Tuesday
Feb052013

Cocktail Revolution comes to K&L

Last Thursday, K&L Hollywood was graced with the presence of, in my humble opinion, one of Los Angeles’ culinary stars. We challenged Matt to show us his wares under the constraints our lame on-sale license. Wine Only! Not an easy task. Needless to say, he hit it out of the park. We enjoyed four cocktails each utilizing a wine base, farmer market produce and freshly foraged ingredients from the Santa Monica Mountains. Dolin Blanc infused with pomelo skins, guava macerated in Cocchi Americano, candy-cap mushrooms in the Bryrrh. Matt was able to highlight these wonderful ingredients while maintaining his stylistic individuality. Individuality indeed!

Roughly four years ago, Matt Biancaniello took over the reins of Hollywood’s Library Bar at the infamous Roosevelt Hotel. He had literally no training and was thrust suddenly into one of the most hardcore power drinking scenes in America. The Roosevelt at the time was not known for serving excellent cocktails, it was known for hosting Hollywood’s most exclusive guests for a new holds barred attack on their bodies (i.e. tons of Red Bull and Vodka/cocaine). But, Matt is not a standard Hollywood jamoke -trying to make max tips on crappy drinks. Matt had a vision of a new way to serve drinks. Of course, working for a large corporate hotel does not afford you the freedom to buy the type of booze you necessarily want or even the type of produce you need, so Matt took the matters into his own hands.  He began investing in the bar out of his own pocket. I’m sure there is a more inspirational story behind Matt finding his style and the unique perspective, but let’s just say that he started doing stuff that almost no one else in the COUNTRY was doing. Constantly scouring farmer’s markets, he brought the regions finest produce to his bar and incorporated it into the cocktails in ways that most classically trained bartenders would scoff at.

I’m not saying Matt created the culinary cocktail trend, but he’s certainly brought it to a level that we’ve not previously seen on the West Coast, SF included (sorry Portland and Seattle, you were probably way out ahead of us, but I haven’t made it up there to find out). As his reputation grew, so did his selection of produce, use of interesting spirits and unique technique. Matt’s real aha moment was relayed to me at last week’s tasting. The bar manager of one of LA’s most acclaimed Cocktail Bars entered the room and examined the cornucopia of fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices. He exclaimed, “Hey man. You’re gonna have to edit this,” gesturing to the overflowing bowls of aromatic ingredients. Matt knew he was making people uncomfortable. He was onto something that challenged the status quo, something special. After that moment, his obsession exploded and he began stocking an even grander plethora of fresh provisions and challenging himself and his customers to more unusual and complicated mixtures.

It’s always hard to grasp Matt’s precise motivation. I mean this guy has spent thousands of dollars out of his own pocket, gets up at the crack of dawn to travel across the city to multiple open air markets, and then busts his ass until 3 am, for basically no reward save the satisfied faces across the bar. Obviously he’s ambitious, but more than that I believe he wants to change how people interact with their drink. Plus, he’s a genuinely good guy. One of the most telling statements I’ve ever heard regarding Matt’s motivation occurred in the space that he made famous, “I don’t really care what other bartenders think of what I’m doing. I mean I hope they like it, but what really makes me nervous are when chefs come in.” When the world’s top chefs come to your spot you have a right to be nervous, but this story gives you an idea of how he envisions his own style and contribution the community. Cocktails should indeed be treated as a culinary art -at least in the right context, I’m not saying every drink needs to be a masterpiece. I do believe, however, that we need to start treating alcohol more like food and Matt’s work forces us to reexamine our perspective toward the craft.

Indeed, no one has done more in Hollywood to elevate the cocktail than Mr. Biancaniello. After four years of critical acclaim, winning hearts and palates from across the world, Matt stepped down as head bartender of the Library Bar. He’s moving toward securing his own space, but in the mean time you can catch him around town working shifts at Bar+Kitchen, Cliff’s Edge, and other fine establishments. Or come see him at K&L! We plan to have him conduct as seminar every couple of months. They’ll sell out quickly so heads up, next time we’re doing fortified wine cocktails.  Sherry, Madeira, Shochu, Port, Rasteau, Rivesalt, Pineau, Pommeau etc. are all fair game. Look out!

-David Othenin-Girard

Monday
Feb042013

Let's Get Romantic About Rum

I need something to take my mind off of the bewildering playcalling of last night's final two minutes. I don't understand how a team with two elite rushers on the field attempts four straight passes with only five yards to go.

I feel sick just writing that.

