Farm to Bottle: Corbin Returns

David Souza was in the store this week, tasting me on his new batch of Central Valley whiskey, as well as a few other new concoctions he's been working on. I asked him how it was going. He said something in return I've heard from many a producer: "If I would have known how hard this was going to be, I don't think I would have gone through with it." Unlike most small producers in the rye business, David set his retail price at around $50 (what he thought would be fair) and tried to work backward from there to set profitability. His is the only mature rye whiskey that I know of in the United States that is handled from farm to bottle by the same person. David planted the rye, grew the rye, harvested the rye, milled the rye, fermented the rye, distilled the rye, matured the rye whiskey for three years, and bottled it himself in his garage.

I don't think he's figured out how to get rich in the whiskey business yet, but he damn sure has figured out how to make a tasty rye whiskey. What I love about David is that he understands the long-term vision. He's not asking consumers to subsidize his growing pains, but rather is willing to eat the profit to ensure a fair whiskey for a fair price. As time goes on I'm sure he'll win over more consumers with that approach. Batch two is here! Enjoy.

Corbin Cash Merced Rye Whiskey $46.99- Corbin is a farm located in Atwater, California (just south of Modesto) that grows sweet potatoes. A few years back, David Souza, whose family has farmed in the region for a hundred years, decided to add a still to preserve the unused harvest (just like farmers have been doing for hundreds of years) and Corbin Sweet Potato Vodka was born. It turns out that Corbin hasn't only been distilling sweet potato vodka over the past few years; they've also been growing, harvesting, fermenting and distilling their own rye--purchasing custom-charred, 53 gallon white oak barrels from Missouri and filling them with their 100% farm-to-bottle distillate. The sandy soil of Atwater, however, leeches a lot of the nitrogen deep into the earth and a cover crop is needed to help remove some of the nitrogen before another round of sweet potatoes can be planted. It just so happens that rye is the perfect cover. Distilled on the same German Holstein still, the almost 4 year old rye (3.75 years) shows a perfectly-balanced nose of rich oak and rye grain aromas, and a leaner, more classically-styled mouthfeel with hints of baking spice from the barrel aging. It's not a full throttle high proof experience, nor is it a softer, gentler spirit like the Bulleit or Templeton products. The Corbin is its own thing--a purely Californian whiskey, 100% from farm to bottle. The Souzas planted the seeds and handled every step along the way until the booze was bottled. It's real deal whiskey from a local farm.

-David Driscoll


Driscoll On Driscoll

I used to be obsessed with these cinema books about directors back when I was a film major in college; a series where directors talked about their own work and analyzed their catalog of movies. There was "Lynch on Lynch", "Cronenberg on Cronenberg", and, of course, "Scorsese on Scorsese". My roommate and I used to joke about these titles, using a real dramatic film voice, and say things like: "Esteemed director David Cronenberg, in an extensive interview from the man who knows him best: David Cronenberg." We would erupt into laughter after that. There was also a great character in the Oliver Stone film Natural Born Killers played by Tom Sizemore; a renegade cop named Jack Scagnetti who had risen to fame by writing a tell-all auto-biography called "Scagnetti on Scagnetti". I think it's a funny thing when people interview or talk about themselves in a serious manner.

If you've been watching the last few episodes of Stephen Colbert lately, you'll have noticed he's taken to debating with himself; using a split screen to pepper his mirror image with questions. There is some function in that type of self-analyzation, in my opinion; especially when you've changed or evolved over the years into a different mindset. With that in mind, and based off a number of questions I've been asked lately by customers, I thought I'd let the 2009 version of myself interview the 2014 person I am today. It's been five years exactly since I took over the buying for K&L. Let's see what's changed.

2009 David: Single casks are definitely the way for retailers to differentiate their inventory from their competitors, don't you think?  I think the best way to grow your department is to go around the world, visit every distillery that interests you, and try to get your own private barrel. Would you agree?

2014 David: Not in today's market, for a number of reasons. First off, every store has jumped into the private barrel game. It's not even a matter of visiting the distillery these days. Today you can get a sample in the mail, send them a PDF with your logo on it, and—BOOM!—you've got an exclusive single cask just for you. I've seen generic grocery stores with their own cask of Four Roses, department stores with their own version of Ridgemont Reserve, and corner store delis with private editions of Knob Creek. The novelty of a single cask is totally gone. Today, it's more of an expectation, simply because it offers a slight variant from the "normal" or "everyday" stuff. Some distilleries have been so overrun with requests for single casks that it's completely gutted their supply. When a producer is that busy with requests for private barrels, do you really think they're offering their best inventory to these chain outlets? I don't.

2009 David: Well, at K&L we've been able to use our discerning palates to choose what we think are really great barrels, so that gives us an advantage. Not everyone has good taste, right?

2014 David: I think that may have been possible in 2009. In 2014, however, it's more about who you know than how well you can taste. It's more about tasting from a particular set of samples than being able to choose the best cask from a selection of mediocre leftovers. I've found that our best single barrels often times came from producers who helped us do the choosing. I won't say who, but a number of companies we work with will actually go and do the selection for us, then allow us to taste from their sample pool before we commit. Do you think David OG and I know where the best barrels are in each warehouse? Are you such a good taster that you can sniff them out? When I go to the market I ask the people working there what's fresh. How would I know what their best stuff is?

