The Beginning of the End

I usually mention "Mad Men" to a customer at least once a day while working on the sales floor.

"You guys don't have any older Bourbons, do you?" someone will inevitably ask after walking up and down the aisle a few times.

"Not since Bourbon took off, unfortunately," I'll eventually answer.

"Why is that? Why did American whiskey suddenly become so popular?" is the fated response.

" pretty much began with Mad Men."

And then we're off.

There were many factors that influenced the explosion of the American whiskey category, but in my personal opinion, no factor was as influencial as Don Draper. It's no coincidence that the beginning of the trend coincided with the beginning of the show. Drinking is one of the many ways we pretend as humans and in 2007 -- the year I left teaching and started working at K&L -- millions of people around the country began pretending they were a part of Sterling Price, pouring themselves a glass of rye while tuning into AMC on Sunday evenings. By 2008, American whiskey was on a roll and we were running extremely low on Rittenhouse, Wild Turkey, and Sazerac. By 2009 -- the year I took over as spirits buyer -- we were completely out of Kentucky rye, which facilitated the transition to the LDI brands like Redemption, Bulleit, and Templeton. The category had exploded beyond any possible expectation as if Don had been writing the ads himself..

Mad Men didn't just inspire millions of people to drink historically, it inspired them to think historically. With the onslaught of 1960s fashion being displayed on the screen, American culture began to search for the authentic remnants of its past. It almost became a contest: who could out-retro the next person? You've pulled out classic recipes from the pre-Prohibition era? Big deal! I've gone back to the 19th century, found the description for an original Barbary Coast cocktail, and I'm sporting the twirly moustache associated with bartenders from that era. Beat that! Once again, alcohol became the framework in which we could pretend; it was a way to escape the mundane drivel of the day-to-day grind and imagine we were someone glamorous from another place and another time. Whiskey became the springboard for that mindset and an era of new Romanticism began.

Much like Americans were pretending to be hard-drinking figures from the past, ordering Manhattan cocktails at bars pretending to be Speakeasies, the characters on Mad Men were also pretending. Dick Whitman was pretending to be Don Draper. He was pretending to love his wife. He was pretending to be a hard-working family man, content with a house in the suburbs and all of the amenities of life he had acquired thus far. Who better to write copy, create desire, and convince other Americans that they should buy into his version of that dream? It takes a pretender to understand a pretender, and Don knew exactly how to pitch a product to the American idea of itself. Unfortunately, that dream wasn't based on reality and -- like most peoples' Facebook accounts -- the perception wasn't representative of the truth. Don was weak, needy, and starving for affirmation. He wasn't the dynamo he appeared to be and, over six incredible seasons, we began to learn more about his inner demons.

As the seventh and final season of Mad Men begins tomorrow, I have to ask myself: where is this all going to end? Not just the show, its plotline, and the future of its characters, but also the drinking culture the show has inspired. Mad Men has never been building towards any final payoff or foregone conclusion. It's not alluding towards an inevitable showdown between Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, nor a confrontation with the Yellow King. Mad Men has never been a televised page-turner, nor has it ever caused me to leap from my chair in anticipation of next week's show. Like the effects of a glass of whiskey itself, Mad Men is a slow burn -- a realization that gradually sinks in and envelopes you over the course of a few hours. It might cause you to laugh out loud, or it may make you feel terrible -- revealing aspects of your personality that you were hoping to ignore and forget.

Mad Men's course has no clear cut path; there has never been a linear storyline, so it's difficult to predict its final conclusion. I just have to wonder if the end of the show will predicate an end to the whiskey and cocktail culture established in its wake. Like the lives of Don, Roger, and Peggy themselves and the themes that have surrounded them, the whiskey industry's revival has also turned into a convoluted mess of lies, persuasion, and capitalistic desire fueled by marketing, merging, and masquerading. The parallels I've witnessed on both fronts over the past six years are striking in their similarity.

But what is ultimately going to happen when the show's over? Will Draper fall and will the whiskey industry collapse behind him? Or will we be stuck without a resolution, left on our own to decide what we think will eventually occur? My guess is the latter. Ultimately, we're the ones who have to decide when the pretending ends.

-David Driscoll


New Delicious Inexpensive Tequilas

As we continue to build towards Cinco de Mayo, summer, and the time of the year when white spirit cocktails dominate our drinking, we'll be on the lookout for more inexpensive, value-driven products that you can pour without having to work out your dollar-per-ounce ratio. These new tequilas just landed today and I am absolutely stoked about working them into my rotation at home.

