Focus on the Positive — Part I

There was a point a few years ago when I was really upset with Diageo. I made no sercet about it on this blog, and I made light of several frustrating incidents that went down at that time. It was a message that resonated with others as well, and I've continued to see that rather sardonic mindset carried on via other online commentaries. What I learned over time, however, was that many of these discouraging events were not actually perpetrated by Diageo, but rather by some of their suppliers on the local side. Much of what goes down behind the scenes has to do with importation and distribution, rather than the producer themselves. When cooler heads prevailed, I managed to get acquainted with a number of the guys working the California market and since then it's been nothing but clear sailing. I've had only positive experiences with Diageo since the beginning of 2013, and I appreciate it when a company works hard to mend fences. There seems to be a lot of disgruntled whiskey people out there who love to bitch, but don't like to give credit where credit is due. In my opinion, when a company works hard to address the complaints of its customers, it's a good sign.

Nevertheless, with the announcement of Diageo's upcoming 2014 release of special edition whiskies, the conversation is once again back to the incredible price tags. There are nine new single malt expressions that are going to run you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars; and that's if you're lucky enough to find them. But high prices for luxury items is hardly a Diageo-only condition. LVMH, Edrington, Pernod-Ricard, Campari, Beam/Suntory, and even family-owned distilleries like Glenfarclas are all jumping on the high-priced express; releasing their own ultra-premium releases like the $180 Supernova, the $250 Redbreast 21, and the $1000 1964 Glenfarclas Family Cask. Personally, I don't have a problem with $2000 Brora or $3000 Port Ellen because it's not like I was going to buy them for $500 and $800 a piece anyway. Taxing the ultra rich for their luxury goods isn't something I'm losing sleep over. It's when the 12 year olds start doubling in price that I have a problem. That being said, no company has done more in 2014 to maintain the value and the quality of the mid-range market than Diageo. Considering the price-to-quality ratio is 90% of what drives most whisky buyers, this is nothing to sneeze at.

Pappy 23 sells for at least $250. Elijah Craig 23 is $199. The last time we had a Willett 20 year old in stock it was $200. Hell, our most recent cask of Willett 10 year old sold for $109.99 because they doubled the price on us at the last minute. 20 year old Bourbon is like liquid gold right now, so much so that companies are changing their price points on a bi-monthly basis. So Diageo gets their hands on a mountain of 20 year old Bernheim (and they even told us exactly where they got it from) and decides to sell it for sub-$100? That sounds too good to be true. Yet, it's exactly what they did, and with all the nationwide competition to be the low-price leader among retailers, the prices have dropped even lower. We're now at $72.99 for the Barterhouse and $87.99 for the Rhetoric, and both of those whiskies are solid. I have distillers in here every week buying bottles for themselves after we meet for tasting appointments. They shake their heads and say, "I can't believe they're giving this stuff away for those prices." Michter's, who does not reveal the source of their whiskey, sells their 20 year Bourbon for $450, and personally I don't think it's any better than the Rhetoric. Yet, the Orphan Barrel series has not caught on with many insiders. Let's see: tons of availability, easy to get, total transparency, outstanding value, great packaging. Am I missing something? Is it that they're too easy to get?

Meanwhile we've seen no price increases on Bulleit Bourbon, Bulleit Rye, Bulleit 10 year, or any of the George Dickel products. The single barrels of 9 year old expressions we've been able to sell for $44.99, while Four Roses just recently raised the price of their private single barrel selections to $65. Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace have since paused their retailer barrel programs due to lack of supply. 

With the exception of LVMH (which is partially owned by Diageo anyway), I can't think of another single malt producer who hasn't significantly raised their prices over the past year besides Diageo. Lagavulin 16, Caol Ila 12, Oban 14, Dalwhinnie 15, Talisker 10, and even the latest release of Oban 18: all right where they've always been. Meanwhile Yamazaki 12 went from $34.99 to $49.99. Laphroaig 10 went from $34.99 to $42.99. Aberlour just took a hit from Pernod-Ricard (so expect an increase there shortly), and Macallan 18 went from $120 to $199. Say what you want about quality, NAS releases, mis-information, shady marketing, or whatever else it is that bothers you about large whisky companies, one thing you can't say about Diageo is that they're gouging you. 

