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Thursday
Aug152013

Questions from the Mailbox

Pretty much every morning for me begins with opening my eyes, making sure I'm in my own apartment, checking to see if I left a half-full glass of Scotch on top of the blanket, and reaching for my laptop to check my email. There are usually twenty-five to forty unread messages that have materialized sometime between the hours of 11 PM and 7 AM. I like to clear those out before brushing my teeth and commencing with fifty push-ups. An average day for me consists of about 300+ emails, of which 250+ will need a direct response. It's nice when I can move through at least 10% of those before leaving the house.

Lately there have been a lot of repeat questions in the old "inbox," so I've considered investing in a rubber stamp for some of them. However, I take pride in the fact that I'm able to answer every email individually. If someone takes the time to email me with a question they should get a direct answer. Not everyone has the time or the desire to actually write me, however, despite the fact that they may have a question. That's why I'm going to start answering some of these queries here on the blog. That way I might be able to clear up an issue that's been bothering you or nagging at your soul indirectly. Plus, you can forward the answers to other people you know who might have a similar question.

Most questions lately have been Bourbon-related. That makes sense seeing that we're running low on a number of expressions that are normally quite easy to find. On top of that, we've been forced into super-strict allocation measures for special edition releases that have confounded many K&L shoppers. Can it really be that hard to get a bottle? Without further ado, let's get started:

David - I'm in search of a bottle of Pappy or Stagg. How can I get one?

Getting a bottle of Stagg or Pappy at K&L is next to impossible. We're one of the most popular boutique retailers in the country so most people start with us. Our website gets scoured every second for new Bourbon releases, many of which will sell out in minutes if not seconds. On top of that, we have an insider whiskey email list that devours most special editions before we ever release them to the general public. If you're not on that list, your odds are zero. If you are on that list, your odds are just a bit above zero. We have so much pent up demand for Pappy and Stagg that we have now started a raffle system that involves us pulling names from a hat (figuratively). We usually get between 1,000 - 1,500 entries into each raffle.

On top of these almost insurmountable odds, Pappy and Stagg are only released once a year now - in the Fall. Technically these bottles are released in October, but that just means they're released to distribution. Once they've arrived in California, the Sazerac reps have to break up their state allocation into smaller allocations for every bar, restaurant, and retailer on the list. All the while, the buyers for these establishments are bitching, screaming, and moaning for their Pappy, threatening that they had better get more than they got last year or else they're never going to sell Buffalo Trace again. With all the pressure to get it right, it can sometimes take an extra month before the bottles are actually shipped to each account. Therefore, release dates are meaningless. You'll never know when the bottles will actually arrive. Last year we didn't get ours until December.

Your best bet to find a bottle of Pappy or Stagg is to visit the most out-of-the-way liquor store you can think of that might still be sitting on a bottle from last year, or even the year before. However, with the demand where it is today I highly doubt there are many places left that don't know what they have. There are guys out there who spend every waking moment searching out every last retail outlet known to man, hoping to find that treasure buried under an inch of dust. Even if your local retailer does get an allocation, I've heard stories of retail buyers hoarding their drop, purchasing their full allotment at their staff discount, only to turn right around and quadruple their money on Ebay. I have to fight off our own staff members with a stick. With the situation as it is today, the odds of finding a bottle of Pappy or Stagg on the shelf are lower than they've ever been and they're only getting lower.

Hope that helps! Have a nice day!

David - You're almost always out of Black Maple Hill and Weller 12, my two favorite whiskies. Can you recommend something similar for the same price?

Yes indeed, we are unable to order more BMH or Weller 12 right now, and even when we do get it in stock we sell out again immediately. Such is life. In the meantime, there are some alternatives. Replacing the Weller 12 is tough because it's only $25 a bottle and you get a lot of wheated whiskey for your money. Other wheaters would include its younger brothers: Weller Reserve and Old Weller Antique, but they don't really pack the richness that the 12 year does, tending more towards the pencil shaving, lean and spicy flavors. Larceny and Maker's Mark are also wheated, but they're a bit more mild and less intense. The Maker's 46 is probably the best replacement if you had to pick a wheated Bourbon, but it's $7 more a bottle. I tend to like the Evan Williams Single Barrel as a substitute for Weller 12, not because it tastes like Weller 12, but because it has a similar level of richness. The palate is creamier and softer, but it's the same price as the Weller 12 and, for me, it scratches that same itch.

