Navigation
Tuesday
Aug212018

Smooth Ambler Wheated Bourbon

We are at a very special point in the growth of the whiskey boom. We've waited years for the tipping point, the singularity, that moment in time when everything changes. That day when a new distillery releases their own juice on a commercial scale. You know, where you can actually get your hands on a bottle or two without having to sell your soul. The full ramification of this moment remains to be seen, but I have no doubt it will be only good for the whiskey drinker. More options of quality booze, made in new and interesting ways, will flood the market with top-notch hooch and, ultimately, I hope, drive prices down. Drinking well will never be easier or cheaper then it will be in the coming years.

Many of the "older" craft distilleries are finally reaching this moment. They are coming online with products of their own making. This signals a massive shift in the way consumers perceive their booze makers. As any reader of this blog is already aware, many of the "new" brands in the whisky market over the last fifteen years are rehashed pre-prohibition labels with some loose historical tie, real or imagined, to the modern purveyor. These labels adorn bottles of whisky made in one of a few large facilities that pumped out thousands of barrels, which were eventually sold to entrepreneurial individuals starting a drinks company. A few folks did this tremendously well and with great transparency. Many others did not, and they eventually paid the price as proud owners of new brands that no one wanted because the customer felt duped.

Now, some brands managed to find great success with this sourced whiskey model. Each one of those big successes was always upfront about their intentions. They made clear that they were sourcing whiskey, focusing on quality, blending it in creative and exciting ways, and all the while dedicating their production efforts to one day making a great whiskey of their own. Smooth Ambler is just such a company. This West Virginia distillery cut their teeth by blending Indiana and Tennessee distillate to great acclaim in their Old Scout American Whiskey. They stepped outside of the established order and chose to age part of their whiskey in re-charred barrels, eliminating the Bourbon designate from their labels. This creativity and transparency paid off. They've won numerous awards for these expressions and we've sought out and purchased single barrels here at K&L due the their extremely high quality.

Further down the line, as their own wheated distillate aged and built up some stocks, Smooth Ambler released Contradiction. The results were equally well received. Like Whistle Pig's Farmstock, this blend of house made whiskey and merchant whiskey gave a sneak peek at something new and a window into the world beyond sourced whiskey. The final result in the case of Contradiction was something like a four-grain bottling. Rich, mature sweet corn flavors melded with the punch of rye and creamy texture of wheat.

And now, finally, the moment has arrived where Smooth Ambler's 100% West Virginia Made Wheated Bourbon is readily available at K&L. Batch number 1 was only available in tiny quantity at the distillery. The next release has just hit our shelves.  The Big Level Bourbon is a wheated bourbon 100% mashed, distilled, aged, proofed, and bottled at the Smooth Ambler distillery in Maxwelton, WV and receives no chill filtration prior to bottling. While it doesn't carry an age statement, it is all 5+year old whiskey and aged in #4 char 53-gallon barrels. The mashbill includes 71% corn, 21% wheat, and 8% malted barley. It's everything you want a craft whiskey to be. Their annual production hovers around 3000 barrels a year. The results of their painstaking work are phenomenal.

The whiskey is bright and lifted. Old enough to have the wood extremely well integrated, but young enough to have zip and life without the heavy dusty tones of very old bourbon. The nose is overwhelmingly that of creamy and sweet batter, like a Sunday morning making pancakes with dad. There is cinnamon and nutmeg running amuck mixed with brown sugar and melted butter. The palate is warm and inviting. It showcases the creamy nature of wheated whiskey beautifully. If you cannot find that bottle of Pappy you've asked every shop in town for, don't hesitate to give this a try instead. The sweet corn that accounts for 71% of the bill ramps up and powers through the finish. The 50% ABV carries that finish on for a very long time.

I've been asked over and over again, where I think the whiskey industry is going since I've taken over the spirit buying role in Northern California. I've had a number of answers over the last few months ranging from "the bubble has to burst eventually" to "the sky is the limit." If all of the new whiskey distilleries out there can come up with something even half as good as the Big Level, I will definitely keep looking towards the sky.

