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Tuesday
Jun182013

Mexico: Day 2 - Vamos a Ver

It's a little overcast this morning in Guadalajara City. We might get some showers in the afternoon, but we're hoping the mid-day holds for some sunshine in the agave fields. The temperture is about 90 degrees during the day, which wouldn't be all that bad if the rain didn't bring the humidity level up with it. I went for a walk yesterday evening through town into one of the local shopping centers and I think most of what I drank came right out of my pores.

At dinner last night, Juan and I connected over our love for the food of a grandparent. It's the idea of someone understanding a process as it was handed down to them, without needing to read a recipe or take any formal training. They can simply put their soul into the cuisine, rather than their science. We both agreed that if we had to choose between eating at a restaurant with formally-trained chef and eating at the house of an old Mexican woman, we would choose the viejita every time. 

In a sense, this is the same principle that Juan Núñez values in his tequila – the fact that they make it the way they do because it's the way they've always done it for more than three quarters of a century. After the sale of the old El Viejito distillery to Patrón, workers for the tequila giant would come by their new facility to watch how they made the tequila. They wanted to make sure they could mimic the flavor on their own, without the help of the Núñez family. They would ask questions, "Why do you cut the agave like that?" Because that's the way we've always done it, Juan would answer. 

There are obviously scientific explanations as to why certain chemical processes take place and make the tequila taste the way it does. The Núñez family, however, isn't really sure of what they are, nor do they really care. They know their way of making tequila works, just like my mom's grandmother knew how to make bread. You knead it this many times, add a pinch of this or than, feel the dough, you'll know when it's done. It's that experience that most often makes for good cooking in my opinion, not a recipe or a modern scientific update. More importantly, it's not as easy as simply following a few steps. Some people seem to have more of a knack for it than others.

Off to the distillery in a few minutes! More later.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Jun172013

Mexico: Day 1 - Guadalajara

I'm standing at the gate about two minutes before the airplane doors are going to close, searching the terminal walkways for Lou Palatella. There was a line from hell at security this morning, so backed up and slow moving that even the hour-plus leeway we gave ourselves was meaningless. Luckily, just after the attendents told me they couldn't wait any longer, I see a pastel pink polo shirt on a lineman's figure working its way down the escalator. It's Lou. We were going to make our flight.

Four hours later we landed in Guadalajara City where we were met by Juan Núñez, the gerente general of El Viejito distillery, the home of Campeón tequila. He and his co-worker Pancho had a car waiting outfront where they would be whisking us away to a downtown lunch. I couldn't wait having only nibbled on some crackers with hummus all morning. We pulled into an upscale, yet traditional Mexican restaurant with a tequila collection that featured hundreds of different selections.

There were all kinds of crazy bottles on the shelves. Old school Don Julio botellas, a vintage label called Tequila Marijuana, adorned with a Farrah Fawcett-looking, feathered-hair belle from the 1970s. The four of us perused the cornucopia of booze before sitting down for lunch.

The most important bottle, however, was Juan's El Viejito blanco tequila, a botella we had brought to the table for our enjoyment. I had it neat and also with Squirt. Lou poured his on the rocks. Pancho shot it straight. Juan actually mixed it with ice and water. Tequila is such a versatile drink with so many different ways to enjoy its flavor, as was evident after we all chose completely different methods of imbibing. After a fifteen minute drive where Juan, Lou, and I shared our passionate views for the spirit, we were ready to finally drink some actual tequila.

The original El Viejito distillery was founded by Indalecio Núñez in 1937 in Atotonlico, located in the highlands of Jalisco known for having the best land, climate, and altitude for growing quality agave. It has remained a family-operated affair since that time. However, after Patrón ended its relationship with Siete Leguas distillery the tequila giant needed a source for its spirit – fast. That's when Juan and his father entered into a contract with the company and began distilling Patrón at their El Viejito site. Having been burned in the past by an ever-increasing contract price for its tequila, Patrón wasn't eager to repeat past difficulties. After deciding it was happy at its new home in Atotonilco, the company made a bid to buy the distillery from the Núñez family – a deal Juan and his father were all too happy to make since they had already begun discussions on a new facility. Patrón would take the old El Viejito, while the Núñez family would build another.

However, seeing that I'm spending all day at the distillery tomorrow, we can cover all those basics in a later post. What I found most endearing at lunch time was Juan's passion for quality, unadulterated tequila with no additives or artifical coloring. He got super pissed at one point when we were talking about a competitor that doctored their tequila to increase sales. Whether or not Juan was putting on a show, I was impressed. I think he was relieved that I cared.