Olmeca Altos Plata Tequila $19.99 - Olmeca Altos is produced at Destileria Colonial de Jalisco. Operation at the distillery is overseen by Maestro Tequilero Jesús Hernández and his team of workers. In November 1994 Jesús Hernandez travelled back to his native Mexico with a team of engineers from Kentucky to apply his architectural schooling and practical knowledge of bottling and production logistics on the new Destilería Colonial de Jalisco. When the site was finished in October 1997 Jesús stayed on to help with the start of production before being appointed Maestro Tequilero. All the agave used at Destileria Colonial de Jalisco come from the Highlands with 60% coming from Olmeca Altos' own estates and 40% from third party sources. The blanco tequila is not a neutral or flavorless spirit, but rather packs real roasted agave flavor and plenty of potent pepper into its affordable price point. For $20, it's a work-horse tequila that offers authenticity and bold character to any cocktail you should choose to make with it.

Olmeca Altos Reposado Tequila $19.99 - The barrel aging mellows out some of the funky agave notes present in the blanco and adds a flutter of baking spice to the mix. If you want something utterly sippable, yet priced at a point where mixing isn't a problem, this is definitely the value-priced reposado of your dreams.

Cimarron Blanco Tequila 1L $16.99 - From the distillery of Enrique Fonseca, the man behind the legendary K&L Fuenteseca, comes this value-priced label of liter-sized tequila that seems almost too good to be true. I'm willing to bet we'll have a problem selling the Cimarron selections, rather than the ridiculous success we should experience, simply because people will wonder why it's so cheap? Don't let the price tag sway you, however -- this is clean, fresh, easy-drinking tequila made from 100% agave that is definitely up to Enrique's high standards. This blanco is cleaner and lighter than the Pura Sangre blanco (also from Enrique) and mixes into Palomas like a breeze. You'll be buying this by the case before you know it.

Cimarron Reposado Tequila 1L $21.99 - The reposado is mellow and soft on the palate, offering a much lighter and less rich flavor profile than some of Enrique's woodier expressions under the Pura Sangre and ArteNOM labels. It's almost too seamless. I can imagine going through half a bottle before realizing I've gone too far!

If you want to see for yourself how good some of these tequilas are, you should buy a ticket for our El Sinaloense dinner on April 29th and come drink some cocktails with us! Check out the post below for details.

-Davio Driscoll


Back Again! Cinco De Mayo Party @ El Sinaloense

El Sinaloense's Machaca -- the best beef dish ever!

With all of this anxiety over the current lime shortage, Mario – the owner of Sinaloense – and I decided we needed to have a party called: “How to Survive During the Mexican Lime Shortage” where we feature simple tequila drinks that don’t require lime juice. And we should probably invite a great tequila brand to join us that makes fantastic, clean, inexpensive tequila (just in case you did want some extra money for expensive limes). Olmeca Altos, a revamped brand that we’ll be featuring in the months ahead, jumped at the opportunity to participate. SO IT’S ON!!!! We’re having a lime-free party with Palomas and Bloody Marias, and TONS of fish, shrimp, and beef – all happening at the best Mexican place on the Peninsula. Only 40 spots available, so reserve your spot soon!

Olmeca Altos Tequila Dinner @ El Sinaloense, Tuesday April 29th 7:00 PM $40 -- Come party with your friends from K&L and Olmeca Altos Tequila as we host a pre-Cinco de Mayo event entitled: "How to Survive During the Mexican Lime Shortage." We'll be making some simple tequila cocktails that don't involve limes, like the Paloma and the Bloody Maria, and serving them up with El Sinaloense's renowned seafood and meat dishes. Fresh fish, shrimp, and finely-shredded Machaca beef cooked with peppers and onions, will be served family style allowing you to sit with friends, socialize with other guests, and enjoy the atmosphere. Oh...and hopefully you'll learn a little more about the wonderful Tequilas from Olmeca Altos! Our last dinner at El Sinaloense was legendary and it sold out fast. You won't want to miss out on this fiesta if you even remotely enjoy the Mexican culinary experience. El Sinaloense is in San Mateo located on Palm Ave. behind Safeway. There are no paper tickets for this event, just purchase a ticket and your name will go on to a guest list.

-David Driscoll


Critic's Context

Have you ever been to a museum and looked at a "masterpiece" of painting, only to think to yourself: I don't see what the fuss is all about.

Sometimes we need context to understand greatness, so if you don't spend all of your free time studying art history then you might not get exactly why a certain painting is considered "great." There are those who find Jackson Pollock's drippings ridiculous and others who are baffled by Kandinsky's abstract genius. However, if you don't understand composition theory and the symmetry of beauty, it might be difficult to weigh in on these debates. Any masterpiece must be defined by context, but if you don't understand the origins of a genre, it's difficult to appreciate the impact of innovation.

When you see a film labeled as a "critic's choice" you might think to yourself: this is what the experts like, so I should like it, too. However, what you have to remember is that people who work in the field get bored when subjected to the same thing over and over again. Therefore, critics tend to appreciate individuality and diversity over implicit quality, simply because they're begging for something new. The same phenomena happens in the wine and spirits world. When you see "staff picks" at K&L they're generally the result of my co-workers getting excited about geeky, out-of-the-ordinary products that represent something fresh and exciting. Therefore, those looking simply for delicious California cabernet might be let down if they follow us down this path (of course, the cynic's response to this would be: you just like it because it's different, not because it's good!)

