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Tuesday
Nov122013

Best Spirit of 2013?

I'm very wary of picking "best of" bottles anymore on the spirits blog simply because of the responsibility that comes with stating something determinate like that. I don't want to ever use the blog as a marketing resource for other companies when the review doesn't come from a real, honest emotional response. More importantly, I don't want people reading the blog to ever feel that I'm reviewing something positively, or calling a spirit the "best of the year" purely to increase our sales or the sales of the brand. The K&L Spirits Journal is obviously a marketing resource for our company, but I try to never abuse that. Our credibility is everything and the moment we start making stylish or politically-motivated selections that credibility is shot.

Last year we chose the 1979 Glenfarclas as our official K&L "whisky of the year." That prompted people to send us emails about how we shouldn't be selecting our own house exclusives as "the best." It seemed too obvious, too geared towards tooting our own horn, and I can't really argue with that. But it truly was the staff's favorite whisky of the year. If that were to happen this year--the staff getting behind a K&L selection unanimously--we simply wouldn't name a "K&L whisky of the year." I'm pretty sure that's going to happen in 2013, hence why there probably won't be an official selection, so I've been trying to focus only on non-K&L exclusive spirits when naming possible bests on the blog this year (because that's all they ever are: "possibly" the best bottle I've had this year--nothing is ever clearly the case).

What the blog is supposed to do is share information and passion about spirits we feel passionately about. Right now I can safely say that no non-K&L exclusive spirit has captured the staff's enthusiasm like the Darroze 20 year old Assemblage Armagnac. Their importer just got another shipment back into California and I made sure to take everything that was available. Not only is the Darroze 20 delicious and world-class in every way, it's one of the biggest crowd-pleasers I've tasted this year. The staff loves it, my friends love it, our customers who have tasted it love it -- everyone agrees: it's terrific. Even when considering our K&L exclusive Armagnacs and Cognacs, I would still choose the Darroze 20 year in a heartbeat as my favorite. It's the perfect combination of caramel richness, spicy barrel notes, and round, creamy fruit. The finish is a lingering blast of cinnamon and toasted oak. Every flavor is in complete harmony and the brandy itself is exhibit A in my quest to prove how a marriage of various spirits can often exceed the potential of single barrel or single estate products.

Beyond its merit as a fine Armagnac, I'm exceedingly pushy about the Darroze 20 because it's such a good substitute for those looking for mature Bourbon replacements to Pappy 20 or Jefferson 18, etc. I'm not trying to say that Armagnac tastes like Bourbon, but there are plenty of similarities -- the sweet baking spices, the accents from new charred oak, and the ultimate richness of the spirit. The fruity caramel is the major difference, but I feel passionately about the crossover potential for spirits like the Darroze 20 during the absence of mature American whiskey. Not all Armagnac falls into this category, but there are plenty of producers using new charred oak for their spirits (our 1996 Pellehaut would be another fine example of a sure-fire Bourbon substitute --we're sold out right now, but have more on the way).

Part of my own enjoyment of fine spirits is watching others enjoy what I've been able to provide them with. Actually, most of my enjoyment derives from this. I get excited about spirits that I think other people will get excited about. I simply cannot imagine anyone not loving the Darroze 20. For $99.99 it's as good as any spirit we have in the store and as good as any spirit I've tasted this year. To me, the "best" means the most readily enjoyable, and, seeing that I managed to get more of it, I feel comfortable writing about it because it's also readily available. There are more great spirits coming, more great casks and K&L selections arriving before the year is over, but nothing I haven't already tasted. And there are other spirits I've really, really enjoyed (Glenmorangie Ealanta, Parker's Heritage "Promise of Hope" come to mind as other favorites). I'm pretty sure this is possibly my favorite bottle of 2013, however -- and that's as sure of a "best of" bottle as I can think of.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Nov122013

More Conversation

I am a terrible, horrible, implacable eavesdropper when at a bar or restaurant. At times it can drive my wife absolutely crazy. She'll want to tell me something, but I'm totally focused on the conversation next to me--unable to break away from the gossip occurring nearby--and I'm always trying to get her to listen in too. Most of the time it's booze-related, as in someone is talking about wine or spirits. Sometimes it might be a fight or a disagreement and I want to hear what people are fussing about. Often, however, it's simply my interest in other humans that draws me in--my desire to study how people interact with one another. This past weekend my wife and I drove down to San Luis Obisbo for a little R&R and we stopped downtown to have lunch. Even she couldn't help but get sucked into the politics of the table next to us. I don't think the two of us said a word to one another the entire time. There was the most wretched girl absolutely blabbering about anything she could think of and we couldn't help but stare at the wreckage.

