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Sunday
Mar102013

What Happens When You Don't Like It?

I get asked this question a lot. We at K&L have to do business with all these brands, these giant companies that own most of our favorite spirits on the market. How is it that you, David, can be honest about what you think when it comes to writing the spirits blog?

It's easy.

If I don't like it, I don't buy it. I only have to write about what we carry at K&L because I'm trying to help customers make decisions about purchasing. Rarely will I write about anything beyond the products we're selling at the store because it doesn't really concern me. If we have it on the shelf, it means I'm fine with the booze (or at least I can appreciate why someone would like it). If we don't have it, it doesn't necessarily mean I don't like it, but it might. I keep that clarification as nebulous as possible when I'm on the record. If you ask me in the store that's different (the advantage of being a local shopper).

Therefore, if I'm writing about my affinity for a product on this blog it's going to be honest and real. I'll only write about something if I find it interesting or beneficial for people to know about. I'm definitely not trying to guide people towards products I don't like, but the process of focusing on the good while neglecting the bad begins long before the blog. It begins in the office when I'm cutting purchase orders with vendors. I'll always screen and filter our inventory at that stage first. "No, I don't think I'll be ordering any Jose Cuervo for K&L. Why? Because it doesn't taste good to me."

I'll read things every now and again about the trustworthiness of a retailer's blog. Unlike reviewers or journalists, however, I'm only responsible for what goes into our stores. If it's in the store, it's on me. The blog is just extra.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Mar102013

One Week Away!

Have you bought your ticket for the Salon yet? Are you telling me you're not going to spend next Sunday evening with us? That's crazy! Why would you not want to come drink Irish whiskey, have a glass of Guinness, and snack on some fine Irish grub? Why would you not want to do that?

We've still got plenty of space for next Sunday's big Irish whiskey tasting. Tickets are $55. Get a ticket and we'll have your name on a list when you get to the Vault in San Mateo! Come on! Stop procrastinating!

Get your tickets here. If you just want to eat and watch some movies on the big screens, then purchase a guest ticket here.

I expect to party with you. I mean it.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Mar092013

Black Barrel (or Why We Went to Barbados)

David - you said you picked out a few barrels while at Mount Gay's warehouse in Barbados. What are you planning to bring back from the Caribbean?

Good question!

Sorry about not explaining further on this subject. As you know, I got so sidetracked with all the vagaries and the supersleuthing that I completely forgot to inform you all about Black Barrel and what's to come at K&L.

Mount Gay is launching a new rum that will complement their Eclipse and Extra Old portfolio. There is indeed a hole in between these two rums and Remy was smart to fill it. The Mount Gay Eclipse is the mixer. It's a fine rum, it does the trick, but it's nothing special. The Extra Old is the next step up, but it's too good to mix. It's a sipping rum and to me it doesn't mix all that well anyway (as I discovered after ordering an XO with ginger at the tasting room's bar - I left that one on the counter). The Eclipse will run you $16 or so depending on where you buy it. We sell the XO for $35. In between those two there is room for another rum – a $25 expression that offers more punch than the Eclipse, but less richness and weight than the XO. Enter Black Barrel.

Here's the deal with the new Mount Gay release: it's been aged in Tennessee Whiskey barrels (something the distillery normally doesn't use), then married into a final blend before being put back into Bourbon barrels (they're using Jack and Beam) for an extra finishing spell. The result is a spicy, aromatic, round, and charismatic rum that mixes beautifully into a number of cocktails (as David and I discovered after losing the Black Barrel cocktail competition soundly – we're not bitter about that, by the way). We made a few drinks with it while trying to put together a final recipe. A Daiquiri (delicious), a Sidecar (delicious), and finally the Trinidad Sour (amazing). The rum has the goods. The quality is there, the label is well-designed, and the price is perfect. They really did their homework and they're set to release what should be a very successful product. Normally I'll find fault with something (usually the label), but I really love the Barbados map as the backdrop – it gives the rum a very powerful sense of place.

We were invited to Barbados as the very first retailer to select our own cask of Black Barrel. So basically we were choosing the Bourbon barrel that the rum was finished in for a number of months (remember that months offer more intense maturation in the hot Caribbean heat). There were about thirty to choose from and we found two that were different enough from one another to justify getting both, but still mainstream enough to offer a variety of utilities.

