Happy Birthday JCVD

Happy birthday to my all-time hero, Jean-Claude Van Damme! Today is a day for celebration! Which film to watch tonight? 

-David Driscoll


For Goodness Sake

There are some things at K&L that we simply struggle with; ice, cold bottles of wine, mixers, tonic water and soda would all be good examples. Sake would be another one. We've never really been up to par with our sake selection here; settling for just a few bottles pushed back into the corner to suffice the occasional request. None of us on the sales floor knew much about the stock, and most of the time we had no idea what our inventory actually consisted of. I figured we could change all this with a few easy phone calls, so I put in a request to have Tamiko Ishidatethe sake expert for the Estate's Groupcome by the store and train the staff. We all gathered a glass, some pens and paper, and settled in for a hands-on tutorial. With all the interest in Japanese culture, whisky, and food we have bubbling here on the Peninsula, the potential of a great sake selection could really bring in a new crowd of enthusiasts here at K&L. Plus, it's our duty to know about these things (and be excited about them!).

The first thing that had to change was the location. We had all the bottles with the mixers back by the glassware, but I have since merged them into the Japanese whisky shelf, so now everything to do with Japan at K&L is all in one area. Second, was a formal education. We all know that sake is made from fermented rice, but what else do we know beyond that? There are two main families of sake: the Junmai designation, meaning that no additional neutral spirit has been added to the sake (just the alcohol from fermentation), and those sakes that have been fortified with a sugar-based alcohol. From that point it becomes about the milling of the rice; how much of the outer layer (the part with the fat and the protein) has been whittled away to get to the starch in the center. Daiginjo sakes, for example, have at least 50% of the outer layer removed. Then you've got the type of rice, where it's from, and all the regional stuff. But, as Tamiko told us, sake (like whisky) is much more about the decisions and craftsmanship of the brewer than it is about the inherent flavor of the rice itself. Like "Highland" single malt, there may be some regional character to sake, but not necessarily. I'm sure we'll learn more as we go.

So what did we taste, and what do we have currently at K&L? Here's the lineup:

Tozai "Typhoon" Futsu Sake 720ml $9.99 - This is a surprisingly delicious considering the bargain basement price. Soft, crisp flavors of citrus with refreshing acidity, the Typhoon could easily be thrown into a white wine tasting as a dynamic substitute. For the price, it also makes a fantastic mixer into specialty cocktails. Try it instead of dry vermouth in a martini, or use it in a Corpse Reviver instead of Lillet. Again, for the money, it's a fantastic beginner's bottle that brings clean, authentic sake character for a bargain.

Dewatsuru Kimoto Junmai Sake $29.99 - The Dewatsuru is completely different than any of the other sakes we tasted and it uses the "kimoto" process which involves creating a starter that ultimately produces a natural lactic acid (rather than simply adding it to the fermentation), resulting in a more powerful flavor. In this case, the earthy aromas are more pungent and there's a mushroomy flavor on the palate. The mouthfeel is also richer, more supple, and creamier. It's very distinctive and wonderfully balanced.

Kanbara "Bride of the Fox" Junmai Ginjo Sake $32.99 -Polished to 50%, this Junmai Ginjo is made by Kaetsu Shuzo, who uses rice grown on the high plains and pure mountain water of the Niigata Prefecture to brew superior sake, both rich in aroma and clean in taste. There's a bouquet of ripe tropical fruit on the nose that slowly blossoms into a nutty, umami note on the finish. Tamiko noted that the removal of 50% of the outer rice layer allows the yeast to interact more potently with the starch; without the fats and proteins. This could be why the fruit flavors created by the yeast are so much more explosive. Lovely stuff!

Seikyo "Omachi" Junmai Ginjo Sake $29.99 - Here we have a sake where the type of rice is very important. made from 100% Omachi rice, a super premium rice source more than 150 years old that is harvested in very limited amounts. It is polished up to 55%. This was the most elegant sake we tasted today; very clean, graceful, balanced, and refined. There are crisp melon flavors and just a bit of sweetness on the finish. Made in Hiroshima, Tamiko noted that the regional cuisine tends to be just a bit sweeter than the rest of Japan; hence the bit of residual sugar. Made to pair with the food! Just like the regional wines of Europe.

Konteki "Tears of Dawn" Daiginjo Sake $38.99 -From one of Japan's smallest breweries, this Daiginjo is made with Japan's highest quality rice and local Fushimi mizu, the soft, pure water from Japan's Eastern Mountains. The palate is a bit riper and (Bourbon fans will know about this) there's a bit of banana flavor from the yeast strain used. Very soft and silky. High quality stuff.

Ginga Shizuku "Divine Droplets" Junmai Daiginjo Sake $64.99 - This was the most expensive sake we tasted and for good reason: it's actually drip-pressed (the shizuku process) in an ice igloo (which you can see in the above photo) which is rebuilt every year outside the main brewery in Hokkaido. It's too cold to grow the rice on Japan's northern island, so the grain is shipped in. The process, however, could only take place there with the freezing temperatures. The sake is hung in mesh bags and the droplets that fall to the ground are collected and bottled. Simply amazing. Sake of the highest quality!

