Drinking to Drink - Part II

Popularity, fame, and success can be blessings in life. They can also be curses.

I was watching VH1 last night while they were re-airing an old series called The Top 100 Songs of the 1990s, marveling at some of the names and faces I had forgotten. When they finally made it to "Jeremy" by Pearl Jam, the subject turned to the band's aversion from fame during the mid-1990s – how they shunned the limelight, stopped making music videos, turned away from commercial labels and tour sponsors, and managed to keep making music together as a result. Pearl Jam wanted to make sure they didn't burn out prematurely.

Contrast that story with the eventual number one artist: Nirvana with "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Kurt Cobain became so famous that his punk rock band became "too mainstream" for most punks, losing any type of street cred whatsoever. He had trouble dealing with the newly-found stardom and the importance society placed upon his every lyric. We all know how that story ended.

Recognizing one's own over-exposure is critical to maintaining a longstanding career – just ask Vanilla Ice or almost any other one-hit wonder on the VH1 countdown. Pop culture phenomena always begin as an exciting burst of light and energy, before dulling down into repetitive drivel for commercial jingles. Once everyone jumps on board the gravy train it's no longer cool (I touched on this briefly a few weeks back), and there are few things more important in life than self-perception. That's why fashion and lifestyle magazines exist: to keep us up to date with what's hip and what isn't.

The irony here, however, is that once something becomes popular enough for the mainstream to finally discover it, it loses all of that mojo. As I once heard one of my students say, "Facebook stopped being cool once your parents joined." Now, granted, there are plenty of people out there who don't follow trends and stay true to what they like. But, as we all know, there are even more people who don't. Otherwise you'd still be able to get a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle whenever you wanted one.

Working in a retail store all day, I interact with quite a few people. In doing so I make observations. What I've noticed lately fits right into what I witnessed as a high-school music fan in the mid-90s. I fear there's a backlash coming.

FLASHBACK: Beyer High School. Modesto, CA. 1994. David notices a student he dislikes wearing a Nirvana T-shirt to school and listening to Green Day on his Discman. David instantly becomes annoyed and rolls his eyes. "That guy likes Nirvana now?" he thinks to himself, immediately deciding he no longer likes Nirvana and instead will tell people his favorite band is the lesser-appreciated, more-artistic Sonic Youth.

Yesterday in the Redwood City store I was asked by a few older gentlemen if we had any Pappy Van Winkle for sale. I politely answered that we wouldn't get any until November and that, even still, getting a bottle was next to impossible (as SKU can attest, I am always nice about it). While I did this, however, I noticed two younger customers hovering in the liquor aisle look at each other and shake their heads. What did that disdainful turn of the neck mean? I think we know, right? It means that asking for Pappy is super uncool in some circles. Maybe not drinking it, but definitely asking for it. Asking for Pappy means you don't know what's going on with American whiskey right now, about how hard it is to land a bottle of old Bourbon. If you don't know what's going on, you're outdated and uncool. It's like walking into a famous New York restaurant without a reservation and expecting to get a table.

That's just an example of the type of thing I'll see on a weekly basis. Yet, there are plenty of more straightforward examples. Many of my most passionate customers are moving away from the prestige collectables because of how they feel it makes them look. They're long time fans who want to make sure I'm not confusing them with the Pappy-chasing newcomers. Drinking "the best" whiskies used to be fun for these guys because it was just a matter of tasting them, rather than finding them. Nowadays it may still be fun, but it's almost completely uncool.

The injection of new blood into the whisk(e)y industry is beginning to frustrate more and more customers, however.  When the people who know what good whiskey is have to compete with people who know nothing about whiskey it takes the fun right out of it. With the current shortage of older American expressions available, the road to new and interesting bottles has become quite crowded and these normally divergent paths have merged into one crowded superhighway. Pappy became the most sought-after Bourbon because it was the coolest whiskey around, as well as one of the best. Having a bottle kind of implied that you understood a bit about whiskey and could recognize what good Bourbon was. But what happens when buying a bottle of Pappy marks you as the guy who doesn't know anything about Bourbon and is just looking to impress your friends? Or does the eye-rolling and head-shaking of my young customers already mean that day has come?

