Too Connected?

A few days ago a friend sent me an email saying that whiskey was getting to be like concert tickets (an analogy I've made before concerning price increases, but never availability), in that you can never get the seats you want before the scalpers buy them all up and sell them for triple the price. I thought about that for a few minutes and replied back in agreement. But then I thought about that a bit more.

My wife mentioned that The Breeders were playing at the Fillmore this week and that maybe we should go. I checked last minute -- sold out. That seemed rather crazy to me. I saw The Breeders numerous times back in the 1990s and never had any problems getting a ticket. In fact, often they were simply opening for another band, like Primus or Sonic Youth, and most people would be getting a drink while they played. Then I thought further about that. I really never had a problem getting a ticket for anything back in the 90s. I simply got to the Ticketmaster outlet early, waited in line, got my seats, and went about my day. Usually there wasn't much competition either because, without the internet, you had to be pretty devout to know the onsale dates.

Today is a different story, however. Today you've gotta get online, login, and press your mouse button quickly to snag seats for anything -- and that's just to get the seats that are left over after Amex Rewards members and corporate CEOs snag the first ten rows. But that's not really my issue. In the case of The Breeders, this was a general admission show in a fairly large venue. There should have been plenty of space, even last minute for this show. Yet the floor was completely sold out. Rock and roll music has always been popular and going to concerts isn't some fun new activity; however, I'm starting to feel as if more people are going to concerts than ever before. I'm feeling that way because shows that shouldn't be hard to get into are suddenly a major event (even for little independent acts at Bottom of the Hill, or Slim's).

This exact same phenomenon is happening with whiskey right now. Whiskies that were never popular before are suddenly becoming hot items. I remember wondering what to do with leftover bottles of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon five years ago. Now I'm getting ten emails a day asking about when we'll get this year's allocation. Why are people wondering about the OFBB? And why are The Breeders suddenly selling out concerts fifteen years after they were in their prime? The internet. There's nothing like instant information to help create a bigger demand.

It's no coincidence that my spike in Old Forester requests coincided with the release of several favorable blog reviews of this year's release. The internet's impact on whiskey's demand is completely correlated, just like the ease of Robert Parker's pointed reviews (pun intended) helped to increase the consumption of wine. After reading a positive review people suddenly want something they never knew they wanted before. Before whiskey blogs became a big deal the general public didn't really know specifically what they should be looking for. Now they do, which sucks for the people who genuinely want these things. Instead of being able to simply do what it is you've until now taken for granted, you're now being forced to compete with thousands of casual interests -- as in "I've never heard of the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon before, but now it sounds like I should get one."

I did a search for "The Breeders" and, of course, I found an article literally called "Go Do This" -- a San Francisco-centered site for people looking for something cool to do. Now it all made sense. What should we do tonight? We should see The Breeders! Apparently this is the cool thing to do in San Francisco, so we need to be there. What should we be drinking this week? What should we be wearing this summer? Where should we eat tomorrow? Look it up on the internet because there's an answer! This is the reason why you have to wait an hour to eat brunch at the most-reviewed Yelp cafes. This is the reason you can't get tickets to the Book of Mormon. This is the reason I couldn't go see The Breeders last week. And, yes, this is the reason you'll likely have a tough time getting a bottle of Birthday Bourbon from K&L this year.

The internet is telling people what to do and people are listening. Sure, we can get information with ease, but now that info is finding its way to a much larger audience. Facebooking, Tweeting, Instagraming, and blogging. We're all responsible for our own frustrations.

-David Driscoll


New K&L Exclusive Baraillon Armagnac

Another boat has just landed in Oakland and our latest container of Armagnac was on board. This time, we've got four new expressions from one of our most popular producers -- now with some more affordable options. We know that the 1985 Baraillon has been a huge hit with our customers, so it's time to dip into some of the younger expressions from the Claverie family.

Baraillon 10 Year Old K&L Exclusive  Armagnac $52.99After so much success with the older vintage Armagnacs from Domaine de Baraillon, we thought it was time to introduce you to their younger selections. This 10 year old marriage of brandies was created specifically for K&L and offers the richer, rounder mouthfeel, but without the big burst of caramel. It's more vinous, more oily, more earthy in style and rounder on the finish. Compared to our other selections this one is far more gentle. It's a great entry level foray into country Armagnac as it's entirely unpolished in style. This tastes like it was made on a farm in the middle of the country by a rustic family who might also have chickens and pigs. And guess what: it was!!

