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Tuesday
Mar182014

Scotland Conversations

It was an interesting day yesterday, meeting with bottlers of various sizes and listening to their stories about the industry status quo. We found many commonalities in our words and bonded over the shared experiences that we recognized in one another. Two themes were consistent throughout all of our appointments:

1) The market has become focused on specific types or flavors of single malt whisky, leading to negative associations with whiskies that differ in style.

2) Producers have had to look at younger stocks and consider bottling casks that before would never have been considered.

Regarding the first point, we all seemed to have a story regarding an encounter with someone who only drank one type of whisky.

"We want a representation of all types of single malt whisky, even grain whisky, in our portfolio," one bottler told us. "However, the fact that we bottle light, fruity whisky along side our darker sherried selections doesn't seem to interest certain whisky drinkers."

"Not only are they not interested, but some have come to believe that a light and fruity whisky is inferior in quality or is lacking in some way," another producer said. We nodded our heads in agreement. We've encountered the same situation from certain customers who thought that our lighter, less oak-driven whiskies were poorly-made and lacking in quality, rather than just different or "not for them." It's funny to get feedback from consumers that differ so wildly in their assessment. Some people have written to tell me that the Royal Lochnagar Faultline was a terrible selection. Others have written to ask if they can buy a case because it's the best whisky they've had in ages.

What we have to remember is that different people like different styles of whisky. I know some of us out there pride ourselves on our expansive and open-minded taste, but it's alright to not like something. That being said, just because you don't like it doesn't mean the whisky is bad and it certainly doesn't mean you have to tell everyone it sucks. It might just be the case that you don't like the whisky – and that's it. However, even though there's a tendency for consumers to enjoy sherried whisky over lighter, fruitier whisky doesn't mean we're not going to import a broad selection of casks. It just means we're going to have to be vigilant about explaining the flavors in each selection, making sure we put the right bottles into the right hands.

The second point also made for interesting discussion.

"It's true that the lack of supply is forcing us to bottle younger stock, but at the same time we're finding delicious barrels in the five to eight year range. It's not that we didn't think they were good before, it's merely that we never thought about drawing samples. Why would we taste those casks when we had older barrels ready to go?" one bottler stated. That made total sense to me.

We've found some great young peated whiskies over the last year and, yesterday, tasted a five year old sherry butt that tasted like it was a twelve year old. There are some great options to be considered, now that we're actually considering them. There's a skepticism that believes the philosophy is changing from old to young simply out of convenience (and there's plenty of truth in that), but at the same time that necessity has changed the way many producers look at young whisky now that they've been forced to focus on it. They're finding it's often better than they expected.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Mar172014

Scotland – Day 5: Digging

Each year in Scotland there are a number of appointments with bottlers and producers that we know are going to be successful – Signatory, Sovereign, Glendronach, Glenfarclas, etc. We're almost always going to find something good in those warehouses. However, there are always some wild cards – places that may or may not turn up fruitful. We also make sure to look up new contacts, seek out new sources, and schedule a few long-shots just to make sure we've left no stone unturned. Today was a day spent driving. We drove north to south, east to west, and met with some new faces in search of new labels.

But times are tough and pickin's are slim. We eventually ended up in the new warehouse of David Stirk – our buddy from the Exclusive Malts who we introduced to America a few years back. The Creative Whisky Company used to store all its casks just south of Glasgow, but David's got a new facility further southeast, near Thornhill where he lives. He had a few possibilities for K&L, so we took some samples and continued our way back to Edinburgh.

But not before hitting up the local pub. The great thing about going out for a dram in Scotland is the selection. 

We're off to Ian McCleod tomorrow morning where we'll taste new Chieftain's samples for the first time in more than a year. They've run low on availability, but they think there might be some new options on the table this time around. We'll hit a few more stops before heading off to Pitlochry and resting up for what should be an epic day with Des in the Signatory warehouses.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Mar162014

Scotland – Day 4: The Right to Roam

As I was finishing up breakfast at the Old Excise House this morning, Ron told me about a very special law in Scotland often referred to as "the right to roam." It basically states that you're allowed the freedom to go wherever you want, even private property, as long as you keep moving. For example, you can take a walk through a private beach even if it's owned by someone else, but you can't put down a chair and start fishing for a few hours. 

"That's great to hear," I said, quite fascinated by this new information. Why was that welcome news, you ask? Because on travel days without appointments (like today) David and I like to hunt down former distillery sites and explore them if they're on the way to where we're going – especially if they're related to casks we're interested in purchasing. We tasted through a few Dumbarton grain casks with Stewart Laing on Thursday evening, so we definitely wanted to see what was left of the former grain distillery and its demolished single malt hub Inverleven. Luckily for us, we had the "right to roam" on our side, so we found the abandoned site, hopped over the fence, and roamed on into the decimated rubble.

