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Wednesday
Sep182013

Drinking Diageo – Part VII: Come Drink With Us

Come drink with us tomorrow! Thursday in Redwood City at 5 PM and meet a very, very special guest: Enrique de Colsa, the master distiller for Don Julio. The tasting is free as always and and you don't need to RSVP. Just show up with! We'll hand you the glass.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Sep172013

Drinking Diageo – Part VI: Storm's a Brewin'

Fresh off an email exchange (which I posted a few days back) concerning NAS statement whiskies and the certain skepticism that surrounds their very nature, we're now learning about a particular NAS storm on the horizon -- both literally and figuratively. There is literally a new whisky called Talisker Storm that is due to hit American retail stores within weeks. There is figuratively a storm brewing around the fact that this new limited edition whisky is pricier than the Talisker 10, yet has no age statement to back up its bonafides. With an expected sticker price of $85 or so, how will Diageo excite those drinkers with an innate distrust of corporate authority? Is the Talisker Storm an exciting new marriage of top-quality casks, blended to perfection by Diageo's crack team of masters? Or is it perhaps just an excuse to sell young whisky with a higher price tag? After tasting it, and tasting it again, then tasting it ten more times on ten consecutive days, I've come to only one sure conclusion: this is going to be one controversial whisky.

Here's what I can factually tell you about the new Talisker Storm limited edition single malt whisky: it's bottled at 45.8% ABV.  That's the only piece of information regarding the content of this bottle that I know for sure. I've been told that the whisky is a special blend of various types of casks -- Bourbon, sherry, European oak, refill, rejuvinated, etc -- but there's no indication of that on the bottle. Basically, Diageo is asking the consumer to trust in Diageo, with the obvious understanding that the company does and should own the best stocks of Talisker whisky on the planet (thereby giving them the potential to make the best Talisker whisky expression possible). How they made this whisky, however, with which barrels, and with whiskies from which age groups, is a mystery. All we're being told is that the whisky was inspired by the rugged landscape of the Isle of Skye -- "an intense Talisker, with a profoundly maritime character, like a warm welcome from a wild Herbridean Sea." I can already see the eye-rolling and hear the sighs from many of you as you read this, but give it a chance.

To be clear, the Talisker Storm is only new to the American market. It's been available in the UK since the beginning of the year, but I had never taken the time to read any reviews about it. In fact, I had never received any input of any kind about its quality before tasting it myself about ten days ago. After my initial experience, however, I was definitely curious to see how it was being received abroad. To put it bluntly, Talisker Storm is the exact opposite of what today's casual whisky drinker goes after. It's restrained, mysterious, mellow, and subtle in a time when consumers are celebrating big power, big spice, and big smoke. It's like having a customer walk into K&L thinking about a big, juicy, California cabernet, but instead walking out with a bottle of 1997 Terry Gros Cailloux Bordeaux. If that analogy is lost on you, then imagine the expectation of a big, fat, rich, full-bodied, juicy red wine, but instead tasting a lithe, lean, brooding, mineral, nuanced red wine with little pomposity. It's a huge gamble on the part of Diageo because of the expectations associated with the Talisker name and the expectations we have for limited edition malts -- people are expecting a "storm" of flavor. In fact, it's so much a of a risk that I can't believe Diageo had the balls to even try pulling it off. In the realm of safe, crowd-pleasing, user-friendly whiskies that explode with obvious flavor, big alcohol, and loads of peat, this is a 4.2 on the Richter Scale. Complexity and flavor that doesn't simply scream 90 point whisky? I simply had to do a Google search to see what people abroad had been saying because it was going to be hilarious!

Just as I suspected, the results were totally uneven. Some people loved the Storm, praising its complexity and length, and its detailed, refined flavor profile. Others found it just plain terrible, calling it boring, lackluster, and devoid of complexity. How could the same whisky strike its audience in such a drastically different way? Easy -- with subtlety. It happens all the time at K&L when a customer comes in expecting big Zinfandel flavor, but walks out with a delicately, nuanced bottle of Rioja. Just like some California wine drinkers don't understand Bordeaux, and Sea Smoke lovers don't get the earthy flavors of Burgundy, there will be many a whisky drinker who doesn't appreciate what's going on in the Talisker Storm. The nose is straight-forward -- it's peatier than the standard 10 for sure with the smoke taking dominance over the vanilla. It smells like it's going to be pretty intense with big peat flavors. But then the strangest thing happens: the palate builds slowly with fruit and salt, the flavors begin to intertwine, and you brace yourself for the "storm" you've been expecting. But then the clouds pass over, the rain never hits, and you realize this whisky is more of a tempest in a tea pot -- but in a good way.

