Back to Basics: Brand Development

Back in the days before limited edition bottles ruled the earth, basic expressions of distilled spirits dominated the shelf space at your local retailer. If you were a tequila brand, you might have three different marks available at any given time: a blanco, a reposado, and an añejo. There were no such things as vintage tequilas, or single barrel tequilas, or extra añejo tequilas. When a brand did try to expand its repertoire, it was a very big deal (remember Crystal Pepsi?). The idea of making only 600 bottles of something was absurd! If you were going to launch a new product, you had to go all in (because there needed to be enough for everyone, ha!!). Of course, because of the risk involved, no brand would dare overextend its portfolio if the time wasn't right and the stars weren't aligned. A period of steady growth would need to precede any attempt at expansion.

Jake Lustig is an old-fashioned booze guy—a grizzled veteran of the distribution business. He's not one to stray from slow and steady growth, into the realm of limited edition, highly-allocated, gotta-have-it types of products—at least not under his ArteNOM label. Jake has worked his ass off building this brand over the past five years and he's done such a great job that—despite our efforts to do otherwise—almost all of the tequila we sell in Redwood City has an ArteNOM label on it. The stuff is just that good. Unlike other producers, however, who bottle the same juice at various ages, Jake took a page from the independent whisky scene and decided to sell different spirits from a variety of distilleries; offering customers a bold variance of flavors under one umbrella. After a few years of healthy growth and sustained quality, however, Jake was finally ready to expand the trio into a quartet. Behold: a new expression of ArteNOM! This is a big deal.

ArteNOM Seleccion 1549 Blanco Organico Tequila $44.99 - Finally! After years of moving between three different ArteNOM expressions, Jake Lustig is back to bring us a new tequila from an exciting distillery. Labeled as "blanco organico", the ArteNOM 1549 comes from Destiladora Refugio located in El Arenal (known as the entrance way to the blue agave region of Jalisco), just west of Guadalajara. One of the few distilleries using certified organic agave, Refugio's blanco spirit is one of the cleanest in the business. The nose is an explosive bouquet of pepper, citrus, salt, and sweet agave, with each flavor making itself completely known in equal amounts. The palate is medium-bodied and clean on the entry, before bursting with more pepper and citrus and ultimately finishing with flavors of roasted agave, tangy fruits, and baking spices.

When your favorite brand decides to add something new to its portfolio, it can be an angst-ridden experience for super brand fanboys like myself. What if the new stuff isn't as good as the old stuff? What if I don't like it as much as the other products? What if it's a total letdown? Will that lessen my exalted view of the brand itself? WILL THINGS EVER BE THE SAME AGAIN? AHHHHHHHH!!!!!

Luckily for us, Jake knocked this one out of the park. It's time to rejoice. We just went from three amazing ArteNOM tequilas to four, and—in typical, old school brand fashion—there's plenty of it for everyone. Now let's drink some fucking tequila!!!

-David Driscoll


...and For Dessert

If you're in need of something sweet and delicious with your holiday dessert course, look no further than the above two products. We've got another allocation of Reserve de Lillet in stock, as well as a new cinnamon liqueur from SF. I've actually tried to both blog and send an email about the Cannella cordial twice previously, but both times the product sold through before I was able to get a notice out. Mr. Cinnamon apparently has a huge following for this stuff.

Reserve Jean de Lillet $39.99 - The Reserve Jean de Lillet is made from single-vintage Sauternes (a blend of 80% Semillon, 15% Sauvignon Blanc, and 5% Muscadelle), mixed with orange liqueur flavored with Spanish sweet orange peels and bitter oranges from Haiti, plus 'a secret blend of fruit liqueurs produced in Lillet's distillery' and quinine. The blend is aged for 12 months in French oak barrels that are 225 liters.

Cannella Cinnamon Cordial 375ml $24.99 - Local Bay Area resident, Joe Cannella, has always been known as Mr. Cinnamon (cannella being the Italian word for the baking spice), but now he's taking his heritage literally. Using aged brandy from California's Central Valley, Joe has created an intensely-flavored cinnamon liqueur, adding in two types of the eponymous spice and a bit of cane sugar to balance out the alcohol. The result is an inspiring new cinnamon liqueur that greatly expands the horizons of whisky cocktails, hot toddies, coffee drinks, and just about anything you can add cinnamon to. An absolute holiday must-have.

-David Driscoll


Holiday Picks

Thanksgiving and Christmas are right around the corner (T-Day is a week from today!), so I've got a number of people asking me for holiday suggestions. Our friends at Anchor are making it very easy for me right now because we've: 1) finally got enough Old Potrero rye to warrant an actual blog post, and 2) got more of last year's White Christmas whiskey ready to rock.

