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Thursday
Jul132017

The Future of American Whiskey

I had the pleasure of dining with Westland's head distiller and whiskey creator Matt Hofmann this past Monday and talking in depth about not only the Garryana project, but also the future of whisky-making for the Seattle distillery. These guys are just on another level, and now that they've partnered with Bruichladdich under the Remy umbrella, I think the sky is the limit. There's something about not having to worry about where your next check is coming from that allows some people to flourish. It can definitely make a lazy person even lazier, but in Matt's case his ambition and creativity is only being fueled by the additional time he can now spend on shaping his vision.

Case in point: the new edition of Westland Garryana. Not only is it the best single malt made in America, it's quickly becoming one of the best American whiskies—period. For those of you who don't know the story, you can click here and get the full scoop, but the short version is that Matt and company decided to make barrels out of a type of oak native to the Pacific Northwest and use that whiskey as an ingredient in their terroir-driven expressions. Much like Suntory uses Japanese mizunara oak to create an exotic flavor in its Yamazaki expressions, Westland is creating its own unique calling card and I happen to find that spicy, intense, and heady Garryana flavor quite intoxicating. I'm a big fan. 

The second release of Garryana is a more restrained and focused expression of what Matt originally hoped to showcase with the native oak project. Whereas the initial release was a big, bold, and brash expression, full of spice and a bit of smoke, this year's edition dials back the peat and lets the oak have center stage. With 21% of the blend coming from Oregon Garryana barrels, the impact of that influence is allowed to better integrate into harmony with the remaining 52% of ex-Bourbon-aged malt, along with the 27% virgin oak matured whisky. Still present is the BBQ smoke, the molasses, the coffee bean, and robust flavor that highlighted last year's release, but this time around its under complete control, bent and shaped into precisely the right proportions. Many of us here at K&L thought the 2016 Garryana was one of the best whiskies of last year, and seeing that this year's total production was a measly 2600 bottles, we recommend jumping on the one bottle we're allowing customers to buy. Westland has proven again and again that they are America's premier single malt distillery. The 2017 release of Garryana should put any last doubts to bed.

The future is now.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jul122017

Warm Weather Scotch

Before there was such an incredible diversity of spirits in the retail world—before you were expected to have multiple expressions of mezcal from both cultivated and wild agave piñas—there was such a thing as diversity of Scotch. Much like with beer, you used to see drinkers choose between a light and easy dram (a pilsner), a refreshing Lowland (a lager), and maybe a sherried Speyside (a stout). Today, however, when I go to the bar I can often choose only between an IPA, a double IPA, or a triple IPA, with a barrel-aged sour tacked on the menu just for credibility's sake. In the same fashion, the Scotch world has been whittled down to either cask strength sherry bombs or ultra-peated Islays. Does anyone still drink Auchentoshan? Anyone for a dram of Dalwhinnie? Anyone?

Hello? (crickets)

Of course, beer drinkers and whisky makers are simply responding to the market and right now the market wants IPAs and sherry bombs. That being said, the market is (in my opinion) being utterly dominated by people who don't really drink, or drink only to affect some sort of knowledgeable booze guru personality on to the rest of us. Those of us who do like to drink beer (as in have three or four pints after work, not spend five hours sipping a 15% ABV triple stout aged with blackberries and mistletoe), usually have to struggle to find something fun to drink that fits the mood of the season.

The wine world doesn't have this problem. While some folks drink cabernet year round, the large majority of bars, restaurants, and retailers will pour heavy amounts of rosé and white during summer and switch over to the heartier cuvées come fall and winter. Whisky drinkers, however (at least in America), haven't quite learned how to adapt (hey, it took Agassi a few years before he finally donned the Wimbledon whites). Heavy peat and supple sherry is for September through February. Come March, you switch over to the lighter malts.

