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Thursday
Jan232014

Customer Service - Part I

I was reading an article the other day about Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and the incredibly irate responses Uber's new surge pricing is drawing from consumers (an algorithm that raises the cost of a ride if it's rush hour or the weather is bad). While many were simply mad about not having a fixed rate for transportation or the potential for increased costs, this author was more upset about the response from Uber in light of the criticism. The author wrote:

My problem with Uber doesn't stem from a lack of understanding as to the basic principles of supply and demand. My problem is the condescending attitude they display for their customers, combined with their naked embrace of profiteering.

It was bad enough that Uber was engaging in practices that some customers found rather exploitative, but even worse to find that the complaints were falling on deaf ears. Kalanick's stance has been pretty cut and dry, from what I've read; it's basically: we're responding to the market, so if you don't like the price then don't pay it. In essence, it removes Uber from any blame concerning higher-than-usual fees and transfers it towards people who don't understand the functions of capitalism. That reaction made some people incredibly upset because typically that's not the way a business is supposed to respond to consumer complaints; they're supposed to be sorry and apologetic in the face of customer dissatisfaction, not smug and confident. It's a role reversal that many are frankly uncomfortable with.

There's a certain understanding that's engrained in American business practices and has been in operation for so long that consumers are practically flabbergasted when it doesn't function properly. It's a little phrase known as "the customer is always right." As Americans, we're used to a business listening to us when we're upset about something and valuing that input because they value our patronage. To a certain extent, a business is expected to remain curtious while listening to what we as consumers are here to tell them--these are our needs, so please make them happen. We've gotten quite used to that model here in the states. We want to know that we're appreciated and we like to remind the business world that we always have the right to shop elsewhere if we're not. However, when a business decides to stray from that philosophy and turn the tables, people get completely disoriented and easily agitated. The only thing that could make it worse, from a consumer perspective, is to watch that business thrive in the face of that contempt.

Yet, it's happening. Uber is growing and customers are still using the service despite the outrage from a few unhappy riders. It reminds me a little of the current anger I see towards whisky companies due to the rising price of collectable bottles. So far, the market is responding to these increased costs without a hitch and, as consumers, all we can really do is take our business elsewhere if we're upset about it. But sometimes walking away simply isn't enough. We want to make sure that our loss is being felt, that our complaints are being heard, and that ultimately the company will be sorry for losing our business. More importantly, we often want others to join us in that crusade. That's why the "Soup Nazi" episode of Seinfeld is so beloved by fans of the series. It perfectly characterizes this sea change in the balance of power between business and consumer and how infuriating it can be when that happens.

Personally, I've never been interested in using superior service as an excuse to blow off customer relations. I'm far too sensitive to what other people think and I can get seriously bent out of shape when we mishandle a tricky customer service issue (I've definitely flubbed a few in my time). I want everyone to be pleased with their experience at K&L and, ultimately, I derive more happiness from that satisfaction than from any increase in profits we might see as a result. I absolutely do care when our customers are upset (probably more than would be considered healthy for someone in this line of work). However, as an observer I find it interesting to watch other business models and see how their approach plays out in the long run. It's almost like watching an episode of Downton Abbey, where everyone is expected to know their role and play their part. The exciting drama always stems from the characters who choose to function outside of these expectations and dare others to do something about it.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jan222014

