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Thursday
Jul252013

Baseball Cards

Over the past few years, during conversations about the whisk(e)y bubble many believe we're facing, there have been numerous references to whiskey being the newest incarnation of baseball cards: a hobby that blew up in the late 80s, became over-valued, and then dumped when people lost interest and moved on to the next fashionable trend. My friend SKU has written about it, I've written about it, people have posted comments on various sites about it, so it seems that many of us who grew up in the 1980s and collected baseball cards during the peak understand the parallels. It's totally possible that, like baseball cards, whisk(e)y will fall out of focus and producers will be stuck with a glut of overproduction.

There's another side of this analogy, however, that I don't think we've really touched on. In order to understand it you need to have collected baseball cards before Beckett's Monthly Price Guide became inseparable from your back pocket. You also need to have been a whisk(e)y drinker before this whole pricing boom began around the end of 2008. You need to be able to understand how a simple hobby based on fun, enjoyment, and pleasure became completely monetized, data-oriented, and collector-focused. Let me give you a few analogies to explain what I mean:

When I was about seven years old my cousin and I would bring our baseball cards to each other's house to play with. We kept them all in a single plastic case, stacked on top of each other, and we'd take them out to look at and trade. We were both Giants fans, so naturally we wanted to get as many Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell, and Robby Thompson cards as possible. That was our focus: collecting the players we liked. Sometimes we would create an all-star team with nine of our best cards, then go out into the yard and play one-on-one baseball, pretending we were the players on our home-made rosters, putting the cards next to us as each player came up to bat. We'd even keep their stats. Hell, I remember even striking out on purpose so the number of strikeouts would match up to the number on the back of the card! Wow, those were the days.

Then my cousin discovered Modesto Baseball Cards on Oakdale Road, or "Gil's" as we called it, as that was the owner's name. Gil didn't just sell packages of baseball cards, he sold individual cards that were all worth various amounts of money. These cards were placed in protective sleeves meant to protect them from any damage. In order to find out how much these cards were worth, Gil used a magazine called Beckett to determine the value. Every month a list with each card from each brand would be listed, along side a price with an arrow to indicate if the value had recently gone up or down. Our minds were completely blown. All of a sudden, the kids at school all had a copy of Beckett in their Trapper Keepers. Over night my friends and I went from passionate baseball fans to professional stock brokers. All this time we had been trading and collecting based on our own personal taste, but little did we know these things were worth money!

"Want to trade me your Roger Clemens rookie card?"

"How much is it worth?"

"Check the Beckett. I'm not trading it unless I get something back in return that's equal value. Last time I got ripped off."

Opening a pack of baseball cards became a treasure hunt – literally. We would dig for all the most valuable cards, put them into plastic sleeves, and show our friends which ones were worth the most money. "Check out my 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card. It's worth eighty bucks!" We were all tiny investors, hoping that our collections would one day make us rich. I don't know one person, however, who ever cashed in on their Donruss, Topps, and Fleer stocks. We mostly just complained, fought, and cried about getting ripped off, bad trades, high prices, or how everything sucked except for error cards and the super-collectable Dale Murphy reverse negative. By the early 90s, some brands were up to $10 a pack because they contained possible high-end cards inside. Brands were creating super-limited cards for the sole purpose of being limited, and therefore valuable. By the time we were ten we had become jaded on the whole scene.

And now I see it with whisk(e)y.

"How old is that whisky? Fifteen years? And it's $100? Man, that's a ripoff."

I might as well be back in 4th grade. Everything about our enjoyment is based on how much we spent or how good of a deal we got within the parameters of evaluation. Personal taste isn't one of these quantifiers, however. Much like with baseball cards there's a formula that combines the brand, age, and scarcity of the whisky to determine whether it's worth buying or not. When you throw in points, you get an entirely new dynamic – prestige!

"How many points did so-and-so give it? 90 points? And it's only $40? Wow, that's a good deal."

Of course there's no inherant value to someone's 90 point review, just like there was never any inherant value in any of the Beckett prices. You couldn't walk into a card store and expect to pay the exact Beckett price simply because one company printed it, just like you can't claim that a 90 point Screaming Eagle should cost the same as a 90 point Spanish garnacha. They're simply guides to help give you some context. However, like the passionate hobbiests we are, we can't help but turn these numeric evalutations into a collection competition. I knew a guy in elementary school who had thirty 1986 Jose Canseco Donruss "Rated Rookie" cards. At one point those were valued at $100 each. He would hoard them, do anything to get them, have his parents drive him to the Bay Area to find more. He took a picture of him with all thirty in his bedroom and brought the photo to school so we could see it. Sound familiar?