Popularity via association is nothing new for booze. Jack Daniels grew largely during the 1950s thanks to its association with the Rat Pack as its drink of choice. If perception can help to build a brand, it can definitely help to destroy it. The Van Winkles are benefiting from their family's own hard work and dedication to quality. The whiskey deserves the attention, yet, like anything, the more we idolize something, the more cool it becomes to tear it down. Since prestige bottles are becoming undrinkable trophies, it means the backlash will focus on utility – buying something inexpensive and quality-oriented simply to drink (the entire hipster movement is built on irony). Drinking a $20 bottle of something decent will mean you really know about whiskey because you've had the Staggs, the Pappys, the Parkers, and the Willetts, yet you still chose the Yellow label. What's cooler than being able to spend more, but choosing not to? "Yeah, I mean, I've had all that stuff man, but, you know, I'm just over it. It's not worth all that effort anymore. I just wanna drink and enjoy it, man. Ya know?"

If that sounds like a Gen-X caricature, it is. But, at the same time, it's actually pretty close to what I hear regularly on the sales floor. It's no different than the grunge era rockers distancing themselves from the hair bands of the 80s - We're about the actual music, man, not flashy costumes. I'm noticing a new movement among whisk(e)y drinkers that's focused on affordable, classic, big-brand quality, rather than pricey, collectable, limited-edition status. It's definitely a reaction to what's happening in the "scene." I get a lot of feedback from people all over the country who take the time to share with me what's on their mind. Most of it seems to point towards a disassociation with the status quo. The irony here, however, is that the Van Winkle bottles were never marketed as luxury goods. Like Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, their success is simply the result of organic pop culture hysteria.

Like the first Nirvana groupies, true whisk(e)y fans do not want to be lumped in with the growing legions of Pappy-seeking newbies. I'm not the one saying that, however. The twenty emails in my "inbox" are saying that. Literally. In response to Part I of this article I got more than a few messages from readers who felt that I needed to make a distinction between the people who drink whisk(e)y to be cool and the people who actually enjoy it. The problem, however, is that there is no distinction anymore, at least not unless you speak up about it. You'll never know for certain who's buying Pappy to actually drink it and who's buying it to show off at a business meeting. That's why most requests these days are usually predicated with some sort of explanation, as in I actually plan on drinking it, rather than flipping it, so that we know they're not one of the "other guys."

And that's why pop-culture backlashes start. Because people get so sick of having to explain themselves or defend their actions in the face of public scrutiny that they finally just give up and move on. "You don't understand! I liked them BEFORE it was cool! I'm not one of those guys!" Of course, if you have to explain yourself you look even worse. "I'm sure you're not one of those guys, sir" (smiles smugly). It's easy to simply say, "drink what you like," but what if what you like has become associated with something you dislike? What if your brand becomes the preferred choice of white supremacists or neo-nazis?

Kurt Cobain had trouble with his own issues when he found out that two Nirvana fans were singing one of his songs while raping a woman. He wrote, "I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience." That's obviously an extreme example, but it speaks to a larger issue. When you put something out into the world for consumption you have little control over who consumes it. Your biggest fans may be your biggest embarrassment. I'm sure there are still rockstars in the world that shudder at the idea of their music gracing the latest collection of Jock Rock.

But that's the price of success.

-David Driscoll


Drinking to Drink

We get this question in the store all the time: I'm looking for some "everyday" wine. Just a few "everyday" bottles. I need some "weeknight" red wine.

Do you know what that means?

It means the customer is looking for wine to drink on a Wednesday night when they don't want to break out the good stuff. It means an inxpensive bottle of sauvignon blanc to open while watching the latest Modern Family episode. It's the difference between a $10 bottle and a $50 bottle. Who wants to drink pricey Bordeaux on a weeknight, anyway?

If you're a beer drinker it might mean popping a can of PBR in the parking lot at Oakland Alameda stadium while you tailgate the A's game. It might mean a light, refreshing lager to enjoy on that warm Tuesday evening instead of the Bourbon-aged porter you've been saving since last weekend.

What either of these situations does not insinuate, however, is the idea that most wine and beer drinkers don't understand the difference between fun booze and quality booze. They know the time and place for a bottle of high-end Bordeaux. They can comprehend the need for an easy bottle of crisp white wine in the meantime.

Do whiskey drinkers understand that, however? Do whiskey fanatics get that there's a time and a place for Old Overholt and a time and a place for Sazerac 18? I'm not so sure.

The new push towards quality single malt and Bourbon seems to have forgotten an important facet of whiskey enjoyment: no one ever said the inexpensive stuff wasn't good.

