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Tuesday
Feb252014

Sherry Country – Part II: The Cask of Amontillado

Alex Russan, Santa Monica resident, coffee broker, and wine importer, is more than obsessed with Sherry. So much so, that he recently started a company named Alexander Jules to function as an importer and sort of independent bottler (no different from Scotch bottlers such as Signatory, Gordon & McPhail, etc) for his favorite sherries, identifying his favorite soleras, tasting through each and every barrel, and forming his own selections, blending his favorite barrels to produce something unique. I suppose that you could also compare this selection and blending process to what brands such as Pappy Van Winkle do with Bourbon. Currently, while the amazing fortified wines of Jerez and Sanlucar are enjoying something of a renaissance (particularly amongst collectors, connoisseurs and big city restaurants), let's just say that we don't have hundreds of people calling us regularly, asking us in person, for the latest new Sherry release...yet. However, the mere fact that Alex is crazy enough to start his company based on the selection and sale of the highest quality Sherry he can find - this is worth supporting. Our goal is - as it is with spirits of all types - to be at the forefront here, to establish ourselves in Jerez, and be well positioned when demand inevitably catches up to the astonishing quality of these inimitable beverages. Just as we do for Scotch, I would love to begin identifying excellent soleras, and either create a blend or bottle a small amount from a single standout cask, to make available for K&L customers. Do I think this is worth doing? Absolutely. Will it be commercially viable? I think so. Pues, vamos a ver (translation: we'll find out).

My copa resting on one of many decades-old barrels.

Our barrel tasting took place at Herederos de Argueso. Originally founded in 1822 by a northern Spaniard, Argueso is considered to be one of the great producers of Manzanilla, that specialty of the coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda which is the lightest, crispest, most thirst quenching of all the Sherries. Due to the seaside location, temperatures here are more constant: less hot in summer, less cold in winter, which encourages year 'round flor development as you can see in the demonstration barrel below:

A demonstration barrel showing the formation of "flor" on top of wine.

When the Manzanilla ages some years and loses its flor, it turns into an Amontillado: a Sherry that is favored by Sherry connoisseurs (see, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado) and develops burnished, nutty flavors, intense citrus candy qualities, and retains its salinity, all of which add up to quite the amazing drink. Argueso makes my favorite amontillado - it's an older average age than it's price would normally dictate (probably close to 15 years old, with older wine added) and is just delicious. A selection of this wine is available under the Alexander Jules label , and soon we will likely see the regular bodega bottling as well.

Sherry importer Alex Russan hopes to unearth some mind blowing "botas" of Jerez.

In addition to this bottling, Argueso has stocks of extremely old Amontillado, or VORS (Vinum Optimum Rarum Signatum) which is tasted, carbon dated, and certified by the Jerez consejo, or regulatory board, to be older than 30 years of age. This is, quite simply, my favorite old Amontillado. It's so concentrated, so unapologetically salty, so fiercely individual an Amontillado, that it begs to be tried. It's a challenging Sherry, and not everyone will like it. But it is simply a marvel, and several days ago Alex and I had the privilege of tasting it 26 times. That is because it is a solera of 26 botas (approximately 600 liter barrels), and we wanted to understand the solera, the subtleties of barrel variation (if any existed), and how we may move forward to begin working towards a selection from such an amazing pool of possibilities.

Our first K&L exclusive bota of Jerez?

