Wednesday
Dec262012

K&L Awards 2012: Whisk(e)y of the Year?

Yes. We do have one. We weren't going to do a "best" anything this year, but after retasting this bottle we decided that if any whisky deserved it, this was the one. We tasted close to a thousand whiskies this year and we kept coming back to this bottle. It wasn't the most extreme, the most over-the-top, the craziest, or the rarest. It was a whisky that we thought just about anyone could enjoy and actually lived up to the price tag.

There’s a lot of weight thrown behind the term “Best Whisky of the Year.” When whisky critic Jim Murray called Old Pulteney 21 the best single malt of 2012, we sold through hundreds of bottles in few hours. That’s fine for Jim to say because he’s not the one selling you the bottle. He can say whatever he wants and no one will accuse him of trying to increase his liquor sales. When we at K&L throw around a phrase like that, there’s a lot of responsibility that goes along with it. We can’t easily play favorites - especially when it happens to be a K&L exclusive. Clearly, there are many great whiskies on our shelves. What makes one better than another?

In our opinion, for any whisky to be considered the “best,” it must be accessible. Anyone who likes whisky of any kind should be able to enjoy it. At the same time, it should be interesting and complex, historic,  but not esoteric. The best whisky of the year should also be special. It should be unique. It shouldn’t be something that tasted the same in 2010 or 2011. It can't be super peaty, or ultra-sherried. It needs to be good enough to entice any kind of whisky drinker. At the same time, it can't be obvious.

In the case of the this particular whisky, it also happens to be very limited. As a single barrel expression, the whisky is limited to the number of bottles able to be drawn from the cask. However, when you call a whisky “the best whisky of the year,” there should also be enough to go around. There’s nothing worse than hearing about something amazing, only to find out that it sold through in minutes.

David and I have both agreed that one whisky we tasted this year is better than all the rest. Adhering to the above criteria, we do have one unanimous selection that has won over the two of us, our entire staff, our owners, and everyone else who has been lucky enough to taste it so far. The flavors are subtle, haunting, and refined. The sherry aromas are present, but they’re not overpowering. The caramel aromas drift effortlessly out of the glass. On the palate the richness slides from candied fruit to hints of sherry rancio and rich vanilla. The finish starts slow, then comes racing on the back end, coating the tongue with delicious malty goodness. The entire experience is a soft and soothing wave of everything that three decades on a slow simmer can offer the single malt drinker. The whisky is utterly divine.

We have not yet released this whisky. It will be available this weekend and we will have roughly 500 bottles of it - all available at K&L only.

It is not inexpensive, but in the case of this particular whisky, the price is definitely worth it. It is over 30 years of age and is a product of slow, refill sherry maturation. There is no peat. No high alcohol power, despite being bottled at cask strength.

We'll let you know what it is this weekend (if you haven't guessed already). We've already told you about this whisky, but we deliberately held back our praise because we wanted to do a big year end celebration and we wanted to have enough left. If we would have come out and said, "Best whisky of the year" in August, we would have 1) sold through the pre-order allocation much faster and 2) still had four whole months left to possibly taste something better. Now that it's the end of the year and we're done tasting new whiskies, we're ready to stand by our earlier assessment.

There can be only one. This is definitely it.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Dec232012

Holiday Booze

I've always been of the mindset that big holiday occasions are not the time for fancy bottles. I've written that numerous times here on this blog. That being said, as long as you're comfortable with drinking your most prized possessions, there's no reason to save them either. Usually I try and talk people out of drinking Port Ellen with their family because their family won't necessarily understand what they're being given. I think Christmas is the worst day of the year for a twenty minute explanation about the 1983 Diageo closures and how rare that whisky in their glass is. Still, great spirits shouldn't be enjoyed in solitude. You're supposed to share them with others and enjoy them with friends. My Dad and I will be breaking out all the fancy stuff tomorrow because I want to drink them with my Dad. Great Champagne, great Brunello, great Bourbon. No booze talk. Just a quick salute and then down the hatch.

So, to amend any previous statements I made about holiday drinking, don't bring anything you have to explain, but don't hoard it away either. Just drink it. This is what you bought it for, right? For days like tomorrow?

When I take a sip of my first Champagne glass tomorrow morning, I will quietly send out a big thank you to everyone who reads this blog. Happy holidays to those who take the time to contemplate our drinking culture and email me those very contemplations. It fuels the fire at K&L. David and I are very blessed to have such a passionate group of spirits fanatics in our lives. We love all of you and wish you all the best this holiday season.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Dec232012

Dude...Just Let Me Help You

Sometimes when I go to the local taquería (either Pancho Villa in San Mateo or Chavez Market in Redwood City) I order my food in Spanish.

Me puede traer dos tacos de carnitas, por favor.

Oh...you speak Spanish?

That's right. I'm not just some normal, every-day, run-of-the-mill white boy. I've got an inside track into your culture. I'm cool. However, most of the time the worker will just keep speaking in English.

What kind of salsa do you want on that?

La salsa roja y el pico de gallo picante también.

