Tuesday
Feb262013

The Salon is Back - St. Paddy's Day Rager

Ladies and Gentlemen! We're back for round two! A bigger, badder, longer, and better version of what we did the first time around is about to hit San Mateo on March 17th - St. Patrick's Day!

We decided to start it earlier as well. It is a Sunday, afterall! Beginning at 3 PM we'll be opening our doors to lucky Salon ticketholders for an afternoon of Irish whiskey, Irish beer, Irish food, Irish music, and classic Irish cinema. We're still finalizing the exact menu, but we plan to offer drink cards just like last time around, brimming with fantastic Irish options. We'll have the 2012 Midleton Very Rare on hand for sure, along with some top shelf Cooley selections and most likely a bit of Redbreast. I'm looking to do six whiskies over all, plus include the keg of Guinness into the general addmission price. You're going to get your money's worth. We plan on keeping this up until about 7PM so that gives you plenty of time to try everything at a pace you can handle. You've got all evening to get your mojo back!

The Vault 164 outdid themselves last time with all the food. There was an endless amount of fantastic grub coming out of the kitchen. People were very pleased, as was I. We'll be pumping out the jams and showing some classic films as well on the three big screens. This time around you'll use your finished drink ticket to enter into a raffle for prizes! We've got a few tricks up our sleeves. It's going to be a blast.

Like the Bourbon event, we will have information on all the spirits being poured to peruse at your own leisure, however, the Salon is more about social interaction and entertainment than whiskey education. Just keep that in mind when I start dancing an Irish jig instead of beginning a lecture on triple distillation. This is a party! An all day party! The best kind of party. Don't forget, there's a full bar available for those who don't want the brown stuff.

Are you in?

Full admission tickets are available here for $55 per person.

Guest tickets are available here for $10 per person. The guest admission includes free non-alcoholic drinks for designated drivers and all the food you can stomach. You can also order beer, wine, and cocktails from the full bar.

Let's play some old U2 albums, watch some old Daniel Day Lewis films on mute, and drink some fine Irish hooch!

-David Driscoll

Monday
Feb252013

Adventures on El Camino: Radio Habana

Yesterday was quite a day. Not knowing what to do with the gorgeous weather, my wife and I simply drove along the El Camino route until we reached its San Francisco counterpart: Mission St. There's a lot to do in this wonderful neighborhood, especially when the sun is out. There are new places to eat and drink popping up every week it seems like and sometimes those locations can be impromptu. We mostly bounced between many very familiar, popular, non-hole-in-the-wall type places, however, as I was not planning on more AoEC research. Hog and Rocks where we had some jamón and oysters. Cafe Revolution for some sangria and people watching. Beretta for pizza and punch (and a random encounter with my old Epic sales rep Mike Smith that resulted in a delightful lunch double-date). Tacolicious for dinner and a michelada.

As we cut over a block from Mission St. on our way out of the Revolution, we noticed some activity coming out of a small room near the corner of 22nd and Valencia. There was music, excitement, and festivity. There was a party going on!

Being a few sheets to the wind at this point, we went in without even thinking about it. In a tiny space, maybe twelve by seven feet, was a group of Cuban-Americans playing drums, singing, and clapping to the beat. A small gang of onlookers gathered near the bar by the front door. On the counter was a bowl of tortilla chips available to anyone in need of a snack. The fridge contained a few import bottles of beer and a pitcher of sangria. The tap had one beer: Anchor Steam. I had a pint while my wife had a glass of the fruit-macerated wine. We didn't plan on staying too long. Just one drink. Three pints later we were speaking Spanish, dancing, and talking to some of the men about our longing to visit Cuba. "Necessitas visitar mi hermana," said the man with the red hat from the top photo. "Va a cocinar una fiesta grande por tí, pero no vive in Habana." Our new friend Francisco was already telling us to stay with his sister when we went and that, if we did, she would cook for us – a huge feast!

He eventually left us to rejoin the singing (which you can see in the above video). We eventually made our way up Valencia to a gigantic bartending competition with all my friends in it (yet, I had no idea it was happening – another completely fortuitous encounter). The hour we spent at the Radio Habana Club was truly fantastic. It was different. It was exciting. It was friendly and welcoming to everyone who wanted to come and join in, as well. I wish more places like this existed further south along El Camino Real, but sometimes you have to travel further down the Royal Road for new experiences. Simple options. Simple appetizers. A bit of live music. And then you're on your way.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Feb242013

What Excites You About Drinking?

Every time I get excited about a new spirit I've tasted, I can't help but link that experience to the overall culture from where the product is from. I have total ADD with my focus, as well. That's part of the fun when you drink spirits from all over the world. It's the classic Stuff White People Like #20. I'll get so excited about drinking the new Bruichladdich that I'll immediately want to drive out to Pescadero, sit on the beach, and pretend it's the cold, grey water of the Atlantic washing up on the shores of the outer Hebrides. I'll want to eat a plate of haggis while sipping a pint in an old pub. I'll want to watch Sean Connery movies and listen to the Cocteau Twins and research my family's ancestry in Motherwell. Until I taste a new tequila, that is.