While I think the baseball card market is a decent comparison for the whisk(e)y industry, there are a few differences that lead me to believe whisk(e)y will likely take a different path. Most prognosticators don't take into consideration the difference between on-premise and off-premise sales (bars/restaurants vs. retail), and how cocktail culture will eventually affect the demand, but that's another topic for another time. The more appropriate comparison, in my mind, is how both hobbies changed their patrons and how those patrons forever changed these hobbies. Collectable baseball cards will never be used in bicycle spokes again, just like many new collectable whiskies will never actually be consumed. They have monetary value that extends beyond any practical usage. Just like a card with a tear or bend was worth less, a whisky without it's cardboard box or tin is deemed less collectable. That takes away from the resale value! Don't touch it!

The question I have to ask is: which way was more fun? Was it better to just collect the players you liked, or was it more enjoyable to obsess over the value of each? Personally, I had a lot of fun doing it both ways. And I sure learned a lot about business. It's totally possible that the monetization of whisk(e)y, or any hobby for that matter, satisfies some capitalistic itch in us that is just waiting to be scratched.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Jul252013

First-Hand Feedback

Well, it's been quite a day. We finally released our insanely-old tequila blend to the masses and they responded by purchasing all 200 available bottles available within four hours. CRAZY!

Needless to say, it's still on the site because I've added another 100 bottles into the system. We can make as many as 400 bottles of this Fuenteseca Extra Añejo, but I didn't want to order more than we needed. The question our consumers are asking right now, however, is: do I need to get one of these before they sell out?

Good question. Here's my honest to truth answer:

I know it's difficult to take the word of the guy who's job it is to sell you the booze, so I'm going to offer up a few different experiences from the day in the hope that it offers some guidance.

Greg St. Clair is our Italian wine buyer. He doesn't ever get excited about anything booze related, especially enough to actually swallow the sample he's tasting. Usually it's spit no matter what. I offered Greg a sip of the new Fuenteseca blend today (from the tiny bit I had left) and he went ballistic. "This is fucking delicious!" he exclaimed. "I actually swallowed it! And I don't drink anything these days," he went on to add. Greg then went on to repeat this accolade to the rest of our Redwood City staff. "What the hell got into Greg?" people asked me. "He tried the new tequila," I replied.

I also managed to pass of a sample to two of my best spirits customers, Adam and Thorpe, who tasted with two very solemn countenances. "That shit is amazing," they said. "You're not going to have any problem selling that stuff." Delicious was the verdict. I was batting 1.000 so far.

Jeff Garneau, our Bordeaux specialist, was also transfixed, but when I asked him if he liked it he answered, "There's absolutely no context for this. Sure, it tastes good, but what can I compare it to?" Great point. What do you compare a blend of 4, 7, 11, 14, 18, and 21 year old tequilas to? There's never been a tequila on the market like this before, so it's tough to guage where it ranks among the best

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jul242013

2013 Whisky Season: First Cask is Here!

Our first cask from Scotland has arrived and, yes, I know, we didn’t tell you about this one during the initial pre-arrival campaign. Some casks, we’ve realized, don’t cause all that much of a stir when we release them as a pre-order, simply because they don’t have the star power name recognition. When you’re selling people whisky that they can’t taste, yet they still have to pay upfront, it can be difficult unless the cask has a big name. We find that casks like this Glen Elgin are more word-of-mouth phenomena – meaning someone gets a bottle, realizes how good it is, and then tells a friend. That happened with the Mortlach and that’s definitely going to happen with this:

1995 Glen Elgin 17 Year Old A.D. Rattray K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - YUM! Why is Glen Elgin such a delicious Speyside whisky? It seems that everytime we have the opportunity to get a peek at this Diageo-owned Highland distillery the whisky just cries out: DRINK ME! Glen Elgin has one of the longest fermentation times for its wort and one of the slowest distillation times as well. The combination of both results in a heavy, robust spirit that remains light and fruity at the same time. Longer fermentation periods usually result in fruitier worts, while slow distillation times allow the spirit to slowly capture all that flavor. It's a gum-smackingly great phenomenon. Unfortunately we don't get the chance to buy very much Glen Elgin seeing that it's not released in the states as a single malt. It's mostly known as the key ingredient in White Horse. That's why we jumped at the chance to snag this lovely little number from the Morrison's warehouse. This is classic Scotch, in the style of Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, but with far more viscosity and a ton of fruit. It reminds me of the few 1970s Glenlivet bottlings I've been fortunate enough to taste. The whisky was aged in hogshead, so there's not much wood influence, just that lovely little kiss of vanilla you expect from ligher Speyside malts. The finish is clean and soft with the malt's heavy mouthfeel taking center stage. Nothing short of lovely, throwback single malt whisky. Less than 200 bottles available.