I need to go into a happy place. A place filled with booze and adventure, with unsavory characters whose aesthetically-driven aliases are still mentioned in stories today. That place is not Scotland. Nor is it Kentucky. It's not France and it's not Guadalajara.

That romantic, swashbuckling venue is the Caribbean Sea circa the late 17th century – an oceanic theater of pillaging, plundering, treasure, and rum. If you think rum can be summarized with sweet pineapple juice drinks for Spring Break, then think again. For all of you history geeks out there who love delving deep into Scottish single malt lore, that story is a gigantic snorefest when told against this sugarcane chronicle. 

Since David OG and I are headed to Barbados in a month's time, I thought it only appropriate to get myself into the tropical mindset. I reached into my bookshelf at home, grabbed the overlooked and underrated Drink by Iain Gately, and flipped to page 142 – Chapter 12: Rum.

Let's go over a few rum basics before we start telling stories. Rum came about in the 1600's when the Caribbean sugar trade began refining its product for the European market. When you refine sugar into perfect little white crystals, that brown sludge leftover is called molasses. At first, no one knew what to do with this sweet slop. According to Gately, it was considered worthless "and was fed to hogs, or dumped on the land as fertilizer." They weren't eating pancakes or crépes in the Caribbean at that time, I guess. 

Gately goes on:

However, it was soon found that with the addition of water, molasses fermented readily. While the resulting brew had few aficionados, further experimentation revealed that it was an ideal raw material for distillation, and rum was born. The first mention of the potation is contained in a description of Barbados, dating to 1651: "The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Devil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor."

Kill-Devil! That's what they called it! Because it would kill the Devil himself! What a name. As far as history can tell us, rum distillation begins with Barbados – an island full of trees that was chanced upon by an English ship in 1607. By 1650, the entire island had been deforested and dotted with numerous sugar plantations. Slaves were shipped in to harvest the sugar cane and rum was used to lift their spirits after a hard day's labor (a very unromantic part of this story).

By the time the 18th century hit, the skill of Barbados' rum distillers had evidently picked up. Much like today's popular culture that embraces the fashion of foreigners, the British immediately took a shine to the substance. The historian John Oldmixon wrote in 1708, "it has lately supplied the place of Brandy in punch," and was "much better than the malt spirits and sad liquors sold by our distillers." (Oldmixon would fit right in selling wine at K&L). Gately continues to quote Oldmixon as favoring rum even to French Cognac, as it was "certainly more wholesome, at least, in the sugar islands; where it has been observed that (those who) drink of brandy freely do not live long, whereas the Rum-drinkers hold it to a good old age."

So rum makes it back to England, becomes a hit, gets turned into punch, and impresses the drinking culture to an extent that they prefer it to Scotch and Cognac. Wow! Not only that, but apparently the Cognac drinkers are a bunch of unhealthy cranks, while the rum drinkers are youthful and vigorous. Hmmmm.....

England has rum fever, but what was happening meanwhile back in the Caribbean? PIRATES!

The swashbuckling history of the West Indies is broken up between two distinct waves: the 1660s and the 1710s. While we are all familiar his cartoonish image adorning the occasional bottle of spiced rum, Sir Henry Morgan was the "best known and most successful example of (piracy in) the first period," according to Gately. He writes:

Strictly speaking he was not a pirate but a privateer, licensed by King Charles II to fight Spaniards on his behalf and to pay himself from their treasure. Morgan established a base at Port Royal in Jamaica and launched a series of lucrative raids, notable for their brutality, against Spanish posessions in Cuba and Columbia. In 1670, he outdid himself by sacking Panama and burning it to the ground, just after peace had been declared between Spain and England. He was arrested and sent back to England...where he was acquitted of piracy, knighted, and returned to Jamaica as its deputy governor.

Wow! Basically, sail around the Caribbean, take free shots at anything ruled by the Spanish, loot the booty, and drink as much rum as you can! What a life! Unfortunately, the position of government office didn't fare well for Captain Morgan. He went out like Jim Morrison, drinking incessantly until his body couldn't bear anymore. He died in 1688 from mass consumption of rum and was buried in Port Royal, which was subsequently destroyed by a gigantic earthquake, taking the corpse of Sir Morgan deep down into Davy Jones' Locker.

The second wave of piracy took effect in 1713 and featured a new breed of dread pirate – that scallywag Captain Blackbeard. Blackbeard is to Captain Morgan, as the Police are to the Skatalites. You see, the whole peace treaty between Spain and England didn't work too well for the Caribbean pirates. Pillaging and plundering for treasure was in their blood, even if it wasn't being done semi-legally in the name of the homeland. No government agreement was going to stop these able seamen from living out their romantic dreams of conquest. These second-wave pirates were more organized, however. They had ethics! "They operated in loose confederations and regulated affairs between themselves according to written articles, which were, for the age, models of democracy. They wrote the right to rum into such agreements" Gately concludes.

