The Future of Internet Whisky Blogging

I was perusing through SKU's list of internet spirits blogs yesterday and I was reminded about an article I wrote nearly four months ago, but later deleted before posting. It had to do with two things: my opinion on the usefulness of a whisky blog itself and my announcement that I was shutting this one down.

What stopped me was a fashion documentary I was watching on television at the time. The fashion industry is going through a much larger and much more transformative version of what the booze business is witnessing. Magazines like Vogue and Elle are fighting to stay relevant. Even the queen herself Anna Wintour is supposedly under the gun to do something about these new, energetic fashionistas armed with iPhone cameras and an IP address. Fashion bloggers are everywhere, snapping photos, Instagraming the latest trends, styles, and looks into cyberspace and making monthly print editions look outdated upon release. A new blog post can be whipped up in seconds and available to everyone with a computer instantly and for free.

What you don't always get with a blog is professional photography. Or professional writing. Or professional opinion. Or professionalism in general. But who really cares about any of that stuff anyway, right? Just get me my news and make it fast! I've only got two seconds before another text vibrates this thing and sends my attention elsewhere. Industry blogs were originally a way to pass the time between magazine issues. A way to keep readers engaged until the next magazine hit the newstand. Now the roles are almost reversed. Blogs keep people glued in twenty four hours a day to the lastest updates and information. If one isn't updated fast enough, another one will be.

Do we really need this much information about whisky, however? Is it filling a need? Why do so many people feel compelled to start a weblog about alcohol and share those opinions with the world? Most of it is pure ego, which is why I was ready to give it up a while back. My ego got me into this game and it was making me write things to boost its self-absorbed nature. Sure, K&L didn't have anyone writing about spirits so it did serve the customer base a purpose, but that wasn't what motivated me to do it. I wanted to create a reputation for myself and that seemed like a good way to do it. Anyone who writes a blog about whisky is in the same boat. Anyone who tells you they're not is lying. I'm not saying that blogs written by egoists aren't useful (because I think this blog can be useful at times), but I am saying that the rise of the ego is beginning to replace actual news and journalism. It's not much different than the twenty-hour news cycle – one hour of actual news, twenty-three hours of people talking about that one hour.

Understanding the fashion industry is important to understanding trends. Things come into style, then they go out again. Knowing what's going to happen next is a big part of success. Booze is no different. Look at all of these people kicking themselves because they didn't have more old Bourbon ready for this ravenous market! Most of these cycles are repackaged versions of older ones with big-brands mimicking the little guys. With music it's like clockwork – every other decade. The 70's were repackaged in the 90's. The 80's were repackaged from 2000 to 2010. Now the 90's are starting to creep back in. I saw a girl wearing maroon Doc Martins in the Mission last week with her steampunk outfit and she was in her early twenties. It all comes back around again.

While I don't think blogging itself is a trend that will soon grow stale, I think whisky blogging is. The prominence of whisky blogging is a reaction to two things: the lack of media concerning smaller releases and independent bottlings, and the desire for bloggers to be seen as an expert in this field. Eventually, however, two things will happen: there will be too many reviews of the same bottles and there will be too many people clammering for your attention. Once this happens people will start to burnout (and it's already starting). When people start to burnout on reading whisky blogs they'll either gravitate to one or two faithful sites or they'll just stop reading completely.

Whisky blogs are also a reaction to the industry in order to help tell it what we want. To help guide it and consumers towards quality. To voice our frustrations and to prevent others from buying bad products. It's working. It's been working. It's working so well that we're actually starting to see co-option. Brands will now send you free stuff if you can get enough of a following. If bloggers get free stuff it might make them say nice things. When a blogger gets co-opted by the system he or she becomes irrelevant as an independent voice. The brands are becoming smarter. They're all starting their own blogs, making their own "craft products," throwing insults at the bigger companies in an attempt to appear more artisan. Blogs are seen as the homebase of serious whisky drinkers. "If we can infiltrate the blogs, we'll win the war!" I'll bet there's a Dr. Strangelove George C. Scott-type executive in a boardroom somewhere shouting that very phrase right now.

Back in 2009, you couldn't be up to date with the whisky scene unless you were reading the whisky blogs. Nowadays, I'm not sure there's much more they can offer besides breaking news. The blogs have always been there to help educate newer consumers about the alcohol they're drinking, but there's so much information out there now that everything just seems like a rehash. We're recycling stories, travelogues, ideas, opinions, and rants like Lady Gaga recycles old Madonna schticks. There's nothing underground or cool about a whisky blog anymore because there's nothing underground about whisky. Whisky is the hottest thing out there. It's being pushed and sold at max capacity. It's so cool we can't get enough of it. You can't stay relevant, however, by following the current trend. You stay relevant by spotting the next one before it arrives.