And I really liked the El Viejito's rustic nature. It's old school tequila in an old school package. And it went particularly well with a dish I had been dying to try for years, especially after two failed trips to Oaxaca: Tacos de Chapulines. Yes, you translated that correctly, that would be grasshopper tacos.

Earthy. Tangy. Absolutely stunning when paired along side the tequila. 

Lou about fell over watching me eat it. "You're actually eating it!" he screamed with glee.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Jun162013

A Tequila Adventure

This is a photo of the 1955 San Francisco Forty-Niners. 1955 was the first year that a young guard out of Pittsburgh protected a future-hall-of-fame quarterback named Y.A. Tittle. That rookie lineman's name was Louis Palatella. Or Lou for short.

Lou Palatella played four seasons for the 49ers before his football career came to an end. What was a young, tough, charismatic athlete supposed to do after the gridiron? 

Liquor. 

Lou Palatella is a 79 year old booze legend in the Bay Area. He's even more beloved as an industry veteran than as a former 49er. A few years back Lou thought he would ride that booze horse into the sunset with his own tequila brand – Campeón. However, Lou's old-school, brand-focused ways of doing things weren't adapted to thrive in the new world of "craft," artisan spirits. He was doing alright with the brand, but definitely wanted some help with the boutique market.

Unlike most brand owners I know in the tequila industry, however, Lou actually wanted to embrace the authentic side of his spirit. Lou himself is one of the most authentic spirits I know! I told him I was interested in doing some research on the tequila distilleries of Mexico and that, if he wanted, I would buy a ticket and fly down with him the next time he planned on traveling to Jalisco. That way I could document the NOM 1107 El Viejito distillery and do some research on the highlands, while perhaps giving Lou an opinion of what might help the brand.

It would be an adventure to say the least. Me, a 79-year-old ex-49er, and an overnight bag on the 6 AM out of SFO to Jalisco. Two nights. Guadalajara City. 

I was up for it. Lou said he was going to visit the distillery on Monday, June 17th. I took a few days off and booked myself onto his flight. 

Let's see what happens.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Jun152013

Drinking to Drink - Part IV

When I was in college I studied film. I wanted to be a director. I loved movies and I loved making video projects with friends. Hence, why not turn that hobby into a career?

Like many kids from my generation, however, I thought that getting into a good school with a good film program was all I had to do. Many of my friends thought that getting into Stanford or UC Berkeley was the prize and that a great life with a rewarding career would simply follow. We didn't realize that these fine institutions would not provide us with the answer to life, but merely help us learn how to help ourselves. Therefore, when I began my film training I learned how to use a camera. I learned how to record audio. I learned how to edit digitally. I learned how to make a movie, but it was my job to come up with the idea for one. Oh.....you mean I have to do that on my own? It turns out that being an art major doesn't necessarily make you an artist.

I've never really been the best at anything I've done in my life. I was always good at sports, but never a star. I was always good at making quirky videos, but I lacked the patience and the perseverance to perfect them. Like other kids I knew, I tried to make up for that lack of effort or talent with better equipment. I always had a great aluminum bat and a top-of-the-line catchers mitt. I had the latest Apple computers with the best copies of Final Cut Pro. I had the means to afford the best tools and the finest teachers, but those things can only take you so far. It's never the guys like me who achieve greatness. The best kid on the little league team was always the scrappy kid with the beat-up glove who was good because he lived to play ball. The best movies in my film class were always made by the quiet kid who had to borrow equipment from friends.

Having the best possible equipment doesn't mean you understand how to use it. There I was, nineteen years old, loaded up with a couple grand worth of editing software, when I probably only needed a cheap DV camera and a stripped down version of iMovie to make the films I was making. Whereas some kids knew how to do special effects and computer animation with Adobe Illustrator that took hours, if not days of extra work, I just wanted to point and shoot. Speaking of cameras: how many people out there actually know how to use every function of their Canon T2i Rebel SLR camera? Yet, you see guys everywhere with fancy lenses and heavy equipment bags. How many people are actually out there, scaling a mountain with their Asolo hiking boots and North Face outdoor apparel? While we like to think that the best equipment makes the for the best experience, it's no good to you if you don't know what to do with it.

