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


Malternative Nation - April 28th

Wanna come to a fancy whisky event in San Francisco with me and a few other K&L staff members, where you can sip on all of the recent K&L single cask arrivals, snack on some Scottish-styled grub, and leisurely stroll the beautiful, award-winning Bar Agricole patio in peace, knowing that you're one of only 40 people allowed into this intimate tasting? Then sign up below. I'll be fresh off the plane, back from another long journey, and who knows what else I may sneak into this little fiesta? See you there! 

K&L & Bar Agricole Present "Malternative Nation", Tuesday April 28th from 6:30 PM to 9:30 PM $100- Join us on the patio at Bar Agricole in San Francisco for a thorough tasting of our entire 2015 selection of single malts and grain whiskies from Hepburn's Choice, Sovereign, and Old Particular. Thirteen spectacular single barrel expressions will be available along with Scottish snacks and appetizers cooked up by the BA kitchen. Only forty tickets will be made available, so this will not be a packed house. It will be an intimate tasting with K&L staff members on hand to walk you through each exclusive bottle. There are no paper tickets for this event. Your name will be placed on a guest list. There are no refunds once tickets have been purchased, so please don't reserve a spot until you're certain you can come. We'll see you there!

-David Driscoll


A Credent Clearwater Revival

If the term “renaissance” refers to a cultural rebirth, or the re-emergence of an established idea, then count me among the few folks who think a renaissance of clear spirits (or "white goods," as they’re called in the industry) is certainly on the horizon. With more and more people perusing the internet for information, participating in tastings and industry events, and eventually discovering the merits of high quality whiskey, it’s only a matter of time before that passion begins to spread towards other sectors in the spirits category. How can it not? There's so much out there to learn about, to taste, and to discover when it comes to alcohol that our collective fascination simply can't stop with single malt or Bourbon. That would get old quickly. However, if the term “renaissance” is taken to mean there will be a renewal or rediscovery of something lost that has simply fallen out of fashion, then count me out of that group. In 2007, people began rediscovering how delicious whiskey tasted. At that point, whiskey wasn't really any better or any different than it had previously been, it just happened to recapture our interest and people started drinking it again in large amounts. Clear booze, on the other hand, isn't being rediscovered; it's being reinvented, improved, and re-imagined in ways we've never thought possible. Today's modern versions of vodka, gin, mezcal, tequila, pisco, aquavit, and other regionally-distinct distillates won't simply be the recipients of an old passion we once grew tired of. What's happening today with clear spirits is unlike anything we've previously seen because clear spirits have never been made with the care and the craftmanship we're currently seeing in today's market. While whiskey continues along with its revival of romanticism—the repackaging of old brands our grandfathers used to drink, with old-timey labels and stories of long-standing legacies—the white goods market is creating an entirely fresh set of players primed to teach some old dogs a few new tricks, and bring unaged spirits the respect they're just now beginning to earn.

Now when I say that clear booze is primed to make a big impact, that's not to say it already hasn't come back with a vengeance. Across all the different genres of spirits there’s been an improvement in quality due to advancements in sterilization and technology. Spirits in general are cleaner, tastier, and more dynamic than ever before. More importantly, there are now actually enough people out there who care about this level of quality to support such a market. Ten years ago we carried Bombay Sapphire, Hendrick’s, and a handful of other big brand gins in 1.75L-sized bottles. Today, we have more than seventy-five different gins in stock from small producers all over the world. That's a big swing in the span of a decade. In the year 2005, we didn’t stock any mezcal—period. Today we have over sixty selections made from more than ten different types of agave. We also have amazing new aqauvits, groundbreaking grappas, and particularly-pleasing piscos (alliteration galore!!), the likes of which were never previously-carried at K&L in the olden days of booze retail. Clear spirits are definitely back in the spotlight. So when I say that clear booze is finally ready for its time in the sun, I mean they're ready to be treated as equals with whisky or brandy; not seen simply as cocktail ingredients.

