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Tuesday
May132014

Finding Your Niche

Five years ago the idea of craft distillation was a new and exciting possibility; we hoped maybe a gang of small producers could make something better in quality than what was currently dominating the marketplace. Today, after half a decade of white whiskey, designer moonshine, and quarter cask oak juice, there's a rather sardonic outlook that dominates the scene. Unlike the craft beer movement, which brought big flavor and clever innovation to a stale category, very few craft whiskies (if any) have managed to convince die-hard consumers to switch over from the big brand alternatives. The pricing has been too high, the availability too scarce, and the quality too inconsistent to maintain momentum. However, the main reason craft whiskey has failed to make a bigger impact, in my opinion, is because they are seeking to replace a mainstay flavor that doesn't need replacing. Pliny the Elder didn't become an overnight sensation by creating a Budweiser substitute. By the same logic, no American craft whiskey is going to make headway by looking to unseat Jack Daniels.

What craft distilleries need to do is find a niche and do that one thing better than anyone else. One genre of whiskey that is absolutely ripe for exploration is distilled beer. Why not follow in the footsteps of the craft beer movement by distilling that movement into a bottle? There have been many attempts to bring attention to this idea already. Charbay has obviously pioneered this concept with a number of exciting distilled beer whiskies. Anchor recently distilled their Christmas Ale into a bierschnapps called "White Christmas." However, most of these expressions have suffered from practicality -- they were interesting, but no one knew when or how to drink them. Yet, if someone could successfully capture the flavor of really good beer, age that spirit in wood so that the texture was softened, but the freshness of the beer never muted, they could be on to something big.

More importantly, if someone could make a drinkable whiskey that tasted like beer, while catering towards beer lovers, rather than whiskey geeks, I'd be really excited. I've been waiting to taste such a whiskey for more than three years now. Last week, I finally did.

Clint Potter, the distiller for Seven Stills in San Francisco, brought me his delicious Whipnose Whiskey and the Redwood City store fell in love. A collaboration with Pacific Brew Lab, this whiskey has all the hoppy, citrusy flavor of a real IPA, but with the richness and weight of a well-aged Bourbon. It's perfectly integrated -- there's never any intrusive wood flavor or sawdust overpowering the inherent aromas. It's wonderful stuff.

Not only is the whiskey good, but the packaging is clever and reminiscent of what we're seeing with the current beer culture. The Whipnose looks the part, and plays the part extremely well.  We've got a bit available right now in 375ml half-bottles, but this was a limited release. Clint and his gang plan on distilling more beer into whiskey very soon. I can't wait to taste what's ahead.

Seven Stills Whipnose Whiskey 375ml $35.99 - Whipnose is the first in Seven Stills’ Collaboration Series; a project that partnered them with Pacific Brewing Laboratory, located in San Francisco.  They began by distilling each of Pac Brew Lab’s beers individually to see if they could make a unique whiskey. As soon as they tasted the results from the double IPA, they knew they were on to something. 60 barrels of Whipnose IPA were then brewed, distilled into 165 gallons of whiskey, and aged in new American Oak Barrels. The name Whipnose aptly describes the whip of hop aroma this whiskey opens up with.The taste is rich malt, dark, dried fruits, light vanilla, toasted oak, and with a smooth, lingering maple syrup note on the finish.This project was a one-off and yielded less than 2000 bottles.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
May132014

K&L Whisky Dinner w/David Stirk - May 20th

Have you ever wanted to meet one of rogue independent bottlers in the Scottish single malt industry? Have you ever wanted to ask questions about how these guys find new barrels, and what they have to do to get them? If so, you should buy a ticket and join us a week from now at Donato in Redwood City when we host David Stirk from the Creative Whisky Company. This should be quite an eventful dinner.

Stirk is a character and this is the first time we've hosted him up North. He's the total opposite of the song and dance, kilt-wearing guy teaching you how to taste and how to nose the glass. He's a no-BS kind of dude, which should make this evening a very interesting one. $50 gets you lots of food and lots of booze.

Don't miss it.

K&L Whisky Dinner w/The Exclusive Malts @ Donato, Tuesday May 20th, 7 PM $50.00 - Come and meet one of the most important partners to the K&L single barrel program: Mr. David Stirk -- the owner of the Creative Whisky Company and the man behind the Exclusive Malt whiskies. We've been working with David and his Glasgow-based label for more than three years now, and his warehouse is always one of the most important stops of our trip. We'll be featuring our new 25 year old Littlemill cask as well as some new selections to arrive at JVS -- the American importer for Mr. Stirk. Rather than talk production, like we feature at most dinners, this is a chance to learn more about the independent barrel trade and what it takes to stay alive in this fierce market. David will be chatting about sourcing new casks, maturation techniques, and a number of other interesting stories concerning the trade. He's a straight-shooter, as well, which should make this one very interesting evening. The tasting will be accompanied, per the usual, by the fantastic cuisine of Donato in Redwood City. NOTE: There are no paper tickets for this event. By purchasing a ticket your name will be placed on a guest list.

-David Driscoll

Monday
May122014

Living

I spent Mother's Day with my wife's family; playing with my young nephews, or at least trying to while they fought off the distraction and delved directly back into their iPad adventures. These days there is little bike-riding in the street or intermingling with the other kids on the block. "Why don't you guys go outside?" I asked them.

"Are you crazy?" my sister-in-law said to me. "They can't go outside by themselves."

