The Lost Art of the Full Meal

I went to the Van's in Belmont last weekend to have dinner with friends and, boy oh boy, did we do it right.

- gin martini to start (w/olives)

- bottle of clean aperitif white wine w/ appetizers

- aged Bordeaux with our steak dinners

- glass of whiskey with dessert

And we did this over the course of three hours. I felt great when I got home that night. I wasn't full, drunk, or sick to my stomach, just completely satisfied in a way that I rarely am these days. Every itch had been scratched, every indulgence had been responsibly indulged. Now granted I can't (nor should I) eat and drink like that every night, but it makes for a lovely bookend with booze on both sides every now and again. It's a slow, progressive way of eating that allows me to dip into each one of my alcohol-related interests, rather than simply choosing one and sticking with it.

Yet, for as wonderful as these experiences are (to me), they're an entirely lost art in the United States today, and are becoming so in the old world as well. The past two years while David and I have been in France, we've spoken with Cognac and Calvados producers who worry about the effect that modern living is having on their livelihood. Lower blood alcohol driving limits have put a serious kibosh on the post-dinner nightcap, and younger generations are moving more towards pre-dinner cocktails anyway (which is why we ended up drinking warm, iceless Cognac and tonics while visiting producers—at least they're trying!). Even in Italy, grappa and amari producers (like the Noninos, who talked about this in our recent podcast interview) are having to embrace the mixology trend in order to stay relevant. It's ironic to me, that in this neo-renaissance of old world practices and ideals—organic, hand-picked, rustic, and old-fashioned—there's still a relative amount of Darwinism going on. Not everything can be made cool again, and post-dinner digestivos are definitely missing this new boat of enthusiasm.

In fact, grappa is getting to be so irrelevant that I'm almost considering eliminating it from our selection. Grappa doesn't mix well into most drinks, it has a dubious reputation with most Americans (almost like tequila did in the early 90s), and it isn't necessarily inexpensive. However, for any connoisseurship to grow and prosper there needs to be an appreciation of quality—an ability to recognize what makes a spirit taste better or different than its competitors. Not only do few people understand what makes one grappa better than another, few people care to understand. Ten years ago no one gave two shits about where their Bourbon was made or what made it taste good. Today, people are willing to spend ten hours on the internet fighting about it. Grappa and other post-dinner oriented spirits are going to need that injection of enthusiasm to survive in this new era.

However, if there isn't another way to drink grappa—other than as a delicious sipper at the end of a long meal—how are more folks going to take an interest? I don't see it happening. We live in the age of five minute meals and twenty-four hour work days and there's little tradition of long dinners in the United States as is. It's a tradition that's died out, just like many grandkids don't speak the language of their grandparents. I just hope I can still get a glass of it every now and again when I do have the time to enjoy it.

In the meantime, I'm going to make one last effort.

-David Driscoll


Single Barrel High West

What would happen if you took the High West Rendezvous (a marriage of 16 and 6 year old Barton & LDI rye whiskies) and put it back into a used Bourbon barrel for an additional 1.62 years, then bottled that single barrel at 100 proof?

You're going to find out next month. This was a no-brainer. I took one taste and said, "Yes, please." We sent them the logo today, so our very own K&L Exclusive single barrel of extra-matured Rendezvous is coming soon. They did other wine and vermouth-finished casks as well, but I wanted the straight oak-aged juice. It's really, really, really good with extra richness and extra sweetness from the wood.

Stay tuned!

-David Driscoll


Vintage Cognac w/Age Statement

While I've been anxiously awaiting the arrival of our ultra-mature Armagnacs from Baraillon, Laballe, Pellehaut, and Pouchegu, I have to say that I'm currently most excited about this little guy: a straight 2002 vintage, 12 year old (stated clearly on the label), no-color-added Grand Champagne Cognac from Claude Thorin. It's not the most complex, or awe-inspiring brandy; nor is it rich, decadent, or layered. It's just a complete break in tradition from what we normally get from the Charente. There's no VS, VSOP, XO, Napoleon, Hors d'Age, or any other non-descript wording on the label. It's just 2002 vintage, 12 years old.

