The Spirit of Collabor&tion

Part of my recent trip out to the Bardstown Bourbon Company in Kentucky involved a bit of consulting and needless to say I was happy when the gang from both BBCo and Copper & Kings called me back to say they wanted K&L to be one of the exclusive retailers for the new Collabor&tion Bourbons: a pair of 10 year old MGP-distilled whiskies finished for an additional year and a half in two different types of Copper & Kings barrels. While we don't yet have the bottles at K&L, the big announcement from Bardstown is scheduled for today, so I decided to offer these out on a pre-arrival basis for those of you who want to get the jump on securing your bottles. There are only 200 of each for the moment and there are no bottle limits, so take what you need. I'll give you my honest opinion: they're both very, very good and completely different than anything else in the market right now. I wouldn't have signed on for this if I wasn't totally impressed with both the Bourbon and the guys from BBCo. Obviously, we love Copper & Kings. Their official press release is pasted below:

Bardstown, KY (September 13, 2017) – The Bardstown Bourbon Company (“BBCo”) and Copper & Kings American Brandy Company (“C&K”) announced today the release of “Collabor&tion,” two distinct products made with 10-year-old straight bourbon whiskey – one finished in Copper & Kings’ American Brandy barrels and the other in Muscat Mistelle barrels for more than 18 months in the Copper & Kings basement maturation cellar. The project is intended to embody the spirit of friendship and partnership, and celebrates great craftsmen working together to produce exceptional products as kindred spirits.  

“Collabor&tion is the first of many original releases from the Bardstown Bourbon Company,” said David Mandell, President & CEO, the Bardstown Bourbon Company. “We’ve built our company by working together with many of the leaders in the spirits industry, and our philosophy of collaboration is reflected in the brands we’re developing, the companies we partner with, and the Kentucky communities that we represent.” 

Started in late 2015 by two Kentucky-based distilleries, Collabor&tion is a culmination of nearly two years of work. Steve Nally, Bourbon Hall of Fame Master Distiller for BBCo, and Brandon O’Daniel, Head Distiller for C&K, hand-selected the bourbon for the project, meticulously blended it until it achieved the right flavor profiles, and chose the barrels for the finishing process. 

“Coll&boration is not made to be collected; it’s far more special than that. Its heart is friendship, enjoying company, and bringing out the best in each other,” said Joe Heron, President & CEO of Copper & Kings American Brandy Company. “It is an exceptional bourbon that was made by friends for friends and is designed to be enjoyed with friends.”  

“Exceptional bourbon will always carry beautiful dark fruit notes (figs, raisins, dates) as well as apple and pear to complement the classic honey, spice and butterscotch. Aging in brandy barrels not only accentuates these notes – it layers more on top of that foundation to create an incredibly rich, smooth and complex whiskey,” says Bardstown Bourbon Company Master Distiller Steve Nally. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and this is an amazing spirit – something I will share and with my good friends with real pride.”

“A Mistelle barrel is a unique vessel. Mistelle is unfermented grape juice (in this case Muscat) fortified with un-aged brandy (Muscat eau-de-vie) and then aged in bourbon barrels for 18 months. The empty barrels are deeply and highly caramelized with the grape sugars and fruit essences. The whiskey exiting these barrels is pure joy. A completely novel sensory experience; deep, deep rich whiskey – very soft and supple, mellow, and the taste goes on forever. The whiskey notes are amplified by a softness and smoothness that is singular – to say the least. I could literally sip this for the rest of my life,” said Brandon O’Daniel, Head Distiller of Copper & Kings.   

The bourbon used to produce Collabor&tion was distilled in Indiana in 2006 by Lawrenceburg Distillers, now MGP, and is made from 75% corn, 21% rye, and 4% malted barley. The Collabor&tion expression aged in Copper & Kings American brandy barrels is bottled at cask strength of 113 proof. The Mistelle barrel finish is bottled at cask strength at 94 proof. 

Collabor&tion is a very limited release that’s only available in select Kentucky retail stores, at the BBCo and C&K gift shops, and a small selection of fine retailers across the USA.

You can reserve your bottle of Collabor&tion below. Hopefully, there will still be enough bottles left to sell in the store once they actually arrive!