Black Maple Hill is much easier to replace. It's made by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers ("made" meaning blended, as they don't have any aged whiskey they've distilled on their own) on behalf of CVI Brands just down the street from our Redwood City store. I find that KBD products tend to have similar profiles, especially that lean, grainy flavor that carries through most of their expressions. The Rowan's Creek for $39.99 is almost a spot-on replacement at times, depending on the batch you get. It's a tad higher in proof, so in my mind that justifies the extra few bucks you'll have to spend.

Let me know what you think!

David - When you say something is out of stock and that there's a "shortage," I'm confused because I went down the street to another store and saw it there. How is that possible?

Good question! Happy to answer that one. I guess the first thing I would say is that I'm not an official spokesman for retailers of America, only for K&L. I think sometimes people confuse the K&L blog as a general information site. Just because we're out of stock doesn't mean that other stores will be. We have a high-volume website that is updated constantly with real-time inventory, which means that we sell through things quickly. Whereas I can sell 180 bottles of Black Maple Hill in less than 30 minutes, it might take another store two years to sell that quantity. Therefore, you might find bottles from 2010 still sitting in a smaller retailer today if you check around. When I say a product is "unavailable" or that there's a "shortage" it means that I can't re-order from distribution. For example, I am currently out of Weller 12 year, Rock Hill Farms, and Black Maple Hill whiskies. I am unable to order more. If I could order more I would order thousands, but I can't even order one bottle. If I can't order any more, that means that no store in California can order more either. However, that doesn't mean they're not sitting on bottles they've ordered from the past.

A shortage won't always make itself known on the consumer level, only the retailer level. For example, we were out of Elmer T. Lee Bourbon for more than a month because California distribution didn't have any more to sell us. I'm sure that BevMo had some as did other stores, but not us because we sold our stock too quickly. That means I didn't buy enough the last time it was available. Part of my job is predicting how much we'll need to carry us through the next shortage. Sometimes, however, I'm only allowed to buy a certain amount, which doesn't allow me to backstock against the demand. Black Maple Hill, for example, is limited to 60 bottles now each time it arrives. That's only enough to last K&L about 30 minutes and that's with a "one bottle limit" per person. If I let people buy as much as they wanted it would be gone in seconds.

So you see, sometimes a "shortage" never affects the general public because distribution ends up getting more whiskey before the availability at retail "in general" sells through. Other times, however, there are periods of three to four months were no product is available anywhere. I think you'll start seeing this with Weller 12 soon as it's been out of stock for some time and there doesn't appear to be more coming in the near future. Eventually this will trickle down to all retailers in California and everyone will be out of stock. In that case, the shortage will make itself known to consumers in general, not just K&L shoppers.

Is there a question about booze or the liquor industry that you'd like to see answered here on the blog? Let me know. You know where to find me: daviddriscoll@klwines.com

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Aug142013

Fun New Things 

There are times when big blending houses can be a giant clusterfuck of mismanagement and bad booze. However, there are also moments when large producers with libraries of incredible stock use their size and selection to their advantage, creating something supremely stellar that couldn't be accomplished on a smaller scale. Above, we have a photo of the latter.

The new Hennessy Paradis Imperial Cognac $2,299.99 (not to be confused with the standard Paradis) is one of the few luxury-oriented products I've tasted over the last year where the juice has actually outshined the ornate bottle. And this is one beautiful bottle! Crystal decanters aside, the blenders at Hennessy did an incredible job with the Imperial, pulling out some of their oldest selections for the assemblage. It's so delicate, nuanced, and intricate in style that it's almost an un-Hennessy version of Hennessy. I don't mean that as a slight to the standard Hennessy style, it's just that I would never use the word "delicate" to describe their other brandies. Hennessy Cognacs are normally dark, rich, textural, and full of caramel flavor. The Imperial is lithe, lean, fruity, chameleonic, and haunting. If you've got 2.3 grand to blow on a fancy bottle with a ten pound decanter and crystal stopper that would probably not pass TSA inspection, this is the one to get.

Also just in from our friends at LVMH, the newest incarnation of Grand Marnier Titanium $39.99 (due in tomorrow morning) - basically the same old delicious Grand Marnier recipe without any sugar. While some producers, Ferrand for example, have catered to the sugar-conscious market with "dry" versions of Curacao or orange liqueur, this is the first I've tasted that's literally "dry" - as in sugar-free. What you've got with the Titanium is VSOP or higher grade Cognac with orange zest and spices. I think it's delicious, although I don't know if it's the non-sweet sweetener you've been looking for. I think it's just a tasty Cognac that happens to have orange in it. I would sip this on the rocks or with tonic water, not make it the middle of my new margarita.

