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Friday
Mar212014

France – Day 1: L'Artist de Route

First we boarded the plane, still rubbing the sleep from our eyes, moving down the steps of the terminal into what was not a plane, but rather a bus that would take us to the aircraft. In we packed ourselves, like cattle, unwittingly standing in the cold morning air as it whipped across the Edinburgh runway. We waited for a solid ten minutes before the wrangler closed the gate, and sent his herd moving towards the slaughter – us unable to object to our fate.

We stepped into the strangely-shaped CityJet – wings spanning over the top of the fuselage like a T with the cabin hanging underneath it. We sat. We sat some more. We sat until it was clear we would not be leaving for Paris that morning. Mechanical failures abound.

We disembarked. We again boarded the cattle bus. We returned to the terminal chairs in which we had earlier sat. We were tired, maybe frustrated, but not disheartened. Another bizarrely-structured CityJet would be landing shortly and whisk us away to the City of Light. What was another three hours?

Except for the train connection. Dammit! We would miss our reservation from Gard de Lyon to Dijon and leave Charles Neal dangling. Could we make the next one – the last to arrive at a reasonable hour?

We landed in Paris at 2 PM. This would give us enough time to catch the final express, so long as everything fell into perfect order. But when does that ever happen? Especially in France?

We were first off the plane, the first ones through customs, and our bags were first off of the luggage dispenser. These were all important strokes of luck that could not be overlooked. But we still needed to get from CDG into downtown with a bit of Friday afternoon traffic standing between us. Was it possible? Could someone drive us from the airport to the train station in time for our departure?

We approached the taxi stand, but it was surprisingly vacant. Construction at the terminal had thrown everything into disarray, leading to all types of misplaced services and attendants. 

"Taxi, monsieur?" asked a man leaning against the wall, looking at his phone. His eyes dazzled behind his dark features and unshaven face. He was young, mysterious, and he seemed to come out of nowhere.

"Oui," David OG replied. "We're in a hurry. We need to get to Gard de Lyon as soon as possible," he explained in flawless French. "Can you take us?"

"Of course," the man replied, "but we need to hurry so I can get back before the real traffic hits."

It wasn't until we loaded our trunks and fastened our seat belts that we realized we were not in the car with a true taxi driver. 

"You want how much?" David OG exclaimed after asking about the fare. "That's ridiculous."

 But the man softly insisted, explaining that he was not much more expensive than the standard courier. 

"What can we really do?" I said to David from the backseat. "We're already on our way."

The best things in life are rarely free, nor are they cheap, and we soon discovered we weren't simply being taken by a rogue chauffeur skimming customers from the queue. We were in the car with an artist of the automobile – a magician of the road who could maneuver through traffic like a cat traversing the ledge of a building. It was unreal, magical even, and awe-inspiring. Once we had agreed to pay the incredibly high tariff, our driver – l'artiste du route – relaxed his back, composed himself, and began a dance through the Parisian highway that I will never forget.

He weaved in between trucks and trailers like a seamstress leaving perfect stitches in his wake. He shaved the corners of fenders and breezed the back of bumpers as if he knew the precise measurement of each vehicle by heart. Never did l'artiste break a sweat and never did he question his decisions. Each movement was more than an act of faith. Every turn was taken with certainty and never did we fear for our safety or experience any sense of discomfort. Just when I thought he couldn't outdo himself, he would raise the bar, leaving any hope of crescendo to languish further.

"NO!" I screamed from the back, a smile on my face, daring to believe in his abilities.

"Yes," he answered back silently, squeezing himself into a narrow nook or cranny, sending my exhilaration into a frenzy.

When we pulled up to the station, not only were we on schedule for the train, we had extra time to spare (which we spent drinking a beer).

"You see," he told me in English as he handed me my suitcase from the back, "it was expensive, but you are here when you needed to be."

"It was worth every penny," I gushed, barely able to contain my emotion. "You're not a driver. You're an artist – seriously. I've never seen anyone drive like that. Being in the car with you is like watching a master painter create with a canvas. You're incredible."

He smiled politely and waved goodbye. And we made our train.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Mar212014

Scotland Knick-Knacks

We got up at four AM to catch the six AM flight to Paris. Our plane, however, did not co-operate (nor operate, in general), so we had to disembark and assemble back in the main termincal for further instructions. Turns out they've got another plane coming to get us in a few hours, so it's not the end of the world. Charles Neal had sent us an email telling us he would be a few hours late picking us up, anyway. I think it said something like:

"Hey jokers, there's a tasting south of Dijon so you're going to have to entertain yourselves in town for a few hours while I attend. Find a seedy bar or something."