Smooth Ambler "Big Level" Wheated Straight Bourbon Whiskey (750ml) - $54.99

Whistle Pig "Farmstock" Rye Crop No. 002 Whiskey (750ml) - $69.99

 

-Andrew Whiteley

 

Friday
Aug172018

Bourbon's Beggars

 

The last few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of the spirits world. I’m hooked on the magnificent and diverse realm of rum and the weird wide world of brandy. These spirits have a true sense of place and their merits have gone underappreciated for decades. Few things offer a higher dollar to deliciousness ratio or a better combination of history, authenticity, terroir and artisanal quality. Inspite of the incredible inroads these exciting categories have made in the modern zeitgeist; another can still offer an unmatched experience for the serious drinker. Bourbon as a whole was exactly that twenty years, an undervalued overproduced commodity whisky that only a tiny sliver of the drinking classes accepted as highbrow enough to merit serious consideration. It offered its lucky lovers stupendous amounts of pleasure, while the laymen sat back smuggly and said, "$50 for a bottle of bourbon. What are you stupid?" As bourbon has drifted into the mainstream, the already limited amounts of top quality bourbon have become that much more allocated. People who once lived and died by the unique bluegrass booze are often the very people searching these new categories for a way to achieve the same enjoyement.

It’s been frustrating for a lot of people, seeing great products that used to be staples become allocated and unavailable. Watching the primary market prices jump above the illicit secondary market levels. Sitting helplessly while age statements are removed and origins are obfuscated. It’s frustrating on our end when suppliers raise prices, although I have to give credit to Kentucky, they've done an incredible job of keeping prices consistent while demand explodes. Those extra dollars aren't usually going back to the distiller, but instead to your local retailers who rightfully covet special proudcts when they're lucky enough to acquire them. Economics 101 tells us that Kentucky's commitment price parity will inevitably breed scarcity. So for anyone buying booze on the bulk market to bottle, business has gotten pretty tough. We’ve seen the wholesale price of interesting products like the second batch of Kentucky Owl 11 Year Straight Rye, which jumped by nearly 80% for exactly that reason. We've had to raise our price and make less money per bottle than the last batch, but we're still the lowest in the country. In most cases, our price for the new batch is lower than retailers who are selling the first batch which cost them significantly less. Honestly the quality and rarity of this age stated Kentucky rye likely merits the high price from a business stand point, yet there’s still some psychological block that makes me want to apologize to people for the higher price while they continue to buy it.

It’s not at all doom and gloom in Kentucky though. We’re about to prove that over the next couple of months. This category continues to offer absolutely outstanding value and a drinking experience difficult to replicate even in the newly fashionable world of rum or brandy. Whether it’s the five casks of Four Roses arriving soon or the eight barrels of Russell’s Reserve we’ve secured nothing delivers like Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey. If you’ve got about $50-60 to spend on a nice bottle of booze, it’s easy to argue that bourbon remains the best choices. The category gives diminishing returns on investment as the prices escalate particularly if you're not careful how you spend your money, but if you know where to look and the timing is right – ain't no better way to spend $50 than this badass little whiskey.

1792 "Full Proof" K&L Exclusive Single Barrel #2111 Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey (750ml) $50

-David Othenin-Girard

Monday
Aug132018

400 Bottles of Booze on the Wall: A Cautionary Tale

I have 400 bottles of booze in my closet – mostly whiskey, brandy, rum with random other stuff thrown in. I know this because I recently had to termite tent my home. As local readers know, Los Angeles is home to a termite-industrial complex that requires that every 7 to 10 years, owners of any wooden structure in Southern California must pay thousands of dollars to put a wildly colored circus tent over their homes and fill it with poison to eradicate small wood-eating pests that the termite company swears are there.  Perhaps this is why we don’t make bourbon in Los Angeles, because you could only age it for 10 years before you would have to termite tent the barrels – though that would undoubtedly make for special, limited edition “Termite Tent” editions of bourbon.