This isn't in stock yet, but it has arrived in California! Our first collaboration with Campeon Tequila and El Viejito distillery is bottled and almost ready to go! No more perfume decanter, no more brand-oriented marketing, just vibrant, zesty, unadulterated tequila for a hot price! We plan to have it on the shelf at $29.99 which makes it $10 less than our other high-end blancos. The goal was to create a tequila that was good enough to sip, but not so expensive that you wouldn't want to mix it. More importantly, I made sure that we stayed true to my new expectation: that a tequila should tell you where the agave was grown, the type of soil it was grown in, and the elevation at which it was grown. Especially when we're dealing with blanco tequila.

More on this later!

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Aug142013

Faultline Questions

We've been getting a lot of questions concerning the new Faultline whiskies, which is great! I'm glad everyone is excited about these because we certainly are too! Which one is the best? Which whisky represents the hottest deal? That's what people want to know and I'm always happy to throw in my two cents. Normally I've got a favorite whisky, a cask that represents tremendous quality to me when we buy a batch from a producer. However, in this case I really don't have one. When we bottle something under the Faultline label we're representing K&L as a store and we're catering to a much larger group of drinkers. Therefore, anything that says Faultline on it should be accessible and easy-to-appreciate on a general level. It should also be a good value. Those are two very important criteria to take into consideration when deciding to purchase a bottle of Faultline. Rarely is the "best" or the "most interesting" whisky from our yearly trip the best value, or the most user-friendly.

With the exception of the Bowmore whiskies (which are truly outstanding at any price), neither the Royal Lochnagar, the Bunnahabhain, the Mortlach, the Miltonduff, the Longmorn, the Cragganmore, nor the 1979 blend represent the best casks we found in Scotland this year. The best casks in my mind are the 1989 Jura, the 1997 Laphroaig, and the 1994 Benriach. That's just based on my own personal taste and speaking from a purely qualitative standpoint - price not included. However, when someone offers you a delicious and charming Bunnahabhain 21 year old that you can retail at $79.99 you just can't say "no." It's kind of like when the distributor lets me offer Glenmorangie 18 for $82.99 or Isle of Jura 16 for $49.99. These aren't the first whiskies I would recommend at full price, but when the cost drops dramatically I've got a completely different take. GlenMo 18 at $82.99 is much different than GlenMo 18 at $129.99. That's kind of what happened with all these Faultline casks.

For example, if the Miltonduff 30 year old would have been $200 a bottle we definitely would have passed. But it wasn't $200. It was $60 cheaper. For $140, sign me up because that's a hot deal. That's kind of the story with these Faultline barrels. Not only are they really good values, but they all have drinkable flavor profiles. The Royal Lochnagar is light and grainy, almost Irish whiskey-like. The Bunnahabhain is rich and soft with just the slightest hint of smoke. The Mortlach, Cragganmore, and Longmorn whiskies are all classic examples of the Highland style. The 1979 blend tastes like good 30 year old blended Scotch. They're all fun. They're all tasty. They're all worth getting. But there's not one that outshines the other. There's no superstar, no destined-to-go-down-in-K&L-history type of whisky here.

With that in mind, if you're having trouble picking out a bottle I would say to you, "Just pick one that catches your eye, either because you've never had a whisky from that distillery, or because you think it sounds interesting." You're not going to end up with a bad bottle, that's for sure. And you're certainly not paying too much for what you're getting.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Aug132013

Faultline EXTRAVAGANZA!!!

It seems like so long ago when David and I were sitting in the Bowmore cottage, talking about how cool it would be to have a private label for K&L. "Something with a cool name," we both said. That was the night we crossed "Crystalyne," Kristaline," and "Stillyne" off the list in favor of "Faultline." That would be the name of all privately-bottled K&L booze, we decided, as we went to sleep that night with a surge of energy rushing through our veins. Three years later, we've amassed quite a fun collection of Faultline gin, Cognac, rum (on its way), and Bourbon (on its way, too), but nothing quite as audacious as this year's project: nine new casks of Faultline whisky from Scotland!

Where would we even find nine casks of whisky where the bottler would let us use our label and not theirs? More importantly, how in the heck did we get these great prices? W-O-R-K. I've said it before and I'll say it again, the booze is out there if you're willing to put in the work. Sometimes the work requires three years of relationship building, so it's not that different from getting a bottle of Pappy. You've gotta make friends, meet people, ask around, and show support. In the end, the people who want to do business with you will make themselves known. That's how we've been able to do all this.