Obviously there are other factors that go into purchasing a whisky: the people, the history, the story, the rarity, and the intrigue. That being said, there's something to consistency as well and dependability. There's a lot to dislike about the corporate whisky structure, but if price is important to you there are few companies holding the line more than Diageo right now. It appears that all our bitching worked, so that's something to be happy about, not frustrated with. 

-David Driscoll


More on Customer Service 

It's amazing how many people read this blog considering how haphazardly I write sometimes. But since I have the audience that I do, let me take advantage of it. All you distillers, producers, company owners, importers, distributors, retailers, and general workers in the name of booze, since I know you're all reading this (because you tell me you do): please listen up.

I had lunch with my friend Andrew Morrison today, who owns A.D. Rattray and the upcoming Glasgow Distillery. We had a long talk about the whisky business and the issues we're both facing. It became pretty clear after only a few minutes of catching up that both of us were in the same boat. If you work in the whisky business in just about any capacity you're definitely dealing with your own version of this sticky situation; the issue of how to handle the plethora of new customers and the lack of available supply. Everyone has to figure out how to dole out their allocations of desirable goods in the most effective, fair, and—yes—profitable way possible. Failing to balance these three branches of whiskey government might not instantly slow your rising tide, but it may come back to haunt you (and maybe all of us) if you don't tread lightly.

When you've got a small allocation of a product in high demand, you can obviously charge a little more than you normally would. In certain instances, the extra work required to fairly divvy up the bottles might justify the extra profit because—let's face it—it's a pain in the ass trying to please everyone. We're all feeling the frustration right now. I hate having to allocate twenty bottles of Pappy to ten thousand screaming whiskey fans. Andrew hates having to decide between which markets to send his A.D. Rattray selections to. Ultimately both of us could simply forget all the stress, jack the prices up to the moon, and cater to the highest bidder, but we care too much—both about our customers and the healthy growth of new markets—to simply cash in on this movement and outsource the world's best whiskies to the wealthiest 1%. We know there's always going to be someone out there willing to pay more, but that doesn't mean we need to gut this market for every penny we can. We need to think about developing young, passionate new drinkers. Pricing them out of everything worth a damn would be both short-sighted and foolish.

The prices at K&L, as well as from A.D. Rattray, have risen over the last year, but—as Andrew and I discussed with one another—our margins are exactly the same, if not less in many cases. We're both taking smaller payouts in some instances to lessen the blow that an egregiously high sticker price can have on consumers. By doing so, however, we're experiencing a higher demand for service from an increase of customers looking to purchase from us. With more demand comes more work, and with more work comes the more difficult task of keeping everyone satisfied and their expectations met. Eventually, if you're not given more time and more resources to do twice as much work, you will crack. I look at it this way: I have less than a third of the supply that I once had for the most popular whiskies we sell, yet I now have five times as many customers who want them. I'm trying my best not to raise prices. I'm simply choosing to do the extra work instead. I answer emails while I eat my cereal instead of waiting until I get to the store, and I place orders while I watch baseball at home in the evenings. I'm making the same salary I've always made, yet I'm working twice as much because I don't want to disappoint people.