Suddenly, I'm no longer Scottish. I'm actually Mexican (by default since I married into the family). I want to watch telanovelas (Amores Verdaderos) and make carnítas and listen to Julieta Venegas. I want to walk down to Chavez Market and joke with the guys I see for lunch everyday. I want to recap old Chavo del 8 episodes with my co-worker Jorge. I love tequila and I love Mexican culture! When are we going to Guadalajara? What's that? Try what? That new Cognac that Nic Palazzi just imported?

Oh shit! That's delicious! Borderies, you say? What are these tacos doing here? I never said I wanted tacos! I want a baguette, some cheese, a glass of red Burgundy and some old Edith Piaf in the background. Let's watch an old Godard movie - Le Femme est une Femme. I love Anna Karina even though she's Danish. Did you know my old film professor worked with Godard? Here have some more Cognac. Let's get a ticket to Paris! We can make it! It's far, but we can totally get there and back before we have to work on Monday. Come on! Try what? Rum? I thought we were drinking Cognac?

Paris is way too cold this time of year. I need to be on the beach, man! I need a tropical drink and a beer chaser. Rum is amazing. It's so affordable and has such a fascinating history! I don't know what I was thinking wasting all that time with stuffy French culture. It's so uptight! I just want to lay back and have fun, man. Put on some reggae and let's dance!

-David Driscoll

Friday
Feb222013

Bruichladdich Bere Barley 

I've spent the last week exchanging emails with Jim McEwan and Simon Coughlin - the two men running the show at Bruichladdich these days. They used to be two guys I knew via Susan Purnell, our old spirits buyer and Bruichladdich enthusiast. Then they became two guys we visited when we went to Islay. Now, I'm very lucky to say, they're two guys I can call on when I need information, a favor, or when I just want to say hello. Last time we were on Islay we had dinner at Simon's house and bonded over our mutual love for wine and spirits. Simon fell asleep while we were talking to him, David OG was plastered after too much privately-bottled Lagavulin, and I drove us back to Bowmore with my head hanging out the driver's side window as I navigated us through thick fog and pockets of roaming sheep.

When Bruichladdich sold to Remy Cointreau last year, I think every Bruichladdich fan felt a pang in their heart. We not only loved the whisky, the passion, the enthusiasm, and the progressive spirit, we loved that these guys were doing it without a corporate sponsor. Being independent allowed them to do things others wouldn't dare to do and say things corporations wouldn't think of saying. It felt like Remy Cointreau would stifle this energy. However, we're more than a few months into the new regime and I haven't noticed much of a change. Bruichladdich is still releasing a ridiculous amount of wacky new expressions, Jim is still a raving romantic about his spirits, and the booze keeps getting better and better like it always has. Mark Reynier is out as the head of the company and my friend Simon is in. Simon wants to focus more on the barley. He says Remy is the perfect owner because they leave Bruichladdich alone to do what they do best. He's still keeping in touch just as he did before.

Not a whole lot has changed. Maybe it was just the idea of corporate ownership that scared us?

I emailed Jim last night after tasting the newest release in Bruichladdich's local barley series. The 2006 Bere Barley $69.99 that is made from an ancient strain of the grain, supposedly brought by Norse invaders when they occupied the Hebrides during the 9th century. I was flabbergasted by its quality. I had to share this with Jim. He wrote me back this morning:

The Bere is so young and pure, no make-up just as nature intended. Its history, honesty, and the harmony of guys working on a dream which the consumer can experience and wonder just how the seed survived since the 9th century, brought by the Vikings to Scotland. What a living timeline!!!!! It's incredible and once again it's Bruichladdich that recognised this is a national treasure and cannot be compared. A miracle in a bottle from a seed that was planted over 1000 years ago.

He was excited. I was excited. We were both brimming with excitement as we exchanged notes. I could keep going about how fascinated I am by the different flavors Bruichladdich is creating by focusing on different barleys from various farms and genetic backgrounds. It's a wet dream for us whisky geeks (and even beer geeks). The thing about the Bere barley whisky, however, is that it's not just an interesting dram - it's an absolutely delicious one! It's unbelievably round, full of vanilla and oak, with a grainy aroma on the nose that actually speaks to the barley itself. It's young, but it's not hot, out of whack, or full of quarter-cask wood like so many craft spirits today. I'm not sure I would want to mature this whisky much longer because that would detract from the barley flavor and showcase further the barrel maturation.

I don't want the barrel in this case. I want to taste the barley. That's what you taste, but in perfect balance with the oak.

I asked Simon this morning if they had any more of this at the distillery. They don't. I called their importer WineBow to see if there were any more bottles sitting in their warehouse. There aren't. What we have today is all we're getting. Ever.