The Talisker Storm is "more intense" than the standard Talisker 10, if you expect a higher dosage of peat to bring added intensity. There is more spice, more brine, more salt, but these flavors are certainly not at the same level as Ardbeg or Laphroaig. They're also not balanced by the round richness we expect from Talisker. The fruit and saline notes are plentiful, but unclear initially, as the you kind of look around, wondering when the storm is going to actually hit. The smoky, ashy, salty residue lingers long on the finish, but only if you're really focusing on it. It's almost puzzling at first. But do you remember the first time you heard Radiohead's Kid A album after it leaked on Napster? I do -- the electronic keyboard and distorted lyrics from "Everything in its Right Place" evolving into a rather ghostly vocal. After the bold, and brash guitars of OK Computer, we thought maybe it was a joke -- like someone had uploaded an album called Kid A, but really it was music from another artist meant to fool eager Radiohead fans. It wasn't, however. We listened. Then we listened again. What the heck was going on? Do we like this? We weren't sure. Two weeks later, however, we thought it was the greatest thing ever. A similar thing happened to me with the Talisker Storm. First I was shocked. Then confused. Then intrigued. Then I became a fan. The more I knew what to expect, the more I was able to appreciate what was happening with the whisky. The depth is there, but you have to let it come to you. Even when it does, it still may not be what you're looking for.

The new Talisker Storm will be available at K&L very soon and it will likely sell quite well due to the Talisker reputation. But I would advise any potential customers to keep their expectations in check. In my mind, and in the minds of my colleagues, it is indeed a fine whisky -- we all ultimately enjoyed it -- but it's not a whisky for everyone. It's not rich and supple like the Talisker 18, it's not round and fruity like the Talisker 10, and it's not a "storm" in any sense of the word (unless there's a definition of "storm" that says a "storm" is nuanced, withheld, and unobvious). There's no age statement, no explanation of what's going in the cepage, and very little to go off of officially. It has all the makings of a whisky that critics skeptical of NAS bottles will certainly hate: lighter flavors, less richness, and higher-than-average pricepoint. Maybe that's what Diageo meant by Storm -- as in we expect to invite a "storm" of controversy when this whisky is released. I couldn't be more impressed, however. Not necessarily because it's the best whisky ever (because it isn't), but because a whisky company, the biggest whisky company at that, actually decided to make a product with innuendo rather than brute force.

When the dark grey clouds eventually blow over and the rain stops coming down, I really like the Talisker Storm. It's brooding, strange, and haunting in its nature -- three characteristics that I associate with the Isle of Skye. Again, it's also incredibly ballsy -- I can just imagine Diageo's master blender standing in his office, saying "I don't give a rat's ass that its not as bold or intense as you wanted, this is the type of whisky that I feel like drinking!!" The Talisker Storm has all the marketing of a next-generation sports drink, meant to excite all the young kids with flashy packaging and a force-of-nature-inspired power name, yet it tastes like an older man's idea of great whisky -- one that lightly gets its point across, without feeling the need to shout, play a loud, distorted guitar chord, or jump up and down to get your attention. It's almost ironic!

Some people are going to absolutely hate this whisky (some obviously already do). Much like when the Stones went disco or Johnny Rotten formed Public Image, Ltd -- to some -- it will seem like an abomination of what Talisker is supposed to represent. But secretly I'll be celebrating it, just like I really enjoy listening to "Miss You" or "Rise". Both songs are controversial because they're not what they're supposed to be. But years later, they're staples of the catalog.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Sep172013

Why We Care

I could probably write twenty pages of material by distilling my thoughts from the past few days, but I'm short on time at the moment -- and in general -- so I'll try and summarize these feelings quickly. This past weekend was a busy one: we were short staffed on a hectic Saturday shift, I had to run the Good Food Awards judging committee on Sunday, and Monday was full of errands, but Nic Palazzi did come by my place in the evening to kick it with me and my dad. I also found myself diving back into Burgundy Sunday night, going through my Clive Coates books and revisiting the selections in my cellar. Why the sudden desire to drink this particular wine?

