Navigation
Tuesday
Oct012013

Increased Quality?

One of the things you'll often read concerning wine regions around the world is how the increased awareness surrounding wine appreciation has led to an increase in wine quality. Vineyard management knowledge is at an all time high, sanitation has never been stricter, and there is enough demand worldwide to justify spending more money on better equipment. The combination of better viticulture, better science, and better production has resulted in better wine almost across the board. Over the last twenty years there is hardly a place left in the world that isn't making better wine than it was two decades earlier (unless you count some of the modern practices in places like Napa). Many cabernets are more approachable in their youth. Many pinot noirs are fleshy and sweet rather than tart and tannic. Chablis wines are round and crisp instead of astringent and green. Winemaking is pretty much in a better place now that it has ever been before.

The increased quality of wine, coupled with the increased interest in drinking it, has led to higher prices. People are simply willing to pay more for something that tastes the way they want it to taste. As many of the world's finest wines --wines that were often undrinkable in their youth and needed decades in the cellar-- are being made in a more drinkable style, prices have only gone up as a result. In my mind, a wine was always more valuable because it would age and continue to improve, rather than show well right off the bat. That's what made a great wine great. Now, however, it's a different story. People are increasingly opening Silver Oak, Caymus, Pontet-Canet, and Opus One wines less than two years after the vintage date. The rich, supple, fruit-concentrated flavors are what modern drinkers are after, rather than the savory, delicate, integrated character of an older, more mature wine. With a more approachable style comes a more saleable product --one that can be enjoyed quickly and then repurchased quickly.

Winemakers aren't the only ones, however, praising the increased quality of their craft. Ask any distiller in Scotland about his whisky and he'll tell you that it's never been better, and for the same reasons: increased knowledge, better equipment, better wood for maturation, and more money invested in the process. Not only is the whisky tasting better, but, much like with wine, it's tasting better at a younger age. When you ask these guys about the current shortage of whisky, they're not all that concerned. Dropping the age statement and replacing the product with a younger version isn't the end of the world because, in their minds, the whisky is better than it's ever been. I've literally been told by several major distillers the exact same line: "Yes, the whisky is younger, but it's also better than the whisky we were making twenty years ago." With wine, there's no question most products are better today than ever. But is the increased quality in whisky as palpable?

I think single malts need to be judged on a case-by-case basis. Some whiskies are just not as impressive as they once were, simply because there's less stock to make them with. Older whiskies were once married into 12 and 15 year expressions to add richness, whereas today there's barely enough 12 year malt to keep the age on the label. Some distilleries, however, are indeed making better whiskies at a younger age. Glen Garioch comes to mind immediately, as does Arran, but peatier whiskies have a distinct advantage in my mind. David and I have been very, very impressed by the quality of young peated whiskies we've tasted over the last year. Our new 7 year old "Island" distillery malt is going to shock the pants off of you. As will two three year old malts we plan on bringing in very soon from Bladnoch and another big, big name.

In some cases, the quality of young single malt whisky is indeed better than it's ever been. I'd never dreamed we'd be able to make people happy selling three year old single malt whiskies in the past, but today it's a reality. One wonders if it's more out of necessity, however.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Oct012013

Dealing With a Person

We, the K&L staff, often discuss the impact the internet has had on our jobs here at K&L. With so much information online about alcohol --tasting notes, background information, ratings, etc-- we're all afraid we might someday be irrelevant as actual people on the sales floor. All we'll need is a cashier and someone to fetch will-call orders. Yet, getting to speak to an actual person, someone who knows the products and has experience with them, is an added benefit of shopping at K&L and it's an element whose importance cannot be overstressed. There's simply something special about getting to talk to Joe about Spanish wine because he's been to Rioja and met with the producers. There's no substitute for talking to Gary about Champagne, whose knowledge on the chalky soils and vineyards of each producer can make or break your final decision about a wine. Dealing with an actual person at K&L is simply more helpful, more meaningful, and more comforting when spending your money on something expensive or rare.

The same thing goes for our relationships with producers. Going to Armagnac and getting to meet with the owners of each Chateau is an incredible benefit of working with spirits from that region. You get to actually talk to the people making the product day-in and day-out. Contrast that with Scotland where a distillery visit will generally be conducted by a paid tour guide or brand representative, rather than the distiller himself or the owner of the distillery. Part of the reason you'll never meet the owner of a Scottish distillery is because nearly every distillery in Scotland is under corporate rule. Therefore, the relationships we at K&L have with single malt producers are usually tied to the brand ambassadors and corporate salesmen, rather than the guys in charge or in the distillery. Today, however, rather than a sales rep or travelling spokesperson, we were visited by George Grant himself: the owner of Glenfarclas distillery. When we deal with Glenfarclas, we deal with the actual family that has been in charge since the mid-1800s.

I can't tell you how refreshing it is to deal with an actual distillery owner. You can pitch an idea and get a simple "yea" or "nay" answer without needing approval from a gigantic corporate entity. Like when I asked George about putting together a new project between K&L and Glenfarclas that went outside of the standard "Family Cask" label. George thought it over and simply said, "Yes." No running it up the food chain or dealing with the marketing department, just a business owner meeting with another business and making a decision that's beneficial to both sides. It's awesome.

I'm very thankful to have close relationships with my larger producers, but we both know there's not a whole lot we can do outside of the box. We can put together a deal on existing products, but there's no room for creativity or exploration because larger companies cannot offer tailored design. There are too many people in the picture to do something specific, like a single cask or special marriage of whiskies. With independently-owned distilleries, however, like Glenfarclas, we can always think outside the scope of the every day. We're free to brainstorm and come up with something new. Plus, there's the added benefit of getting the scoop straight from the horse's mouth. Getting to meet directly with George is really fantastic and it helps to solidify our relationship each time we do it.