Do you miss Scotch that tastes like Scotch? Then this whisky is for you. No wine-finished casks, no story, no gimmicks. Just booze.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jul232013

Introducing Fuenteseca - A Marriage of Very Old Tequilas

Wow. Where to begin? How long have we been working on this thing? Let me give you some context here:

A few years ago I met Jacob Lustig, the former tequila expert for Southern Wine and Spirits in the U.S. Basically, he was the guy who educated the sales reps for the country's biggest distributor about the tequila they were selling. Jake eventually started working on his own label and bought into a Oaxacan distillery where he began his own brand called Don Amado. However, Jake didn't come to K&L carrying mezcal, he came with a bag full of tequila. ArteNom was a label Jake started to help bolster his fledgling mezcal company. He had returned to three producers he had met during his SWS days and asked them each to produce one tequila for his brand. Each of the three, the blanco from Rancho El Olvido, the reposado from El Ranchito, and the añejo from Enrique Fonseca, instantly became the staff's personal favorites.

Jacob's approach to tequila was refreshing: let's market tequila like single malt whisky, focusing on the distillery and its specific production methods, rather than a flashy brand name. No one else was using the independent label approach in the tequila game and customers responded with glee. Not only was the tequila unadulterated and pure, but Jake could tell you exactly why the flavors tasted the way they did. Whether it was the elevation of the agave field, the natural yeast used in fermentation, or the type of barrel utlized for maturation, there was a clear and honest answer for each product. The ArteNom añejo from Fonseca was an instant customer favorite and would go on to become the best selling tequila in K&L history. It was all so new and exciting.

As the relationship between K&L and ArteNom continued to thrive, Jake and I became fast friends. We had so much in common and we both loved travelling to Mexico. We talked about possible exclusive projects with ArteNom that would push the selection a bit further and offer something new to tequila drinkers everywhere. That's when Jake told me a little secret about Enrique Fonseca - apparently the guy had been laying down tequila for the past two decades, using refill barrels so that the spirit wouldn't get overly woody. I had never even heard of a tequila older than five years old at that time, but, according to Jake, Fonseca was sitting on juice with more than 20 years of age. In February of 2012, we got a box of samples in the mail from Enrique and we started tasting. I posted this blog that day. The original plan was to pick a single cask and bottle it exclusively for K&L, much like our whisky program had been working. The job was simply to find one that worked.

That's when things started to stall.

We didn't have a name. We didn't have a label. We didn't have pricing. Enrique had never even considered selling these before. It was only due to his friendship with Jake that he was even offering us the samples. He had no idea what to charge for something of this magnitude. Then there was the problem with the samples. I wanted to bottle something old and rare, to be the first retailer with a 20 year old tequila, but the younger ones were more tasty on their own. The super old tequilas had an amazing herbacious character, but they were overwhelming when tasted alone. Then the pricing finally came back. Enrique definitely wanted to make sure he was compensated for his booze. I couldn't imagine selling a $500 bottle of tequila, so we were stuck in limbo. That's when Jake proposed the idea of a blend.

Jake is not a blender. I am not a blender, but I'd hung around Dave Smith, Jim Rutledge, and John Glaser enough to know how it worked. I thought maybe we could give it a try and see what happened. Jake and I picked a date to sit down with the samples and catagorize each one. We would work out a price per selection based on the milliliters used in the marriage, and then group each tequila by its main flavor profile. The rich and buttery tequilas in one group, the peppery in another. We worked out forty or so different possibilities and kept tasting them, over and over. Finally, after considering price, richness, and general accessibility, I worked out a blend using 4, 7, 11, 14, 18, and 21 year old tequilas. The four year old had all the caramel and butterscotch, so I wanted to use about 30% of that as the base. The other 70% would be the more mature tequilas, each adding in their own unique accent to the recipe.