I think it's because the more I drink, talk, and think booze, the more I'm narrowing my interests with what I want to personally enjoy. I was driving with my dad back from Modesto yesterday and I was trying to explain the difference between "enjoyment" and "appreciation" when it comes to alcohol -- how you can have one, both, or neither of these two facets when approaching a beverage and why they're definitely not the same thing. You might be able to appreciate that a whisky is rare, well-made, or interesting, but you might not want to drink it. That's appreciation without enjoyment. Someone else might like how easy a cheap whisky is to drink, how it tastes pretty good, but then never really gives it a thought beyond that. That's enjoyment without any real appreciation. However, when you both enjoy and appreciate something it simply takes drinking to an entirely different level -- one that creates a high we long to revisit.

When it takes a high level of understanding to appreciate a wine or spirit, I think my enjoyment of it is exponentially enhanced by the amount of work I put into understanding it. Burgundy might be the most terroir-driven wine in the world, both the red and white versions of it. I enjoy drinking Burgundy perhaps more than any other wine because I'm fascinated with the idea of the land dictating which wines are good before they've even been made! The lines have been drawn, the maps plotted out -- if your grapes are not being grown in a particular type of Kimmeridgian soil, then they've already decided that your wine will never be great. Good, perhaps, but never great. That's where good Burgundy begins -- in the vineyard. It all comes from the quality of the grape, which is determined by the location of the vine. All you can hope for after that is competency in the winemaking cellar.

The amount of work it takes to truly appreciate what these Burgundians have gone through to make their wine is staggering. The more I read about it, the more I realize how little I actually know (but the more I am blown away!). Each grower is his own unique situation with his own particular particulars. You'll never really be able to lump Marsannay wines into one category and Morey St. Denis into another, like the guide books try to help you categorize them. Even within those village communes you have to take each wine, each grower, and each producer individually because they may share certain geographical similarities, but that doesn't mean their wines will taste the same. It's impossible that you'll ever master all of this information, so there's no point in trying, as each generation of producer may bring a new style of winemaking to the table that completely obliterates everything you've already learned. Maybe the father picked by hand, but the son now uses a machine to harvest. That changes everything, so you have to keep on learning, and learning, and learning, and learning.

What's the point? The point is that this uncertainty, this inability to lump alcohol into easily understandable categories, the fact that you'll never really be able to know everything about this subject is what excites me about booze. It's always changing and there are so many permutations of potential that it's almost panic-inducing. It's no wonder that the longer I do this, the more I gravitate to the products and producers that clarify what they do and explain how these processes create the flavor of their liquids. That's what allows for both appreciation and enjoyment. Tequila, Armagnac, and Burgundy are my three current beverages of choice -- is it a coincidence that they all involve agriculture first, then careful, hands-on production where the goal is to remain as faithful to the original base material? Is it also a coincidence that all three products involve small producers that I can meet, talk to, and gain more insight from on a personal level?

The Good Food Awards tasting was more of this same idea -- small growers or sourcers of responsibly-farmed grains and produce, making delicious spirits that reflected as closely as possible the quality of those base materials. We had clean, bright, and vibrant gins. We had fruity, ethereal eau de vies. We had juicy, supple fruit liqueurs. And we had round, wonderfully-matured brandies. Whiskey was not the big winner at Sunday's tasting, mainly because we haven't found that sourcing responsibly-farmed corn or wheat is making for a better spirit, but we like that there are people out there trying. When I saw the list of winning producers after the blind tasting, it was no surprise. Almost all of the winners were people I know well -- producers who really take the time to do things the right way, from the orchard, field, or vineyard all the way into the bottle.

As I sat with Nic and my dad last night, sipping a variety of spirits from the patio table on my back deck, we talked about the producers who made the products we were enjoying. Nic talked about his appreciation for Laurent Cazottes and his extremely esoteric eau de vies. We asked my dad what he thought after tasting the Cazottes Mauzac Rose and he said, "Well, I'm enjoying it much more now that you've told me all this background information." We discussed David Suro, the Vivancos, and the new understanding we had for the Siembra Azul blanco tequila. We sipped Armagnac from Darroze and compared the various Gascogne farmers on each vintage. And after Nic said farewell, and I had dropped my dad off at his hotel near the airport, I went back to my apartment and buried myself in more Burgundy text.

