cut Spike is a major accomplishment for American distillation, pure and simple.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Aug132014

The Bar Agricole Version

I thought this marketing image from Bar Agricole's mailing list was worth posting. Props to the BA boys for this wonderful piece of inspiration.

Still plenty of space at next week's big Brandyfest event if you want to go. Plus, we've got a new container of brandy docking as I write this, so we might be pouring all new K&L exclusives before they're released. Brandyfest is going to be awesome.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Aug132014

A New Hope — Part II

After teasing you all for the last month about another up-and-coming, unknown micro-distillery making exciting new single malt whisky, the time has finally come to let you in on the secret. I wrote a blog earlier this April called The Way Forward that discussed alternative distribution possibilities for small spirits producers besides the normal corporate channels—specifically asking: why hire distribution in multiple states when you've only got about 1,000 bottles of whiskey to sell anyway? What's the point in allocating six bottles here, three bottles there, angering every bar and retailer who likely won't want to waste their time promoting a product they can't get more of? California alone is like an entire country with demand through the roof for hard-to-find, niche spirits. K&L alone could sell 1,000 bottles of something great, let alone the other thousand retailers and restaurants located across the state.

My solution was this: sell all your whiskey to K&L. Sure, it's a pretty self-serving solution, but we can set you up with a local distributor in California to clear the product legally, and serve as the sole retail outpost for your product until you're able to grow to the next level. K&L can ship to a number of outside states, as well, and we're well-connected to the insider audience many small distillers are looking to find. There are some drawbacks, of course, but it was at least something to consider. How many customers can you really reach when each store across the country can only purchase two bottles, anyway?

A number of producers have taken me up on this offer, but perhaps none more exciting than Cut Spike Distillery in Nebraska. When Scott Katskee and Jason Payne reached out about their dilemma—they had enough whiskey for their home state, but not enough for the entire country—I said they should send me a sample and if the booze was good we could talk further. When I got that sample and finally tried it I freaked out. It was easily the best American single malt whiskey I had ever tasted. When I say "easily," I mean leaps and bounds beyond anything I've tasted from all of my other favorite micros (sorry, guys!). It was single malt that tasted like Scottish single malt, but with a bit more new oak (which made sense because Cut Spike uses new oak barrels).

"How much can you send us?" I immediately asked.

I was ready right then and there to get on a mountain top with a giant megaphone and say, "Listen up people! Cut Spike distillery in Nebraksa is making incredible single malt whisky!" Yet, as confident as I am in my own palate, I still needed a bit of reassurance. David OG loved it, as did Kyle and the rest of our staff, but I wanted to make sure we weren't wearing K&L blinders. I sent out a few samples to friends in the industry, my blogging friend SKU, and other people whose palates I trust. The feedback varied in its level of enthusiasm, but no one thought the whiskey was anything less than well-made, high in quality, and delicious. We had a winner on our hands. 

"OK, David. We get that you're excited. Blah, bloo, blee, bloo, blah, blah, blah. Now let's get down to the specs."

Cut Spike is located in La Vista, Nebraska. It's a distillery/brewery operated by Jason Payne that makes a number of different products. The malted barley for their two year old single malt whisky comes from one of the largest malting companies in the United States: Rahr Malting Company in Minnesota. The majority of the barley they use is sourced domestically. The single malt whiskey wash is produced on site by their sister company: Lucky Bucket Brewing Company. Their brewers produce the wash using a single infusion mash. Brewer's yeast is added to the cooled wash, and the process of fermentation goes for about five days.

Cut Spike's copper pot stills were made by one of the most renowned producers in the world—Forsythes, out of Rothes in Scotland—who pounded their 500 and 300 gallons stills by hand. Like Kilchoman, they take a smaller heart cut to create a whiskey that tastes softer in its youth. They use a varying blend of toasted new American Oak barrels to create rich and supple flavors in their young single malts (the level of char ranges from 1 to 4, with 4 being the typical Bourbon level). The higher char level barrels give faster extraction and bolder flavors of oak and plant sugars to the resulting spirit. The lower toasted barrels produce softer flavors and extract a smaller amount of tannins. The whiskey is bottled at 43% ABV.