Somehow, it all came together.

Jake and I retasted our final batch over and over. I had the staff taste it. I had my wife taste it. I had my father-in-law taste it. We sent it down to Enrique, he tasted it. Everyone agreed. It was decadent. The tequila was rich and soft enough to please the general palate, but packed with enough spice, pepper, salt, and savory flavor to inspire multiple visits. It tasted like tequila, there was no mistaking it for anything else, yet it transcended anything we had previously experienced. The brandy-like nature of the palate is stunning because you've never tasted anything this soft with this much punch. As far as I know, this is also the first tequila to hit the market with anything older than 10 years old in it. We can't put an age statement on the bottle because we don't want to label it as "4 year old," but I can tell you that 50% of it is 11 years or older.

When I look at the comparable tequilas on the market, Don Julio 1942 at $120, Deleon Extra Añejo at $250, even Casa Dragones for $250, I have to laugh because none of those three are even close to the quality of the new Fuenteseca. They're not as clean. They're not as flavorful. They're not as old. They're not as interesting. Those three tequilas are all about one thing: smooth. They are selling the luxury of supple booze. With the Fuenteseca, we're offering the opposite: big, bold, explosive flavor in a delicate package. The Fuenteseca Reserva isn't as much smooth as it is ethereal. It's a concentrated core of tequila vibrancy wrapped in delicacy. That's the best way I can explain it.

As of right now, we're ready to begin pre-arrival orders. Our initial plan is to make 200 bottles total, however, we might make a little more if the demand outsells our expectations. As usual, we're going to offer customers a discount for ordering in advance on pre-arrival. We can't come in anywhere near the bargain pricing we have on the Don Julio 1942 right now, but we'll be waaaaaay under the Casa Dragones and Deleon. We'll be working with Haas Brothers here in San Francisco to get everything home. Here are the official notes below. We're expecting delivery sometime this Fall, hopefully by late October.

Fuenteseca Reserva K&L Exclusive Extra Añejo Tequila $169.99 (PRE-ORDER) - It's finally happening! After more than two years of planning, false starts, negotiations, tasting, and finally blending, we've finished up our exclusive tequila project with Jake Lustig and Enrique Fonseca, the producers behind the top selling tequila we carry: the 1146 Añejo. Fonseca is an anomaly in the tequila world. He was the only producer in the entire region with the foresight to use refill Bourbon barrels and put spirit down for a long-term aging process. While other companies might tell you that the oldest tequila in the world is ten years old, it's only because they don't know about Enrique Fonseca's treasure trove of old casks, most far more than 11 years old. Our original intent was to bottle one single barrel, much like we do with whisky, but after tasting through these ancient selections we realized a blend was the best way to go. All had unique flavor profiles, unlike any other tequila we'd ever tasted before, so as long as we combined them well we'd be in great shape to offer our customers not only the oldest tequila ever made, but also one of the best tasting. We ended up with a marriage of 4, 7, 11, 14, 18, and 21 year old tequilas in the final product and it's jawdropping stuff. The nose is a blast of pepper, agave, sea salt, and caramel. The first sip is rich, but never sweet or supple, moving quickly to savory herbs and spices, The finish is long and soft with butterscotch and white pepper. This is historic tequila, epic in every way possible. Orale!

-David Driscoll

Monday
Jul222013

The Case for Armagnac

Before you make any assumptions concerning what I'm about to write, this is not a column about how Bourbon drinkers should crossover to Armagnac. This is not a piece about how Armagnac is under-appreciated. This is certainly not an article addressing the many ways in which one should train themself to like something they do not. When I typed in the title, "The Case for Armagnac," I was thinking solely about the way things work in the booze business today. I was thinking about what it takes to start a distillery and the motivations behind doing so. I was imagining the endless parade of sales reps, ad men, business cards, and financial advisers who take up most of my work day. And then I thought about Armagnac and Gascony, a spirit with hardly any marketing from a place where booze is simply something else you do on the side. If you want to understand what drinking is like without the pretense, the competition, the collectability, and the pedantry, I think this is pretty much the last place on earth you can do it.

