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Monday
Nov032014

Taiwan: Day 2 – Airport Mall

What's this?! We get to fly to Sapporo on a Hello Kitty-themed plane?! Oh my god. I cannot wait to get on this aircraft.

First, however, it was time to hit the business lounge. Front and center: a bowl of rice for breakfast washed down by a half can of Kavalan's Mr. Brown Coffee. Delish. If you haven't been to Taiwan, let me tell you, you're flying in and out of a high-end mall that also happens to have a few runways. There's more luxury merchandise here than the entirety of Union Square's Maiden Lane. It's astonishing.

When we got to the gate I had to fight through a crowd of other passengers to get a look at the plane. There was a mob of people standing in front of the glass window, jockeying for position to get their photo taken.

Like I said, I can't wait to get on this aircraft.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Nov032014

Taiwan: Day 1 – Night in Taipei

Downtown Taipei is an incredibly intricate tapestry of modern consumerism and intelligent design. The lights are bright, the scene is ecclectic, and the energy being exuded is full of optimism. There is new construction. There are crowds of well-dressed people speaking English as well as they do Mandarin. There's plenty of bustle in Taipei, but refreshingly it's without the hustle.

Every bench on just about every alley is being used. People are resting, taking breaks, talking to one another, enjoying their coffee rather than slurping it down as they move quickly from one task to the next. The city of Taipei has provided its residents with a number of serene seats to unwind and the people are utilizing that space. The juxtaposition of steel, glass, and greenery is outstanding. It was quite wonderful to observe. 

Mopeds seem to be the preferred transportation with young couples zipping down the city streets, in between the numerous buses that continue to shuttle more residents into the center.

At one point the world's tallest building, Taipei 101 looms largely over the area. Unlike the Empire State Building or the former World Trade Center, however, the vertical behemoth you see before you isn't just a stack of offices as high as the eye can see. It's something much more user friendly.

Taipei 101 is a gigantic, never-ending, beautifully-designed, awe-inspiring shopping mall. It's without a doubt the greatest mall I've ever experienced. Imagine every retail outlet in Vegas, from the Venetian to Caesar's, all crammed into one space with twice the inventory, along with an additional 200 stores we never see in the U.S. 

If you can picture that in your head, you might start to come somewhat near to what Taipei 101 offers. All I could keep saying to myself was, "My wife would absolutely die!"

It's not like it's a mall full of sad Old Navy jumpers and shitty Armani cast-offs. Each store is like an individual work of art. I thought this golden delight above was a Tory Burch, but it was actually a beautifully-curated tea shop with a detailed selection. I don't drink that much tea, but I blew through $60 in about two minutes. I was deeply moved.

The fashion on the Taipei streets is also modern and, more importantly, smart. Despite the dominance of big brands on the billboards, no one was painfully whoring their labels for everyone to see. It's more about looking good, than looking expensive. Doc Martins, black tights, a sweater dress, with a discreet Chanel purse? Well done. 

Into the neon night we went, a balmy 70 degrees, walking from the hotel towards the restaurant where we would meet Mr. Lee, the owner of the King Car Company, for a special banquet style dinner.

Mr. Lee was busy deciding who would sit where around the lazy Susan. Seeing the final arrangement, I didn't understand the nature of the positioning, but I soon discovered the strategy.

In Taiwan, it's tradition to drink only when inviting someone else from the table to drink with you. If you want to take a sip of wine then you must make eye contact with someone else and raise a toast in their honor. For that reason, the whisky was poured into thimble-sized glasses that hold probably a third of an ounce. It's completely deceiving, however. No one tells you in advance that you'll probably engage in forty to fifty toasts over the course of the evening (and you're expected to drain your glass each time). I started faking it after about the fifteenth raising of the glass. I don't think many other people were following my lead, however. Things got absolutely nuts in a hurry. It was an incredible dinner full of heartfelt speeches and feelings of true friendship, fueled by endless shots of Kavalan single malt. The meal was delicious, but I'll remember the comradery more than the food.

Around the family-style table in Taiwan you'll find great bottles of whisky, but you won't sit there nosing the glass, trying to coax out each detailed aroma while some ridculously pompous guy talks to you about the history of distillation and the importance of enjoying each sip. You're here to drink. You're going to enjoy each tiny glass while you do it, but the main focus is on the person across from you rather than the liquid in the glass. I think we all really enjoyed that aspect of the evening. I don't think I've ever had that much fun with a bottle of whisky.