Seeing that we're in July, I thought I'd offer you a true summer whisky, one that brings vivacious fruit and sensational sweetness while still adhering to all the cool, geeky things we love about single malt. Most people still picture sherry matured malts when they think of the Speyside district (formerly known as Glenlivet until that got too confusing), but the region's bread and butter is still the soft, fruity, charming, malt-driven style you'll find inside this bottle of Auchroisk 15 year old. Part of the Johnnie Walker empire, we occasionally see Auchroisk here in the states as a Diageo limited edition release, but rarely as a consistently-bottled single malt expression. This particular specimen is like a fresh blast of summer with a huge dose of peaches and apricots on the nose that continue to emanate from the bottle once it's been opened. The palate is seductively sweet, but also light on its feet, with flavors of stonefruit, maple syrup, and bit of compote on the finish, before it turns malty once again and beckons another taste. Bottled at 54.5%, you'd never know this whisky was running at full proof. It's as relaxing and airy as a summer breeze, making this the perfect dram for your backyard barbeques and July campfire evenings. Sixty bucks for 15 year old, cask strength single malt? The summer deals continue!

2001 Auchroisk 15 Year Old "Old Particular" K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $59.99

-David Driscoll

Monday
Jul102017

More Summer Deals

Ignore the scribbled-out Allt-a-Bhainne to the right, as that cask is just about sold out, but have a look at the two smoky six year old beauties to the left. I've gotta make some room for new casks, so I'm going to run a little special on these peated values. Previously fifty bucks, now a cool $39.99. Grab 'em while they're hot, while it's hot.

2009 Talisker 6 Year Old "Old Malt Cask" Single Barrel Single Malt Whisky $39.99

2009 Caol Ila 6 Year Old "Old Malt Cask" Single Barrel Single Malt Whisky $39.99

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Jul092017

Cheater Brands

I had never heard of the term cheater brand until I watched an episode of The Real Housewives of New York where Bethenny Frankel railed on her pal Sonja Morgan for creating a booze brand called "Tipsy Girl," a direct response to Bethenny's highly-successful "Skinny Girl" line. Needless to say, Bethenny wasn't pleased.

"It's a cheater brand," she told Sonja. In essence, a product that capitalizes on the success of another by mimicking and copying its core elements. Since that encounter, I've been using the phrase nonstop; mainly because there are a lot of cheater brands out there if you pay attention to local business.

But is there such a thing as a cheater location? That seems like the new strategy for businesses lacking a moral compass.

For example, those of you who live near Burlingame are likely familiar with the outstanding Burmese restaurant Mingalaba. I've been going there since it first opened and it's easily one of my favorite spots on the Peninsula. It was the only Burmese option around (unless you felt like driving to Burma Superstar in the city) until a funny thing happened. Literally right next door, another Burmese place opened called Best of Burma. Not down the street. Not around the block. In the spot immediately next door. I was shocked. So was Mingalaba's owner Sandra. I remember asking her one day: "What's up with that?"

She just shrugged her shoulders and grimaced. 

Why did another Burmese restaurant open immediately next door to an incredibly successful Burmese restaurant? I don't know for sure, but I can guess: probably because they did a study and found that a lot of people went to that block of Burlingame Avenue to eat Burmese food. What better place to open a Burmese restaurant?!

I'm guessing that's the same reason a SoulCycle just opened up near my house in San Mateo, again literally next door (as in sharing a wall) with a different cycling center called Revelry that had already established that corner as its home base. That's some shady shit, don't you think?

Or maybe you view it as healthy competition. Different people might see the struggles of capitalism differently. Personally, I think it's sleazy. But that's me.

I even felt bad for Costco recently, normally not one of our friendly competitors for a number of reasons. The gargantuan Total Wine & Spirits just recently opened up in the same Mountain View parking lot, again literally next door to their operation—as in sharing a wall! That wasn't by chance. Total has a history of doing that. I was in Vegas last week and I noticed they did the same thing to a store called Lee's in Summerlin. From what I've been told by every major local supplier (none of whom spoke favorably) they come in aggressively, move right next door, and run impossible pricing to put the local competition out of business, even if it means losing money. But I wonder if the pricing stays as competitive once the competition gets eliminated?

Opening right next door to your biggest competitor seems to be the new way forward. Sort of like keeping your enemies closer?

It doesn't always work though.

Dunkin' Donuts tried that shit in Modesto by opening right next to local favorite Mr. T's. That experiment failed miserably. They got blown out of the water because the locals immediately recognized what was happening and they didn't like it one bit. 

Ultimately, I think most people are turned off by that type of aggression and shady business. But...hey...not everyone has talent or creativity. 