Bardstown Bourbon Company "Collabor&tion – Brandy Barrel Finish" Cask Strength Bourbon Whiskey $124.99 (PRE-ORDER) - The Collaboration series is the first release of whiskey from Kentucky's soon-to-be star Bardstown Bourbon Company, a project done in "collaboration" with Louisville brandy specialists Copper & Kings. Using 10 year old stocks of Bourbon distilled at MGP in Indiana, BBCo finished each of the whiskies for an additional 18 months in two different types of casks: American brandy and Muscat Mistelle. Made from 75% corn, 21% rye, and 4% malted barley, the Collabor&tion expression aged in Copper & Kings American brandy barrels is bottled at cask strength of 113 proof and offers classic, yet bold Bourbon flavor with vanilla, oak spices, and a concentrated richness that speaks to the age of the whiskey. We tasted this on our initial visit to the distillery this past summer and instantly fell in love with the additional fruit and subtle sweetness added from the brandy barrel finishing. It has all the classic flavors of great Bourbon but with extra lift and roundness on the finish. In the spirit of collaboration, the teams at BBCo and Copper & Kings really knocked this one out of the park. NOTE: Due to the shape of the Collabor&ation bottle it cannot be consolidated with other bottles shipping and must ship in its own individual package.

Bardstown Bourbon Company "Collabor&tion – Mistelle Barrel Finish" Cask Strength Bourbon Whiskey $124.99 (PRE-ORDER) - Made from 75% corn, 21% rye, and 4% malted barley, the Collabor&tion expression aged in Mistelle barrels has an incredible viscosity and chewiness to its texture from the time spent in the used casks. Mistelle is unfermented grape juice (in this case Muscat) fortified with un-aged brandy (Muscat eau-de-vie) and then aged in Bourbon barrels for 18 months. The empty barrels are deeply and highly caramelized with the grape sugars and fruit essences and the Collabor&tion whiskey aged in these barrels is pure joy. It's a completely novel sensory experience; deeply concentrated, rich whiskey that has a supple, fruity, and absolutely delicious finish. It's both an incredibly unique and divine tasting experience. Bottled at 47% cask strength ABV. NOTE: Due to the shape of the Collabor&ation bottle it cannot be consolidated with other bottles shipping and must ship in its own individual package.

-David Driscoll


La Alteña

As you enter the town of Arandas, about a two hour drive into the Jalisco Highlands from Guadalajara, you pass by a few recognizable facilities on the way to La Alteña. There's the Vivanco distillery right after the first roundabout, and then there's Cazadores with its big Pernod Ricard placards as you move around the border. While those distilleries are right in the town center, getting to the home of Tapatío requires a trek into the sticks. There are a number of winding country roads and narrow pathways before you see the brick facade of the distillery walls in the distance. I've always found that Tequila has much more in common with wine than whiskey, and in visiting the various agave distilleries of Mexico that comparison holds true on the production side as well. Some distilleries are like sterile custom crush pads with nothing more than the proper equipment and truck loads of material being dropped off for preparation. Others are actual estates, surrounded by their own vineyards (or agave fields, in this case), with an atmosphere and an aura all their own. La Alteña is definitely the latter. It's like the Ridge or Stag's Leap of Jalisco, a heralded property that has continued to make quality liquid despite its growth and enhancements over the years. 

Any great wine's reputation will (and should) always begin with the quality and the location of its vineyards. In the case of La Alteña, the agave is planted in the vibrant red soils of the Jalisco Highlands, which create a much different flavor profile than those planted in the Lowlands. Whereas Lowland agave produces a greener, more vegetal and herbaceous style of Tequila, Highland agave piñas tend to be larger, fruitier, and sweeter in flavor due to the difference in both soil types and climate. I've heard people compare Highland Tequilas to Highland single malts, but I've never liked that analogy. The classic Highland single malt profile has much more to do with stylistic choice than terroir. The difference between Highland and Lowland Tequila is more like the different between Napa mountain and valley-grown Cabernet. Due to the recent shortage of agave, many large producers (especially those using diffusers) don't distinguish between the geographical origins of their piñas, but that's no different than buying a bottle of red wine that says "California" on the label and one that very specifically indicates "Howell Mountain." When you buy a bottle of El Tesoro, Tapatio, or Ocho, you know you're getting Tequila made from Camarena family estate Highland agave.