2009 David: I think you can improve the single barrel selection by traveling to spirit-making regions that don't normally offer single casks—Cognac and Armagnac, for example—and try your hand at expanding the private cask market from there. Would you agree?

2014 David: No, I wouldn't agree. Five years ago I would have said yes, but today I don't think that's the answer. Ultimately, what we want and what consumers want is better booze. Whether it's from a single barrel or part of a larger blend, our customers want to be drinking higher quality stuff. One of the biggest realizations that David OG and I had over the past few years was that many spirits do not taste good at cask strength, from a single barrel, or unadulterated—which completely flew in the face of what our core values were. Many Cognac producers had single casks available for purchase that were just unexciting and non-profound. Dudognon, for example, makes perhaps the best Cognac in the business. Yet, when we tasted their single casks, we were completely unimpressed. Rum was another case where single barrels left more to the imagination. We tasted a number of barrels in Guyana that were just flat or uninspiring. We eventually realized we needed to work on a blend with DDL, and not simply pigeonhole ourselves into the single cask market.

2009 David: But buying more than a single cask means you have to commit to larger amounts of inventory. That's a lot to ask of a small retailer.

2014 David: Absolutely, it is. But ultimately it means you have to have more faith and confidence in what you're doing. It's easy to pull the trigger on a single Bourbon barrel because you're only talking about 150 or so bottles. Even if it's a total stinker, you can probably get rid of that number eventually. When you're talking 1500 bottles per batch, like with our Glenfarclas expressions that just landed, or 6,000 bottles, like with our DDL blend that's coming, then there's no room for error. It has to be good, or else you're fucked. But that ultimately weeds out the people who shouldn't be doing this, right?

2009 David: But if you make 6,000 bottles of something, don't you think that people will get tired of it eventually? Single casks are so much better because they allow you to buy smaller amounts of a variety of different things. They allow for an ever-changing, eclectic inventory. That's exciting, don't you think? As soon as one thing sells out—BOOM!—you've got another new cask.

2014 David: I think it's exciting as long as the quality remains consistent or consistently improves. The problem with that game is that you're constantly under the gun to keep outdoing yourself. We've had a great run for the last five years—and I hope we can keep it up—but I see two problems with this model at the moment. 1) I don't think there's enough mature inventory available to keep this up—and as we continue to grow as a company we're in need of more and more booze. 2) We're creating customer ADHD. One of the biggest issues I've seen over the last six to eight months is a lack of interest in anything that isn't limited or a single barrel selection. When we introduced our Glenfarclas expressions I had customers wondering if they would be as good as our single barrel offerings.

"Why wouldn't they be?" I asked.

"Because they're not single barrels and they're not as limited," they said.

I realized then that, because we were choosing single barrels for 90% of our exclusive K&L spirits, we had created the perception that single casks were inherently superior.

2009 David: You don't think single barrel whiskies are better than batched whiskies?

2014 David: Not inherently, I don't. What's the best whisky you've ever tasted, 2009 David?

2009 David: I don't know. Maybe some Pappy Van Winkle.

2014 David: OK, well that's not a single barrel whiskey. And let me tell you something: over the next five years you're going to taste some incredible whiskies; some of them from single barrels and some of them from small batches. You're going to taste incredible single casks of Ladyburn and Glenlochy, but you're also going to taste jaw-dropping marriages of barrels from Port Ellen and Brora. There are going to be some wonderful barrels from Four Roses, but none of them will hold a candle to the Limited Edition Small Batch expressions that Jim creates by blending his barrels together. Ultimately, there's nothing superior about a single cask. What single barrels do allow for, however, is variation and raw beauty. For example, we currently have a single barrel of Laphroaig 15 in refill sherry. There isn't currently a distillery-direct 15 year old expression from Laphroaig available in the U.S., so single casks help us to fill a niche.

2009 David: So you're not against single barrel booze?

2014 David: Not at all. I am against perpetuating the myth that they're inherently better, however, and I'm worried about that idea permeating the whisky community to the point that anything that isn't a single barrel gets ignored. I think we're getting dangerously close to a situation in the industry where brands create limited edition expressions simply because that's all certain people are willing to buy. In the past, single casks were a way to offer an exception to the mass-market. Now, they've been co-opted into the mass market. Limited editions are now so coveted that they've become passe, in my opinion. I don't ever want anything we do at K&L to become stale or clichéd. I definitely don't want to buy single casks just because our customers expect more single casks. I want to buy them because we think the spirit inside of them tastes delicious and offers either value or quality (or both). When you stray from that path you start flirting with disaster.

2009 David: Don't you think it's exciting to buy new things though?

2014 David: Hell yes, I do. But what happens when people are only willing to buy one of everything because they're constantly waiting for something new? That would be a huge problem for the industry. No company, large or small, has the ability to create that many quality products on that frequent of a schedule. Eventually, it becomes a decision between quality and quantity. The question I'll be asking myself and my customers in 2015 is: would you rather have something new or rare, or would you rather have something good? We'll have to see how that goes. I think the future involves us creating more batches of great things—like our Faultline Bourbon, Faultline gin, and Fuenteseca tequila—and not just picking off casks. We've got to step it up to a new level.

