Navigation
Thursday
May032018

Scotland Day 2: Family Matters

After yesterday’s extravagant tasting marathon at Glenfarclas, we’d popped down to the recently redone Dowans Hotel near Aberlour for dinner. This old building was once in disrepair and though it had onced served as a school for George’s father, the fabulous building had been left rundown and deteriorated. Recently a Glaswegian family had purchased the property and slowly refurbished the place over the last few years. Not able to afford closing the facility during refurbishment, they methodically closed one section at a time to refurbish the establishment. Now it’s one of Speyside’s most well put together little hotels and restaurants. You can feel the care and love the family has put into the building and equally so how they interact with their customers in as if we were indeed themselves part of their family.

We spent the meal reflecting on the day and trading stories about the state of the industry. It’s an interesting time to be a distiller in Scotland. Every successful business in this industry is a target for cash rich multinational corporation. Money is cheap and no one wants to pay taxes on their profits, so any excuse to spend money seems to be on the table. With Jack Daniels paying nearly a quarter of a billion dollars BenRiach Distillers and 20 some odd new distilleries on or coming on line soon, there’s a sense that the industry has reached some new period of unstoppable growth. George is skeptical and so am I.

Of course, Scotch whisky has is a cyclical business. The industry has experienced pretty consistent waves of boom and bust. Things heat up for 8-10 years before cooling off for another decade, allowing distillers to rebuild stock and reassess the market. That’s been the pattern for at least the last century. The previous bust was a bad one. Many are aware that in the early 80s a number of distilleries closed down, the result of over production and excessive hedging coupled with a downturn in sales. No one in Scotland wants to get caught with whisky they can’t sell. That attitude in hindsight seems inconceivably shortsighted considering the stuff is supposed to get better as it ages, but pouring money into “liquid assets” that literally evaporate doesn’t look good to corporate boards or international investors. Had they continued to produce at the levels they’d planned in the 70s, we’d probably have a whole lot more old whisky to sell right now, but that’s not a game the distillers wanted to play back then.

We’re 20+ years into a Scotch boom and no one here wants it to end. The world is obsessed with Scotch and its global reach and aspirational stature create an intriguing synergy of what seems like endless potential. That said, the huge majority of the volume is still sold on the low-end side of the market and that sector is showing significant signs of weakness. If young stocks begin to stagnate they put pressure on the whole system. The result might just be more focus on the high-end from the big brands, but could also be a boon for the independent bottler and blenders who are more comfortable marketing small quantities and single barrels than the big guys. All this creates a strange uneasiness in Scotland with many lauding the current trajectory, but some skeptical eyebrow. These companies must create value for shareholders and however ridiculous prices for rare scotch seem now, there’s much more money on the line for them in the volume brands.

That uneasiness is lost when you talk to someone like George, who can examine the market and make determinations about his own brand based on knowledge and gut, the power of being family owned. Independent family ownership has never been more obviously advantageous for our segment of the market than when bottom line comes into focus and things get tight. What’s amazing about George is that when I note that there’s no one else quite like Glenfarclas, he’s likely to agree, but he also points to a handful of other family owned brands that have a similarly strong positions in our important albeit niche market segment. Nex thing I know he's on the phone with them making sure they're going to play ball. These are the partners we want. My meetings today won’t be published here due to their sensitive nature, but rest assured that there are new distillers and bottlers ready and waiting to us sell single casks.

In this highly competitive and political atmosphere, patience pays off. Once the dust settles, this might just be the dawn of a new golden age of independent ownership, a small but important counterpoint to consolidation that seems limitless in this unusual industry. After all nothing matters more than family.