Carlos Camarena needs no introduction to those familiar with fine Tequila, but for those of you who are still getting your feet wet: he's the man behind a number of outstanding brands on today's market; those baring the NOM number 1474 on the side label. His father first founded La Alteña in 1937, so as you can imagine there were a number of banners celebrating the 80th anniversary of the distillery around the property yesterday. Like any great winemaker, he's always been much more interested in the agricultural side of production rather than the distillation and began his career in the fields. We spent a good hour out in the Highlands with him, learning the intricate details of agave reproduction and the delicate ecosystem that supports their growth

Like most wine enthusiasts shun the excessive extraction or manipulation of top quality fruit, serious Tequila drinkers want to know exactly what's being done with their Highland agave after it's harvested. With all of the tricks, shortcuts, and hijinks happening behind the scenes of our modern alcoholic world, it's tough to know for sure if anything is still real these days. Rest assured, however, that the production at La Alteña is pretty straightforward. The agave comes in from the field, it gets chopped up by these guys, and then it goes on a conveyor belt into the oven. 

There are two guys who collect the piñas and stack them in the oven for the steaming process, which cleans the bitter and somewhat waxy residue off the agave, while cooking and concentrated the sugars inside. Every Tequila made at La Alteña starts this way. Once the agave is removed from the oven we can start breaking down the differences between El Tesoro, Tapatío, and Ocho.

If you've never heard the guys at St. George distillery talk about their fateful foray into agave distillation, have them start by showing you the bill for all the equipment they ruined trying to break the cooked agave down into a fermentable pulpy juice. Agave piñas, even when steamed, are treacherous and densely fibrous plants. That's why the original distilladors had to use a giant stone wheel or tahona to crush those cores into submission. While most modern facilities have moved onto to more efficient power shredders or roller mills, La Alteña still uses the tahona for part of its production. In the case of El Tesoro, however, 100% of the agave used is tahona-pressed, which in the wine world would be the equivalent of foot-stomping.

The roller mill is what most producers use today because it's far more efficient and not in a bad way. I know there's a certain romanticism to using the giant stone wheel, but the cleaner and brighter Tequilas I often enjoy today are generally run through the roller mill—the agave industry's version of a bladder press and a shining example of where efficiency leads to a better flavor. In order to create distinctions between the brands, Carlos uses different percentages of tahona-crushed and milled agave for the various brands. As I mentioned before, El Tesoro uses only the tahona, while Tapatio is a blend of 30% tahona/70% milled, and Ocho is 100% milled. Those distinctions can be even further distinguished during fermentation.

Winemakers can dictate the concentration of their wine by choosing to ferment with or without the skins, while repeatedly punching down the cap that eventually forms at the top (or not) to further increase skin contact. Carlos makes the exact same stylistic decisions when fermenting his agave. Some fermentations are done with the liquid only, while others keep the agave fibers in the juice. Some are punched down so that the fibers continue to mingle with the liquid, while others are allowed to bubble up naturally. Every little variance creates a different tasting Tequila. Decisions, decisions!

Carlos said two things to me when talking about distillation that stood out: 1) smaller copper pots are better, in his opinion; and 2) every distillation is itself a blend. Tequila is double distilled in copper pot stills much like single malt whisky, but whereas a number of Scotch producers will talk about the importance of the height of the still, Carlos believes a more concentrated and flavorful Tequila results from a smaller still due to the increased contact with the copper. As many of you already know, copper creates a number of reactions that result in various flavor profiles and it also eliminates any of the sulphurous components released by the fermenting yeast. There are a number of different sized stills at La Alteña, but not one of them is all that large. When we asked him about blending the spirits after distillation, he said: "Every distillate is itself a blend because the spirit tastes different every minute it comes off the still." I thought that was fantastic. In essence, you could cut each minute of every singular run into its own batch and each would taste slightly different from the next. To categorize a spirit as singular because it's from one single distillation is to ignore the fact that it's still a collection of liquids with various flavor profiles. Poignant!

Perhaps the most poignant story Carlos told me, however, was about water. We hear a lot about water sources when it comes to whisky, but not so much with other spirits. When talking about the natural spring water that La Alteña sources for its fermentation, Carlos explained that his father and his partners actually built a second distillery in the town of Arandas back in 1938, but eventually closed it when customers complained that the Tequila tasted different than Tapatío. "The only difference was the water," Carlos said. 