 

In any case, one of the things you have to do before making your home into a colorful death circus is remove anything that is edible by human or beast. So I had to remove my whiskey…all of it.  In doing so, I disposed of probably 100 bottles that I no longer had use for – mostly the latest craft whiskey or private label Indiana bourbon that I felt obligated to try, trashed on my blog, and then never touched again. This filled up a recycling bin and demonstrated to me that I have bad neighbors, because if they were good neighbors, they would have called 911 or at least had a talk with me about my drinking since I had 100 EMPTY BOTTLES OF WHISKEY IN THE TRASH. But they didn’t, so I know now that I have either (1) bad neighbors or (2) neighbors so unconcerned with my well-being that they don’t look in my recycling bin.

Even after disposing of 100 bottles of trash whiskey, I still have 400 bottles. I’m not sure where all of these bottles came from. I remember 20 years ago I bought a bottle of Glenfiddich, but after that, it’s all a bit fuzzy. Some of the bottles definitely came in the mail, others were tokens from my visits to exotic and faraway places and their liquor stores, but I can’t for the life of me understand how that became more than about a dozen bottles.

Every person has their individual tolerance for bottles invading their homes, but for me, four hundred bottles is too many bottles. Twenty or even ten years ago, when I was young and sprightly, this probably did not seem like too many bottles.  I drank plentifully back then, doing random blind tastings and side-by-side comparisons on a whim for blog posts, and sending out samples far and wide. I enjoyed buying and sampling and buying more. It was fun, which is how I ended up with so many bottles.

 But now I am old and whatever the opposite of sprightly is, and I don’t drink as much and so the number of bottles no longer declines, and new ones still seem to occasionally appear, though I have no idea how or why.

 I saw this problem coming. Seven or eight years ago I had an idea to fix it. I would invite people over to drink all of these bottles.  I threw a big party in the hopes that people would drink from these bottles. It would be like the song 100 Bottles of Beer – take one down pass it around – and the number of bottles slowly decreases, and before you know it you’ve completed your drive to Big Bear or at least to the In ‘n Out on the way to Big Bear and there are zero bottles of beer on the wall. It was a great party, and I’ve thrown one every year since, but it didn’t work. Whiskey geeks, or at least the ones I invite to my party, are generous creatures, and when they come to my party, they each bring not one, but many of their own bottles to share, and even leave some with me, so to my consternation, I often end up with MORE bottles after the party.

 Of course, I know that there are people that sell their bottles, but I can’t do that for a number of reasons:

 

  1.  It’s illegal, or mostly illegal, and despite having a short arrest record, I tend to follow the law. Ironically, I live in California, so if my closet was filled with marijuana, I would probably be able to legally sell it, but private individuals can’t legally sell alcohol, so I am stuck with it. 

 

  1. I’m a terrible investor.  I know people who collected tons of rare whiskey – Pappy Van Winkle, Brora, A.H. Hirsch, Port Ellen, other Van Winkles that you can’t call Pappy or people will yell at you, etc.- when it was cheap and plentiful and now sell them for millions or even billions of dollars. I was there in the early 2000s and I did buy all that stuff when it was cheap and plentiful (though keep in mind that for anyone who does not spend their spare time reading liquor store blogs, the $150 I paid for Port Ellens back them would not seem cheap but more like a monstrous amount to pay for one bottle of whiskey that is not so different from the dozens of bottles you could get for less, but I digress).  As I said, I did buy all that stuff, but I drank it, because it was tasty, and it was whiskey, and I was under the misguided impression that that’s what one does with tasty whiskey. So what I’m left with is bottles of 10 year old Edradour from 2007 and weird Bruichladdich one-offs and random vintage Balblairs and Glenrothes and bottlings of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Still, they would each probably make $50 to $100 at auction, minus the insurance, transportation fees and commission, but if anyone likes old bottles of young Edradour, please let me know.

 

  1. They are mostly open. As I said, I buy whiskey because I like to drink it, so when I get a new bottle, I usually taste it, but I am told that this is a grave mistake because the secondary market for open bottles of whiskey, even mostly full open bottles, is quite weak these days.

 

Now, it is not my intention to tell you not to buy bottles of booze (nor I imagine would K&L endorse such a message on its blog), but do let my experience stand as a cautionary tale to you who are young and sprightly or old and more sprightly than I. If you don’t pay attention and instead pay money, bottles can accrue like triffids or tribbles or tree frogs or some other invasive species, and before you know it, you will be wondering not how to get more bottles but what to do with those you have and whether any of your relatives would be more thankful than furious to learn, upon your untimely death, that they are now in possession of a bequest of four hundred of bottles of booze on the wall. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go pick up a new order – will call Hollywood.

