Thursday
Feb212013

Coming Back Around 

I have never understood the draw of the Midleton Very Rare Irish Whiskey. For $130, I always thought one could do better. It's mild, easy, mellow, and soft, just like blended whiskey is supposed to be, but aren't there fifty other whiskies that I could say that about for fifty dollars less? Nevertheless, I wanted to include the revered bottle in our upcoming Salon St. Paddy's Day party (which will be on March 17th - tickets coming soon!). It's still considered the standard for high-end Irish whiskey and, regardless of my own feelings, I knew people would be excited to try it. Since Tuesday was staff education day I decided to open a bottle for the K&L employees and get their opinion as well. I myself didn't have time to taste it then, but I did take a bit of the bottle home to try later – simply as a reminder and as part of my exercise to revisit certain products.

The Midleton Very Rare is made by Irish Distillers in Cork County, the same people behind Jameson, Paddy, and Redbreast, which has been part of the Pernod-Ricard portfolio since 1988. It's one of three distilleries in Ireland (four if you count Kilbeggan) along with Bushmills and Cooley. Bushmills was actually part of Irish Distillers back in the day. The group was founded in 1966 as a merger between Power, Jameson, and the Cork Distillery company. When Bushmills joined in 1972 it gave Irish Distillers complete control of the country's whiskey production. Cooley distillery became Ireland's third major distillery in 1987, bringing an independent party into the mix, and Diageo eventually purchased Bushmills in 2005, which officially ended the monopoly and divided up Ireland's whiskey producers among three separate companies. With Beam's purchase of Cooley at the end of 2011, all of Ireland's whiskey distilleries are now the property of foreign hands.

Midleton's Very Rare Irish Whiskey became an annual release in 1984 to celebrate the name of the town where the distillery is located. There is no age statement on the bottle and each release is somewhat different than the previous one. It's comprised of a special selection of casks ranging from twelve to twenty-five years of age – both Bourbon and Sherry barrels. Each release is labeled with the year it was bottled. That's a bit of history for you.

Last night I went out for sushi in the city with a friend. I got home at a quarter past ten and I was itching for a shot of something. I needed a hit. We had drunk a few beers at dinner, but I still needed a nightcap. I remembered the Midleton sample I had brought home and poured myself a wee taste. I know that I'm someone who is supposed to analyze whiskey critically, professionally, and in depth, but I'm going to divert from all of that for the sake of this review. At the late hour, with a stomach full of raw fish and rice, that glass of Midleton Irish was like velvet. It was a gentle elixir being poured down my esophagus on a bed made of butter. Context. It means everything when you're drinking. The right moment. The right time. The right frame of mind. The right expectations. I had that moment last night with this glass of Midleton. Then I had it with a second glass. We always talk about pairing alcohol with food, but what about pairing it to your state of mind?

I remember doing a private tasting in someone's home a few years back where we did a geographical tour of single malt whisky - a bunch of guys in a man cave getting drunk and I was their paid bartender. One guy planted himself at the bar and talked my ear off all night long. He kept saying, "Have you had the Midleton Very Rare? Now that is smooth!" Every whisky I poured wasn't as good as the Midleton, according to him. I remember being really annoyed and not wanting to like the Midleton simply because this man liked it so much. However, he was totally right. The first thing I noticed last night was neither the flavor profile, nor the weight of the whisky, but rather the way the whisky finished. It was really smooth. This whiskey is smooth in a way that few other whiskies are. What does smooth even mean? Smooth has to be the number one descriptor of liquor in the world, used by at least ten people every day on the K&L sales floor, but there is no official consensus on what it actually implies (hence why professional whisky writers avoid it).

I think most people substitute smooth for sweet, in that sweetness helps to mask the burn of alcohol. People call Macallan smooth because of the sherry influence. They think of Laphroaig as being not smooth because it's full of peat and doesn't finish with much richness. Texturally I think every whiskey is equally as smooth as the next, so it's more about masking the burn of alcohol than about the actual composition of the liquid. People think quality spirits shouldn't taste like gasoline and they're right! The question is: is it smooth because of added sweetness, from barrel maturation or added sugar, or is it smooth because of quality distillation?

What's my point? I'm starting to get sidetracked here. The point is that I never thought much of this whiskey. I thought it was overpriced and that it didn't offer much nuance in the way that single malt whisky does. It's a blended whiskey and blends are meant to be easy drinkers. However, something clicked with the Midleton last night. Something about the character of this whisky made me think of "smooth," in a way that I've never really considered. It's almost seamless, flowing, but I can't quite describe it actually and this quality intrigues me greatly. It's not sweet, so it's not simply the sugar speaking. It is triple distilled, but so is Auchentoshan and it doesn't taste this good. This is why you have to revisit whiskies. They can change on you. You can change on them. You also have to think about the moment. If I were to taste this whiskey at 3 PM in our tasting bar, in a flight of twenty other whiskies, I might not think too much of it. But last night the two of us shared a moment. I don't know if it was the influence of my Irish blood or the clan of O'Driscolls back in Cork County speaking to me through a bottle of hooch, but I'm in a new place with Midleton Very Rare Irish Whiskey.