I don’t know how many of you saw this article a few weeks back, but I read it and thought about it for days. If you don’t think taste is fashionable, then you obviously still wear Guess Jeans while listening to Vanilla Ice records and drinking Zima wine coolers. Trends go in and out, and the spirits industry most definitely has its own version of transient pop culture. It’s no coincidence that the resurgence of Scottish single malt and American whiskey happened to coincide with the success of the hard-drinking suits on Mad Men, and the Pappy-guzzling boys of Justified. I talk to people every day who want to “get into” whiskey. They’ve read all the trendy articles, heard their golfing buddies talking about it, and now they want to know more about this hot new movement. Whiskey is the current talk of the town (and has been for years), regardless of whether you were drinking it twenty years ago. You can sit here and tell me all day long about how you were a diehard Pappy drinker before the whisky renaissance hit (and, believe me, many people do), but the current success we’re enjoying on the retail side isn’t the result of long-established Bourbon customers suddenly deciding to collaboratively spend more money with us. It’s the clear result of a trend. A fad. The byproduct of a current craze. Whiskey is the beverage of the moment, and it's been wonderful getting to know it in intimate detail, but how much longer can it continue to capture our collective attention? I don’t know. In theory, things that are classic should never go out of style. But let me tell you something I do know for certain: fashion quickly changes when too many people get involved in the mix. Trends are easily played out and fickle fans will fade, or jump ship when the current fad becomes too homogenized. It’s inevitable. Just ask Louis Vuitton.

Culture, however, is the big wild card in this equation. Europe has long been the destination de jour for traveling cosmopolitans, which is why the wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, and Piedmont continue to hold a special place in the hearts of honeymooners everywhere. Traveling habits are changing, however, and as globe trekkers everywhere continue expanding their horizons, their eyes continue to be opened to the regional spirits of far-off destinations. Just ask Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh, who discovered a clear Bolivian distillate called Singani while shooting the film Che in South America. He fell so hard for the grape-based spirit that he started his own brand and his own import company just so he could drink Singani back here at home! Or ask the ever-growing number of Californians vacationing in Oaxaca what they’re into, like our general manager Jason Marwedel. He recently flew down for a bachelor party with friends and came back with a thirst for mezcal like I’ve never seen. “That stuff is amazing!” he exclaimed upon return. He’s been a clear spirits convert ever since. Context is a biggie for creating an interest and passion for booze. Taste and popularity are fleeting, but the right situation and the proper enjoyment can instill a lifetime of loyalty. My parents have been grappa diehards since drinking it in Italy decades ago. It wasn’t the 90 point rating, the bottle art, or the romantic ideal that got them into it. It was being in Italy, and the memories they created there that they'll always carry with them. Will expanded tourism to Scandinavia create a buzz for aquavit? Can an Eastern European road trip turn someone into a slivovitz addict? Possibly. As a society, we’re learning more about each other every day, and those introductions can be incredibly powerful.

Vodka will always be a tough sell in the modern age of flavor appreciation because it’s neutral by design, and people tend to shoot it rather than sip it. If there’s one thing that the last seven years have taught most spirits drinkers, it’s that certain spirits should be savored. Rather than mask the harsh flavors of alcohol with sugar or fruit juice, the pre-Prohibition style mixologists showed us how the inherent flavors of fine spirits could be utilized and highlighted. "The clear spirits of this modern era don't need to be drowned in a sea of simple syrup!" they exclaimed. This wasn't always the case, however. Prohibition led to the dominance of low-quality bathtub gins and bad associations with bottom-shelf booze. People wanted to get drunk, but they didn't want to taste the alcohol, so they looked for ways to ease that terrible burn. Even the central concept behind whiskymaking—putting the spirit into wood—is done for the purpose of mellowing the harsh taste of the unaged distillate. In this new age of micro-distillation, however, we shouldn't immediately fear the flavor of the clear, unmatured, white spirit. In fact, many distillers are touting the intricate flavors of their white spirits, inviting consumers to taste their products neat and to appreciate the nuance that they've created within them. With mezcal specifically, the push to recognize and respect the innate flavors in each type of wild agave have created a terroir-like concept, much like we see in today's boutique wine scene.