1998 Baraillon K&L Exclusive Folle Blanche Vintage Armagnac $69.99We've expanded our selection from one of our favorite Armagnac producers: Domaine de Baraillon. After the success of last year's 1985 vintage brandy, we wanted to introduce you to their younger Folle Blanche selections. This 15 year old Armagnac is distilled from 100% Folle Blanche and exhibits that same unctuous, rich, caramel-laden profile but with more spice and a dusty finish. It's a big time crowd-pleaser of an Armagnac, the kind of thing that will taste good to your great uncle Larry, but still scratch that spirits geek itch in the back of your throat. One heckuva deal as well since we brought it in directly.

1893 Baraillon K&L Exclusive Vintage Armagnac $2499.99 – What happened in 1893? The great northern railway connected Seattle with the East Coast. Grover Cleveland was inaugurated for his second term as U.S. president. The Ferris Wheel debuted at the World's Fair in Chicago. Dvoráks New World Symphony premiered at Carnegie Hall. And....the Claverie family distilled this Armagnac at their small farm in Gascony. Made from pre-phylloxera grapes, and distilled by Mr. Claverie's great-grandfather, the 1893 Armagnac from Chateau Baraillon is a family heirloom, a piece of 19th Century history, and one amazing bottle of brandy. Big spice, incredible richness, and lots of spice dominate the palate. The brandy is nuanced, powerful, and almost other-worldly. Maple syrup, exotic spices, lean on the finish and slightly oxidized, but in a good way. But, really, this isn't so much about the flavor, is it? This is a chance to say, "That '93 Armagnac was pretty incredible. Oh....I meant 1893, by the way, not 1993."

1933 Baraillon K&L Exclusive Vintage Armagnac $799.99What happened in 1933? Construction began on the Golden Gate bridge. The United States voted to give the Philippines its independence. Hitler was in charge of Germany. FDR introduced his New Deal. And....the Claverie family distilled this batch of Armagnac at their small farm in Gascony and there it sat until we had it bottled for K&L 80 years later. The 1933 Baraillon has a fragrant nose of spicy ginger with loads of oak barrel accents. The flavors are alive and full of fruit, brimming with wood spices and even a bit of pine or cedar. The finish is almost like sandelwood or incense. This is a historic brandy, incredibily limited, and only available at K&L!

One of my favorite things about the Baraillon Armagnacs is that they taste a little farmy. They're rustic and unpolished, despite their supple richness. But that's authenticity because look at the above picture -- this is the guy who made your brandy, Mr. Claverie. He took off his hat to come taste us on some new expressions, but after we left he went right back out to the barn.

-David Driscoll


Understanding Vodka – Part V: Summation

What have I learned after a week of drinking nothing but vodka?

I've learned that, despite the fact that we're distilling alcohol until it is neutral, vodka is not a neutral spirit. In a blind tasting, vodkas can be differentiated from one another based on flavor and texture.

I've learned that, despite the fact that vodka can be made from nearly anything today (quinoa, grapes, even whey), I found the traditional rye, wheat, and potato-based vodkas to be the most pleasurable. While I don't think I would be able to identify the characteristics of each one blindly (or even knowingly), it's just the way it turned out.

Speaking of base materials, I'm not sure that I now agree with a commonly-held assumption in the liquor world that potato vodkas are creamier and have a more supple mouthfeel. The two roundest vodkas I tasted this week were the Absolut Elyx and the Jewel of Russia vodkas. Both are distilled from wheat. Even the Russian Standard (wheat and ginseng) was rounder on the palate than the Corbin Sweet Potato vodka or the Chopin Potato vodka. Based on everything I tasted this week, wheat vodkas seemed to be the creamiest.

I've learned that when you remove almost all flavor from alcohol, you're left with the purest form of alcohol appreciation. While many people decry the absence of flavor in vodka (usually saying something like "I want to taste my alcohol"), I'm not sure you can get a more alcohol-y flavor that straight vodka. When you drink gin you're not "tasting alcohol" you're tasting herbs and spices that have been macerated in vodka. When you drink whiskey you're not tasting the alcohol as much as you're tasting the wood. Vodka appreciation is alcohol appreciation in its truest, purest, least-pretentious form. Much like vodka itself, one's enjoyment of booze gets distilled until everything becomes clear and pure and there's nowhere to hide. Vodka is about drinking. Good vodka is about enjoying each sip. I've never been more sure of how much I like to drink as I have been while drinking vodka.

