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Saturday
Mar212015

Agave Angst

The world of agave spirits is becoming much like the world of television: the quality keeps getting better and every day there's something new to discover. There's so much good TV right now that I find myself wondering when I'll have time to watch it all, and that doesn't even count internet programming! When am I going to find the time for Peaky Blinders on Netflix or Transparent on Amazon? It's making my skin itch! Along the same line, it seems like every day I'm hearing about a new mezcal or a new tequila, or how everyone's expecting the agave spirits business to be the next big boom. I'm getting samples in the mail, phone calls from vendors all over the country, and emails from producers in Mexico asking if K&L would be interested in supporting their brand. It's so exciting!

However, much like my dilemma with television, there's only so much time and so much bandwidth I can devote to tequila and mezcal. It's not that I don't want to expand the department and start romping through Oaxaca in search of the next big thing; it's that I don't know how much new agave information our customers can handle (or have time for). While I set my mind to figuring out the answer to that equation, here's one new mezcal that you absolutely cannot miss. The partnership between California's Craft Spirits and Oaxaca's Los Danzantes is the Breaking Bad of the agave spirits world: every episode is so good you can't help but wait in angst for the next one. The Mezcalero series has been—for me—the top prize in the mezcal world year after year, and Batch No. 10 continues that level of quality with a remarkably suave spirit.

Distilled by Rodolfo Juan Juarez from Sierra Negra agave, the Mezcalero 10 is the most graceful iteration of the series to date and the most accessible. It begins with a potent dash of tangy, roasted agave flavor before slowly melting into a delicate, stunningly soft palate of baking spices and sweet fruit with a faint whisper of smoke. I don't know much about Sierra Negra agave, but from what I was told by the folks at Craft Spirits it's known for making the most suave of all mezcales. If that's what it's known for, then this is a textbook example because this mezcal is smooth as silk without sacrificing flavor or intensity.

Of course, you might be reading this and thinking to yourself: "David, this all sounds quite interesting, but who has time for all the whisky you bring in, let alone fancy mezcales from the rural backwoods of Mexico?" I wouldn't blame you for thinking such a thing. Perhaps you shouldn't read more about the Mezcalero series if that's the case because—let me tell you—once you sit down and start watching, you'll be hooked. Cancel your weekend plans and order a pizza.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Mar202015

Variance - Part II

I've always driven a Honda since the time I learned how to drive. My parents drove Honda Accords, I drove a Honda Accord in high school, my first car in college was a 1999 Honda Civic, and when I first started working at K&L I bought a 1995 Honda Accord to make the commute. It wasn't until a few years ago, when one of my co-workers moved to the East Coast, that I bought his amazing 2003 Volkswagen GTI. The car was seven years old and only had 8,000 miles on it. It was in absolute perfect condition because the guy I bought it from was completely OCD about keeping it clean and beautiful. That being said, never during my time owning a Honda, used or new, did I need to bring either car in for anything other than an oil change. Yet, in my fifth year of VW ownership, not a year has gone by when I haven't needed to replace something or fix a rather pricey issue. While picking my car up last night at the garage (I needed a new thermometer in the engine), I asked my mechanic Andrew (who I trust with my life): "So am I needing constant repairs because the car is old despite the mileage, or is this indicative of a larger problem?"

"Honestly? It's because it's a VW. German cars need constant maintenance. It's part of the deal," he replied.

"So I'm trading power and speed for more time in the shop?" I asked in response.

"Exactly," he said.

It all made perfect sense to me, so I wasn't the slightest bit upset at the reality check. If you like to wear nice clothes (which I do), then you can't just throw them in the washer when they get dirty. You need to take them to the dry cleaner, which can cost you upwards of $60 a week if you go often (which I do). That's part of the maintenance. If you like to drink expensive wine (which I do), then you can't assume that just because you spent $200 on the bottle that your satisfaction is guaranteed. There are no guarantees with wine, which is why guys like me shouldn't be buying $200 bottles. If you can't afford to dump $200 down the drain, then you can't afford to drink $200 bottles of wine because you have to assume that one out of every ten bottles is corked, past its prime, was stored incorrectly, or is spoiled in some way for some other reason. That's why people (not me) buy cases of $200 bottles of wine: to protect against the bad beat. You'll probably get at least ten good bottles from a case.