Like Westland distillery in Seattle, Cut Spike is using Scottish-style pot stills, and Scottish-style barley fermentation, to make Scottish-style single malt whisky. The difference between these two whiskies and all other American single malts is instantly clear when you taste these products. Like I said in the first part of A New Hope, I would have been overjoyed to taste the Westland single malt had I not already tasted the Cut Spike. Given my druthers, I would probably lean towards the Nebraskan whiskey because of the more-supple, chewy mouthfeel, but that might simply be because of my initial excitement surrounding the first sip. You have to understand: I've tasted a ton of bad American whiskey over the last five years. I've tasted some pretty mediocre ones, too. There are, of course, a handful of good things. But the Cut Spike single malt whisky is very good. It's better than any single malt I've had domestically—ever. That's why I'm so excited. When you're constantly lowering your expectations and preparing for disappointment, it's a really great feeling when something just wows you from out of nowhere.

Of course, we all have our preferences. What's amazing to me might be disappointing to you, and vice versa. Let me say this, however: if you like Scottish Highland single malt whisky like Glenmorangie or Clynelish, then you're going to really like the Cut Spike. Besides a few local joints in Nebraska, Cut Spike has not sold their whiskey to any large boutique retailer. 

Very shortly, we'll be remedying that issue. Prepare yourselves.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Aug092014

Don't Step to Real Distillaz

After posting a few of my own thoughts about the "Potemkin" distillery discussion that Chuck Cowdery and Steve Ury have so valiantly taken the lead on, and that the Daily Beast turned into a much broader dialogue, I was emailed by a few actual distillers about the issue. One wrote:

I saw your post today and I think you hit the nail on the head in the way you characterized how prideful we producers feel - annoying says it.

I don't say much about this subject, mostly since I am too busy to be bothered. However, I must say my blood pressure does go up a few points when I see some folks from the media who ignore, or are too lazy to see what's going on.

I've made my feelings known concerning the issue, so rather than simply continue to blab about the subject I'll offer some historical perspective. Like I've already said, you're never going to stop this type of marketing from happening, but you can at least look to the past to see how other producers have handled it themselves. In this case, we'll look to the 1990s to see how producers of "legitimate" gangster rap handled those they thought were simply capitalizing on a fad with fake stories of real violence.

Imagine it: you're an African-American kid growing up in the early 90s in South Central Los Angeles. You witness terrible atrocities on a daily basis in your neighborhood and you feel as if the local authorities aren't doing anything about it. You feel alone, segregated, and forgotten by the world, so you write poetry or rhymes about your feelings. Suddenly, after hearing you express yourself at a local event, a man in a fancy suit offers you a million dollar contract to record a hip-hop album about urban life. You confess your heart and soul into that record, getting deep into the nitty gritty of how cold and callous the streets can be. Then the time comes for you to promote your record, but you realize that the market is suddenly flooded with similar styles of expression—some of them true, and others exploitative.

You're enraged. Here you are: an actual victim of violence and abuse in the ghetto, talking about real things that happened to you, having to compete against a bunch of suburban-born rappers who are simply making up tales of gang life and gun fights that never happened. Their phony raps are merely capitalistic efforts to benefit from pop culture's current fascination with "gangsta" rap. They're using your own story against you. You call these "wankstas" out in your rhymes, but no one seems to care.

"Man, that guy wasn't even born in Los Angeles," you tell people. "He's from a rich neighborhood in Dallas!"

"So what," people say. "His beats are tight!"

"But he's not tough!" you reply. "This is all just an act."

No one listens.

So what do you do? You release the most punishing, brutal, bone-cutting, battle rap beatdown of all time. You lay it all out on the table:

If modern distillers who actually distill want to fight back against "Potemkin" distilleries, then they're going to have to start a modern day turf war to get the public's attention. They're going to have to fight for themselves by taking to the airwaves, much like 1990s gangster rappers did in retaliation to inauthentic market saturation. If they want to see actual results, they're going to have to throw some mud and name some names—like Eazy E calling out Dr. Dre—not simply allude to the practice. Respect is going to have to become more important than price or popularity.

But, if history tells us anything (especially in the case of fake gangster rap), it's that it pays to have a tasty product rather than an authentic story. How did the story turn out between Eazy E and Dr. Dre? Not well for Eazy E. He was the real deal, an actual drug dealer and gangster in Compton, and a very talented rapper who simply rhymed about his real life, but he passed away in 1995, not long after the above video was released (although he and Dre did make peace before his death). And what happened to Dr. Dre, who according to Eazy E simply fabricated his tales of thug life in Compton? He just recently became the richest hip-hop artist in history, inking a $3 BILLION deal with Apple for his own Beats Electronics company.

-David Driscoll