What does the future of whisky blogging hold? Not rants. Not reviews. Not scores. Not travelogues. Not education, either. Those things have been done. They're still being done. It's time for whisky bloggers to adapt, however. Into what I'm not sure. That's what I see my job as, however. Not to stop blogging, but to figure out what that is.

-David Driscoll


More on CA Retail Tastings

I had some great feedback from a few customers concerning the post I wrote about retail tastings. Most of the messages addressed how useful the tastings were for those looking to taste something before purchasing a bottle. Some said they definitely had bought a bottle after attending one of the events.

These are great points and they are the benefits from consumer tastings of which I am definitely aware.

My main point is that doing these types of events on a weekly basis or even bi-weekly basis has not seemed to spark much of a passion within our customer base, nor the brands themselves. The other issue has to do with consumer turnout.

If we schedule a Heaven Hill tasting, where the rep takes time out of their schedule to drive to Redwood City or San Francisco on a Wednesday evening, and we pour free Bourbon for the public, there needs to be at least 30 to 40 people there for the brand to feel this was a good use of their time. Most nights, however, we only get around ten to fifteen. However, this isn't because no one wants to come. It's because no one who doesn't live within a one-mile radius of the store can make it here during rush hour traffic on 101. Even if they could, is it really worth sitting for an hour in gridlock just to taste a few sips?

When no one shows up, the brands get disappointed. When they get disappointed they tend to not want to repeat that performance. That is, unless I'm willing to do something for them (like feature a product we don't carry and have no interest in carrying). A garden variety scenario might play out like this:

"Hi Bob. I've got Wednesday the 15th open to pour in the Redwood City store. Want to come by and do a public event?"

"Hmmm.....well....the last time we did this we didn't get that great of a turnout. Maybe if we could focus on the new white whiskey and flavored vodkas I could garner up some support from the brass. What do you think?"

"Well, those aren't products that we carry, nor are they things I think really interest the base of our consumers. Can we just focus on the main whiskies?"

"What if we do two whiskies and you bring in one of the vodkas as a compromise?"

This scenario totally sucks. These tastings are free. We're simply offering the brands a space to interact with customers. However, since we have no control over what is poured and legally can have nothing to do with the event itself, we have no say in what the brands actually bring or offer. Obviously, we can say "no" to the tasting if the lineup doesn't fit the bill, but the retailer has little control otherwise.

I have all kinds of crap bottles sitting in the back warehouse that I brought in to help motivate certain brands to come and pour. Yet, I'm scheduling events that few people can come to due to the weeknight time slot available. The point is: the "exciting" new CA law is practially worthless for a store like K&L unless we can do over-the-top, amazing spirits that motivate people to come. We can't keep that kind of schedule on a weekly basis, however.

Until I can get behind that bar, pour what I want, when I want, I don't see the point of doing this regularly. If I can get Lester Lopez to come pour Ardbeg, Frank Jakubka to pour Mount Gay, or Andrew Morrison to do the A.D. Rattray single casks, then YES we'll definitely invite them in. However, these guys can't be here every week. We can't always have the same brands in over and over again because it gets stale. Yet, my attempts to invite in new brands and have different types of tastings have drawn few attendees and very little support from most producers.

This isn't my fault, however. It's not their fault, either. And it's certainly not the fault of our customers. It's the result of a stupid law that doesn't allow enough wiggle room to actually do something interesting and rewarding. Either let me pour, let me choose the bottles, and let me open K&L stock, or allow liquor tastings to coincide with wine tastings so we can try do them on weekends when people can actually get here and taste.

Until that happens, I think we're better off doing these in-store tastings purely when someone interesting can come to the store who actually wants to be here. Those events are worth my time, their time, and your time as well.

-David Driscoll


¡¡¡El Salón VUELVE!!! Cinco de Mayo Fiesta in San Mateo

OK - so we're having a Cinco de Mayo party on the 7th of May. Big deal! The Salon is back and we're once again dedicated to bringing you the finest spirits from the finest producers in an environment that focuses on fun and socialization, rather than stodgy structure. This is something I've wanted to do for a long time and we're finally making it happen. Jesus Padilla from Los Osuna, the Sinaloan distillery making high-quality agave azul (technically not tequila since it's not from Jalisco) and my friends from El Sinaloense restaurant in San Mateo are going to team up for one night only to bring you a Sinaloan soiree!