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Jul082017

Rum(blings)

OK, I heard you.

I promise we won't give up on sourcing unique and interesting rums just yet (as I mentioned we might do yesterday), but you have to understand what it's going to take.

It's going to take dozens and dozens of more Serge Valentin reviews calling Hampden the Port Ellen of rum.

It's going to take more gushing reviews from Whisky Advocate reviewer Fred Minnick calling Foursquare the Pappy of rum.

That's what it takes to build a category. It takes a clear passion and direct analogies from knowledgeable spirits people who aren't afraid to be excited about what they're drinking. 

No one builds enthusiasm for booze through calculated and steady review. You might get a few anal retentive dudes digging that, but it doesn't move the needle in the retail game. Rum needs bold marketing, pure and simple, because that's what it takes to get the word out about anything today. People are too busy to read a dossier about the merits of DDL's incredible distillery. But you call a spirit the Port Ellen or the Pappy of something and they take notice. 

The question is: do they dig deeper? 

Does anyone want Pappy or Port Ellen anymore because they plan to drink it? Or do they want it because they think it makes them look like they know what they're drinking? 

When the new Foursquare Criterion comes out next month will it actually get consumed, or will it be the token rum bottle in a primarily whiskey-dominated collection; the bottle that says "Sure, I'll drink rum every now and again—if it's good."

As I mentioned to my friend Steve Ury yesterday, it's difficult to build a category when the prices for single casks are already reflective of a genre in full swing. That Hampden 24 year we sold last year didn't actually cost $99.99. It was close to double that. I subsidized that price by using extra space in our whisky margins to buy down the cost. I didn't think California was ready for a $169.99 single cask of weird Jamaican rum just yet. That's what it would cost if we did it again. Meanwhile, I'm selling casks of outstanding 20+ year old single malts for under $100. Shouldn't it be the other way around?

We can't subsidize a budding market alone. If the rumblings I'm hearing are true and rum is finally (after all these years) about to get its day in the sun, then it's going to take a lot of work to prevent it from becoming a flash in the pan.

As Fred points out in the article I linked to above, a lot of people went crazy for Weller 12 after guys like us told them it was basically a Pappy 12 substitute. But there are two very important things to remember about that situation:

1) Weller 12 was half the price of Van Winkle 12 at that time.

2) You can no longer get Weller 12 as a result, but you can still find plenty of other great wheated whiskies.

Thus?

I'm not sure telling people they could get "baby Pappy" for $25 did anything for the general Bourbon palate. I think all it ultimately did was start a craze for Weller 12, and all the other Wellers by default. Meanwhile, there's plenty of Rebel Yell on our shelf for $12, a delicious wheated Bourbon at a ridiculous price. But the Bourbon hunt long ago stopped being about finding something fun to drink for a reasonable cost. Today it's about how close you can get to the sun (HINT: the sun = Pappy). 

So I have to ask myself: if we start selling rum by calling it the Port Ellen of this or the Pappy of that, do we actually build an audience for rum? Or do we just create another situation where good rum that used to be readily available is now hard to get? Do we end up dumbing it down so that people just buy stuff without really thinking about it? 

Or do we do the really hard work and begin educating people about what makes great rum great? As I've learned from many years of writing this blog, it's not enough to say something once. It's like teaching: every year there's a new class of students who need to hear you say the exact same things over again. Even though there's a great article from 2015 about dunder, and another one from 2016, someone's going to have to write one again in 2017. And then again in 2018. It takes constant repetition.

That's what I want to do if we're going to build a rum department. I want to be proactive, not reactive. Being reactive means you go out and buy as much Hampden and Caroni as you can because that's what sells. 

Being proactive means you do the really hard work. You build the market. That's what I want to do.

Personally, I don't think K&L can build a market for rum on $169.99 bottles of Hampden or $220 bottles of Caroni. You've gotta start with the Worthy Parks and Monymusks of the world because how many folks are going to splurge for Port Ellen before they've even tried Ardbeg? You can't know what's truly great until you've tried enough of the basic stuff, right? 

I guess it's back to the drawing board. But it's nice to know we've got your attention. Thanks to everyone who emailed and voiced their support.

-David Driscoll