What became immediately apparent was the following: not all barrels are equal. Just as in a winery, or in a Bourbon or Scotch warehouse, due to varying rates of evaporation, location of an individual barrel, and a range of other factors, different barrels develop in unique ways, resulting in varying flavors. We fully expected the variation we encountered while briefly tasting a small portion of the 44 barrel San Leon Reserva de la Familia solera (an awesome Manzanilla pasada that, hopefully, one day, we may also select for a special K&L bottling). However, the degree of variation in the old Amontillado barrels was fascinating. All of them delicious, just some, perhaps, more delicious than others. Common descriptors we found were: salted toffee, candied citrus, oolong tea, roasted hazlenuts, amongst others I cannot remember. Some barrels were a little bit softer, fruitier and less angular than what I expect from this Amontillado. Others were just how I remember the finished, blended product, incredibly salty, pungent, woody and singular if very challenging. Finally, there was a small handful of barrels which combined the slightly friendlier quality with the characteristic salinity, amazing purity of fruit, intense mid-palates and finishes that would not quit. Two barrels in particular stood out, and we are determining whether to blend them or bottle them individually. Keep in mind, however, that due to Sherry consejo rules, as well as out of respect for the winery, the rarity of their wine and their desire to maintain soleras of very old stock, we are only able to blend or bottle about 10% of the contents of any barrel. So if we go with one barrel, we will have something to the tune of 50-60 bottles, double that if we blend two barrels.

All this begs the question: Who out there is interested in a cask of amontillado?

The dark, quite, almost eery calm of a barrel room, the oldest of which may be called "sacristias".

Thanks so much for reading my guest posts. Please feel free to contact me (joemanekin@klwines.com) with questions, or to request to be on my personal email list.

For more posts on my recent trip to Spain, please see blog.klwines.com

-Joe Manekin

Monday
Feb242014

Live from Sherry Country - Spanish Buyer Joe Manekin

Since you all love single malt whisky aged in sherry, I figured we should take advantage of the fact that Joe Manekin, our Spanish wine buyer, is in Jerez right now tasting new selections for our store. What better way to learn more about the famed fortified wine than by having our man write about it directly from the source? Sherry is MUCH more than just a flavor enhancer for whisky. It's its own culture, entirely. Take it away, Joe:

Greetings, K&L Spirits Journal readers! I'm crashing David's excellent blog (with his permission, of course) to talk Sherry. While I know that David has posted on Sherry in the past, and has done an extremely good job of explaining how it's made, why you should be drinking it, and so on, I wanted to take a different approach this year. First, I will hopefully show you, with words and photographs, a little something of the romance, the tradition and culture of Jerez (not just Jerez the beverage, but the city, the surrounding towns, the cuisine, and so on). Second, in my next post we will get to the nitty gritty details of what it is like to taste through a solera, with the hopes of assembling a blend or selecting a specific barrel for exclusive K&L bottling, much like we do in Scotland with single malt scotches. What an experience that was, tasting through barrels of VORS Amontillado likely exceeding 40 years of age, marking with chalk the stand outs in one of the leading bodegas of Sanlucar de Barrameda!

For now, though, can I tell you a little about Jerez? This small Andalusian city is Spain on level 11. Everything you might associate with the country: beautiful women in colorful, polka dotted flamenco dresses, college students singing and clapping in that flamenco (1-2-3, 1-2-and-3 rhythm), old timers enjoying a drink and a tapa, rapping with the barkeep in thick southern accents (here, not only the 'z' and soft 'c's are lisped as they are elsehwere in Spain, but the letter 's' as well). There is a quote about Andalucia's largest city, "Sevilla is not full of atmosphere, Sevilla is atmosphere." I would argue the same for Jerez. Here, have a look:

Between plazas in the old city.

Bar Juanito, proudly serving Valdespino Fino "Ynocente".

Facade of a smaller old church in Jerez.

Beautiful hanging "Jabugo" Iberico hams...

...and the delicious slices served with bread sticks!

Carilladas, the famed braised beef cheeks, are a natural with rich, dry and sumptuous oloroso sherry.

The scene at Tabanco el Pasaje, a great locals joint.

Stay tuned as I'll l be reporting from Sanlucar de la Barrameda, tasting casks of some very old Amontillado very soon!

-Joe Manekin

Sunday
Feb232014

Guyana & Wrestling

"Driscoll, I think you were meant to come to Guyana," said David OG to me on the car ride back from Georgetown Thursday night.

