Worth the Wait

The chance to work with Michel Couvreur on a special K&L whisky project was something that David and I had been dreaming of for years. We had heard the stories. This crazy Belgian had moved to Burgundy in the 60s, carved out a wine cellar in the side of a mountain, only to fill it with Scottish single malt whisky instead of pinot noir. He set up camp in Beaune, ordered new-make spirit to be delivered by tanker, and drove down to Jerez himself; selecting his own sherry butts to insure only the finest quality casks for his contracted spirit. Unfortunately, Michel Couvreur passed away last year from pancreatic cancer, thus ending the career of one of the industry's most courageous pioneers. Luckily for us, however, apprentice Jean-Arnaud has taken up the realms after studying under Michel for more than a decade. When we visited the underground cave this past Spring, we were all in total awe. The tunnels of dripping stone go on forever, and the amount of whisky stored in this secret lair is jawdropping. We put our trust completely in Jean-Arnaud and we are so happy we did. We simply asked for a peated version of the incredible "Overaged" sherry expression and the result is a seamless creation that drinks like the best version of Johnnie Black ever, mixed with the most supple and soft expressions of Macallan. It's a lush, creamy, caramel-laden dream of a whisky composed only of malts 12 years and older. There's a bit of peat on the finish, but it's more like Highland Park peat than Islay smoke. I think it's absolutely divine and I'll definitely be drinking it all weekend long.

What exactly it is composed of will remain forever a mystery. That's alright with me, though. I'm just happy to have been a part of it. This is masterfully crafted whisky that truly showcases what's possible with intelligent blending.

Click here to see our visit to Beaune this past Spring. It's pretty amazing. Click below to get a bottle.

Michel Couvreur K&L Exclusive Overaged Peated Malt Whisky $89.99

-David Driscoll


Live Blogging This Hellish Week

Again, this being Whisky Week in the Bay Area (with WhiskyFest tomorrow) all the big names are in town, making the rounds, shaking hands and kissing babies. My old buddy David Blackmore from LVMH just stopped by to keep us up to speed on the latest Ardbeg/GlenMo happenings. Tasting through the lineup again (for the umpteenth time) I just got reminded of why Glenmorangie might be my favorite single malt distillery. The whisky just delivers everything you want at various price points and flavor profiles.

First off was the Lasanta explanation—they've lowered the proof a bit and changed the marriage to both Oloroso and PX sherry casks, rather than just the former. That switch has tamed the funkiness just a bit a sweetened up the finish. It's much more Aberlour now and much less Glendronach. It's such a good deal. Also up for tasting was the forthcoming Taghta—a manzanilla-aged whisky that was picked by the voting public from three possible options (the others being Burgundy and Bordeaux finished whiskies). However, part of the gimmick was that the countries with the highest voter turnout got the largest allocations. We Americans are notorious for our lack of commitment when it comes to civic duty, therefore we get nothing. We didn't vote in the Glenmorangie sweepstakes, hence we get the smallest allocation globally. Expect a mad dash for a tiny, tiny allocation when this shows up. It's elegance in a bottle, plain and simple. Wonderful stuff.

Then a few of us poured a glass of the Signet and the Glenmorangie 18—still the best deals in single malt when it comes to generally drinkable, wonderfully-packaged, high quality whiskies. At $89.99, I still stand behind that slut of an 18 year old. It's just a gigantic slut of a whisky, and it's a wonderful thing; so soft and supple and rich and sweet on the finish. The Signet is still the spicy, yet soothing malt it's always been. Another one of those NAS bottles where you just have to taste it and say, "Yep, that's a $200 bottle of whisky."

I'm sure there will be more cameos to come today. Yesterday, John Hall from Forty Creek poured off the Canadians and I was totally impressed. I know next to nothing about Canadian whiskey, but the higher-end Forty Creek expressions have me totally intrigued. Make sure you taste with him if you're going to WhiskeyFest tomorrow. He's a wealth of information and a really nice guy.

