Sunday
Mar312013

Communication Breakdown 

Have you ever written a text or an email to someone where you said something sarcastic, but it didn't come across in the email? Maybe you were straight to the point about an issue or you know what you meant when you wrote it, but any humor or tongue-in-cheek was lost in translation and the written word didn't convey the smirk on your face. It's happened to me before. In fact, it's happened to me quite a lot. I tend to write quickly and sometimes I just assume that everyone knows what I mean.

When you're on the road tasting booze all day long and you're writing down information, jotting down quotes, trying to come up with a quick summation of the day's events, you tend to get worn down by evening's end. So far on this trip I've had about thirty minutes right before bedtime to try and put something interesting together that explains what we've been doing. Sometimes my eyes have glossed over while typing. Sometimes the articles have been full of spelling errors. Sometimes I've just written and assumed that others could see where I was going. When you write like that you miss things and sometimes you don't convey the true intent of your message.

I can think of a million times where I've publicly said something private about my wife that I don't think is particularly embarrassing or controversial – maybe that she doesn't like steak or something trival like that. Then we'll end up eating dinner at someone's house and that person will say to her, "Oh right, you're the person who doesn't like red meat." My wife will then glare at me and I already know what that look means. It means, "How in the hell did this person know I'm picky about my meat?" I know what my first response will be. I'll always say, "Why is that such a big deal?" I'm an open and outgoing person who doesn't get humiliated easily. My wife is the opposite, however. She doesn't want to draw any attention to herself if possible, so even minor details about her preferences or habits can make her upset. I need to remember to respect that at all times.

What does this have to do with anything? It has to do with a post about Bladnoch I wrote a few days ago. Let's refresh our memory on some of what I wrote late one evening:

The South of Scotland isn't a very populated region. About 25,000 people live in a 100 square mile radius. There's not much of an economy down there unless you're a farmer, a plumber, an electrician, or a butcher.
The coastline is completely barren in some places. Some parts look across to the Isle or Arran and at other places you can see Northern Ireland. It is deep within this part of Scotland, almost down near the border with England, that you can find one of the true Lowland distilleries in the Lowlands. It's not near anything you'd want to visit as a tourist and it's not on the way to anywhere else. You need to make the effort if you're going to visit this facility.

Literally everything I wrote in those few sentences came out of the mouth of our hotel manger who was answering a few questions about the region. I was doing my best to write down what he said and when I finally got back to my hotel room that evening I simply typed up this information as fast as I could. It was my intention to paint the Lowlands as a quaint, endearing, small-town country region that most people tend to ignore or forget about. I wanted to start with this description because I wanted to make everyone think I was talking about some forgotten backwoods, only to let you all know that this was really the home of some great people making some great whisky. I was planning to write a second part to this article that showcased all of this, but I got busy and couldn't get back around to it. While nothing I wrote was inherently negative, it was written in a dry and direct manner that seemed rather cold and uninterested. That rubbed some people the wrong way and I can see why. I was planning to say more later.

The river Bladnoch flows through the town bearing the same name. Immediately situated upon this waterway sits the eponymous distillery, a mysterious distillery that has been the subject of much rumor and drama over the past few years. Takeovers, familiy feuds, buyouts, reopenings, closures, and fist-fights have all made their way into this distillery's recent whisky lore. What was once a Diageo operation was purchased by the Armstrong brothers in 1994 and nothing has gone as planned ever since.

Part of what we do on the K&L blog is cover the subjects going on within the industry that don't usually make it onto the average website. That's why people like reading this blog, I think. They learn something about the business they love that they might not have previously known about. Personally, I've been curious about the Bladnoch distillery for years. When I've asked people in the industry about it I've always heard the same thing: it's run by two brothers who don't really get along. That's the first thing people say. That's all anyone seems to know. I've heard all kinds of crazy rumors about the Armstrong family's distillery, but I never knew what to believe and what not to. Gossip is usually just like that. When I wrote the sentence about the "lore" of Bladnoch it was reflecting the nature of what I was predisposed to. I've read emails and message board comments about how the distillery wasn't operational or about how it was on the verge of being sold. I've read all kinds of crap, but I never knew what was true and what wasn't. Therefore, I was excited to go down and find out for myself. What I wanted to do was be the person to dispell all that rumor and replace it with fact.

