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Monday
Apr132015

France: Day 2 - Morning at Hine

Let me start this post by saying this: we did enough today to justify and entire week's worth of articles. I could write ten paragraphs just for every hour we spent with Maurice Hennessy. That being said, I don't have a week to string these stories out, so I'm going to split it up between the first and second parts of the day. We woke up early at Chateau de Bagnolet, grabbed a pastry and a cup of coffee, and jumped in the van for the twenty minute drive to Jarnac—the neighbor to Cognac just a short trip down the river Charente. We had a 10 AM meeting with the house of Hine, one of the more interesting and forward-thinking producers from the old world of French brandy.

In the new age of distiller/producers, where the name of the actual distillery is often the name of the brand itself, it's easy to forget that the idea of DIY marketing is quite new to the booze world. For hundreds of years, the people producing the great brandies of France had nothing to do with blending them, marketing them, or even delivering them into the hands of customers. The Cognac industry was (and mostly still is today) run by negociants who would purchase different distillates from small producers and handle the entire business side of the trade; often shipping their casks abroad by boat, down the Charente River, where they would make their way to various merchants all over the world. Surprisingly enough, it was an influx of British and Irish entrepreneurs that established some of the earliest Cognac houses we still know today. Richard Hennessy, of course, was from Ireland, and it was in a French prison during the Revolution that he met Thomas Hine—an Englishman from a family of Cognac merchants sent southward to learn the French language. Hine would eventually be released, fall in love with the daughter of a blending house, and change the company to his namesake when he and his wife eventually inherited the family business. More than 200 years later, there is still a strong link between Hine and the UK. Their head commercial director, Carolyn Meunier—who met us at the estate today—is from England originally herself. 

While there is a small warehouse at Hine facility in Jarnac, most of their Cognac is aging outside the city limits. In fact, due to those strong relationships in the UK, a number of what they call their "early landed" vintage casks are aged at Glenfarclas distillery in the Scottish Highlands. While releasing vintage-dated casks in France is a bureaucratic nightmare (due to an abundance of laws requiring a licensed official to be present for all aspects of anything eventually being labeled with a specific numerical age statement) there surprisingly is no law that states French Cognac must be aged in France. Therefore, Hine is able to send a number of "early-landed" casks (meaning casks that are leaving Jarnac for the UK and arriving "early" in their maturation period) back home, where they have an age-old agreement to use the Her Majesty's bonding customs. That means Hine can release a number of vintage-dated products without being restricted by French guidelines using their UK-based stocks. 

Sometimes it's easy to think the old demi-johns laying around Cognac warehouses are just cheesy props or marketing materials for tourists, simply because of the ridiculous maturity or provenance of these brandies. However, it's totally common to have Cognac from the mid-1800s just sitting there in glass, right on the shelf, waiting to be used in a special blend or rare bottling. What is uncommon to see, however, is a WWII vintage. The Nazis shutdown a lot of production in France during their reign. 1943 is not a year I've seen at a producer previously. 

It's also easy to associate big Cognac houses with the glitz and glamour of big marketing (Hine does have an amazingly hip and modern tasting room), but don't get confused by their attention to aesthetics. Many Cognac houses are often sticklers for the highest quality of spirits and pay extreme attention to detail. Just because they're technically a blending house also doesn't mean they don't handle production. While Hine does purchase brandies from producers around the region, they also own 110 hectares of their own fruit, which they distill under their own domaine name: Bonneuil. In fact, you can buy a single estate version of entirely domaine-bottled Hine Bonneuil Cognac in their gift shop (which I did).

But, of course, just because they're buying a lot of juice from other producers, don't think Hine doesn't understand the production of those other distillers down to the finest of details. Eric Forget, the cellar master and director at Hine, is an incredible wealth of knowledge when it comes to every inch of Cognac terroir. He worked for Hennessy for many years and was actually in charge of managing the relationships between the company and its 1500 contracted growers. That makes him the ideal person to speak to when it comes to understanding what makes each distillate unique, as he has a strong working knowledge concerning hundreds of different estates. Eric had also arranged a selection of available barrel samples for us, from which he explained the significance of their individual origins and what made each one unique. For someone looking for more specifics from his Cognac, the presentation was utterly fantastic. I was spellbound before we had even tasted anything!

Besides their willingness for total transparency and detail-based approach to marketing, one of the reasons I was so excited to work with Hine was the fact that they purposely use a very low char level in their barrels. That means more fruit and less oak in the ultimate spirit. That means more terroir and less wood. That means a better understanding of the region in every sip. That means a better connoisseurship of the spirit and what makes it unique. We found two casks that really jumped out at us, both very different in their personalities. One was a lighter nine year old Grand Champagne brandy, lithe and fruity in its profile. The other a richer 2002 vintage with more supple richness and spice on the finish. Based on today's experience, I'm pretty sure we'll be doing a lot more business with Hine in the near future. 