-David Othenin-Girard

Tuesday
May012018

Scotland Day 1: Spirit of Speyside

Technically, this is day two of the 2018 Scottish Journey. Day 0-1 was a tough travel day including an hour long line at immigration and a race to the soon closing flight to Glasgow only to find it delayed (unannounced) some 30-40 minutes. Enough time at least to stop and have a beer in terminal 5. I sat down next to cheerful Scottish gentleman who said he'd been ferried back and forth between Glasgow and Heathrow over the last several weeks for training as bar manager at airport. He'd just been on the phone with his wife who'd informed him that it was BLAZING hot in Glasgow -an unprecedented 14 degrees on May 1st. Unbelievable.

I was excited and prepared for the forecasted chilly temps and raining gloom, but when we stepped off the plane in Glasgow we were met with blue skies and a beautiful warm afternoon. This was not the end of my days travel. I hopped in the car and raced up the A9 toward Speyside, stopping only once for a quick bite in Pitlochry as the dark night set. As I passed Dalwhinnie, an indescribably beautiful moon began to rise from behind the Cairngorms. The Highlands shimmered in the pale moonlight, a good omen of things to come perhaps.

3 hours later, I pulled into Aberlour at half past 11 and searched desperately for the little cottage I'd rented. This week is Spirit of Speyside and my presence completely unrelated to the festivities is an extra burden for my suppliers. They'd nonetheless warned me early of the impending lack of accommodations. Indeed there were no hotels open and nothing available in any surrounding villages. Speyside has a distinct lack of hotel capacity, so when tourist season begins things get tight. This led me to the wonderful Roy's Croft. The little house near town complete with working farm is as cozy and well appointed as its owners are gracious. Some Advil PM and a quick check of emails and I was out like light.

This morning was equally magnificent with a brilliant blue sky, but with a strong chill setting in. The perfect highland morning. I had plans to meet one of my favorite people in this industry, George Grant owner and sales director for the Glenfarclas Distillery. It's not only George's incredible knowledge and experience that endears him; he's a genuinely a fun guy and basically an open book. His family has owned Glenfarclas in Ballindaloch for nearly 200 years. It remains one of the few independent distilleries in Speyside. It's not a small operation and the Grant's have incredible stocks that go back decades and upward of 70k casks aging.

Their whiskies are widely considered some of the finest in the country and him and his father share ownership outright. He’s one of the few people in this industry who can make a decision about his brand without consulting a marketing department, financial teams, or anyone else for that matter (for the really big stuff he’ll run it by Dad I’m sure). Considering the assets and reputation of his distinguished brand, you'd expect the guy to be totally up his own ass. But, he’s just not. He works hard to make his brand better and reach more people, but not through gimmicks or chicanery. He’s just simply committed to producing the best possible product with no apologies.

$100K worth of Sherry Butts

Whether it's his family's work ethic or just a cultural thing, George is down to earth, unassuming and generous. I've learned a lot about Scotch from the man, but he's taught me even more about life. We discuss family and friendship as much as business. This guy has got stories, most of which I can’t repeat here. He's been everywhere. He could do anything, but he honestly believes that there are things more important than making money. Doing business with people you actually respect? That's good lesson to live by. Don't burn your bridges just to build a castle Another sage takeaway. Don't tell someone to do something that you don't know how to do yourself. That one was contributed by the John Grant via George.

Needless to say, the Grants don't need our business. Honestly, the relationship is not perfectly reciprocal. I NEED Glenfarclas in my life on a personal level and I desperately want more Glenfarclas in my store on a professional level. So with that imbalance at play we set out to dig through the stocks accompanied by Tommy the warehouse manager -a "new hire" coming up on his 36th anniversary at the distillery. There’s only one person who might know the warehouses better than George, so when Tommy talks we listen. We examined casks young and old. We sipped the '53 vintage from cask, easily worth more than a million pounds alone. Next 1969 -a master piece. The extra special and unusual 1979, which David and I had bottled a cask of a few years earlier. The renowned 1994 and many more. Tasting through the family casks in cask is nothing short of transcendent. Add this to my list of moments to be grateful for.