I've also learned that agriculture plays a big role in my perception of vodka. I'm not simply interested in the best tasting vodka, but rather the most traditional. I appreciate the process and the story. I appreciate the idea of vodka as a way to make use of extra grain and I like the idea of "farm vodka."

So which vodkas were my favorites? That's tough to say outright, but I think I could categorize them:

Easiest vodka to recognize quality in: Absolut Elyx. My wife and I both picked this out of a blind tasting. It tastes expensive. It also is more expensive than any vodka I tasted this week.

Best bang for your buck: Belvedere. The Polish juggernaut was one of the first "premium" vodkas on the market and it continues to be a hot deal for the quality. I'm going to get the price down to $22 next week. For that price you can get two bottles for the price of one Elyx. All rye-based, if you're pulling bottles from the freezer this really hits the spot.

Creamiest vodka: I know that some people are mainly interested in the "smoothest" spirits. Jewel of Russia is definitely the smoothest vodka I've tasted.

Best Artisanal Vodka: Potocki Polish vodka. Also rye-based, you'll pay a little more for the bottle, but the quality is there. A bit lighter and leaner on the palate, almost watery, but in a good way.

Vodka that's too cheap to be good?: Greek Mark. It's really, really good vodka and it's $12. You can taste the difference if you do a side-by-side comparison with more expensive brands, but how many of us are going to do that?

Best Russian vodka that's not Russian: If you're feeling political right now, there's a great vodka we just started carrying called Real Russian vodka which is made by a Russian guy who lives in Chicago from midwestern wheat. It's $18 and we're the only store in CA to have it. It has that same wheat texture that some of the "real" Russian vodkas had.

Personal Favorite: I can't really explain why, but I'm really feeling the Russian Standard Gold right now. It's round and slightly herbaceous. I've got it in the freezer and I had two glasses last night before bed. Yum.

-David Driscoll


More Letters From the Mailbox

David -- You used to get larger allocations of American whiskies in the past, but lately I've noticed that all limited edition items are being raffled to your insider whiskey email list. Is it just that demand has increased for these products, or are you getting fewer bottles? If you are getting fewer, is that because you're not buying as much from these companies as you once were?

Wow! Not only are those are great questions, they're great questions that I would love to answer in a very public sphere so that others can understand the situation that's going on. It is definitely the case that we're getting smaller limited edition whiskey allocations than we were in the past, yet ironically enough we're probably buying more from Sazerac, Heaven Hill, and other companies than ever in our company's history. The problem isn't that we're doing less business. Here is the problem and it's a multi-faceted one:

1) There is the exact same amount of extra-mature, limited edition whiskey this year (i.e. Pappy, Stagg) as there was last year, despite the fact that demand for these whiskies is higher than it's ever been. The available stock of items like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Pappy Van Winkle, and Parker's Heritage is based on production forecasts from the late 1990s. For example, the available amount of Pappy 15 year is based on whatever Buffalo Trace decided to put aside in 1998 -- and, believe me, Bourbon wasn't that big of a deal back in 1998. Production didn't increase until sales began increasing and that was around 2007 -- meaning we won't see an increase in 10 year old stocks until 2017, and 15 year old stocks until 2022.

2) Since the consumer interest in whiskey has spiked dramatically over the past few years there have been a number of new accounts opened across California -- bars, restaurants, and retailers -- that are catering to this new whiskey-loving consumer.

3) The numerous accounts that already existed, but were never serious customers -- bars, restaurants, and retailers -- have also decided that, even though they were never interested in high-end whiskey before, they're now interested as well. Their customers have been asking for new, exciting whiskies and they now want to cater to these customers.

4) If you're the Sazerac rep in charge of California allocations, you've got the exact same amount of Pappy as you had last year. Let's say it's 500 bottles of each expression. Whereas seven years ago maybe only thirty accounts wanted in on those 500 bottles, now you've got more than 1,000 calling you for their cut. I talked to one of my reps the other day who told he doesn't even have enough product to cover the Bay Area's demand, let alone all the new growth in Sacramento and the Central Valley.

5) With all of the new bars, restaurants, and retailers interested in their share of limited whiskey allocations, it's drastically cut into the amount of whiskey that we get.