-David Driscoll


Quick Quips

The last two days at K&L have been two of the most challenging in my seven year history at the store. We're down five people right now in Redwood City due to vacation, injury, or illness, which makes it difficult to get much done. Throw in the fact that we had some huge deals going down Tuesday and Wednesday, and it gets tougher. Add on the fact that I was responsible for the staff training this week (which means a few hours in SF in the morning, and then back down to RC in the afternoon), and you've now carved five hours out from the eight hours I have to get my normal work done. It's been a total shitshow, but I'm still standing somehow.

Amidst the chaos yesterday (three people picking up GIGANTIC 400+ bottle orders simultaneously—a freak occurance that just about crippled the sales floor), Sean Venus came in to pour his fantastic Santa Cruz gin for the public. He picked a tough day to garner an audience though because the Giants were on at 5 PM in the do-or-die Wild Card showdown with Pittsburgh. Despite the drama of the post-season happening live on TV screens across the Bay Area, Sean pitched his own no-hitter right there in the Redwood City store, or should I say he batted 1.000? Nine people came to taste his product, and all nine of them bought a bottle. Either Sean is the best salesman in the world, or his gin is just that damn good. I think it's the latter. If you count the two K&L employees who went in to taste, then he was 11 for 11. They both bought bottles as well. Amazing. Never been done in K&L spirits tasting history.

We had a few Maker's Mark Cask Strength bottles to allocate yesterday, so I decided to use trivia to decide the winners. Those who could tell me where Patrick Swayze's character Dalton from the movie Roadhouse went to college were allowed to buy a bottle. Google makes this all way too easy, however, as I had more than 300 people with the right answer in a matter of minutes. I'll have to rethink that strategy, or come up with a harder question!

Our George Dickel 14 year old cask also arrived. As of this morning (about five minutes ago) there were seven bottles left of the original 108. A very small, concentrated cask of Tennessee goodness. Hopefully you got one.

The Macallan Rare Cask also landed and we managed to grab a decent allocation. The number one question, however, is: how old is it? You'll never know. But if I haven't prepared you enough with this blog to handle that anxiety—the burning fear that you might be overpaying for a young whisky that actually might taste amazing if you just stop worrying about it—then you'll never be ready. All I can tell you is that it tastes like quality, first-fill sherry casks of Macallan. They said they blended together various ages of their best butts and it tastes to me like they did just that. I thought it was polished and quintessential Macallan single malt with extra sherry concentration. Macallan can and will charge a premium for their whisky, so it's no longer about age at this point. Macallan has already become the whisky version of Lafite or Mouton-Rothschild. Good booze, but it will cost you. People were asking if it was better than the 18 year. For me personally, yes. But as Kyle said to me: "If Macallan did an 18 year whisky from entirely first-fill sherry casks it would be $1000, not $270." Very true. And people would buy it instantly.

I'm expecting more madness today. A big batch of Michter's new Toasted Oak finished Bourbon is landing in our warehouse—a standard Bourbon finished in new toasted oak, kind of like a Cognac finish. Our blending project with Michel Couvreur is also due in; the marriage of sherry casks with peated Islay whisky, selected from the finest barrels aging in the side of a Bourgogne mountain. How old is it? I have no idea. We're back to the Macallan situation again. If you need to know how old it is you're going to miss the point. Simply put: we tried to make it taste as good as we could, while trying to make it cost as little as possible. Hopefully we achieved that goal. The choicest sherry butts from Michel Couvreur are not cheap, however.

-David Driscoll


High & Low

I drove to Modesto yesterday with three New York steaks and a bottle of 1995 Calon Segur. Whenever I visit my parents these days I always bring something fancy, just so we can make a day of it. Plus, there's nothing more fun than drinking expensive Bordeaux with folks who aren't as experienced in the ways of the Medoc. I know many people feel the opposite as I do; I hear things all the time like, "I have to save my good bottles for the people who understand them." However, the great thing about opening a canon like that in a more casual crowd is how the reaction tempers your attitude. High-end French wine is not at all like high-end Scotch whisky. No matter your experience with single malt, anyone who takes a sip of Macallan 25 or our 1974 Ladyburn cask from Signatory is instantly stunned. "WOW!" they ultimately exude. The initial sips of the 1995 Calon Segur, however, were more like, "That's nice." Nothing more than that though.