Just in time for St. Patrick's Day.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Feb202013

Cartron to Pour Tonight in SF!

Last minute change! Cartron will be in the SF store tonight to pour their Orange, Ginger, and Grapefruit liqueurs. If you're in the area and feel like sampling some serious stuff, then drop on by between 5 PM and 6:30.

Still no tasting in Redwood City tonight. We need a break down here!

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Feb202013

Our Tequila Selection

I wrote yesterday that I was very frustrated in my attempts to find new tequila. What I did not mean to imply is that we didn't already have some fantastic selections. I just haven't been able to add anything to them. We know that some of us enjoy the adventure of continuing the search for something new. When that adventure reaches a limit, it can be quite a disappointment. Here's a rundown of some of the wonderful products we carry in the order I most enjoy them, just in case you've never had them.

Seleccion ArteNOM 1079 - Jesus-Maria, Jalisco (Mountain Agave 6,200 ft. Alt.) $39.99 - Rancho El Olvido (ATP&C) is tequila's highest altitude distillery.  The agave grown at this level hits a higher BRIX sugar level owing to a porous soil and a climate that stresses the agave more.  The nose is packed with lime, pepper, and other citrus fruits, but it isn't overly zesty.  It's there, but it's subdued and concentrated.  Amazingly flavorful considering it's so mild!  A delicate dance of black pepper and baking spices.  Part of the elegance is due to the fact that these guys do not add agave nectar to re-ferment the mash (a practice that is currently legal and results in big, smooth, candied tequilas).  Because agave nectar is 100% agave, the bottle can still claim to be 100% agave even though it's the same as chapitalizing a wine.  This tequila offers purity, authenticity, and quality for a very affordable price. Highly recommended.

Seleccion ArteNOM 1414 - Arandas, Jalisco (Mountain Agave 5,400 ft. Alt.) $44.99 -
Destileria El Ranchito has been owned by Feliciano Vivanco since the post-revolutionary period of 1919-1929.  They hold 2,000 acres of estate grown agave and distill everything on traditional pot stills.  Their fermentation process is what makes them very unique - something about the yeast and their climate creates a bready, yeasty, banana nut aroma and flavor.  This is an incredibly understated reposado that absolutely blew me away with its uniqueness and mild-mannered profile.  Nutty, bready, with cinnamon bursts and spicy cloves on the palate.  Very unique and very, very good.

Seleccion ArteNOM 1146 - Atotonilco El Alto, Jalisco (Mountain Agave 4,620 ft. Alt.) $49.99 - Casa Tequileña is owned and operated by Enrique Fonesca, known as El Arquitecto.  A fifth-generation grower and master distiller who holds one of the largest plots of agave in the industry, this añejo is made to showcase the oak without overshadowing the agave.  The nose is amazing!  Again, subdued and needing to be coaxed, but incredible when it finally arrives.  Nutty aromas with toasted vanilla, but neither rich nor oaky.  Warm baking spices on the palate, which is incredibly lean for an añejo!  Black pepper and fruit on the finish with more roasted nuts.  Divine!

Gran Dovejo Añejo Tequila $54.99 - This stuff is actually made at Vivancos, just like the ArteNOM Reposado, but they bring in their own distiller. Frank Mendez called me one day and told me he'd like to come present his new family project: Gran Dovejo tequila. While Frank and his cousin don't come from a tequila-making background, they consider themselves afficionados and feel the same exasperation I do toward the current state of things. They said to themselves: if we're going to do this, we're going to do it right - no cutting costs, no hiring a giant factory to mass-produce flavorless swill, no catering to Costco, no parties with celebrities, just good tequila. In order to do so, they tracked down Leopoldo Solis Tinoco (one of the great master distillers in Mexico) to help bring Gran Dovejo to life. Leopoldo was so satisfied with the final result that he offered to put his name on the bottle as a sign of approval. I've never tasted a tequila more suited for bourbon drinkers than the Gran Dovejo añejo. It has all the texture, the new wood, the spice, and the mouthfeel. I love that they didn't let this thing get all supple, soft, and smooth because there's enough of that in the market. Imagine a bourbon, but one where all the spice came from the spirit rather than from the wood! This tequila spent 18 months in a barrel but it tastes like an 8 year old bourbon because the spirit itself is so expressive!

Tequila Ocho Plata Tequila $44.99 - Tequila Ocho's tequilas are made by Felipe Camarena, a third generation Tequilero, and each vintage--yes, these are vintage designated tequilas--comes from a single estate with its own microclimate, making these the most terroir-driven tequilas on the market. The 2011 vintage Plato comes from El Puertecito. The Plata is spicy, clean, vibrant and delicious.