After securing the booze, we took to our trusted list of K&L graphic designers, most of whom are just loyal customers on our insider whisky email list. We sequestered design ideas and the labels came pouring in. What better way to make our customers part of the process? This is a whisky community we're building. We could never have done all this without your support. We can't bring in nine casks of whisky if no one wants to buy them! You trust our palates in sourcing the whisky, and the result is what you now see below. David OG has gone through his notes and typed up the reviews. I'll probably add my two cents in later. For now, however, grab what you want at the special "pre-order" price. We've already released the 1979 blend, Bowmore Palm Tree, and Royal Lochnagar. Here are the other six:

1991 Bunnahabhain 21 Year Old Faultline Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $79.99 PRE-ORDER - This is just stupid. It just shouldn't be this inexpensive. We were incredibly tempted to release this cask right where last years Bunnahabhain was: at $100. We could have and sold it all. This cask is richer and more expressive than the 22 year old we sold last year. It's got tons of the Bunnahabhain appley character, with subtle saline to balance the expressiveness and power of the fruit. Much richer texturally than the ultra light weight cask from last year. So why the hell aren't we selling it for more? Well, that's what Faultline is all about. When you buy this we guarantee that this is absolute best value we can get you on single malt. Believe it, because you won't believe when it's all gone. (David OG)

1989 Cragganmore 23 Year Old Faultline Single Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $99.99 PRE-ORDER - Finally, the return of Cragganmore to the Faultline line up. One of our first bottlings was a fabulous 20 year old Craggy, from a hogshead. That was three years ago and we haven't seen another Cragganmore from any of our suppliers since, so when this one popped up as a potential Faultline candidate we jumped on it. We were surprised again by both the quality and the incredible price! Cragganmore is distilled from very lightly peated barley. Over the course of 23+ years in a refill sherry butt, that subtle smokiness has morphed into what can only be described as quintessentially Speyside. Imagine a highland shrub recently in bloom after months of dormancy during the long cold winter. Imagine the honey bee attracted to the tiny purple flowers, returns to her hive, which is situated precariously on the outstretched limb of knobby oak tree. The honey slowly drips out of the dense honeycomb on to the damp reeds below. This tiny florally flecked speck of honey trapped on a blade of grass flutters in the breeze to land on a damp stone on the banks of the river Spey. Droplets from the idly lapping river loosen the blade from its sticky perch on the wet stone, eventually releasing it into the meandering river as it twists toward the north sea. Now imagine yourself with a bottle of Cragganmore. You have a very good imagination... (David OG)

1992 Longmorn 21 Year Old Faultline Single Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $104.99 PRE-ORDER - Oh Longmorn, you elusive lovely creature. Last year, we bottled a Longmorn from a fresh sherry butt that was arguably our most positively received whisky of 2012. All the whisky geeks went mad and snatched up every bottle moments after it arrived. This year we return with another Longmorn of a similar price and aged, but this time it's coming from a second fill butt. It's not the sweet up-front style of last year's, but instead a powerful whisky filled with fresh vanilla, dark dense fruit, and aromas of toffee and spice. This is a fabulously complex whisky with a roundness that's undeniably pleasurable. Again don't expect a redux of last year's cask, but a special whisky that stands tall on it's own merit. All lovers of this splendid Speyside distillery, located just south of Elgin, should buy now before the price goes up. A very welcome addition to the Faultline family. (David OG)

1996 Bowmore 16 Year Old Faultline Single Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $92.99 PRE-ORDER - This year we were lucky enough to secure two different Bowmore Casks for the Faultline selection. As I've stated previously, Bowmore is absolutely one of the finest distilleries in Scotland and finding casks like this at reasonable prices is just not normal. This lovely whisky comes from a refill sherry butt. This is a lovely contrast to our other Bowmore, showing much softer aromas of candied fruit, densely wafting smoke, but with a subtleness that is not seen on the Hogshead cask from 1997. This barrel perhaps captures the current distillery profile more precisely because of the sherry influence (limited as it may be) and will make any Bowmore lover happy. It may also provides an opening for none Islay drinkers to appreciate a smoky whisky that is fully integrated and approachable without to much of the medicinal side. Similar casks are currently selling in Europe for upwards of $150, so don't expect this to be around forever. (David OG)

 Miltonduff 30 Year Old Faultline Single Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $139.99 PRE-ORDER - This baby will be the oldest single malt whisky we've ever bottled under the Faultline label. Miltonduff is certainly rare on the market right now, although we find casks regularly, the quality is highly irregular. This cask was just transcendent in my opinion. Aged for 30 years in a bourbon barrel, we really get to the essence of Miltonduff. Exhibiting exotic wood notes and powerfully aromatic qualities of incense, gentian, and spice on the nose give way to intense vibrancy and life on the palate. While this whisky is mature, it certainly shows no sign of slowing down, layering on the aromatic elements as the whisky finishes. Sandalwood, cardamom, bay leaf, and subtle honeyed sweetness soften the powerful masculine quality of this special whisky.

