We're Not Out of the Woods Yet

The great American whiskey shortage is no longer a secret. We're no longer spending hours of our day explaining to customers why they can't get Black Maple Hill anymore, or why getting things like Weller 107 or Sazerac rye are still difficult despite the increases in production. After years and years of blog posts, emails, and phone conversations, our entire customer base is pretty much up to speed on the situation. Plus, we're starting to see a few glimpses of blue in those dreary Kentucky skies, with larger drops of previously unavailable whiskies happening more frequently.

That being said, other scenarios are getting worse rather than improving. The situation with the ports on the West Coast is playing the most significant role in the current shortage of brands like Glenlivet, Aberlour, and other basic expressions you don't expect to be absent from the liquor store shelf (we've been out of both of those whiskies for almost a month). However, the situation with Japanese whisky supplies has nothing to do with dock strikes and everything to do with demand. Many consumers have already felt the pinch with Yamazaki 12 and 18 stocks, or experienced the recent difficulty in tracking down a bottle of Hibiki. The word finally came in from Suntory this week regarding the future of allocations and distribution: one case per store, per month. That means we can only get six bottles of Hibiki 12 per month total. It's a bit like the three bottles of Weller 12 we're allowed to buy per week: not even enough to last fifteen seconds on the website. It comes in and goes right back out in the blink of an eye. Basically, if you want to buy these bottles from us, you have to troll our website 24/7 to see when they land and hope that you're the fastest clicker. It's not going to be much fun.

Nikka supplies, in contrast, have been strong and unchanging, but I did hear a few rumblings this week from my friends in Japan. The 12 year old Pure Malt will be losing its age statement due to supply issues (that's been a long time coming), but it turns out that the popularity of the Japanese show Massan & Ellie, which tells the story of Masataka Taketsuru's journey to Scotland in 1918, is having a drastic effect on the consumption of Nikka whisky at home. Basically, it's exciting the local populace into drinking so much Nikka whisky that the company is now burning through supplies at an alarming rate. But, of course, we American whiskey drinkers have been down this road already. We know what's going to happen. It's just that now it's going to happen in Japan. Basically, if you're as big a fan of the Nikka whiskies as I am, now might be a good time to put an extra bottle or two aside.

Scotland looks good for the moment. As you probably saw from our most recent arrival of K&L casks, the prices are looking more reasonable and the availability is better than it's been in years. David and I will be heading back across the Atlantic in a few weeks to do some more digging and keep the supply flowing. In the meantime, don't expect the Pacific supply chain to unloosen any time soon. They're tightening their belts, getting ready for their own shortage over on that side of the world.

-David Driscoll


The No-Compete Clause Has Expired

That's right. Four years after selling Hangar One vodka to Proximo, our boys at St. George distillery are finally back in the vodka business. While the local heroes, Lance and Dave, over in Alameda were not allowed to sell a vodka of their own for 1,460 days, that didn't mean they weren't going start working on a few forumulae. Time has now passed, and the contract has since expired, which means it's time to get your vodka drink on. Let me now introduce you to the new St. George vodkas.

St. George All Purpose Vodka $24.99 Made from 100% American grain and fruit, the "all purpose" vodka is soft, lithe, and clean; finishing with a rounded mouthfeel that is both simultaneously refreshing and gentle. The supple weight comes from Bartlett pears, which are distilled to 95% to create the expression.  

St. George California Citrus Vodka $24.99 - Infused with California Bergamot, Valencia, and Seville oranges, the bright citrus flavor comes from 100% Lindcove produce. All the oranges were both infused and distilled in separate batches before being blended together to create the final magic. Add pizzazz to a Cosmo, or accent a vodka-cran, but amari like China China or Nonino also play well with this lovely, elegant expression.  

St. George Green Chile Vodka $24.99 Made from California jalapenos, habaneros, serranos, and both yellow and red bell peppers, each pepper is actually infused and distilled separately before being blended together. The still is also packed with cilantro and a bit of lime peel to add extra brightness and flavor. Try this in a Bloody Mary, add it with tequila in a Margarita or Paloma, and even a Pina Colada. It's incredible!!!  All hail the new kings of American vodka.

After four years of exile, the boys from the East Bay are back to claim the vodka crown and the throne. All hail the return of the king. St. George vodkas are back at K&L where they belong.

-David Driscoll


The Eagle Has Landed (Take a Deep Breath)

Are you ready for all this? Are you sure? Because the handful of whisky customers who have come into the store in the last few days have had mild panic attacks. "There's so much new stuff!" they said in shock. "How do I decide what to get?!!"

Well, let us help you with some tasting notes and background information. That will at least help you narrow it down to just a few selections. It's totally overwhelming (for us, too), but I went around the store this morning and took a few hazy photos that will help you visualize these new Scottish single cask expressions. Our gigantic container of new hooch from the 2014 buy trip has landed and it's about to get real.

First off, let's tackle the new Hepburn's Choice selections, a label from Hunter Laing that we'll be exclusively curating in the U.S.