Diageo owns half of Scotland and the other half is divided between Beam, Pernod-Ricard, and LVMH. Kentucky becomes more profit-oriented by the minute, especially with the current shortage and the demand for more barrels creating a hoarding frenzy among collectors. Cognac has always been about money and image and it remains so today. Even rum is becoming more corporate with recent buyouts in Barbados and Jamaica. Of course, you can always go radical and embrace the craft spirits industry, but more and more producers I meet now are simply counting the days until someone buys them out. Very few are in it for the long haul. Now none of this profiteering, presented in a rather negative light by me, I know, means the booze doesn't taste good. We know it does. I'm merely pointing out that there is a place, with over a century's worth of booze in barrel, where you can taste serious, complex, mature spirit without a bunch of guys stepping over you to get the last bottle. A place free of guides, points, experts, and bloggers. This is a place where no one really thinks they're all that special simply because they have fifty year old brandy on the table. In fact, the people of Gascony are rather puzzled as to why we place so much value on something this basic.

You can geek out on Gascogne culture just as much as you can with any other spirits genre. In fact, doing so with Armagnac isn't even a charicature. You see guys at tastings, wearing kilts, playing bagpipes, trying to prove that they're more Scottish (and therefore more knowledgeable) than the rest of the bunch, but no one at Springbank or Glenfarclas is wearing a kilt. No one at Mount Gay is wearing a straw hat with a linen shirt decorated with palm trees, sipping rum out of a coconut. Still, these cartoonish images are what many feel embody a true love affair with booze. You have to go one step further than the average drinker to prove yourself an expert, moving that gigantic chip a bit further up the shoulder. You've got to "get into" Bourbon. You've got to read every Michael Jackson book, and quote the various experts of the moment. Yet, what does one do to show they love Armagnac? What does a true Gasconite even look like? Which romantic Armagnac ideal can we exploit to sell more bottles? I'm not sure. And that's a good thing!

If you dressed in overalls, work boots, put a plate of terrine and bread out on the table, and poured a small glass of Armagnac for your guests, it might seem like you're trying a bit too hard, but at least you wouldn't be exaggerating the reality of Gascony. This is honestly what Armagnac producers wear (because they are actual farmers doing other things besides distillation) and it's actually what they eat. We like to imagine our Scotsmen in kilts, but really they're just Diageo employees in khaki pants carrying a clipboard while they check the automated still. We like to picture our old friend Pappy smoking a cigar on the porch, decked out in a linen suit, but really it's just some Buffalo Trace guys wearing denim shirts, checking the fill levels before heading back to the office. In Gascony, the romantic imagery actually matches up with reality and we know this because no one is out there trying to sell us on it (except me right now, obviously). There are no billboards of Tariquet on our freeways, no color ads of rustic French farms within the pages of the Whisky Advocate. There are no corporations in Armagnac, buying up land and marking their territory, while gearing up for the next booze explosion. There are only people. Quiet, humble people with little to say and little to prove.

Now I'm not saying that authenticity makes for a better spirit. I'm not saying that farmers make better spirits than corporations. I'm merely saying that no one in Armagnac is acting like they're a small company when they're really a big one. No one in Armagnac is acting like anything. There is no marketing because no one has the time, money, or desire to do it. No one's trying to get rich, or become the next Tariquet (one of the largest producers in the region, yet still smaller than Kilchoman). If you don't like Armagnac, then you don't like Armagnac. This isn't a ploy to get you to embrace something that simply doesn't speak to you. It is, however, a notice that it's quite refreshing to leave all the bullshit behind every now and again and simply drink. Your mind can't be swayed by the latest Armagnac review because no one reviews Armagnac. You can't be baited into bulking up on the latest limited edition release because there's no shortage of supply. You won't have to prove your Armagnac knowledge at the office or on the golf course because no one will have any idea what you're talking about, and they definitely won't be impressed.

No one cares if you've got Darroze 20 open at home. Except maybe for Marc Darroze.

Armagnac is free from advertising. Free from marketing. Free of corporate suits. Free of 90 point reviews. Free of hustling and bustling. Free from forums, message boards, and blogs. Free of must-have-it limited edition releases that sell out in thirty seconds. Free of Diageo. Free of pundits and pedants. Free of caramel coloring and additives. Free! If you want to release yourself from the shackles of your own preconceived notions regarding booze, you need to take a trip to Gascony. You can start over there. Make a new life for yourself. Get back to basics. However, you've got to accept the fact that there's nothing cool about doing so. Drinking Armagnac is definitely not cool. It's not even ironically cool. Not even the hipsters will touch Armagnac.

Armagnac is the last bastion of pure spirit. It's there if you need it.

-David Driscoll