If there were ever a shining example of self-centered egoism in this world, it's me. However, I've worked very hard over the last decade to drop many of my bad habits. Today I'm much more thoughtful and considerate of others (not that I was ever a jerk, just uninterested), especially when having a conversation. Call it maturity if you want, but it wasn't always easy for me to allow others to talk. Because of that tendency, and my current embarrassment about past behavior, I'm incredibly sensitive to others who still engage in that practice. They say that people often can't stand those who are just like them. I definitely have little tolerance for folks who want to dominate the conversation, mainly because of my own shame. Working in customer service this attitude definitely will not fly, which is why I sent this article out to all of my colleagues this week -- a blog on the San Francisco Chronicle website about conversational skills.

Author Kim Thompson lays out five basic guidelines when having a conversation with others, as a reminder to practice etiquette during the intense pace of the holiday season:

Be genuine with what you convey to the other person. A good conversation is not a debate to win a point it’s more about an exchange involving all of your senses such as non-verbal language, eye contact and sending cues that you are interested in the other person.

Share the conversation, aim for a 50-50 balance combination of talking and listening.

Be focused when talking and listening. Rarely can a person convey their interest in you when looking around the room to check out who is present.

Questions fuel good conversations use open-ended ones to help the other person talk.  Make comments and add feedback, your input is just as important.

Use the “WAIT” technique an acronym for “Why Am I Talking?” This is a good reminder to help you internally  monitor your actions when communicating with another person. If you can’t come up with a good reason as to why you are talking, it might be a sign that you are dominating the conversation.

While I know that these bold points may seem like common knowledge to many of you, I can assure you (as if you haven't had a run in with people like this) that there are plenty of folks out there who have no concept of these skills. One of the worst, most despicable, and embarrassing examples of bad conversational skills was on display at the table next to us in San Luis Obisbo this past Sunday. It was so bad that at one point I spit out my food laughing and I had to act like my wife made a joke because it was obvious I might have been listening in. Two parents, their son and daughter, and their two finaces were having lunch at the Creekside Diner and five of those six people were being dominated by one person. The son's fiance was talking over people, dismissing their stories in place of her own better story, bragging about travel, sharing her basic and rather trite epiphanies as if they were incredible realizations, and whenever others would talk she would check her phone or whisper in the son's ear. It was so ridiculous I thought at one point it had to be staged.

I don't know if it's a generational thing, or just a result of a more ego-centric world, but it seems to me like this pattern of behavior is getting worse. Maybe it's just an unlucky string of incidents on my end, but I'm experiencing it more wherever I go. I might also just be super-sensitive to it. Whatever the case, I can assure you that people notice when you don't allow others a chance to speak or share their own experiences. Working at K&L on the sales floor we have people come in everyday who are as excited to tell me about a whisky they've tried as they are to shop for more whisky. Listening to those experiences genuinely and politely is a big part of what we do (and I enjoy doing it). Every now and again, however, some of us need a reminder of proper conversation skills (me included -- don't think I fail to see the irony of writing a piece about good conversation skills while eavesdropping and ignoring my own). Especially during this time of year when the stress and strain of the holidays pushes people to vent.

We all need someone to listen to us. We just need to be prepared to listen to them in return.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Nov092013

"I'm Looking to Get Into Bourbon..."

I've probably written twenty different posts like this in the past, but I've been at work for about four hours so far today and I've already received this question ten times: "I'm looking to get into Bourbon, so what's a good place to start?" It's that time of the year--whiskey season--so we might as well settle in.

There's really no one great place to start when it comes to any spirit, in my own opinion, so I always advise people to try and understand the products of each distillery. Despite the fact that we're sporting more than sixty Bourbons on the shelf, they're mostly coming from just a handful of places -- the others are independently bottled.

So where to start? Why not start with Four Roses? We have the...

-Four Roses Yellow Label -- a marriage of all ten Four Roses formulae, soft and mellow

-Four Roses Small Batch -- a marriage of three Four Roses formulae with more spice and richness

-Four Roses Single Barrel -- one single barrel (and one recipe) of Four Roses at a higher proof (50%)

Once you've mastered those three and diciphered the differences why not move on to Wild Turkey? Wild Turkey only makes one Bourbon recipe (a high-rye formula) so the various flavors come from the location of the barrel, the marriage, the age, etc. You can choose from:

-Wild Turkey 101 -- the classic $20 bottle

-Wild Turkey Rare Breed -- A small batch with loads of richness and baking spices. Love it.

-Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit -- A single barrel version.

-Russell's Reserve 10 Year -- A more mature, yet mellow marriage of flavor.

-Russell's Reserve Single Barrel -- A blast of cloves and cinnamon at 55%

-Wild Turkey Unforgiven -- A marriage of rye whiskey and Bourbon whiskey by accident.

