Spirit Tastings Restart

Now that the holidays are over and I've had some time to recover, we'll be opening our tasting bar back up on Wednesday evenings to feature some of the spirits we know you want to try. Getting the chance to sample a whiskey before you buy it (for free) is a rare luxury these days, especially when limited edition bottles are flying fast and furiously out the door. However, I'm really excited about the selections we've got lined up for next week:

Wednesday, January 22nd, from 5 PM to 6:30 PM

San Francisco will host Pernod-Ricard and their two Canadian rye whiskey selections: the Lot 40 and the port-aged Pike Creek. Both are outstanding, in my opinion, but you don't need to listen to me. Go and taste for yourself.

Redwood City will host Ian Macleod, new owners of Tamdhu, who will be pouring their new ten year expression, along with the Isle of Skye 8 and 12 year old blends. I think the Tamdhu is quite tasty, but again you don't have to take my word for it. Come and taste!

See you there!

-David Driscoll


Catch Up

Just being out of town for a mere week creates a backload of tasting that needs to be done. It's a rough life being a spirits buyer; with all of these people trying to track you down and pour you booze that they hope you'll eventually sell. Here are some of today's highlights:

Glenmorangie Companta - This year's special release (coming hot on the heels of last year's Ealanta winning "Whisky of the Year" from Jim Murray) is perhaps the best usage of red wine enhancement I've ever tasted in a single malt whisky. Personally, I was never a huge fan of the Bordeaux-aged Bruichladdich or the Syrah-enhanced Murray McDavids. I've not once tasted a Burgundy-matured whisky that tickled my fancy. We tasted some last year at Edradour that simply puzzled me. The new Companta, however, is a marriage of both Clos de Tart Burgundy-aged Glenmorangie, with some unspecific Cote du Rhone-aged casks for good measure. It's really well executed and it's exactly what Glenmorangie fans want and expect from the distillery. The color has a beautiful reddish hue and the nose is brimming with bright cherries. That scared me at first because I didn't want cherry cough syrup in my single malt. The palate, however, turns chewy, cakey, and chocolatey with lots of mocha and spice on the finish. It's not sweet or supple, however. It's rather dry, earthy, and oily on the backend.

There's a lot going on inside that bottle and it doesn't simply taste manipulated or gimmicky. It's a real whisky that tastes like whisky, despite all the extra enhancement. Should be $99.99 and in stock by early next week.

Hakushu Heavily Peated - We've still got a bit of this left. I know consumers are hesitant to throw down a buck fifty for a peated Japanese malt without an age statement, but trust me--this baby delivers. It's a better version of Talisker 18: brighter, livelier, more pronounced smoke and lovely richness.

New El Dorado Single Barrel - I'm not sure that these are single barrel rums, to be honest. What they are, however, are single still rums and if you're familiar with Demerara distillers, that's a pretty exciting thing. I'll go into more detail on these later as they really need a more in-depth explanation. David and I just booked our tickets to Guyana today, actually. We're headed out to South America in a few weeks to visit these stills (along with the boys from Bar Agricole). I have to go get my vaccine for yellow fever next week! When you see what's really happening at El Dorado in Guyana I think these three selections will carry more weight. There's a Coffey still there that was built in the 1800s, made from wood that has only survived due to the humidity. One of these rums comes exclusively from that still.

Midleton continues to expand their selections, releasing more new items into the American retail marketplace. We're expecting the Green Spot and Redbreast 21 whiskies in early February, but right now they're parceling out a bit of the Jameson Black Barrel into key outlets. It's been on the East Coast for a while now, but it's finally showing up out in California. I normally don't carry much from the Jameson portfolio, but this one really stood out to me. It uses both older expressions of Jameson, and a higher percentage of pot still distillate, then recasks them into recharred Bourbon oak. Similar to the Mount Gay rum Black Barrel edition. It adds a richness and a spice on the finish that is often lacking in many other Irish releases, in my opinion. And it's in a liter bottle! Should be $39.99.

I was really excited to taste these. I had heard great things about the Lot 40 Canadian rye whiskey and those good things were confirmed. It has a pure and intense rye flavor, almost crossing over into an Indian spice or cocoa note, with a mouthfeel that remains supple and rich in texture. The Pike Creek finished in Port Wood is no slouch either. These will be welcome additions to a K&L category struggling to find new blood. Lot 40 should be about $59 while the Pike will be $33.