There's a reason why we do this and why we care so much about good booze. Good booze often comes from good people who take the time to explain why they make it so well. Often times, good booze can't be made just by anyone, anywhere, with any level of talent. Making a fine Chablis takes an understanding of nature, of the land, of the fermentation process, and many other lessons that can only come with patience, time, and experience. I respect this ability because I am incapable of doing it myself. I have no understanding of farmwork and even less patience for doing it properly. When I meet producers who do understand it, and can help me understand it as well, I am always more excited to drink their products. And, of course, help others appreciate them as well.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Sep142013

Tapatio 110 Está Aqui

Tonight I'll be getting out of work early, driving back to my house, meeting up with my in-laws and co-workers, breaking out the brand new Tapatio 110 proof tequila (distilled masterfully by Carlos Camarena -- see our conversation from last week's blog post), and tuning in to watch Canelo Alvarez knock out Floyd Mayweather for the first time in his life. Canelo is from Jalisco, the home of tequila, so what drink could be more fitting? I've got grapefruit Jarritos and salt to make Palomas and plenty of snacks. The higher proof of the Tapatio is just what we'll need to make sure the vibrant tequila flavor doesn't get drowned out in a sea of sweet soda. I'm really excited to try it in a cocktail.

If you've never seen what I look like before, Canelo Alvarez could be my brother – hence why all the boxing fans at K&L call me "Canelo." Therefore, I share a certain kinship with the undefeated Mexican champion. When I was younger, and still did have red hair, I really looked like Canelo. It's almost scary. 

We've got a big night ahead! Tapatio 110 and the biggest fight of the year! Víva Canelo! Víva Tapatio! Viva Jalisco!

-David Driscoll

Friday
Sep132013

Drinking Diageo – Part V: George Dickel's Tradition

What does it mean when a traditional distillery is owned by a larger conglomerate? Does it mean that the whiskey no longer has street cred as a serious brand? Now that Bruichladdich is owned by Remy, do the last ten years of edgy, independent, well-crafted booze no longer matter? George Dickel is a traditional Tennessee whiskey distillery that's still operated much in the same way it has been since the late 1950s. The fact that it falls under the Diageo umbrella, however, has some people thinking differently. I recently spoke with Dickel Brand Ambassador Doug Kragel to gain a bit more insight into this idea and see how he felt about Dickel's role within the larger empire.

David: Thanks for taking the time to talk Doug. What is your position at George Dickel?

Doug: I am the national brand ambassador for George Dickel.

David: To give you some context, I've been doing a set of articles this week for our website about breaking down stereotypes concerning large-production distilleries that may be unfair. Maybe certain brands get unfairly catagorized simply because they fall under the umbrella of a larger corporation. Could Dickel possibly be an example of that?

Doug: I like that your bringing this idea to light. I think it's definitely important to talk about this.

David: How long has Diageo been involved with George Dickel?

Doug: When you follow the line of the large companies in the liquor industry, Diageo wasn't around when George Dickel distillery was relaunched in 1959 -- Dickel was owned at the time by Schenley. But if you trace back through some of those mergers, between the bigger spirits companies, Diageo has, in some incarnation, had their hands on George Dickel since 1959.

David: So Dickel was a distillery before 1959, but had just been non-operational?

Doug: It was, back in George's day. They began making whiskey back in the 1870s, but what happened was, when Tennessee prohibition came down in 1911 -- statewide prohibition came down before the federal -- they actually tore the distillery down and the family -- George Dickel's family, he had already passed away at this point -- but the survivors of his family decided not to get back in the game when repeal happened. So George Dickel didn't exist from 1911 until 1959, when a man by the name of Ralph Dupps, who worked for Schenley -- he was actually from Louisville, but had a lot of family down in the Tennessee area -- he pioneered and spearheaded the project of bringing George Dickel back -- doing the research and gathering all the information he could to make the whiskey as authentic as possible. The current distillery is actually located about a couple hundred yards away from that original site. If you ever get a chance to go down there, you can actually go and see some of the old foundation from the original distillery just down the road.

David: Do you think the production of Dickel has changed since 1959 with higher production levels? Has Diageo been able to control quality despite these increases?

Doug: Well, production methods really haven't changed since 1959. That's a big part about what I like to stress to people when we're talking about the brand. So since the reopening they've figured out how to make good whiskey and we really haven't had any reason to change or to update the distillery more than any regulation would force us to. For example, when we weigh our corn -- which we do on-site, and that we get locally, we actually have our own hammer mill on-site that we use to mill the grain -- we use 11,000 pounds of corn for every mash that we do. We then weigh it on an old counter-balance scale. So we actually have a guy working that grain room all day long, monitoring that scale to make sure we get to that exact measure, but it's not a digital scale because we don't need it to be that way. That scale is as accurate as we need it to be to have a good tasting liquid come out in the end.

David: What do you think is the key characteristic of Dickel? What makes it different from other whiskies?