As we sit in the airport, reading books and perusing the internet, I've been thinking about a few tidbits I learned this week about the industry. I thought I'd pass some of them along:

- In order to make the big W (whisky), you need three other important W's: wood, warehousing, and water. I already mentioned the shortage of wood and warehouse space a few days ago, but I guess the mild winter didn't leave enough of a snow bank to supply many distilleries with the water they need for increased production.

"Do you remember what it looked like last year when you were here?" George Grant asked us at Glenfarclas yesterday. "It was covered in snow. Look at it now. We're running out of water fast."

"What happens if you run out?" we asked.

"We shut down," he answered.

It must be frustrating to know you need more whisky, but be unable to produce it due to a lack of natural resources.

- Pricing and quality is going to be a big issue this year. We tasted a lot of mediocre samples over the last week and even those weren't cheap. Some bottlers had absolutely nothing to taste, whatsoever. Even though I knew it was coming and expected it, I'm still a bit worried. We've got a few deals locked in that we're very excited about, but there are a lot of casks up in the air until further pricing review. 

Again, the issue isn't whisky in general. Most larger producers and long-standing blenders have plenty of whisky in cask. It's just that, for the single barrel market, they're not all that interesting. There's nothing alluring about a third-fill hogshead of Strathisla so light that it might as well be new make. There's nothing exciting or new about four year old Mortlach with a punch so heavy it could knock you down Mike Tyson-style. There's plenty of that stuff. But bottling single casks as a retailer is about presenting the consumer with options that are better than the standard market selection or are unique and generally unavailable. For us, it's also about providing value. Satisfying both of these criteria is not going to be easy.

- For those hoping for a bubble burst, we're right there with you. Nothing would please us more than a heavy discount on premium single malt whisky and the option to buy better casks at lower prices. We're not in the blended whisky business. We're in the premium single malt trade. Our customers aren't going to stop drinking whisky, in our opinion, because they're not following trends. They're simply people who enjoy drinking good booze. However, if the bubble does burst it's not going to change anything in the near future for the boutique whisky market, anyway. From what I've been able to gather over the past week, the increase in production by producers like Diageo is centered around the idea that India is scheduled to lower their tariffs for alcohol in 2017. That means one of the largest whisky drinking countries in the world is going to have access to Scotch at a much cheaper price than ever before and there will need to be a healthy supply to capitalize on this new demand. However, assuming everything goes as planned, we're talking mostly about blended whisky here: grain whisky with five to six year old single malts from places like Dailuaine, Roseisle, and Clynelish being married in. 

If tariffs aren't lowered and the market does crash under the weight of this expansion, it's still not going to result in a sea of cheap mature whisky for any of us – at least not in cask. Any surplus will come from the resale bottle market (from collectors who bought too much), but it's illegal for private citizens to resell spirits in the United States, so that's not going to help the consumer. A glut will possibly result in a firesale of young casks, as large blenders look to trim the fat and recoup expenses, meaning that independent bottlers will snatch them up, sit on them for another decade, and wait until they've come around before selling them off. Basically, what I'm saying is this: even if there's a crash (which I don't think there will be for some time) we'll still be another ten years away from a healthy supply of mature stocks. 

"You might want to buy two casks of Laphroaig this time," Des told me as we were finishing up at Signatory. "I don't think we'll have any mature Laphroaig available by the end of the year."

"Until when?" I asked.

"Until we get the chance to buy more, which won't be anytime soon," he replied.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Mar202014

Scotland – Day 8: The Final Stretch

When you hear people talk about the whisky shortage in Scotland, it's best to specify just exactly what they mean by "shortage". Do they mean actual distilled whisky, or do they mean mature, interesting, tasty whisky that you and I, as rabid whisky fans, actually want to drink? If they mean the former, then there's no reason to panic about the lack of supply. In a few years the results of increased production, distillery expansions, and the rise of new distilleries will solve that problem. However, if they're wondering how the shortage will affect the mature single cask business (for example, the one we run here at K&L), I've got three words: be very afraid.

Two years ago when we visited George Grant at his Glenfarclas distillery, every cask from every vintage was on the table – from 1960 up until 2005. We could sample anything, buy anything, and take as much as we wanted. Today, that's not the case. Like every other distillery and independent bottler in Scotland, George has been visited by Chinese businessmen, by Norwegian businessmen, by German businessmen, by Brazilian businessmen, by Indian businessmen, and thousands of other businessmen from just about any country you can think of. They all want casks and they've all got money. But, like I've said a hundred times on this blog, it's no longer about the money. They don't need our business right now. They can pick and choose their customers as they please. We like working with George and we're glad he likes working with us.