They made their case. We were impressed. We countered with ours. A deal was struck. That's how relationships should work; with both parties equally enthused and excited about the future.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Apr122015

France: Day 1 - Chateau de Bagnolet

North from the city of Cognac, along the bank of La Charente, sits Chateau de Bagnolet: the house of Hennessy. Originally built in 1810, the ancient estate today serves as a guesthouse and hosting area for guests of the Cognac giant. We left Edinburgh this morning, did a layover in Amsterdam, then landed in Bordeaux around 4 PM. We then quickly rented a car, drove the hour and a half north to Cognac, and pulled into Bagnolet just before dinner time. Hennessy VS and ginger beer cocktails were promptly served. I stood on the balcony and stared off towards the river. Maurice Hennessy was due to arrive at 8 PM for dinner. We had a lot to talk about.

We dined over Pouilly-Fuisse and fish, followed by dessert paired with Hennessy XO. After the meal, we ajourned in the parlor to discuss business and share stories from the current state of the industry. Now I'm here with Charles Neal, my old pal Lester, and we're getting ready to drink Cognac late into the evening. 

You might be thinking at this point: David, only three days in Scotland? Is that really enough? Yes, my friends, three days is sufficient for what we need to do. At this stage in the game, the belts have been tightened and the supplies slowly rationed. It's not easy right now. We've only got four solid mainstay partners for single cask imports at this point, and we can knock out those appointments in three focused, hard-fought days. France, on the other hand, is limitless. We still are just scratching the surface with our brandy department and I want to spend a serious amount of time expanding on the work we've already done. That's why I'll be in France for the next eleven days: to start getting very, very serious about Cognac and Armagnac.

Get ready for a serious set of French-inspired blog posts. But first, a bit of fun.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Apr112015

Scotland: Day 3 - Glasgow Pride

Another glorious morning in Glasgow. We awoke (after another night of Finnieston's finest at Ox and Finch) and headed over to the offices of Hunter Laing where we met our old friend Andrew and sat down for coffee and croissants. His father Stewart was in the U.S. on a promotional tour, so we would begin our negotiations for this year's Hepburn's Choice and Sovereign selections with the most-recent generation of Laing whisky suppliers. Right off the bat we noticed the new packaging for Sovereign, a very welcome surprise! I quickly informed Andrew of my new obsession with Glasgow as a city—its vibrant food and drink scene especiallyand told him we needed to get the "Glasgow Pride" movement started with him: Glasgow's finest whisky bottler. The problem, however, is that there's little whisky actually made in Glasgow anymore. Even nearby Auchentoshan and Glengoyne are at least a twenty minute drive outside of the city limits. He suggested a cask of 30 year old Dumbarton under the new Sovereign label—from the now-defunct grain distillery once located just down the River Clyde—of which he had an open bottle right there on the table. Loaded with soft vanilla and creamy caramel, I told him that sounded just splendid. Book it.

Andrew and his dad Stewart have been incredible partners for us over the last four years, even letting us take ultra-rare whiskies like Port Ellen and Ardbeg from their vast collection. Along with another solid sampling of Hepburn's Choice and Sovereign samples, both David and I were taken by a number of super mature whiskies that simply knocked our socks off. There was another ancient Port Ellen on the table, and a 47 year old sherry butt of Glenfarclas, but the real winner—and easily the best whisky I've tasted on this trip so far—was a 41 year old sherry-matured Teaninich. It was just epic. Unreal. Sublime. Soft and creamy with a profile very much like the Ladyburn and Glenlochy whiskies we've bottled from Signatory in the past. It's coming home with us no matter what I have to do to get it.

After leaving Hunter Laing, we hiked on over to the riverfront where modern Glasgow is currently expanding into groundbreaking new territory. There's the eye-popping new SSE Hydro Arena, a 13,000 seat venue that will host renowned hip-hop diva Nicki Minaj tomorrow night. The glistening metallic majesty of the futuristic-looking Riverside Museum; a fortress containing relics of Glasgow's storied history. You've also got the head office of the BBC just across the water, as well as the main SSE Conference Center, hosting thousands of international business attendees annually. To me, it would seem that any company looking making a splash (pardon the pun) in Glasgow would definitely want to build along the Clyde; the sparkling spectacle of Glasgow's vibrant future. I think I know of one such company actually. Maybe they should invest in some land.