I could continue to explain why I wrote what I eventually wrote, and I could completely justify why I wrote it, but that would go against the point of what I have to say right now. Regardless of whether what I stated was true, I got completely lost in trying to get to the bottom of a mystery rather than paying attention to the personal feelings of a family. It was just like the situation with my wife. When I don't think it's a big deal I assume it's not a big deal for that person either. There was plenty of widely-known information about the Bladnoch situation. There was a story just a few years back about Wemyss thinking they had a purchase agreement for the distillery until the brothers decided they weren't in agreement and things fell apart. These stories were corroborated upon our visit when we asked. In my opinion it was already widely known that the Armstrongs could disagree at times. It didn't seem outlandish to simply state that as a fact and try to move beyond it. When we learned that Bladnoch was at a complete standstill for the moment because of a current dispute, it seemed that the story got more interesting by the minute. I just kept writing from what I had in my notes.

Ultimately, what I wanted to actually talk about was how, despite all of the problems that Bladnoch had faced and overcome since 1994, they had still managed to create some damn fine whisky. Despite the fact that some critics of the distillery had dismissed the direct expressions as funky or sulphury, we had been able to taste directly from the cask and were very impressed. Despite what you might have heard about these brothers, we had met directly with Colin who had stopped everything, welcomed two strangers into his distillery, and continued to show them a fantastic time. The problem with all of this is that I was supposed to make all of this clear in that article. What happened, however, was that I ran out of time, had to run off and take care of something, and ended up posting a half-assed review of a distillery that, while completely factual, wasn't really indicative of what I wanted to convey. First I was talking about how crazy this place was, but then I was talking about how good the booze was? What the heck was I trying to say?

More importantly, I assumed that because the disagreements between the brothers seemed to be publicly known, and that there was no attempt to hide this fact during our visit, it was therefore alright to shed further light upon this situation. That's what I can't really justify thinking about it now. No matter who is aware of that fact it isn't something that really needs to be brought up again and I should have realized that. In my mind, the story of Bladnoch is the Armstrong brothers. That's what gets me interested in their booze. It's an endearing story of two guys who are passionate about what they do. To me, a single malt whisky is only as good as the people making it and what I had wanted to eventually say about these gentlemen is that their fiery emotions had led to some outstanding hooch. I thought all of these details would get people interested in trying the whisky as well. That all of this hoopla we've heard on the internet or on message boards is really irrelevant. I wanted to get some of this whisky for K&L and show people why it was important. I wanted to say to our customers, "This whisky isn't available in the U.S. but we drove all the way down to Bladnoch to get it because of this crazy story we had been hearing. A story that intrigued us and made us want to know more. However, in the end these passionate emotions had been distilled into an amazing distillate. That's why we purchased three casks of it and we can't wait for you to try them!"

Unfortunately, I've never been able to finish that story. Because of my poor writing I've upset some people who deserved better represention. They didn't need to have their grievances hashed about again on some stupid blog. My intent was to take that information, throw it out there, and then move beyond it to what was really important: the whisky. What I should have known, however, is that while I see all of this as an endearing, emotional, and exciting story about some damn fine whisky, this is real life to other people. While I find it amazing, it's not the way that the Armstrongs want to market their whisky. Not because it isn't true, but because it isn't something they want to discuss publicly.

So let me close with this: the whisky we found at Bladnoch is outstanding. It comes from a quaint, rustic place in the Lowlands that is actually deep within the region. It's the real Lowland distillery, in my opinion, and it's run by two brothers who are quite passionate. We tasted three casks from this distillery and we thought they were quite outstanding. Despite what we had been told, we went drove a long way for this whisky and we learned not to believe everything that people tell you.

And I learned that sometimes whisky doesn't need a story to get people excited about it. It can just be good. That's it. My apologies to the Armstrongs for the poorly-crafted, incomplete, and rushed-to-print report. I hope to be a better ambassador for your whisky.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Mar302013

France 2013 - Day 3 - Real People, Real Booze

I love single malt whisky. I love Cognac, too. However, to me there's nothing more real and authentic in the booze world than Armagnac. There are no corporations, no giant distilleries, no grains coming in from Poland, no tricks, and no brand managers when we make our trip through the region. With Gascony's rugged spirit there is only the various Chateaux and country homes with local farmers occupying them. These people own vineyards. They make wine. They distill some of it. They have pigs and chickens. It's a way of life for them and it's not about designing the next big money-maker. When we pulled into a small domaine called Louis Dupuy we were met by a guy named Peris – a man whose house is like something from an old country fairytale. Except this isn't a Disneyland tasting bar. This is the real deal.