"The first time we launched the Glenfarclas 40 year no one was interested. It took us almost ten years to sell the five hundred bottles we made. Today, I could sell that amount in less than a week," George told us. 

Stocks are low and prices for mature whiskies have doubled. This was the case at Signatory as well. Their supplies are being gobbled up ten times faster than they can replace them. We're at the point where we're considering buying some casks for 2015 as well. We don't know what's going to be here for next year's trip, so it might make sense to secure a bit more than usual. Yikes! It's tough to know how much to buy! What can we do? Let's start by tasting.

One thing I love about the Grant family is their approach to luxury – it's not something to be hoarded or stored away for later. It's something to be used and consumed. You've got good whisky? You should open it and drink it. George gave us a sample of the upcoming 60 year old Glenfarclas release like it was no big deal. George's dad couldn't join us as he was currently travelling in his 1931 Bentley – a car he has shipped all over the world so he can drive it wherever he may be.

"He didn't buy it to look at it," George said. "He bought it so he could drive it!"

We busted into the warehouses in search of some sherry-aged whisky. We found a number of great things and we came up with some great ideas. I think you're all going to be very, very happy when you see what we've come up with. More on that later.

The town of Aberlour is not only home to great whisky, but also to incredible biscuits! Walker's shortbread is made right there in the town center. How could you not stop and take a look?

So many options! How can you choose just one?

"The one in the black tin with the bagpiper on it is a limited edition made specifically for our local rotary club," the lady behind the counter said. "You can only get it here."

"Then that's the one I want!" I said. Limited edition! I was pumped. In fact, I've decided to stop blogging about whisky and switch over to the various tins available from the Walker's shortbread line-up. My first post will be about the all-black, embossed Scottish bagpipe player edition – a small batch of cookies made specifically for the Aberlour Rotary Club. I give it 92 points.

With so much to pack in on our last day, we booked it over to Benriach where we met with Euan to go through samples of all three Benriach distilleries: the eponymous Elgin location, along with Glendronach and the newly-acquired Glenglassaugh. We still need to taste through more samples tonight in our hotel room as we didn't have time to get through the lot.

One last trip down through the Cairngorns and one final goodbye from the heavens. A beautiful end to a beautiful trip.

See you tomorrow in Burgundy!

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Mar192014

Scotland – Day 7: Marathon

Morning in Pitlochry. We rose at the Craigatin House (the absolute best place to stay in Scotland) where we met hotel owner Martin for our fourth straight year of pre-Signatory breakfast. Eggs, bacon, sausage, blood pudding, toast, beans, and tomato with tea and coffee. That's the only way to fortify your stomach against the onslaught that will be Edradour distillery and the back stock of whisky being aged there on-sight. This is the tasting that separates the men from the boys. We did our best to prepare Kyle, but there's nothing you can really tell anyone that will convey the experience of getting into the ring with distillery manager Des.

I took a morning walk over to the dam to catch a shot of the river coming down through the mountains. Pitlochry is one of the most beautiful places in Scotland – a nature lover's paradise full of hiking trails, bicycle paths, and plenty of other outdoor activities. It's a total ski town in the winter, as well.

Ah....Edradour. One of the most picturesque distilleries in existence. Perfect white picket fences, a small creek running through the center of the campus, and tons of delicious, mature whisky aging in the gigantic warehouse behind the main still house. We went in courageous and bold, but we left six hours later bleary-headed, glassy-eyed, and dry-mouthed – and we spit every single drop we tasted.

You know that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark when they're putting the Ark of the Covenant into the gigantic warehouse with all the other cataloged items? The Signatory cask inventory is like that warehouse times five. It's a never-ending sprawl of whisky, all different ages, all from different distilleries, continuing on as far as the eye can see. Going there as a retailer is like being a kid in a candy store. 

You name it, it's there – Port Ellen, Macallan, Glenlivet, Lagavulin, all dating back decades. It's a bit overwhelming, mainly because these types of warehouses are a thing of the past. I remember when all of our appointments would have great old stocks with plenty of fun whiskies to taste. Now, it's pretty much just Signatory. We tasted more than forty samples and took copious notes. If the pricing works out, I can imagine us taking more than twenty casks of various items of various ages – Glen Ord, Glenlossie, Glenburgie, Daluaine, Bowmore, Laphroaig, Caol Ila (old and young), Glenlivet, and more.

One of the funnier moments of the trip came as we were exiting the warehouse, still talking about Raiders and David OG said, "Did you know that Indiana Jones could have been left out of the movie and the ending would have been the same?"