Companta Arrives, Plus Vago Tasting Notes

Glenmorangie Companta Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - Glenmorangie's 2014 special edition Companta is finally here! Hot off the heels of winning "Best Whisky of the year" from Jim Murray for their 2013 special edition Ealanta, this year's limited release utilizes red wine barrels from both Burgundy and the Rhone to infuse a red-fruited character that marries beautifully with the supple texture of Glenmorangie whisky. Using both American oak and cooperage from Clos de Tart winemakers, Dr. Bill Lumsden (Glenmo's head of whisky creation) managed to transfer all of the fresh cherry and raspberry aromas of the legendary pinot noir over to the nose of the Companta whisky. The color is a pale burgundy in the glass and a delicate note of cherry cordial is present. The palate, however, delivers classic whisky character, albeit rather desserty in style: spice cake, fudge, and cocoa dominate the flavor profile, but the finish is dry and spicy. Overall, it's a wonderfully-balanced malt and a huge feather in the cap for Lumsden; taking a style of whisky (red wine enhanced single malt) that has rarely offered greatness and making it absolutely great. Whereas we had plenty of last year's Ealanta in stock up until the "Best Whisky" award was announced, we doubt our customers will have that luxury this time around. Companta is one of the most anticipated limited releases of 2014 and it's a great way to start off the year. There might be back-to-back accolades in Glenmorangie's future. These will go fast.

(we’ve got more coming tomorrow, so don’t fret if you miss out)

In more news, the Vago mezcales I wrote about earlier this week arrived today. We've got the following below:

Mezcal Vago Espadin Mezcal $49.99 - Mezcal Vago is the business creation of Judah Kuper in conjunction with his in-laws in Oaxaca: a family of distillers that has been making mezcal for generations. Vago marks the first time their products have been available commercially, having previously been consumed solely by friends and family. The Espadin is the classic expression from Judah's father-in-law Aquilino García López. It's distilled from cultivated Espadin agave and showcases a clean and vibrant palate of citrus and smoke. Each batch is a little different from the last as Aquilino uses only the freshest, ripest agave when available. Overall, the Vago mezcales are some of the most exciting new spirits we've seen from Mexico in years and we couldn't be more excited about offering them to our customers.

Mezcal Vago Elote Mezcal $53.99 - The Elote is the classic Espadin expression from Judah's father-in-law Aquilino García López macerated with toasted Mexican corn. Like other producers use Pechuga (chicken breast) to add flavor, the toasted corn creates a creamier, softer mouthfeel that is insanely tasty and addictive.

Mezcal Vago Cuixe Mezcal $89.99 - The Cuixe uses only wild agave by the same name for the distillate. It's an oddly thin varietal that has narrow pinas and a floral, grassy, aromatic aroma. Those characteristics carry over into the spirit, adding grace and delicacy to a spirit often known for its power.

Mezcal Vago Ensamble del Barro Mezcal $69.99 - Whereas the Espadin, Elote, Mexicano, and Cuixe are made by Kuper's father-in-law Aquilino, the Ensamble del Barro is made by Uncle Tio using a field blend of Coyote and Espadin agaves. It's distilled in clay pots, which add an earthy and rustic flavor to the spirit. It's wonderfully complex and brimming with minerality and spice.

Mezcal Vago Mexicano Mezcal $89.99 – Coming soon!

Don’t forget we have tastings tonight in San Francisco and Redwood City! Lot 40 and Pike Creek in SF, while Tamdhu comes to Redwood City!

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jan212014

Early St. Paddy's Day

Get ready for an Irish celebration in February rather than March this year. I got a chance to taste two of Midleton's most coveted whiskies yesterday that will make their American debuts in just a few short weeks: the single pot still Green Spot distillate, and the ultra-mature Redbreast 21 year old. Given my tendencies for Irish whiskey I was all set to love the Green Spot and tolerate the Redbreast 21. However, the outcome couldn't have been more the opposite. I thought the Redbreast 21 was fantastic--definitely showing its age with extra richness and a lovely marzipan note. It tastes like you think older Irish whiskey should taste; at least it did to me. I've never been a huge fan of the Redbreast line, but this one really hit a sweet spot.

The Green Spot is exactly what you expect from Midleton. It's good, honest, well-made Irish whiskey. I don't get the cult following, but that's just my palate, I guess. Not everyone gets the whole Lot 40 Canadian thing either, so different strokes for different folks. It's definitely worth getting a bottle of Green Spot if you like Irish whiskey, but it didn't change my life or make me jump up and down (which has been known to happen after I taste something I like). Both Kyle and I thought it was simple and tasty.