Los Osuna Blanco $39.99 - Why don't you see the word tequila anywhere in the description?  Because Los Osuna is made in Sinaloa, not Jalisco, and therefore cannot legally call itself tequila, even though it is made from 100% blue agave.  The Osuna family has been distilling the agave plant for almost 130 years so, believe us, they know what they're doing.  Anyone who doubts that the best tequilas can be made elsewhere need only to taste the outstanding blanco, the best "tequila" we offer.  It's nose sings of agave spice and citrus, while on the palate it glides over the tongue with a hints of pepper, lime, and flowers.

Los Osuna Reposado $49.99 - Soft cinnamon notes and lovely wooded spice. YUM. A great midway agave spirit that had both the spice and the richness for people who crave them both.

Charbay Blanco Tequila $49.99 - The Charbay is not the watered-down, overly-sweetened designer tequila being sold these days, but traditional, spicy spirit! Charbay distilled this in Mexico and it’s stunning. They were the first American Distillery to personally distill tequila in Mexico, from 100% Blue Agave Tequila, hand-distilled by Miles and Marko, combining traditional Tequila distilling methods with Charbay proprietary techniques of double-distillation. Miles said "Tequila is by far one of the most challenging" of distilled spirits. Personally double-distilled in Arandas, Mexico, by Miles and Marko, in small (90-250 gallon) Copper Alambiques Tequilano Pot Stills, the Blue Agave is hand selected by Jimadoras, baked for four days to transform the fresh Agave into fermented "Mosto," which is then crushed and pressed and ready for fermentation in small wood fermenters. Once the Mosto ferments into a dry Mosto Muerte, it is ready to be distilled.

Tequila Fortaleza Reposado $54.99 - Guillermo Erickson Sauza is a fifth generation tequila maker who hand-crafts beautiful, artisanal tequila at his century-old estate. His tartabuelo (great-great-grandfather) Don Cenobio was the first person to export tequila to the US, way back in the 1860s, starting his own brand in the 1870s. That tequila (Sauza) was passed down the generations before being sold my Guillermo's grandfather in 1976. Tequila Fortaleza is a return to his roots, and to the traditional methods, including the use of a stone mill called a Tahona to crush the agave, a small, copper pot stills to destill the fermented agave mosto. The resposado is aged in barrel for up to nine months and no less than six, and is authentic tequila, the kind that would make Sauza's ancestors proud.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Feb192013

Tequila Woes

Can you name a tequila distillery?

I know you can name a single malt distillery. Even my grandmother knows what Glenlivet is. I know you can name an American whiskey distillery. Even my great aunt has had a glass of Jim Beam or Jack Daniels.

Patron has a distillery now. They didn't always, but success has resulted in an expansion. NOM number 1492: Patron Distillery. It was made at Siete Leguas Distillery, NOM number 1120, from 1991 until 2002. They outgrew their need for outsourcing, however. Now it's totally different, made at an entirely different place. Don Julio has their own distillery as well: NOM number 1449. What's a NOM number, you ask? It's the code on the side of every tequila bottle that lets you know where the tequila is made. Mexico has required that each tequila be tracked by a number that pertains to the origin of the product (whisk(e)y fans would kill for this type of requirement!). Fortaleza Tequila, for example, is made at NOM number 1493: Los Abuelos Distillery. "The grandparents." Ocho Tequila is made at NOM number 1474: Tequilera Los Alambiques. The same distillery that makes Charbay's wonderful blanco. They're in Arandas.

Does this mean anything to you, however? Which distillery made the product? Where it was made? Who made it? What town it's located in? Probably not.

I tasted George Clooney's new tequila today. It's made at Producutos Finos de Agave, NOM number 1416 - the home of Clase Azul. Like the porcelain-bottled super seller, Casamigos (the clever name Clooney designed) is full of sugar. It's like cotton candy with butterscotch. It's the Rombauer Chardonnay of tequila. I'll bet you all can't wait to try some!! Nothing like some sugar to mask the flavor of alcohol!

I've been tasting tequila all week, hoping to dig out a new product to tell you all about, but I can't find anything I'm excited about. It's all unbelievably bad. Terribly awful. Ridiculously tragic. I had a friend in the industry come back from Guadalajara this week and he told me something incredible. He said that seven new mezcal bars have opened up in the tequila region where the locals have begun to drink. He said that Mexicans are rejecting their own national product because it's been overrun with international, conglomerate slop. They're moving to mezcal instead because it's still relatively untainted and it still tastes like it once did. Tequila, on the other hand, has been poisoned with all kinds of additives, sweeteners, coloring agents, and extracts to make it palatable for the general market. It's being saturated. It's being suffocated. It's been gentrified.

I've been depressed about this for some time, but I'm no longer going to sit on my ass and do nothing. Tonight I begin my effort to bring tequila back to life. I've made a few phone calls. Had a few long discussions. I'm working out some plans.

I can't do it alone, however. I'll need some help. I'll need your support. I'll make sure you all get some. I'll make sure it's only for K&L customers. More on this later.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Feb192013

No Spirits Tasting Tomorrow

Taking this week off. Go spend some time with your loved ones!

-David Driscoll