Located on the border of Bas Armagnac, Dupuy hasn't distilled for a few years and has a very small selection of casks, but what Peris has is terrific. With only a few hectares of Baco, his vintage selections were quite distinct and easy-to-like. A 1987 cask we tasted was quite delicate and refined with a fresh fruit character that was balanced and in tune with the barrel spice. We liked it tremendously. A 1990 cask exhibited high-toned baking spices like cloves and cinnamon with lots of pizzazz. Because Peris doesn't make wine in addition to his brandy he has more land to plant Baco, which is really only good for distillation. When wine became a lucrative side project in the early 1980s many of the local farmers ripped out their Baco and started planting Ugni Blanc and Colombard instead, however, the old Baco spirits are much more interesting in our opinion. Peris believes that Armagnac offers a better and more individualistic expression of land, which to him makes it more interesting than Cognac. But of course he would say that! :)

Our next stop after Dupuy was another new face for K&L: an estate called Domaine du Miquer that is run by Jacques Lasserre. Jacques is a veteran of the business and for years was the distiller for many other producers in the region (remember than many Armagnac producers have no stills and hire other people to distill their wine). He knows the production from the vineyard to the bottle and you can tell it right away when you taste his brandy. They are polished and exquisite in quality. His crazy old still was made in 1900 and continues to create one masterpiece after another.

Both David and I expect Miquer to be a big player for K&L in 2013. There were a number of selections that interested us. Even though Jacques only has six hectares of fruit, with which only four are dedicated to distillation, he had tons of great booze. A 1986 Folle Blanche sample was incredibly refined and polished. We were hooked right off the bat. A 1993 showed beautiful aromas and wonderful hints of Blackjack and Big Red gum on the finish. A 1982 Baco was also stunning.

If all goes well we might take as many as five expressions from Miquer because they're so impressive. We can't really ask for better brandy to sell at K&L. Jacques was also a very nice guy who is the kind of person we want to be doing more business with.

After Miquer came last year's big K&L Armagnac hit: Baraillon! The quaint country estate became the star of the K&L brandy department with a 1985 that simply wowed everyone who tried it (we still have plenty of it by the way). We pulled up to a big smile from the Claverie family.

Based on the success of the 1985 vintage we wanted to do a number of additional expressions for the store. The crazy thing about Baraillon is that they have some old vintages. I mean really old.

Have you ever had the '93 Baraillon before?

Which one? The 18 or 19? (queue aristocratic male laughter)

Last on the list was Chateau Briat - an estate that has been run by Stefan Deluze since his family passed away. The estate was originally owned King Henry VI before it was taken over by the Baron Pichon-Longueville of Bordeaux wine fame, hence the mention to the property on the Armagnac label.

Stefan is a great guy who has kind of fallen into the business, but is loving every minute of it. We tasted some outstanding casks before calling it a night.

I'm out of time as we're due at dinner!

-David Driscoll

Friday
Mar292013

France 2013 - Day 2 - Cognac to Armagnac

Wow. So much has happened in the past twenty-four hours that I'm not sure I'll be able to go into the level of detail I would like, so I'll have to summarize as best I can. We pulled into the Dudognon house yesterday evening for a wonderful dinner appointment, complete with table setting and meal in front of their small alambic still. We've been here before, so there was no need to take a tour of the grounds, just enjoy the company of the wonderful couple and have some great food: mushroom soup, rabbit stew, and a few bottles of wine. Oh....and some Cognac.

