New Faces/Old Faces

You want to take maritime whisky to the next level? Try using ocean water for your fermentation and aging the spirit in "navy" strength rum. That's what Bryan Davis did for Batch II of his Salinas Seascape single malt. It's intense, as always!

Lost Spirits Distillery Seascape II Single Malt Whiskey $44.99 - The latest batch of peated single malt from local Salinas distillery Bryan Davis is here -- the follow-up to the beloved Seascape, this time fermented with Pacific Ocean seawater and aged in rum casks. The result is a cleaner spirit, but an even peatier, earthier concentration. While the whisky is lighter in richness, it's twice as intense as before. Burnt leaves, resinous smoke, scorched earth, and hints of baking spice overwhelm the palate like a tidal wave. At 65%, it's one intense ride. But we wouldn't expect anything less from Bryan, would we? WARNING: this whiskey is absolutely not for the unadventurous.

And one of our most-successful and beloved Cognac selections has returned! The Ragnaud family makes some good freakin' Cognac.

Raymond Ragnaud K&L Exclusive Reserve Rare Cognac $115.99 - This Grand Champagne Cognac from Ragnaud represents our dedicated efforts to find excellent Cognac without the use of additional sweetners or traditional boise. Distiller Jean-Marie has spent the last thirty years perfecting his pot-still brandies into delicate expressions of the fantastic terroir in the area. He is a firm believer in the idea that the limestone-rich soils of Grande Champagne produce wines that, when distilled, create brandies capable of aging in barrel for eternity. While we originally came in search of single barrel Cognac, we tasted a few out of the cask and soon realized that Grand Champagne Cognac doesn't taste all that great in its youth--and by "youth" I mean anytime in the first 20 years of its life--nor does it taste too great out of the barrel. Usually the blends have more complexity because the expressive "young" brandy is balanced with the richness from older vintages. The Reserve Rare was our favorite of the expressions, exhibiting beautiful concentration and the elegance we've come to expect from world-class Cognac producers. Gentle richness on the entry leads into flavors of toasted nuts, stone fruit and vanilla, before finishing with a soft dash of baking spices. A masterful Cognac that managed to seduce us with subtlety and style, rather than with sweetness and weight.

-David Driscoll


2014 Sneak Peaks

Just a little teaser from this year's trip, since I know some of you are chomping at the bit to see what we're going to bring in. Very little has been secured in our first few days back, but these selections have been locked down and we've got the ball rolling. I'm not sure yet when we can start offering them on pre-order, but trust me: you're all going to be very happy. George Grant, David OG, and I worked very hard to make sure we got this done the right way: good casks, good blending, good prices. The proofs are not confirmed yet, but you get the idea. Both selections will be comprised of two single butts married together, so they're double-barrel rather than single barrel expressions (but not "double-barreled" as in transfered from one cask to another).


-David Driscoll


Tasting Tomorrow!

Don't forget to stop by the Redwood City store tomorrow for our Wednesday night spirits tasting with Glenlivet Single Malt Whisky!

They'll be pouring the 12, 15, and 18 year old expressions for free, of course. We start at 5 PM and finish at 6:30.

Free whisky rules.

-David Driscoll


That's Genius: The Way Forward - Part II

Picture it: you're a small spirits producer launching a new brand that no one's ever heard of. You've worked hard to perfect your product, you've invested countless dollars and hours into its inception, and you want to just hop in the car, stop by a few retailers and restaurants, and get the show started.  You wish to God you could go around peddling the bottles yourself, but a set of national distribution laws stands in your way. As a producer of distilled spirits, you have to hire representation for all transactions -- a third party that will act as the middleman between you and your customer, otherwise known as a distributor. And they'll be taking a cut of the profit, of course, despite how much or how little work they do on your behalf.

Unfortunately for you, small producer, every state requires its own distributor. That means if you're in Texas and you want your product to sell in California, you'll have to hire another third party within that state to handle your business. Maybe they'll move it to the front of their priorities, or maybe it will get buried under the weight of larger brands. The larger the access of the distributor, the more money they'll require for their services. Six months later, your enthusiasm has dwindled. You've sold six bottles in Washington, ten bottles in New York, two bottles in Florida, and you've made nothing. In fact, you probably owe them money. And, unlike produce or tupperware, you don't even have the option of a farmer's market or door-to-door sales. You must hire distribution if you want to sell distilled spirits. There's no going it alone.