We eventually made our way down to the barrel room (which you can actually see through one of the grates upstairs) and tasted some of the El Tesoro reposado selections from single casks. If you hadn't already guessed, I wasn't at La Alteña yesterday simply for professional development. We'll be bringing in a few lovely single barrels in later this year for your enjoyment. Now we all know a little bit more about how they were made!

A very special thank you to Carlos and the Beam-Suntory team for hosting us yesterday. 

-David Driscoll


In the Highlands

It's been a wild twenty-four hours, but the short version for now is that I'm here in Jalisco with Charles Phan from the Slanted Door as we're both looking to do a little direct business with Mexico. We've been hanging with Carlos Camarena all day at La Alteña distillery in Arandas and now we're back in Guadalajara getting ready for dinner. Lots to talk about as soon as I get some down time. This is my first visit to the Tapatio/Ocho/El Tesoro facility so it's been eye-opening. 

-David Driscoll


Vengo del Aire

Never in my life have I been on an airplane with smaller seats and less leg room than the one I’m currently riding down to Guadalajara, yet—despite the cramped space and the awkward position I’m sitting in—nothing about my situation is making me anxious or upset. I’m actually enjoying watching my tall and well-built friend DJ try to navigate the various perils of his position, hunched over his laptop with spreadsheets around him while the fuselage continues to close in. It’s all part of the experience and the journey. I know we’ll laugh about this flight a year from now and remember how ridiculous it was, which is why I’m letting the moment soak in. I’m enjoying my role as spectator more and more these days, doing my best to take a step back and let life come to me rather than attempting to manipulate every moment to my making. There’s a bravado in the modern world that encourages us to seize the day and force it into our preferred shape or design, but I’m no longer a fan of that mindset. Instead I seek to remove any sense of entitlement and make the best of every experience—be it first class or meta-economy. 

I wasn’t always this relaxed about life, however. While today I’m much more at peace with reality, there are still memories that haunt my brain as I grow into my evolution as a person; experiences that should bring to mind fondness, but instead flood my body with embarrassment and humiliation. Some people think passivity is a weakness, but today I think it’s a skill and an admirable character trait. Someone asked me the other day what I’m most ashamed of in my life (it was an interesting conversation overall), and I prefaced my answer by asking: “Ashamed of in the moment or in retrospect?” There’s obviously a certain mortification in wetting your pants in public, or passing gas in a crowded room, but that’s an immediate and instantaneous feeling. There is another kind of remorse, however; one that overtakes you much later, only as you being to mature and understand the aftermath of your actions. 

“In retrospect,” the person responded.

I had one such experience that came to mind.

I was roughly twenty-four years old and I was leaning against the stage at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, watching my hero Stephen Malkmus play a solo acoustic set from only a few feet away. This was before the big Pavement reunion, mind you, so at that point in time Stephen was only playing solo material. The other thing you have to understand, if you’re not familiar with Mr. Malkmus, is that he’s sort of a god in the indie rock scene; the musical idol of hipsters around the globe, yet someone who has never embraced or felt entirely comfortable in that role. As a Central Valley kid, I’ve been obsessed with Pavement since I was fifteen and the band is without a doubt my favorite of favorites, as was clearly the case for just about every other person in the room that night. For that reason, when Stephen suddenly started playing Pavement songs, none of us knew what to do other than gasp and freak the fuck out. It started with “We Dance,” but then it continued on into “Starlings of the Slipstream,” and beyond. 

When it became clear Stephen was improvising and going off script, the invisible barrier between the performer and the audience instantly vanished and those who couldn't contain their emotions began catcalling and shouting out requests—myself included. Rather than sit back, shut up, and let this rare and incredible moment unfold before us, we felt the need to exploit it into our ultimate fantasy. We, the Pavement superfans, felt entitled to those songs, as if our adoration and knowledge somehow justified our demands and made us special or different than the casual observer in the crowd. Stephen, with incredible restraint, took the cacophonous feedback with grace and impressive self-discipline. He never gave in, responding only with prudence.

“No, I can’t play that; sorry.”

“No, not that one, guys.”