Caol Ila 5 Year Old Hepburn's Choice K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $49.99 - Don't let the young age fool you: this five year old, single barrel, cask strength version of the legendary Islay distillery is bringing more than its share of bang for the buck. Getting a single barrel, full strength version of any single malt whisky is tough for $50, but a full-throttle Caol Ila? Forget about it. The youthful vigor of a young mezcal meets the fat-fruited, supple texture of the malt master; that's the best way to describe this whisky. Lots of smoke and immature phenolic action quickly turns rich and round and finishes with a mouthful of stone fruit and citrus. Absolutely one of the most exciting whiskies we have on the shelf at any price and a true stunner for those who appreciate gusto. A whopping 61.1% brings the intensity! 61.1%

Bowmore 12 Year Old Hepburn's Choice K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $79.99 - As many of you might have realized, we're obsessed with young Bowmore. It's not only because we've had some of our most poignant and even spiritual moments in Scotland at this special distillery, but in fact because they keep cranking out the most incredible product. Bowmore is different from many of the other distilleries on Islay for a number of reasons. Firstly, they do not purchase barley from Port Ellen Maltings--where all on the island save Bruichladdich acquire their main input. In fact, Bowmore is hand malting as much as 25% of their own barley using time honored techniques that most distilleries have given up due to the incredible efficiencies gained through industrial malting. Anyway, the point is that all these things come together to create one of the highest quality and most exciting malts in Scotland. The new 12 year from Hepburn is Bowmore for all. From a second fill hogshead, we really see the underlying beauty of the spirit here. The nose shows only subtle ashy smoky, revolving around gorgeous and exotic ripe fruit. Mango skin, apricot pit, creamy fondant and the swelling ocean behind it all. That perceived sweetness on the nose, becomes a reality on the palate. Sweet candied citrus envelope the palate and only hint and the peaty finish. This is ABSOLUTELY the perfect whisky to give someone who says they don't like peat. It's got all the great things about smoky whisky with none of the hard ones. No question this will get sucked down quick.

Smoky & Peaty Tobermory (Ledaig) 8 Year Old Hepburn's Choice K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $59.99 - Nearly half of Tobermory's production is dedicated to peated malt whisky. This is known typically as Ledaig, but for some reason that word never actually makes it onto our independently bottled offerings of this special whisky. Labeled hear as "Smoky & Peaty," for those of you who've been following us for a while you'll know that we love these young Ledaigs. This is the third young smokey Tobermory we've offered and shockingly the price is the same as last year’s even though this is a year old (and arguably a better whisky). The rugged peaty malt that comes out of this distillery is unlike anything from Islay. The smoke is more earthy than oceany (for some reason it's really reminding me of Port Charlotte today). Herbaceous and intense, the dark earthy peat is balanced by a wonderful sweet malt. This is way more in balance than even our last Ledaig and feels more put together than the even the distillery bottling. Amazing what only 8 years in a refill hogshead can do when the spirit is on point. 60.7%

Mortlach 7 Year Old Hepburn's Choice K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $49.99 - We absolutely the loved our sample of Young Mortlach when we tasted in Scotland last year. But getting back to the states with only the memory of this lovely young whisky meant that when we actually ordered this whisky, we simply weren't certain what to expect. On paper it looks great, inexpensive, unadulterated young malt from one of Scotland's greatest distilleries at a great price. But, every time you put a young age statement on a whisky you're bound to have some push back. To our great delight, we now that our educated customer based will appreciate that Single Malt need not be old to be great. This little Mortlach is proof. So much complexity at such a young age, this whisky shows tons of pear and that subtle savory side. Without any sherry, the spirit is free to speak and it does so loudly! This guy definitely needs some air, but only a drop of water to open up nicely. Refreshing and clean, yet masculine and powerful. All that beefiness and sweet candied fruit all in one taught little package. Some of you will fall head over heels for this guy, guaranteed. 58%

Craigellachie 18 Year Old Hepburn's Choice K&L Exclusive Single Sherry Butt Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - It wouldn't be a whisky season without some big rich sherried malt to round out the selection. Craigellachie is becoming a serious force now that the owners have finally decided it should be marketed as a single malt. This exceptional distillery was almost exclusively reserved for the blends until very recently, but the heightened profile means that procuring more in the future might become more difficult. That's why we knew we had to jump on this spectacular sherried 'llachie. This has everything you want in a sherried malt and nothing that you don't. It starts with a slight flintiness (don't worry it's not sulfur, just a spark on the front), this quickly blows off to reveal a magnificent bouquet of dried cherries, fudgy cacao nibs, roasted coffee beans, and freshly polished sandalwood. The dark aromas translate well to the palate, but never go bitter and the malty spirit adds lift and sweetness. Here is a truly balanced sherried malt like none other on the shelf right now. Sure we all sometimes love a big hammer of sherry right in your sensory organs, but sometimes you want the sweet velvety caress of that special wine from Jerez. Balanced, yet not lacking depth or power in anyway. 54.3%

Miltonduff 19 Year Old Hepburn's Choice K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - Miltonduff is an old Hiram Walker distillery that was purchased by Pernod Ricard in 2005. It's known mostly for its role in the Chivas Blended whiskies, but we've had tremendous success with the single malt version through our independent cask business. The Highland flavor is pure, simple, and to the point, often matching other more-renowned distilleries in terms of quality, but for a fraction of the price. This lovely 19 year old cask is classic malt for classic malt drinkers: sweet barley, soft vanilla, a burst of oak spice on the back end, and lovely balance of those three flavors on the finish. At 50%, the flavors are highlighted and more pronounced, offering a bit more panache than what one normally finds in the 43% market. In hoping to find mature whiskies of 17-21 years of age for $100 or less, we've been turning to some of the lesser-known names of Scotland. In turn, however, we've been establishing those same unknowns in the minds of our customers. It won't be long before most of our clients begin recognizing the Miltonduff name and associating it with one thing: insider value. 50.4%

Now that the Laing brothers have split into two companies, we'll also be bringing in another new label called Old Particular, but we'll still use Sovereign for the grain whisky expressions. Check out these bad boys.