In the end I went for barrel number 1140, which had a wonderfully rich nose full of sugar cane and potent vanilla. Round, supple, and easy – a sure-fire winner for those interested in rum, but unsure of what they want. David OG took barrel 1098, which was much spicier and more extravagant on the palate, giving the more adventurous drinkers something exciting. With spring on the horizon and summer coming soon after, these should be two very popular bottles at K&L. I think we'll be blowing through barrels of this stuff if we can continue to get access. Rum doesn't last in my house, unlike the Bourbon and single malt bottles that I nip from every once in a while. Rum gets poured into a glass of ice. It doesn't get measured. It just gets dumped. Then some ginger beer. Maybe some tonic. Maybe some fruit juice for a punch. It's so refreshing and fun, plus it pairs with the type of food I usually eat. Black Barrel is versatile, tasty, and inexpensive. That's the triple crown of mass consumption.

So that's the rundown. Black Barrel is coming and two barrels of Black Barrel will be barreling into our own barrel program very soon. More on this subject as the arrival time draws nearer!

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Mar072013

Rum Hunting - Day Five - Duty Free Clue

I was on my way through the Barbados Airport duty free store this morning when I found the bottle I had been searching for on the island: Mount Gilboa Pot Still Rum. Mount Gay distillery was once known as the distillery at Mount Gilboa plantation and we knew there was still an eponymous rum in production somewhere. In my hand was now the evidence. At the behest of plantation owner John Sober, Mount Gilboa was renamed Mount Gay in 1801 after the death of Sir John Gay Alleyne, who had been an effective and inspirational leader of the company for more than two decades. There was already a Mount Alleyne in Barbados, so they went with his middle name instead as a tribute. 

Flash forward to the 20th century. In the early 1900s the distillery fell into the hands of the Ward family who increased production and recognition of the brand's reputation. It wasn't until 1989 that Remy Cointreau became the majority shareholder. Audrey Ward was perhaps the most famous of the master blender/distillers at Mount Gay and, for some time, one would find his signature on the label of each bottle. Today no longer. Where you will find the Ward family name, however, is on the Mount Gilboa label. According to the packaging with the bottle, Frank Ward, who is descended from Audrey Ward, is currently the managing director of Mount Gay Refinery Ltd, where Mount Gilboa is made today. Here's a photo of the distillery below.

Wait a minute, David! This is the exact same photo you showed us two days ago! You said that was the distillery at Mount Gay! The one they wouldn't let you into! 

That's correct. However, I found a blog post from a webpage called the Rum Collective that shows the same building, but with photos of the inside as well taken from an educational tour. The tour itself wasn't organized by Mount Gay, however. It was given to this person by the man and family behind Mount Gilboa rum: Mr. Frank Ward, whose family ran the Mount Gay brand for ninety years. If Frank Ward is the head of Mount Gay distillery, the home of Mount Gilboa rum and apparently of Mount Gay rum as well, does this mean that Remy Cointreau doesn't actually own Mount Gay distillery, but rather just the rights to the Mount Gay brand? This isn't an uncommon practice in the booze business. Berry Bros. & Rudd, for example, recently purchased the rights to Glenrothes as a brand, but have no control over the distillery itself.

When we were on the boat last night one of the crewmen showed me a sugar refinery off the coast and said the industry is dying a slow death on the island. I found a link to an article from ten years ago that talks about the limited access to molasses on Barbados and how the Wards were forced to look elsewhere as a result. This article from Ebony Magazine in 1975 claims that Audrey Ward founded the Mount Gay Company in 1908 (the company not the distillery) and that every bottle of Mount Gay rum bears his name: A. F. Ward. Yet, today it does not. The modern day Mount Gay is a new brand with a new face that stresses the foundation of the distillery in 1703, rather than the hard work and history of the Ward family. They seem to avoid all discussion of the Wards, but I'm not sure as to why.

So here's the deal. Frank Ward's Linkedin page still lists him as the managing director of Mount Gay Refinery, but there is no mention of him at Remy's Mount Gay. As I wrote a few days back, Allen Smith is the master blender, (italicized in that post, as well), but we never met anyone with any knowledge of distillation. Conclusion? Remy Cointreau owns Mount Gay, but likely not Mount Gay Distillery, which is still owned and operated by the Wards, who founded the company in 1909 and sold the brand in 1989. They're likely contracting rum from the distillery, but I couldn't say for sure. 