Every Man has a Vote in Affairs of Moment; has equal Title to the fresh Provisions, or strong Liquors, at any Time seiz'd, and may use them at Pleasure – from the Articles of Captain Roberts.

Edward Teach isn't a name that strikes fear into the hearts of men, but as Blackbeard he was known as the "embodiment of impregnable wickedness, of reckless daring, a nightmarish villain so lacking in any human kindness that no crime was above him." And he liked to get drunk a lot. On rum. All day long. He also adorned a large black beard (hence the name) that he would decorate with scarlet ribbons and illuminate with burning matches behind his ears (I would think he would end up burning his precious beard off that way, but maybe he knew a clever way to prevent that). Did I mention he liked to drink rum? Gately cites one of Blackbeard's journal entries as evidence of his thirst:

Such a Day, Rum all out – Our Company somewhat sober: – A damn'd Confusion amongst us! – Rogues a plotting: – great talk of Separation. So I look'd sharp for a Prize: – such a day took one, with a great deal of Liquor on board, so kept the Company hot, damn'd hot, then all Things went well again.

We can all relate. When the party runs out of booze, the party's over. 

Here's where the story gets interesting. Did anyone else know that Blackbeard operated out of the Carolinas? I'm sorry, but when I think of piracy, Raleigh-Durham doesn't come to mind. Nevertheless, Gately writes:

For a while, Blackbeard operated out of the Carolinas with the complicity of the colonial authorities, until a warrant for his capture, together with a handsome reward, was issued in Virginia by its governor. He and his crew were cornered in Okercok Inlet by a superior force, and the pirate died defiant: "Blackbeard took a Glass of Liquor, and drank...with these words: "Damnation seize my Soul if I give you Quarters, or take any from you." He then stood his ground and fought, "with great Fury, till he received five and twenty Wounds, and five of them by shot." He was beheaded after death, and his skull continued in service as a receptacle for alcohol. It was converted into a very large punch bowl, called The Infant, "which was used until 1903 as a drinking vessel a the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg. According to one account it bore a silver rim on which was engraved 'Deth to Spotswoode'"

Hold on a minute. Are you telling me that, up until 1903, you could go to a bar in South Carolina and drink a glass of punch out of Blackbeard's freakin' skull?! THAT'S INSANE! No wonder everyone loves the pre-Prohibition era cocktails! It wasn't just about great ingredients, it was about panache!  

In any case, these are just a few of the stories you'll find in Iain Gately's book, solely in the chapter about rum, which goes on for another twenty pages or so. It's really fascinating stuff. Besides being utterly delicious, sippable, mixable, and versatile in many a cocktail, rum also has a tremendously exciting history – full of romance and intrigue. I'm sorry, but I'm far more interested in reading about Henry Morgan and Blackbeard than I am Johnnie Walker and his trek across Scotland. Look at the historic parallels as well. Was Blackbeard merely the Manual Noriega of his time? There's a lot to think about.

I'm going to pour myself a glass of rum and keep reading. Mount Gay Extra Old, please! Barbados, ho!

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Feb022013

Outlining Your Weekly Drinking Schedule

Someone told me the other day that they don't see the point in drinking anything less than the best. I can give you one good reason right now why that isn't a good idea: you get jaded. As one of my customers told me earlier this week, "If you're drinking Chateau Margaux every night, what do you do for a special occasion?"

I've been sick (again) for the past few days and I'm militant about not drinking while under the weather. As an aside, I usually get sick in the first place when my drinking patterns become heavier than usual, so the occasional cold or flu bug is my body's way of keeping things balanced. What I notice more than anything duing these dry spells is how much I love drinking. When I can't have it, I want it more than anything. When I have whatever I want at my disposal those special bottles tend to lose their luster. There was a night not too long ago when I wasn't satisfied with anything on my liquor shelf. I didn't want Bourbon, or beer, or even wine, but I kept filling my glass hoping that something would do the trick. Now that I'm lying in bed with a sore throat, all I can think about is what I would drink right now if I was healthy.

Drinking only the best sounds impressive, much like only flying first class or only sitting in the front row of a concert sounds awesome, but with booze it's a bad idea (when flying or catching a show, it is indeed awesome). It's a bad idea to drink too much high-end booze because it loses its meaning after a while. It's a bad idea because it limits the way you can drink it. I'm not making a Port Ellen and soda, for example. It's a bad idea to drink only fancy hooch because you can't ever do a shot or down a glass. Variety is what makes drinking fun – at least for me. A variety of flavors, styles, locations, and quality. You need variety in your life.