Were you interested in the Elijah Craig Barrel Strength whiskey? Well I only got three bottles and they're gone. THREE bottles. Were you interested in one of the new St. George Single Malt Lot 13 whiskies? I only got twelve bottles total. I've had more than 100 people call me about this whiskey in the last 24 hours.

Like the reps that work for these companies, I'm being forced to deal with smaller allocations of limited edition whiskies for a larger number of interested customers. Like the reps that have to decide who gets to have Pappy and who doesn't, I have to decide which of our customers get Pappy and which do not. If we simply release these whiskies on a first-come, first-served basis then we risk selling off our most-prized possessions to customers who might simply be cherry-picking and flipping. If we release the bottles on the internet during the day, then we unfairly penalize the guys who don't work at a computer. If we release the bottles in-store only, then we penalize the guys who don't live locally. No matter what we do, we're always upsetting someone.

It's no fun, believe me. With demand where it is right now, and supply getting tighter, I've never witnessed so much hysteria around the spirits department. And, yes, it is getting worse.

-David Driscoll


Understanding Vodka – Part IV: American "Craft"

In 2006, when the new "premium" vodka craze was in full swing, the Wall Street Journal released an article titled "The Emperor's New Vodka," a rather sarcastic swipe at the idea of vodka being a luxury good. This was right at the beginning of the pre-prohibition cocktail movement (you can tell because the author uses the term, "alcohol delivery device," which was very popular among anti-vodka folks back then) and author Eric Felton began that piece with a rather haughty statement, ripe with pedantic architecture references:

I'm not surprised by the growth of vodka in general -- as an alcohol delivery device in mixed drinks, it has the advantage of a relative absence of flavor. But I find myself puzzled as to why vodka has become a luxury good -- puzzled in the same way Tom Wolfe was by the tyranny of Bauhaus architecture in the 1960s. Like a Mies van der Rohe glass box, vodka is austere and unornamented. Mr. Wolfe scratched his head at how "Mies pitches worker housing up thirty-eight stories, and capitalists use it as corporate headquarters." And now the socialist worker's tipple has been pitched up to $38 a bottle and capitalists use it as a marker of status.

Ah yes, we all remember Tom Wolfe's famous Bauhaus statements. In fact, I was just talking to my good friend Thomas Pynchon about this the other day. We talk on the phone every now and again, it's no big deal, and this subject usually comes up. All kidding aside, this type of mockery was, and still is, commonplace for those who consider themselves cultured cocktailians. What the article does rightfully mock, however, is the fact that most "artisanal" vodka producers are really just fancy rectifiers. They're not farmers utilizing left over grains, they're not creating an old recipe passed down from previous generations, they're not practicing a cultural tradition, and they're definitely not bringing anything new to the party. So why the designer price tag? Because some brand passes their market-purchased grain neutral spirit through a pot still a few times? Felton definitely makes his point here.

Why do microdistilleries buy GNS and then rectify it? It's cheap! As Felton writes:

The distillation of nearly pure alcohol is a task best-suited to industrial stills, which use tall columns that repeatedly vaporize and condense the spirit in a continuous process of "rectification." Prof. Kris Berglund runs a craft distilling program at Michigan State University. "While it is possible to produce vodka using a still," he writes in his textbook, Artisan Distilling, "it requires repeated redistillation that is both expensive and inefficient with low yield."

This explains why most distilleries don't ferment their own grain and distill their own base material. Yet, if it's cheaper to contract and there's no real difference between market-bought agricultural spirit and your own home-grown moonshine, then why do it? I doubt that Russian Standard and Absolut are in it for the street cred. These businesses are run by capitalists, so they're definitely looking for the cheapest possible way to create their products while maintaining quality. So why do it that way? Why spend money on a farm? Why source everything locally? Why pay for better water? Why even try to communicate that story?

If all grain alcohol is of the same quality then why do some taste like battery acid and some taste clean as water? Why do cheap grain spirits leave my head pounding the following morning, while today I woke up fresh as a daisy and was able to run five miles despite the fact that I was taking "premium" vodka shots long into the previous evening? There is a difference between clean, pure, delicious vodka without congeners and cheap slop, in my opinion. Let's keep going! Why do we distill anything to begin with? Why are there even distilled spirits? Because we like to get drunk, that's why. Why distill vodka from grain? Because farmers couldn't always eat everything they grew. It would go to waste if they didn't find some way of preserving it. What better way to utilize that extra grain than by distilling alcohol? While Felton claims that pot stills are sexy and that a cool back story is even sexier, I'd say the sexiest part of the vodka story for me is the agriculture.