Maybe I am crazy. By the time I was in second grade I was riding my bike around Modesto on my own; often making a beeline for my cousin's house about a half-mile away. We would meet up with other kids in the neighborhood and do whatever came to mind; maybe that would involve riding a bit further to the park for a baseball game, or perhaps down to the grocery store to buy candy. There were few rules back then, other than: avoid the busy avenues and be home by sundown. I've read that times are different now, and that the streets are more dangerous for unsupervised children. But I don't know if anything has actually changed, other than our mindset about reality. Today, most activities for kids are insanely mapped out; down to the smallest detail. There's little room for improvisation.

In 2004, after getting bogged down in a post-graduate malaise, I decided to sell my car, most of my worldly possessions, buy a sturdy backpack, and head over to Europe; where I would stay for more than a year. For seven straight years I had gone to college, done what I was supposed to do, entered the job force, followed the rules, and abided by the general guidelines for young twenty-something living. Something was missing, however. I had somehow lost a step or forgotten a part of myself along the way. Now I'm not about to go all Eat, Pray, Love on you here, detailing a melodramatic chronicle about my spiritual discoveries and cultural educations, most of which are nothing new or revolutionary for anyone who grew up outside of American suburbia. What did happen in Eastern Europe that summer, however, was a renaissance of by-the-seat-of-my-pants living. Everyday was up for interpretation, and nothing was scheduled in advance.

Should I stay in Budapest another day, or should I head further east towards Romania? What's that? You're headed back towards Poland? Maybe I'll go with you.

All I had to advise me during that glorious period was an old copy of Let's Go! Eastern Europe and the suggestions of those I met in the various hostels. Decisions were spontaneous, exciting, and unpredictable. One day I was sitting in the breakfast nook of a Czech family residence eating potato dumplings, the next evening I'm in a small home outside of Krakow, drinking Polish beer and watching the local soccer club take on Manchester United in the opening round of the Euro Cup. "Hey, you might want to check out Olomouc," someone might mention, "it's a pretty cool little town with a great guesthouse." Sign me up. I'll buy my ticket at the station tomorrow morning.

Now obviously life can't always be a carefree wanderlust of foundationless living (or can it be?), but there's definitely something to be gained by letting it come to you and learning to love the unknown. I try to remember these experiences when I get overwhelmed by the internet. I watch people obsessively calculate every route on Google Maps, or research every meal on Yelp before committing to a reservation. Yet, the best trips I've ever taken involved getting lost at some point, and the best meals I've ever eaten were the result of little expectation. All of this information is supposed to make life better, but I often find that, for me personally, the more that my life becomes scripted and thought out, the less I enjoy it. The same goes for my drinking.

However, it's possible that my enjoyment of extemporaneous activities stems entirely from my childhood -- a formative era that instilled in me a desire for ad-libbed adventure. It may turn out that this current generation of American kids will enjoy the memories of a safe and insulated upbringing. In the end, most of us are enticed by the memories of childhood and a simpler time, when little responsibility liberated us from the constraints of adulthood. Each era has its own version of what that means.

For me, that means living.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
May112014

Whoa! Really?

Some of you might remember that I used to do a podcast back in the day. It was fun. I would basically just call people up and we'd chat for about an hour. I didn't really know what I was doing, and the audio would get all screwed up sometimes, but I'd upload them anyway just for fun. After not having thought about the podcast for almost a year, I decided to login to the host website and see what the statistics were (after all, we still have to pay a monthly fee to keep the old episodes online).

Holy Christ!

50,000 downloads.

That's a higher quantity of listeners than I ever expected. If I knew that many people were going to listen in I might have tried to raise the quality a little bit (of course, I might have been too intimidated to even try had I known what was going to happen).

So, if it's so popular, why don't I do the podcast anymore? I get that question a lot to this day. There are a number of reasons.

1) I don't know who else to interview. I mean, sure, I could do every master distiller from every distillery, but they'd all just say the same things over and over again.

2) I think you can get a good sense of the spirits world from the episodes that are there already. We've pretty much covered the basics, right?

3) Spirits companies are not going to answer the intimate questions you want answered. You want journalism and hard facts? You're gonna have to wait until Erin Brockovich starts a spirits podcast. Ain't no one tellin' me nothing; especially now that they know we're getting 50,000 downloads.

4) I realized a few years back that most of the people who read our newsletters and blog posts do so at work. They can get away with pulling up a separate window and act like they're reading their email, but they can't get away with putting headphones on. I started transcribing the interviews when I found that out.

So while I'm flattered that so many people have tuned in to the podcast episodes, I don't think it's likely that we'll start them up again any time soon. But you never know. I do get nostalgic quite easily.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
May102014

Shift 4

A friend of mine told me something quite funny the other day when I was telling him about all the emails I usually answer during the week. He said, "You should just start replying with $$$ as your answer. Just hit 'shift 4' and push 'send'." That cracked me up because it's basically true; depending on the way the questioned is phrased, of course.

For example, if someone asked, "Hey David, why did _______ discontinue the _______ label?" I could answer that with "$$$".

If someone said, "David, I'm noticing more young whiskey in the marketplace these days. Why do you think that's happening?"

$$$

"David, I don't think the _______ whiskey is as good as it used to be. Why do you think the quality may have changed?"

$$$

You get the picture.

You'll hear a lot of industry veterans say that the booze business is cyclical. They've seen ups and downs, gluts and shortages, and the same stale trends come back around a generation later. They usually site public interest as the main reason -- drinking is a fad, they say. But it isn't pop culture that's driving these cycles, in my opinion. It's greed.

-David Driscoll