This overhead photo taken during the 1950s shows the location of how previous photo once looked, back when the Queen's Dock (that U-shaped outlet on the left) was once home to Scotland's largest export center for outgoing whisky. Built in 1877, the pump house (just where that little canal allows access into the U-shaped port) once controlled a barrier gate that would open the channel for incoming ships looking to load up on Scotland's greatest national product.

Today the U-shaped dock has been filled in, paved over, and turned into a parking lot, but the pump house still remains; most recently serving as an Indian restaurant and nightclub. All that is about to change, however. The building has since been purchased and plans have been filed to renovate and restore the Queen's Dock to its proper whisky heritage. Guess what whisky fans? Downtown Glasgow is about to get a proper, urban single malt distillery right in the center of town. And guess who's going to help run it? A proper Glasgow family with proper whisky-making roots. My close friend Andrew Morrison and his dad, Tim Morrison, both of Morrison-Bowmore heritage, will be operating partners in what will soon become The Glasgow Distillery—a proper homage to the whisky legacy of Glasgow, built to celebrate the spirit itself, and host the many tourists who come to the city each year (sadly, only find that all the famed Scottish distilleries are not anywhere nearby).

It was at the pump house that we met with Glen Moore, one of the project managers who is helping lead the remodel and designing of the new distillery. A former mill man himself, Glen worked his way up through the Morrison-Bowmore hierarchy years ago and was at one point the assistant manager at Auchentoshan. We spotted him nearby, shook hands, and went in to check out the new digs. While the pump house still needs a major amount of renovating, the distillery itself will be built in the parking lot next door; part of a separate building that will be connected to the old ediface. At full speed, it will produce around 450,000 liters annually and distill only for its own private single malt label (nothing sold off for blending). The house itself will be part of a huge visitors center that will not only function as an educational component to Glasgow's whisky history, but as a museum to all of Scotch whisky's history in its entirety. I won't go into too much detail now, but I was simply speechless after hearing the overview and seeing the plan so far. If Glen and the Morrison's can pull this off, the center is going to be the new mecca of Scotch whisky for the nation. A modern distillery juxtaposed with a historic building on an iconic site with real whisky heritage, all just a short walk away from the most heavily-visited touristic section of the city. I haven't seen anything this cool since the Giants built AT&T Stadium right on the Embarcadero. It's an epic proposal.

The location couldn't be more ideal. It's close to other attractions, close to hotels, close to public transportation, and it's only a short walk over the pedestrian footbridge to Finnieston: the neighborhood of Glasgow where David and I have spent every waking moment thus far. There are so many new restaurants and bars opening just near the new distillery site, to the point that it seems Glasgow is experiencing an entirely new renaissance of food and drink-related culture. I've yet to visit anywhere else in the UK that's on the level Finnieston is currently operating on. The fact that this neighborhood might soon get its own urban whisky distillery is simply exhilerating.

We had to eat once more, of course, at another new restaurant—this time a place called Porter & Rye, where (as you might have guessed from the name) they have in-house, dry-aged porterhouse steaks and an amazing selection of American rye whiskies. We had lunch here with Glen over pints and small plates of various meats, before heading across the street to the Ben Nevis whisky bar for a few drams of A.D. Rattray's Cask Islay (and I haven't even said anything yet about the amazing craft beer movement going on here). Then it was time to head for Edinburgh and the airport hotel, where David and I will soon begin evaluating this year's prospective crop.

We've got a lot of work ahead of us. Tomorrow we're off to Cognac. We need one more gigantic tasting before we can say we left Scotland thoroughly scavenged. One thing I'm very happy about is how much time we got to spend in Glasgow this year. We've always enjoyed the one night a year we stay downtown, but this year we got to experience so much more of what's really happening on the ground, and—more importantly—what we can expect in the future. Make sure you add Glasgow to your list of international cities to visit!

-David Driscoll

Friday
Apr102015

Scotland: Day 2 - Glasgow to Campbeltown

Driving from Glasgow to Campbeltown takes a little over three hours and is not a straight shot by any means. It's a curvy, meandering, often single lane trek that shoots through Loch Lomand National Park and around the lip of Loch Fyne, before turning south and hugging the coast line all the way down to the Mull of Kintyre. Visiting Springbank distillery therefore takes both courage and strong desire. Or, as Mark Watt said to us today, "It's a pilgrimage for most folks. They have to really want to come here."

We really love Springbank, Cadenhead's, and Campbeltown, so we got up early, ate a hearty breakfast, and jumped in the car. It had been two years since our last visit, so we were excited about our return. The road, however, quickly tempered our enthusiasm. You'd think with so much experience driving on winding, single lane roads that the Scots would be experts at passing slower movers. That's not the case, however. They're terrible at judging a safe distance before making their move. More than once we were forced to slam on the breaks while coming around a blind curve to find some daredevil heading right towards us at speeds not recommended. A yellow Mustang came within inches of killing us all. That being said, the beautiful scenery more than made up for the induced terror.

