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


Foreign Concepts

I was explaining to an Italian customer yesterday how our single barrel Scotch program works. She was visiting from Milan and wanted to get a nice bottle of whisky to bring home.

"We go to Scotland, drive around in a car for a week, and taste as many barrels as we possibly can."

"But where are you buying them from? Why does this Signatory company have all these different whiskies from different distilleries?" the customer asked.

"Well, for hundreds of years Scotch whisky has been about blending, not about individual single malt whiskies. The distilleries made the whisky, but they rarely sold it themselves. It was typically sold to blending companies who would mix the whiskies together and create a more polished product. Today, however, many of these old blending companies have found it more profitable to sell their stock as individual single casks, rather than as blends."

"Why is that?"

"Because there's a new focus on specifics. Consumers want to understand the individual elements of whisky rather than the blended results. The irony, however, is that the single casks are rarely as dynamic as the individual single malt expressions, which are a type of blend themselves. Even when you're buying Macallan 12, you're still tasting the result of many different barrels married together to achieve one harmonious flavor."

"Flavor is ultimately what's most important, right?"

"Well....," I laughed, "that depends on who you ask. I'd venture to say that flavor is secondary to information in today's market. Numbers are often more important."

"I want to drink it though, so I want it to taste good. I don't care about the numbers," the woman replied.

"That's a very un-American concept," I said, jokingly.


Two higher-ups from the Cognac world also visited me yesterday, wearing impeccable suits and speaking with suave French accents. We talked about the new whisky market, the current consumer trends, and how Cognac might fit into this movement.

"If you would have asked me two years ago what the answer was for Cognac, I would have told you it needed to be more like whisky: more age statements, more cask strength expressions, and more information. Today, I'm not so sure. We're tried all of those things and it hasn't sparked much of an interest," I said.

"Ultimately these things are against the very nature of Cognac. Cognac is not about the age or the producer, but rather about the harmony of the blend, and the beauty of this harmony," one of the men replied.

"I agree, but beauty is quickly losing its importance in the Bay Area. Have you guys walked around much since you arrived? Have you seen anyone else as dressed up as you are?"

"We definitely stand out," the other man replied.

"People here go out for $200 dinners in their exercise clothes. Everything is focused on comfort, being eco-friendly and functional, but not beauty," I answered. "It's all about data, not art. Cognac is like couture fashion in a world of yoga pants and flip flops."

"Consumers here don't appreciate the blend?" one of the men asked.

"I think many people appreciate flavor, but ultimately the purchase comes down to how much the bottle costs versus how old it is, or how many points it received from some publication. The numbers have to be crunched before the bottle can be sold," I replied.

"This is very un-Cognac," said one of the men.

"It's very un-French," I replied, "which is ironic because everyone here is obsessed with playing French. We like the food, the wine, and a picture of the Eifel Tower on our reusable shopping bags, but we don't really understand the concepts or the culture. It's ultimately about beauty, right?"

"Absolutely," the men replied.

"Yeah, we don't really understand what that means in America," I said.

-David Driscoll


A Few More Cases

I got a few more cases in today if you missed out. We blew through our initial allocation in one day, but these were left off the truck by accident. Go for it:

Ardbeg 2014 "Supernova" Committee Release Islay Single Malt Whisky 750ml (one bottle limit) $179.99 

-David Driscoll


Focus on the Positive — Part II

It might be confusing for those of you who don't work in the booze business to understand what's going on with pricing sometimes. Many of you are reading about price increases on a site like this blog, but are shopping at different retailers around the country, applying things I'm talking about locally to what's happening elsewhere outside the state. You'll walk into a store on the East Coast, see Lagavulin 16 for $90 and say, "What the hell? That's $25 more per bottle than what K&L is offering!" When you see such a discrepancy in pricing from coast to coast, it's not always a sure thing that the producer themself is to blame. Why is Lagavulin 16 cheaper at K&L and who's behind the variance in pricing? Diageo? The importer? The distributor? Or the retailer? The answer: it could be any of the four, or a combination of more than one party. There are so many permutations that go into the final sticker price of a whisky bottle that it's tough to know for sure. Here's a little breakdown of how things work to help you understand:

The producer (distiller) sells to one national domestic importer.

The one national domestic importer sells to one distributor in each state (not necessarily every state).

Each single state distributor sells to various retailers and restaurants/bars.

Private customers (like you) buy from retailers.

While you all have a choice as to which retailers you purchase from and the freedom to look around for the best price, we as retailers do not. We have one choice and one choice only. If we don't like the price being offered for Lagavulin 16 we can choose either to buy it and be unhappy, or choose not to buy it and explain to our customers why. I can only purchase Buffalo Trace whiskies from their one chosen California distributor. I can only buy Diageo products from their one chosen California distributor. The same goes for Four Roses and Springbank, and every other distillery with whisky on the market, who all have their own chosen distributors as well. Some distributors like to make deals, which is one way a retailer can get an edge in pricing. We buy more, we get a better price—just like when you buy five limes for a dollar at the grocery store. Some distributors do not, however. If a supplier is happy with their sales rate they may not see any need to cut a deal (or they may not have enough product anyway, a la Buffalo Trace). Why offer a volume discount when there's no volume?

