Motown Highlife

My wife and I went to the movies a few weeks ago and, while watching the previews before the previews, caught wind of a new ABC series called American Crime. It was about thirty seconds in when I spotted the famous "Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health" sign and looked at my wife in horror. "ABC is making a fucking network television show about Modesto?!!" I whispered firmly to her, my eyes as wide as saucers. Having lived in Modesto from the time of my birth in 1979 until leaving for college in 1997 (and then back for a year later on), I can tell you this came as quite a shock. What didn't surprise me, however, was that the show's morbid and tragic premise would exploit the negative side of the Central Valley locale without actually shooting an episode there. Besides a few choice frames of stock footage, most of the show is filmed around Austin, Texas.

However, last night when we finally caught up to this past week's episode of Looking (the fantastic HBO drama about three gay men in San Francisco), my wife and I about spit our drinks out. Two of the main characters in the show, Dom and Doris, are from Modesto and must return home for a funeral after Doris's father dies. "Here we go," I said to my wife. "They're going to show the archway and a few choice streets, but the rest of it will be filmed somewhere outside the city." That wasn't the case, however. My wife (who also lived in Modesto for much of her life) and I sat there, staring at the television, stupified, while the Volvo rolled into downtown for a half-hour of high school flashbacks. We thought that would be the extent of it, until the unthinkable happened:

The three travellers are sitting in the Clarion Motel just off Highway 99.

Doris: I want to go out. I just spent the whole day at a funeral.

Dom: I know a place nearby.

Patrick: Here? In Modesto?

My wife and I turned to each other, both knowing exactly where this was headed, but still in disbelief. "If they go to the Brave Bull," I said to her, "I'm going to cry."

But that's exactly where they went: the renowned 9th Street tavern, where both my wife and I spent many a night during our early 20s. The Bull is pretty much the only gay bar in town (making it the most fun bar in town), so it was an easy guess. Still, to see HBO cameras walk inside, pull up to the bar for a few Bud Lights, then boogie the night away on the dance floor was something I'll never forget.

It was nice to finally see Modesto get celebrated for an iconic drinking establishment. Usually it's not something nearly so positive that brings my hometown into the limelight. While I shot it down as a poor idea years ago, this newfound popularity does have me reconsidering my "K&L Drinks Around Modesto Bus Tour".

-David Driscoll


Canadian Immigration

I got to meet Dr. Don Livermore this week, the master blender for Hiram Walker who was visiting the Bay Area from Ontario. Pernod-Ricard is beginning to expand the available selection of Hiram Walker Canadian whiskies in the U.S., which is great news on two fronts:

1) Extra mature Canadian whisky is delicious and plentiful.

2) Extra mature Canadian whisky is very affordable compared to its American, Japanese, and Scottish brethren.

Along with the Lot 40, J.P. Wiser's blended rye, and the Pike's Creek, I noticed an unfamiliar square bottle tucked in among the lineup. "When did the Wiser's 18 year hit the states?!" I asked in shock. 

"Just recently," was the answer, and there wasn't much to be had. I immediately snagged the remaining few cases left in NorCal (most of which have already sold online), and we'll be getting about 60 more bottles next week. The price? $54.99; shockingly cheap when you compare it to other comparable competitors in the whisky category. Is it a substitute for American whiskey selections like Sazerac 18, or Jefferson's 18? Not in the slightest. While Canadian whiskey is indeed made from corn, wheat, and rye, the distillation and maturation processes are completely different from what's done in Kentucky. First off, there is no such thing as a mashbill in Canada (at least not at the distilleries I've been working with), as the grains are all distilled and matured individually. The final products are always blends of individual corn, rye, and wheat whiskies. Second of all, like Scotland, the whiskies are put into used oak barrels rather than new oak, so the intensity of the wood is nowhere near the level one would find in a Bourbon. Thirdly, the final blends are often proofed down to 40%, making Canadian whisky more of a mellow, easy-sipping spirit, rather than a bold, in-your-face style of product.

While I feel the Lot 40 continues to be a great crossover or gateway whisky for American whiskey fans looking to explore something new, the Wiser's 18 year is Canadian through and through—and that's a good thing. People who change their personality to fit what others want them to be are uninteresting and boring. That being said, I would be disappointed if 200 years of whisky tradition were changed and altered to capitalize on the current cask strength American whiskey fad. The Wiser's 18 is full of pencil shavings and rye spice on the nose. It begins with soft oak on the palate, and quickly moves into a peppery, spicy, rye-dominated flurry of flavor that finishes with accents of baking spice and lots of tingly, tangy goodness.