If you read the blog last January when we visited Dudognon then you'll know they're one of the few producers in the region that does not color their brandy with caramel or add boisé – a substance made with water, sugar, oak chips, and sometimes Cognac to both darken and sweeten the flavor. The result is a light-colored, light-bodied, unadulterated style of spirit that is unlike any other we've tasted in Cognac. Because of its delicate nature the brandy from Dudognon takes at least twenty years in the barrel before wonderful things start happening. Like fine wine, there is no way to speed up the maturation process. You can add all the new oak, sugar, and artificial flavors you want, but it's not going to help. Ironically enough, a foreign client wanted to buy some ancient Dudognon spirit to create his own brand called "The Most Expensive Cognac in the World." You can see the bottle he used above. He charged a ton of cash for what is probably the least accessible Cognac in production because it absolutely isn't what people expect from most Cognac. Couldn't he have found some coffee-colored, oversweet cheap stuff for that gold and diamond-covered flask? Not that Claudine is complaining!

Unlike last year, this time we'll probably be purchasing some mature Cognac direct from the Chateau. The Reserve des Ancetres is a 20+ year old blend that showcases the purity of fruit found in both Grande Champagne and Dudognon expressions with enough richness to please most general palates. I think everyone will be quite pleased.

After a late night we woke up early for our appointment with Daniel Bouju – a producer in the region we heard was bottling cask strength brandy without caramel. We were very excited.

Francois Bouju is the man running the show these days. He's incredibly nice, knows a lot about distillation, taught me a great deal about the region and its wines, and impressed me beyond any expectation I had going in.

His vines are planted in the best soils – rich limestone which helps to preserve acidity in the fruit – and he is a stickler for detail. The reason the Grand Champagne region makes what is considered the best Cognac is because the soil creates grapes that are fully ripe with high acidity levels and low alcohol. This is important because distillation is about concentrating the flavor of a base substance. If you've got a wine sitting in a tank oxidizing, you're going to have an oxidized flavor in the Cognac. High acidity levels help prevent oxidation while distillation is taking place and prevent the need for stabilizing sulfur (none of us want to taste a distilled fart). At the same time, you need wine with a low alcohol level as to not overpower the flavor of the fruit. Full ripeness is also necessary to have any flavor at all. You can't simply pick early to preserve acidity because your wine will taste terrible. 

The first Cognac we tasted was a pure, clean, fruity, five year old brandy that showcased everything we had heard Francois talk about earlier. This spirit proved that he knew how to make brandy. It was the next ten Cognacs, however, that had us scratching our heads. Dark, black, sherry-colored ten year olds with little richness covered the table on a tray with clean glassware. "This color comes from the new oak, which our Cognac spends the first year and half in," he told us. Bouju doesn't use caramel coloring, but we know that most people are still doing so. It seems that the use of caramel coloring or boisé has become the PED of the Cognac world. Everyone uses it, but everyone denies that they do! You can't blame them, really. Their booze simply doesn't taste all that great in its youth unless you've either done something masterful or expensive, so it's harder to sell until older. However, why bat .250 with 10 HRs and 50 RBIs when you can win the Triple Crown in your rookie year? It was quite a disappointment to say the least. However, we were very impressed with the young, less-manipulated spirits so we'll likely be bringing those in to K&L. For the price, there's very little than can compete with this guy.

After Bouju we made the three hour drive through Bordeaux down to Armagnac – the Tenereze region in particular.

Driving up the road to Pellehaut you pass through the vineyards of Folle Blanche leading up towards the main facility. Today the air was clear and, although I couldn't capture it in the photo, you could see all the way to the Pyrenees with their snow-capped peaks.

Pellehaut is a large producer of Gascogne wine and has quite a modern tasting bar with lots of different spirits as well. Again, we had visited the site last January so we didn't need to bother with a detailed tour. We simply needed more Armagnac to supplement our outrageously good 1973 selection (currently sold out but on reorder).

One of the most surprising selections was a new blend of young Folle Blanche brandies called the L'Age de Glace or "the ice age."  I didn't realize that was the translation so I said stupily, "You know, this would taste really good on the rocks!" Duh, said Charles and David, hence the name. This might get down to the sub-$30 range if we can make a deal. It's quite fruity, fragrant, and clean, and would make a much better Sidecar or French 75 cocktail than an oversweet, boisé-laden brand selection would. Hopefully we can make this happen.

After Pellehaut, Charles told us he wanted to try meeting up with a very small farmer with a property called Pouchégu. The driveway led beyond a small hill towards a rustic country estate.