This exchange will go on until it's clear that the little game of guero loco speaking Spanish while the latino worker speaks English is getting tiresome. I know exactly what they're thinking: "Dude...I speak English. We could just be doing this in English and it would be much easier and much faster." But no. I need them to know that I speak Spanish. See all those other customers in line? They order in English. But not me, compadre. I get it, you see. I took some classes. Practiced. Now I can order my food in Spanish. I see that you speak Spanish. Let me show you.

We've been very busy at K&L this week for the pre-holiday rush. I've been helping numerous customers in the booze aisle, which means I've been running into my own cultural roadblocks.

Sir, can I help you find something in the Cognac section?

Hmmm...actually, I see you don't have Hine or Remy Martin. Is this all the Cognac you have?

Yes, we've actually started going to Cognac ourselves and working directly with the farmers who do the actual production.

(skeptical) Well, it's just that I've never heard of any of these producers. I've lived in France, you see, and I used to drink Cognac all the time. I've actually been to Cognac. My wife and I took a trip there last summer and we visited a lot of these places.

That's great. What I try and do is find smaller producers that I think our customers might really enjoy. You've probably never heard of them because they're very small and they're not carried by any other retailer in the U.S. That being said, it's my job to tell you why they're amazing and worth your time. I think you'd really enjoy this Jacques Esteve bottle.

Right. But I've lived in France. Even when we lived there, I don't remember seeing any of these brands. We used to go to a small shop in Paris, they had hundreds of selections, and I don't remember seeing any of these. I took a class once about Cognac and the teacher talked about many different producers and I don't think these were in that class.

...

What I really like is the Delamain, you know? I don't really like big house Cognac, but I think that Delamain is one of the better producers. When we went to Delamain last year......

...

...but I see you don't have Delamain. Have you ever thought about bringing in some of the Hine selections? I think if you tasted them against some of the selections you have here you might be really surprised. When we visited the estate last year, my wife met the head director....

...

I'm just going to order all my food in English from now on. I'm sorry for making things more difficult, taquería worker. I know you're just trying to help me get my food as best you can.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Dec222012

Revisiting K&L Glenfarclas

Glenfarclas distillery was kind enough to air freight out all of our whisky so that it could be here before Christmas, after delays got the bottling process a bit behind schedule. While the whisky physically made it here before the 25th, there's no time to process pre-arrivals during the three busiest days of the year. Therefore, we won't be able to sell any Glenfarclas for the holidays, which is a real bummer. However, that doesn't mean they won't make great New Year's Eve celebration drams. I usually get money for my Christmas gifts anyway, so I'll be looking for some special bottles on the 26th. If you're in the same boat, you might want to consider these two very special whiskies.

After we closed down the Redwood City store last night I popped one bottle from each cask, the 1970 and 1979 vintages. Upon pouring a small glass of each I was instantly transported back to the dark, dank warehouse where we originally found each one. When you pay a lot of money for whisky, as in the $300 to $600 that these two whiskies will run you, you hope that you're getting something incredibly special. When I taste things like Glenmorangie 25 or Macallan 25, I think to myself: "Those are nice." When I tasted each of the Glenfarclas whiskies last night I was in compete and total awe. There is nothing like either of these two whiskies on the market right now and both are ridiculously underpriced for what they are.

Let's start with the 1979. A 32 year old, 4th fill sherry butt that's bottled at 41% cask strength. This thing just made it! Any longer and it would have dipped under 40% and that would have ended our order right there! When you think Glenfarclas, you think sherry. Big sherry is the Glenfarclas calling card. That's why the light color, malty flavor, and subtle nature of the 1979 will throw most drinkers for a loop. Can this really be Glenfarclas? Yes, it can. Not only is it Glenfarclas, it's without a doubt the best Glenfarclas I have ever tasted. It's unbelievably soft on the palate, like liquid velvet, and at first you think it's almost too soft. But then, just as it moves to the back of your tongue, the concentrated flavor of more than three decades of slow, steady, European oak aging begins to make it's way to your brain. Heady caramel, toasted nuts, earthy accents, oils, a hint of rancio, all swirling around before it leaves your palate like a soft whisper. If you've never spent more than $100 on a bottle of whisky, this might be the time to do so. Or, you could always get the Macallan 30 for $1200.

The 1970 42 year old is absolutely dripping with fresh sherry. It's so full of sherry you almost have to laugh. In fact, my co-worker Ryan did laugh as he was pouring it into his glass. "No way!" he shrieked as what appeared to be coffee liqueur came streaming out. Unlike the 1979, the more than four-decade old 1970 is exactly what you think of when you think of Glenfarclas – then turned up to full blast. Big, massive, oozing, chewy, dense, opulent sherry at a whopping 58% alcohol. You immediately think all that sherry will protect your mouth from the fiery heat, but it doesn't. POW! like an old Batman episode. It needs a bit of water and then the party begins. Huge rancio sherry flavors, fudge, cocoa, cakebread, and spice. They don't make whisky like this anymore. Gary Westby had planned to taste and spit as he didn't want to load up before driving home, but there was no way he could spit this out. It went down too easy, he later said. For $600, the 1970 Glenfarclas isn't accesible to everyone. However, this is the type of thing where you find six friends, chip in a hundred each, and split the bottle. Or, you could drop more than $5000 to snag the Macallan 40. It's up to you.