Laphroaig 16 Year Old K&L Exclusive Old Particular (Douglas Laing) Single Barrel Single Malt Whisky $139.99 - Laphroaig is one of those special things that you either love or hate. You may be aware already, but we LOVE Laphroaig. This particular cask of Laphroaig came as a wonderful contrast to our other spectacular teenage Laphroaig from Signatory. That whisky, in a refill hogs head, was Laphroaig in name and spirit, but world's away from the distillery bottlings. This one coming at the Old Particular bottlings strength of 97 proof falls much more in line with the expectations from the distillery. Heady aromas of peat, salt, and subtle smoked fish (the perfect least fishy smoked herring perhaps). Flecks of citrus peel come around every once in a while, but this is real powerful oceany Laphroaig. On the palate, a sweet tangy peat envelopes the taste buds, very open at the slightly lower proof, but never loosing intensity. The sweet rich barley comes out at the end with a sooty burning ashy that builds as you make your way through the dram. When they say Laphroaig is the world's most flavorful malt, they are just not kidding at all. 48.4%

Tamdhu 16 Year Old K&L Exclusive Old Particular (Douglas Laing) Single Barrel Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - Tamdhu is this great little distillery that no one seems to have tasted. That's probably because prior to its sale in 2011 to Ian Macleod (proud owners of Glengoyne and the Chieftain's IB), the distillery had been moth-balled and was about set to be demolished. What was once a solid work horse of a whisky, would have been lost to obscurity were it not for the thoughtful people at Ian Macleod. Now we have the wonderful people at Douglas Laing to thank for pulling this exceptional cask from their stocks. Bottled again just under 97 proof, this is about as classic a speyside nose as one could wish for. Sweet herbal honey, fresh malty grain, pungent yellow flowers, and earthy blooming heather that's just the nose! The palate is perfectly balanced, bringing a tangy citrus side (something exotic, satsuma perhaps), and then the fresh herbs -anise, dill, bay. It all finishes with a minty dark chocolate note that just brings it all together. I have a feeling that this will be a sleeper thanks to the slightly less ordinary origins, but once people get a hold this Tamdhu, there's no way they'll be able to put it down. 48.4%

Tobermory 18 Year Old K&L Exclusive Old Particular (Douglas Laing) Single Barrel Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - Tobermory is kind of hot right now. While this distillery is often listed as a highlander, it is actually from the majestic and mystical Isle of Mull. There the picturesque hamlet of Tobermory, contains one of the Scotland's most underappreciated malt producers. Their current flagship 15 year old is now on the market for a staggering $150 a bottle and while it's a fine malt, we've always found it to be slightly over priced. Now this wonderful 18 year old expression from a refill sherry butt, makes a mature version of this fun distillery available to all. Tobermory has a unique character and this expression is no different. The nose is creamy oak and rich vanilla - the sherry notes are very faint - it's a contemplative malt for sure. When it hits the palate a wonderful herbal rush powers out the sweet oak aromas, this is followed by a strong pepper and then the tiny hint of nutty sherry. On the end a briny note builds, giving depth, but also keeping it lively. The aromas in the glass after that last sip are almost as impressive as the whisky itself. A fun, if not quite different malt, that should definitely be a benchmark for the unusual and interesting distillery. 48.4%

Check out the prices for these grains! Thank God no one collects grain whisky because it really keeps the costs down.

Girvan 24 Year Old Sovereign K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Grain Whisky $99.99 - Our grain whiskies from the Sovereign label have been some of the most beloved in our store's history, which is why we're back with another fabulous Girvan; the William Grant Lowland distillery located in the South Ayrshire (where Ladyburn distillery was once located). Remember that grain whiskies are not single malts, but rather column-distilled whiskies usually made from corn (like Bourbon). The Girvan 24 year is full of soft vanilla right off the bat, almost like an older version of the Nikka Coffey expression, but with more pop due to the higher proof. The vanilla turns into caramel on the mid-palate and it finishes with more soft sweetness before the alcohol comes roaring in. With grain prices as low as they are, expect more outstanding values like this in the near future. 50.3%

Port Dundas 36 Year Old Sovereign K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Grain Whisky $149.99 - Closed by Diageo in 2009, Port Dundas was formerly a grain distillery that operated in North Glasgow, providing the base whiskies for White Horse and Johnnie Walker. Grain whisky, made on a Coffey still from corn rather than barley, is rarely sold on its own, but this ancient cask from a silent distillery was too good to pass up. And the price! 36 years of rich, creamy, vanilla-laden whisky at cask strength for $150! Grain whisky is back in a big way, but while the rest of the market catches up we've been grabbing casks at bargain basement prices. This Port Dundas is a viscous beast of caramel that begins with toffee and finishes with butterscotch like a Werther's Original. A hot deal while it lasts. 60.1%

And, of course, we've got to have a few high-end selections. But "high-end" for us means something completely different. Old Macallan? 50 year old whisky for less than $300? Yes, please!