Look for both of these around mid-February at K&L.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jan212014

Agave Spirits - Part IV: Family Heritage

(all photos courtesy of Mezcal Vago and Joanna B. Pinneo)

I can't tell you how many great products we've "discovered" at K&L simply because the producer took the time to drive by the store and solicit us with a cold call. It's not a practice we generally appreciate, but every now and again it works out. When Judah Kuper came by the store around Christmas time it probably wasn't the best moment for us to chat (me being buried under a deluge of whiskey orders), but we made some time and he told me his story. Then he let me taste his mezcales. I remember saying to him before he left, "I will buy as many bottles of these as you can get me." Over the next few weeks Judah would finalize a deal with an importer, set up California distribution, and get his Vago mezcales ready for us to purchase. Starting tomorrow we'll have the complete line available at K&L.

So what's the deal?

Judah is a surfer and one time while on a surfing trip along the Oaxacan coast, he met a lovely Oaxacan lady who was part of a local mezcal-producing family. He was instantly smitten. Sometime later, he found himself married to this lovely Oaxacan lady and developing an appreciation for her family's traditional distillates. "You know we could probably market these and sell them in the U.S." he said to her one day. Judah had just as much saavy with the computer as he did with the surfboard, so he designed a label (made from 100% agave paper) and created a name for the brand. In the end, it's a story we're very familiar with in the spirits industry. Boy meets girl. Boy discovers family legacy. Boy tells romantic story of the family legacy. Boy creates fancy label that sells that romantic story. I've heard this tale before from many a craft producer. The difference with the story of Mezcal Vago is that it ends with a line-up of incredible booze. To put it shortly, the mezcales from Judah's Oaxacan in-laws are among the most exciting and dynamic we've ever tasted at K&L. We're very excited about their imminent arrival.

This is Aquilino García López, Judah's father-in-law, harvesting an agave plant on his property deep within the Oaxacan mountains (about a three-hour drive from Oaxaca City). Aquilino has never produced
mezcal commercially, rather only for his own consumption and for neighbors living nearby. He cultivates his own espadín and mexicano agave, then forages for cuixe and tobalá to make special distillates from those wild-growing species. He represents the fifth generation of distillers in his family and does all of the work himself. That work starts with a machete. 

Once the agave has been harvested and the leaves and outer layer removed, the piñas are roasted in an underground pit. Aquilino makes field blends of mezcal as well, sometimes combining different species together during the cook, fermenting them and distilling together as well.

Once the piñas are roasted they're crushed with a stone tahona and prepped for fermentation in 1000 liter wooden vats made from pine. Only the agave and water are used as the natural yeasts in the air begin the fermentation process naturally.

Of the six mezcales currently available from Vago, four of them are distilled by Aquilino. The other two are made by Salomón Rey Rodriguez, a family member known as "Uncle Rey." His property is in Sola de
Vega -- the most famous spot in the world for agave tobalá. Like Aliquino, he is not a commercial producer, so his releases for Vago mark the first time his mezcales have been sold commercially. He uses the above trunk of a pine tree, hollowed out in the shape of a canoe, for fermenting his agave. It's been in use for more than ninety years!

This is where things get really interesting. For distillation, Uncle Rey uses a series of fifty liter clay pots. According to Judah, "Each pair of pots shares a fire. The stills are made of stacks of two pots: one that holds the mash and has an open top, and another with an open bottom that rests on top of the first one. On the top pot there is an upside-down stainless steel bowl that water continually runs in and out of. When the heat from the mash rises and hits the cool top created by the water, condensation occurs. An agave leaf works as a large spoon to catch the dripping condensation (Mezcal) and runs into a piece of bamboo and into the collection container. This whole process is really laborious and takes probably 4 times the effort of a copper still and stone tahona process."

