Single Barrel High West

What would happen if you took the High West Rendezvous (a marriage of 16 and 6 year old Barton & LDI rye whiskies) and put it back into a used Bourbon barrel for an additional 1.62 years, then bottled that single barrel at 100 proof?

You're going to find out next month. This was a no-brainer. I took one taste and said, "Yes, please." We sent them the logo today, so our very own K&L Exclusive single barrel of extra-matured Rendezvous is coming soon. They did other wine and vermouth-finished casks as well, but I wanted the straight oak-aged juice. It's really, really, really good with extra richness and extra sweetness from the wood.

Stay tuned!

-David Driscoll


Vintage Cognac w/Age Statement

While I've been anxiously awaiting the arrival of our ultra-mature Armagnacs from Baraillon, Laballe, Pellehaut, and Pouchegu, I have to say that I'm currently most excited about this little guy: a straight 2002 vintage, 12 year old (stated clearly on the label), no-color-added Grand Champagne Cognac from Claude Thorin. It's not the most complex, or awe-inspiring brandy; nor is it rich, decadent, or layered. It's just a complete break in tradition from what we normally get from the Charente. There's no VS, VSOP, XO, Napoleon, Hors d'Age, or any other non-descript wording on the label. It's just 2002 vintage, 12 years old.

And the flavors are so light and haunting. It's pure fruit, but it's not sweet or juicy. It's lithe, snappy, fresh, and clean.

I'm totally smitten. Get ready for more Cognac like this from K&L this Fall.

2002 Claude Thorin 12 Year Old K&L Exclusive Vintage Cognac $59.99

-David Driscoll


Fog City Revamp

San Francisco's Fog City Diner has been an iconic movie location for years, if not a great restaurant. Located at the end of Battery Street, close to where the Embarcadero meets Pier 39, it's been a neon-flashing tourist attraction due to its semi-famous reputation and presence in movies like So I Married An Axe Murderer with Mike Myers. I worked at Pier 39 from 2001 to 2003 and we would sometimes meet at Fog City after work, strictly for the kitsch factor. That's why, while walking our half-marathon through the city yesterday (which is really just a twelve mile jaunt buoyed by plenty of food and booze), I looked at the decor of the Fog City Diner and said, "What the hell?"

The place had totally been revamped. So, of course, we went in.

Gone are the grilled cheese sandwiches and BLTs, replaced by modern takes on diner classics like the "Saigon" Dip—the beef is instead roasted pork with cilantro, red chiles, and mint; the au jus is a bowl of pho (genus!!). You can still get a cheeseburger (which we did), but the appetizers are now comprised of things like oysters or blistered peppers with olive oil (which were both attractively-presented and delicious). The cocktail menu takes the cake, however. They're operating with more than fifteen speciality libations on that drink card and the Bloody Mary comes with a freakin' deviled egg (made with mustard instead of mayonnaise and topped with bacon and crispy quinoa).

The new Fog City Diner keeps the hot locale, the beautiful waterfront views, and the iconic name, but gets rid of all the other stuff. The food is now incredible and the drinks top-notch. I almost want to go back again today (and I might!).

Part of the reason we like to walk so much is because only by walking can you stumble upon hidden gems and unknown spots that take you by surprise—even in your own city. While taking Sacramento back towards the water, we saw this beautiful, London-esque/Upstate New York-looking restaurant called Wayfare Tavern (which I'm sure many of you know about, but for me it was a complete unknown). It looked so regal from the outside and the interior was even more impressive. It felt homey, cozy, yet refined in a way that California rarely does. For as much as I love the West Coast, there's a relaxed and almost too-familiar vibe that's often difficult to escape (should you want to). Even when you go out somewhere nice, there are still people wearing flip-flops, or hoodies, or exercise clothes.

Not one person at Wayfare last night was dressed down, however. We almost felt like we were in a completely different part of the country. The crowd was very un-San Francisco and the decour, with its dark wood paneling combined with exposed brick, felt very (New) English.