Macallan 21 Year Old K&L Exclusive Old Particular (Douglas Laing) Single Barrel Single Malt Whisky $249.99 - We were downright shocked when Douglas Laing offered us this exceptional 21 year old Macallan as the "Speyside" representation for their new Old Particular brand being released exclusively stateside by K&L. Not only has Macallan basically become unobtainable on the secondary market, when it is available the prices you see are astronomical. So, when they suggested we try an older Mac for this year we were certain it wouldn't fly for those very reasons. Well, for once it feels great to be wrong. This is by no means inexpensive, but Mac from a single barrel over 20 years old this is an absolute steal. Now of course, this is not the ultra sherried Macallan, but more in line with the flavor profile you might get from the "Fine Oak" series. Here we have the Rolls Royce of single malts in it's true form. Malty richness like no other whisky, sweet oak and subtle vanilla. Slightly bruised apple skin and dark cocoa aromas, obfuscate soft floral and sweet honey notes, which come out with a drop of water. The palate is supple and round, more cocoa and a sweet maple wood tone. Great balance between sweet and spice. Warming, inviting and open out of the bottle, yet this whisky swims like a fish. Because this came from a refill bourbon cask, there were only 102 bottles produced and considering the OB 21 year sells for more than $100 more, you can expect this to disappear shortly. Don't say we didn't warn you. 51.5%

North British 50 Year Old Sovereign K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Grain Whisky $249.99 - Just outside of Edinburgh, in a south western district called Gorgie, sits the North British distillery; a joint venture owned by both Diageo and The Edrington Group. There since the 1880s, this site has long produced whisky for the Johnnie Walker, Cutty Sark, and Famous Grouse blends, but rarely is it bottled on its own. When we saw the chance to bottle a 50 year old grain whisky for a fraction of what malt prices run, we didn't hesitate. Distilled in 1964, this ethereal North British expression still has the remarkable sweetness of a youthful spirit, but with the texture, complexity, and deep, rich character of an aged expression. Unlike malt, the older grain whiskies don't necessarily get richer or denser, but rather quite savory with a subtle smoky character. The flavors meander from vanilla and caramel to dry herbs. It's a wild ride from beginning to end, but well worth the price of admission. With more 50 year old single malts well into the four-figure mark these days, $250 is a downright steal. We expect this cask to be the first to go. 44.7%

And that brings us to our pride and joy; the new shining jewel of the Faultline brand we're developing here at K&L. As my colleague Gary Westby said to me last week, "I've got bottles of expensive whisky I can't drink, and you drop this in my lap? This is the last thing I need right now!" We've been working on this for three years. It's finally here.

Faultline Blended Scotch Whisky $24.99 - For three long years, David Othenin-Girard and I have been trying to create an inexpensive, delicious, value-driven, yet simultaneously interesting expression of blended Scotch whisky that we could feature under our Faultline label. There were many times when we thought we were close, but either the quality of the whisky or the cost of the barrels proved prohibitive. We didn't want to make a $25 bottle of whisky just for the sake of it. If we were going to do it, then we were going to it right. Finally, after working on and off with the Laings for a year-long blending process, we hammered out a profile we were happy with. Big smoke, Ardbeg-like peat flavors, and a kiss of sweet grain was our goal and we definitely acheived it in this bottle. Unlike most big brand blends, there are no coloring agents or sweeteners in the Faultline Scotch, just a pale straw colored liquid that bursts with character and, due to the heavy malt content, finishes with richness and weight. We wanted to make sure that, upon launch, there would be absolutely nothing on the market that could match the quality of flavor, price, beauty of design, and bang for the buck. After three long years, we think we've done it. For $25 you get one helluva bottle of Scotch. Smokier than Johnnie Black, more complex than Chivas, and less expensive than both of them. Plus, it's an assertive 100 proof. Try it in a cocktail, pour it over ice, add in soda water. It's the real deal.

This little guy wasn't part of our own container, but it did happen to arrive at the exact same time. This came from Springbank when we dropped by to visit Mark Watt last year.

Clynelish K&L Exclusive 21 Year Old Cadenhead Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $139.99- We found this amazing cask after one of the most legendary power tasting sessions I've ever attended. Having shown up to Mark Watts home office after a long day of tasting at Signatory, we sat down in his living room and ask where the samples were. Mark sort of smirked and pointed to the table across from us. He was staring at the massive pile of bottles that lay strewn around the space. Maybe 200 plus samples from various distilleries. Clearly Cadenhead has a lot of stock. Anyway, we weeded through the offerings and fell in love with this Clynelish and an older Tormor, which turned out to be WAY too expensive. When we got stateside we were sure that the blue chip Clynelish would be over-the-top expensive. We were wrong. We were very wrong. This is classic naked Clynelish at its finest. It's not a big whisky, but it's a long one. It's one of these that tastes like it is from a different era. A total throwback malt. Grab one or not, whatever, I'll drink it if you don't want it.

OK, take a breath. Collect yourself. Take some notes. Have a look at what's available. If you have any questions, you know where to find us. We'll be here trying to get all this stuff organized and on to the shelves. I've got a fresh blade on my box cutter and an empty box to hold all the cardboard pieces and bits for recycling.