Doug: I think there are a few things. The first is that corn is a very big part of American whiskey, but very important for us in particular because we have a high corn content mashbill and I think that creates a unique quality. It's 84% corn, so especially in our number 8 and number 12, you really taste that full-bodied, creamy sweetness that comes out of a high-corn content whiskey. The other thing that really sets us apart from whiskies is, for Tennessee whiskey, the Lincoln County process is very important -- that charcoal mellowing process. For us, we do a couple of things differently that I think really smooth out the finish of the whiskey. We actually chill our whiskey down to forty degrees before we put it through the leecher. So before we put it through ten feet of charcoal, that we burn onsite and dry onsite at the distillery, we actually chill it to forty degrees allowing it to pass very slowly though the charcoal, allowing it to pull out all the impurities we don't want in the whiskey, to make for a real soft, smooth, sipping quality.

David: Dickel kind of has this "working man's" whiskey reputation, simply because they never release any kind of expensive top-shelf, super-limited, special edition expressions. Obviously there are older stocks of Dickel that are getting released in this new single barrel program, so why do you think Dickel and Diageo have never chosen to release anything older in the past? Was it never seen as something marketable?

Doug: Well, we definitely have old liquid, but typically we don't really let the liquid in our warehouses go past 14 years. In our master distiller John Lunn's eyes, and his previous predecessors's, that's about where the liquid starts to change in the barrel into not what we want for the George Dickel profile. So fourteen years is about as much as we want before the wood takes over and it becomes a little more robust, and lends itself more to the Bourbon category -- which wouldn't be a quality that sets us apart from other producers. Also, it's not necessarily that it's not marketable, for us it's more that it doesn't hold the quality that we want. We want the general, easy-drinking whiskey quality. The older the whiskey, as you know, the more the wood can overpower it and it becomes more complex than we want for the casual, everyday whiskey.

David: I love that there are people out there dedicated to "everyday" whiskey only. It seems like today no one is comfortable with "everyday" anything. Every release has to be super special to merit any attention. With the #8 and #12 expressions, can you shed a little light on how they're created and what makes them different? Are they single age whiskies or are they comprised of different ages married together?

Close up of a Dickel column stillDoug: They're made from whiskies of various ages. Our number eight is five to seven years old and 80 proof. We're only running one spirit off our still at Dickel, and so it's going to grow up to become either the #8, the #12, or the Barrel Select. For the #8 we want the younger whiskey to show the marriage between the high-corn content and the charred oak barrel -- those vanillas and caramels that really come out at the beginning of the aging process. As opposed to the #12, where with a couple more years in the barrel and at 90 proof (we do allow the proof to be a little higher) the wood mellows out just enough into a sweet spot where the corn really highlights the flavor and pops out. We're mingling a lot of barrels together within those age ranges, but it's all about the flavor profile rather than the age, which is we call it the #8 recipe and the #12 recipe instead.

David: So if they're only using these age ranges, what was the point of holding back older whiskies? For the Barrel Select?

Doug: We do use the older whiskies in the Barrel Select.

David: But that's a relatively new release compared to the other two, right?

Doug: The Select itself is newer, but it originally came out in the mid to late 90s as a limited edition. We started holding whiskies back a little before then, but it became so popular that we retooled the package a bit and re-released it as an extension to the line, so the core now consists of those three. We only use ten barrels for every bottling of the Select from within a ten to fourteen year age range. And now we've started the single barrel program you were talking about, which uses specific age statement barrels for an offering of something limited with an extra connection to an already down-home, easy-to-relate-to brand.

David: Is there anything else you think I should know that I haven't asked you and that you want to tell me?

Doug: You know, one of the big things to highlight, since we're talking about the brand as being that "working man's" brand, that easy drinking whiskey, is to make sure people understand that there are only twenty-five employees involved in the production of George Dickel. They make all the Dickel in the world. There are about thirty-five employees total that work at the distillery and some of these guys have been there for over thirty years, so when you think about the turnover rate it's obviously one of the best jobs in Coffee County. There's an intimacy in knowing that, with no computers, there is a man at every step in the whole process really taking care of the production of the whiskey.

David: And that kind of runs against what people think of when they think of Diageo. In Scotland there has been a lot of technology put into the whisky-making process, so it's good to know that some distilleries under Diageo have remained the same in favor of tradition.

Doug: Yes, it's great that they've recognized that this brand is something that needs to be preserved, just like the location where it is. There's a reason they own 600 acres around the distillery, because it needs to be preserved as what it's always been.

-David Driscoll