Deviled eggs must be making a comeback, because the Wayfare Tavern also specializes in the much-maligned American classic. Fried chicken is also back with a vengeance. I was impressed that Wayfare didn't feel the need to put every drink in a coupe glass, as both our cocktails came in standard rocks glasses with a straw. I love a coupe cocktail, but in the end I'm going to drink it no matter how you serve it, so why not get creative? The Rickey in a simple glass with pebbled ice was just fine. We had a Blue Moon variation on the rocks as well.

Seeing that we only sat at the bar, I'm very tempted to come back for dinner soon. There's an upstairs dining room that's absolutely gorgeous and a private room you can book for special occasions. The bartender also told us they're planning a top floor "members only" club. I took the bar manager's card before I left because I'd be interested in holding a few single malt tastings there. I can't imagine a better atmosphere for Scotch drinking in SF than the Wayfare.

-David Driscoll


...And In Closing

The spirits blog is a funny thing—the more I write about new products, the more I hear from readers that there's not enough opinion. Yet the more opinion I offer, the more agitated my customers get because they really want to learn about new products. This past week has been a series of op-eds focused on snobbery, expertise, expectations, and what happens to a genre when its purpose becomes something other than enjoyment. I think about these topics almost every day, so I enjoy writing about them when I get the chance, and I particularly enjoy it when people send me an email with a response or counterpoint.

One reader sent me this article in response to yesterday's post: a report about the science of tasting, and how many experts cannot decipher the differences between wines when forced to do so blindly. I get a kick out of blind tastings because of the sheer anxiety it causes people; no one wants to be the person who completely bombs the assessment (and someone always will). However, as we've learned this week from the buzz surrounding the Daily Beast MGP article, many enthusiasts and aficionados are interested in more than just flavor. Flavor is just one part of what makes alcohol fun.

When I started the master's degree program for German back in 2005 my initial hope was to "master" the German language. What I soon learned, however, is that grammar and linguistics were only a teeny-tiny part of the master's degree program. It was mostly about literature and philosophy. I can tell you right now that my German is incredibly poor compared to many other second-language German speakers, despite the fact that I have a fancy piece of paper.

"How come you're not totally fluent? Don't you have a master's degree in German?" someone might ask me.

Good question. However, being a master of German isn't really about fluency. Just like being a master of wine isn't really about identifying a wine or its character while wearing a blindfold. I don't know nearly as much about the history of wine and the various French chateaux as many of my colleagues do. If you want to know what the best Bordeaux vintages are, or which are the most-beloved vineyard sites in Burgundy, I can spout off a few, but I'm no match for Gary Westby or Ralph Sands. However, I am very, very good—if you don't mind me saying—at helping customers find something they like. Someone might ask me, "Do you have any older Bordeaux that are drinking well now?" or "I need a gift for someone who likes Sancerre," and I'll nail those requests. And I can do it for any country in the world, and any type of wine.

So when someone says, "Wow, that guy David knows a lot about wine because he always finds me something I like," that's really just one type of wine knowledge—I understand how to match up a description with a product. But there are guys who work here who actually know about viticulture and the production of wine, which is something I know nothing about (Ryan Woodhouse used to work at Testarossa and Bonny Doon, and Mike Barber makes the Mr. Beast wines). There are historians who work here; Jeff Garneau can tell you about the evolution of Chateau Lafite over the last one hundred years, or why certain grapes are no longer grown in the Italian region of Alto Adige. And what about putting a cellar together? I have no idea how certain wines will taste in 10-20 years because I haven't drunk enough older wines, but Jim Barr has had every California vintage over the last three decades. He's the guy you want to ask.

