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Wednesday
Mar152017

Old School Fran├žais

One of the great things about traveling with two of my bosses—Clyde and his son Trey—is the ever-present struggle between maintaining old world relationships and moving our company into the new age. We spent a few hours today having lunch at the home of Clyde's friends, drinking red Burgundies so old school and funky that I almost couldn't hang. While I didn't care for the wines, the whole situation was absolutely hilarious; especially when they brought out the loaf of pâté en crôute. My colleague Alex was ready to bury his head in the sand, while Clyde kept drinking these vegetal, drying, course pinot noirs and maintaining the dialogue. I loved every minute of it. And every bite of that French meatloaf.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Mar142017

White Wine for Whisky Lovers

I've been in Chablis for the last day and a half, which is the last real hold out for serious bang-for-your-buck quality in Burgundy, if you ask me. It's the one place where you can still buy grand cru vineyard level wines for under fifty bucks, and a plethora of premier cru options for under thirty. I drink a lot of Chablis, personally, as I drink more white wine than red wine (about 10 to 1). I love the salty, chalky, stony minerality that can vary in intensity from vineyard to vineyard and I love how refreshingly dry the wines finish. While I always knew I loved Chablis, I didn't realize how complex, nuanced, and interesting it could be from site to site. Not until I walked the vineyards yesterday morning before sunrise and began taking photos of the different locations did it finally sink in. I watched how the sun hit each one differently as it came up over the horizon and how the rocks varied from hill to hill in their make-up. Then I went over to La Chablisienne and tasted about fifteen different single vineyard selections from the same vintage, each vinified the exact same way—the only difference being their unique terroir. It was the ultimate control tasting for those interested in what makes Burgundy so fun and fascinating (assuming you like to drink Chablis like I do).

I'm often asked which wine I would recommend for a whisky drinker, someone who likes Islay malts particularly. In the past, I've answered that question with oxidized Jura whites or with fino sherry, simply from a flavor perspective, but now that I'm seeing the bigger picture I think the answer is clearly Chablis. 

1) It's full of saline notes and piercing minerality at times with a nutty richness that actually does resemble some Islay whiskies (check out what we have in from our direct relationship with La Chablisienne here)

2) There's not much variation in its production methods, so it ends up being a true expression of place. Very few people use excessive oak, so the wines are always clean, focused, and literal.

3) There are a TON of different Chablis vineyards, each with its own personality. Dive in and start enjoying the unique flavors of each.

4) Chablis is still CHEAP compared to the rest of Burgundy. A bottle of grand cru Corton Charlemagne from the Côte d'Or will run you at least $150, whereas you can still snag the 2014 Valmur from La Chablisienne for $39.99 thanks to our DI pricing. 

Not only are the wines delicious, expressive, complex, and affordable, there's just so much to dig into. Like I wrote in one of my OTL blog posts, I'm not a fan of talking about vineyard topography until you've already established a deep and penetrating interest in the wines themselves. But if you want to go a step further you can look at vineyard maps of Chablis and begin to understand how the sun, the soil, and the weather creates a different microclimate in each location. It's pretty damn cool.

Plus, 2014 was a GREAT vintage. 2015 is also good. 2016 is delicious as well, but frost killed about 50% of the harvest. Supplies might be a bit tight moving forward. Hence, the time is now. I'm putting in my orders from the road!

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Mar112017

Heading Out Again

It's time to head back to France. 

I had to come back from Australia to get a few new casks distributed, run the Maker's Mark event, and deal with the new Ardbeg/Glenmorangie allocations, but now that the spirits department is settled I'm needed back over on the wine side. Burgundy at K&L has always been solid, but it's played fourth fiddle to Bordeaux, California, and the Rhône over the years. There's a lot of great wine over there and a lot of potential for new discoveries, but it needs a new presentation. The problem with Burgundy has always been its dependability. You'd have one bottle that would change your life, then another one that would ruin it. Back in the seventies and eighties, if you wanted to drink fine wine you didn't have a choice; it was Bordeaux, Burgundy, and maybe a few German rieslings in the cellar. Today, however, the world has begun to catch up to France's foundational regions and the choice isn't nearly as clear. Pinot noir and chardonnay are being made around the globe at this point. Australia and New Zealand have made plenty of arguments as to why their pinot noir and chardonnay selections should be considered top class, as have the winemakers in Oregon, Sonoma, and California's central coast. 