One bottle limit per person. I don't want any one person hoarding all of this. I would get a bottle if you like whisky. I won't even mention the collectability aspect. You need to be drinking this if you like single malt.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Feb212013

How Important is the Barley?

Single malt whisky is made from barley, just like Calvados is made from apples and Cognac from grapes. While my journeys to France have taught me much about the importance of agriculture in distillation, Scotland's distillers have never given much glory to their golden grain. Just how important is the barley to the ultimate flavor of a whisky, you ask? It all depends on how much the distillery allows the barley to speak. Is the quality of the apples important to the flavor of a Calvados? Do different types of apples have different flavors? The answer to both questions is "yes" and the more you visit different Calvados distillers, the more you'll see proof of this affirmation. However, the longer that the brandy spends time in a barrel, the more the Calvados becomes about the wood and less about the fruit. Single malt whisky works the same way, but while I've heard single malt producers call a whisky overly-wooded, it was never because the maturation was compromising the natural flavors of the barley.

When single malt whisky is aged in fresh Sherry barrels the richness of that sweet wine usually coats the inherent flavors of the white barley spirit. When it's aged in used Bourbon casks, however, or even refill Sherry butts, we can taste more of the barley itself. That being said, almost every distillery in Scotland is buying their barley from the exact same commercial maltsters, which means that every one of them is using the same base materials (like winemakers all starting from the same grapes). As a distillery, why focus on how unique or fantastic your barley is when it's really no different from everyone else's? Are there even superior types of barley anyway? Barley that, while more expensive to farm, malt, and mill, would result in a far tastier whisky?

Have you ever actually tasted a piece of malted barley? It's sweet, grainy, and mealy, but I never really think that translates over clearly into a whisky. There are a few whiskies that really taste like malted barley, Glen Garioch being one of them. However, where as eau-de-vie producers spend a lifetime trying to capture the essence of a pear, distilling the essential flavors out of barley is a conversation I've never once heard at a distillery. I've never heard Dr. Bill Lumsden say, "You know, David, we were really just trying to pay homage to that great Scottish barley we had at Glenmorangie last year." Single malt whisky has always been about the wood - the vanilla, the sweet sherry, the oak, and the richness that it provides to mellow the alcohol. The barley provides the creamier mouthfeel and texture. Bourbon is the same way. Who's really talking about that awesome crop of corn that came in last Fall and how you can taste it in Buffalo Trace's newest release? It's more of a canvass for the toasted wood.

Barley-specific whiskies are starting to gain notoriety in Scotland, but there have been local barley releases in the past. For the last few decades, Springbank distillery has been making limited releases of whisky using barley from local farmers. They've always been celebrated for their collectability, however, rather than their superior quality. Kilchoman has been releasing "100% Islay" single malt whiskies made from barley grown right next door to the distillery. The result has been exciting and quite different, but no one ever really told us why they tasted the way they did (and maybe we didn't really even care to know!). It was more of a novelty, about being able to say it's entirely Islay, through and through. Bruichladdich has also dabbled in the regional barley experiment with several micro-releases of localized barley expressions. They've been fun, educational, and even tasty and their organic barley whisky has been stabilized into a full-time item.

What totally blew my mind today, however, is the new "Bere" barley release from Bruichladdich - a 2006 vintage, six year old whisky aged in ex-Bourbon wood that has a creamy, full-bodied graininess unlike any other young single malt I have tasted. I sampled it along side the 2006 Islay Barley "Donlossit Farm" release (made and matured in the exact same way) and it was fascinating. Both were delicious, but the Bere barley was simply better in every way. It had an instant charm, a flavor that all whiskies should have, but making it wasn't easy from what I've heard. According to Bruichladdich, Bere barley is an ancient strain that was brought to Islay by Norse vikings back in the 9th century. It's a denser and thicker grain that flourishes in sandy, island soil, but results in crops less than half the size of what's being grown now in Scotland (hence, why no one is using it $$$$$). However, they also claim that Bere barley was used to make the early whiskies from Scotland's origin. They claim it gave their mill one hell of a beating, as well.

The Bere Barley from Bruichladdich will be coming into stock tomorrow (Friday) and we'll be getting every bottle we can get - about 150 total. It is something I think every whisky fan should consider investing in. It will be $70 and I'm going to limit it to one bottle per person so that we make them available to as many people as possible. Not only is this whisky freaking delicious (I'm serious, this is really good single malt whisky that anyone would enjoy), it's an example of what agriculture brings to our beloved booze. While I've waxed poetic about orchards and vineyards when it comes to brandy making, I've never tasted what quality barley can do to a whisky. The question is, however: is the Bere whisky so tasty because of the Bere barley, or was it simply a great batch by Jim McEwan? I want to know more. If this whisky tastes the way it does because of the grain, then I'm all for paying extra in the future to make it this way.

More Bere barley whisky please. I'll front you some cash to get it started.

-David Driscoll