Glenfarclas distillery has stock dating back to the 1940's. It's been owned by the same family for more than 100 years. They make honest, classic, sherry-aged Highland whisky and we were lucky enough to have access to their entire library of casks. These are the two we came back with and they're both stunning. I will be splurging on the 1979 when I get to work today. It will be my Christmas dram for my family this year.

I'm going to leave this on pre-arrival for the next two days if you want to save $20. They should be ready by mid-week.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Dec212012

Up All Night With Vodka

I spent last night watching HBO documentaries On Demand while sipping an expensive Russian vodka. I had an absolute blast. The vodka was delicious and it went down easy. It hit the spot. It quenched my thirst. It relaxed me. It didn't send my head spinning. It didn't spawn comparisons to other vodkas I had tasted this week. It didn't make me want to write a new blog. I'm tempted to do it again tonight!

How is this possible? Why are we talking about lowly vodka on the fine spirits blog? Aren't we here to talk about flavor and history?

The first thing you're taught after you're jumped into the super geek spirits street gang is: you don't drink vodka. Why don't you drink vodka? Because it doesn't taste like anything and we're all about flavor. If you don't like flavor then we don't like you. Intimidating! However, after a few years in the super cool spirits street gang, I decided that I was tired of the rules and the "you're supposed to like this" mentality, so I decided to go rogue and become a part-time vodka drinker. Part of it was the rebellious side of me that steered toward the exact opposite of whatever authority told me to do. Part of it was my inquisitive nature that simply asked: what are people getting out of this that I'm missing?

Then it hit me.

I was talking to my mother on the way home from work last night (yes, I was wearing my hands-free mobile device) and we were discussing an NPR podcast about Bertrand Russell. My mother said to me, "I thought about you in that philosophy program and the fact that I wouldn't have been able to handle those subjects – was something in the cup, or next to the cup, or or outside the cup." The gist of her statement was: I just don't get it so I must be missing something. Originally, I had felt the same way. I had entered a graudate philosophy program because I wanted to know the secret. All of these philosophers throughout history – Plato, Descartes, Wittgenstein – who must have so much to reveal! I couldn't wait to delve deeper into their genius. After a solid year of dense manuals, pointless arguments, and condescending colleagues, I transfered to the German department. I still loved philosophy, but there was no secret. The reality was that I was a romantic in a semantic world.

Jumping into the world of wine, I hoped every romantic ideal that never materialized in the philosophy world would be found in a store full of exotic bottles. What happened was more quixotic. I charged in, ready to discover that wine was a pedagogical paradise, full of people literally thirsting for more knowledge. Wine would be that lifetime's commitment I was searching for, like a monk entering an abbey, that would take decades of hard work and tasting to truly master its meaning. However, the whole pair-this-with-this, you-can't-drink-that-with-tacos, you-must-use-the-proper-glass, this-must-be-aged-at-least-ten-years thing started to wear thin on me. More rules. Were people actually enjoying this rigid ideology? I tasted some of the world's great wines and watched others revel in their splendor. I thought they were decent wines, but nothing to write home about. What were people getting out of this that I was missing?

Then it hit me.

There is nothing to get. There's nothing to get about philosophy, other than these guys have a lot of time to think about shit that you and I don't have time to think about. There are many great lessons in the tomes of the ancients and I was understanding them perfectly fine. They just weren't as illuminating as I hoped they might be. Wine and spirits were no different. In my mind, the world's great wines were supposed to make one weep. In reality, they simply tasted like wine. Good wine, but hardly enough to change my life, inspire me to move to a foreign culture, purchase a rustic ranch home, spend five weeks sputtering bad French to the locals, then write a travelogue about how I know everything about French culture which might one day get turned into a Julia Roberts film.

There's nothing to get about vodka either! It's just a clean, easy-to-drink spirit that makes you feel good after you drink it. I'm not sure if the wheat or rye makes a big difference, or if the still type changed the texture, or if the filtration removed any corruptive cogeners, or if the purity of the water worked in conjunction with the base spirit. I don't know any of these things the way I know them about whisky. My point is: I don't think it really matters. The secret to enjoying vodka is the secret to enjoying your life. You have to relax. You have to take your mind off things. Get a few shots up in you. Stop worrying about flavor.

The moment I stopped worrying about flavor, it all made total sense. Vodka is here to take your mind off of itself. Vodka is here to ease my pre-conceived booze tension. People hate vodka because of marketing schemes where packaging and price make more of a difference than quality, but that also happens with whisk(e)y, Cognac, Tequila, and rum. Secretly, I think experts hate vodka because they can't make any money off of talking about it, the same way a professor can't make a living off of John Steinbeck. It's all right there, in your face, obvious to anyone – you don't need a guide to understand it. They want you to read James Joyce because that shit is so confusing they can get a whole semister's work out of teaching you what it means! Vodka is about drinking though, not about thinking. The Eastern Europeans figured that shit out long ago.

I drink, therefore I am.

-David Driscoll