Context is definitely required if you're going to understand why we're all very excited about two $70 half-bottles of grappa that we recently secured from Sicily. Even though they're of stunning quality, I don't think the pureness of these spirits alone is going to help you understand why we love them. Frank Cornelissen is like the Jackson Pollock of the wine world. He's a guy making crazy, intense, all-natural wines on the slopes of Mount Etna that challenge the idea of what we think wine should be. Some people think his wines are incredible, while others find them undrinkable. I could explain more about who Frank is and what he does, but the Wine Spectator's Matt Kramer did it five years ago when he visited the winery and he's done a far better job than what I would be capable of.

The short version is this: Frank Cornelissen makes the type of wine that people who drink wine for a living get excited about because it's so different than what we usually get to try. However, if someone looking for a nice, drinkable bottle of Italian red came in and asked me for a recommendation, I would never in a million years give them a bottle of Cornelissen wine because I know they would hate it. That's a strong endorsement, eh? It's not always easy to explain this concept, but that's the best way I can put it. I like it, but I can understand why most people wouldn't. 

So when I found out that Frank was making grappa and that my buddy Nic Palazzi managed to bring two of those selections into the U.S., I was all over them. We could only get twelve bottles of each expression, but a case of each should be more than enough.

Frank Cornelissen Munjebel Rosso Grappa 375ml $69.99 - All of the classic grappa flavors are here in this esoteric expression from Frank Cornelissen: the petrol kick of the distilled pomace and the fiery goodness that the spirit is known for. However, there's a lovely hint of fruit and violets on the palate that goes far beyond what most grappas offer. The finish is mineral and clean with an earthy overtone that one finds threading through Cornelissen's wines as well. It's not for everyone, and not everyone will understand what makes it special, but those who do will revel in it. The Munjebel Rosso grappa is distilled from 100% nerello mascalese.

Frank Cornelissen Rosso Del Contadino Grappa 375ml $69.99 - Distilled from 80% nerello mascalese with the remaining 20% a blend of allicante bouschet, nerello capuccio, uva francese, minella nera, minella bianco, and inzolia. That extra 20% gives the grappa a more floral, perfumy, and spice-driven character than the other Cornelissen grappa: the Munjebel. It's more delicate, feminine in style, and easy to like. Truly appreciating the grappa requires an understanding of what Frank Cornelissen is about, his committment to natural winemaking and his disavowal of anything chemical. That pureness defines his philosophy and his spirits.

-David Driscoll



Sometimes it's better to let generalizations about life slide than to challenge them and argue their validity. How many times have you heard someone say, "She's so smart; she went to Stanford" or something like, "I love drinking Dom Perignon because I enjoy drinking the best." When people draw questionable conclusions like that they're usually reassuring themselves, rather than trying to convince you of anything.

It's comfortable living in a world built on logicism. Life seems more manageable when you know for certain that:

90 points = good wine. 95 points = better wine.

$75,000 a year salary = successful. $200,000 a year = really successful.

UC Davis degree = smart. Harvard degree = really smart.

You get the picture.

But most of us understand that these generalizations aren't so much based on general truths as they are on our ideas of what we wish were true. We want to believe in them because, if or when we achieve them, we can feel good about ourselves -- and about the quality of our lives. If you take that security blanket away from someone it can be quite a messy experience.

I've noticed lately that explaining to whisky newcomers the vast scope of what's possible in the industry can result in one of two reactions: utter awe and excitement for what's possible, or fear, anxiety, and dread for the uncertain. It's a lot like life itself. A large number of people looking for help with wine or spirits do not want to move outside of these generalizations because it's too much to think about. Drinking shouldn't be that complicated, in their minds (and it shouldn't!), but that doesn't mean they don't want to drink good stuff, either. That's where big brands can offer their bit of comfort. Drinking good whisky is easier when Macallan 18 and Johnnie Walker Blue are the best, just like it's easier to feel secure about your experience when you subscribe to a similar set of mathematical logicisms:

$40 = good whisky. $200 = really good whisky.

12 years old = good whisky. 18 years old = really good whisky.

And so on.

But I'll be damned if I'm going to take that security away from anyone. The philosophical opposite of logicism is intuitionism: a school of thought that believes all these mathematic conclusions are just creations of the human mind, rather than founded on reality. I'm not sure I'd go that route either. When it comes to whisky, and even life in general, I listen to Ferris Bueller, who once said:

I don't condone fascism, or any -ism for that matter. -Isms in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself.

If you're looking for comfort, validity, and authenticity with your drinking experience, it begins with you.

-David Driscoll