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Tuesday
Apr292014

Formative Years

I was back at Hakkasan in downtown San Francisco last night for another booze event, this time celebrating the American launch of Kavalan Taiwanese whisky. While I have a lot of interesting information to tell you about those whiskies and my positive experience at the event, I'll get to all of that in a different blog post later today. What was actually most inspiring about the dinner at Hakkasan was the company I sat with, primarily my time spent with Tim Zohn who heads up the bartending at AQ on Mission Street. We were talking about our formative years with drinking and all of a sudden the conversation opened up into a much larger philosophical discussion.

I've been getting a lot of feedback concerning the two Lessons of the Industry as Told Through Popular Film Sequences posts that I've put up over the last week. People have been interpreting them differently and it's been interesting to see the various reactions. I was primarily struck by what readers had to say about yesterday's Ratatouille moment -- one of my favorite scenes in any movie ever. While most readers thought I was reinforcing the idea of taking a step back and simply having fun with one's whisky, that wasn't really my intention at all. I was actually trying to stress the fact that sometimes the most pleasurable things in life are the ones that remind us of being a kid, or the things we enjoyed during our formative years. But there seems to be a keen desire in the wine and spirits world to emulate the pleasurable experiences of others, hoping that through sheer mimicry we can create our own positive associations with the various fads and trends. In my opinion, however, you can't fake what isn't there.

It's entirely possible that, because I spend the majority of my time dealing with wine and booze, I'm disposed to a greater number of these scenarios (which may be why some of you are left wondering at my obsession with them), but let me share one example with you that highlights where I'm coming from. My wife and I were recently at a wine tasting, chatting with the representative from a famous California producer. I can't remember exactly how it happened, but at some point during the conversation my wife and I joked about having started our drinking with Boone's flavored wine and jugs of cheap Gallo. We then asked the girl pouring what her first wines were, to which she answered with a total deadpan:

"I actually started my drinking with the great wines of Bordeaux before challenging myself with Burgundy."

Come on! Why would someone lie like that? Do they think that's impressive; to never have tasted anything from the bottom shelf? She might as well have followed that up with "I never watch TV, I only read books." There are people who lie about their formative years everyday in the Bay Area booze business. They disown their pasts, pretend they were pros from the very beginning, and research extensively what they should or shouldn't say when questioned about the issue. It's like every social encounter is a test and they need to have the right answer prepared in advance.

What I appreciated about Tim Zohn was that, without me ever saying a word about this subject whatsoever, he launched into nostalgic memoir about how he started getting into whiskey with Maker's Mark, and how today that Bourbon still gives him a happy feeling every time he pours a glass. I immediately told him about my obsession with the Ratatouille sequence and how there seems to be a mindset that wants to deny these very authentic impulses. I told the story of my friend from high school who missed out on music during his formative teenage years, so he tried to make up for it by downloading every important album off of Pitchfork's Top 100 list. He listened to music like he was studying for a test, trying to impress upon others his longstanding-love for Sonic Youth and the Pixies, even though that "love" was synthetic and processed. We progressed further into the idea of cramming three seasons of television viewing into a few days -- how it's simply not the same as having to wait a week between episodes and a year between seasons. In the end, we agreed that if you didn't create positive associations, memories, and foundational experiences during your formative years, you might be left scrambling to create them later on in life, which made us both very sad.

And that's what the Ratatouille moment really signifies: that ultimately the best things in life inspire an emotional response from a real place inside of you. You can't make those moments happen, they have to exist there naturally, embedded organically from the culmination of your formative years. To pretend like you carry those associations for the purpose of impressing others is silly; but to deny those very real responses and pretend like they don't exist is heartbreaking.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Apr282014

Lessons of the Industry as Told Through Popular Film Sequences #2

After you spend years testing everything out, chasing down must-try bottles, searching for unicorns, and crossing each distillery off your list, you realize that the best spirits aren't the most expensive, or the rarest, or the ones that impress your friends the most. The best spirits force you to stop taking notes, put down your pen, and realize why it is that you're doing this in the first place.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Apr272014

Complexity

As we were closing down the Redwood City store yesterday, my co-worker Jeff Garneau said to me:

"Life isn't black or white; it's complex, and nuanced, and difficult to understand. Not everything is instantly clear. The same goes for wine or whisky. But there's no doubt that as a society we've gravitated towards the mindset that anyone who tries to sell you on complexity is trying to pull one over on you, which is why there's an insistence to simplify things."

I thought that was a brilliant statement.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Apr262014

Auriverdes Preview

We're still a month away from the U.S. release date, but I managed to get a sneak peak today at Ardbeg's new "Day" release for 2014: the Auriverdes. Bottled at 49.9%, the whisky was reportedly aged in casks with specially toasted heads, creating a richer, bolder flavor profile than the standard Ardbeg expressions. Let's see for ourselves....

The nose smells like standard Ardbeg with the brine and the peat, but without much added richness. The peat and smoke explode on the palate, much like they do with the other Ardbeg whiskies. My first few sips didn't reveal much added depth (even though I really liked the whisky), but I kept at it and came back later to see if maybe the whisky would change on me. It did.