There's no substitute for direct access in the booze world. People are important at K&L and they are the foundation of what makes spirits appreciation so satisfying.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Sep302013

Finish It

Last night my wife and I said "goodbye" to an old friend. As did millions of other viewers who tuned in for the Breaking Bad finale. My wife was literally balling, as the Kleenex piled up on the coffee table. I, on the other hand, as a whisky drinker am used to saying "goodbye" on a regular basis. Many of the bottles I drink cannot be replaced. They were one-offs, originals, or special rarities that were finite. Once that last sip is gone the experience is over.

Walter White's journey was like the best whisky adventure one can hope for: exciting, complex, unpredictable, and satisfying all the way to the finish. What an amazing finish, by the way. I'll be thinking about this finish for the rest of my life.

Good things are meant to end. They can't last forever. Have no fear. Enjoy it while it lasts. Put your phone down, stop Tweeting or texting, and savor it. And then let it go.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Sep282013

A Few Things

Had a blast at Whiskyfest last night, but I was only there for an hour before I had to run. My favorite part about the night was the anonymity. Because I never post pictures of myself on this blog (as a rule) I get to walk freely up to each table and scope out the scene, sometimes punking out people I've met multiple times who have forgotten what I look like. That was a lot of fun. The moment the vendors find out I am from K&L it turns into a sea of handshakes, business cards, and propositions for possible future projects. Which is fine, really, but it was nice to just hop from table to table with ease.

The moment doors opened there was instantly a fifty person line at the Van Winkle table. That's to be expected. You can't get a bottle anywhere, so you might as well get your taste on while you can.

Meanwhile, there wasn't a soul over at the Kavalan table – the Taiwanese whisky making huge waves around the world that has yet to be sold in the states (although it is coming soon). I was most excited for these whiskies, but I was truly stunned that no one seemed to know what they were. Was I the only one who had been reading the internet blogs about these things? I about dumped my spit bucket on the one guy who did come up and haughtily explained to the girl, "I'm limiting myself to just the best whiskies during the VIP hour, so could you just pour me your best one?" Then he proceeded to take a sip and frown, then made a choking sound as if the whisky had offended his throat, and dumped the whisky out right in front of her. What a fucking asshole. Kavalan master blender Ian Chang, on the other hand, super nice guy. We can't wait to work with him and the Kavalan lineup.

If you even remotely like wine at all then you need to come by the Redwood City store today and do the Spanish tasting with Joe Manekin. The tasting will cost you $20 and you'll taste some serious, interesting, high-end stuff. It's as cool of a lineup as I've seen this year at our K&L tasting bar.

I heard this morning that the Signatory casks have hit California and will be ready for delivery soon. We'll do our best to get those pre-orders ready to go ASAP.

I did finally get our Exclusive Malt whiskies and we opened them up. At first I freaked out because something was wrong -- the Bowmore had no peat whatsoever, only new oak. What the hell was going on? Was it even the right whisky? A day later the whiskies had either aerated or recovered from seeming bottleshock. Phew! The point is: if you buy a bottle or if you pre-ordered any of these whiskies they may need a day of decanting. Sometimes whisky is just like wine.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Sep272013

Into Darkness...

When we found our cask of Caperdonich 18 year old whisky over a year ago in Glasgow, David and I were super pumped. The price was right, the whisky was good, the story was tragic, and the barrel was ours. Founded in 1897 by James Grant, the owner of Glen Grant distillery, Caperdonich was located just a few hundred meters from Glen Grant itself. I say "was" because Caperdonich distillery was mothballed in 2002 and completely bulldozed just a few years ago in 2010. Now it's completely gone forever, never to return. What was once the sister distillery to Glen Grant, actually connected underground by a pipeline, is now just a pile of rubble. There wasn't much of an outcry when it happened. There weren't many tears. Caperdonich simply faded into darkness without much of a flurry. And isn't that what many of us fear in life? That our passing will happen without much significance? What meaning did we have? Did anyone care about what we accomplished?

David and I were determined to celebrate Caperdonich's significance. The distillery made solid Highland whisky for many years. No frills or fancy flavors, just Scotch for people who like Scotch. Caperdonich distillery had its fans. Our friend Mark who used to work for Duncan Taylor was perhaps the biggest. He snuck into the property one last time to have a dram on the roof before it was scheduled for demolition. Whisky veteran Serge from WhiskyFun.com ranks Caperdonich highly in his own single malt hierarchy, alongside Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Benriach in terms of quality. When we found the 18 year old cask from Sovereign -- with its light vanilla, hints of lemon and oil, and delicious malty finish -- we thought we had found something our customers would really gravitate towards. However, more than a year later, we're still burdened with more than 100 bottles of our Caperdonich barrel and with more whisky slated for an immanent arrival. Slow sales are how the K&L automated sales machine flags lagging products for close out. It's our own internal form of termination. In this case, a second demolition for the Caperdonich name.

Yesterday this computer program singled out our Caperdonich 18 year old single barrel whisky as a product in need of deletion. The machine decided we needed to cut our losses and move on, much like Pernod Ricard decided a decade ago concerning the distillery. Caperdonich was just not meant to exist it seems. That light, easy, Highland style just doesn't cut the mustard these days. People want big peat, or big sherry, or something that simply pops now. Now instead of a $125 dollar exclusive whisky of proud provenance and the utmost quality, our Caperdonich cask has been scheduled for close-out: it's now a $73 whisky that needs to be removed from K&L's inventory. But such is life for some whiskies and some distilleries. They never find their mark. They never reach the recognition that some feel they rightly deserve. They fall into darkness and life moves on. On to new adventures at new distilleries with new and exciting whiskies.

Rest easy Caperdonich. We will pour a little single malt out for you.

-David Driscoll