After lunch we were back at it -now looking for things that a normal human might afford. The most striking realization throughout the afternoon was the relationship between first and refill barrels. Tommy explained that with great wood, often their goal was to get the whisky out as quick as possible (maybe around 10 years) so they could start a second maturation which everyone agreed was producing a more nuanced, complex and delicious product. These days you'll pay $1000 for a sherry butt (only $70 for bulk first fill bourbon purchased in Scotland) and they're basically made to order. They have been seasoned for 4-5 years before being dumped and sent here. There's no access to great old botas like you would have had decades earlier, but that old wood can still deliver.

We tasted a whole series of refill 10 year olds that Tommy recognized as barrels purchased in 1994 a vintage that he proclaims to be his favorite. Incidentally the '94s are not for sale, but the 2008 vintage might just be. Right now its gorgeous and with another 5-10 years in cask they might be legends. You can see the two lighter glasses here are both first fill from the same series as the two darker refills. They don't have good answers for what the hell is going on. Another take away from Scotland, you may never get all the answers. Off to Aberlour, Elgin, Dufftown tomorrow, hoping and searching for something special. Stay tuned...

 

 

Thursday
Apr262018

Distinguished Guests

When we created the Faultline program nearly 10 years ago, we were one of the only retailers in the States scouring Scotland’s warehouses to find those hidden gems for our loyal customers. It was clear even back then that if we relied on our suppliers to select casks for us, finding true winners would be little more than a game of chance. We visited nearly every bottler in Scotland to examine the wares and negotiate pricing, and those who remember the good old days know that it worked out pretty well. But, the days of finding a treasure in some far flung-shed seem to be behind us. There’s still plenty of whisky available, but price and politics have always gotten in our way. Increasing world demand, supplier savvy, and general market maturation have limited our access. We’re still able to offer wonderful casks from our great suppliers – Old Particular, Old Malt Cask, Sovereign, Hepburn’s Choice, and a handful of committed distillers – but finding casks free to bottle under our own label has been next to impossible.  

As things change, you are forced to adapt. That’s why this story is so interesting. You may have known about the Alexander Murray Company if you’re into Scotch. They’ve become famous for bottling store brands for some of the biggest retail outlets in the country. They’ve been a value player from the start – producing an incredible array of bottlings for unbelievable prices. Their focus on the mass market has been a point of contention for some of our aficionados, as a significant amount of their stocks are bottled at 80 proof and colored for consistency (that’s pretty standard throughout the Scotch production).

They DO NOT generally bottle single casks, but are in the upper tier of the distiller-broker-blender-bottler loop. That means they have access. They move a lot of juice and I guarantee they’ve made more than one Scottish person wealthy doing so. I’ve always had a great relationship with the owners, as customers and general Scotch-lovers, so when they came to me with a list of casks, I took note. In fact, they nearly took me off my feet. Old sherried whisky? How? These must be outrageously priced. And they were. “What do you think you should pay?” he responded. That is a great way to get something sold by the way…

I’m not sure if they’re cost averaging these ridiculously rare and delicious single casks with their larger bulk business or if they’re buying at such a high level that they’re legitimately looking at commodity-level cost basis, but they’ve been able to deliver on the promise (after nearly a year in the works) of supplying us with cask strength single cask single malt at absolutely outrageous prices. A significant portion has sold to the clever few in the past week and an email goes out today, but there will be few casks more valuable available this year, so don’t sit on your hands. 

