The Lifecycle of a Barrel

Working in the Spirits and Beer/Cider departments of K&L not only allows me to enjoy some of my favorite beverages in the world, but I also get to be a part of some pretty cool things. For instance, recently I was able to be part of the life cycle of a whiskey barrel here at K&L. It probably comes as no surprise that as a larger but still private company we have our fingers in many different pies. Furthermore, we have the ability, and desire, to utilize our resources and connections to partner with local businesses to create interesting and unique products for people. That is precisely what happens with the many whisky barrels we collect here as part of our single barrel whiskey program.

Due to the nature of American whiskey, barrels are only utilized once for whiskey and from there they go on to other places for other purposes. Many of them end up in Scotland because Scotch does not require new oak, others are given to breweries to satiate the growing demand for barrel aged beer. For the larger breweries, buying barrels is just part of the process and they are able to handle that without issue. However, for many of the smaller breweries, buying a barrel represents a major capital investment that they may not see a return on for months. That being the case, often these breweries just go without or try to scoop up second fill barrels that wont deliver quite as much.

Here is where we can make a difference and connect with people and businesses within our community. As many of you know we have a strong single barrel whiskey program here at K&L. We seem to constantly have various Russell's, Four Roses, Dickel, and Knob Creek exclusive bottlings on the shelf. What some may not know is that these bottlings come with the barrel. It makes sense when you think about the fact that the distilleries cannot reuse those barrels for whiskey. So when we buy the single barrel, the barrel itself comes included. Now we may not be able to reuse these barrels ourselves, but we do happen to know a few different small breweries here in our that could use a barrel to age beer in.

Recently I was able to be part of this life cycle and see first hand how we reuse, recycle, and connect with those in our community. I drove up to Sebastapol with our Beer Buyer Jim Boyce and my coworker Stephanie Vidales to pick up a barrel from Spirit Works. We had bought a single barrel of Rye from them last year and they had been holding on to it for us. After a fantastic lunch at Woodfour brewing, litterally across the parking lot, we went and spent about two hours chatting distillation with Timo and Lauren. Full disclosure: it was more me pestering them with questions and running around breathlessly. After that we strapped the barrel to the bed of Jim's truck and headed to see our friends at Henhouse Brewing. 

Once we were happily ensconced and sipping delicious brews at Henhouse, their owner, Collin, came out and we got to chatting about beer. We explained what we had been doing that day and it turned out he had a beer coming in that he had collaborated with Drake's on and was thinking about aging it further in another barrel. Jim looked at him and simply asked if he would like to use our barrel. He got so excited and asked if we were serious, so we took him to the parking lot and showed him the barrel waiting to be used. So he grabbed a dolly and we loaded it up and returned inside for a last pint. In a year or so we will likely be seeing the results of this trip with a K&L exclusive bottling.

-Andrew Stevens


Islay Flashback

Every Tuesday is staff training day at K&L, hosted by one of our buyers who must travel from store to store and host an educational seminar. I'm on the hook for today, so I decided to take an in-depth look at Islay with numerous expressions from each distillery and a brief overview of the island's distillation history. It's amazing the selection of malts you can put together just from these eight producers; nine if you can snag a bottle of Port Ellen (which I did because I'm going all the way today). 

I was checking the blog to pull a few pictures from voyages past and I came across this post from May of 2012; hard to believe this was almost six years ago! David OG and I spent the whole day researching Islay's ancient farm distilleries via the map provided in the tasting bar at Kilchoman, digging for clues on the fly, armed with little more than a point and shoot camera. 

That was a damn fine afternoon and Islay still does it for me after all these years. Lagavulin 16, Ardbeg Uigeadail, Bowmore 15 Darkest, Bunnahabhain 12, Laphroaig 10 cask strength, etc. These are the whiskies I cut my teeth on as a Scotch rookie at K&L and they're just as tasty today as they were back then. Islay is like one big greatest hits radio station, continually pumping out timeless hits despite ever changing fashion of pop culture.

-David Driscoll


The Fatal Flaw

There's a major reason why most marketing and social media for booze quickly turns into a gigantic snorefest these days: everyone is portraying themself as the hero of their own whiskey journey. Here's what I drank last night. Here's me with the bottle. Everyone take a look at my personal glory. 

The thing is: we need heroes. However, when we present our message to the world, we just need to remember who the hero is in the story we're looking to tell.

If you look at whisky from the marketer's perspective then you know that people perceive themselves as the center of their experience. The customer is always the hero. As humans with egos, we all wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and wonder what adventure awaits us. No one ever wanted to be Superman's brother as a kid. We all wanted to be Superman himself. Because we are always our own protagonist, we're not looking for competition in that role. All good salesmen know that they are not the hero of their customer's experience. They are the guide. They are Obi Wan or Yoda to Luke. When I'm in the store on the sales floor, I am Mr. Miyagi, not Daniel-san. It's not about what I can do, it's about what I know that can help the hero along his or her quest.

As I've written before, there are plenty of best-selling tomes that back up this psychological strategy.

The fatal flaw I see most often today with those looking to connect with readers/customers/followers/etc is a misguided role reversal. It's what happens when whiskey customers look to become whiskey influencers and forget they're no longer the center of the story. They continue playing the hero, conquering their way through mountains of bottles, taking names and batch numbers along the way. They still think it's about them.