Chokaisan Junmai Daiginjo Sake $49.99 -This is one of the best sakes we carry at K&L--period. I would bring this bottle to a dinner party and just drink it like a bottle of white wine or rose. We need to get out of the habit where we only drink sake when we eat Japanese food. This is the bottle that should prove to serious wine drinkers that sake can easily hang with a great Sancerre or an Alsatian pinot gris. Crisp, vibrant fruit on the entry with hints of pear on the finish. Made with a unique yeast derived from flowers, the sake is one of the most aromatic and delicious we carry, as well as one of the most special.

Yuki No Bosha "Cabin in the Snow" Junmai Ginjo Nigori Sake $18.99- This is a "nigori" sake meaning that the spent lees cells (the leftover yeast components) are left in the wine (like many fine Champagnes) to create a richer, fuller, milkier sake. The flavors are still classic with notes of coconut water and sweet rice, balanced by crisp fruit and acidity. Super fun. These are in 300ml bottles.

Dewatsuru Sakura Emaki Rose Futsuushu Sake $19.99 -The Sakura Emaki is made from the ancient purple rices known as Asamurasaki and Okunomurasaki, two varieties long thought lost.  During an excavation of an ancient fort these grains were rediscovered.  The Ministry of Agriculture petitioned Akita Seishu brewery (home of Dewatsuru) to develop a sake utilizing these heirloom grains and the Sakura Emaki was born.  Deriving its pinkish hue from the grain (which is a deep purple) this has much in common with the wine-based rosés.  The flavor profile is strawberries, watermelon and cherry blossoms.  So unique and so beautiful. You could easily substitute this for a Bandol or Tavel rose at your next wine party.

Tamiko had a map with her that showed the origins of each sake, but I'll have to invest in a better copy and maybe a few books if I'm going to really get up to speed.

In the meantime, I think we need to schedule an in-store tasting and do some events. Sake is so much fun and so versatile, not to mention the shochus I tasted but haven't found time to write up yet. In any case, expect more from this department. There's a lot of room to grow here.

-David Driscoll


The Lost Blend

This might be a moot point for the K&L shoppers as we're already sold out, but for those of you who managed to snag a bottle from us (or those looking elsewhere), the Lost Blend is another John Glaser knockout that is not to be missed. However, if you want mature age statements, cask strength proof, or single barrel ruggedness, then the Compass Box special edition is not for you. If you want single malt purity, breakdowns with percentages, and statistical data that help form analytical conclusions, then the Lost Blend is a whisky you'll want to avoid. This isn't a whisky that wows you with specs. It's simply a $105 bottle of blended malt that showcases John's masterful touch marrying three simple ingredients: Clynelish, Caol Ila, and Allt-A-Bhainne. Those of you who have tasted previous expressions of the Flaming Heart know how magical the combination of Clynelish and Caol Ila can be. This is yet another Compass Box expression in that vein.

Waxy Clynelish. Waxy, creamy, oily, heathery Clynelish. It's right there on the entry and it's all over the nose. Aromas of sweet barley with faint vanilla. The smoky Caol Ila and fruity Allt-a-Bhainne are not as prevalent. They're mostly there as ballast pointsthe faint ashy elements trailing on the finish and a fat-fruited suppleness to kiss you good night. Once again, John Glaser has created a tribute to his favorite distillery; using various supporting actors to further shine the spotlight on his leading ladythe lovely, graceful, and ethereal Clynelish.

Every sip is soft and light as a feather, so those in seek of power and pizzazz should again look elsewhere. There is no splash of spice, no opulent sherry, and no alcoholic accent to highlight the experience. It's just a blended dream of a whisky. As I grow older (and hopefully wiser), however, this is the type of whisky I want to come home to. It's the type of whisky that warms your insidesboth literally and figuratively. I can't wait to drink this on a cold winter evening. 

I want to get lost in this bottle.

-David Driscoll


New (and some old) Goodies From Pac-Edge

My old buddy Rich from Pacific Edgethe Springbank of distributors (hence, why he's the importer and distributor for Springbankboth are independents going up against huge corporate giants)stopped by last week to have lunch and remind me about all the new stuff he had coming in that week. I was super pumped about it. All that new stuff has now been delivered to us this week. Check out all this new booty! Plus, some old faces returning in new packages.

(I would have taken photos of all this stuff, but it's selling so fast there's no time!)

Willett 7 Year Old Single Barrel Rye Whiskey $89.99 (one bottle limit) – I haven’t had it, but it’s Willett single barrel rye, so what more do I need to tell you? Not much available. 60.4%

A.D. Rattray Cask Islay Blended Malt Whisky $52.99New packaging, a fancy new bottle, and a better product! This is a blend of various Islay casks, this malt is smoky, yet light, soft and easy-going. It tastes like a lighter version of Laphroaig.