Pierre Laporte is about done distilling brandy at Pouchegu. He doesn't own a still, choosing to hire a traveling distiller who drives one up to his property, and feels he probably has enough stock to retire on at this point. What's left is absolutely magnificent. Rich, powerful, structured Armagnacs that bring the goods with every sip. The packaging is also fantastic.

The 1986 and 1973 vintages from Pouchegu were the most impressive of the lot and we told Pierre we wanted this beautiful white labels on the bottles. The 1986 was supple, dark fruited, brimming with cocoa and full of spice. It went on forever. The 1973 was like a Parker's Heritage Bourbon with huge spice and powerful alcohol. We were instantly hooked.

From there it was on to Montreal where my lost suitcase was waiting for me! We went into town and had a three hour dinner, but now I'm back at the hotel typing this up and answering emails. Since I don't speak French I'm letting Charles and David do the socializing. It's also midnight right now and my eyes are closing as I type this.

More tomorrow!

-David Driscoll

Friday
Mar292013

France 2013 - Day 2 - Another Day Upon Us

Staying at a picturesque country home in the middle of the French countryside is fantastic. I'm so used to shopping at stores like Anthropologie in the states, however, that I'm forgetting this is the real thing. It's not a store front or a display. This actually is the romantic setting American retailers are trying to recreate!

We're off to a few more Cognac houses today, then down to Armagnac this evening. More to report then!

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Mar282013

France 2013 - Day 1 - Old Friends/New Friends

Despite losing our luggage and having no change of clothes, we left Bordeaux, drove for an hour or so, and pulled into the driveway of one of our most successful direct imports from Cognac: Jacques Esteve. The Coup de Coeur Cognac from Esteve has been a huge hit at K&L throughout 2012. It's put our brandy section on the map. It was time to meet up again with Mr. Esteve and see what else could be added to the selection.

Esteve's property is unassuming. It blends into the rest of the small village where both his home and distillery reside. Sitting on the border of Petit Champagne and Grand Champagne, divided by only a small river, his grapes grow in a very mineral, limestone-rich soil, making his base wine very similar to the GC profile: high-acid, low-alcohol, full-flavor.

The best distillates from Cognac take decades to fully mature. While wines evolve in the bottle, Cognac will change in the barrel. I know what you're thinking: David, all spirits mature in wood. However, Cognac gets tight in its youth and can shut down at certain ages, much like wine. You might buy a case of 2005 Bordeaux, only to find that the wines are tannic and closed in their flavor profile. You simply opened the bottle at the wrong time. Cognac can be the same way. 8-12 year old barrels can be quite unforgiving and neutral. However, another ten years can change things completely. The perfumy fruit comes out and the Cognac reaches its true potential.

Esteve Plentitude. Made of 100 year old Cognacs as well as pre-Phylloxora juice. That's some really, really, really, really, really old shit. And it tastes pretty good, too. We'll probably grab a few bottles of this guy, along with some more affordable Esteve expressions. However, it was time to move on towards a new producer we were interested in.

The vineyards of Ragnaud-Sabourin stretch far over the hills in Grand Champage. 33 hectares of Ugni Blanc with a bit of Folle Blanche as far as the eye can see. This estate is known throughout France as having the goods. Would there be anything on hand for the two Davids?

I know what you might be thinking. Ragnaud? That sounds familiar. True. Last year's trip resulted in some amazing products from Raymond Ragnaud. This Chateau is indeed related. The original owner of the estate, Gaston Briand, had a daughter who married a man named Marcel Ragnaud – brother of Raymond. Marcel passed away unfortunately in 1996 and left the estate to his daughter Annie. She married Mr. Sabourin and, voilée, the Ragnaud-Sabourin Cognac house was born.

Annie still runs the tasting bar and these Cognacs are seriously legit. They easily form one of the most polished GC collections I've ever tasted. Refined, rich, but elegant.

The local warehouses are dark, dingy, and full of booze

The still is a classic alambic.

The estate is picturesque and the juice is bangin'. There's a 35 year old expression we should be able to sell for about $150 that is among the best Cognacs I have ever tasted. However, there's no time to talk about that now. I'm exhaused. We had dinner with the Dudognons tonight and it's been a late one. Time to hit the hay.

More tomorrow!

-David Driscoll