"Good one, Amy Farrah Fowler," I said, referencing Mayim Bialik's television character, who first introduced the observation.

"Are you guys talking about The Big Bang Theory?" Des asked, locking the door behind us.

"Yes!" I screamed, "Do you watch it?"

"Aye," he replied, "It's so well written."

Des McCagherty, the stoic man from Signatory, who might break your kneecaps if you cross him, and who might as well be Mr. Bates from Downton Abbey, apparently enjoys American sitcoms about science nerds in Southern California. Who knew?

I conked out on the trip north from Signatory from sheer whisky saturation. We started at 10 AM and didn't leave until after 4:30, but we still weren't even close to being done for the day. It was time to head through the Cairngorn Mountains and up to Dufftown, where we had an appointment with our old friend Mark Watt. He runs the show at Cadenhead now for Springbank and had put aside some cask samples for our perusal. I did manage to stay awake until Dalwhinnie, however – one of the most beautiful distillery sites in Scotland, set against the hills, white against the darkness.

We met Mark at his house, powered through another 40+ cask samples, and eventually ended up having dinner with him and his wife in Aberlour along the river Spey. I jumped out and snapped a pick just as the sun's last light was heading behind the hills. We're here for the night until we hit Glenfarclas in the morning and Benriach soon after. Then we're back down to Edinburgh and the airport Hilton where we'll make our final decisions.

Tomorrow's the last day in Scotland. Then we'll switch over the France for another week of brandy blog posts!

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Mar192014

Scotland – More Than Just a Whisky Shortage

The demand for single malt whisky over the past few years has done more than eat up mature supply and raise prices for the bottles we love. It's also causing a severe shortage of two other fundamental components of whisky maturation: wood and space.

As we know, once you distill whisky you need barrels to put the whisky in and then you need government-approved space to store those barrels. With producers running their facilities night and day to increase production and a number of new distilleries coming online this year, more barrels are needed and getting access to Kentucky's leftovers is more difficult than it has ever been. 

"It's a big part of the reason we've started using wine casks," said Joe Torrance from Tullabardine distillery. 

Single malt producers are looking to secure their relationships with Kentucky in anyway possible. We've seen blenders purchase distilleries to lock down their whisky supply, but now we might see more malt distilleries purchasing American whisky producers simply for the access to wood. Suntory's takeover of Beam for example helped secure cooperage for their Bowmore, Laphroaig, Ardmore, and Japanese whisky distilleries.

"I had a handshake deal with Beam after visiting last year and the guy told me to call him back in January when it got closer to the actual shipment time," Alex Bruce from Ardnamurchan distillery told us. "However, when I called back after the Suntory deal, they said he no longer worked there and they wouldn't be honoring any of his previous barrel obligations. Luckily, I had a connection at Brown-Foreman, but even there it was quite difficult to get access to empty casks."

Like many aspects of the whisky industry here in Scotland, contracts are a big deal. It's amazing how honorable the idea of an agreement is – even when it doesn't make sense during a whisky shortage. There are plenty of producers who still have filling contracts with Diageo distilleries simply because they've always had them. The same goes for barrel contracts with American whiskey distilleries. Once you're in, it seems, you're golden. It's who you know at this point, apparently. Alex and Joe weren't the only two people concerned about the difficulties in securing wood. It's been a theme at every distillery we've visited so far.

The other issue is space. We've seen it here and we've seen it in Kentucky as well: an old, decrepid distillery site with the still house falling apart and debris scattered everywhere, yet with warehouses still intact and full of whiskey. Licensed warehouse space is at a premium and we're at the point now where distilleries are investing in new buildings as a source of revenue. That was a key component of Bladnoch's income when we talked to Colin Armstrong last year (leasing barrel space) and we've met with other independent bottlers who don't own a distillery, but are considering purchasing warehouse space to capitalize on the rent.

The interesting part about the independently-owned casks sitting around Scotland is that, in the case of actual bottlers, very rarely are the barrels actually located at company headquarters. Sovereign, for example, has to pay fifty pounds every time they want to sample a cask because the barrels are actually located at the distillery or in another warehouse. They might have to call Mortlach distillery and have someone there go into the warehouse, find the cask, draw a sample, and send it to them. There's a six week backlog on all requests at the moment, plus there are instances of distilleries charging 100 pounds for the task (double what it normally is) so it's not something you do lightly anymore. It's at the point now where some distilleries are asking independents to get their casks and move them elsewhere, simply because there's not enough room for anyone else's juice. 

Rather than build a distillery, it might be a good time to invest in cooperage and bonded warehouse space. Anyone got a few thousand bucks they want to throw in?

-David Driscoll