The question you have to ask yourself is: what makes Burgundy so special?

That's a query that I'm hoping to clarify a bit this week. There are plenty of wine skeptics who think the deference given to the Côte d'Or is ridiculous, especially given its dependence upon the vintage. What some people call earthy terroir, other people consider to be flawed winemaking. "Tell those guys they need to learn how to ripen their grapes," one of my colleagues said to me before I left yesterday. I get it. There's a core of Francophile apologists out there that simply wants to believe in Burgundy—its history, its romanticism, and its quality—but that often argues itself into a corner when the conversation turns to price and drinkability. The problem as far as I see it is that Burgundy often has as many disappointments as it does wonders. It's a veritable mine field of inconsistency and it's not cheap to play. 

But there's a middle ground, in my opinion. There's a road that divides those two extremes and it's not all that hard to navigate if you do a little research. That's the road I'll be staying on this week over at On the Trail, so make sure you check in there. I'll post a few tidbits here as well as I move along.

A few things before I go:

– I goofed up yesterday adding the Michter's rye into the category of MGP liquids; a fact the heads of Michter's didn't let squeak by. President Joe Magliocco emailed me to remind me that Michter's sources its rye whiskies from Kentucky, not from Indiana. My apologies there. That's been corrected (of course, if I knew for sure where it came from I probably wouldn't have made that mistake—wink, wink).

– Speaking of ryes with a clear-cut origin, the new Whistle Pig "Farm Stock" just landed this week and is the first from the company to actually use some of their own distillate in the recipe. There's a chart on the back that breaks it all down: 20% 1 year old Whistle Pig, 31% 12 year old MGP, and 49% 5 year old Alberta. I actually really enjoyed it when I tasted it recently. They did a great job of balancing the potent pepperiness of the young rye with the richness from the two older ingredients. It's expensive, but what isn't these days?

– We're going to do a grappa dinner with Jacopo Poli on April 3rd at Donato in Redwood City. I haven't put tickets on sale yet, but I'll do so as soon as I get back on the 20th. We've got the man himself, Mr. Poli, coming into town that night, so expect a very small group (less than twenty) and an intimate affair with a chance to taste some incredible Italian spirits.

– I hope you all like Aberlour A'Bunadh because I just bought a lot of it. It's expected to take a pretty big jump in price next month, so if this is one of your house favorites it's a good time to load up. It might be around the $100 mark by the end of the year. I see it's already that price on the East Coast. It will remain where it is at K&L until I'm forced to rebuy.

That's it! I'm off to the airport in a bit. I've got a lot of French to review on the plane. Time to switch languages in my head. It's not always easy! I'm juggling four different ones up there now and I don't think there's enough room sometimes. I was ordering tacos at the truck near our Redwood City store this week and I ended up telling the guy "oui, c'est vrai" when he asked if I wanted it "para llevar."  

Ich denke, daß je dois etudier mucho mas. Something like that. My brain is a mess right now.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Mar102017

KELP!

Kelp me! Please! I'm about to drown in a wave of frantic Ardbeg fanatics, pummeling our phones and customer service channels with requests for the 2017 Committee Release bottle!

Please kelp yourselves by using the link below. Much easier!

Ardbeg "Kelpie - Committee Release" Islay Single Malt Whisky $124.99 - Ardbeg named for the mythical shape shifting spirit of the deep and aged in virgin oak casks from the republic of Adygea, this experimental edition of Ardbeg gives a nod to the influence of the Black Sea. Oily peat, dark chocolate, and smoked fish!

And don't forget the new Glenmorangie, too! It's a lush and luscious one this year:

Glenmorangie "Bacalta" Private Edition Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky $109.99 - The eight release in the award winning Private Edition series, which are created to showcase the depth and versatility of the Glenmorangie line. Each Private Edition is highly limited and are designed to showcase Glenmorangie's - and their illustrious head of whisky creation Dr Bill Lumsden - most special and successful experiments. The Bacalta, meaning "baked" in Gaelic, is truly a product of solar power. First spending many years in bourbon casks, before being transferred to custom casks which once held Malsmey Madeira, the great sunsoaked wine of that special archipelago off the north African coast. The result is ultra honeyed and brimming with ripe stone fruits, candied citrus, and rich creamy fudge. 