And, yeah, I bought the JP Wiser's too. For $22 why not? It's more like blended Scotch in flavor than rye whiskey, in my opinion, but it's such a value option I figured we should give it a chance. If the Whisky Advocate can afford to hire an entirely new Canadian whiskey columnist, then I can afford to buy a case of $22 Wiser's whiskey.

Look for all of these later in the week.

-David Driscoll


The "Kentucky" Bourbon Industry

My buddy Chuck Cowdery wrote something very poignant yesterday concerning the Suntory buyout of Beam:

"The reality is that there is no bourbon industry. There is a worldwide distilled spirits industry, in which bourbon whiskey is one product category. Ultimately, everyone will sell everything everywhere and it may not really matter where the corporate headquarters is located."

I did my share of internet perusal after the news was announced and there was the typical knee-jerk backlash about "this bottle of Maker's Mark" being someone's last and whatnot. The fact that Beam was no longer in "American hands" was an outrage and a travesty. As someone who works for a local business, I'm all for people wanting to support their neighbors and their fellow nationals. I make an effort to do so myself. However, Beam wasn't some tiny American enterprise catering solely to the domestic market. Beam was an American company in possession of its own foreign distilleries, focused intently on the global picture. They owned Laphroaig and Ardmore in Scotland. Cooley distillery in Ireland. The famed French Cognac house of Courvoisier. The Sauza and El Tesoro Tequilas in Mexico. Can you imagine how the people on Islay felt when Bowmore went to Japan? When Laphroaig went to the Americans? How excited they were about Bruichladdich until it took the French corporate money and never looked back? Like Chuck said, there's no such thing as a Scotch or Bourbon industry anymore -- they're simply categories in an overall global portfolio.

But all romanticism and ideology aside, is anyone going to argue that Kirin wasn't the best thing to ever happen to Four Roses? Seagram's, a longstanding North American stalwart, had completely butchered the brand, turning it into the laughing stock of the blended liquor shelf. Jim Rutledge--one of the most red-blooded Kentucky guys I've ever met--thanks his lucky stars every day that Kirin took over the operations. It allowed him to get back to doing what he did best: making traditional American Bourbon. If you talk to Jimmy and Eddy Russell, they're overjoyed that Italian giant Campari decided to jump in, buy the brand, and build them a brand new, state-of-the-art distillery (one that Rutledge himself is envious of). Suntory is a company that values tradition and history as highly as their global revenue. I don't see too many changes in store for Jim Beam, especially considering they've been representing Beam in Japan for years (many brands import foreign companies without owning them, i.e. Remy's representation of Edrington's Macallan and Highland Park here in the U.S.).

The global market is a scary place, but it's the reality of today's spirits industry. Because of the internet and the ability to spread information easily, many of us enthusiasts are aware that other countries are in possession of some rather fine booze. That helps to create a global demand for even the most esoteric of products. Look at the American fascination for unavailable Japanese malts, or the Parisian interest in American Bourbon. Or like when David Hasselhoff's PR team told him he was going to tour Germany as a singer. "Germany?" I imagine he asked. "Dude, you're HUGE there. They'll pay to see you." they told him. Those in search of greater revenue will always seek to expand their market abroad. The demand for fine spirits has become a global phenomenon; hence, why the business itself is no longer a local one, but a global pursuit as well.

Which Kentucky "Bourbon" companies are left? Brown-Foreman: the publically-traded, NYSE company that owns Jack Daniels, Woodford, and Old Forester, but also the French liqueur producer Chambord, Canadian Mist, and the Mexican tequila Herradura. Sazerac: the owner of Buffalo Trace, Barton, and Bowman, headquarted in Louisiana, which also owns the Mexican tequila Siete Leguas, Caribou Crossing Canadian whiskey, and Tortuga rum--distilled on the Cayman Islands. And who could forget the family-owned Heaven Hill company as well: owners of Evan Williams and Elijah Craig, as well as the legendary French aperitif Dubonnet, Ansac Cognac, Arandas tequila, and the Brazilian cachaça Agua Luca.

Of course, there's the up-and-running Willett distillery. They only make Kentucky whiskey, but none of it will be available any time soon.