That's already a hefty load of homework, but if you're the studious type you might want to keep pushing. Check out the huge Buffalo Trace portfolio:

-Buffalo Trace -- The standard recipe.

-Eagle Rare 10 -- The same standard recipe but from a 10 year old single barrel.

-Elmer T. Lee -- The high-rye recipe from a single barrel.

-Blanton's -- Also the high-rye from a single barrel, yet richer than Elmer

-Weller Reserve -- The wheated recipe at 90 proof (about 6 years old)

-Weller Antique 107 -- The wheated recipe at a higher proof

-Weller 12 year -- The wheated recipe at about twice the age.

There are a ton of other limited and harder-to-find Buffalo Trace items, but focus on these for now. Once you're done with Buffalo Trace, why not head over to Bardstown and Heaven Hill's facility? If you tried to taste every Heaven Hill product you'd be here for months. There are so many labels that don't make it to California floating around that facility, but let's stick to these for now:

-Elijah Craig 12 -- The standard recipe.

-Evan Williams Single Barrel -- The same high-rye recipe from a single barrel.

-Old Fitzgerald 12 Year -- The wheated recipe, similar to the Weller 12 from Buffalo Trace.

-Larceny -- A younger wheated recipe, comparable to Maker's Mark.

There's obviously all the Jim Beam stuff, Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, and Maker's Mark, along with Tennessee producer George Dickel. We can cover those later. If you want to get "into" Bourbon I would print out this list and start checking them off one-by-one. If you can taste the differences between these four distilleries then I think you'll be in pretty good shape.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Nov082013

The Legend Returns

Our second batch is here. Made only for us. No other retailer gets this. Our customer service manager Joel Nicholas still claims that the Camut 15 is the single best spirit he’s ever tasted of any kind. It’s a very big deal. Relationships, baby. Relationships!!!!!!!

Adrien Camut 15 Year Old K&L Exclusive Calvados $115.99 -- The Camut brothers have fully dedicated their lives to making Calvados just as their grandfather did; they believe in their craft and they get a sense of pride from doing it. In sports, there are athletes with raw natural ability and others who succeed through sheer hard work and determination. When you combine both of those elements you get Michael Jordan, or, in the world of fine spirits, you get Camut Calvados. There is no doubt that Camut is the DRC or Château Lafite of the Calvados world--they are the very best, hands down.  Getting them to make us a special 15 year old Calvados, an aged expression they have never bottled before, was not something that came from discussions of money or sales margins. Our exclusive K&L bottling came after a long night of food, drink and brotherhood at their country farm--talk of the Americans storming the beach at Normandy and the special bond between our two countries ever since. This 15 year is the perfect Calvados and showcases exactly what defines greatness in distillation: the elegant essence of apple on the nose, subtle vanilla and wood on the palate and warm cider on the finish. It's impeccable and perfect in every way, quite possibly the best spirit we've ever acquired for K&L. It's a very big deal for our store and those who love Calvados will understand how special this is. The Camuts do not make special blends for people, but they have done so for us. Only 300 bottles available.

Revisit our initial meeting here from the blog archive.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Nov082013

Beams of Sunshine

Every single time I meet with my Jim Beam rep I tell him, over and over again, that Beam is really missing out by not releasing anything old or unique in this insatiable Bourbon market. Heaven Hill has the Parker's Heritage Collection, Four Roses has the LE releases, Wild Turkey is starting to release single barrels, and Buffalo Trace has the Antique Collection. Hell, even Brown-Forman has the Birthday Bourbon. What does Beam have? Beam, the largest producer of Bourbon in the country, pumping out 3,000 barrels worth a day -- why not add something new to the mix? 

I got to taste these yesterday and I thought they were nice additions to the portfoilo. The single barrel won't be available until January, but we've got the new 12 year and the Spanish Brandy in stock now. While these won't "wow" consumers the way that the Parker's or Stagg might, these are also much more reasonably priced. Beam has such a large consumer base that I think anything too radical might really shake things up, therefore we get something safe, but tasty nevertheless.

Jim Beam 12 Year Old Signature Craft Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey $31.99 -- The richness and creaminess of the Beam style is on full display here, finishing with a hint of bitter herbaceousness that really characterizes Beam's whiskies. Gentle and round through the mid-palate, this is one easy, easy sipper that showcases a bit more maturity than Beam's standard releases.

Jim Beam Spanish Brandy Finished Signature Craft Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey $31.99 -- To be clear, this whiskey is not Spanish Brandy cask finished, but literally brandy finished -- as in they actually added some brandy into the whiskey. There's no real hint of sherry or any flavor outside the scope of Bourbon here, but the whiskey is quite mellow and soft -- almost like a Tennessee whiskey such as Dickel. Those looking for easy sipping will be pleased.

-David Driscoll