It was quite an evening, sitting at the Frenzy Impact Bar, drinking rum and coconut water. I had spent the whole day touring the ICBU sugar factory with Najuma (pictured above), who had been a great sport putting up with my hyperactive enthusiasm for hours on end. The two of us went downtown later on to have drinks with master distiller Shaun Caleb and the rest of the group, where we started talking more about the booze business. After a long conversation, I couldn't help but make a wrestling analogy about spirits.

But...while the Americans were smirking at me, thinking I was totally confusing our Guyanese hosts with some off-the-cuff explanation, Shaun and Najuma were nodding their heads in complete agreement. Why? Because professional wrestling is HUGE in Guyana!!!!! All of a sudden, Shaun busted in with a Stone Cold Steve Austin reference and the conversation completely switched gears. 

"Holy shit!" David OG said, "You guys actually know what he's talking about?"  

"Of course!" Shaun chimed in, "I love wrestling." We all started cracking up. "David, who's your favorite wrestler?" Shaun asked me.

"I don't know if you guys followed it back in the late 90s, but despite all of the controversy and the tragedy surrounding what he did, I still think Chris Benoit is the best wrestler of all time." I replied.

And then the unthinkable happened:

"You're right. Chris Benoit put his body on the line every night he went out there," Najuma said. I turned and looked at her and my heart melted. A 23 year old female rum chemist from Guyana had just agreed with me about one of the most passionate opinions I personally hold. It was too much. I had to get up and walk around the bar, while the others were laughing hysterically. She didn't see what the big deal was.

I'll never forget that night as long as I live.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Feb232014

Plight #3

 

Saturday
Feb222014

Guyana Summary & Thoughts

I'm typing this entry while flying over the Caribbean, from Trinidad to Miami, sitting and reflecting on what I've learned this week in Guyana and how I can best convey it. I'm pretty sure I got everything out of this trip I was looking for and I'm also seriously thinking to myself that DDL might just be the best distillery in the world. Granted – I haven't been to every distillery in the world, so it's hard to know. I've been to a lot of them, but I can't think of any other operation I've visited in the seven years I've been with K&L that is on the level of Demerara Distillers. What exactly do I mean by that? Let me try and explain.

First off, I've never been to a distillery that has more than seven different stills, each capable of creating a very different type of distillate. That in itself is enough to make two spirits geeks like David OG and me hot with excitement. Secondly, I've never visited a producer that's been in business since the 1600s and still has functioning equipment from the 18th and 19th centuries in operation. Najuma, who's the chemist in charge of quality control, told me that the heritage stills are not always consistent due to their age, which makes it difficult to keep up consistency. While single malt distilleries blend their whiskies to maintain as consistent a product as possible, El Dorado is blending just to get anywhere close! I like that. I like the fact that Shaun and his team are making rum on old stills that have a mind of their own, but always leave them with something great to work with. There's something endearing in that legacy.

Thirdly, I've never tried to work out a deal with a producer this large who was willing to give a store like K&L its full attention. El Dorado has been voted the best rum in the world for the last few years and there's little argument among enthusiasts that DDL is the cream of the crop. There's no other producer who can compete on their level, simply because of DDL's history and resources. No other rum distillery has an endless supply of high quality, in-state molasses and a contract with the government to ensure it, and no other distillery has the means to turn that molasses into so many wonderful spirits. El Dorado is sold all over the world, in large quantities, and now I hear even Costco wants in on the action. Yet they've decided to put their faith in us – a family-owned California retailer with three stores who cannot even come close to the volume that other accounts purchase – as a partner worthy of collaboration in the attempt to bring something exciting and new to the market. This is the first time that Sharon and Shaun have worked with a retailer to create an exclusive product under the El Dorado label and they want to make it work.

