Wrestlemania & The K&L Spirits Blog

Today is Wrestlemania 29 – the biggest event in all of professional wrestling. While I no longer watch the WWE or smaller promotions like TNA regularly, I usually tune in for Wrestlemania simply out of nostalgia. This year I am choosing to abstain from the extravaganza, mainly because I haven't seen my wife in over two weeks and she would kill me if I went to go watch wrestling today, but also because there isn't much mystery about what's going to happen in New Jersey tonight. Triple H will almost certainly get his revenge on Brock Lesnar (and I don't see him losing for a third straight year at the big dance). The Undertaker will definitely beat CM Punk (if not then I will order the replay to watch later). And I don't think there's any doubt that John Cena pins the Rock to take the WWE strap. Those are the three matches I really want to see and I already know how they're going to end. It's too predictable of an event tonight.

So what does wrestling have to do with the K&L spirits blog? A lot, actually. You may not know this (or you might if you've been reading this thing for a while), but the entire model I've used to build this website is based on my years of experience as a super wrestling fan. When I was big into wrestling (mainly 1996-2003), I was a rabid internet reader (yes, there are many wrestling blogs, just like whisky blogs). As scripted and "fake" as the WWE can be, there is a lot of action going on behind the scenes. Basically, politicking. You might think it's as simple as writing a plot line and choosing a winner, but there are some serious egos in the wrestling business (as there are in any business). "Hulk, you're scheduled to lose tonight. Make something happen in fifteen minutes or so." What if Hulk Hogan doesn't want to lose to Randy Savage? What if Kevin Nash goes off the script and says something controversial? What if they can't decide on who's going to be champion? It sounds trivial, I know, but back then it was hugely compelling. When both the WWF and WCW were going head-to-head there were all kinds of rumors about which wrestlers were unhappy and might switch promotions. When one finally did it could be rather amazing, because you never knew for sure if it was going to happen until it did.

I used to run a small wrestling news site in college just for fun, but it fell apart rather quickly because all I really had to offer was analysis. I didn't know anyone in the business. I didn't have any insider sources. Most of what I posted was taken from other people's websites and reposted on mine. I might read what someone else wrote and then offer a counter-argument, but that's as far as I could go. Even with those limited abilities I still had a small readership because I updated it everyday. In the world of internet wrestling geeks "insider" information was golden. We all wanted to know what was happening behind the scenes of our favorite business. Flash-forward to 2009 when I began writing this blog. What was I going to offer that other spirits websites didn't? Industry access. I would make the booze version of a pro-wrestling website and see if that interested people. I knew it would be fun to write, so it wasn't going to be a waste of time if no one liked it. Flash-forward to 2013 and we're getting nearly 20,000 hits a day. 

When wrestling blogs were a big deal the industry paid attention (just like the liquor companies do now). The WWF would peruse the message boards, trying to get a grasp of what the public was thinking. If they read enough negative feedback about an angle, they might change the direction. If they noticed grassroots support for an underdog, they might give that wrestler a push. Basically, the emergence of the internet was beginning to change the way that the WWF and WCW were scripted. There were two schools of fans: the "smart" fans (or "smarks") and the ones who just followed on TV. Wrestlers began to acknowledge these "insider" fans on live television when talking on the microphone. They enjoyed misleading them as well, acting like one thing was going to happen, but then switching it up. While the "smarks" were definitely having an impact on the industry, they didn't have nearly as much influence as some believed. This was proven with disastrous consequences when Ted Turner's WCW promotion got desperate.

In 1998, the WWF (which had been dominated by WCW during the mid-90s) was clearly back on top after the Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and other big names had brought the federation back to life. In 1999, WCW was clearly trailing in the competition and had hired a writer named Vince Russo away from the WWF to give them an edge. Russo was a big reader of internet blogs and he thought catering to the "smarks" would be a way to get business back. It would go down as one of the worst and most costly experiments of all time and would eventually bankrupt what was left of the company. By reading the message boards, listening to the input of wrestling geeks, and pushing critical darlings to the top of the card, Vince Russo lost WCW nearly $60 million in less than twelve months. His new strategy had greatly overestimated the importance of the internet. With obscure mentions toward insider conflicts, esoteric angles that mirrored internal polical strife, and long-winded promos that talked more about business than wrestling, the insider fans became the focus. The casual fans were absolutely bewildered, however. They had no idea what was going on. They began switching the channel over to the WWF in record numbers. 