-David Driscoll


D2D Interview: Lisa Fancher

The span between the late 1970s and early 1980s was a powerful period for small booze business in California. Microdistillation was just getting underway and boutique wine stores were beginning to offer an alternative to the big box outlets. Change was in the air and many of the seeds for our current renaissance were planted during that era. Today there are still a handful of small California companies established during this period that are very important to my everyday existence in the booze world. St. George distillery, for example, founded in Alameda by Jörg Rupf back in 1982, has become a major partner for our store. Germain-Robin would be another illustration, established by Hubert Germain-Robin and Ansley Coale in 1982 up in Ukiah. My current employer, good old K&L, is only a few years older: created by Todd Zucker and Clyde Beffa in 1976. Yet, it wasn't just the spirits business (nor strictly NorCal) that saw an uprising of energy at that time. In the late 70s, punk rock was also beginning to gain a major foothold in the U.S. and the Los Angeles region was quickly becoming a center of creativity for the genre. In 1980, a little record label called Frontier, established in Sun Valley by Lisa Fancher, put out an album by the Circle Jerks called Group Sex. The rest, my friends, is history.

So how do I know Lisa Fancher and why are we featuring her now in the latest D2D interview? Let me give you a little back story. In 2014, I began writing posts about some of our hotter deals on booze under the term "Dramarama". Given my love of pop music (especially from the early 80s), I started coupling these posts with videos and songs from that period just for fun. That's when I got an email from Julie Masi, the general manager from Frontier Records, telling me how much she enjoyed the Suicidal Tendencies bit; one of the many bands signed to Frontier at that time. It turns out that not only were the gals from Frontier loyal customers of our Hollywood store, but they were also big whisky fans and readers of the K&L spirits blog. Who knew?! From that point on we struck up an acquaintance, which ultimately turned into a business venture between people whose love of music, art, and booze were simply too strong to deny. I can't reveal too much at the moment, but let's just say that in 2015 you're going to see a little collaboration between K&L, Frontier, and one of the other companies listed in the opening paragraph. It's going to be epic and easily the coolest thing we've ever done as a retailer (or maybe that any booze retailer has done).

In the meantime, however, let's get to know a little bit more about the dynamic Lisa Fancher, the woman who helped shape punk rock in California and put out some of the most beloved records from that era. Don't let the sweet smile or the blond hair fool you: this hardcore, punk rock chick can still beat all of us up and she still loves to drink. In this D2D interview we talk about the similarities between whisky and record collectors, the ways in which the music and booze industries diverge, and how drinking champagne at a punk rock show isn't really the move, even at this stage in our lives. Previous editions of the D2D Interview series can be found by clicking here, or the link to our archive on the right hand margin of this page.

David: I’ve always felt like the music and booze businesses are closely linked. There's the obvious connection with bars and live music, but having worked in both wine and record shops I've seen that the aficionado/collector aspects are also very similar. Before you started Frontier Records you were a record collector. How did you get into collecting?

Lisa: I got a lot of records by default from my older sisters, so that wasn’t really collecting. I would just play them and say, “This is good. This is garbage. This is awesome.” My oldest sister Lynn had the first Velvet Underground record with the banana peel cover. When I was thirteen I started going to the swap meet at Capitol Records when it was in the actual parking lot. I’d either take the bus or try to get a ride with someone there. I never had much money, but I always worked in record stores or had some kind of a job counting records somewhere. I would buy whatever I could at the time, but then as I got older and got a car it was easier. That led me into writing, oddly enough, and I convinced Greg Shaw at Bomp! Magazine to let me write for his fanzine and it all kinda continued from there. But it all started with me being crazy for music, not being able to get enough of it, and trying to discover new things. Someone I admired would say who their influences were and I’d try to track one of those records down. 

David: You then entered the business side of the industry, which sometimes takes the fun out of it for hobbyists. A lot of winemakers or distillers were also fans before they worked in the business. You’ve followed a similar path. What were some of the obstacles you were confronted with in that transition?

Lisa: Obviously it’s a huge commitment when you’re using your own money to fund a record, rather than just being a fan and buying a copy of it. Going to see a band or writing a review of a gig is one thing, but when you actually decide to invest your own money then you’re pretty serious. The aforementioned Bomp! Magazine also had a record label, so I knew a bit about where to go to get the various steps done—where to get a cover printed, where to do vinyl manufacturing—but knowing those steps and actually doing it are two different things. Finding out all the pitfalls, how printing works, how album covers are made, you have to understand that this was all pre-computer. Everything was done by hand. For instance, I would take an album cover that consisted of little pieces of paper stuck to a board with wax—no one who’s young can even fathom this—but sometimes by the time I got it to the printer all the wax had melted and the stuff had moved around. Then with recording you had to think: is the band going to show up? Are they going to hate each other? Are they going to break up before the record even comes out? It’s always different and it’s definitely been a blast, but there’s no college course that could ever prepare you for the experience. If you’re not extremely patient, and/or good at dealing with people you’ll never make it. 

David: That sounds exactly like the booze business! Did you think you’d still being doing this thirty five years later?

Lisa: I never thought it would be this long. I never dreamed that people would buy all those records years later.  Of course, I hoped they would! But really it was just something to do. I never could have imagined, however, that people would still be really into The Circle Jerks or The Adolescents and tell me how those records changed their lives. That makes me feel pretty cool!

David: I also worked in record stores during high school and then early on when I first moved to San Francisco. The customers are exactly the same. There are a lot of different identities at work; people who consider themselves a part of something very particular and who pride themselves on that association. For its first few years Frontier Records was primarily a punk rock label. In the mid-80s, however, you started branching out into different genres. Did you meet any resistance from fans who didn’t agree with the direction you were taking?