If you're looking for a replacement to that 18 year old Stitzel-Weller Bourbon you drained two years ago, then look elsewhere. If you're looking to try one of Canada's legendary 18 year old whiskies for the same price as a 10 year old Springbank, then this is definitely up your alley. It's as good as anything I've had from Canada thus far, which I'll admit isn't much, but it has me very excited for what else may be lying in wait. 

-David Driscoll


Diageo Reverse

A few years back we heard the news that Diageo was discontinuing the Johnnie Walker Green and Gold expressions (arguably the two best in the portfolio), at least in the incarnations we were once familiar with. The Gold 18 year would soon become the Gold Reserve (a non-age statement blend), likely because the blended whisky giant didn't want to (or couldn't due to supply issues) keep diverting stocks of 18 year old Clynelish into the formula. The 15 year old Green would disappear because supplies of 15 year old Talisker, Cragganmore, and Caol Ila might be better served in their own proprietary labels . Don't quote me on any of this, as I don't know with any certainty why Diageo did what they did. That's just what I assumed due to what I was observing within the industry.

Last month, however, we were told by our Diageo reps that the Walker Green was back in stock. Really? I thought that was gone forever? Apparently not! The Walker Green 15 year is indeed available again, albeit without the gift box and a bottle that more resembles the Johnnie Black. "The price is the same, but how is the quality?" I thought to myself. Was it still made from the same four distilleries (Linkwood being the fourth), or did Diageo discontinue the label briefly to change up the formula? If they did switch things up, would it even matter? "As long as it tastes good, and the cost matches the quality, I'd definitely be interested in selling the Green again," I told David OG when we chatted. Both David and I were curious about the turn of events, so we went out and got ourselves a bottle.

The result? Delicious. Still a great deal at $59.99 (regardless of the formula) with plenty of supple fruit, a nice heavy weight on the palate, and just a hint of smoke and peat on the finish. I'd still choose this over a number of other single malt whiskies in this price point. I'll have to reach out to Diageo to get the actual scoop on what happened, but for now we've got the Johnnie Green back on the shelf in all of our stores. While I'll definitely be handing our customers a bottle of Faultline Blended over the Black Label, I'll be more than happy to put the Green Label back into the hands of many a K&L shopper.

After weeks of delays due to the Oakland port situation, the 2014 Lagavulin Distiller's Edition also showed up. I finally popped a bottle today and dove in to the latest batch. It's easily the most reserved and graceful version of the DE I've yet tasted. The entry is soft and supple, and there's still plenty of classic Lagavulin flavor on the finish (peat, smoke, all that), but it's very well balanced. It's subtle, which isn't a word I'd use to describe Lagavulin normally, but in this case the term fits. That's not to say it's muted, or mild, but rather graceful and elegant—again, not words I typically use for intensly smoky Islay whiskies. The peat is clean and vibrant, but it doesn't overpower the flavor or completely dominate the palate. I'm going to go back in again later. I'm intrigued.

-David Driscoll


D2D: Live in Concert

I picked up David J at around 6:00 PM on the border of San Francisco's Hayes Valley neighborhood. I pulled up to the house where he was staying, gave him a quick call on his cell, and he told me he'd be right down. We met on the street, shook hands, and he invited me inside to have a look at the old Victorian house he was visiting—a stunning retreat, fully-restored with original wallpaper and carpeting—before we threw his guitar in the trunk and began the trek down to Redwood City. David was in town to DJ a gig at the Cat Club, but also to play a private show at a wine retailer called K&L. That's right: I was taking David J to the K&L store in Redwood City, where he would be performing for an intimate group of friends and colleagues. I don't know if it was the full moon rising above the city, or the surreal effect of driving one of my idols around in my Volkswagen GTI, but I was in another place mentally. I couldn't wrap my head around what was actually happening in that moment. What had started as a quick interview about whisky had blossomed into a full scale event. The potential for crossover in this business still continues to amaze me!

The traffic on 101 was dreadful, so I decided to turn off, take a few backroads, and switch over to 280. I could see David getting a bit nervous—getting stuck with a total stranger in an hour's worth of commuter traffic wasn't what he had in mind for the evening. That being said, he was a complete professional and perfect gentleman about the situation he had found himself in. By the time we made it to Woodside, David started saying, "Whisky! Whisky! Whisky!" Both of our nerves were shot at that point and we needed a drink. As we passed the Hanky Panky (the notorious Redwood City strip club), I pointed out the significance of the area's dive-iest of dives. I said to David: "If we end up there later tonight I can't be responsible for anything that happens after that point." We pulled into the parking lot, I let him in the back door, then immediately sprinted upstairs and grabbed the open bottle of 1963 Glenfarclas I had sitting on my desk. "This is delicious," David said after taking a sip. I left him at that point with our Champagne buyer Gary Westby and his friend Henry, both of whom would be doing the sound that evening. They had brought in their PA system and had been setting up while I did the chauffeuring. 