I'm no model for great drinking, but here's how I would outline my perfect drinking week. A mixture of fancy and pedestrian, as well as beer, wine, and liquor.

Monday (day off):

1 16oz can of Stiegl at around 1 PM.

Start working on dinner around 3 PM, open a bottle of white wine and have a glass while cooking.

Cocktails with the wife when she gets home from work, while the rest of the white wine goes with dinner.

Sip on some Four Roses or Compass Box after dinner. All the food groups are included for a balanced drinking meal.

Tuesday:

1 bottle of Jever Pils after work with the K&L crew.

Tacos from Pancho Villa. More beer.

Tequila after dinner. No wine tonight because Weds morning is exercise time. Beer and booze are more easily managable for me.

Wednesday:

1 can of IPA after work.

Four Roses Yellow Label with ice as I walk in the door. Sip on that until the chinese food gets delivered. German Riesling with the meal.

Scotch.

Thursday:

No beer after work, just because it's getting old (and remember we need to make these moments special)

Beer as soon as I get home, however.

Home-cooked Indian food. More beer.

Maybe some Cognac or Armagnac before bed. Gotta run Friday morning so not too much.

Friday:

1 bottle of Victory Pils as we close the store.

Pizza night. Baricci or Sesta di Sopra Rosso di Montalcino.

Grappa and limoncello after din-din.

Saturday:

Anchor Steam as we close the store as Gary usually buys the beer on Saturday and that's what he drinks.

Pronto's roasted chicken and potatoes for takeout as I cruise up El Camino on my way home.

Campari and soda upon arrival.

Red Burgundy or aged Bordeaux with dinner, maybe a second bottle if we're feeling saucy.

Calvados as I watch TV late night.

Sunday:

Walk around San Francisco. Grab coffee then cocktails or beer depending on where we go.

Get lunch. Get more cocktails.

Come home, make more cocktails.

Open a bottle of Champagne. Eat a light dinner and start sobering up.

Water for the rest of the night. Monday morning is a run day.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Feb022013

A Few Things You May Have Missed

I don't always have time to write up every new spirit that we bring into the store. The stock is always in a state of flux with new things coming in and out, so it's easy to miss some of the less-anticpated whiskies if you're not paying attention to the website on a regular basis. With prices climbing steadily, I thought I'd focus on some of the more reasonable selections that I've been enjoying lately. These are bottles that didn't jump out at me immediately, but really grew on me over time. I'm finding that my favorite whiskies are becoming more and more of this nature.

- David Blackmore from Ardbeg/Glenmorangie was in the store yesterday and we retasted the forthcoming Ealanta. The delivery got pushed back a few weeks, but we should have plenty in stock come late February. The Ealanta is 19 year old Glenmorangie aged in virgin oak with lots of spicy vanilla. I really like this whisky. However, this doesn't really count as something you may have missed because it's yet to be released. I'm already off track and we're only on the first whisky.

- I think it's only natural for one's palate to evolve over time, usually from big, bold flavors towards more nuanced and subtle profiles. The latest Clynelish Distiller's Edition $69.99 didn't make too big of a splash, despite the fact that most of the Diageo reps I knew were hoping to buy back bottles for themselves. Finished in oloroso sherry casks, the addition of nutty richness to the waxy Clynelish profile is simply delicious. Well-balanced and quite restrained, this is sherried whisky for people who don't want that big Glendronach style. This is almost like amontillado sherry with a more alcohol in it. Rich and layered, yet still quite dry. Very tasty.

- In my mind, Aberlour is one of the most-improved distilleries of the past few years. Ironically enough, however, I'm not a fan of the A'Bunadh – the young, full-proof, high-octane sherried malt that put Aberlour back on the map. The two 12 year old expressions have been quite successful at K&L as of late, so I decided to add the 16 year to shelf as well. More delicate with less sherry influence than the 12 year, the 16 year old is quite a steal when compared to other 16-18 year old whiskies of similar quality. I'm guessing Pernod-Ricard will have to up the price at some point over the next 12 months, but we can enjoy it while it lasts. $65 is a great price.