There are many of us out there (I'm including myself in this group) who like to host, and to give, and to watch the reaction of others when they enjoy something you provide them. I'm not sure if it's actual generosity, or just another form of egotistical delight, but I do like to see people enjoy a bottle of wine when I open it. Each time I bring an expensive bottle to my parents we absolutely enjoy it (every drop of it), but I always head back home the next day with a more humbled mindset. I start thinking about the other trophies in my collection and whether they're even worth having. "Does expensive wine really deliver that much pleasure for the money I'm spending?" I think. Having that internal discussion is always a healthy thing though. Ultimately, you don't have to choose one or the other. You can enjoy both the high and the low end of the spectrum, but it's always better to come to this conclusion via your own personal experience. I always wish I had fake admission cards to the Chip On The Shoulder Club for those pissing vitriol towards "overpriced and overrated" booze they've never actually tasted.

Interestingly enough, we see much more buyer's remorse at K&L when it comes to an expensive bottle of whisky rather than a costly bottle wine. Most people who are underwhelmed by their $200 bottle of Opus One just chalk it up to an educational experience and move on. They drink the bottle, form their conclusion, and that's the end of it. It's the whisky drinkers who generally return to voice their disappointment with their purchase. I was talking to one of our best customers the other day about this phenomenon and he said the most thought-provoking thing: "I think it's likely because a disappointing bottle of whisky just sits there in your liquor cabinet for the next five years, reminding you of how much you didn't like it. The bottle of wine just gets emptied and tossed in the recycling bin. You can move on much more easily." I thought that was absolutely genius.

It's interesting to watch this dynamic play out in the store because, ultimately, the wine drinkers have it much worse. The only setback whisky drinkers face is that, due to state laws, it's much more difficult to get a taste of the liquid before purchasing a bottle; whereas there are wine tastings practically every day. With expensive wine, however, you're only tasting for potential, so it's not like you're getting a guarantee even when you do get to preview it. Most $200 bottles will eventually go into your cellar where they will sit for ten to fifteen years until they're ready to open. At that point there's no guarantee it will taste how you expect it to, which is why collectors usually buy a case of everything. That way you can try a bottle every few months to see where it's at.

Of course, buying a case of $200 wine means you have to pay $2400 to secure your investment against corked bottles and pre-mature probings. The idea of having to do that is part of why I always leave Modesto with a much clearer sense of where I'm at with my drinking. I don't have the money, the time, or the desire to build that type of wine cellar. As much as I enjoy discovering what makes the great wines of France tick, it's not an endeavor I'm equipped to handle. It's like owning a sports car or purchasing a house: you think you're just plopping down one big lump sum for the payment, but then you realize there's all kinds of maintenance that needs to be done and the money just keeps on flowing from there. Expensive whisky is so much easier to handle. It's almost always going to taste how it should, you don't have to worry about weather and storage temperatures, the distillery does the maturation before you buy the bottle, and the odds that something has spoiled inside the cork is incredibly rare. Plus, you're in no hurry to finish it as whisky keeps for years and years.

But as my buddy said, if you end up hating the bottle you purchased it will sit there on your bar, reminding you constantly of the fact that you blew $200 on that wretched thing. That might make it more difficult to put the bad experience behind you.

-David Driscoll


Use This One Weird Trick

If you've used the internet for five minutes in the last year or two, you've inevitably stumbled upon a headline on Yahoo, or an ad on the side banner that includes the words "one weird trick." It's obviously become some sort of phenomenon because when I Googled it before writing this post this article from Slate magazine popped up. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, let me explain: there's a series of ads and fake headlines all over the web that say things like "how trainers use this one weird trick to flatten their stomachs," or "Michelle Pfeiffer's weird trick for staying young." The strategy itself is a "weird trick" meant to cater to our innate desire for simplicity. We want easy solutions to complicated issues. If someone could just summarize everything difficult in life into one basic answer it would make everything so much more managable!