Personally, I am on a quest to help explain to customers why agave spirits are more than just tasty ingredients in a margarita. Much like the Vinos de Agave series from Wahaka I wrote about earlier, the Vago mezcales represent a portfolio of agave distillates, all completely different from the next, with clear explanations as to which agave they were made from, how they were made, and why they taste the way they do. They have character, depth, complexity, a hell of a romantic story, and they showcase the potential for terroir in the spirits world more than any whiskey could ever hope to. More importantly, they're accessible, reasonably-priced, and relatively-unknown, which will make it easier for you to try them.

I'll, of course, post tasting notes and the full array of selections once these arrive. We think they're going to be very, very popular. Stay tuned.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Jan172014

New El Dorado Single Still Rums

I mentioned I'd be back to provide more information about these single still rums from Guyana so here I am! These are on the shelf as of now and are moving quickly, despite the fact we haven't included many notes so far. Before we break down the flavors, however, let me tell you a bit about why these rums are so fascinating and why David and I will be reporting live from Guyana starting February 18th. I will paraphrase the information I know about El Dorado and give you a bit of background.

The foundations of Guyana go back to Christopher Columbus and the cultivation of sugar cane around the Caribbean. 150 years after the explorer sited the land along the north coast of South America, the Dutch returned to found a colony and cultivate cane along the coastal plain and on the banks of Guyana's many rivers. After the British began distilling sometime around 1650, the practice spread to Guyana and by the 1700s almost every sugar mill had a small still nearby, leading to more than 300 different estates making their own style of rum from molasses. 

The Royal Navy began handing out a daily ration of rum in 1677, a practice that would continue in England until July 1st, 1970. When the British tasted the rum from Port Mourant - a site established in 1732 - they made it their official rum of choice. The character of the rum, stemming from the double wooden pot still in which it was made, stood out from other rums of its kind with its heavy, earthier flavor. The British would eventually take over all three Guyanese colonies in 1831 (Demerara being one of them) and create British Guyana, leading to an implementation of the blending practices long used for whisky in the production of rum. As time went on, the sugar estates began to close and the production of rum became more finely detailed. Top estates were given their own mark (SWR, ICBU, PM, EHP, LBI, or AN, for example) and the rums were shipped off to the UK where they would be blended together as Demerara rum. 

Some of the original stills from the early estate days still exist in Guyana and have been consolidated under one roof:

- the Edward Henry Porter still from the Enmore sugar estate. It was built in the 1800s and may be identical to the first Coffey still ever built by Aeneas Coffey in 1832.

- the double wooden pot still from the Port Mourant estate along with a single wooden pot still from Versailles. They produce heavy, flavorful rums like the Royal Navy once used. The PM rum is a single distillate from double wooden still.

- a four-column French Savalle still from the Uitvlught estate, founded in the 1700s. The distillate is utilized in blends to add fresh cane character.

You can see now why David and I are so eager to get out to Guyana. These are serious, historic, museum-worthy pieces of equipment that have seen centuries of use and are still running today! That's why we're always pushing El Dorado 12 year rum into your hands when you ask us for suggestions. In any case, we just picked up the three single-still selections. Here they are:

El Dorado Single Barrel EHP Guyana Rum $79.99 - The EHP was created for the Edward Henry Porter Estate, nearly identical to Aeneas Coffey's original patent (continuous), crafted in native greenheart and nearly two centuries old. It is refined, balanced with subtle toffee notes.

El Dorado Single Barrel ICBU Guyana Rum $79.99 - The ICBU comes from the Dutch Uitvlugt (literally/figuratively "to fly away") Estate, a French Savalle four column metal continuous still. The rum shows sweet sugarcane on the nose with a rich medium-bodied palate.

El Dorado Single Barrel PM Guyana Rum $79.99 - The PM comes from the Port Mourant still, a double-pot greenheart still that provided rum for nearly two centuries to the British Royal Navy. The flavors are of rich molassses with deep. dark caramel.

-David Driscoll