I get the concept that time is money. I get that the market is hot and ripe for exploitation. And I get that producers are excited about all of the opportunity out there for expansion. I'm not advocating that prices shouldn't be rising, or that profits shouldn't continue to increase. We've all earned it (well, some of us). The clear and present danger this market presents, however, is not the rising costs, but rather the loss of customer service that will eventually occur once companies start taking this type of market activity for granted. I face this demon every single day. "Fuck it! Why even type up tasting notes, or take pictures of the bottle, or do any work to market this whiskey when I know I can just put it online and it's going to sell out in seconds? Why answer emails from customers when I have more customers than I can deal with anyway? Why do anything extra when I know I don't need to?" I think all of these thoughts to myself in moments of frustration and stress. But then I remember why I do it: because it's my job and I respect my customers too much to give them anything less than my best effort. The moment you start losing your respect for the customer, and the instant you think they'll buy your product no matter what, is the moment you will lose your credibility in this business. Customers are smarter than they ever were before and they're getting smarter every day. Treat them with contempt, and you're through.

If you think you can put out a whiskey that tastes half as good, but costs twice as much, you might be right—for now. Yes, only about .001% of whiskey customers read whiskey blogs. True, most consumers don't care about specifics or collectability. Of course, your products are going to sell like crazy no matter what you end up doing. But, if there's one thing every single person in this world wants, it's respect. I want it. You want it. Whiskey customers want it. 

I can deal with a lot of stress, loads of extra work, and tireless nights pounding away at my keyboard, but I won't continue to do it without respect. I'm not going to keep busting my ass to make lower margins and support your brands just because some corporate head office boss wants to fund that guest house restoration project on his five acre estate. And, I can promise you, customers are not going to keep paying more for less if they feel it's not justified. They'll wait in long lines, deal with ridiculous raffle systems, and pay a bit of a premium if something's really tasty, but they won't do it if they know you don't respect them. In the end, it's more than just a matter of supply and demand. It's about how supply and demand matters to you, and how you treat people in the face of it. 

-David Driscoll


In-Depth Profile: Bruichladdich 21

There are two distinct types of whisky drinkers that I deal with regularly here at K&L: those who just want to drink something good for the money, and those who are in search of the rare, hard-to-find, and distinct. In our first round of 2014 Signatory casks we had plenty of great options for both camps. Those who wanted great bang-for-their-buck whiskies had the outstanding Glenlivet 16 in sherry, the sexy, smokey Bowmore 11, and the rich, fruit-forward Benrinnes 17. Those were slam dunks that anyone could enjoy, regardless of their excitement level concerning single malt. The more-savvy drinkers looking for something special could indulge in the old-school character of the Balmenach 25, the insane quality of the Caol Ila 30, and the rarity of Laphroaig in refill sherry. In total, all six of those whiskies have been selling like wild fire (two are sold out, and another two will be sold out by the end of the week). 

Stuck in the middle, however, was the Bruichladdich 21 year old hogshead. Not inexpensive and worth taking a shot at, like the Dailuaine 16 and the Glen Elgin 18 which both clock in under $90; nor collectable like old Caol Ila, or out of the ordinary like old Balmenach. What we have is a $150 bottle of whisky that isn't a priority to either particular group of drinkers. There's no name, no story, no special flavor, no hurry to buy, and no real selling point. It's just good Scotch from a good distillery, nothing more.

I decided to spend my entire weekend drinking glasses of Bruichladdich 21 to see what I could find to say about this whisky (other than complete drinking satisfaction). Personally, I have a real soft spot in my heart for the Islay distillery because of our close relationship and the time I've spent in Scotland with both Jim McEwan and Simon Coughlin. We're always under some kind of Peter Pan-like spell when we visit the place. But this cask was chosen by David OG, Kyle, and myself while sniffing around the Signatory warehouse in Pitlochry, so there was no localized romanticism at work while we tasted an Islay classic in the dead center of the Scottish mainland. Our thinking was simply this: there's very little mature Bruichladdich left that hasn't either been funkdafied (a term I'm borrowing from Da Brat) in old, stale sherry, or glossed over and reshaped in some sort of first-growth Bordeaux wine cask. So much of what's available (and what's been available) from Bruichladdich has either been vatted into the Black Art series, or moved through into a super-pricey distillery exclusive 375ml (see my old 2012 photo below for a look at the gift shop shelf).