Then there's the maintenance that goes along with wine collecting: wine storage, wine coolers, temperature controls, etc. By the time you're done, you've probably spent another thousand or more just making sure your wine doesn't go bad after you've bought it. That's why you have to pick and choose your battles. I'm not in for the long-term wine game. I can't afford the upkeep that a serious wine cellar requires and it isn't worth it to me ultimately. Clothing, on the other hand, is. Cars? I don't know. I don't know if I care enough about German speed and precision to justify the upkeep, but I completely understand the concept. It's no different than most luxury items, which require all kinds of extra responsibilities. It's never just about the price of admission (see the film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels where Michael Caine teaches Steve Martin about the responsibilities of having money and class). Enjoying nice things often means spending far more money than you were originally expecting.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Mar192015

The Future

Last summer we were introduced to Sean Venus, a rather unassuming Santa Cruz native who had taken over the old Sarticious distillery space just up Highway 17. His Venus Gin Batch #1 was incredible, quickly becoming one of the top-selling gins we carried. Everyone who bought one came back for a second. But Sean would have more tricks up his sleeve, including a soon-to-be-released Aquavit that blew me away when I tasted it yesterday.

The point: I really need to get over to Santa Cruz, check out this operation, take some pictures, and let you all in on the secret. I’ve been slacking on this front and I need to get my act together. In the meantime, however, check out what just arrived. Mark my words: Venus Spirits is easily the most exciting small distiller in California for the moment and will be a huge story by the end of 2015. The products are impeccable, the packaging sleek and stylish, and the expansion of expressions careful and calculated. I’m really expecting big things for Sean. Here’s what just came in today:

Venus Spirits Batch #2 Gin $36.99 – Batch two of Sean Venus’s tremendous gin uses juniper, cardamom, orange, fennel, coriander, bay leaf, sage, peppercorns, and ages that formula in American oak for a mellow and creamier profile. The orange really gives it a lift. A Negroni is definitely calling my name.

Venus "El Ladron" Blue Agave Spirit $42.99Sean has agave azul from Jalisco crushed and cooked in Mexico, but then contracts a tanker of liquid to be trucked up to Santa Cruz where he can ferment it at his distillery. He then distills a 100% blue agave “tequila” from that fermented juice. It’s peppery, savory, spicy, and FANTASTIC. So creative and so delicious. I LOVE this stuff.

Venus Wayward Single Malt Whiskey $49.99 (1 bottle limit) Sean purchased different types of malted barley and then creates a mash at his distillery in Santa Cruz where he ferments his own wash. That goes into his still to create the Wayward single malt, which is aged in small casks, but doesn’t taste like it one bit. This is real deal single malt, eclipsed only by the Cut Spike and Westland, in my humble opinion. Very limited. Very, very limited.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Mar182015

Variance

I met with my tasting group last night for a leisurely stroll through the vast spread of new K&L Scotch whiskies. As has been the case lately, the reaction was mainly positive (thank goodness!). Getting to watch some of your most knowledgeable and loyal whisky customers analyze, critique, and nitpick through the details of your products in a private and tranquil setting is an invaluable service for me. Most importantly, it allows me the chance to experience these selections from various points of view (something I recently wrote about as the key to better retailing), to see if people react more or less as I hope or expect them to.

There was one moment, while sampling the Tobermory 18 year old from Old Particular, that I heard my buddy Scott say, "I love this whisky. I love everything about it." To which, my good friend Paul said, "Not me. I don't think I could drink a whole bottle of this." This caught my attention because Scott and Paul are two of my all-time best and most discerning customers, so hearing them diverge so adamently over a whisky was something I was interested in listening to more about. After hearing both sides of the discussion, I said to them: "And now you understand why we have to buy so many different casks. One of you loves it, the other doesn't, which is why we need variety in our selection. It can't be just about 'good' or 'bad' or 90 points because no matter how good you think something is, there's always going to be another person who doesn't agree."