-David Driscoll


Comparative Lit: Burgundy

When I was a grad student applying to PhD literature programs (a path I never followed through on), I had to decide between focusing solely on German text, or possibly applying to a "comparative" lit program––a department that takes writings from different origins and compares them to create a better understanding of literature as a whole. It's nice to be seen as an expert in a particular subject, but I've always striven for the greater overall meanings in life. Using another similar subject as a comparative mirror or a point of contrast can be really helpful in gaining further understanding of a topic you're interested in––especially when that topic is booze. Even if you don't drink it, it helps to know a little about wine if you're a fan of whisky.

While we've all become used to the rising prices of single malt whisky, I can assure you that these pale in comparison to the hikes we've seen in the high-end wine world. In fact, when you dabble in the wine business all day like David and I do, the whisky industry looks down right sunny. For one, you can keep a bottle of whisky open indefinitely––choosing to enjoy it as quickly or as slowly as you please. With a bottle of wine you've got a couple of days, if you're lucky (and, let's be honest, most of us are downing that thing in an hour or less). Older bottles can fall apart in minutes after the cork is popped. $50 can buy you a bottle of Glendronach 12 to enjoy over many weeks, or a bottle of mid-range Bordeaux to enjoy over the course of an evening. The thing about whisky is that it's stable. Other than the rare corked bottle, there's not a whole lot that can go wrong once the liquid is in the bottle. Wine, on the other hand, is temperamental and fussy. It can taste differently the longer the bottle is left open, and morph on you completely depending on the temperature in which it is stored and how long it's been allowed to sit. And then there's the whole vintage thing. You might really have enjoyed a specific wine one year, but you came the following vintage to realize that it stinks. 

These are the obvious differences. Wine isn't whisky, and whisky isn't wine, but what about the similarities in the marketplace? What about Burgundy, for example? 

I've become something of a nut for Burgundy over the last year or so––so much so that I volunteered to be our buyer's assistant here in the Redwood City store (a position usually reserved for non-buyers). My owner thought I was crazy. "On top of all the other work you do, you're going to add that responsibility on as well?" he asked rather unconvinced. 

"Yes, sir," I answered.

I really want to learn more about Burgundy because it's the most mysterious of all wines (and the most expensive, so getting to taste samples with vendors goes a long way). It's sensual, hypnotic, and capable of greatness in ways that other wines are not. More importantly, understanding the way Burgundy works has really helped me to put various spirits categories into much better perspective. It's completely terroir-driven, convoluted and difficult to understand, and it can often be a giant minefield in terms of quality. As Karen MacNeil wrote in her Wine Bible: "As spellbinding as a great Burgundy is, a poor one is almost depressing. Burgundy keeps you guessing." I've poured hundreds of dollars into bottles that should have been great (good vintage, good producer, good location), but tasted God-awful. On the flip side, I've had bottles so good they made me want to cry––both whites and reds. In an age where more and more consumers are demanding a guarantee when plopping down their hard-earned money for booze (points, ratings, etc), Burgundy doesn't allow you to be petty or cheap. You've gotta man up and plunk down your money if you want to party in the Burgundy VIP lounge. And there's absolutely no guarantee that you're going to have a good time.

The beauty of Burgundy is its simplicity; really just two grapes: chardonnay and pinot noir. White and red. One or the other. Like the real estate world, it's all about location, location, location. Burgundy's best wines have been determined before they're even made. We know about these special places, these terroirs extraordinaires, due to the painstaking detail in which the Benedictine monks documented their winemaking when they planted the region. They spent most of the Middle Ages systematically going plot-by-plot, planting grapes, studying the wines made from each one, until they determined which sites were best. It took them more than 500 years. The Cistercian monks would later clear and cultivate some of the steepest slopes, understanding that the heavy limestone in the soil made a huge difference. These vineyards all have names and the wines of Burgundy are known by these micro-regions. Yet, it gets crazier because when Napoleon came into power he decided that all inheritances (including property) had to be split evenly among all surviving children. That means that, after centuries of handing down property, one vineyard might have 80 to 100 different owners. They might own a few rows, or maybe as little as a few vines.

This is where the similarities to Scotch whisky start to occur. When a vintner owns only a few measly vines in a number of different vineyards, it sometimes isn't worth the effort to label and market his own wine. That's how the negociants came into play (the blending houses of the Burgundy world)––buying grapes, must, and wine from smaller growers and blending them together to create larger-scale, more-available products. Burgundy is tiny and its wines are coveted around the globe; the most revered being the Domaine de la Romanée Conti wines, where 400 cases a year are expected to satiate collectors world-wide (hence their gigantic, four-figure price tags). Much like the Scotch whisky industry, the 1960s and 70s brought on a demand for Burgundy from smaller producers, rather than blending houses. Much like whisky drinkers wanted to taste and understand the whisky from each single malt distillery, Burgundy nuts wanted to taste the specifics of each vineyard site from a single producer. Even if the producer possessed only a row of vines from the heralded Chambertin vineyard, it was (and still is) in his best interest to make a few cases of Chambertin wine, rather than blend the juice with other vineyards. Consumers were (and still are) willing to pay for quality and scarcity.