By 2001, WCW could no longer sustain its business and was purchased by Vince McMahon and the WWE. While WCW was in ruins, the industry had learned an invaluable lesson from Russo's direction: internet wrestling geeks do not pay the bills. The web was (and still is) full of guys who said things like, "If I was in charge, I would do this..." or "WCW is wasting their time with so-and-so, and they need to do this...." Vince Russo had used some of those ideas to terrible results. It turned out that being a wrestling fan and running a wrestling business were two totally different things. The guys who obsessed about wrestling, knew the outcome of every match dating back to 1967, wrote out dream scenarios, and spent every waking hour on the message boards were knowledgable about the wrestling side of wrestling, but they were bad for business. The majority of the population just wanted to have fun. Wrestling wasn't nearly as important to them and they didn't want to participate on that level.

I learned a huge lesson that day as well: in any business you should never solely speak to the initiated. If I were to write a blog that catered only to whisky geeks, then I would lose the readership of the general public I am trying to reach. If I were to write only for the general public, then I would lose the attention of those who I relate with most: the passionate and knowledgeable drinkers. There would have to be a balance between the two. I would have to provide information that whisky geeks cared about, but write it in such a way that anyone could understand it. There would need to be a bit of drama, as well. Like wrestling, there would need to be some sensationalism. Who wants to watch a boring, scientific, well-crafted wrestling match with two uncharismatic, straight-faced athletes? Me, actually. But not many people would! To this day, the best wrestlers are the ones who can tell a story in the ring, not simply execute technically-sound movements. The best wrestlers are the ones who connect with the audience, not simply focus on the details of the match. My favorite wrestler of all time is Shawn Michaels and that man was a master at both aspects. He was charasmatic and over-the-top, but he backed it up in the ring every night. I have a great respect for that.

Today is Wrestlemania, but rather than prepare for this evening's event I am typing up another blog post. While I no longer watch wrestling full-time, I feel its influence everyday when I sit down to write. Part show, part business. Partly scripted, yet sometimes off the cuff. The lessons of wrestling are still deeply entrenched within my psyche. The biggest shows are under the biggest of tents. Everyone needs to feel welcome and everyone needs to have fun. That's what Wrestlemania is all about. It's the Superbowl of the wrestling business. Supergeeks and casual fans gathering together to enjoy something they all appreciate on different levels. That's what I wanted this blog to be about as well. 

-David Driscoll


Malacca is Here

Do a quick Google search for Tanqueray Malacca gin and you'll get what all the hoopla is about. A gin that was far too ahead of its time is now back for a one-time-only (for now at least) run of 100,000 bottles. That sounds like a lot, but most of gin sales are on-premise, meaning bars and restaurants. A good bar can go through a case a night and this gin has serious world-wide demand right now. I think we could go through 100,000 bottles in California bars alone over the next year if the word gets out. I just tasted it and it's solid. It also comes in a one liter bottle, so you get a little more for your dollar.

Tanqueray Malacca Gin 1 Liter $32.99 - A now legendary attempt by Tanqueray to be forward thinking, the Malacca Gin, was just a little too ahead of its time. The rumor mill claims that they found a tanker full of this stuff and were it not for the incredible demand of the world's cocktail enthusiasts it would have been discarded. Who knows if that's true, but this less dry version of Tanqueray is finally back. Originally released in 1997, this was Tanqueray's ode to the lost Old Tom style of gin. Unfortunately, gin was not hot at that time and certainly not something totally different like this. Only few disappointed sobs could be heard when it was discontinued in 2001. Fast forward to 2013 and the Malacca is the talk of the town. Malacca is much softer than the standard Tanqueray. A distinct citrus quality further sets it apart from its namesake. These qualities make is ideal for mixing, hence its popularity with many top mixologists. Unfortunately, Diageo has agree to release only 100K bottles, which seems like a lot, but I assure you it is not. (David Othenin-Girard)

-David Driscoll


England 2013 - Day 1 - A Tale of Two Cities (London)

On the far west side of London, in an unassuming neighborhood, sits a building on Power Road called Chiswick Studios. In that building resides one of the most important businesses in all of boozedom. It's a whisky label we've been big fans of for years. It's a name you know and trust. It's a company we want to be doing more business with of an exclusive nature, if you catch my drift.

See this guy? You may recognize him. His name is John Glaser. He runs one of the coolest, most innovative whisky brands in the business called Compass Box. In the blending world John is a legend. He worked in the Diageo marketing department for years before striking out on his own to create his own expressions. John doesn't own a distillery and he doesn't do any distillation. John does, however, have some very nice connections within the industry that have secured him filling contracts meaning he doesn't have to purchase mature booze. He has his own stock maturing as we speak that he uses to create his own expressions like the Peat Monster and the Oak Cross. Pretty cool, right? That's what twelve years as the industry's leading pioneer can get you. Clout, baby.

We like John. And, luckily, John likes us (we think). Two years ago when my wife and I visited London John took us out for a round of drinks and some fine conversation. When John comes to the Bay Area I try to take him out for beers. He's the kind of guy you want to hangout with. He talks like John Malkovich and blends like John Walker. He's all about building unique blends that are both drinkable and affordable. He and K&L are tailor made for one another. We hit the streets of London to talk shop, eat some food, and maybe discuss a little business. I think the future looks bright for our two companies, if you know what I mean.