Just as American wine drinkers have graduated and gravitated over to unoaked, higher-acid wines, spirits fans are beginning to see the merit and the quality behind some of the finer gins, mezcales, and tequilas on the market and they don’t want the adulteration of oak. In fact, it’s often a point of pride that they don’t need it—that they can see the beauty of the spirit as is, without the added sweetness. In the wine world, the soft vanilla flavors provided by oak maturation are viewed as “training wheels”. It’s like putting sugar in your coffee. Now that oak is no longer "cool", there’s a growing movement away from barrel-aged Chardonnay and over towards cleaner white wines tanked in stainless steel; free from the toasty, buttery flavors often associated with a lack of serious connoisseurship. Oak also helps to mask mistakes in winemaking. It can add valued richness, but it can also over-simplify the flavors. Terroir, or the geographical specificities that make certain grapes taste the way they do, is something many wine drinkers want to taste. Oak ultimately gets in the way of that. If we're to take anything from today's modern wine movement, it's that consumers have more saavy than ever before. They want pure, unadulterated flavor. They want to taste what exactly makes each varietal taste the way it does. Therefore, they want wines that have not been barrel aged. How long before spirits customers begin demanding the same from some of their spirits?

But can unaged white spirits ever really demand the same price tag as elderly whiskey? That remains to be seen on a larger scale, but the spread of information online is helping to break down old barriers. It used to be the case that spirits customers needed age statements or some sign of maturity to justify spending more money. If something was aged for twelve years in oak, shouldn’t it be more expensive than something unaged? It makes sense. Why should something that took more than a decade to create cost the same as something that was fermented and distilled in the span of a few days? There are dozens of ways to answer that question, and the answer will ultimately depend on which spirit you’re talking about. It could be that the particular type of agave used to make a certain mezcal takes ten years to grow before it can be harvested. Does that not count for anything? It might be that the particular botanicals used to make a certain gin are rare, difficult to forage, or specific to a geographical region or place. Shouldn’t that mean something, too? Yes, of course it should. And it does mean something. Otherwise we wouldn’t be selling bottles of St. George Terroir gin like crack-cocaine. Monkey 47 and Casa Dragones tequila would never be able to command the prices they currently do. We wouldn’t be able to easily move $100 bottles of Vago’s cuixe mezcal if people didn’t think those details mattered. There are many awesome, incredible, and time-consuming processes involved with the production of many of today's boutique clear spirits that justify what we eventually spend on them. It's just that we're only learning about them now.

And every single day there are more and more people who think those details matter. Every day there are more people drinking gin out of a glass, rather than as part of a cocktail. Every day there are more people sipping on a small shot of tequila, rather than shooting it down and slamming their glass on the table. Every day there are people asking us for specific types of potato vodka, for specific species of wild agave mezcal, and new shoppers who are curious about what how exactly their clear spirits are made. The advantage that modern advancements and undertakings have given clear spirits producers over whiskey distillers cannot be understated; we get to taste that extra effort almost immediately. Any upgrade in current whisky production methods won't start influencing flavor until many years down the road when the whiskey produced has actually matured and is ready to drink. But will people still care at that point? When the whiskey revival began around 2007, anything in the bottle at that time was actually produced between the late-80s and the mid-90s. We were drinking whiskies that were already more than a decade old at that point, rather than something new and previously unseen. We were living out past glories. The clear spirits revival we're about to experience is not rooted in the past, however. It's a new beginning; a fresh start. It's progress, and in my opinion we've so far only seen the tip of the iceburg.

-David Driscoll