Where is the sexier destination for your money? To a microdistillery that had nothing to do with the first 80% of the vodka-distillation process, or to the actual farmer? I'll let you in on the sexiest, most-romantic, "craft" vodka story I've yet to find with the quality to back it up.

Behold. Sweet potatoes of the California central valley. For one hundred years the Souza family has owned farmland near Atwater – not far from where I grew up in Modesto (we played Atwater High School in all sports). When David Souza took over the reigns of his family's sweet potato business he found himself facing a situation that many farmers throughout history have faced: what should we do with these extra potatoes? How can we make something different and expand upon what we already do? Distillation, baby. After nearly a decade of experimenting with different distillation techniques and various recipes of potato mash (pardon the pun), Corbin Sweet Potato Vodka was finally born.

I haven't had the chance to meet Mr. Souza or visit the distillery, but we have exchanged a few emails. We're one of a handful of retailers who carry the product right now, so he was happy to oblige all of my questions.

How much land is currently devoted to sweet potatoes? How much of that goes into the Corbin vodka?

We have 1000 acres devoted to sweet potatoes, 300 acres devoted to rye which will be the source of one of our whiskeys coming out, as well as 700 acres of almonds. Currently at our start up size we are only using 2-3% of sweet potato production for vodka.

Fermentation tanks at the Souza distilleryWhat can you tell me about fermentation?

We start by grinding the potatoes and cooking them into a sweet potato soup consistency. We use a blend of commercial enzymes to convert starches instead of malt. This way our product is 100% sweet potato based and gluten free. Fermentation times range 5-7 days depending on size of the batch, temperature, and the yeast used. Our wort is an ABV average of 7.5% We have an Arnold Holstein Still with a total of 17 distillation plates. We do one pass through the rectifier and our filtration process averages five days.

Water is very important to the flavor of the vodka. Where do you get your water from?

All the water we use comes from the same source. A 300 foot natural spring located on the farm. We do add a percentage of natural spring water into the pot before rectification. Also, all our mash waste and excess water is recycled as cattle feed for a neighboring dairy, or reused in our fields as fertilizer and dust control.

And there you have it! A tale as old as distillation. A farmer who uses excess agricultural product to create a little bit of joy for himself and anyone else looking to buy a bottle. The Souza farm is sustainable and every step of the process is estate controlled. But how does the vodka taste? Clean, fresh, round, and pure – it's definitely on the same qualitative level as the Eastern European products I've been tasting all week.

Felton's WSJ article summarizes the "craft" vodka movement in a manner that might sound familiar to K&L spirit blog readers:

There are plenty of spirits that microdistillers can -- and do -- focus on that mirror the craft-brewers' quest for rich flavor and entertaining variety. Fruit brandy can be made beautifully in pot stills using local cherries, pears, apples or other fruit. And microdistillers have a distinct advantage in producing flavored vodkas: They can steep fresh, ripe and rare fruits in the neutral spirit, while the taste of many mass-market flavored vodkas smacks of industrial additives. But when it comes to straight vodka, there isn't much point.

There's no point in microdistilling vodka because making smaller batches of vodka won't improve on what the big guys can already do? NO SHIT!? It sounds like "craft" whiskey and "craft" vodka are in the same boat. But there's a difference between charging someone thirty bucks for some GNS you bought and rectified and charging someone thirty bucks for your family's sweet potato harvest that you distilled from scratch. Selling someone GNS-rectified "craft" vodka is like telling someone you're an Italian chef and then cooking them dried pasta out of a box with tomato sauce from a jar. Sure, you can put your little spin on it, add some fresh vegetables or cheese, but you're really just polishing up someone else's foundation. If you can make the pasta from scratch using tomatoes from your own garden for the sauce, it's much more impressive.

Does it always taste better to do it from scratch? Not always, and that's my problem with "craft" spirits as a whole. It's not always the better way of doing things. Sometimes I'd rather just eat the box of pasta. However, with the Corbin Sweet Potato Vodka, the quality is there and that's what's important. Quality comes first, then we can focus on the romantic story.

David Souza made his vodka from scratch. And it does taste better, so I'm willing to buy into that. Like a Mies van der Rohe glass box, both the Corbin vodka and the Souza story itself are simple and clear, yet the beauty is in the details.

-David Driscoll