After a wonderful lunch with John we met with another bottler whose prices were completely out of league with what we're seeing on the American market. Apparently the Chinese market is hot for his booze. David and I didn't really know what to say except that we would be happy to sample the whiskies and get back to him with an offer. I don't think we'll be doing much offering, however.

That's pretty much it. We're off for the evening and plan to hit the bar scene shortly. Plane leaves at 11:40 tomorrow morning and I'm back in SF by 2:30. I'll be in the store Saturday if anyone wants to come by and shoot the breeze!

-David Driscoll


A Few Thoughts

Combining the two trips into one this year was a bold idea. Our owner Clyde thought it might be more cost effective, so we decided to sack up and knock out two and a half week’s worth of booze tasting all at once. The length of the trip and the fatigue that eventually sets in hasn’t really been a problem so far. David and I don’t want to kill each other yet and there hasn’t been any real setback or roadblock to success. It’s all gone quite smoothly, really. What’s been most difficult for me to wrap my head around is the difference between the products we’re buying and how different the processes of buying them can be. When we buy whisky in Scotland, we deal with companies or brokers. When we buy brandy in France, we’re going into people’s homes and into people’s lives. The evaluation process is not the same in both cases.

When we started this trip in Scotland we went right to Pitlochry and eventually up to Tain and the Glenmorangie distillery. While I love LVMH and everyone I deal with in that company, it’s still a multi-national corporation that has purchased an operation and is basically looking to streamline it into as efficient of a system as possible. Let’s not pretend that we’re dealing with a few Scottish farmers who run a small plant out of the North. However, what’s great about LVMH is that they don’t seem to scrimp or savagely cut costs like some whisky companies do. Some other companies like to fire eighty of their distillery employees despite having one of the most successful profit years in history, simply to add an extra penny to each of their shareholder’s profits. In my opinion, when you start to view whisky this way, as a pure commodity, you begin to lose touch with the product itself. Everything becomes focused on doing things more efficiently rather than making the best product possible.

What I like about Glenmorangie is that they have respect for the trade itself. The sixteen men of Tain are still making the whisky today and their legacy is celebrated in the photos along the distillery walls. They haven’t been replaced by computers or robots, even though I’m sure LVMH could save money by doing so. Everyone within the company has great things to say about working there because they feel valued. If you’ve got money to spend on a giant rocket, then you’ve got money to spend on people. It’s simply a question of whether you’re willing to do so. Good people are what make the booze industry so amazing and it’s nice to work with a company like Glenmorangie that is full of them. Just because you’re a large corporation doesn’t mean you can’t be both caring and respectful.

You have to respect the craft of what you’re doing if you expect others to have respect for the product you’re making. There is something to be said for cheap, easy whisky. Making something inexpensively on a large scale and selling it in bulk offers a valuable service to those who have to watch their wallets. What’s frustrating to us, however, is watching large producers who have taken short cuts with their product play the artisan card as if they’re in the same category. This is the main reason why David and I visit as many producers as possible when traveling abroad. We want to know whom we can stand behind proudly as knowledgeable merchants, knowing that their message we’re spreading is both honest and true. We hear all the time that so-and-so is “doing things the old fashioned way” or is “making a small-batch, artisan product.” Sometimes we show up and the booze is just as advertised. Sometimes we find out that this person or company is completely full of shit.

We talked a lot with Charles Neal about the nature of what we’re doing during our many hours in the car. We had visited with a man in Cognac who was claiming he didn’t add anything to the Cognacs we were tasting, yet the color of each spirit was equally dark between the ten, twenty and forty year old expressions. Basically, it didn’t seem possible that he hadn’t added anything to the brandies, but what were we going to say? “You, sir, are a LIAR!” When someone invites you into their home or office, gives you an hour of two of their time, lets you taste all of their booze for free, and then sends you home with a small bottle as a memento, should you return that favor with a negative blog post that entirely shreds their credibility? It’s a tough dilemma to be in. On one hand this person is possibly spreading misinformation to customers and we’re in a position to help these same customers make better decisions based on our experience. On the other hand, we’re completely blasting a person who was nothing but polite and generous to us and had no reason to believe we were going to write about him.

Tasting with the small producers in Cognac is a similar experience.There are a few small farmers who do their own bottlings, but almost everyone is selling to one or more of the big houses as well. Not one of them is a fan of the big house products, but all of them rely on that money to continue their own operations. It’s like any magazine in any industry that relies on advertising money, listing only the good reviews and never the bad ones. Everyone has to play ball with these companies if they’re going to earn a living. On top of that, even the guys who don’t believe in caramel or boise are using it. If they don’t use it then no one will buy their brandy because it doesn’t taste right and it doesn’t look right either. Most people aren’t asking the questions that we’re asking, so it can get uncomfortable at times.