If you think the allocations for Pappy are stressful, you haven't been around K&L when the DRC or Domaine Dujac wines get parcelled out. Keith about has a heart attack before it's all said and done. There are only 62,000 total acres of grapes growing in Burgundy. Compare that to 100,000 acres of just chardonnay in California alone. With more than a millennium of demand built up for Burgundian wines (the hype really growing when the papal residence moved to Avignon in 1309), consumer lust far outweighs anything we're witnessing in the whisky world––even with a new vintage around the corner each year. You see, part of what makes Burgundy special is that it lies in a relatively cold, inland climate, which means getting the grapes to ripen each year is a challenge. Many growers have to decide whether to pick before or after the Fall rain. Pick early and you might end up with thin, flavorless wine. Pick later and risk the waterlog and rot caused by rainy weather. This is where vintage comes into play. The great wines of Burgundy are going to sell every year, regardless. Great vintages, however, will only double that demand and triple the price tags. For example, a bottle of 1989 La Tache will run you $1700, whereas the incredible 1990 vintage will cost you $4200.

As a consumer looking to expand your horizons, the ways one can attack Burgundy highly resemble the strategies applied to single malt: region, age, producer. Most vigneron have multiple properties, so one can get a sense for the winemaker's signature style––heavy oak or stainless steel (similar to sherry-aged or hogshead)? Ripe, juicy fruit or more savory, earthy notes? Since terroir is so important, many producers use the hands-off approach and let the wines speak for themselves. In these cases, it's good to use the regional approach––choosing hands-off producers from the various communes and vineyard sites to understand what makes them different. How does Volnay differ from Chorey-les-Beaune? Or how does a premier cru site differ from a grand cru site? Then, of course, there are maturity levels. While whisky ages in the barrel before it's bottled, wine ages only after it's been put into glass. Many (if not all) of the best Burgundian wines will taste better 3-10 years after the vintage (even the whites). This is where a vertical tasting can be absolutely mindblowing; tasting the the same wine from the same site year after year to see how it progresses and changes.

Much like hardcore whisky fans are grumbling at the price hikes, long-time fans of Burgundy have already dealt with rising costs and increased demand. Much like whisky fans, they're still waiting for the bubble to pop and for prices to go back down where they used to be. I don't think it's going to, however, because Burgundy is all a matter of fixed real estate––terroir is about location and there aren't enough penthouses to go around. My friend Brian, who works in the SF property business, once told me, "You're never going to see too big of a dip in San Francisco property prices because, as soon as they even slightly drop, all those people who moved to Oakland are going to move right back over and we'll be back where we started. There's no room for growth." The increased demand for Burgundy isn't just about the free market, however, it's also due to consumer education and increased awareness. With the internet and its wine blogs, forums, and rating sites, more wine afficionados are aware of what's going on in Burgundy than ever before (even with the smallest little upstarts). Once you're aware that there's a better and more interesting way of drinking available to you, it's difficult to ever go back.

So why even deal with Burgundy? Why waste your time and money on the possibility of severe disappointment, inconsistent quality, and rising costs? Because it's all about the hunt. It's about using newly-acquired knowledge and experience to help guide you towards better bottles and new flavors. It's about the enjoyment of an incredible wine that might have taken you years to find, and that you've been saving for the right moment. It's about the highs and lows that come from any type of of hobby or collection. In the wine world, Burgundy is the ultimate high and, sometimes, the lowest of lows.

-David Driscoll


This Should Be Interesting

In a move that I never saw coming, Japanese whisky company Suntory purchased Beam Global for 13.6 billion dollars this morning. Not only does that give them three Kentucky distilleries (Boston, Clermont, Maker's Mark), but also Laphroaig and the Irish distillery Cooley. I'm a big fan of the Suntory whiskies and, of course, Bowmore as well, so I'm quite curious to see where this goes. 

You can read more about it here.

-David Driscoll