Or is there?

What if there were a store in California with enough reach to handle your small production needs? A store with a reputation for quality, integrity, and exciting new releases with a website that garnered tens of thousands of hits every day? What if that store worked with distributors in the area to clear out-of-state products at lower margins, passing on those savings to the consumer and allowing you -- the producer -- to take your full margin without sacrificing percentages to a sales force? It's not like you have that much booze, anyway. You're never going to be Johnnie Walker or Patron. You just want to get your spirits into the hands of people who will appreciate them.

That would be nice, wouldn't it?

Luckily, such a store does exist and we're continuing to reach more small producers around the world who are more than satisfied with the market share that K&L can provide them. We can't offer bars and restaurants, national shipping, or large sales figures, but we can offer an audience of dedicated drinkers. We're at the point where brands are coming to us, rather than the other way around, and that's a great thing -- especially when we really like what they're offering. They say like attracts like. I'm always surprised at how sycophants tend to travel in packs, as do most personality types who require a certain aptitude for one another. The same tends to happen in the booze world -- the people who care deeply about quality all seem to find one another across this great divide.

Mike Groener, a small distiller in Austin, Texas, found his way to K&L via this spirits blog. He thought we might be a good fit for his new Genius Gin -- a self-fermented spirit made from local sugar cane and distilled on-site in small batches -- so he sent me a sample. I was immediately impressed. Not only was the navy strength gin fresh, balanced, and complex, but it wasn't redistilled from GNS purchased on the open market -- a real rarity in today's gin game. Mike wrote to me in a very straight-forward and honest manner:

I have been both inspired and intrigued by your spirits posts on the K&L blog. The way in which your passion for process and honesty shines in the writing is nothing short of brilliant. I personally find it the best source of information about upcoming spirits. In effect, I'd like to thank you for that continued commentary; it's vital for the continued elucidation of spirits production.

Further, I am too a spirits aficionado (being a producer in Austin, TX). We ferment from scratch, distill from two 26 gallon boilers, build our own cooling solutions, and use aquarium heaters to keep our yeast comfortable. I liken it to the producer who uses duct tape to reduce ring on a snare drum instead of using some $500 big budget solution. I ultimately hope our gins symbolize a shift in thinking, and represent a beautiful aesthetic on a shoestring budget.

Not only does Mike's gin symbolize a "shift in thinking" regarding spirits, the way in which we've managed to bring these gins to California customers also represents a new way forward regarding distribution. What if you chose exactly whom you wanted to work with, rather than allowing distribution to make those decisions for you? What if you could select a handful of key accounts that you felt best represented you and the nature of your spirits? That's where my head has been for the past few months. I'm not merely thinking about finding good booze anymore, I'm also thinking about how we can best distribute it to you -- the consumer -- in the most efficient, cost-effective way possible.

The Genius Gin from Austin, Texas is one of the best new craft spirits I've tasted in years -- and the price is right where it should be at $29.99. Austin is one of the most up-and-coming cities in the United States, with a cocktail scene and farm-to-table culture that now rivals San Francisco and New York. In 2011, Charles Cheung and Mike Groener created Genius Gin -- a cane-based spirit made entirely from scratch in a tiny warehouse with a tiny still. Utilizing years of tech industry experience, Genius ferments, distills, and bottles with immaculate attention to detail. The navy strength was inspired by Plymouth and Old Tom style gins; the botanicals span from lime leaves to lavender to create a classic gin profile that is quite simple and utilitarian in its profile. It's not some wacky new designer gin, but rather an honest, botonical-driven spirit that's distinct, yet familiar.