For $35 per person (only 50 spots available) we'll be treating K&L customers to a fantastic buffet with fresh ceviche, shrimp fajitas, sizzling steak and chicken, rice, beans, vegetables, and the best house-made flour tortillas in the Bay Area. At that price you're pretty much drinking for free. El Sinaloense (featured on the spirits blog here) has been cooking up fresh Sinaloan cuisine for years in an unassuming part of San Mateo. My wife and I eat here at least once a week if not more often. When Jesus said he wanted to do a Sinaloan spirits tasting I knew there could be only one venue for it. In addition to the wonderful food we'll be mixing up Palomas (tequila and Squirt) and treating you to a flight of the Los Osuna blanco, reposado, and añejo expressions. You'll get a cocktail, three full pours, and more food than you can handle as well as some good company. Jesus and I will be there to answer any questions and provide information, but there will be no formal tasting or education session. Just music, food, drinks, and a good time out. Reserve your spot for May 7th below. I'm probably going to buy ten tickets just for K&L staff members, so don't wait too long if you want to join us!

LA FIESTA DEL SALÓN @ EL SINALOENSE CON LOS OSUNA - 7 DEL MAYO - 7:00 PM - $35 - El Salòn vuelve! Acompañenos para comer comida Sinaloense y tomar bebidas alcoholicas con sus amigos de Los Osuna! We've been working with Los Osuna "tequilas" (technically from Sinaloa, so they can't call their spirits "tequila") since the very beginning, being one of their first retail accounts in the United States. For more than three years their importer Jesus Padilla has been busting his behind, spreading the word of these amazing spirits and his hard work is paying off as the brand continues to build a devout following. In celebration of Cinco del Mayo, and our newly-formed relationship with one of the best Mexican restaurants on the Peninsula, El Sinaloense, it only made sense to throw a gigantic party combining the best Sinaloan cuisine and Sinaloan spirits together. On Tuesday May 7th we'll have room for fifty K&L customers to join us in the back room of San Mateo's El Sinaloense to feast on fresh ceviche, steaming fajitas, the best house-made flour tortillas around, and a flight of Los Osuna's blanco, reposado, and añejo spirits. Attendees will also get a Paloma cocktail to start (a simple mix of tequila with Squirt). Don't miss this chance to celebrate with your friends from K&L, Los Osuna, El Sinaloense, and the Salon. There will be no formal tasting schedule, just a big party with lots of delicious food and drink. Viva El Salòn! (NOTE: there are no paper tickets for this event - your name will be on a list)

EL Sinaloense is also conveniently located right next to the Hayward Park Caltrain stop!

-David Driscoll


Why The Legal California Retail Spirits Tastings Suck

I remember the day well. New California legislation was about to be passed, making the tasting of spirits in the retail environment a possibility. We were totally pumped. For my first few years at K&L the idea of tasting Scotch before you bought a bottle was strictly forbidden. Now, finally, we were going to get the chance to actually pour spirits in the store for our customers. This was going to be huge! What a wonderful advantage for the discerning whisky customer! There were just a few minor details we needed to keep in mind:

- only three products could be poured at any one tasting

- only 1/4 oz. pours of each spirit were legally allowed - meaning only 3/4 oz total of consumable booze

- retail employees could not participate, only distributors, importers, or brand employees

- tastings could not be held on the same day as other tastings, meaning if we do wine we can't do booze

- tastings must be free of charge and the booze must be supplied by the designated pourer

Other than that, we were free to unleash our newly-entitled booze freedom onto the public! Wow! This was going to change everything! Except for these quickly discovered details:

- distributors, importers, and brand reps do not work on Saturdays or Sundays. That means we couldn't do tastings on the weekend days.

- Friday nights were available, but most specialty wine stores have special wine tastings on Friday nights because that's when customers like to come and drink. We can't have two tastings on the same day, nor were we willing to cancel an event that allowed customers to have multiple glasses of wine in exchange for a few paltry sips of liquor.

- That left Monday through Thursday for tasting events. Unfortunately, most boutique liquor stores are not open all night long. That means we would have to conduct the tasting between 5 PM and 7 PM when we close. That's right in the middle of rush hour traffic. Who was going to sit in gridlock so that they could rush over to K&L for a 3/4 oz tease?