More so than any of the analogies above, wine may be the absolute best example of a type of "equipment" where people pay in excess for qualities they don't understand, need, or appreciate. I spend most of my time talking people out of bottles rather than into them. You don't want that 1988 Lynch Bages, trust me. But I want to spend $100 on something nice! What do you think nice tastes like? Smooth, rich, and fruity, right? That's not what the 1988 Lynch Bages tastes like. Then why would it be so expensive? We all know that society equates quality with expense, even if it's often undeserved. With wine there's the added caveat that older is also better. This isn't always true, however. Older is simply different. The older a wine gets, the more its flavors change, but not necessarily in a way that's favorable to a large majority of the public. Old wine is an acquired taste. It can be appreciated only after experience. You're not going to drop a hundred bucks on an old Bordeaux and instantly love it. I know this because many people bring back these bottles thinking there's something wrong with the wine.

Although I find that older whiskies tend to be more impressive, even for the beginning drinker, there are plenty of odd, esoteric, and subtlely flavored spirits that don't necessarily speak to the average aficionado. You might think that spending $100 is the only way to drink good whiskey, but you'll only know that if you've already spent $20, $40, $60, and $80 first. You'll only need the Canon T2i if you're finding that the Powershot S90 doesn't do everything you want it to do. Do you really need the manual focus, added depth of field, and the versatility of wide-angle versus portrait lenses, or does it just make you feel like a pro knowing you have them?

In the end, unless you do everything in life completely alone, there's no hiding a lack of experience. At the end of the semester we all had to screen our films at the university theater. It was clear who had talent and who didn't. If the students that made terrible films did so with the finest possible equipment, the irony of that failure made it twice as embarrassing. But that wouldn't be the only time I experienced something like that in my life. If you head out to the golf course with the most expensive clubs available, then double bogey every hole that afternoon, expect a lot of snickering behind your back when you're not looking. If you've got a garage full of the priciest tools, but your kid's treehouse looks like a condemned construction site, don't be surprised if your craftsmanship becomes a practical joke around the office.

On the same page, if your bar is only full of prestige bottles, but you chose the Glenlivet 12 as the best malt in a blind tasting, what does that say about your palate? It doesn't necessarily say that you don't appreciate fine whisky, but it may mean that you're spending far too much.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Jun142013

New K&L Single Barrel Bourbon!

Our Weller barrel from earlier this week sold out so fast I didn't even have time to post it on the blog! That's because it's Weller though, so it's to be expected. This, on the other, has got to be one of the goofiest bottles of all time. A piece of felt with some construction paper glued on – hey, wait a minute? Am I dreaming? Am I back teaching elementary school again?

Oh...no, it's just the crazy-looking Henry McKenna Bottled In Bond label. Despite its odd exterior, this is one of the best single barrel Bourbons I've ever tasted from Heaven Hill. It's absolutely glorious.

David OG is on a roll lately. I don’t know if it’s his amazing palate or that fact that he just gets better samples than I do (probably the former), but he’s been digging up some gems lately. I’ve been sending most of my Kentucky barrel samples back from where they came. David, on the other hand, has been delivering cask after cask. First the Weller from earlier this week, now this guy. Single barrel selections are one of the only ways we can offer our customers fun, unique, and exciting selections of American whiskey right now. There’s nothing more fun than finding that inexpensive overachiever, bottling it up, and watching it fly.

Henry Mckenna 10 Year Old K&L Exclusive Single Barrel #982 BIB Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey $26.99 - Mckenna is one of the most underappreciated brands on the market today. Essentially, this is Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams recipe bottled in bond and aged a minimum of 10 years. Ours was barreled in October of 2002 and bottled earlier this year. We got incredibly lucky with this little single barrel. It stood out of the crowd from many samples we'd tasted over the last few months. Here we have the typical Heaven Hill spicy oak nose, soft citrus peel, . There's this fresh vanilla bean character that seems almost unreal. The powerful spice is accented by subtle floral aromas, but it does not seem perfumy, just as if you've walked by an incredible wild rose bush. The palate goes in the exact opposite direction. Instead of being astringent or overly spiced, we get tons of sweet candied fruit (cherries especially). The baking spices come back on the end and coat all that cherry in a dark spicy cocoa. What a spectacular find! Remember if you're reading this now, so are THOUSANDS of other people. We only got 16 cases of this whiskey and it will undoubtedly be sold out in a matter of days if not hours. (David OG)

Since this came out of the SoCal distribution, I just finally got my hands on a bottle today. It’s no joke. Seriously good Bourbon that you can sip neat. This isn’t a mixer, this is rich, textural, nuanced, spicy, dark-fruited whiskey for a hot price. I’m going to stash a few away since I’m into value whiskey right now. If you thought the Weller barrel was good, this will outshine it - guaranteed.

-David Driscoll