Fourthly, there's a great deal of respect and pride in what they're doing at DDL and the company believes in its people. That's not to say that other whisky distilleries don't support their employees or their local communities, but let's just say that no one at DDL is going to be replaced with a computer or an automated system any time soon. On top of that, the company is not for sale. It's owned by a group of shareholders who also run a foundation on behalf of local Guyanese children, making sure they get the education they need. DDL has even sent its employees to American universities and paid for their education so that they can return with the specific knowledge they need to make the company better. The employees are so thankful for this support that they become loyal DDL workers for life. It's a relationship based on complete respect for one another, and that respect extends to DDL's customers as well. There was no marketing BS, fuzzy math, or slight of hand going on during our visit. If we wanted to know something, they told us. If we wanted to see something, we saw it. If we wanted to taste something, they went and got us a sample. Contrast that with the hour I once spent in a sugar cane field on Barbados, only to learn that the producer was importing all its molasses from India. DDL is not a rum Disneyland. It's as authentic and untouched by corporate influence as any other producer I know of. It just happens to be a big company with big ambitions.

Fifthly, I enjoy working with people I like. If I have the choice between working with someone open and friendly, or someone who's a complete asshole, I'm going with the friendly person 100% of the time. It sounds crazy, I know. I understand that people have a choice when they purchase a bottle of booze, which is why I go out of my way to communicate with customers and let them know that I'm there for them if they need me. No one wants to do business with a jerk if they don't absolutely have to, myself included. But I'm absolutely crazy about the people who work at DDL – to the extent that I'm willing buy a gang load of their rum just so I can hang out with them again next year. David OG, too, as well as my buddy Martin Cate who owns Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco – the single largest bar account for El Dorado in the United States. Martin went to Guyana a few weeks before us and had nothing but amazing things to tell me. He's a true believer, as well, and he knows more about rum than anyone I've met in the bartending scene. I told Shaun Caleb while out at a bar in Georgetown, "Forget the numbers, let's just do this because we're friends who want to help each other out." Consumers not only have their choice of retailers, but also producers, and many customers like to know where their money is going. Let me assure you that DDL is one of the nicest companies we've ever worked with from top to bottom, so if you're careful about where you put your dollars, have no fear. They're going to a good place.

Sixthly, I'm a sucker for romance. I love a good story. I think most customers appreciate certain tidbits of knowledge as well. How cool is it that the El Dorado rums were made from a set of stills that date back hundreds of years, from one of the oldest operations still in existence? How neat is it that they source all of their base materials locally, rather than outsourcing overseas to cut costs? How satisfying is it that: despite their size and scale, the quality of their rum, and their 100K+ back stock of mature barrels, DDL continues to operate their own business and remain Guyanese owned? And how about the fact that they hire and support the local Guyanese community, rather than bring in marketing strategists and accountants from around the world to assimilate DDL into the modern business place? These are all aspects of their business that I admire have a great respect for.

Guyana is one of the few places I've been (Gascony and Normandy would be the others) where the locals are still in complete control of their own distillation and their own heritage. The main difference between DDL and the farmers of Armagnac, however, is that El Dorado has enough product to compete on a global scale. It's not a niche brand, whatsoever. It's an easy-to-like, relatively affordable, big-tent, eclectic, and well-managed line of incredible spirits that has enough product to supply the world market. And the rums are GOOD! They're something any fan of spirits would enjoy. If not the 8 year, than the 12. If not the 12, then the 15. Or even the three year old with a splash of lime and soda. There are so many different flavors available and so many ways to enjoy El Dorado – cocktails, neat, on the rocks, with a cigar (we did Cubans with the 15 year on Wednesday night – amazing!).

Am I gushing? Am I carrying on, rambling on end about how amazing this trip was? If I am, don't worry: DDL has been watching me do it all week, so they're used to it by now. I've been gushing over their rum, their distillery, their housing staff member Britney who made us breakfast every morning, their professionalism, their kindness, and their belief in the two Davids. And, of course, their staff. I cannot wait to tell you all more about the El Dorado rums (yes, there's a lot more to talk about). I cannot wait to get our blend finished, exported, and on to the shelves. I cannot wait for you all to taste it. And I cannot wait to go back to Guyana to do this all over again.

Komal – thank you for your wonderful hospitality and for taking the time to meet with us. I'm transformed.

-David Driscoll