The second time around I got the blast of Islay goodness, but the vanilla note was much more apparent. It's there, it's just buried under all that spice. It's like a Werther's Original covered in phenolic powder -- it's not really clear what's at the core until you get under all that peat. The finish lasts for quite sometime, too -- almost going menthol after a few minutes. I definitely get the idea of Auri (gold -- as in vanilla) and Verdes (green -- as in peat), so overall I think the whisky accomplishes what it sets out to do -- and it's quite tasty.

I've heard this should clock in around $99.99, which is great because we don't need more $100+ whisky right now. We need some solid $50-$80 options, but at least it's not more than $100. Ultimately, you're not getting more quality than what you're paying for (because when would you ever get that in the single malt realm?), but you are getting a solid Ardbeg release that offers something new from the distillery, if not wildly different and experimental.

Personally, I enjoy the Ardbeg Day and Laphroaig Cairdeas releases more when they keep the whiskies more traditional. The Auriverdes is classic Ardbeg, through and through, so it falls into that category. I'd rather have something good that I'll enjoy drinking than something bizarre that simply tries to be outside the box. I think most people will be quite happy to get one when they arrive.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Apr262014

Reflection

I remember taking the red-eye to Cancun back in 2008 and reading Matt Bai's new (at that time) book The Argument -- an on-the-road account of the 2007 Democratic primary race that partly focused on the role influential bloggers played and the impact of the influence they carried. I had been pretty taken by political blogs at that time with their somewhat-radical forms of writing and the youthful, exuberant energy they brought to my daily reading of current events. It was exciting to know there was a credible movement of new information that was no longer tied to mainstream outlets or major publications -- anyone could start a blog! I was so inspired by the idea that I even considered creating my own. By the time I landed in Cancun, however, I felt differently.

What Matt Bai revealed about political bloggers at that time seems rather obvious now, but was rather disheartening back then. After travelling with them, meeting up with the elite names at conventions, and listening to their conversations with politicians, Bai basically observed that political bloggers were more interested in what their virtual status could get them in the physical world, rather than actually pushing any new ideas forward. They were trend-followers, lacking in the basic foundational tenets of liberal philosophy, who really didn't even care about writing as much as they cared about attention; yet, they were being heralded as bastions of progressive thinking. I'll never forget Bai's interaction with a room full of newbie bloggers where they all run around asking one another if they're "progressive" -- it reminds me of today's "craft" de jour where everyone's telling you what they stand for, but no one actually knows anything about what they're doing.

You can tell right away when people have their own ideas, or if they're just repeating and idealizing what others have done or said. I'll know it within the first few minutes of meeting with a producer -- they either let the booze stand for itself, or they spend the entire time trying to tell me about what it is before I've had the chance to taste it. People work the same way for the most part: the more someone tells you what they're about and exactly who they are, the less likely it's the case. The tragedy of turning a genuine movement into a glorified buzzword, however, is that it takes the legitimacy and integrity out of what certain intuitive minds are doing, and clouds their work in a sea of like-minded, soulless replication. I talked to one distiller recently (whose identity I won't reveal since I haven't cleared this with him) who told me: "I don't ever want to be identified as a craft distiller again. That term lumps the work I'm doing in with a bunch of other guys who are just getting started. It also prevents me from growing my business into something larger and working on projects that are grander in scale because I'm supposedly committed to the idea of being small. I'm beginning to hate that word, actually."

While some distillers are beginning to move away from the term "craft," I'm wondering if those of us who blog about spirits will ever move away from being defined as "bloggers." What I love about whiskey blogs is that they allow for outside interpretation and evaluation of booze. They also provide havens of support for those who want to take the discussion beyond the general and into the specific. What they're in danger of doing, however, is fusing with the basic irritations of social media to the point that their general personality becomes a caricature (as referenced in my own comic strip a while back and by my pal SKU a few days ago). Basically, if there are unspoken rules to blogging and participating in the whiskey online experience, where people blindly mimic what others are doing, then it's just another version of what Bai described with the political scene back in 2007 -- and none of us want to be associated with that, believe me.

I remember the first night I got to do a radio show on the UCSD college network and curate a program with my own music. I brought in a bunch of albums I planned on playing, but the guy running the station said, "Oh, you can't play any of these."

"Why not?" I asked, rather shocked.

"Because it's...like...not what we play here. You can only play indie rock or hip-hop."

"Are you fucking serious?" I asked, with total disdain.

"Yeah, bro. You'll make people mad if you play any of that commercial shit," he replied.

"Why?"

"Because, dude. That's just...like...what we do."

No matter where you go you'll run into people who understand the "rules" and what's considered acceptable in their desired social circle, but not necessarily why this allegiance is required. That type of behavior indicates the death knell of anything cool, organic, or interesting. You can't be independent or creative if you're just doing exactly what everyone else is doing, and you can't move anything forward either. Sometimes I know I'm doing my job well by looking around to see how many people I've angered. In fact, it's only when I piss certain people off that I know I'm still doing decent work on this blog.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: there are no rules to drinking, and, by extension, there are no rules to blogging about drinking. If you're afraid to tell people you like Hennessy, or that you secretly drink Crown Royal when no one's looking, then you might as well join the online party because it's that fear that will eventually sink whiskey blogging. When everyone agrees that there are the same good whiskies, the same bad whiskies, and the same desired attributes that any serious drinker should strive for, then we're all useless.

That's when I'll sign off.

-David Driscoll