I was thinking about the quote from yesterday's post concerning "demystifying wine," which is something I originally wanted to do for consumers. I wanted to take complicated subjects—concepts concerning wine and whiskey that intimidated people—and break them down into analogies that were easy to understand. As a former teacher, it's always been something I've enjoyed doing, whether it's math, literature, or booze. However, my point in doing so was never to expose the experts as naked emperors, or clueless pedants with a penchant for snobbery. It was to show people that a just a little bit of understanding could turn what was already a fun activity into something so much more interesting and rewarding. Alcohol appreciation isn't a bunch of baloney—it's just often presented that way.

It's that very viewpoint that I always lead with when I work with customers. This hobby is supposed to be a fun use of our time! No matter how passionate we are, the appreciation of wine and whiskey shouldn't be stressful or annoying. No matter how wrong someone is about their information, it's not always our job to set them straight. No matter how intimidated we feel, we shouldn't seek to knock others off of their perch. There will always be people who use their knowledge about a certain subject to feel secure or superior—and they will always give intellectualism a bad rap—but we can't let them get to us. There will always be producers or brands that seek to use a consumer's naivete against them, but we can't save everyone.

We can only help people who want to be helped—that goes for me, bloggers, writers, and those who work on behalf of consumers. And we should enjoy helping each other.

-David Driscoll


The Crime of Expertise

A friend forwarded me this article from the Connoisseur's Guide webpage today. You should read what Stephen Eliot had to say about wine expertise before moving forward with this post.

I was impressed with a number of points in this article because, as someone with a decent amount of readership who is in a relative position of authority, I get a lot of blowback. It's not something that surprises me, or even angers me at this point, because I was once one of these frustrated egoists. If I read an article about music that I disagreed with, I immediately wanted to tell my friends why the author didn't know anything. If there was a "top ten movies of the year" list in a magazine, I would scour the selections, secretly judging the critic's sense of taste by scoffing at what he or she thought "good" cinema was. But, of course, I was eighteen years old at the time. You'd hope most people would grow out of that phase as they got older—that desire to argue, point out mistakes, and be the real voice of authority—but many do not. The internet has only allowed that type of behavior to fester; especially since one can attack and remain anonymous while doing so.

Even though Eliot's article is about wine writing, you can easily replace the word "wine" with "whiskey" and the opinion would be just as accurate. I mean, this is just so utterly true about booze:

"there is a decidedly adversarial edge to so much wine writing these days. Somewhere along the line, an 'us versus them' mentality has insidiously worked its way into much of wine conversation, and generations seem to have been set against one and other."

There's an "adversarial edge" to alcohol appreciation, in my opinion, because we live in an age where no one wants to appear weak. No one wants to be the one asking a question. No one wants to be the guy who doesn't know about Bourbon. No one wants to admit that they're a novice—at anything! People want to talk, not listen. People want to tell, not be told. People want to educate, not be educated. Anyone who attempts to do otherwise will be called out or verbally abused. You think you know something? Well, you don't.

And, of course, wine appreciation is often seen as a very snooty thing. All that swirling, smelling, those ridiculous tasting notes, and the fancy food pairing. What a bunch of poseurs, right?

"David, I know what I like, and that's all I need to know!" someone emailed me randomly a while back.

That's great. For some people, knowing what they like is enough. But, as Eliot points out, knowing what you like and knowing about wine are two different things. Why serious wine or whiskey appreciation angers people is a multi-facted phenomenon. Some people get mad because they're insecure and they feel insignificant in the face of expertise. Other folks have a giant chip on their shoulder and are constantly looking to prove themselves. Whatever the reason, there is indeed a new tone in the modern era of alcohol appreciation and it's aggressively antagonistic.

My favorite line from Eliot was this one:

"I cannot feel but that the rush to 'demystify' wines and break down perceived snobbism has sadly tainted and unjustly devalued authentic expertise."

That's an interesting thought. When you taste wine and spirits every single day, year after year, you do indeed gain a certain level of insight. It would be sad if all that work didn't count for something.

-David Driscoll