These scenarios can vary around the country as well. The distributor for Lagavulin in California might be willing to trade profits for case numbers, whereas the distributor in New Jersey might not see any reason to offer a discount. The ultimate sticker price depends on how willing each distributor in each state is to make a deal, and how willing the retailer is to pass that deal on to its customers. If you happen to live in a state with a stingy distributor, you might want to look out of state for a good deal (but of course this is why many states don't allow interstate shipping from retailers—they want to prevent you from looking elsewhere).

All in all, it's a very complicated pipeline. You won't ever know who's ultimately jacking up the price, or taking the hit unless you know what's going on behind the scenes. And you'll never know what's going on behind the scenes unless you're working in the supply chain. Maybe you think Diageo raised their prices, but really it was the importer in your state. Or maybe one retailer has it cheaper than another because they're willing to make less money per unit in the hope of selling more bottles. Pricing is a sensitive issue for everyone—from the producer all the way down to the customer, and all the parties in between. What I want to make clear, however is this: there are four possible parties at work who can all affect pricing. When you see a sticker price go up or down, it's not necessarily the producer who decided to raise or lower it.

We are very lucky here in California because we're working with a number of importers and distributors who are all located within the state. When the goods themselves are imported into the same state as they're being distributed in, it makes everything much, much easier because you can form a relationship with the people working throughout the entire process. One example would be Anchor Distilling in San Francisco, both a distiller and an importer who has partnered up with some of the best producers in the business to create a stunning portfolio of spirits. They merged with Preiss Imports a few years back and have never looked back since. Today, they're one of the strongest partners we have at K&L and they're very helpful in making sure we're able to stay up to speed with pricing. If you asked me what the best deals were at K&L for a number of different pricepoints, there's a good chance I would be handing you an Anchor product. 

Let me show you what I mean:

Best Single Malt Under $50 - In my own personal opinion, there's nothing better than Benriach 12 or Glendronach 12 for less than $50. You can either get the rich vanilla, the creamy barley, and the supple character of the Benriach, or go with the heavier, sherried Glendronach 12. These are two staples of my home bar and I'd say I personally sell at least three to four bottles of each per day. We've converted so many in-store shoppers to one of the two expressions that they're quickly becoming two of the top whiskies we sell in general.

Best K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Single Malt Selections - The new 19 year old peated Benriach is an absolute dream, as is the 18 year old PX barrel of Glendronach we purchased in 2013. Both are the perfect selections for people looking to splurge on something a bit nicer than usual. The fact that we can go directly to either distillery and hand-select our own casks is huge

Best Japanese Whiskies - Anchor is the importer for Nikka, so take your pick: Nikka 12, Nikka 15 Yoichi, Nikka Coffey Still, Nikka 17, or Nikka 21. With both the price increases and the lack of availability for the Suntory whiskies right now, we're selling Nikka like crazy. They are whiskies of amazing depth and quality.

Best New Whisky in 2014 - The Kavalan King Car Conductor is one of my favorite whiskies to be released this year in the U.S. I'm a big fan of what they're doing in Taiwan right now and I hope to see more sherry-aged selections like this in the future.

Best Rum Ever - I still think the Berry Bros & Rudd St. Lucia 11 Year Old is the best rum I've ever tasted. I don't have any in stock right now, and it's a tough sell when I do, but I have to admire their determination to bottle the best—even if it's going to be expensive and esoteric.

Best Gin(s) - Ask me what my favorite gin is (not counting the Monkey 47 because that's in its own category entirely), and I'm going to invariably say the Berry Bros & Rudd No. 3. It's the gin that changed my life and my mother's as well. We drink that stuff like it's water. Ask Gary Westby, our other gin-swilling fiend here at K&L, what his favorite gin is and he'll tell you the Anchor Junipero every time. 

Who else is under the Anchor banner? Luxardo, Tempus Fugit, Glenrothes, Old Potrero, Hine Cognac, A.H. Hirsch Bourbon; all products of extreme quality and reasonable pricing. When a spirit is imported or supplied (or even distilled) by Anchor, I know that I'm getting a great product for the best possible price because I know how these guys do business. That makes a huge difference. I can't tell you how many times I'll see a list of price increases, contact the distillery about the issue, and find out that there hasn't been an increase in price on the producer's end. The importer and the distributor are often the key-holders when it comes to deciding what bottles cost, so a bad one can really put a cramp in your efforts.

Working with great suppliers makes all the difference when you're trying to offer great value to your customers. Anchor is right at the top of my list when to comes to professional, honest, caring, and hard-working importers. It also helps that they have great booze!

-David Driscoll