Kavalan Dinner

As I mentioned in my previous post, I spent yesterday evening at Hakassan in San Francisco as part of a small group invited by Anchor to celebrate their impending importation of Kavalan Taiwanese whisky. We've all heard the hype surrounding these spirits and last September at Whiskyfest many of us Bay Area locals finally got the chance to meet Ian Chang and taste them for ourselves. I remember being very impressed by the selection at that time, but I was even more excited to finally sit down to a meal and give these babies a real test run.

To give you a bit of background, all spirits production in Taiwan was government-controlled until 2002 when the country joined the WTO, thus ending the state's monopoly on booze. Entrepreneurs wasted no time getting to work, as the King Car Group began laying down plans for the construction of Kavalan distillery -- named after the county in which it would be located. By 2005 they were ready to begin building and a mere nine months later they were ready to begin distillation. The first new make ran off the still on March 11th, 2006 and since that day Kavalan has been running 24/7, 365 days a year to prepare for what will surely be a high global demand for their single malt whisky.

I really like Ian Chang, Kavalan's master blender. He's soft-spoken, humble, and very easy going, no matter what type of scenario he's presented with. I remember fighting the urge to punch a fellow Whiskyfester in the face last year when he rudely interrupted my conversation with Ian and demanded his "super pour" during the VIP session. While I was getting ready to dish out a right hook, Ian calmly took the bottle of Solist, smiled, and sent the man on his way. He's always calm and collected and I really respect people who can maintain that demeanor in the face of adversity (I'm not always as professional).

Ian spoke for a few minutes last night before we tasted through the King Car, Solist Oloroso sherry, and Concertmaster expressions. He mentioned that the weather in Taiwan is much warmer and more humid than conditions in Scotland, which leads to faster maturation, and noted that at four years of age (the youngest maturity used in any of the Kavalan expressions) the whisky really begins to come around. I was very impressed by the dark, intensely-sherried, Glenfarclas-like depth of the Oloroso-aged malt, yet pleasantly surprised by the subtle, yet wonderfully-polished King Car. Unlike many young, unpeated single malts, the whiskies were in no way harsh or new-makey. However, to be honest, I was nursing a cold last night, blowing my nose every few minutes, so I wasn't in the best condition for tasting.

But that's no worry because Ian and the gang are coming by the store later today for a special tasting appointment, so I'll have a full description of each whisky and expected price points very soon! Anchor is still about three weeks away from getting everything through customs, but the wait will be worth it. There's some very special whisky coming out of Taiwan and I cannot wait for you all to taste them.

-David Driscoll


Formative Years

I was back at Hakkasan in downtown San Francisco last night for another booze event, this time celebrating the American launch of Kavalan Taiwanese whisky. While I have a lot of interesting information to tell you about those whiskies and my positive experience at the event, I'll get to all of that in a different blog post later today. What was actually most inspiring about the dinner at Hakkasan was the company I sat with, primarily my time spent with Tim Zohn who heads up the bartending at AQ on Mission Street. We were talking about our formative years with drinking and all of a sudden the conversation opened up into a much larger philosophical discussion.

I've been getting a lot of feedback concerning the two Lessons of the Industry as Told Through Popular Film Sequences posts that I've put up over the last week. People have been interpreting them differently and it's been interesting to see the various reactions. I was primarily struck by what readers had to say about yesterday's Ratatouille moment -- one of my favorite scenes in any movie ever. While most readers thought I was reinforcing the idea of taking a step back and simply having fun with one's whisky, that wasn't really my intention at all. I was actually trying to stress the fact that sometimes the most pleasurable things in life are the ones that remind us of being a kid, or the things we enjoyed during our formative years. But there seems to be a keen desire in the wine and spirits world to emulate the pleasurable experiences of others, hoping that through sheer mimicry we can create our own positive associations with the various fads and trends. In my opinion, however, you can't fake what isn't there.

It's entirely possible that, because I spend the majority of my time dealing with wine and booze, I'm disposed to a greater number of these scenarios (which may be why some of you are left wondering at my obsession with them), but let me share one example with you that highlights where I'm coming from. My wife and I were recently at a wine tasting, chatting with the representative from a famous California producer. I can't remember exactly how it happened, but at some point during the conversation my wife and I joked about having started our drinking with Boone's flavored wine and jugs of cheap Gallo. We then asked the girl pouring what her first wines were, to which she answered with a total deadpan:

"I actually started my drinking with the great wines of Bordeaux before challenging myself with Burgundy."