The only caveat is that, due to another brand's ownership of the term "White Christmas", we've had to change the listing to "Christmas Spirit" (even though all the bottles still say White Christmas).

The Old Potrero rye is an homage to a style of rye whiskey reminiscent of what the original American settlers once made and drank, making it the perfect bottle to celebrate your Thanksgiving dinner. It's a 100% rye mash that really brings the peppery, herbaceous side of the grain into focus. The White Chr.....I mean Christmas a small batch of Anchor's classic Holiday Ale run through their alembic pot still and bottled at 45%. It's like drinking the soul of a beer; fresh and spicy with lots of baking spices and Xmas flavor.

These are my two picks. Easy choices!

Old Potrero Single Malt Straight Rye Whiskey 750ml (one bottle limit) $69.99

Anchor Christmas Spirit White Whiskey $29.99

-David Driscoll


Back to Basics: Bourbons

One of the great things to happen to whiskey over the past decade was that a decidedly more-serious group of drinkers came forward and told the public, "We should all be sipping this stuff, rather than just shooting it."

"Bourbon? You mean like Maker's Mark?" people asked.

"American whiskey may be inexpensive," the experts said, "but that certainly doesn't mean it's cheap. Let's treat it with the respect it deserves." The nation responded. All of a sudden, American whiskey found itself back on top of the market, getting the respect it deserved, and developing a hardcore following of collectors, enthusiasts, and general Kentucky fan boys. Production increased, new marks were released, and a better understanding of the process helped lead consumers towards better products. It was awesome.

Then, one of the worst things to happen to whiskey over the past ten years happened: people started taking their consumption waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too seriously.

"What's good right now?" some customers asked.

"How about Buffalo Trace?" retailers said.

"You mean Buffalo Trace Antique Collection? Sure! I'll take five of each!"

"No, I mean just the standard Buffalo Trace for twenty bucks."

"Fuck that shit, man! Who do you think I am, Joe Schmoe? I need something good, not that $20 bullshit. I'm gonna sip this, not shoot it."

Sipping, not shooting, one's Bourbon had taken on an entirely new context. There are other ways, however, besides sipping expensive Bourbon out of a Riedel-designed glass, to enjoy your whiskey experience. Pouring a large measure of Bourbon over ice is not disrespecting whiskey. Taking a shot of Four Roses Yellow with a cold can of beer is not failing to appreciate your Bourbon. Buying a $20 bottle of American hooch doesn't mean you're a cheapskate who can't (or won't) spend more. Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, and just about any other whiskey cocktail can be made to perfection with a number of inexpensive brands that have continued to show their attention to quality in this new renaissance. Anyone trying to grasp just what exactly makes all the limited edition Bourbons so special should definitely start here first.

I just reopened a number of basic distillery flagship expressions to refresh my memory concerning what's available in the sub-$30 price range. These were the five whiskies that stood out to me; not necessarily because they were "the best", but because they are decidedly different from the rest of their peers:

Maker's Mark Bourbon $22.99 - You can get Maker's Mark at just about any bar around the world and any store that sells alcohol. That's a good thing if you travel frequently. That means no matter where you go you can drink something affordable and tasty. Using a mashbill of 70% corn, 16% winter wheat, and 14% barley, Marker's Mark was at one point the standard of excellence for many Bourbon drinkers. If you've ever hit the road with an old school industry veteran (like I have many a time), you'll usually find them in the hotel bar at 5 PM with a glass of Maker's Mark on the rocks (even in Mexico, my 82 year old pal Lou Palatella wouldn't stray from his daily afternoon habit). Today, you'll hear modern drinkers poo-poo its softness, its general lack of explosiveness, and its mild-mannered flavor. Thirty years ago, however, that was exactly what made it so beloved. Even now, it still stands out from the pack. Maker's Mark doesn't taste like any of its competitors. It's decidedly different than the other four whiskies in the photo above. At 45%, it's very soft with an easy-going profile that plainly says: just drink me. It shows hints of butterscotch and a dainty woody finish, but never the big bold oak spice and spicy rye character that modern drinkers love to indulge in. It's a throwback whiskey for an older way of booze appreciation, but it's definitely something you need to try before moving on to the big guns.

Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon $20.99 - The Kickin' Chicken, as WT101 is lovingly referred to, is the polar opposite of Maker's Mark in terms of flavor. Rather than a soft, mellow, easy-going Bourbon, the standard Wild Turkey is a spicy, explosive whiskey that starts with a bit of creamy corn before thinning out into a rye-dominated, herbaceous, and peppery profile that finishes dryly and with vigor. For those looking to avoid the sweetness and the intense woodiness associated with Bourbon, this is the bottle for you. Personally, I prefer the WT101 for Manhattans because the lack of sweetness and extra proof provide a great counterbalance to the sweet vermouth.

Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon $22.99 - As a straight sipper, I'm not sure that any of the five Bourbons mentioned in this article are going to win any awards, but the Evan Williams offers all-around quality for a variety of different needs. The creamier body, the baking spices, and the fruitiness of the whiskey offer a little something for everyone. The Evan Williams single barrel is the product of one particular cask, as well as one particular vintage (in this case 2004), so the results can vary. But Heaven Hill distillery's best bang-for-your-buck is always this guy, in my opinion. Some might prefer the Elijah Craig 12, or Old Fitzgerald (both also great choices), but this is the winner for me.

Four Roses Yellow Label Kentucky Bourbon $19.99 - The first bottle of Bourbon I ever purchased was Four Roses Yellow, so it will always hold a sentimental place in my heart (in fact, if you click on the link you can read the novice review I wrote about it in 2008 before I was the buyer here). I personally like corny, grainy whiskies that taste like the product from which they were distilled. Four Roses Yellow is a marriage of all ten whiskies made at the distillery (with the two mashbills and five strands of yeast). It's the lowest in proof and lightest in flavor of the five Bourbons mentioned here, and it's the easiest to handle. There's a mellow corniness on the entry and a flurry of rich vanilla on the finish. If you've never been a fan of Bourbon, or found it too intense, this it the best expression to cut your teeth on. You can sip it, shoot it, mix it, dump it over ice, and it's going to taste great.

Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon $21.99 - When I think of classic Bourbon flavor—the unmistakable note of sweet corn and charred oak that reminds me of sneaking shots out of my parents' liquor cabinet—I think the standard Buffalo Trace is the best expression of that particular flavor. It is an absolutely great whiskey for an outstanding price. Like the Evan Williams, it's the most complete Bourbon experience I think you can get for the money. There's a softness on the entry that's easy to like, a flutter of cinnamon and clove on the mid-palate, and a healthy dash of rye spice on the finish to balance the equation. If you're looking to chase down George T. Stagg, or some of the other beloved rarities of the Sazerac portfolio, but have never started at the bottom, I think it's time you did yourself the service. Regular old Buffalo Trace is still the gold standard of $20 bottles, in my opinion. It's indispensable to any serious bar.

Five different Bourbons. Five different flavors. One consistently average price. One consitently high level of quality for your $20.

-David Driscoll


Kavalan Fino Arrives

Finally available here in the U.S. is the outstanding jewel of the Kavalan collection: the Fino Sherry Cask expression bottled at 57%. If you remember from my visit to the distillery earlier this month, Kavalan utilizes sherry butts from the most restrained and elegant style of Jerez wine and puts them on the top floor of their warehouse, where the heat is at its most intense. Known as the "the church", partly because the vaulted ceiling resembles a cathedral and partly because miracles seem to happen within the sherry butts resting in this room, the temperature reached inside this chamber helps to excrete more nutty, almond flavor out of the fino barrel and into the Kavalan single malt resting inside of it.

A number of Scottish distilleries have used fino sherry butts in the past, but few were able to capture the essence of the sherry so intensely in their whiskies due to the colder aging conditions in Scotland. Taiwan, on the other hand, with its tropical climate has proved to be holy ground for this type of cask maturation. The Kavalan Fino is indeed heavenly. Rich and malty, with a turn towards salted caramel, toasted almond skins, toffee, and creme brulee, this is a side of sherry-aged whisky that we rarely ever see. Hedonistic and other-worldly, indeed.

It's expensive, but man is it good.

Kavalan Fino Cask Taiwanese Cask Single Barrel Strength Single Malt Whisky $359.99

While I'm not normally in the market for $350+ bottles of single malt, I will forever hold a special place in my heart for the Kavalan Fino. At the final dinner in Taipei, we spent hours toasting one another with little thimble-sized glasses. Mr. Lee would yell "FINO!" and make us all pour the good stuff when he wanted to say something serious and sentimental. Regular speeches, jokes, and general banter were all met with a small shot of Kavalan Classic.

If you were going to preface your toast with "FINO!"at that meal, then you needed to make sure you were going to say something of value. You'd better not waste a "FINO!" toast on some stupid observation you had, or some dumb attempt to make everyone laugh. I thought that was awesome. It helped to reinforce the respect that Ian and Mr. Lee have for this liquid, which in turn increased my respect for both them and their whisky. In essence: the Kavalan Fino is only something you drink during life's important moments.

I really like that way of thinking (and drinking). I enjoy the reverence.

-David Driscoll