Ben Nevis 21 Year Old Faultline Refill Bourbon Hogshead Cask Strength Single Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky (750ml) $89.99

This incredible collaboration between Alexander Murray and K&L is part of the first batch of Faultline casks we've had in years. There are a couple of factors that qualify a cask for inclusion in this special program. The casks must be absolutely exceptional, and they must represent the best possible value for our customers. As the whisky boom has continued to explode across the world, fewer sources are available and scarcity means higher prices. The great casks we find are less likely to be made available to us under our own brand as our suppliers want credit for great casks under their own labels. That's why this find is so incredible. Ben Nevis is an unbelievably good distillery that is unfortunately NOT regularly available in the US. It's located on the western coast of Scotland in the town of Fort Williams, and the owners are Japanese, which means that's where the whisky goes. This gorgeous old hogshead, filled once previously, was fashioned from American oak and shows all the great texture and depth we'd expect from Ben Nevis, although with none of the saltpeter or sulfur that is sometimes present in their heady distillate. Pungent and almost extreme, the nose is a concentrated particle beam of fruit and malt flavor. This cask is all about freshness, maturity, and balance. While it may not be as showy as the others on paper, the absolute purity of the aromatics and the unrelenting energy of this malt will leave a lasting impression on anyone lucky enough to procure one.

Mortlach 22 Year Old Faultline First Fill Sherry Butt Cask Strength Single Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky (750ml) $119.99 

We almost never see Mortlach available for sale by the cask in Scotland. If we do it's almost certainly in a third or fourth fill barrel and almost certainly young and expensive. Even the underwhelming NAS bottling from the distillery still costs $100. Why is it so expensive and hard to get? That answer starts with a J and ends with a Walker. There's just too much money in that special blend to let these casks out of the system. When they do make it out, there's usually a reason. On the rarest of occasions, likely the result some fortuitous clerical error or bad bets by a London executive, we might happen across something like this. Two decades old Mortlach always raise eyebrows around here. Tell me it's been aged in a fresh sherry butt, can be sold for around $100, and tastes amazing? I'm looking like a Vince McMahon Reaction meme -almost a wrestling reference. Even more exciting is that it truly is Mortlach for the masses. Sometimes the beefy gnarly quality of the distillery, the result of an unusual multi-still distillation process, can overwhelm the uninitiated. This cask, however, is so fun and forgiving with all that wonderful Mortlach meat playing second fiddle to the dense sherry and dark malt flavors. There's no question that this is going to be the cask, among all our recent Faultline releases to consider stocking deep. It's very unlikely that we'll ever see value and quality converging quite like this again. Let's all pray that we can keep pulling casks this good.

Bunnahabhain 28 Year Old Faultline First Fill Sherry Hogshead Cask Strength Single Cask Single Malt Whisky (750ml) $149.99

We've had an incredible set of old Bunnahabhains over the last two years. This isn't our first Bunnah under the Faultline label, that was released in 2013 and was a steal for $100. We've bottled Milroys, Hepburns, Exclusive Malts, and multiple Old Particulars in the last few seasons. The sale of the distillery a few years ago has certainly sparked some house cleaning at the gorgeous old distillery in the cove north of Port Askaig. While we've had many exemplary old offerings from this special distillery, none represent quite as much value as this special cask. 1989 was an unusual year for Bunnahabhain. Something unusual happened that year, as a significant number of old casks from the vintage have turned out malt whisky at considerably lower proof than is typical. Perhaps they'd procured an excess number of casks that vintage and decided to fill at lower proof or maybe all the stuff we're seeing today was stored in EXTREMELY humid conditions, thereby encouraging the evaporation at a higher rate. We may never know why these whiskies are so different from other vintages, but its obvious after tasting several that something special was going on. The heights achieved here are totally unique and deliver an experience unlike any other. Fill that into a fresh sherry hogshead and you've got what is likely one of the most interesting cask we've ever bottled. What's even more incredible is that the "Bunnahabhaininess" still shines through after nearly decades. Oh and that price, dang.