The town of Dumbarton sits along the River Leven, right about where it feeds into the larger Clyde River. In the background, on top of a large volcanic rock jutting out of the water, sits Dumbarton Castle – a stronghold that dates back to the 5th century. With the light fading fast and tide rolling in we dodged the various bricks and sharp rocks, scaled the piles of debris, and walked around the remaining brick structure that was closed forever in 2002.

Dumbarton distillery was erected in 1938 by George Ballantine & Son to help create the Ballantine's Blended brand in conjunction with Miltonduff and Glenburgie. At the time it was built it was the largest distillery of its kind in Europe. In 1988, Ballentine's merged with Allied Domecq who would mothball the site fourteen years later, switching production to the newer and more efficient Strathclyde distillery in Glasgow. Pernod-Ricard bought the Ballantine's brand in 2005 and continues to use the plentiful warehouse space in Dumbarton just a mile or so down the road from the former distillery.

One rule that David and I have developed over the years during these scavenger hunts is that we are not allowed to use the internet to find our goal. We are allowed to use vague geographical maps, verbal directions from locals, and photos in books to try and match the terrain, but we absolutely cannot Google search directions. What would be the fun in that? 

"Should we try and hunt down Littlemill as well?" David asked. "It's supposed to be nearby, I think."

"Let's see if we can find someone who remembers the distillery," I said, and we drove around looking for the right local to ask. Usually the best candidates for these types of questions are males in their late 40s or early 50s, so when we spotted two blokes smoking a couple of fags out in front of a nearby restaurant I hopped out of the car and went to work.

"Yeah, I remember it," one of the guys said. "It's in a town called Bowling. It's all houses now, but there's at least one building left and there's a bar called the Horseshoe in front of where it used to be."

David remembered having passed the sign for Bowling a few miles back, so we made a U-turn and headed back in search of the Lowland legend. Littlemill had been dismantled in 1996, but the buildings remained until 2004 when a fire gutted most of what was left. We looked for more modern housing, found the bar, and noticed that the new apartments were located on an inlet called Littlemill Place. Behind the sign stood a delapidated frame that matched the picture in our Malt Whisky Yearbook.

We walked up the hill above the old site to get a better look. As the sun went down and the bridge stood starkly in the distance beneath it, we gazed upon what was once a center for whisky production and remembered our old Faultline expression from a few years back. Then we thought about the new cask of Littlemill we had just tasted a few nights back and smiled.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Mar162014

Scotland – Day 4: Through the Grapevine

Up early once again. Still can't get through an entire night yet.

While it's great to be away researching and learning more about our industry, there's still a retail world we're responsible for back in California. What's been happening at K&L in our absence?

- Green Spot Irish Whiskey came in. And then it went right back out again. We're trying to get some more for early next week. I think we sold about 200+ bottles in a matter of hours, but I haven't been able to check since coming to Islay.

- We've got our first of a handful of new Elijah Craig 12 barrels in stock at all locations now. If you didn't hear us say it before, Heaven Hill is no longer offering EC12 as part of their single cask program with retailers, so we took the last few available. It's great stuff.

- Bryan Davis from Lost Spirits in Salinas, CA has a new Leviathan single malt release called 111 set for delivery next week. I haven't tasted it, but I'm sure it's very true to character. Bryan doesn't often stray from who he is. Watch for that on Tuesday/Wednesday.

What's our plan for today? Well, things have changed a bit. I haven't seen any mention of it online, but Bladnoch distillery is no longer in the hands of the Armstrong brothers. I heard from both Raymond and Colin on Friday and they've allowed a liquidator to come in and take control of the company. We were set for our appointment Tuesday to select new casks, but we're not sure if the new director is on board with the idea yet. That remains up in the air at the moment. 

Our next appointment isn't until this evening in Glasgow, so we're going to do some day tripping to a few whisky locations on the way back for young Kyle's professional growth.

I didn't get to it yesterday, but we swung by Bruichladdich to say hello to our friends at the distillery and learned they have yet to begin distilling in 2014. Apparently they're replacing some of their ancient copper equipment and have yet to get the distillery back up and running since moving forward with the repairs. From what we heard, completion of the project is still a ways off, so it might be a while before they can get going again. This surprises me because every other distillery I've visited is currently pumping out whisky 24/7 to meet the demand of the current market. With Remy's deep pockets it seems like they would want to invest in speeding things along.

Huh.