Lisa: Absolutely. A lot of people never followed anything I did ever again! It wasn’t until years later when I put out the Weirdos compilation or the Dangerhouse compilations that the people who were only interested in the punk stuff came back around. I guess with any indie label you’re expected to keep doing the same thing. But there was just no way. It wasn’t as if there weren’t any more good punk bands to sign, but a lot of them—I won’t name any names—were putting out this jokey stuff, or it was super derivative. So I thought I’d let the kids take it back over. It’s not that I wanted to do more grown-up stuff, but I did want to do something I was still excited about. I’ve never released records to make money, which is pretty obvious (laughs). I never thought I was going to take over the world with my records. And I did not! But I’m still here.

David: I think that’s a consistent theme that ties into both music and alcohol. A lot of the people on the consumer side don’t want things to change. But when you actually work in the business, you’re constantly searching for change—for something new and exciting. 

Lisa: With both wine and record collecting, when you get in on the ground floor—whether it’s with Super Tuscans or Oregon pinots—you think to yourself, “This is amazing!” But then—and it’s not because of me, obviously—these categories just explode and then the prices become prohibitive. That’s why I always keep moving around and look to discover new things; things that haven’t gone over $100 a bottle. Look at Pappy Van Winkle on the black market now for hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

David: That’s exactly where I was going with that! Thanks for making that point for me.

Lisa: It would be nice if things were reliable. The nature of wine with vintages, however, is that you might have a good year or a bad year, so you’ve gotta keep your eyes open and look around for new stuff.

David: Does that excite you? 

Lisa: Absolutely! That’s what it’s all about for me. I can’t stand doing the same thing all the time, or drinking the same thing. There are things I’ll always like, of course. I’m a traditionalist. I don’t like super gnarly IPAs; those San Diego-style palate wreckers. I like balance. If that makes me an old fuddy-duddy then so be it. I don’t want anything over-oaked, I don’t want anything too extreme. Gimmicks suck.

David: You want the classic, well-made version.

Lisa: Right, and that doesn’t mean you’ve gotta spend a thousand dollars. It just means you’ve gotta keep your ears open, listen to people, go to tastings. I sometimes wish wine was like music where there could be a YouTube for tastings. That would be so much easier!

David: What do you like to drink these days?

Lisa: Let’s see….my favorite thing to drink if I’m going to be drinking a whole bunch is Champagne. It doesn’t have to be actual Champagne, but you know something sparkling if I’m going to be power-drinking. If I’m not power-drinking, then lately I’ve been enjoying American whiskey. I really like Breckenridge and some of the newer producers that have popped up. I’m not really a traditionalist when it comes to liquor, which I know is the reverse of everything I just said about wine! It doesn’t make any sense. I really loved your Faultline Bourbon. I’ve almost killed an entire bottle by myself, which is pretty rare.

David: So you’re into Champagne and Bourbon now, but what were you drinking back during the early punk days of 1980?

Lisa: Whatever there was. Whatever the band had. If it was really cold I could drink as many beers as I could swallow, or whatever other rotgut they had around. You know, maybe a Costco-sized bottle of liquor, but that sort of drinking just hurts too much now. It was really fun back then though. If I even smell Jaegermeister now I will hurl.

David: I think it’s great to evolve from youthful drinking binges into something a bit more enjoyable. It’s when you lose the aspect of fun in that appreciation that I get worried. For example, I used to collect Sonic Youth records—or I guess CDs as I got older. I would buy any Sonic Youth album I didn’t have—imports, demos, singles—even if I didn’t like the tracks on the disc. You’d have Thurston Moore playing experimental guitar for twenty-seven minutes on some of these things. I might never listen to it, but I felt like I needed to buy it anyway. That’s the point when I crossed over from buying music for fun into something much more restrictive. It was almost a chore or a duty. Could I call myself a “serious” Sonic Youth fan if I didn’t own everything they put out? I see a similar pattern in the booze industry where fans are looking to get every single new release that comes out. Some almost feel like missing out on certain bottles threatens their status as a serious whiskey drinker.

Lisa: I realized a long time ago with record collecting that I was never going to be able to compete with people who had money, or who were able to travel to London and put it all on their American Express card. I realized I was never going to be the biggest and best record collector ever, so in the end you really just need to make yourself happy. With alcohol it’s the same thing. I’ve tried stuff that was popular or known to be good, and it may or may not have registered with me. I don’t buy bottles based on scores anymore. I try to taste everything first. Some things are cheap though, so really it doesn’t make a difference taking the risk. If I don’t like it I can always give it to someone else. But you have to keep an open mind. Even though I don’t like the San Diego IPAs, every now and again Stone will make something where they dial it back and I really enjoy it. If you have your mind set in stone that you don’t like something, then you will just reinforce your own prejudices, which is stupid.

David: Were you as open-minded of a drinker back in your bad-ass punk days?

Lisa: I can tell you a funny story about drinking back then. I actually got thrown out of one of my own shows. It was a Frontier night with The Pontiac Brothers and Naked Prey, and we were drinking so much before we ever got to the show that I was just annihilated before we ever got there. I remember the Pandoras were there. They were sitting at a table and they had been filling up a beer pitcher with pee—it was really gross (laughs). Then there were these general bikers that hated us, so I kept running around grabbing the pool balls from the ones who were serious about trying to play billiards, throwing them around the room. It was like Keystone cops with people chasing me around and trying to get me under control. Finally the security guard got a hold of me and threw me out of the show. Nobody saw it happen, so no one knew where I was, and it was my show! I walked back to one of the band member’s house, jimmyed a kitchen window open, and just climbed in. I was sitting there in the kitchen waiting for them to get back from the show at like 2 AM. That was probably in 1987, however, rather than back at the beginning. I was too busy back then to get wasted!