Once you pass Inveraray you're about halfway there. The surroundings go from mountainous to sea worthy quite quickly. The road to Campbeltown, like the Campbeltown whiskies themselves, is a combination of both Highland and Island flare.

Campbeltown itself had never looked better. A new infusion of outside money has slightly turned the economic tide in town. Buildings had been renovated and cleaned up since our last visit. The facelift was remarkable and apparent right from the moment we parked next to the Cadenhead office.

Mark Watt and Ranald Watson were right there to meet us. We didn't waste any time, and they knew what we were there to do. It was time to taste some single casks from Cadenhead's vast and available supply. There were a lot of winners and we made a quick list of condenders. While we were there, we thought, why not taste some Springbank Local Barley and a new vatting of the 21 year? I mean, the casks were just sitting right there, and we did drive all the way over. Let's just take a wee dram. Mmmm....Local Barley.

Visiting Springbank always puts your mind right when it comes to quality over economics. Nothing done by the company makes economic sense from a profit-based perspective. Everything is about continuing to support community and tradition first. It's a mindset so noble and rare-to-see in this industry that you forget there are people in the world that still care about those committments. I asked Ranald if Springbank was meeting its goals, to which he said, "We're not just paying our workers more than minimum wage, we're paying them a living wage. That's always our number one goal and I'm happy to say we're more than meeting it." Springbank still malts all their own barley and pays Campbeltown locals to do it all the old-fashioned way. 

After a lenghty tasting and a quick tour around the buildings, it was time for pints and lunch. Haggis nachos? Why not? When in Campbeltown.

We headed back to Glasgow at around 1:30. I fell asleep immediately, but woke up when David honked at another passing driver hell bent on ending both his life and ours. That kept me up the rest of the way!

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Apr092015

Scotland: Day 1 - Glaswegian Nights

While I'm a firm believer that Paris is the center of the European universe when it comes to fashion, food, and general cosmopolitan cool, there's something wonderful about Glasgow that I couldn't quite put my finger on until last night. Much like Berlin, there's a sort of raw urban chíc at work—a shift away from staunch traditionalism and more towards the eclectic and artistic. Whereas Edinburgh is polished, pristine, and classically beautiful—castles and cobblestones for the traditional traveling tourist—Glasgow is a city with a distinctly-youthful edge. The sandstone architecture is orderly enough, but within those buildings exists a spunky creativity that feels unforced and seems to brim from a collective Glaswegian synergy.

People are out socializing and using the city space in interesting ways. There are contemporary bars, shops, and restaurants all over, specializing in forward-thinking versions of traditional Scottish fare. Everywhere you look there's a clear juxtaposition of new modernity with a wink towards the 19th century. When you walk around, you feel like you're eavesdropping on something very new and very cutting edge; like there's a secret in Glasgow that few others have yet to discover. 

But there's nothing hoity-toity, or snobbish about what's happening around you. People are well-dressed and they care about presentation, but there's no hipster element or tragically trendy over-exertion. No one's trying too hard. Everyone seems comfortable in their own skin and there's no trace of attitute in their execution. Everyone's taking themself seriously, but not at your expense. It's like Glaswegians are working together just for the sake of building a better community, rather than for validation or positive online reviews. We randomly stopped by a fantastic spot called Gannett on Argyle Street in the Finnieston neighborhood and were blown away by both the professionalism of the bar and the quality of the cuisine. And this was just one of thirty or so intriguing options in the area! We had trouble deciding where to finally spend our evening. It was overwhelming to say the least.

Scotch eggs of the highest order, along with a selection of great beers on tap and a wine list with plenty of reasonable options by the glass. People often say that Edinburgh is the more sophisticated of the two main Scottish cities, but I'm not sure they've ever really walked around Glasgow. To me it's not even a debate. 

You walk around at night and there are young people everywhere—talking, walking, drinking, smoking, playing music in the streets, and participating in the local scene. They're more than aware of what's happening globally in terms of modern culture because Glasgow is completely up to speed on fashionable bar etiquette and food trends. At the same time, however, you get the feeling that they don't care about what's going on anywhere else but right there. They're not copying New York, or LA, or even London. It's very much a distinct and localized movement and that feels wonderful as an outsider. It feels like you're somewhere real and authentic, surrounded by people who have something unique and special to offer. When you've got an entire city free from any chip-on-the-shoulder insecurity—unburdoned by that we're-just-as-good-as-anywhere-else type of mentallythen wonderful things can happen. Glasgow is a perfect example of that condition.

-David Driscoll