It isn't though.

When you're the one being served, it's all about you. However, when you're starting your own blog/Instagram/message board/ad campaign the roles must change. Simply put, no one wants to watch someone else be the hero of their personal whiskey story. They want to know one thing: how does what you're doing help me?

I've written this spirits blog since 2009 and in the endless myriad of articles I've posted over the years you can count the times I've shown a picture of myself on two hands. I do write about my experiences and opinions, but that's because as a guide you must show some credibility. At first Luke thought Yoda was just some annoying alien with a ridiculous voice. It wasn't until he used the force that Luke was willing to listen. Thus, you have to prove a level of expertise over a subject matter before people are willing to hear your message. From that point on, however, you must continue to focus on helping the hero towards his or her goal. 

As a guide you need two important things: authority and empathy. I would argue that you need more of the latter.

In the era of points and ratings, empathy has become less of a factor in marketing, which is ultimately why it all blurs together. The messages are either about me, me, me, or they're robotic formulae that compute wine and whiskey into numeric values. Neither is very compelling as a customer hero looking for a little human guidance. 

Nevertheless, the empire is growing.

As someone who has long believed in the force of empathy when it comes to human interaction, it's disheartening. You see ego and money getting in the way of real enjoyment and passion. That's why both Obi Wan and Yoda ultimately went into isolation. 

-David Driscoll


Thank You Everyone

I'm incredibly grateful for my last ten+ years in the booze business. I'm feeling sentimental tonight. It's been a good ride.

-David Driscoll


The Roaring Twenties

There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t hear the same questions from our thirsty, whisky-loving customers: “Hey David, when do you think they’ll put the age statement back on (fill in the blank)?” While brands, advertisers, bartenders, and retailers alike can do their best to direct the conversation towards the actual flavor of whisky rather than its maturity, no one can deny the importance of that number. We’re living in the age of the sophisticated consumer. Our clients want to know exactly what they’re drinking and use each tasting experience to further their understanding of single malt as a whole, yet more and more we’re seeing NAS (no age statement) whisky expressions from most of the major companies continue to dominate the market due to a lack of mature inventory. 

As I think we’ve all experience at this point, the proliferation of NAS whiskies has put a premium on whiskies with an actual age statement. If they’re bottled at full proof, you can add an additional 25-30% to the cost. Ten year old expressions are moving to upwards of $50, while fifteen year old malts now hover around the $100 mark, making our full proof, single barrel expressions from Old Particular look mighty attractive when compared to the current market conditions. But you've heard this all before. As you're all aware, finding a whisky with richness, maturity, and the influence of two decades or more in oak (at cask strength, no less), isn't easy for under $150, let alone $100. With the pound gaining strength against the dollar, keeping these bargain costs is becoming more of a challenge, but as you all know we’re committed to giving our whisky-loving customers as many top-notch bargain options as possible, hoping to keep your liquor cabinet stocked with as many unique, delicious, and 20+ year old selections as we can—all for less than a hundred bucks.

Ultimately, we're here as your trusty guide in the great hunt for delicious booze and boutique bottlings at reasonable prices. Here are the latest two K&L exclusive releases from our friends at Old Particular:

1997 Auchentoshan 20 Year Old "Old Particular" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $89.99 - Auchentoshan, while typically overlooked as a light-bodied Lowlander, has been on the ups over the last few years thanks to a shot in the arm from Beam-Suntory who have rediscovered the dependable whisky as of late. In a series of new expressions, from the American Oak to the recently-released Bartender's Malt, the focus on value has been front and center, while improving the quality of the malt, which in our opinion has never been better. Thanks to a new appreciation for Auchentoshan with our customers, we've been digging deep into some of Scotland's warehouse archives, hoping to continue that value streak with some older, single barrel, cask strength additions and we've found yet another winner with this new 20 year old cask. Bold at 57% ABV and with loads of vanilla from the oak, this is Auchentoshan with heft and punch, but simultaneously easy to drink with lighter fruity notes and heather on the finish. While pricing for NAS cask strength whiskies is now creeping up near $100 a bottle, we're thrilled to move ahead with actual 20+ year old selections from top distilleries for the same cost. Those looking for value have come to depend on Auchentoshan as of late, and they'll find more of the same in this expression.

1991 Cameronbridge 25 Year Old "Old Particular" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Grain Scotch Whisky $79.99 - Cameronbridge is one of Diageo's workhorse grain whisky distilleries, creating the backbone for its world famous brands like Johnnie Walker and White Horse, while simultaneously serving as the home for grain neutral products like Tanqueray and Pimm's. The dual purpose site is one of the biggest producers of spirit in the UK and because of that volume we were able to snag a very hot price on a 25 year old single grain Scotch barrel, mellowed naturally at a very drinkable 45.9% ABV cask strength. Those who enjoy the simple pleasure that is grain whisky will find nothing new here, just a great value from the still misunderstood genre. Loads of vanilla and caramel mix with candied orange and spicy oak to create a smooth and supple finish. Imagine drinking the foundation of Johnnie Walker Blue on its own, with no water added, and that about summarizes the experience here. It's magical on the rocks.

-David Driscoll