And the flavors are so light and haunting. It's pure fruit, but it's not sweet or juicy. It's lithe, snappy, fresh, and clean.

I'm totally smitten. Get ready for more Cognac like this from K&L this Fall.

2002 Claude Thorin 12 Year Old K&L Exclusive Vintage Cognac $59.99

-David Driscoll


Fog City Revamp

San Francisco's Fog City Diner has been an iconic movie location for years, if not a great restaurant. Located at the end of Battery Street, close to where the Embarcadero meets Pier 39, it's been a neon-flashing tourist attraction due to its semi-famous reputation and presence in movies like So I Married An Axe Murderer with Mike Myers. I worked at Pier 39 from 2001 to 2003 and we would sometimes meet at Fog City after work, strictly for the kitsch factor. That's why, while walking our half-marathon through the city yesterday (which is really just a twelve mile jaunt buoyed by plenty of food and booze), I looked at the decor of the Fog City Diner and said, "What the hell?"

The place had totally been revamped. So, of course, we went in.

Gone are the grilled cheese sandwiches and BLTs, replaced by modern takes on diner classics like the "Saigon" Dip—the beef is instead roasted pork with cilantro, red chiles, and mint; the au jus is a bowl of pho (genus!!). You can still get a cheeseburger (which we did), but the appetizers are now comprised of things like oysters or blistered peppers with olive oil (which were both attractively-presented and delicious). The cocktail menu takes the cake, however. They're operating with more than fifteen speciality libations on that drink card and the Bloody Mary comes with a freakin' deviled egg (made with mustard instead of mayonnaise and topped with bacon and crispy quinoa).

The new Fog City Diner keeps the hot locale, the beautiful waterfront views, and the iconic name, but gets rid of all the other stuff. The food is now incredible and the drinks top-notch. I almost want to go back again today (and I might!).

Part of the reason we like to walk so much is because only by walking can you stumble upon hidden gems and unknown spots that take you by surprise—even in your own city. While taking Sacramento back towards the water, we saw this beautiful, London-esque/Upstate New York-looking restaurant called Wayfare Tavern (which I'm sure many of you know about, but for me it was a complete unknown). It looked so regal from the outside and the interior was even more impressive. It felt homey, cozy, yet refined in a way that California rarely does. For as much as I love the West Coast, there's a relaxed and almost too-familiar vibe that's often difficult to escape (should you want to). Even when you go out somewhere nice, there are still people wearing flip-flops, or hoodies, or exercise clothes.

Not one person at Wayfare last night was dressed down, however. We almost felt like we were in a completely different part of the country. The crowd was very un-San Francisco and the decour, with its dark wood paneling combined with exposed brick, felt very (New) English.

Deviled eggs must be making a comeback, because the Wayfare Tavern also specializes in the much-maligned American classic. Fried chicken is also back with a vengeance. I was impressed that Wayfare didn't feel the need to put every drink in a coupe glass, as both our cocktails came in standard rocks glasses with a straw. I love a coupe cocktail, but in the end I'm going to drink it no matter how you serve it, so why not get creative? The Rickey in a simple glass with pebbled ice was just fine. We had a Blue Moon variation on the rocks as well.

Seeing that we only sat at the bar, I'm very tempted to come back for dinner soon. There's an upstairs dining room that's absolutely gorgeous and a private room you can book for special occasions. The bartender also told us they're planning a top floor "members only" club. I took the bar manager's card before I left because I'd be interested in holding a few single malt tastings there. I can't imagine a better atmosphere for Scotch drinking in SF than the Wayfare.