Mortlach 28 Year Old Faultline First Fill Sherry Hogshead Cask Strength Single Cask Single Malt Whisky (750ml) $149.99

We've always looked to make Faultline about providing exquisite values for our customers. This is the third Mortlach we've procured under the Faultline brand and the oldest to date. The last time we had Mortlach it was nearly the precise opposite style of this wild cask. Three years ago we found a 25-year-old Mortlach in a refill hoggie and bottled it at over 60% alcohol. If you're lucky, maybe you have that bottle in your cellar to compare to this one which is opposite in style in almost every way. Filled almost three decades ago into a fresh sherry hogshead, it must have been stored in an extremely humid warehouse since it's only 84 proof at full strength. This is real deal Mortlach with the savory beefy quality front and center. It's something like walking into an old wooden house, perfectly preserved antique leather furniture, mahogany cabinetry, and in the kitchen a great big pot of stew bubbles slowly on the stove. Inviting, warm, complex, and yet somehow familiar - there will be very few whiskies comparable to this one available this year and absolutely NONE anywhere near this ridiculous price point. We could probably sell this whisky for twice the price and still convince everyone that it's a steal. Though it's not as approachable and universally likeable as its younger sibling, some of our die hard customers will undoubtedly find this cask to be one of the finest we've ever procured.

We're off to scotland next to find more stuff. Keep an eye on the blog for updates...

-David Othenin-Girard


Monday
Apr232018

Back Shelf Treasures: Copper & Kings Butchertown Brandy

Kentucky's Copper & Kings has become sort of the High West of brandy. They distill their own spirits, but most of their bottlings are composed of sourced spirits from various distilleries that they blend. Like High West, they have been pioneers in this sort of blending and have done a lot with innovative finishing as well.  My favorite from C&K is still the original Butchertown Brandy – their cask strength, non-chill filtered blend of pot-stilled brandies from all over the place.  Here's what I said about it on my blog when I first tasted it a few years ago: 

 The nose is spicy with light fruit like a good Cognac. The palate opens with sweet grapes and cocoa. Midway through, it takes on spice which gets stronger through the finish which is spicy on the palate but fruity on the nose. It's got great flavor, though you can definitely feel the high abv. Where it really shines though is with a splash of water. Water brings out a fuller fruit on the nose and a more rounded palate which synthesizes the fruit and the wood. It was tasty without the water, but with the splash, it tastes like one of those great single cask Cognacs that K&L has brought in over the last few years. 

Find the Butchertown online at KLWines.com

Back then, I happily paid $60 for a bottle of Butchertown, calling it "a great price for the quality you're getting." Now, K&L has it on sale at almost half that price, and there's plenty of it. 

- Sku

Wednesday
Apr182018

Whisky Windfall

I talk a lot about how the whisky well is drying up. I’m constantly reminding everyone how hard it is to find great casks and how astounding the relentless increase in prices has been. It's not because I like to brag about our ability to source awesome whisky, but because I'm legitimately concerned that one day we might not have the same access we once had. Yesterday I tasted through a line of new and very attractive independently bottled single malts. This is a brand developed by a medium sized drinks company who is a relatively large player in the European market. The whiskies are all between 9 and 10 years old and from very respectable distilleries. Nothing rare or unusual, but good workhorse malts like Linkwood and Miltonduff. I was super psyched to have a new partner to deal with, a potential source for single casks in the future, not to mention the rare bonus that their packaging was great.

The whiskies were all solid, not single casks, but small batches of a few thousand cases. That means these guys are buying enough to be get bulk pricing either direct from distillery or from the next tier down - the very secretive broker market. Most likely they're buying this stuff when it's really young and hanging onto it for a few years before bottling. They likely pay a few pounds per pure liter or alcohol plus another pound or so per year. That's how bulk commodity pricing works in Scotch. If you're willing to commit to a lot of volume the raw cost is not VERY high. It's all the other stuff that starts to make it expensive –taxes, time, angels, logistics, marketing, packaging, etc. Of course, we'd love to be able to purchase at that level, but it's not that simple. It doesn't make economical sense for us to buy quantities like this. It’s not the worst investment, you're by no means guaranteed the top quality whisky we require. That demands additional investment in quality casks, the know how and logistics to fill and warehouse your own product, not to mention bottling and whatnot. So I'm excited when I see someone new who can operate on that level. There's so much potential for exciting products, but executing a viable brand launch takes much more than just potential.  