Not only do these commercials cater to our desire for simplicity, they also give us a sense of certainty. This "weird trick" is not only a basic answer, it's the basic answer to navigating the mine field. Certainty is a big deal in the wine and spirits world where the fear of making the wrong choice or getting screwed over is often more powerful than the desire to drink something tasty. If you don't know what you like, then it's hard to know what you want. So people use all kinds of "weird tricks" to simply avoid the bad stuff, rather than get something they actually fancy. They only buy bottles with 90 points or higher, or they stick to 15 year old whiskies. "Get a dry wine," their friend told them. "Don't get a merlot," a movie once said. What we have is a series of tricks and tips that offer little understanding and are meant to simplify an enjoyable activity into a game that can be won or lost. The more I work in this business, the sadder this type of experience makes me.

I spend most of my day trying to reassure people that the bottle they're buying (and know absolutely nothing about) is delicious and of quality, but I never know for sure if they walk away completely believing what I say. If someone says to me, "Can you help me pick out a good bottle of wine?" I'll invariably answer with, "Of course! What do you feel like drinking?" To me, buying a bottle of booze should be like shopping for groceries: it's not only about what's good, but about what you're in the mood for. Salad? Meat? Pasta? Wine and whisky are no different than food. You drink what you're craving, and you pay what you feel like paying for the quality you feel like having. However, it's tough to be in the mood for something if you don't know the difference between cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, or between Ardbeg and Glenlivet. If you ask a butcher for a "good" steak, he'll probably ask you in return: "Are you in the mood for New York, T-Bone, or fillet mignon?" Eating and drinking are about preferences, not posturing. The only way you'll ever know what you like is to try everything you can. Spend the money. Get your education. There's no way to avoid making a mistake because this whole process is about trial and error.

Drinking isn't about getting it right, or choosing the "best." It's also not a war between you and the whisky companies where you try to avoid getting screwed. Sometimes I feel like my head is going to explode when I hear that defense: "Well, I can't trust the greedy liquor companies, so at least I can trust the age statement or the 90 point review. It's better than nothing." That's a load of crap. Shit is shit, whether it has a 12 on the bottle or the name of a mythological Norse viking instead. Shit is shit, whether it comes in a fancy diamond-studded decanter, or in a cheap flask with a twist off cap. Shit is shit, no matter how many points it got on The only way to avoid drinking shit is to first drink the shit, and then decide you're no longer going to drink that shit. If you're not willing to drink some shit, you'll always be stuck in the same shitty situation: trying to figure out what is or isn't shit by looking at the exterior, instead of just putting that shit in your mouth and figuring it out for yourself.

"Well, I don't want to pay for shit," people will say. Guess what? I don't want to pay for shit either. But I've drunk enough shit to know that 12, 15, and 18 don't mean shit. I've had plenty of shitty single barrel shits. Plenty of blended shit. Plenty of hand-crafted shit. Plenty of small batch shit. Plenty of expensive shit. In the end, I've realized that there is no "weird trick" to avoid taking a shit, but I only came to that realization after taking lots of shits. Spend your life trying to avoid taking a shit, and you'll wind up scared shitless. No one wants to drink whisky with someone who constantly avoids taking a shit. They're anal retentive, and uncomfortable, and gassy, and just plain unpleasant. I don't want to be around that shit. You need to just shit or get off the pot sometimes. Just go for it, and stop worrying about all this shit. If you don't shit, then you're never going to know shit about shit.

There's another ad I heard on the radio recently for some new smart phone where the woman giving her testimonial says something like, "With the speed of this new phone I can find out about that cool new band before my hipster sister does, and impress my friends on trivia night by getting the right answers faster!" I about rear-ended the car in front of me. "Are you kidding me?!" I screamed to myself. "A commercial that actually encourages people to be a giant douchebag as a selling point? What are we coming to?!" Smart phones in a sense have become that "one weird trick" for people who don't know anything, but want to act as if they do. In the end, we're stuck with an entirely new world of advertising that basically says: you don't need to actually work hard or do the heavy lifting in order to be successful. Who wouldn't want to buy into that? It beats putting shit in your mouth.

-David Driscoll