But even as he continued into “Range Life” and the entire room turned into a kumbaya style sing-a-long, we couldn’t help ourselves. The requests continued to fly and no matter what Stephen did he couldn’t escape or overcome the obsessive fandom that stood there before him, breathing down his neck; a room of people too overcome by their own dreams and desires to shut the fuck up and let the artist present his art. I look back on my own behavior in that intimate moment and I’m utterly mortified by my inability to simply be a spectator. It was a moment of pure selfishness, no different than jumping over the barrier at a baseball game and running around on the field, forcing the rest of the spectators to deal with my own solipsistic splendor. Just thinking about it now makes me nauseous. 

There’s something very wrong with hobbyism and the appreciation of the arts when the people paying for the experience begin to think the price of admission includes a spot for their own participation. Nevertheless, it’s a trend that’s getting worse from my vantage point. I’ve heard Hamilton horror stories where groups of teenagers stand up in the crowd and start singing along with the play or shouting out the lines to the chagrin of those around them. Can you imagine paying $400 for a ticket and dealing with that? I’m not sure where that growing entitlement comes from; whether it’s always been a facet of human self-centeredness or if it’s been made worse by the Yelp era of consumer activism. Either way, I’m embarrassed that I was ever a part of it and I’m continually embarrassed when I see it happen in my own industry, both in those who work as a part of it and those who seek to enjoy its many fruits.

There’s nothing weak or impotent about being a simple spectator, or someone who blends in with the crowd. For years I wanted to be a tour guide of sorts, someone who introduced people to interesting and unique experiences. Today, however, I just want to sit back and enjoy the ride, which is exactly what I’m doing on this Volaris flight despite the circumstances. I’m going to Mexico to take care of business, but I’m going to let that business flow naturally and come to me. As the theme song to my favorite Mexican novela goes: Vengo del aire, no me compares. 

-David Driscoll


Follow Your Nose (It Always Knows)

While I know we're living in a single malt, single distillery, single barrel world, the best spirits I've tasted in my lifetime have always been blends of some sort. That goes for both whisky and rum. There are some great single barrel rums out there (and we've got more coming from Golden Devil later this Fall), but when a rum is blended, both from different styles of rum as well as different distilleries, the potential for complexity and pure deliciousness goes off the charts. The perfect example? The new Cadenhead Classic Rum, a "product of the West Indies." Made with heavier rums, the result is something in between Appleton, Mount Gay, and El Dorado with loads of richness and the essence of pot still funk, but with no additional coloring or sugar. At 100 proof it's bold enough to mix, but you're probably going to be sipping this because it's that heady and delicious. I would buy twenty bottles if I had the extra cash sitting around, mainly because of how much I miss the Cadenhead's Green Label edition I dug out of the old Preiss Imports inventory a while back. This new Classic expression is pretty much an updated version.

I don't really follow the UK and European markets these days, but David OG has assured me that the Cadenhead has already sold out in Europe, so it appears I'm not alone in my adoration. Cadenhead, if you didn't know, is Springbank distillery's independent bottling wing and they have quite the reputation for quality both with their ancient stocks of whisky and their prowess for blending. But you'll know you made the right decision just by nosing a glass of this rum. It's spellbinding and it showcases the best parts of the various Caribbean styles in equal portions. We've got plenty in stock for the time being, but I wouldn't take your eye off the ball here:

Cadenhead's Classic 100 Proof Caribbean Rum $49.99 - The splendid Cadenhead's Classic Rum is finally stateside. The 2017 bottling of this famous old label has already sold out in Europe and won't likely be around here for very long either. An essential expression of English style blended Rum is arrives already firmly in the upper echelons of the rum hierarchy. The special William Cadenhead's Co is Scotland's oldest independent bottler and currently owned by J&A Mitchell of Springbank fame. They've got an incredible stock of old Demerara rums and this is a special blend of rums from throughout the Caribbean is easily one of the finest examples of the nearly lost style of heavy blended rum. They've done wonderful work here offering product of great depth and complexity with rums between 5 and 10 years old. There's absolutely no sugar or caramel added. Deep toasty nose of boiling brown sugar, heady exotic spice and dense pot distilled spirit. The palate is rich and mouth filling with tons of sweet and funky rancio flavors and a big bold kick to finish. It wouldn't hurt to add a drop of water if sipping neat and there's no doubt this will shine in a number of classic cocktails.

Get ready for the Royal Standard later next week, a white blend that furthers my opinion about blended rum on all fronts. 

Meanwhile, I'm off to Mexico tomorrow to buy some Tequila so check back for my reports from the road.

-David Driscoll