The initial response to our K&L spirits tastings was strong, mainly because we have an incredible customer base of dedicated spirits fans. It became a kind of social meet up. However, the tastings were not always that exciting. You might get a brand rep who doesn't know shit about dick, making the enjoyment of the product rather paltry in comparison to an enthusiastic and knowledgable brand manager. After the novelty wore off the K&L tasting attendance trickled down to a few die-hards, some cheapskates looking for free booze, or whoever happened to be in the store at that time, unknowingly finding a glass thrusted into their hand in order to increase the turnout of the event.

What a bummer.

Now that I'm in my sixth year in the booze business I've discovered one very important fact: great experiences help sell booze. How many times have we had a customer tell us: "We were in Italy last summer and we had this wine and it was just outstanding. Is there any chance you can order it?" Nine out of ten times the answer is "no." However, it wasn't the wine that made that experience, anyway. It was being in freaking Italy!! That's what made that wine taste so damn memorable. Italy!!! Not the wine. The experience. The food. The atmosphere. The people.

I'm over trying to create tasting opportunities. I'm now fully dedicated to creating memorable experiences. That's what the Salon tasting was all about. No more pedantry. No more stuck-up, educational, structured tastings with lessons and rules. I wanted to have a party. A party that made people think, "Wow, what a great time that was drinking Elmer T. Lee at the Salon." That's what engrains a true connection to booze – a good time out. Hence, we've put the K&L spirits tastings on hold, barring the occasional guest that's simply too good to pass up. What we will be focusing on now are events. Fun, enjoyable, social events that promote enjoyment rather than increase pretense.

I've got a few lined up for the next month that should please the most dedicated whisky fans, but intrigue the casual drinker as well.

June 1st is Ardbeg Day, isn't it? ArdBog is the big anticpated release, right? I think we might be throwing a giant party. A party that will create memories. A party that will involve FULL pours, FULL enjoyment, and involve retailers, brand managers, and customers together, on a weekend date during the evening hours that most working stiffs like myself can actually attend. No 1/4 oz pours. No three bottle limitation. No rush hour time schedule.

This is the future of whisky outreach – putting in actual work on behalf of one's clientele. Not some stupid, bullshit tasting license that does very little for retailers, brands, and customers alike.

It's more work on our end, but it's worth it. That last Salon event was an absolute blast. This next one should blow the roof off the place. I'm willing to make it happen. Will you come and join me?

-David Driscoll


SoCal Events Coming Up

A couple of really fun events coming up this week. First, Matt Biancaniello will be back in the Hollywood store tomorrow evening, Thursday April 25th from 5:30-7:30pm. We're continuing our examination of wine based cocktails. As you may or may not know Matt is bringing some of the most exciting flavors to the table using an incredible array of foraged and farm fresh products. Learn his secrets, taste his wares, this is about the most you'll ever get out of Matt for $20, so don't miss it. Please pre-pay for your space

Culinary Cocktail Seminar with Matt Biancaniello at the Hollywood store, April 25th 5:30-6:30pm $20


Culinary Cocktail Seminar with Matt Biancaniello at the Hollywood store, April 25th 6:30-7:30pm $20


If cocktails are not your thing, there is a cool event being hosted by the newly formed Southern California Whisk(e)y Club. The SCWC was created to fill a space between the very public LA Scotch Club and the private LA Whisk(e)y Society. Many members of each respective group are involved in all organizations and SCWC has being bringing it pretty hard with outrageous tastings of Stitzel-Weller, a Sazerac veritcal, among others. Now they've turned their attention to Scotch. Our old friend David Stirk will be in town from the Creative Whisky Co. who was responsible for providing some of our fastest selling casks during last years whisky season. This year you'll get a sneak preview at some of our bottlings, as the current Exclusive Cask selections have some similar casks selections to ours. In addition, you'll get a chance to meet Mr. David Stirk, a true maverick in the independent bottling world, who amazingly turned a passion for Scotch and Scotland into an actual business. Despite his underdog status, David has been able to crank out some exceptional expressions and this is your chance to taste a large range of his stuff for an incredible reasonable price. Your tickets gets you a taste of each of the below single malts plus a pretty legit burger from Far Bar.

'00, Aberlour 12 year, 56.7%

'00, Ardmore 12 year, 56.3%

'97, Clynelish 15 year, 53.5%

'95, Mortlach 17 year, 53.3%

'92, Glen Grant 20 year, 55.7%

'88, Littlemill 24 year, 49.8%

'01, Bowmore 11 Year, 53.6%


Tasting starts at 7pm!

Far Bar is located at:

347 E 1st St  

Los Angeles, CA 90012

-David Othenin-Girard