David: When you’re the owner of a record label do you usually hang out with the bands or is there a need to separate business from pleasure?

Lisa: It all depends on the situation. Some bands are the super nervous type and they don’t like people going backstage with them. Others are great fun. I remember back in the days with The Supersuckers, they were incredible to hang around with. With others you might not want to hang out with them—it’s like going to the library. Very quiet, and nooooo fun.

David: What about some of the more popular bands from Frontier like Suicidal Tendencies or The Adolescents? Were they easy to have a drink with?

Lisa: The Adolescents—with Rikk and Casey—those guys really knew how to party. And Tony, too. Today, however, there are many sober members of that band because they just can’t do it anymore. But you shouldn’t be drinking if it's not fun anymore—like if it becomes a job or a chore, or goodness forbid you runover someone behind the wheel. If you can’t get drunk unless you drink two Costco-sized bottles of vodka, then you should probably stop. Good advice, right?

David: That’s one of my biggest fears as someone who works in the industry—that drinking will eventually become a job or a chore, rather than something I still enjoy. Did that ever happen to you with music?

Lisa: I feel that way all the time. There are times when I wish I wasn’t in the music business and that I could just be a fan. I go out a lot and I still buy a lot of records. I still love going to shows because that’s still separate from the business side of it. But I had my little piece of the rock. I co-own my distributor now (ILD) so things aren't as unstable as they were during the 2000s when I didn’t know if Frontier was going to survive from day-to-day. The shrinking amount of record stores is pretty brutal. I think it’s finally stabilized, but it’s always tough to say because once a decade there’s a huge shake-out where a number of people go out of business.

David: The booze business is that way, too. It’s very cyclical. There are huge growth spurts, but then the bottom falls out when tastes change. It seems like the music business would be equally as prone to these shifts in fashion.

Lisa: Oh absolutely. For example, at this point in time it’s very difficult to get any space in the record pressing plants because all the major labels are suddenly putting out vinyl again. They see everyone else doing it right now and they want to get in on something hip. But that will end eventually. Urban Outfitters has vinyl now, you know? So it’s the hip, trendy, groovy thing to be doing. But that will stop and eventually they’ll go back to selling pillows, or moustache mugs, or whatever they sell there. Because it’s not a place to buy records, you know? There’s no community feel there. You buy records in a record store. You hang out in there, you here something playing over the loudspeaker, and you say, “Who is this?” Those are the places where you learn about new things. And, okay, Youtube.

David: I think that’s one of the best parts of K&L. There is a community here that comes to discover new stuff. But that’s an issue for me, too, when it comes to the modern age of consumerism. I feel that both the music and booze businesses are moving into a generational shift where the majority of its new customers are using top ten lists, or numerical ratings to decide what they like, rather than simply discovering things organically on their own. 

Lisa: A top ten list can be a good and a bad thing. They’ve been around forever. But if Pitchfork is your one and only God, or Robert Parker, or whatever, then you’re going to be missing out on so many other things. But everyone is beholden to advertisers, I don’t care who you are. 

David: I agree completely, but ultimately I think what I’m getting at is the inability to take a risk. To eat at a restaurant without Yelping it first. To buy a bottle of wine without looking to see what score it got. I didn’t read reviews when I bought records as a kid. That’s not how I found out about new music. I would just talk to my friends or watch MTV. Today, I still know people who will email me and say, “Hey, the new so-and-so record just got a 9.2.” What does that even mean?

Lisa: That’s something that’s really taken over the wine world. I absolutely despise the whole numerical scoring thing, but—hey—it’s a game and people pay attention to it. But it’s for that reason that I don’t subscribe to many wine email lists anymore. It’s great when wines that I like get good scores, but what does it mean for all the other wines out there when I’m just wandering around a store, looking for something interesting, and all the signs just say “93 points”? To me, that’s meaningless. 

David: I’ve never discovered anything new or exciting by following a score; at least not that I can think of. It’s always been a recommendation or piece of advise from an actual person. The best thing I’ve discovered in the past year—both music and booze-related—came from you and Julie at Frontier. You guys sent me the Christian Death album because you thought I’d like it, and boy did I ever. I’d completely missed the boat on that band, which is shocking because it’s totally my genre and my kind of thing. Do you know how exciting that was for me? I still listen to that album almost every day on the way to work. Based on what I like, someone made a recommendation that completely changed my entire life! I got to go back and rediscover something incredible that I never knew existed, which only prompted me to ask Julie for more suggestions. I still have never even bothered to search online for what other people think about Christian Death, or what kind of reviews people have given it. All I want to do now is find other things like it.

Lisa: Christian Death is iconic and that's their best album by far. Other bands can be gateway bands. You get into them and then you have to go back and find all the other stuff that lead to that point. When Green Day blew up in the 90s all those kids had to go back and listen to The Stooges, Dictators, The Boys, and they said, “Ahh, now I get it.” Then maybe you think the original band is terrible in comparison!

David: That’s exactly what happens with wine. You try something and you like it, then you try to discover new things that are similar and you realize there are all these more-exciting, lesser-known, more-interesting versions of the thing that got you interested in the first place. Isn’t that more fun than simply picking things off a list that other people say are good? You build something that way. Many people who buy a bottle of whisky off a list take one sip, and say, “Next!” Same goes for music. They see the score, download a few songs, play them for a day, then move on to the next shiny thing. For me, however, when I discover something organically, the pleasure I derive from it is so much more long-lasting. I’m still obsessed with that Christian Death album almost eight months later. I’ve never gotten over it.