-David Driscoll


...And In Closing

The spirits blog is a funny thing—the more I write about new products, the more I hear from readers that there's not enough opinion. Yet the more opinion I offer, the more agitated my customers get because they really want to learn about new products. This past week has been a series of op-eds focused on snobbery, expertise, expectations, and what happens to a genre when its purpose becomes something other than enjoyment. I think about these topics almost every day, so I enjoy writing about them when I get the chance, and I particularly enjoy it when people send me an email with a response or counterpoint.

One reader sent me this article in response to yesterday's post: a report about the science of tasting, and how many experts cannot decipher the differences between wines when forced to do so blindly. I get a kick out of blind tastings because of the sheer anxiety it causes people; no one wants to be the person who completely bombs the assessment (and someone always will). However, as we've learned this week from the buzz surrounding the Daily Beast MGP article, many enthusiasts and aficionados are interested in more than just flavor. Flavor is just one part of what makes alcohol fun.

When I started the master's degree program for German back in 2005 my initial hope was to "master" the German language. What I soon learned, however, is that grammar and linguistics were only a teeny-tiny part of the master's degree program. It was mostly about literature and philosophy. I can tell you right now that my German is incredibly poor compared to many other second-language German speakers, despite the fact that I have a fancy piece of paper.

"How come you're not totally fluent? Don't you have a master's degree in German?" someone might ask me.

Good question. However, being a master of German isn't really about fluency. Just like being a master of wine isn't really about identifying a wine or its character while wearing a blindfold. I don't know nearly as much about the history of wine and the various French chateaux as many of my colleagues do. If you want to know what the best Bordeaux vintages are, or which are the most-beloved vineyard sites in Burgundy, I can spout off a few, but I'm no match for Gary Westby or Ralph Sands. However, I am very, very good—if you don't mind me saying—at helping customers find something they like. Someone might ask me, "Do you have any older Bordeaux that are drinking well now?" or "I need a gift for someone who likes Sancerre," and I'll nail those requests. And I can do it for any country in the world, and any type of wine.

So when someone says, "Wow, that guy David knows a lot about wine because he always finds me something I like," that's really just one type of wine knowledge—I understand how to match up a description with a product. But there are guys who work here who actually know about viticulture and the production of wine, which is something I know nothing about (Ryan Woodhouse used to work at Testarossa and Bonny Doon, and Mike Barber makes the Mr. Beast wines). There are historians who work here; Jeff Garneau can tell you about the evolution of Chateau Lafite over the last one hundred years, or why certain grapes are no longer grown in the Italian region of Alto Adige. And what about putting a cellar together? I have no idea how certain wines will taste in 10-20 years because I haven't drunk enough older wines, but Jim Barr has had every California vintage over the last three decades. He's the guy you want to ask.

I was thinking about the quote from yesterday's post concerning "demystifying wine," which is something I originally wanted to do for consumers. I wanted to take complicated subjects—concepts concerning wine and whiskey that intimidated people—and break them down into analogies that were easy to understand. As a former teacher, it's always been something I've enjoyed doing, whether it's math, literature, or booze. However, my point in doing so was never to expose the experts as naked emperors, or clueless pedants with a penchant for snobbery. It was to show people that a just a little bit of understanding could turn what was already a fun activity into something so much more interesting and rewarding. Alcohol appreciation isn't a bunch of baloney—it's just often presented that way.

It's that very viewpoint that I always lead with when I work with customers. This hobby is supposed to be a fun use of our time! No matter how passionate we are, the appreciation of wine and whiskey shouldn't be stressful or annoying. No matter how wrong someone is about their information, it's not always our job to set them straight. No matter how intimidated we feel, we shouldn't seek to knock others off of their perch. There will always be people who use their knowledge about a certain subject to feel secure or superior—and they will always give intellectualism a bad rap—but we can't let them get to us. There will always be producers or brands that seek to use a consumer's naivete against them, but we can't save everyone.

We can only help people who want to be helped—that goes for me, bloggers, writers, and those who work on behalf of consumers. And we should enjoy helping each other.

-David Driscoll