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Mar092017

The Same, But Different: Midleton's Irish Whiskies

It's always interesting to talk rye and Irish whiskey with customers in the store because I'd say at least 25% of the time these folks are completely shell-shocked by what I have to tell them:

"Yes, Bulleit rye, Templeton rye, Dickel rye, High West rye, Redemption rye, Lost Republic rye, James E. Pepper rye and a number of others are all technically the same whiskies." 

....

"Sir, are you OK?"

"What do you mean they're the same?"

It's not that they're literally the same whiskey, it's just that all those brands source their rye from the same distillery: Indiana's MGP facility. They're all made the same way, they're probably all relatively the same age, and they're all created with the same recipe, it's just that they're blended differently. Some of them are at different proofs and some of them are smaller batches than others. Of course, this is old news to many of you. Generally, I try to talk about the way a whiskey tastes by starting with where it was made. We can then talk about the recipe, the production methods, and the way those factors affect the ultimate flavor. In the case of the brands listed above, they were all distilled in the same place.

"But they all taste different from one another!"

Yes, they do. Just like the Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare Bourbons taste different from one another even though they're technically the same whiskies, too. It's amazing what happens when you blend whiskies in different ways! While all of the above-mentioned rye whiskies are owned by different brands, there's often carryover within single distilleries as companies look to expand their equity within the market. Look at Heaven Hill as an example. They must have over 200 different Bourbon labels in the market even though most of those expressions are just different versions of the same whiskey: Elijah Craig, Henry McKenna, Evan Williams, etc. The ages may vary, the batches may be different in size, but ultimately you're working with the same product.

The Irish whiskey shelf at K&L is particularly entertaining to talk about because just about everything we have comes from two distilleries: West Cork and Midleton. There's Bushmills, of course, but we stopped carrying the brand after they were purchased by Jose Cuervo. There's Cooley as well, now owned by Beam-Suntory, which makes the Tyrconnell and Coonemara expressions. West Cork is an independent, but tough brand to categorize because some of their whiskies are self-distilled, but others were married together with whiskey purchased from either Cooley or Bushmills. Midleton, however, is not only Ireland's premiere whiskey distillery, it has what I think might be the most impressive line-up of single distillery whiskey expressions in the entire world. You wanna talk about variety in depth, price points, flavor profiles, and character; Midleton has it in spades and it's a feat made even more impressive by the fact that its whiskey is one of the mellowest and most straightforward in the business. It's easy to showcase variety when you can use peat as a flavor modifier, but Midleton does just about everything with two types of distillation and various types of wood. Let's take a walk through some of their brands, shall we? I need a little catch-up myself!

The story of Midleton is a bit like DDL in Guyana where the El Dorado rums are made. There used to be a number of distilleries down there, like Uitvlugt and Enmore, but those facilities were closed and their equipment was eventually consolidated in the Diamond distillery where all the rums are made today. In the case of Midleton, it was back in 1966 that the Powers, Jameson, and Cork distilleries decided to merge together into what would become Irish Distillers. The various distilleries decided to consolidate into one homebase (Midleton in County Cork was chosen as it had the most space) and closed their separate operations. Today the facility pumps out a serious amount of booze on three column stills and three pot stills, kind of like having a grain distillery and a malt distillery all in one place. The company, owned by Pernod-Ricard, has numerous brands that are all in essence just different versions of the same whiskies: Jameson (of course), Redbreast, Paddy, Powers, Green Spot, Yellow Spot, and the eponymous Midleton. But while they're all made in one building, they're all quite different in flavor. I'll break it down as fast as I can.

The big difference between Midleton's Irish whiskey and the other Irish distillates mentioned above is that Midleton does not produce a single malt. Bushmills, Cooley, and West Cork, on the other hand, do have whiskies made from 100% malted barley just like in Scotland. The tradition of using unmalted barley in the pot still recipe dates back to a British-imposed tax in the 18th century that raised the tariff on malted barley. The Irish being the Irish (I can say that because I'm Irish) decided to switch to unmalted barley for their whiskey-making needs in response and told the British exactly what they could do with their tax. Today a mix of both malted and unmalted barley is used in the mash for their pot-distilled whiskies, while an unmalted grain recipe is run through the column stills to create the grain expression. From what I've been told, however, Midleton doesn't use just a single recipe for their pot-distilled whiskies, but rather a few different variations that switch up the ratio of malted/unmalted in order to create different profiles within that singular style (much like a Bourbon distillery can play with the ratio of corn to rye, or visa versa). 