Nevertheless, prices for bottles like Old Pulteney 21, Pappy Van Winkle, and Macallan 18 continue to skyrocket, while prices for Glenlivet 12, Buffalo Trace, and Glenfiddich remain inexpensive and consistent. Why is that the case? I thought whisk(e)y was the hot commodity. Could it be that the demand for hard-to-find, collectable bottles has hit an all-time high, while the entry level booze never really took off? It makes sense, right? All the collectors and hoarders went right for the "good stuff," leaving the basic necessities untouched. We'll never see a bottle of Weller Larue on the shelf ever again, yet Weller 107 still stands pat at $20 a bottle. What the heck is going on?

I'll tell you.

Whisk(e)y customers have forgotten about Buffalo Trace. About Four Roses Yellow. About Old Grand-Dad. About Glenmorangie Original. About the Bank Note in liter bottles. About simple pleasures and everyday hooch. Why? Because they're not collectable. Because they're not rare. Because they're not being talked about on message boards. But the tide is turning, trust me.

Pappy? You might as well bust out your old MC Hammer pants. Ardbeg Supernova? Why don't you pass the C&C Music Factory CD over to my boombox. You're dating yourself. There's a new movement on the way.

This is what happens when a genre gets played out and exploited by the masses: backlash. What happened to drinking whiskey just to drink it? What happened to popping a bottle of Old Fitzgerald while catching the latest Warriors game? What happened to session whiskies like Jameson, Paddy, or Old Crow?

Are we creating a society of drinkers who only purchase collectable, rare, top-shelf spirits? Wine drinkers aren't that narrow. Neither are beer drinkers. So what's happening to the liquor aficionado? Why are wine and beer drinkers fine with diversifying their collection to include the everyday, while spirits drinkers choose only the "best" or the "finest?" Why do my wine customers specifically ask for inexpensive wines, while my spirits customers ask specifically to avoid the inexpensive whiskies?

Are they losing touch?

I'm sipping on a big, fat glass of Old Overholt right now. Why? Because it's Wednesday. That's what we do mid-week. I'll save the Mortlach 22 until Saturday. That way I'll really appreciate it.

-David Driscoll


An Interview with Midleton Distillery

Since I'm in the mood to do some interviews right now, I figured I might as well strike while the iron is hot. I'm currently preferring the printed form of conversation rather than the podcast medium because I've noticed that the number of people downloading the episodes is only about 10% of the hit number we get per day on the blog. To me, that means that plenty of people have time to stop by the site and read a few paragraphs, but perhaps not the dedication to sit through an hour-long media file. I want to reach everyone with this information, so I'd rather transcribe the conversation if it means allowing you to read while you're at your desk or checking your iPhone. There are also a number of hearing-impaired customers who I know appreciate the ability to participate. Therefore, look for more of these printed interviews in lieu of the audio recordings.

What is Irish whiskey? I think there's a bit of confusion out there as to how its made and what it's composed of. Is it made from barley? Is it always a blend? What kind of stills are used? Let's clear all of that up, shall we?

Midleton Distillery is located in Cork County, Ireland and is owned by Pernod-Ricard. It is the home of the Jameson, Redbreast, Powers, and Midleton brands respectively. Midleton is sometimes referred to as the "new" Midleton distillery because there was once an old version. In 1966, Jameson, Powers, and Cork Distillery Company decided to merge together and consolidate their operations into one complex. Because Cork Distillery had the most room for expansion, they decided to build a new facility at the "old" Midleton site. Distillation began at the new site in 1975 and the old distillery was turned into the visitor's center. Midleton boasts three gigantic pot stills and three column stills, from which various types of whiskey are distilled.

This past week I had the chance to speak with Fiona Canning, the brand ambassador for Jameson. Here's what she had to say:

David: Irish whiskey is a bit unique because it's often a blend of pot still whiskey with column still whiskey, distilled from both malted barley (like single malt) and unmalted barley. Can you shed some light on how that operation works at Midleton?

Fiona: Certainly. First off, the malted and unmalted are milled and mashed together into a flour called grist, and the grist is added to hot water in a vessel called a mash tun. It's during this mashing process that the conversion of starch to fermentable sugar takes place to produce a hot sweet liquid called wort, the wort then goes onto the fermentation and distillation process.

David: So the malted and unmalted barley is distilled together, rather than separately?

Fiona: In essence they are distilled together as a combination. Malting a portion of the barley is essential to produce the natural enzymes in the grain which will later be used in the brewing process. There are 3 stages to producing malted barley:

Steeping - grain is left to steep in water

Germination - the grain begins to sprout

Kilning - hot clean air is applied to dry the malt in preparation for brewing

A key difference between Jameson and most Scottish whiskies is how we produce our malt. At the Midelton distillery we dry our malt using hot air with no smoke passing through it which results in a fresh and clean tasting malt.