-David Driscoll


Cut Spike 2.0

We got 450 bottles of Cut Spike's most recent whisky batch delivered on Monday. By the end of last night we'd sold more than 50% of that inventory. Within 48 hours of our notice we cleared out 230 bottles of single malt whisky from Nebraska! N-U-T-S. The good news, both for us and especially for the guys at Cut Spike, is that most of these were repeat purchases. People were begging for more, not merely scratching a curious itch. Selling the first bottle in this business is the easy part; it's the second and third bottles that take real talent and great juice. With whisky drinkers always looking for the next great adventure, getting them to recommit is not an easy task. Considering I've been emailed every week by multiple customers about the potential ETA for a Cut Spike return, I'd say these guys have created quite the buzz. People are drinking this stuff, emptying their bottles, and coming back for more.

Based on the current trajectory, I'd say we'll be sold out completely by the end of the week. That's likely all we'll see until late Spring.

Cut Spike Nebraska Single Malt Whisky $59.99 - At first we couldn't believe our mouths. We knew that Cut Spike single malt had just taken Double Gold honors at the 2014 San Francisco Spirits competition (the highest possible honor), so obviously other people thought it was good, too. But after tasting so many mediocre American attempts at single malt whisky, we had become accustomed to the idea that the Scottish style of distillation would never be recreated here at home. There would be spin-offs, and experimental gasps at greatness, but that supple, malty profile would simply be something we needed to import from abroad. Then the folks at Cut Spike sent us a sample of their two year old Nebraskan single malt whisky made from 100% malted barley on a pot still crafted in Rothes, Scotland. Fermented at the brewery next door to Cut Spike in La Vista, the malt was matured for two years in new American oak with varying levels of char. The result is an incredible hybrid: soft, barley and vanilla-laden whisky that tastes somewhat like your standard Scottish single malt, but has its own unique character simultaneously. It's the kind of whisky that you taste once and enjoy, but then the next day suddenly crave intensely. It impresses you instantly, yet doesn't really reveal its full character until weeks later. The new oak blurs seamlessly into the malty mouthfeel, adding a richness on the finish normally not tasted in standard Scottish selections. Cut Spike is a major accomplishment for American distillation, pure and simple.

-David Driscoll



If anyone finds my exhausted, dehydrated body in the alley between K&L and the warehouse, flailed on the ground in a desperate attempt to bring one more box of booze into the store, please let my family know that I tried my best. I didn't want to collapse from exhaustion and fatigue; I really wanted to make it all the way to the 25th and say I survived the most difficult and busiest three weeks in the history of K&L. I hope I'm around on the 26th to put my feet up, have a glass of whisky, and ring in a toast to the new year.

But, FYI: if I don't make it, tell my wife and friends that I love them.

We're getting absolutely destroyed right now. I walked into the store this morning and there was literally nothing left. For a split second I thought we had been robbed, but that wasn't the case. We had actually sold that much booze on Monday while I was gone. It took me three hours just to make the store look decent, and it will take me another four to get it back to where it was on Saturday. That's just the store. Then there's the warehouse back stock that looks like a hurricane hit it.

How many more days until Christmas? Nine?

-David Driscoll


Mailbox: Whisky Advocate Winners

Rather than the standard, rubber-stamp answer I usually have to give people when the year-end whisky awards come around—"I'm sorry, we sold out of that months ago"—I've been pleasantly surprised by the amount of Whisky Advocate award winners we still had quantity of when the victors were announced; or at the very least something similar. When the Last Drop won "Best Blended" we still had a few bottles floating around for people to purchase. When Arran's Devil's Punchbowl took home best Highland/Island single malt, we still had (and maybe still have) six or so bottles on hand. When Craigellachie 17 was awarded the best Speyside malt, we at least had the 13 and 23 year on hand to steer people towards (which I wasn't even aware of until David OG told me he had just ordered them for the LA store). My favorite emails so far, however, have been in regards to the Islay whisky of the year: the 1998 Laphroaig 15 year refill sherry butt cask from Signatory.

"David, can you get this?" some emails said.

"David, have you ever seen anything like this at K&L?" some readers asked.

Have I? Do you mean to ask if would I have access to something like this?

Yes, in fact I do. We bought the sister cask to that very same Whisky of the Year winner. Distilled the same day (22/09/1998), aged in the same type of sherry butt, matured in the same warehouse, from the exact same stock as the one you're asking about (our cask was probably right next to this one). This particular cask just happens to be entirely for us (the award winner was for a shop in the UK). And, of course, we bottled it in the standard white label 750ml to make shipping orders easier (those fat bottles are a pain) and to knock a few bucks off the retail sticker. So, yes, I do have something just like that whisky in stock.

Sherry butts are big (like Kardashian big), so there's still plenty of this to go around. I'm really enjoying the Whisky Advocate awards so far! Here's to more awards for whiskies we can still get!

-David Driscoll