- We're definitely planning on spending a day at Arran distillery this coming March. I've been so impressed with the island distillery over the past few months that I've added quite a few Arran selections to my personal stash. One of the Redwood City's staff favorites right now is the new Arran 12 Year Cask Strength. The sweet malty flavors really pop with the higher alcohol percentage and the wood adds extra spice on the back. There's not a lot of single malts that taste like Arran, sort of like Glen Garioch. They're simple and delicious, but there's a certain distinct malty note that allows one to easily pick them out of a lineup. 

- The new Longrow Peated Single Malt from Springbank distillery didn't turn too many heads upon its recent repackaging, especially because it didn't come with an age statement. Nevertheless, the heavily-peated Campbeltown malt is really quite extraordinary. Lots of oily flavors, supple textures, and campfire smoke. If you're looking for a new peat experience this should be at the top of your list. Again, the price for the quality is quite reasonable.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Feb012013

Focusing on the Grey Areas

One of the subjects I wanted to start shying away from writing about this year was the topic of industry business - or at least from sounding off against what I feel is unscrupulous behavior. I know a lot of people have loved reading the rants against annoying business practices, but as enjoyable as they might be (and as cathartic as they are to write), they're giving some people the wrong idea about alcohol.

Everything I read on the whisk(e)y blogosphere these days seems to be black or white, right or wrong, good or bad, yes or no. Everything is absolute. I remember having to respond to a message board post some months ago where someone said the K&L Spirits Journal doesn't have any credibility because it's run by a retailer trying to make money. Basically, I'm not forced to uphold any type of journalistic integrity. However, while this is entirely true, it doesn't mean that anything I write is automatically disqualified because I have a stake in the game. It's not one or the other.

This type of characterization is what I'm worried about. It makes me embarrassed to be a blogger. The truth is that the K&L spirits blog exists in a shade of grey. We report the situation as we see it and write about the topics that we're interested in for the sake of our customers. The whole point of the blog is to help people that shop at K&L make more educated decisions by offering more perspective, not report the news. However, the K&L Spirits Journal is now being read by people all over the country, most of whom cannot shop at K&L due to shipping restrictions. Therefore, even though we're writing for our own customers, we end up reaching many, many others who enjoy keeping track with the latest events.

What's disconcerting me right now is the polarization I'm witnessing from enthusiasts of all types who seem to think I told them to feel this way. I recommended a bottle of Clynelish Distiller's Edition to a customer the other day who told me, "that can't be good because it's from Diageo. They make super commercial slop." Uhhhh......well......this is really good. Not that I don't have my own gripes with Diageo, but I'll always put that aside for the sake of the customer. Clynelish is one of my favorite distilleries. It's definitely not a mass-produced single malt. It's fantastic. Another situation came when I tried to recommend a bottle of the new Peyrot 18 year old Cognac to someone in the store. "That has boise in it, though. You said to avoid those." Well.....I did say that boise is often used by producers trying to turn crap brandy into drinkable brandy, but I also said that some producers do it right. It's not necessarily absolute.

This is the same scenario that merlot found itself in after Sideways and blended whisky after single malt became popular. Merlot is bad. Blended whisky is bad. Didn't you hear? Yes, all of it. Every single drop. There are no good ones. I always remember David OG's comment to a customer when he said, "Petrus is made from merlot. Are you saying you don't like Petrus?!"

Ultimately, I don't want to offer any more ammunition for generalized and misinformed ideas about alcohol. When you write passionately sometimes people misinterpret your enthusiasm. My goal is to be more responsible this year. We're going to be offering some pretty interesting, behind-the-scenes reports as our travel plans take us abroad. Hennessey is definitely on my visitation list for Cognac because it's such a polarizing brand. Popular culture celebrates it to no end, while Cognac enthusiasts piss all over it. You ask anyone about Hennessey and it's either the best thing ever or the most overpriced, overrated hooch on the planet. I think the truth lies somewhere in between and I'd love to get to the bottom of it.

That's what I'm focusing on this year. The grey areas. As a consumer advocate (for K&L consumers that is), I want people to think critically and without prejudice if possible. That's not to say I won't step in if they're heading in a direction that will ultimately leave them dissatisfied. It's just to say that I think I'm partly responsible for giving some customers the wrong idea about booze. It's not black or white. Some blended whiskies are slop, others are magical. Some boise-laden Cognacs are heavenly, while others are a poor excuse for the name. Some whiskies will last forever, while others will oxidize quickly. Sometimes I simply report an interesting story, other times I might want you to buy something that we found in Scotland. Sometimes I taste a whiskey and it tastes great, then I revisit it later and it's not as impressive. And vice versa.

Not everything can be quickly summarized and easily categorized. This isn't science. Booze is an experience and there's room for many different interpretations.

-David Driscoll