David: But you also make straight grain whisky with no malted barley, right?

Fiona: Yes, we also make grain whiskey from a mixture of other grains, usually corn-based. We use a mixture of grains in the grist. Tall column stills are used in a continuous process of distillation, Our grains are also triple distilled for flavor. Grain whiskey is fruity, floral and has a particular sweet fragrant character. At the end of the triple distillation the spirit has an abv of 63.4%.

David: So Midleton whiskey is triple distilled, how is the pot-still whisky produced? Some expressions like Redbreast and Powers John Lane are all pot-still, correct?

Fiona: Yes. Basically all whiskey from Midleton is triple distilled either in copper pot stills for the pot still whiskey or column stills for the grain whiskey thus any blend of pot and grain, i.e. Jameson, is all triple distilled. The pot-still whisky is made from a mash of malted and unmalted barley (sourced from a 100 mile radius of the distillery), which is triple distilled in copper pot stills, pot still Irish whiskies are characterized by full, complex flavors and a wonderful creamy mouth feel. The inclusion of unmalted barley in the mash bill, along with the tradition of triple distillation defines the character of Midleton Pot Still and this uniquely Irish approach to whiskey distillation.

David: So then it goes into barrel. What type of cooperage is used?

Fiona: We use two different types of casks to mature our whiskey, which legally must be a minimum of three years. A number of reactions take place during the maturation process the most significant of which is the color and flavor change of the whiskey. We use Kentucky bourbon casks, which are made of American white oak and have a capacity of 200 liters. Most of the casks have been seasoned with bourbon, some are 'virgin' - charred but not seasoned - adding to the flexibility in creating individual whiskies. Grain whiskey is exclusively matured in Bourbon casks; pot still whiskey is matured in a combination of bourbon and sherry. Bourbon casks ring vanilla, honey, and toasted wood notes to our whiskies.

We also use sherry butts. Each of our Oloroso sherry casks come from Spain, they are 500 liters in capacity. Made from European oak the insides are toasted rather than charred and seasoned for two years with the sherry before arriving in Midleton, Sherry butts bring a rich mouth feel along with a fruity sultana flavor. 

What's interesting is that single pot still whiskies were once the norm in Ireland and from the late 18th century to the early 20th and were the most sought after whiskies in the world. While pot still Irish whiskey continues to be used a key component in many well-known brands of blended whiskey, Midleton is currently striving to further develop the single pot still category here in the USA with Redbreast and Powers Johns Lane.

David: This is great! Can you shed some light on to the make-up of each Midleton expression based on what we've learned? What's used to create Jameson, for example.

Fiona: The standard Jameson is about five to seven years of age, a combination of grain (corn base) and pot still whiskey (malted and unmalted barley base) balanced with sherry casks (pre-seasoned from Spain) and bourbon casks (pre seasoned from Kentucky). Jameson Gold Reserve is a creative blend of three whiskies of advanced years, one of which - unlike other Irish whiskeys - is matured in virgin oak barrels. It is the inspired choice of this virgin oak, coupled with the Bourbon barrels and Sherry butts that account for the whiskey's satisfying complexity and honey toasted sweetness.                                            

David: What about something like the Midleton Rare?

Fiona: Midleton is a magnificent blend of the finest distillates handpicked by our master distiller, Barry Crockett, and is one of Ireland's most exclusive whiskeys. It takes its name from the east Cork town it originates from, matured exclusively in seasoned Bourbon barrels, and like a vintage wine there is a year on the bottle - this is the year the whiskey was bottled therefore there are slight changes and nuances every year.

David: Redbreast?

Fiona: The 12 year old is a unique aged pure 100% pot still whiskey, matured for a minimum of 12 years in Sherry casks and Bourbon barrels. Like all good pot still whiskeys, it is strongly flavored and assertive. Redbreast 15 is matured in a combination of Oloroso Sherry casks and American Bourbon whiskey barrels.

-David Driscoll


New Batch of Springer 12

Springbank 12 Year Old Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $84.99 - This most recent batch of Springbank's fan favorite 12 year old cask strength is right in line with what the distillery does best: hints of amontillado sherry on the nose with savory almond notes and accents of caramelized fruit. The richness and the viscosity of the malt make this a standout on the shelf. While Springbank's whisky always demands a premium price, it's easy to see why people are willing to pay it. That faint whisper of smoke on the finish with the phenolic, oily finale is absolutely delicious.

-David Driscoll



Not much going on today in K&Landia. Just business as usual.

-David Driscoll