And, for right now, it's only available at K&L in California. Mike has been called "the Walter White of gin," obsessing over his chemistry in a Heisenberg-like fashion. Like Heisenberg's product, this isn't a gin you buy once, marvel in the uniqueness, and then decide you want to go back to "normal" gin again. Genius Gin will be a staple of the bartender's shelf -- at least those like-minded bartenders who care about where their booze comes from and who made it. I'm very excited that Mike chose us to help launch his product in the nation's largest craft spirit market. I think our new relationship is beneficial to Genius, to K&L, and to the consumer -- who is getting a damn good price. I'm also hoping that we're possibly creating a new way of doing business for smaller producers who recognize that a strong partnership with a similar mind might be the better route -- at least in the short term.

Whether this idea is a genius one remains to be seen. The gin, however, is indeed fantastic.

-David Driscoll


Booze School

I considered myself an academic at one point, but I fell out of it when I realized that my professors couldn't provide me with the knowledge I was looking for. That's not to say that they didn't know anything (because I learned a lot about German literature in graduate school), but rather they didn't have the answers I personally wanted. That was my shortcoming, however, not theirs. My expectations were way out of whack. They were teaching me the lessons I needed to become a scholar; I was looking for definitiveness. I was naive in a way – I wanted to read Herman Hesse and learn the truth. They could only tell me their opinions. There was no one true answer to their questions, despite what I thought. It was up to me to come with my own truth. Ultimately, that was the biggest lesson I learned in my brief tenancy as an academic and it might be the most important thing I've learned in the past ten years.

There are no definitive truths in the booze world – especially if you're relying on the people in the industry for your information. 100% of the producers in Cognac will tell you they don't use caramel coloring or any kind of sweetener additive. 99% of them are lying – to your face, no less. Yet, a new generation of drinkers wants certainty, definiteness, and clear cut answers to their drinking. We want to know:

- what's good and what's bad?

- what's authentic and what's designer?

- what's the considered the best and what's considered tacky?

- where do the best spirits come from and why?

- how did this producer make such a good spirit and why did this other producer not?

 So the people in the booze business come up with answers:

- it's the terroir 

- it's hand-crafted

- it's made in small batches

- it's craft

- it's organic

- it's our heritage.  

That's why, silly! Don't you understand now?

I remember sitting in film class during a lecture with Jean-Pierre Gorin (a former Godard colleague who had no problem telling us we were full of shit) after watching Scorsese's Mean Streets. He was going on about the scene (in his thick, cigarette-weakened accent) where DeNiro gets on top of the pool table and begins swinging a cue at his would-be attackers, calling his movements "serpent-like, a snake, a demonic transformation." We all took notes. The next week, when we all came back to present our "original" papers in front of the class, every single student referred to the "serpent-like" DeNiro "transforming into a demon" in the pool hall. Gorin buried his head in his hands. "You're just repeating what I told you!" he screamed furiously. "Did anyone come up with their own observation?"


Later on, as a teacher, I always remembered that moment when I watched a student simply repeat my opinion back to me, rather than think deeply to derive one of their own. I would tell them: "That sounds good, but what do you really think?" Lately, as a booze professional, I've been thinking about that experience when confronted with representatives who are tasked with teaching me about their products. I feel like they're simply repeating buzz words they've been told, rather than actually teaching me something important (or even true!) about their booze. "Our gin tastes this way because we've been making it in small batches for decades." But who knows what the answers actually might be? Not me. I know what I've been told, obviously, but as a friend in the industry told me years ago: "Assume everyone is lying to you." 

Despite the advice I was given, I'm not pessimistic enough to think you can't believe anything you read or hear. It just means you have to use your brain. Wine and spirits are fascinating products with rich histories and inspiring legacies. It's only human to be captivated by the vast scope of all there is to know. I wake up everyday, bursting with excitement at the fact that I get to learn more about alcohol when I go to work. But it's important to actually learn something rather than just repeat what other people say. It's important to listen to what the experts tell you, but then do your own research on the side. There's nothing more annoying than a serial contrarian, but a close second would be an insistent fanboy. You've gotta land somewhere in the middle.

If I were to open a booze school it would have one lesson: always make your own judgements, rather than simply mimic the actions and opinions of others. 

That's what Gorin was trying to teach us about film as well.

-David Driscoll