Come on! Why would someone lie like that? Do they think that's impressive; to never have tasted anything from the bottom shelf? She might as well have followed that up with "I never watch TV, I only read books." There are people who lie about their formative years everyday in the Bay Area booze business. They disown their pasts, pretend they were pros from the very beginning, and research extensively what they should or shouldn't say when questioned about the issue. It's like every social encounter is a test and they need to have the right answer prepared in advance.

What I appreciated about Tim Zohn was that, without me ever saying a word about this subject whatsoever, he launched into nostalgic memoir about how he started getting into whiskey with Maker's Mark, and how today that Bourbon still gives him a happy feeling every time he pours a glass. I immediately told him about my obsession with the Ratatouille sequence and how there seems to be a mindset that wants to deny these very authentic impulses. I told the story of my friend from high school who missed out on music during his formative teenage years, so he tried to make up for it by downloading every important album off of Pitchfork's Top 100 list. He listened to music like he was studying for a test, trying to impress upon others his longstanding-love for Sonic Youth and the Pixies, even though that "love" was synthetic and processed. We progressed further into the idea of cramming three seasons of television viewing into a few days -- how it's simply not the same as having to wait a week between episodes and a year between seasons. In the end, we agreed that if you didn't create positive associations, memories, and foundational experiences during your formative years, you might be left scrambling to create them later on in life, which made us both very sad.

And that's what the Ratatouille moment really signifies: that ultimately the best things in life inspire an emotional response from a real place inside of you. You can't make those moments happen, they have to exist there naturally, embedded organically from the culmination of your formative years. To pretend like you carry those associations for the purpose of impressing others is silly; but to deny those very real responses and pretend like they don't exist is heartbreaking.

-David Driscoll


Lessons of the Industry as Told Through Popular Film Sequences #2

After you spend years testing everything out, chasing down must-try bottles, searching for unicorns, and crossing each distillery off your list, you realize that the best spirits aren't the most expensive, or the rarest, or the ones that impress your friends the most. The best spirits force you to stop taking notes, put down your pen, and realize why it is that you're doing this in the first place.

-David Driscoll



As we were closing down the Redwood City store yesterday, my co-worker Jeff Garneau said to me:

"Life isn't black or white; it's complex, and nuanced, and difficult to understand. Not everything is instantly clear. The same goes for wine or whisky. But there's no doubt that as a society we've gravitated towards the mindset that anyone who tries to sell you on complexity is trying to pull one over on you, which is why there's an insistence to simplify things."

I thought that was a brilliant statement.

-David Driscoll


Auriverdes Preview

We're still a month away from the U.S. release date, but I managed to get a sneak peak today at Ardbeg's new "Day" release for 2014: the Auriverdes. Bottled at 49.9%, the whisky was reportedly aged in casks with specially toasted heads, creating a richer, bolder flavor profile than the standard Ardbeg expressions. Let's see for ourselves....

The nose smells like standard Ardbeg with the brine and the peat, but without much added richness. The peat and smoke explode on the palate, much like they do with the other Ardbeg whiskies. My first few sips didn't reveal much added depth (even though I really liked the whisky), but I kept at it and came back later to see if maybe the whisky would change on me. It did.

The second time around I got the blast of Islay goodness, but the vanilla note was much more apparent. It's there, it's just buried under all that spice. It's like a Werther's Original covered in phenolic powder -- it's not really clear what's at the core until you get under all that peat. The finish lasts for quite sometime, too -- almost going menthol after a few minutes. I definitely get the idea of Auri (gold -- as in vanilla) and Verdes (green -- as in peat), so overall I think the whisky accomplishes what it sets out to do -- and it's quite tasty.

I've heard this should clock in around $99.99, which is great because we don't need more $100+ whisky right now. We need some solid $50-$80 options, but at least it's not more than $100. Ultimately, you're not getting more quality than what you're paying for (because when would you ever get that in the single malt realm?), but you are getting a solid Ardbeg release that offers something new from the distillery, if not wildly different and experimental.

Personally, I enjoy the Ardbeg Day and Laphroaig Cairdeas releases more when they keep the whiskies more traditional. The Auriverdes is classic Ardbeg, through and through, so it falls into that category. I'd rather have something good that I'll enjoy drinking than something bizarre that simply tries to be outside the box. I think most people will be quite happy to get one when they arrive.

-David Driscoll