Thankfully, I managed to get home and into bed rather early. A few hours of shut-eye was exactly what I needed before rising early in the morning for our flight to Japan. I climbed out of bed around 4:15, opened the blinds, and began organizing my images into something somewhat tangible. The city was still moving.

I'm excited to see what today holds for us.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Nov032014

Taiwan: Day 1 – Kavalan Continued

Before heading into the distillery proper this morning, we gathered in a UN-style conference room to watch a short film about the King Car Company. No precursor could have been more appropriate to start the Kavalan experience. Many of us were giggling throughout the introduction; not because we were mocking the video, but because of how completely unpretentious the presentation was. There was not one trace of irony in any of the explanations concerning King Car's advances in pesticides, or the increase in food safety measures. Every aspect of King Car was detailed and given with complete admiration, even though much of the information was completely out of touch with what's currently trendy in the American spirits market. There was no talk about "handcrafting" or "small batch" production, and no mention of "hands-on" care. The automatized aspects of Kavalan Distillery were points of pride, not humor. Efficiency is key in Taiwan, just as it is in Scotland, but there's no attempt to romanticize the process. Quality is in the details, as it should be. After four years of complete rusticity, I found this utterly refreshing. The film made me so happy, that when we finally met with Ian in front of the entrance, I shook his hand and said, "Great video, man. Absolutely great." He was all smiles, as usual.

That's not to say that Kavalan is a distillery run completely by computers and robots, because it isn't. There are twenty guys there just working with cooperage, which is more than some distilleries in Scotland employ for an entire week's shift. The Taiwanese are proud of their technological advances and don't feel the need to remain rustic just because that's what's cool right now. In fact, I don't think they even realize that's what's cool right now. Do you know how wonderful it is to visit a producer completely lacking in pretense? It's incredible. That's Kavalan in a nutshell: completely honest and straightforward without any hipster chip on its shoulder. 

In a lot of ways, Kavalan reminds me of a combination of Caol Ila and Port Ellen; the way the distillery looks and feels. It's modern and mechanical like Caol Ila and the placement of floor-to-ceiling windows opposite the pot stills is very reminiscent of the way the Islay giant faces Jura in the distance. We were able to taste the new-make whisky off the still and I was taken aback by how fruit-forward it was. Since 2005, Kavalan has employed a long 60 hour ferment (much like Oban), helping to bring out the fruity elements of the whisky.

The pagodas are very Port Ellen-esque. Except instead of a cold Islay port next to it there are tropical mountains.

I'll probably end up doubling-back and getting more technical about the distillation process, but to me the most important aspect of Kavalan's flavor is the cooperage and the warehouse conditions at the site. They use a five floor warehouse to create different temperatures, resulting in various speeds of maturation. It's part of the reason they've had so much success with their fino sherry expression; a type of cask that Bowmore distillery gave up on after thirty years of lackluster results. Scotland simply doesn't get warm enough to release that delicate fino flavor upon the whisky aging inside the barrel. The intense and humid heat of Taiwan, on the other hand, seems to bring out the best in certain sherry butts.

That's part of the reason the fifth floor of the warehouse (where the temperature often reaches 108 degrees) is called "the church." Partly because the vaulted ceiling resembles a cathedral and partly because miracles seem to happen inside the sherry butts resting in this room. We were able to taste fino sherry-aged whisky straight from the cask. It was indeed heavenly.

King Car's convention center brings more than one million vistors per year, making Kavalan distillery a heavily-trafficked tourist attraction. They have a gigantic tasting area with every expression available for a very small fee. With the neon lights and vibrant colors, it resembles nothing like an old-school distillery or a low-lit Scottish pub. 

What's happening at Kavalan is distinctly Taiwanese, from the incredibly pure water being sourced from the nearby Snow Mountains, to the manner in which the distillery is presented and operated. It's not simply Scottish single malt being made in Asia. There's something deeper going on.

I'm going to dwell on this idea a bit more. 