When we talk about the difference between blended Scotch and single malt Scotch, the difference is easy: blended Scotch combines both grain and single malt whiskies, while single malt simply stands alone. Since Midleton doesn't produce a single malt, its blends are a combination of grain whisky and the pure pot still recipe in various ages, recipes, and ratios. All of the Jameson whiskies are blends of this type, as is the Paddy and the Midleton Rare edition. The Powers, Redbreast, Green/Yellow Spot, and some of the higher end Midleton releases like the Barry Crockett and the Daer Ghaelach are made from combinations of only the pure pot still whiskies. So while all of these whiskies do indeed come from one distillery and technically are made with the same components, they all vary just a bit in their age, their blending, and the ratio of their recipe. The Redbreast 12 is technically the same whiskey as the Yellow Spot 12, as both are 12 year old pot still editions; although the mash bill of malted to unmalted barley may vary. The big difference is that the Yellow Spot uses a combination of Bourbon, Sherry, and Malaga casks for maturation. The Powers 12 year old is technically the same whiskey as well. Aged in both Bourbon and Sherry casks, it's basically just an older version of Green Spot. The same; but different.

The cask treatment is ultimately the biggest demarcation between the various Midleton editions. For example, in the Redwood City store we currently have the standard Jameson, as well as the Jameson "Caskmates" aged in beer barrels, along with the Jameson Cooper's Croze that uses virgin oak, seasoned Bourbon casks, and ex-sherry butts in a combination. I had actually never tasted the Cooper's Croze until this past week and I was very, very impressed. The richness and the weight of the whiskey is a huge step up from the standard Jameson editions and it offers an incredible depth of oak and spice. The Midleton Barry Crockett is aged in both new and used American oak barrels, while the Daer Ghaelach is finished in Irish oak called Grinsell's wood. In all honesty (and I don't say this lightly), the Daer Ghaeloch is not only the best Irish whiskey I've ever had (in terms of complexity and the "wow" factor), it's also one of the best whiskies I've tasted in the last few years on the whole. Aged between 15-22 years in ex-Bourbon casks before spending a year in the native wood, the whisky runs the full gambit of sweet, spicy, oaky, savory, creamy, and decadent. It's an absolute party from the nose to the finish. 

When budding Irish whiskey enthusiasts discover that Redbreast is just Jameson, and that Green Spot is Jameson, and that Powers is also Jameson, and that ultimately Midleton is also just a fancy version of Jameson, they often turn a bit somber. There's this part of us that wants to believe the Irish whiskey world is this big cornucopia of small distilleries with dozens of producers and loads of variety. Learning that 90% of our selection is mostly the same thing can be a bit deflating. But the fact that all of these fantastic brands are all made in the same place from the same whiskies shouldn't deter you. I've never been someone who compares origin to origin. For example, I don't think a single cask of Macallan from an independent bottler is the same as the branded Macallan, nor do I think you can look at any whiskey's inherent quality simply by where it was made. After learning the logistics of our rye selection, people inevitably say things like:

"Well if the Bulleit and the Redemption ryes are the same whiskies, then I should just get the cheaper one."

They may be the same, but they don't taste the same. Flavor is ultimately what we're after, right? Not just provenance? The variety of flavor that Midleton distillery is able to offer is in my opinion unparalleled by any other whiskey distillery in the world. You're definitely not just paying for the same thing in a different bottle. You're getting a serious spectrum of style and sophistication. I still think regular old Jameson hits the spot after a cold beer at the pub. I'm planning to buy a bottle of the Daer Ghaelach on the other hand for a special occasion with friends. I could destroy a bottle of the Redbreast 12 with a few buddies over the course of a summer evening, whereas I might sip on the Yellow Spot over the course of an entire winter. Of course, with St. Paddy's Day coming up you'll have to choose which Midleton fits the bill for you. They may all be from the same distillery, but they're not quite the same in the end.

-David Driscoll