Rattray's Selection 21 Year Old Batch No. 02 Cask Strength Blended Single Malt Scotch Whisky $129.99A marriage of 1989 Tamdhu, 1991 Strathmill, 1991 Cragganmore, and 1992 Mortlach Bourbon barrels put into Oloroso sherry butts and extra matured. 56.4% ABV

Stronachie 18 year old Single Malt Whisky $79.99Back in stock! This fabulous recreation of one of Scotland's closed distilleries used to be sourced from Benrinnes Distillery in Speyside. I think it still is, but I'll have to double check. The Morrisons of A.D. Rattray originally compared samples from the original Stronachie Distillery, distilled in 1904, to the Highland and Speyside's finest malts until they located a stylistic match. The 18 year is bottled in small batches, using both bourbon hogshead and sherry butts.Truly a great value from A.D. Rattray.

2002 Cadenhead's Guyanan 11 Year Old Rum $72.99Light, unsweetened, uncolored rum from DDL distillery in Guyana. Very pure and still bringing all the funk. Lovely. 46%

2004 Cadenhead's Haitian 9 Year Old Rum $72.99Unadulterated rum from Barbancourt. Really fruity and lively stuff; deceiving considering the incredibly pale color. It would be fantastic for lighter cocktails or rum-focused drinks where you really want the character to shine through with minimal ingredients.

Laird's Straight Bonded "Apple Jack" Brandy 100 proof $29.99 (two bottle limit) – Laird’s didn’t think they would have problems in the new era of whiskey shortages, but they were wrong. People are drinking their apple jack again like its Rittenhouse. Now we have shortages. This is the real deal and is 100% aged apple brandy, none of the neutral stuff. Apple Jack is America's Calvados. This is a necessity for anyone creating an authentic bar. And if you don't have what it takes to make a delicious Jack Rose cocktail, or a Calvados Cocktail, then you don't have an authentic bar. Laird's is the Rittenhouse Rye of apple distillates.

Elisir Novasalus Amaro $24.99Super bitter stuff, in the vein of the Varnelli Amari. Lots of gentian flavor, but not big or tannic or powerful on the palate. Just an incredibly bitter finish that goes on forever.

We’ve been slacking with the bitters and mixers section in Redwood City for the last few months, but we’re back on track now. More bitters and fun cocktail ingredients just landed:

Bittermilk #4 New Orleans Style Rouge 8.5 oz $15.99- Our Old Fashioned Rouge is strong and bittersweet packed with licorice and spice. Wormword, fennel, and gentian root imply flavors of absinthe and bitters. A traditional coloring technique using Cochineal, a red beetle from Peru gives this Old Fashioned it's "Rouge" naturally. Aged in Willet Family Reserve Rye Whiskey barrels. Add 1 part No.4 + 4 parts rye, stir with ice, strain into a rocks glass and garnish with a lemon twist.

Bittermilk #5 Charred Grapefruit 17 oz $15.99 - Not your typical tonic, the No.5 combines lime and lemon juice with cinchona bark, the source of quinine for tonic. We peel fresh grapefruits and char the skins to help bring out bitter yet refreshing notes. Just a bit of local Bulls Bay Saltworks sea salt helps pull savory caramel notes and rounds out flavor. Works well with any light spirit. Build over ice equal parts No.5 + vodka + soda water in a tall glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.

Scrappy's Bitters Classic Mini Gift Pack $18.99 - This is a sampler of 4 bitters.  Perfect for the home bartender.  Gift pack #1 includes 1/2 oz bottles of orange, lavender, aromatic, celery, as well as a recipe card.

Scrappy's Bitters Exotic Gift Pack $18.99 - Looking for a gift to give to your favorite home mixologist?  This gift pack from Scrappy's Bitters will get them fired up! It includes 2-ounce bottles of their grapefruit, cardamom, lime, chocolate bitters.

Rejoice in the sea of new booze!

-David Driscoll


Anchoring Down

Last night we had to let loose. With the holidays coming soon and the chaos ratcheting itself up a notch, we needed to get together as a company and just blow off some steam. Some Anchor Steam? Yes, we needed Anchor Steam, too. So that's where we went: good Old Potrero.

Anchor has completely renovated the top floor of the brewery into a bar with a balcony over looking downtown San Francisco. Yesterday was the first real Fall day we've had where grey clouds and cold winds finally overtook the warm Indian summer, so we took advantage of the scene. Where's my beer? Oh, over there by that breathtaking view.

Pizza, tacos, beer, and pretty much every bottle in the vast Anchor portfolio open to sample. Every Glendronach, every Benriach, every Nikka, every Glenrothes, fifty different rums, all the Anchor stuff (obviously), crazy Westland whiskies, and more Luxardo expressions than you even knew they made. Some of our staff members were overwhelmed by the opportunity.

Many thanks to Anchor for making this happen. This was just what we needed. I'm ready to get back to work today. I know which products are fresh on my mind now!

-David Driscoll