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Nov022014

Taiwan: Day 1 – Kavalan Compound

I woke up to a hazy, humid, tropical morning at the Kavalan distillery. We got in super late last night after an hour and a half drive from the Taipei airport (which I slept through most of). It was impossible to see much out the window as we landed--a typhoon in the area made the weather a bit rough--and I was too exhausted to do anything other than fall face-first into my pillow when we got here. I crawled out of bed around 6 AM, opened the shade to my bedroom window, and saw the distillery in the distance; the lush mountains lingering in the distance.

Kavalan distillery is really just part of a much larger facility operated by the King Car Company. They make all kinds of other products here including breakfast drinks, coffee, even soap. The entire convention center is located at the base of the hills with what looks like rainforest beyond it. If I didn't know I was in Taiwan I might think I was in Columbia.

We're currently staying in the gigantic convention center that has private rooms, huge conference spaces, a full size theater complete with sound stage, a cafe, and a small restaurant area. Chris and I were both up early so we took a walk around the grounds before meeting the others for breakfast.

There are a number of barrels painted by various artists lining the walkway towards the main distillery.

Mr. Brown's Coffee is also made on site and, let me tell you, after finishing a few cups it's clear that Mr. Brown knows what he's doing.

There are gardens everywhere around the main square.

And even a vineyard tucked in between the distillery building and the mountains. We're getting ready to go on a tour shortly, then we'll head into Taipei for more sight-seeing. I'll be back later with more.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Nov022014

In Between Days

We just took off from SFO; moving north over the city across the Golden Gate, hugging the coastline until it was time to hang a left. It was an odd feeling, to say the least. I’ve never flown over the Pacific (not even to Hawaii), so when the plane just kept heading West, over the expansive mass of blue, it finally hit me that we were going to Japan. I met Chris Fu from Anchor at the airport a little after 10 A.M. this morning and we had some time to shoot the breeze. Both of us were so busy this week between our regularly-scheduled workloads, the work we needed to get done before leaving (I’ve been battling a fever on top of that), and the craziness of the World Series, that neither of us put much thought into this trip. We simply woke up this morning, put a few things in a suitcase, and had our wives drop us off at the terminal. Considering it’s going to be about 80 degrees in Taipai and around 50 degrees in Sapporo, we did need to coordinate our wardrobes a bit, but I’m surprised by how nonchalant I’ve been about leaving. It feels like any other day, to me. Maybe that’s what happens, however, when you do this type of thing for a living: you start taking it for granted, perhaps.

Continually-rising whisky sales are something that the industry has been taking for granted lately, but there were a few reports this week that Diageo put the breaks on their distillery expansions due to a less-than-stellar quarterly sales report. One minute they were building new distilleries like the future of single malt was certain, the next minute they’re canceling investments in that very future. You’ll hear various reasons as to why this is happening (the end of Chinese political gift-giving, the cyclical nature of whisky, booms and busts, etc), but really what you need to look at to understand healthy growth is consumption. How many people are actually drinking the whisky they’re buying these days? I don’t mean collectors who buy bottles to save or to flip down the road, I mean: how many people actually finish a bottle of whisky once they open it? With new limited edition releases coming practically every week, and the number of guys I know who buy every single one of them, I’m wondering how many people can actually ingest and consume all that hooch? More than likely what happens is a stockpiling of partially-drunk bottles until space becomes an issue. Either it becomes time to throw a giant party, give the leftovers away, or listen to your wife’s demands that you stop buying more whisky. The excitement being generated by the whisky industry right now is contagious; we want to taste and to know and to experience everything we read about. Our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, however (or maybe our livers), and what really happens is: we buy, we open the bottle, we try a glass, and then we buy five more bottles before we’ve even put a dent in the last one. I know this because I am one of these people. But I also know this type of consumerism is happening on a larger scale because I communicate with thousands of others just like me on a daily basis.

My modest collection of bottles doesn’t bother me because I’m an equal opportunity drinker and eventually I’ll get around to finishing everything. I actually drink five times as much beer as I do whisky, and I drink ten times as much wine as I do beer. I usually do a beer after work (at work), a cocktail when I get home, a glass of wine with dinner, and maybe a shot of something after that. In my mind, that’s how the booze pyramid works: you’ve got all the food groups, which need to be consumed in certain proportions to maintain a balanced diet. I drink because I like to drink. This whole collectable, limited-edition whisky thing is just icing on my already-existing booze cake. But I know a lot of guys who drink only whisky because they’ve just discovered it. They didn’t drink that much of anything before and now—all of a sudden—they’re drinking whisky like it’s water. It’s become their life’s calling overnight. I have a feeling these drinkers have helped boost the whisky market over the last five years—the guys who are having fun with whisky just like they did following Phish around in college, or riding a skateboard in high school. It’s not a lifestyle they’re likely to maintain, however. It’s a fun phase that offers all kinds of hobbyistic (I just made that word up) pleasure, just like they felt when they were collecting baseball cards as a kid. Eventually all that shit goes into a shoebox, however, and life moves on into the next phase. You can’t depend on these drinkers to maintain this newly-found enthusiasm forever.