Lisa: Isn’t that funny? When I made that record—I think I was 21 or 22 when we were recording it—I never dreamed that someone decades later would even like it, or get so fired up about it. That’s amazing. 

David: And were I only looking at scores and following lists, I never would have discovered it.

Lisa: I see a lot of lists in the LA Weekly where they do things like “The Best Punk Records of All Time” and they’re all from last twenty years! Not that I’m bitter—mind you—but I’m like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” They’ll put a Blink-182 album in there and I’m thinking, “Not only is that not top ten, it’s not even top one hundred!” But, if you’re twenty-four, you’re like, “Fuck yeah! Blink-182 is the shit!” So I guess it’s all relative.

David: So how does that make you feel? You were there at the beginning, playing a role in one of the most important musical movements in the history of the United States, and now you’re seeing it take off into something far greater than you ever expected that's still reaching new listeners today. 

Lisa: I think it’s great! There have been so many great new bands that have kept it going. I love Jawbreaker, for example. I’m as good of friends with them as anyone I knew from before mainly because I was such a super fan. And in the 2000s there have been tons of great punk bands like The Men—and they’re as good as anyone who ever existed, in my opinion. They’re not designed to be on the radio, or on the cover of magazines and have girls screaming at them. They’re just flat-out awesome. Them, and The Marked Men from Texas, which eventually broke up into two bands, High Tension Wires, Mind Spiders, and Radioactivity. OBNIII, Protomartyr, Bass Drum of Death, and so on. There are still great bands, punk and otherwise, coming out all the time who would never fit into a major label. That would be the kiss of death.

David: So when you listen to punk music now, what type of drink do you have in your hand?

Lisa: I think beer still goes best with punk music. Don’t you love that Fidlar song: “I drink cheap beer. So what? Fuck you!” I wouldn’t drink Chimay with it (laughs). But I think that’s a really great anthem because punk is so much more fun when you’re drinking shitty beer. Any beer, really. It’s not really a cocktail kind of a thing, getting it all over the floor, making a big mess. I never know who’s going to come flying through the pit, so I don’t really want to be holding anything really expensive in my hand. 

-David Driscoll


That's Not Me (but it really is)

There's kind of a running joke at K&L about Rombauer Chardonnay, that buttery, sweet, rich, and oaky white wine from California that many in the industry have labeled "cougar juice". The joke is that everyone loves it (it's easily one of the top ten wines we sell in volume), but no one's buying it for themselves.

"This isn't for me," says the guy with the case of Rombauer at the counter, as if he were buying condoms or pornography. "My wife is the one who drinks this. Me? I prefer bold reds." But he's not buying a case of Silver Oak Napa Cabernet to go with it. 

Certain bottles in the booze industry have achieved certain stigmas involving the type of consumers who drink them, and what's funny is that no one ever thinks they're the type of person who fits that description. Yet, in trying to explain the situation to anyone within earshot (the attempt to distance one's self from these other people), we become the epitome of that stereotype. The irony is thick and suffocatingly sweltering. Sometimes you can't help but get a little uncomfortable in these situations.

What do I mean specifically by this? Let me give you a few examples. If you constantly need to tell people that you're specifically "not a jerk", then the chances are you're probably being a jerk. If you're the kind of person who has to tell people you're smart and that you went to an Ivy League school, then you're probably not all that smart. Basically, if you're the type of person who needs to tell people anything, to craft a character more perfectly calculated than any Facebook profile could ever be, then the chances are high that the opposite is true. At least, that's been my experience from working in a wine store. So when people go out of their way to tell you that, despite the case of Rombauer Chardonnay on the counter, they really prefer dry Burgundian whites from the Macon, there's really a double irony at work: the fact that they actually do love Rombauer, coupled with the literal implications of their intention. They want you to both believe something that isn't the case and respect them for who they aren't, yet sadly neither goal ultimately is accomplished.

It can get really confusing when people consistently do one thing, yet tell you another. Like the guys who call us every day in a frantic state, hoping to score a bottle of Weller 12, but then procede to tell us how annoying all those obsessive wheated Bourbon hunters are. Or the guys who rush to get their two bottles of Pliny the Elder every week, but then tell us how it isn't really all that good ("I don't see why people freak out about this stuff, you know?") when they come to pick them up. I've really come to understand where the term "own it" originated. Why try to convince others that you're someone else when it's glaringly obvious who you are? Doing so only makes it even more painstakingly clear! Just own it! There's nothing wrong with liking Rombauer, Weller, or Pliny! They're delicious products, which is why they're so popular. You love Weller 12? Then you are one of "those guys" who loves Weller 12. The only difference is that some people buy it, drink it, and silently continue to do so, while others have to give you a twenty minute discourse as to why they're not a trendy poser. Personally, I prefer the former. 

We had a guy in the store yesterday who was carrying on for a good half hour about all of his wine adventures, who he knows in the industry, and what he "usually" drinks when he's not buying "everyday" bottles. It was beginning to reach a fever pitch until finally he capped it off with: "But you know what? There's a lot of pretentious people out there in the wine business and, personally, I'm over pretense at this point in my life." 

I literally could not hold it in. I just burst out laughing while my colleague looked at me embarrassed. Sometimes you just can't help it.

-David Driscoll