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Saturday
Dec072013

JVS/Impex Gettin' It Done

I have to admit I was once a little nervous for my friends Val and Sam over at JVS and Impex. Gordon & MacPhail had switched distribution, as had Signatory -- two major blows at around the same time. Then Chieftain's began running out of whisky to sell (we're no longer able to select casks from them). The smaller craft distilleries weren't working as long-term options and there was a period where I thought my Moldovan friends might not get their heads back above water. But no one works harder than Val and Sam. If you think you work hard, then I invite you to listen to Val talk about working as a military driver in Moscow during the day for high-ranking officials, then continuing to drive at night as an unregistered taxi around the sprawling city. You cannot outwork these guys.

That's why not long after the loss of two major independent labels, the guys at Kilchoman decided to get on board with Val and Sam. Smart move. Next came the Isle of Arran, who noticed the work these guys were doing on Kilchoman's behalf. We introduced David Stirk to the dynamic duo as well and now the Exclusive Malts are coming to the U.S. via Impex and JVS. And what has happened to Signatory and G&M stateside since they moved on to greener pastures? Nothing, at least here at K&L. Besides the casks that we go and seek out on our own behalf, we have done very little business with either bottler outside of private affairs. This wasn't by choice or out of any ill will. Business is business. However, I still feel that both labels underestimated how much of their success was coming from the hustle by my Moldovan friends. It takes dedication and hard work to push a brand very few people have heard of. I don't think either company has seen an increase in sales since moving to larger distribution either. If anything, I think their products have been buried in a sea of larger, more important brands.

But that's fine because Val and Sam worked hard to find new products they believe in and their dedication has paid off. In my opinion, no two distilleries are more exciting to watch right now than Kilchoman and Arran. Both are putting out stellar new release after stellar new release, and each sip leaves me more impressed than the previous one. I'm more excited about these two new casks of Kilchoman (pictured above and due in next Spring) than I have been about any whisky this year. They are INSANELY good. So good I almost want to cry.

And I finally got the chance to taste the newest release of Arran's Devil's Punchbowl series -- a marriage of different casks, similar to the Balvenie 1401 Tun series, but on a larger scale. They've included sherry-aged whiskies, peated whiskies, and some Bourbon casks as well and the result is splendid. It's rich and round on the entry, but brings some mild phenolic action on the finish. I've been taking pulls off the bottle in between will call orders all afternoon. We've also got a 16 year old sherry cask in from Arran right now, and the wonderful new edition of the 12 year cask strength. Plus, there's always our 14 year restructured Sherry hogshead that's still hanging around.

I love that two of the last independent distilleries in Scotland (and two of the best as well) are teaming up with two of the best importers in the country. Dedication breeds more dedication. I still think G&M and Signatory made a huge mistake by switching distribution, but that's their business. Val and Sam will find other distillers, bottlers, and producers to represent and they'll be getting the best representation possible. I'm always up to speed on the latest whiskies from Kilchoman and Arran. I'm always getting to taste the recent arrivals from David Stirk. And I always know that I'm getting a fair price.

Relationships are everything in this business. Remember who your friends are and make sure you support them. Val and Sam always have our full support because they're always here to support us. If you already felt good about supporting an independent distillery like Arran and Kilchoman, you can feel even better knowing you're supporting a great importer and distributor as well.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Dec062013

Blended Whisky: We're Almost There

There are always trends in the booze industry, products that fall out of fashion then come roaring back in a newer, hipper, updated form. Rye whiskey was considered an old man's drink ten years ago. Now it's simply cool to be an old man and do things that old men did a century ago -- like play Bocce Ball, sport a twirly moustache, and dress like a banker from the 1920s. One of my favorite phenomena is the repackaging of beverages once considered cheap into a fancy, more upscale version. Canned beer used to be the preferred medium for brands like Bud Light and Coors. Now many of the smaller craft brewers are using the can as their container of choice, i.e. Oskar Blues, Maui Brewing, etc. Boxed wine used to be just for Franzia and Gallo, but now we're seeing high-quality vintners use the collapsible bag-in-a-box for everyday drinkers. Our custom-made Blason Italian White Box is one of the most asked about products we carry. We're always running out.

When people discover the difference between "good booze" and "bad booze" they tend to simplify a few rules down into general practice, often falsely stereotyping or pigeonholing products into neat little boxes within which they may not fit. To use the above examples, many people consider bottled beer as an upgrade to canned beer, which it can be, but isn't always. What are other examples? Organic is always better than non-organic. Small production distillation creates tastier products than mass distillation. Pot stills over column stills. I could go on and on. While most of those strongly-held beliefs are easily countered, one of the myths that has managed to remain strong with whisky drinkers is the idea that blended whisky is cheap. They're cutting down your precious single malt with some sloppy grain distillate and cheating you out of your money. Blended whisky can be cheap, just like any stereotype can be true from time to time, but you can't go around generalizing like that. Each case must be evaluated on its own merit.

Would you rather drink Glenkinchie than Johnnie Walker Gold? Not I. Would you rather drink Glenlivet 12 than Bank Note Blended? Not I. Would you rather drink Yamazaki 12 over the Hibiki 12? Once again, I would take the blend over the malt in that instance. Education is very important in the beverage world. Only by reinforcing the message that there are always exceptions to the rule can we begin to change the way people feel about certain products. By continuing to seek out casks like the 1979 Faultline, or the 1991 Cambus, we're changing the way our customers feel about grain whisky and opening them up to new possibilities. It also expands the selection for people who might once have limited themselves to a few specific choices.