The in-flight meal on ANA is awesomeMy question is: what happens when all these guys decide that the whisky party is over? I wrote an article for this blog a few years ago begging people not to fall into that trap. As Americans we can’t help it sometimes. One minute we’re eating pizza every night, the next minute we’re running five miles a day and eating gluten free. Then we injure ourselves due to unhealthy overexertion and it’s back to the couch for more pizza. We like to “get into” stuff and, like Drake, we go from zero to a hundred—real quick. When I write posts like “Drinking to Drink”, I’m hoping to remind people that booze is there to get drunk (and to get you drunk). If you don’t plan on drinking it, then maybe you shouldn’t be buying it (unless you’re investing, of course). I’ve noticed a trend at K&L lately when it comes to buyer’s remorse. Wine guys hardly ever complain about a purchase that failed to deliver. They’ll bring back corked or spoiled bottles, of course, but that’s what they’re supposed to do. When a bottle of whisky doesn’t live up to expectations, however, the whisky guys will sometimes mope about it for days—if not weeks! It’s like their whole life has been ruined by one bad experience, which cannot be repeated at any cost. I was trying to figure out why that was, why an underwhelming bottle of whisky made people more upset than a lackluster bottle of wine (even though wine is often just as expensive), and then one of my co-workers provided the answer: It’s because they don’t finish it all at once. The bottle continues to sit there on their bar until they decide what to do with the rest of it. Wine drinkers just throw their empty bottle in the recycling and move on. Bingo! 

Because whisky can remain fresh and drinkable for years after being opened, there’s no worry about finishing what we purchase. That’s a perk that most whisky drinkers enjoy, knowing that they can slowly nurse these bottles over a long period of time. I enjoy whisky’s durability as well, but ultimately I find that if I don’t consume the bottles on my bar within the first few weeks I’ll eventually tire of their presence. To me, wine is so much more fun because I get to open a new bottle every night! Each day when I wake up there’s a new adventure waiting for me later that evening. It’s a more healthy (not in the literal sense) way of drinking that’s more maintainable for my lifestyle. I open a bottle, I finish a bottle, and then I move on. The guys who obsess over every ounce, who pour their bottles into half-bottles over time to reduce the amount of oxygen, and who try to hold on to every drop like a hoarder who won’t throw away a movie ticket stub from fourteen years ago, they can't maintain the industry. I don’t think there were many people treating whisky that way ten years ago, and I don’t think many of those guys will be drinking whisky with the same ferocity ten years from now. Maybe they will be. I don’t know for sure, obviously. But I find that people who take this whole whisky thing too seriously tend to burn out and drive themselves insane rather than enjoy it. They’ll shop at K&L every week like crazy, for months at a time, then I’ll never see them again. Poof! They’re gone. That’s not good for the longevity of the whisky industry. I’m not looking to create temporary customers and max out their credit cards until they completely quit drinking in general. That type of hyper-consumerism will ultimately burn this new cycle of whisky enthusiasm out faster than we can ever predict. Nevertheless, this type of consumer is currently part of the new market. Will they remain loyal whisky drinkers into the next one, however? Will they come back to buy the same bottle again? That’s the million dollar question.

When I go on booze trips (like the one I’m currently on), I’m always looking for answers to these larger issues. What are other cultures doing with their whisky? How are they drinking it? Why are they drinking it? What are their expectations and what do they want from their whisky experience? I’ve got seven days to find out if either Taiwan or Japan can provide any insight. The more I go on these excursions, the less interested I am in how other countries are making spirits, and the more interested I become in how they’re drinking them. It’s the quality of the consumption of whisky that I think many Americans are missing out on these days, rather than the quality of the whisky itself.

-David Driscoll