"How often do people give you shit about 'bad' whisky?" Scott asked me curiously.

"It happens every single day," I answered.

"What does?" Paul asked.

"Someone emailing me to let me know how disappointed or angry they are that a whisky didn't meet their expectations," I said.

"How is that possible?" Scott asked, incredulously.

"Because whisky isn't ever going to be something we all agree on. Some people out there think this whole whisky thing is cut and dry, right or wrong, good or bad, black and white. Actually, a lot of people do. They think if the notes are good, but their experience is bad, that somehow we've lied to them. But look at what just happened here. Scott: you thought that whisky was amazing. Paul: you didn't. In Scott's eyes, I've just secured him a great bottle and he's incredibly thankful. In Paul's eyes, he would have been unsatisfied had he bought a bottle for himself. So what do you think? Am I wrong, or am I right to have bought that cask?"

"So what do you say when people get upset?" Paul asked.

"I tell them I'm sorry they were unhappy, but usually I have to stand by the whisky. For every person out that doesn't like something there are ten other guys who love it. For every guy who loves a whisky, there are ten other guys out there who hate it. There's always going to be variance. You just have to roll with that," I said.

And then we sat there for a few minutes in quiet solitude.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Mar172015

St Paddy's Barrel Selection

I'm always in the mood for Irish whiskey, but there isn't that much variety when you're talking about the production of only three distilleries. None of the three main players (Pernod-Ricard's Midleton, Cuervo's Bushmills, or Suntory-Beam's Cooley) offer single cask programs, so in order to secure something interesting we have to go third-party. That's where Knappogue Castle comes in. They're an independent bottler with connections to Cooley distillery, so we were able to use their access as an intermediary for a cask purchase. That's why—just in time for St. Patrick's Day—we were able to secure a lovely 12 year old single barrel of 100% Irish single malt whiskey exclusively for K&L. There's nothing gimmicky, or bizarre about this particular selection. It's just classic, soft, easy-drinking, top-quality Irish whiskey through and through. Only 216 bottles available from this ex-Bourbon barrel.

Knappogue Castle K&L Exclusive 12 Year Old Single Barrel Single Malt Irish Whiskey $49.99- Knappogue Castle is a third party label that bottles sourced and purchased whiskies from Ireland's main whisky distilleries. This particular 12 year old cask comes from Cooley distillery, the unloved stepchild to big brothers Midleton and Bushmills. Now that Beam/Suntory has taken over the reigns at Cooley, getting our hands on single barrels of Irish whisky has become much more difficult, so we jumped on this baby while we had the chance. This is just a delicious and classically-flavored Irish whisky through and through. Soft vanilla immediately awakens the palate, with flavors of stone fruit and sweet oak shortly behind it. The backend is creamy and rich, and the finish is malty and round. There's nothing earth-shattering going on inside of this whisky, but it's just darn tasty. It's one of the whiskies where you say, "Man, that's just freakin' delicious. Can I have another glass?" Just in time for St. Patrick's Day, this is the bottle you'll want for your celebration.

We've also got a new barrel of American whiskey in stock—a soft and gentle Kentucky Bourbon from Jefferson's. This isn't going to wow any of your bold, cask strength, Stagg fans out there. This is for those of you who want something mellow and soft.

Jefferson's K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Reserve Very Old Bourbon $45.99 -Jefferson's is one of the few negotiant bottlers left that still has access to real Kentucky Bourbon. Most other second-party labels have moved on to MGP (formerly known as LDI) distillery in Indiana, which makes delicious whiskey, but is rather ubiquitous in today's market. This single barrel from Jefferson's mature stocks is one of the softest, more supple American whiskies we have in stock. The focus is clearly the creamy corn and the richness of the spirit. There's a bit of an herbaceous note on the finish, hints of dried leaves and tobacco, but it's still just a hint in the soft wave of oak and vanilla. In a store full of "cask strength" and "high rye" selections, this barrel clearly stands out from the pack. This is for those who like their Bourbon smooth.

-David Driscoll