-Sku

Thursday
Aug022018

The Pappy of Nothing

I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking in depth about the future of rum and what it means for our customers. A lot of new rum drinkers are finding this exciting haven in the special niche that is high-quality rum precisely because it differs so starkly from the whisky game. Seasoned Scotch drinkers and bourbon connoisseurs often look at the complex rum category and think, “now there’s a nasty pot of shit I don’t want to step in!” They’re happy to stick to the familiarity of their grain-based tipples, scoring the odd choice bottle here and there, draining the reserves on special occasions, and continuing to drink extremely well with some everyday offerings from Kentucky, Scotland, and Japan that really deliver.

The most adventurous or more incensed have turned toward other categories to get their fix. As excited as they are to explore a new, vast landscape of cane-based spirits, there’s an incredible amount of trepidation. Not only are people more cautious because they're less familiar with the products, they’re Both the Premise and 2004 Full Proof are in stock nowextremely worried about getting burned again-- spending money on something that doesn’t deliver or falling in love with something that they’ll never see again.

Finding that special thing that you can afford, attain, and enjoy is a wonderful feeling. The purity of experience is unlike any other, something that bourbon nerds probably remember if they started 20ish years ago. It’s a state of bliss that today’s experiential checklist culture doesn’t fully appreciate. Maximum experience is not an integer; it’s a state of mind. That nirvanic equilibrium is fragile though. Rum lover bliss got a switch kick to the crotch last year when our friend Fred Minnick declared Foursquare’s special releases to be “the Pappy of Rums” for their scarcity and ubiquitous admiration.

That knocked the wind from the sails of even the most irreverent rum pirate, but I would argue that there is lot of difference between what they’re doing at Foursquare and the Pappy brand. For one thing, Richard Seale, the owner and master distiller of Foursquare, makes his own hooch. The Van Winkles got out of distilling in the 1972, but they’ve always been great sales people and continued for decades to bottle some of the best bourbons the country had ever seen. In the 1990s when high-end bourbon started to turn on, mostly thanks to the Japanese market, the Van Winkles purchased large amounts of the stocks from their former distillery, Stitzel-Weller. Those special whiskies are what built the Pappy brand, and eventually the spiritual home of the brand moved to Frankfurt with Buffalo Trace so that the brand could survive the end of those special stocks.

 

What I’m saying is that there was a reason back in the heady old days why people were spending $100 on a bottle of bourbon. It seemed outrageous at the time to so many, but for the lucky few who knew, they owned a part of history -something irreplaceable. Others just slung it back ‘cause it tasted pretty darn good.

Buffalo Trace and the Van Winkles did an incredible job capitalizing on that story and ultimately transitioned to new stocks without much notice from the average consumer, but if you look closely you’ll see older bottlings command much higher prices than current stocks. A testament to that legacy. There was a lot of chest thumping about how bourbon was coming back in the old days. Everyone wanted you to try this awesome thing they had found. Groups of collectors communicated about awesome find via Newsgroups and internet chat boards. The explosion of interest in the category came from within, not from some external forces. Bourbon people were genuinely excited about what they were drinking and wanted to share it with everyone.

That sense of camaraderie is all but dead now a days. Scarcity has created competition. An illegal and unregulated secondary market has created speculators, further driving up prices at legitimate establishments. The rum people really don’t want this to happen to their little slice of the pie. They’re probably not happy I’m talking about it at all. But, there are massive differences.

At Foursquare they're distilling and blending rum. Yes they’re coveted. Yes some stores will mark them up significantly, but I’ve yet to meet the rum nerd who is willing to pay 10 times MSRP for a bottle of Foursquare. In a relative sense, it’s also a lot more available! I’ve just received 30 cases of the incredible 2004 Full Proof that was supposed to be all gone months ago. No mark up, no shenanigans, just awesome rum for a great price. They made a good bit of the 2005 that’s been trickling out, and, while the distributors are being a bit more careful with it than in previous years, people who look will find it. This year’s special release, Dominus, will indeed be extremely limited. Thanks to a trademark issue most of that rum will be sold in Europe.