After walking myself through the various marks, some cask strength and others at 92 proof, I was feeling good about the prospects. Each whisky was a great example of the specific distillery and all had uniqueness despite their similarity on paper. When we came around to discussing price, my excitement turned to utter disbelief. The look on my face must have made it obvious.  9 and 10 year old Single Malt for $80-100? Who is going to buy this stuff? If it was Lagavulin, Ardbeg, sherried Macallan or Glenfarclas, maybe this might just maybe make sense. I broached the subject with caution. They insisted the prices seemed right in line with the market. They'd done the research on comparable products and priced them accordingly. The brands were doing great in Europe!

Ultimately they might be right - tons of young whisky is being marketed and sold by independents at wildly inflated prices. But I cannot stock products just because they exist. I often find myself defending our stocking choices to geeks who ask why we don't have more independent bottlers on the shelf. They remember a time when the independent bottler was providing so much value that to consider buying a distillery brand seemed ridiculous. Now it seems the opposite is true. The simple answer for these folks is that if the suppliers can't provide value for my customers, there's no point in buying them no matter how cool or rare they are. When we find a product that delivers real value, we'll buy them. A pretty bottle and romantic story only go so far. In the end, we can sell you one bottle of nearly ANYTHING, but if you don't go home crack ‘er open and immediately start think about buying a second then we're not doing our job well enough.

Today I'm not going to sell you 10 year old whisky in third fill casks for $100+, but instead old delicious rare single malt for not much more at all. These are the types of barrels that make me question the business model of some many people in this industry. Luckily, they reaffirm everything we’ve tried to prove over the last ten years. These are the final two single malts from Old Particular until the summer. We may have saved the best for last...

Bunnahabhain 25 Year Old "Old Particular" K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky (750ml) $159.99

This 25 year Bunnahabhain isn't just from a "refill hogshead" barrel, it's from a sherry hogshead and the dark, rich color of the malt lets you know at first glance that this is going to be one supple dram. Bunnahabhain, unpeated in its classic expression, takes on a completely different character in sherry than its Islay counterparts. While sherried Bowmore tends toward savory campfire notes and sherried Kilchoman towards sweet peat, sherried Bunnahabhain is like pure salted caramel, combining the sea elements of island maturation with the mouthcoating texture of a textbook Speyside malt. After 25 years in the barrel, this incredible specimen came out at 49.5% cask strength with an absolutely incredible color. Sweet sherry dances with caramelized apples and pears, lots of Oloroso rancio, and loads of oak spice on the finish. You'll be thinking more along the lines of Macallan and Glenfarclas than Islay at the end of this one. This is a MUST for sherry heads.

Bowmore 20 Year Old "Old Particular" K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky (750ml) $149.99

Another classic 20 year old Bowmore beauty from our friends at Old Particular has landed to make 2018 another banner year for our whisky import program. This 52.7% ABV stunner packs a healthy dollop of smoke along with tropical fruits and notes of citrus with plenty of length through the finish. The peat isn't nearly as pronounced in this expression as it was in the previous edition, so fans of Talisker or other mildly peated malts might want to take a look at this one. The finish is sweetly smoked with a coastal sea air element, notes of vanilla, and lots of spice. It's hard to go wrong with classic Bowmore at full proof, especially at this age.

Two Islay whiskies that couldn't be more different, but both stunning examples of what each distillery has to offer. We going to keep the exceptional whiskies flowing for as long as we can. When we get stupendous casks like this it feels like the party might never end. For those paying attention, the Faultline casks were delayed along with the IRS filing deadline. They should be in the main warehouse and ready to go in the next few hours. You'll have a few more days to take a first crack at those before the rest of the world catches on. 

-David Othenin-Girard