That being said, it's still tough for some whisky geeks to get into blended whisky simply because the educational aspect of it is being taken away. Most blends do not tell you the cepage, but whisky geeks are dying to know which whiskies are being used to create the flavor. What are we paying for? This is changing however. Cadenhead's new sherry-aged blend is very clear about which distilleries were included in the recipe. David Stirk is also transparent with his new 21 year Exclusive Malt blend. John Glaser, of course, has always been open about revealing his sources, and the Morrisons have had no problem telling us that the Bank Note is largely Bowmore and Cameronbridge. More importantly, all of the above whiskies are delicious. They offer value, quality, and honesty. We're slowly seeing all the pitfalls of blended whisky being removed, as a new generation of producers updates the genre for the new generation of drinkers.

If single malt prices keep going up, while blended prices remain stagnant, we might see more rejuvenance as well. The price of a quality 18 year old single malt is slowly moving towards the $150 average, while blended whiskies of 20 years or more still hover at the $100 mark. We're keenly aware of this here at the K&L spirits department. There are some secrets we haven't yet revealed concerning next year's long-delayed shipment. We think blended whisky is the way forward and possibly the antidote to ever-increasing prices. The craft whiskey industry is not helping to curb demand and ease the shortage on big-brand whiskey. If anything, it's making it worse as it provides justification for brands to charge more. With careful blending, however, you can create something great from something inexpensive.

How will the public respond? If there's one thing I've learned working here at K&L, it's that people like spirits that taste good and are reasonably priced. They're willing to trust us at least once, no matter how deep their resistance to an idea. There's a strong resistance to blended whisky, but I think we're close to breaking it down. We're almost there. We just need a few more winners.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Dec052013

I Give This Whisky 666 Points

One of my favorite new releases from this ever-growing, ever-expanding holiday whisky season is this satanic little number from one of Scotland's most conservative distilleries. Bowmore seems to always be the Islay distillery with the most boring limited edition whiskies. Ardbeg is always hyping up some Supernova explosion, Diageo usually delivers with Lagavulin and Caol Ila exclusives, and Laphroaig has been one of the steadiest suppliers with their wonderful Cairdeas series. Bowmore, perhaps tied with Springbank and Kilchoman for David D's personal favorite distillery, never seems to bring anything fun to the limited edition party. Until now....

The new "Devil's Casks" series is to Bowmore what the A'Bunadh is to Aberlour: big, young, bold, first-fill sherry casks at full proof, non chill-filtered. I popped a bottle yesterday to see what was going on. There's a lot going. A lot.

There's no heat in the "Devil's Cask" 10 year old like there is in the A'Bunadh. It doesn't bowl you over with power. What is there, however, is a thick, meaty, dark, fudgy, chewy mouthful of Bowmore goodness. The smoke and oil don't come in until the backend of this thing. Only after you swallow do you get the phenolic explosion of peat, smoke, and that sooty Bowmore magic. It almost goes minty after that.

In any case, I can't promise you that the Bowmore is for you, like I know it is for me. I'm a big fan of heavily-sherried Bowmore whisky, so others who feel the same will probably dig this tremendously. People looking for Lagavulin DE will probably fair better with that whisky for about the same price. That's the sugar-coated Islay whisky. This is old school one.

Bowmore Devil's Casks Islay Single Malt Whisky $99.99

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Dec052013

Whisky Label of the Year

While I've decided to get out of the "Whisky of the Year" judging business (because, believe me, it is a business no matter how "independent" the critic), I have no problem with quirky designations like this one. This should be a unanimous decision among all whisky drinkers: what bottle has a better label than this year's Compass Box Peat Monster 10th Anniversary? Not only is the bottle amazing (the label was designed by a Texan artist for John Glaser), the whisky inside of it is pretty stellar as well. Made from a large percentage of older Laphroaig and Ardmore casks, with a bit of Clynelish and Spice Tree married in for good measure, this was a big hit with the K&L staff. Our Spanish buyer Joe Manekin still comes in every Monday morning talking about how he hit the Peat Monster bottle again over the weekend.

This was one of my personal favorites this year as well. What a cool job John Glaser has. And boy is he good at it. I like that he takes the time to make a beautiful bottle as well because anyone who thinks aesthetics don't matter with whisky should come work the sales floor with me for a day.

We just got another batch of this in stock at a bit of a better price than last time if you're interested.

Compass Box The Peat Monster Tenth Anniversary Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $99.99

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Dec042013

It's Back, But Not For Long

I'm not even going to say anything. I'm just going to post Greg St. Clair's review because he says it all. Greg is our Italian wine buyer, known for having one of the best palates in the business. He does not drink spirits. He certainly doesn't drink tequila. Yet, this is what he had to say about our new Fuenteseca, as posted in his staff review on the product page:

This is something new, something that you may not be ready for, I wasn't. I've tasted a lot of high end Tequila and I've always liked Jimmy Buffet and Sammy Hagar as singers or Justin Timberlake as an actor, but I've never been enchanted with the smell of new oak unless it is in a piece of furniture and I've heard people use the word smooth so many times that I think they must have been raised on Jello or have no teeth. Tequila for me has always lacked that one extra…je ne sais quoi… that great Cognac, Armagnac and Single Malt whisky seem to have in their back pockets, but after tasting this Tequila it is obvious what they’ve been missing.... age. This unbelievably delicious spirit has taken Tequila to a new level, this is creating a new category of spirits that hasn’t existed before…..and it is worth the price.

We had enough to make an extra 240 bottles. They're here now (or in route to one of our retail outlets)

They won't be here after this time next week.

Fuenteseca K&L Exclusive Extra Anejo Tequila $189.99

-David Driscoll