The Armagnac region is like backwoods Appalachia compared to Cognac. The people we visit in Gascogny lead a simple life. They farm. They make wine, They jar their own preserves. They make grape juice. They wear dirty jeans and work boots. Their hands are calloused and their days are long. Brandy is but one of many different farm-related products they sell in order to pay the bills. Some producers are larger than others, but none of them compare to what’s going on in the Cognac or single malt industry. If you’re the type of person who likes to go to the farmer’s market and buy directly from the producers, then you should go to Armagnac and meet the Claverie family at Baraillon. Have some foie gras on white bread while you taste and they stand by quietly, looking down at the ground, hoping that you enjoy yourself. Go to Normandy and taste Calvados with the Camut brothers who not only want you to like their brandy, they want to be your friends.

Throughout these last two weeks we’ve tasted with large producers and small producers. We’ve tasted with people who actually make the spirit and with others who are simply intermediaries. We’ve tasted great booze that was designed to taste great and we’ve tasted forgotten booze that was supposed to end up in a bottle of Cutty Sark ten years ago, but got traded out to some broker before that ever happened. Sometimes there’s a great story to be told and sometimes there isn’t. When you taste our bottle of 2002 Bowmore that we plan to bring in from our pal David Stirk, I don’t think you’ll care that it’s simply a barrel of whisky we found in a warehouse outside of Glasgow. When you (hopefully) taste a bottle of the Bladnoch cask we sampled, on the other hand, you’ll be know that we got it directly from the hands of the Armstrong family who have worked so hard to keep that small distillery going.

In each case the criteria for evaluation is different. We might like how a certain whisky tastes, but realize it has no soul. We might find another whisky challenging, but realize that the story of that whisky is more exciting than the actual flavor. To do this for two straight weeks requires one to listen, pay attention, and read between the lines (as well as subject to your mouth to a brutal beatdown by high-proof hooch). We’ve got one more stop to go before we head for home. I’m writing this as we speed through Northern France on our towards the English Channel. These are just a few things that have been on my mind lately.

-David Driscoll


France 2013 - Day 7 - A Tale of Two Cities (Paris)

Ahhh......Paris. What a beautiful place. The buildings are stunningly gorgeous, the atmosphere is vibrant, and the streets are alive with energy.

Mopeds and scooters are constantly zipping in between the cars, the roundabouts are like warzones, and even the bicyclists are well-dressed and full of gusto. We saw a woman peddling her way around a bus with an Yves St. Laurent handbag. That blew my mind.

You may not think of Paris as a whisky capital, but it's home to one of the most impressive collections of single malt we've ever seen: La Maison du Whisky. We headed over to the original store location this morning and met with Salvatore Mannino – the brand ambassador for the company. He explained how their operation worked while David and I sat there with our mouths open, practically drooling over every word.

There's all kinds of shit you can do in Europe that would be completely forbidden in the United States. First off, you can be an importer and a retailer. Basically, you can buy it directly from the producer and sell your product to yourself, along with other retailers. La Maison du Whisky is the importer for Compass Box, Glendronach, Benriach, Gordon & MacPhail, Nikka, and a number of other producers for France. In other words, they make money by selling it directly to you as well as to every restaurant and retailer in the region. It also means they're free to do all kinds of mix and match gift sets like the ones pictured above. You can get a sample pack of ten different whiskies all in little vials for a variety of different flavors. It's absolutely genius.

While we're stuck with the three-tiered system in America, where retailers are beholded to importers and distributors, there is something to be said for both systems. The French market allows retailers to buy directly and sell to restaurants. That's great if you're the one in control. However, if you're a small retailer who wants to get into the business you have to buy your booze from your competitor, La Maison du Whisky. What if Wally's or Beltramos had to buy their booze from K&L every time a customer asked for Kilchoman? They could never advance beyond us or be competitive with pricing because we would determine what they paid. The American system adds extra tiers into the market, but at least we all have to buy from the same people who are not competing with us. Distributors cannot sell directly to the public for that reason.

Quite an interesting education today! We're headed to London in about forty minutes. The next time you're in Paris you should definitely stop by Maison du Whisky and check out their old and rare collection. It's jaw-dropping. They can buy bottles directly from private customers, so they work as high-end whisky pawn shop as well. It's an amazing store and we want to thank Salvadore for taking the time with us.

You should go there. And you should go here:

L'as du Falafel. David OG's favorite restaurant in all of Paris. There's a line to get in all day long, but it's totally worth waiting. The best falafel in the world? Perhaps.

-David Driscoll