1987 Mortlach 25 Year Old Faultline Single Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $124.99 PRE-ORDER - Here is a fun whisky from the fabulous and sought-after distillery in Dufftown. We've already had great success this year with Mortlach from various bottlers, but this cask was just too good a value to pass up. What we have here is a total turnaround from the sherry monster that we bottled via Chieftain's this year. Coming from a refill bourbon barrel, the savory quality of Mortlach is not framed by the sweet dried fruit of the sherry cask. Instead, the subtle influence of the bourbon barrels works to highlight the distilleries distinctive qualities. Just an all together stupendous value, if somewhat geared for the more expert drinker. The high proof will be a definite surprise for those not expecting it. I believe that many who liked our first Faultline - a Littlemill 21 yo - will enjoy this cask for its unflappable uniqueness and rich complexity. (David OG)

These are all due in at the beginning of December. "Due" meaning expected, not for certain! If you've got questions about a specific whisky then send me an email. I know it's tough to decide which ones to get.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Aug132013

The Fear of Liking Something

I was in charge of my two young nephews this weekend while my sister-in-law took a much needed mini-vacation; just three guys hitting the town in search of some fun. There's no restaurant as fun for a four and six year old as Benihana, simply because of all the action taking place in front of you. I can get some sushi and grab a drink, while the chef throws knives, catches shrimp in his hat, and makes a Mickey Mouse shape from his mound of fried rice, keeping the two boys completely transfixed and entertained, so that's where we went for lunch. We had a great time together and they ate all their chicken, but one thing I did notice was their reluctance to try things like zucchini or mushrooms.

"I don't like those," they each said.

Classic child response. We've all been there. Saying that we don't like something as a kid is really code for "I don't feel like trying that because it might be gross." Of course, there's the chance that it might be really good, too, but as small children we're not willing to take that risk. All kids can think about is the discomfort brought on by the situation. It's easier to simply protect themselves from anything bad by expressing the negative opinion. For my nephews, saying that they didn't like zucchini was a sure-fire way to avoid an uncomfortable experience. I completely understood, although I was hoping they would at least try one bite. Taking the chance and enjoying the zucchini might embolden them to try other foods and be a bit more adventurous.

When I finally got some alone time last night I flipped through the channels and found one of my favorite Corey and Corey movies: Dream a Little Dream. While the film carries what is undoubtedly one of the worst plot lines in the history of 80s cinema, its portrayal of 1980s fashion and teen angst is remarkable. Insecure teens are seen picking on one another for their eclectic tastes and personal styles, hoping that their negative opinions of one another will further elevate their own self-esteem. In the case of these particular high schoolers, not liking a particular song, shirt, person, or idea protects them from possible criticism of who they are and what they're about. Everything "sucks" or it's "lame" and "uncool." It's not until Corey Feldman's character becomes possessed by the soul of Jason Robards (don't ask, you have to see the movie to get it - kind of a Freaky Friday-type scenario), an older and more secure person at his age, that he summons the courage to be who he wants to be and stand behind his opinions. That's the value of experience and wisdom.

When it comes to wine and whisky appreciation, the same basic analogies apply to serious critique and evalution. It's easier to say we don't like something than to try and tackle a new, unfamiliar experience. For many people, talking honestly about why something is good is usually more difficult than simply saying they don't like it. In most instances where disagreement occurs, people are criticized for having bad taste, but not for their negative review. For example, if you come out and say your favorite whisky is Tobermory there's a fear someone will respond with "Tobermory sucks" and challenge your opinion, rather than "I also like Tobermory. You seem to know your whisky." Dave Smith, from St. George distillery, and I had this conversation a few weeks back. He said, "If you talk about how you like a whisky you're more likely to be put on the spot for an explanation. 'Why do you like this whisky?' someone might ask. If you say you don't like it people just assume you must have your reasons, so a negative response almost masquarades as knowledge, when in reality it's much more difficult to say why you like something."

It seems "I don't like it," can be a defensive maneuver long into adulthood.

-David Driscoll