But what I’m saying is that this awesome distillery in Barbados is producing tons of rum each year. The world-wide interest in the products will only encourage them to distill and bottle even more. Yes some will be hard to get, but it will never be like Pappy.

Caroni on the other hand…

Velier Caroni 17 Year Old "High Proof" Trinidad Rum (750ml) $199.99

-David Othenin-Girard

 

Tuesday
Jul242018

Relativity

Picking the best spirit at any price point is an interesting way to start a discussion about value. Objective quality is something that can be measured empirically. You can ask a distillery how the ingredients were chosen, what the recipe requires, the technical details of fermentation, distillation and aging. Compare those details to the decisions made at similar distilleries and you'll draw conclusions about the products made there. But technical detail is meaningless without context both sensory and situational. Taste a product and you can tell if it’s good, bad, or great. If done blind you can make an unbiased assessment of the flavors and feelings it gives you and perhaps assign a score or other qualification explaining its inherent values. 

I don't believe, however, that you can make a subjective determination about a product in a vacuum. Objective quality is inherently tied to several factors beyond just what goes into the bottle. As a drinker and buyer of whisk(e)y almost every decision I make is a function of my feelings or knowledge of the objective quality and the potentially level of enjoyment I might receive from other products that might cost less or more. I’m in a unique position of having tasted nearly everything that I sell, but on the wine side I’m constantly making purchases based on my excitement for a particular winery, the availability of those wines and their price on the shelf. There are thousands of wines that I would buy tomorrow if I didn’t have a budget.  

The scenario plays out every day on the sales floor. Invariably, someone will bring up the state of the whiskey world. Usually it's a regular who is raging about the price of Van Winkle at some shop in Beverly Hills. "Don't believe the hype," they tell other customers. "The internet ruined bourbon," they might say. I'm usually there to talk them off the ledge and get them thinking about how much incredible bourbon is still out there for absolutely incredible prices. There are mountains great bourbon for less than $50 and pretty much the entire category remains under $100 with the exception of those few rarities. Certain products do command wild prices on the open market.

It frustrates a lot of people (part of why we’ve committed to selling rare whisky at our normal mark up), but it's also one of the basic tenants of a free economy. Scarcity raises prices. I often fight back against the notion that Pappy is overrated. It's not overrated at all, it's extremely rare and delicious bourbon. It's overpriced. And not by the people who make it. It's overpriced by the people who BUY it. The relative high price of these rare bourbons makes the availability of wonderful affordable whisky for $30 that much more astonishing. Grab a bottle of David Nicholson for $27 and I guarantee you're not going to have 1/100th the experience of Pappy 20 year at $2700.

This brings us to the issue at hand, one of the single best deals of whisky we’ve ever had. Cutty Sark is a fine old brand. Created by BB&R in 1923, targeting the closed American market, it became one of the most popular whiskies in the country in the 1960s. Their entry level offering is a classic, but nothing we'd ever bother with. Yet, affordable blended Scotch is something that's always had a place on our shelves because it can offer an incredible drinking experience for a really reasonable price. Remember that old Faultline Blend anyone? Just about the time that special little product dried up, Cutty Sark released a re-imagined version of their historical blend. Adding more malt whisky and a higher proof, it became a go to for the store under $30.

Close links to the Edrington Group and their eventual purchase of the brand, meant that the blenders had access to some incredible stocks (Macallan, Glenrothes, Highland Park, etc.). But Edrington doesn't really do "value brands". Their a luxury company now and recently decided to put the brand and its home base, the Glenturret Distillery, up for sale. The resulting fallout has reverberated across the distribution networks and created one of the most significant closeouts we've ever seen. I was perfectly happy to recommend Cutty Prohibition when it was $28.99. It's good solid whisky with no gimmicks. Round rich and obviously maltier than most blends on the market, it has tiniest wisps of background smoke that allude to an older style and age gone by. Right now, dollar for dollar this is one of the best whiskies in the store. We got 50 cases, but there's no telling what the new owners will do with the brand.

Cutty Sark "Prohibition Edition" Blended Scotch Whisky (750ml) $14.99

-David Othenin-Girard