-David Driscoll 

Saturday
Mar152014

Scotland – Day 3: Machir Bay

Just around the bend of Loch Indaal from Bowmore is the road to Kilchoman and Rockside Farm. You head north across the Rhinns of Islay peninsula until you can see Machir Bay and the expanse of the North Atlantic. The distillery is situated directly next to the farm, which is equipped with cattle and fields of barley that stretch away towards the hills in the distance. It's a quiet location, just down the road from Bruichladdich, with little pomp or evidence that you're visiting one of the best whisky producers of single malt whisky in Scotland. It's a simple homestead. A quaint enclosure that feels as cozy as it sounds.

Inside the main building a man named Anthony Willis is malting some Rockside barley the old fashioned way. He's still learning about the process, making adjustments after milling, but his team is getting better at it. They've managed to increase the volume of liters produced for their 100% Islay distillate and the quality seems to get better with each run. Every week two tons of barley from the farm next door are soaked and spread out on the floor until the husks are nice and dry. Every Tuesday they're shoveled by hand into wheelbarrows and transported into the kiln for peating.

Anthony Willis isn't a distiller. That's why he hired John McLellan away from Bunnahabhain. However, Anthony was formerly an independent bottler of single malt whisky and, as the industry began to lock down, refusing to barter its whisky the way it once had, he was able to read the writing on the wall. He needed to control his own supply, so in 2001 he began raising money for a distillery. He had the location in mind, he knew the farmer he wanted to work with, and he knew the style of whisky he wanted to make (being a big fan of Ardbeg). He also realized that, due to the financial hardships of founding a new distillery, he needed to create a spirit that would taste better in its youth. So he got the money, brought in an expert consultant, and designed a compact distillery with a special still that would create a lighter, sweeter, fruitier style of whisky meant for drinking sooner than later. He wouldn't know if the design had worked, however, until actually operating the machinery.

Being someone who sourced single barrels of Scotch for a living, Anthony also understood the importance of good wood. That's why, upon founding the distillery, he immediately struck up a relationship with Buffalo Trace in the U.S. and Miguel Sherry in Spain to being purchasing their left over casks. Quality whisky could only be created through maturation in quality cooperage and today Kilchoman still uses barrels from both producers exclusively (80% of its new make goes into ex-Bourbon, 20% into the Jerez butts). 

In 2005, Anthony's team fired up their very special spirit still and began producing whisky at Kilchoman – Islay's farm distillery. Almost ten years later they're slowly gaining recognition for their hard work. It hasn't been easy and many consumers still don't believe that what they're doing is worth the price, but at five and six years of age Anthony's single malt whiskies are beginning to beat out more mature Islay malts in head-to-head competitions and award panels. Every batch they distill is more polished and each release tastes better than the previous one.

"It's definitely coming together," Anthony told us as we stood together in the still room. "We're almost where we want to be."

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of the Kilchoman whiskies. But I'm also an admirer of Anthony himself. Kilchoman is the distillery that we would have built if David and I could have developed our own K&L spirits facility. Anthony's goals, viewpoints, and philosophies are completely in tune with our own. He's a guy who gets whisky, who gets the business, and who understands what whisky fans want. He's smart enough to know that the only way to breakdown the consumer dependence upon age statements is to simply provide better whisky without one.

"Ten years ago this wouldn't have been possible," Anthony said. "We're succeeding because of a much more open-minded view from drinkers who are more educated than ever."

He credits Ardbeg for paving the way, but I think Kilchoman's recent releases have done more to convince drinkers about the potential of young peated whisky than any other distillery's efforts. Case in point: the new edition of Loch Gorm headed our way in the near future. Man....it is good. We all sat there looking at each other, nodding our heads. 

"It's much better than our last batch," Anthony said, reading the expressions on our faces.

"No shit!" I replied. "It's twice as good. The sherry is more integrated and everything is much more in balance."

Kilchoman is doing so well that they're running out of space for warehousing. They recently erected a new dunnage site down the road from the distillery, on the way towards Bruichladdich, to help ease some of the pressure and provide more room for extra casks. They've increased their capacity for fermentation as well and they'll be adding another mash tun shortly to help maximize the distillation potential.

Since we just received two incredible Bourbon casks of 2008 distillate from Kilchoman, we decided to focus on tasting some new 100% Islay casks from Rockside for possible K&L exclusives. More on that later.

For now all we can think about is that amazing new batch of Loch Gorm! Lucky for those of you coming to our sold out dinner in a few weeks, Anthony told me as we were leaving that he plans on bringing a few bottles with him when he comes. It looks like he'll be debuting it at the event. 

Lucky for you, indeed!

-David Driscoll

NOTE: Read Kyle's take on Kilchoman here at the main site.