Now I'm excited to try this Mount Gilboa! All pot still, no column still! It looks like part of the mystery is solved.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Mar062013

Rum Hunting - Day Four - Bon Voyage!

After our super tour around the island, outside of the prescripted brand schedule, we met back at the hotel for our final activities of the day. First off was a trip to the Mount Gay visitor's center for a Black Barrel cocktail competition. We were paired up in groups of two (DOG and I together, of course) and had fifteen minutes to create a drink. David suggested doing a variation of a Trinidad Sour, but we didn't have orgeat so we muddled up cucumber with simple syrup instead, adding a ton of Angostura and some lime juice in as well. The drink destroyed everyone else's. We still lost. That's the problem with being from the West Coast. We're light years ahead of what people think they want when it comes to cocktail culture, but what can you do? Make a syrupy Daiquiri? I don't think so. And we wonder why people think we're smug? (Our drink was awesome, though).

Rather than take another cab to our final dinner of the trip, Mount Gay organized a sailboat to ferry us down the coast and dock at the beachfront destination. The boat was by far my favorite part of the trip because a few of us went up to the front, laid out on the helm, and just relaxed. No talking, no more booze jabber, or anything else. Just us and the sea.

Perhaps the most eye-opening part of this trip has been the contact with other national retailers who are also here selecting casks. Everyone has been incredibly nice and we've had a fantastic time together, but it's clear we don't see things the same way. Most of the other guys here are store owners, rather than employees. Actually, all of them are. Because David and I are separated from the finances and the paperwork, we don't worry about sales margins or maximizing profit as much as other stores do. We didn't get into this business to make money. We got into this business for fun because we wanted to follow our passion. However, we're here with guys who specialize in 1.75 liters of vodka and run case deals for Budweiser. It's not to say that they're not passionate, it's just that they're up for whatever pays the bills. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's just not the way we think about things. David and I talked about the whole Maker's Mark incident and we were the only ones who even knew what happened. When we explained it they thought we were lying and got mad – at us!!! How dare we criticize the brand was the mindset.

Sitting on that boat, however, as the sun went down just erased all of the tension and all of the booze politics. In all honesty, I don't give a shit if Mount Gay distills all their rum or not (we only have our intolerable scrutiny that leads us to believe otherwise, no actual evidence). I've yet to actually see the distillery, so I can't say anything for sure. What I do know is that I've tasted a lot of rum while on Barbados and a lot of it is delicious. Remy has chosen to host us here on Barbados for that reason. Mount Gay rum, like many brands that aren't single malt, isn't about a distillery really. It's about an island and a history of bottling great rum that pre-dates any other company. Mount Gay's tagline is actually "there's a time and a place." The time is right now and the place is Barbados – an island that loves its national spirit and celebrates it at every opportunity. I've been drinking a shit ton of Mount Gay rum since I've been here and it's all been outstanding. In tonic, in ginger beer, on the rocks, in a shot, in a beer, with a beer, after a beer, before a beer, whatever. One of the best rums in the world is being produced on this island – Barbados. It's got a Mount Gay label on it.

I've been a bit quieter this evening while the other guys continue on with the drinking and the brand loyalty. I'm not unloyal to Mount Gay, I'm just not going to be loyal to anyone because they're taking me around an island and providing me with a good time. I'm happy to be here because I really love Mount Gay rum and I'm excited to be bringing back two barrels for K&L customers. I wish there could have been more transparency, but that's what you're dealing with at the corporate level. It's all an image. David and I are by far the two least popular people at this point on the trip because we're not simply playing along. I don't think their ambassador Chester Browne likes me at all, but what I can I do?

In this case, the quality is there with Mount Gay, so I'm really just fine with our relationship to the company. There's nothing we can do about it anyway because asking questions is simply what we do. I love the rum, I'm here supporting it, I'm writing about it every day, and I'm going to be selling it because it's delicious and well-priced for our customers. I'll bet you that K&L ends up selling more of these Black Barrels than any other retailer in the U.S. because of our own transparency, so that should keep us in their good graces! I'm up at 5:30 AM tomorrow to catch my plane back to the mainland before a layover in Miami. Back at K&L this Friday. Signing out from Barbados. 

-David Driscoll