At 8 PM I began letting the invitees in through the back door and we adjourned to the tasting bar for a few glasses of Champagne. David's opening act, Darwin Meiners (also David's manager) opened the show at 8:30 with a few solo songs of his own, before bringing Mr. Haskins out. The group huddled around the front counter area, which functioned as our stage for the evening, and got ready to be amazed. We were all a little star struck and in awe of what was unfolding before us.

I gave a quick speech ("I know you're all wondering how in the hell this all came about.") and a few minutes later we were watching a rock and roll legend perform in the middle of K&L's Redwood City location. My customer service manager Joel looked at me with a smile, shaking his head in disbelief. David played for about an hour, told a few stories, and even handed out a small xylophone to encourage crowd participation. The audience was completely captivated for the entire event.

I spent most of the first twenty minutes snapping photos and checking in on my guests, but finally I decided I should probably take one quality video just to have some record of the event. As it turned out, I happened to start the camera right at the moment that David J dedicated a song to our eventful journey south from San Francisco. What are the odds? He finished the set with a flurry of Love & Rockets classics ("Rain Bird" and "No New Tale to Tell") before ending the show to sign autographs and chat with those in attendance. 

As we locked up the store and set the alarm, I said to David: "You're going to be amazed at how close we actually are to the city. It's really not as far as it seemed on the way down." I could see he was hopeful about the validity of that statement. Seeing that he really enjoyed the 1963 Family Cask he had been sipping, I gave him a bottle of our 1990 Glenfarclas expression as a momento before we got back in the car and headed north.

As we drove by the Hanky Panky again, I said to him jokingly, "You sure you don't want to stop?"

"Keep driving," he said with a smirk. 

-David Driscoll


No, I'm Sorry We Don't (please don't yell at me)

My biggest fear these days working the sales floor at K&L is the question: "Do you guys have......?"

Why does that question strike fear into my heart? Because if the answer to that question is "I'm sorry we don't", you can probably guess what the next question will be: "Why not?" That's a loaded gun of a query, primed to explode depending on what I say and how I say it. Let me give you an example.

Customer: Excuse me, I can't find the Jack Daniels. You guys carry it don't you?

David: No, I'm sorry we don't.

Customer: Really? Why not.

Why don't we carry Jack Daniels? For a number of reasons, but mainly because it's widely available at our competitors, usually at a more competitive price than we're able to negotiate based on our small purchasing power. It's simply not in our wheelhouse at K&L, just like thousands and thousands of other wine and spirits that are perfectly fine and enjoy a large consumer base. Unfortunately, some people take our lack of product placement as a personal assault on their very personal taste. It's a phenomenon that seems to be getting worse and it's beginning to give me some anxiety.

David: Because it's not something we thought we could be competitive with, unfortunately.

Customer: Are you serious? It's one of the most popular whiskies on the planet. So basically you don't carry it because you think it sucks, right?

David: Not at all. It's just that you can get it at almost every liquor store from here to San Francisco and we like to give people a reason to come specifically to K&L.

Customer: Lots of stores carry Jim Beam and you carry Jim Beam. Lots of stores have Grey Goose. That doesn't make any sense.

Not every store can carry every product available, so you have to make decisions. And, yes, some of them may be based on personal preference. Others, perhaps, on relationships within the industry. There are a number of thoughts that go into our total selection at K&L, but none of them revolve around insulting our customers. Yet, that's exactly the reason most people assume! I was reading a pre-season report on ESPN that ranked each MLB team from top to bottom. I laughed out loud when I read the author's note:

But before we begin, our standard disclaimer: If you disagree with these rankings or any of the 2015 rankings to come, remember that I made my decisions based solely on my bias against your favorite team, with no consideration whatsoever for data or objective analysis.

I can only imagine the hate mail those guys get from fans who are upset over their favorite team being ranked towards the bottom, hence the disclaimer.

David: We carry those products because we think they're quality brands that offer value to our customer.

Customer: Well, you really should carry Jack Daniels because there's no better value in the business.

David: Thank you for your input. We'll do our best.

-David Driscoll