The bottles above are where most of the leftover Bruichladdich stock has ended up. The last bottle of pure, unmanipulated, ultra-mature Bruichladdich whisky I remember tasting from the distillery was the 1985 DNA release and I think we sold the last of that for $400 a bottle. These were the issues the three of us discussed as we stood there with Des, watching our breath freeze in front of us, cupping our hands around the Glencairn glasses in an attempt to warm up the barrel sample. K&L has always been a haven for Bruichladdich fans, an outpost for the distillery that began back with Susan Purnell in 2006. We should try to keep some of that fire alive, shouldn't we?

Speaking in terms of comparative pricing, the Bruichladdich 21 cask from Signatory is pretty well priced. It's a single barrel at 56.2% that comes in at $149.99, which seems more than fair considering the distillery 22 year chimes in at $200, and the 18 year (if you can still find it) sells for about $140. Again, what stands out for me is the purity of the whisky. It seems crazy to be living in an age when plain old hogshead whisky would be something to celebrate, but with Bruichladdich that's where we're at. The 21 year old cask from Signatory is malty on the nose with a faint trace of phenolic action. The Islay character is present in the aroma, even though the bouquet itself is gentle and not at all straightforward. The first sip is all salty biscuit, lemon with sweet grains, and then a hint of earthy peat on the finish. With water, the subtle phenols become more apparent. 

There's something utterly nostalgic about the whisky for me. I used to taste samples like this Bruichladdlich all the time a few years ago. You could get a cask like this whenever you wanted back then, so there was no real reason to get excited about something so omni-present. It's just simple, unpeated Islay whiskey that pleases the palate and goes down easy. As I have less time and less of a capacity to enjoy single malt these days, I find that I'd rather have something like this 21 year when I do get the chance to relax. It's no different than how I like to relax with a glass of 4% ABV English bitter rather than a 9% California IPA. It's no different than how I would rather drink two glasses of 11% French gamay, than one abrasive glass of 16% California Cabernet.

I miss the ability to just drink something simple, well-made, and straightforward that has a reasonable price tag and offers me a chance to recapture a bit of the past. Ultimately, it's possible that David OG and I bought this cask more for ourselves—for our personal enjoyment and consumption, rather than for our customers. Every year we go back to Scotland and find ourselves personally more interested in what won't sell, than what we can actually move through inventory of. It's exciting to find a barrel of whisky that we know people will like (and obviously it's our job to do so), but I think sometimes the two of us simply like to relive old liquid memories and can't help ourselves when we taste something like the Bruichladdich 21.

In the old single malt market, mature Bruichladdich from a hogshead wasn't all that prevalent, but it wasn't all that sought after either. In today's new market with $500 bottles of 25 year old standards, I'm not sure it's all that more desirable. That's OK, though. I don't mind sitting on this stuff for as long as we need. It's not like we can get more anyway. 

-David Driscoll


Weekend Cocktailing

Fall is officially here and the flavors of Autumn are on full display if you go around to some of the Bay Area's best restaurants. My wife and I headed to Flea Street Cafe in Menlo Park on Sunday, a place that once paid me to consult with their spirits department for two months and train their staff on all things liquor. They took much of my advice to heart, but they also ignored a lot of it. Looking back, I'm glad they didn't listen to me about the cocktails because I didn't understand their vibe back then as well as I do now. Flea Street is all about fresh, local produce in their food, so it makes sense that would transition over to their cocktails. I tried to steer them towards the whole pre-Prohibition schtick, but that didn't suit their clientele. Jesse Cool, the owner, is also less pretentious than other restaurant figureheads, so she didn't want to lose the element of fun in place of my more serious school of thought. I tried to get her to ditch the cocktail caddy on the side, but they kept it intact and my wife thinks it's the best thing ever. Shows what I know (very little sometimes).

I dropped in last night to see where Eloy (their humble bartender) had taken the menu and I was blown away. The list featured a number of classic drinks with only a slight variation. Rather than change the spirits or tweak the sweetener, Flea Street just added a bit of seasonal spice. Take the Lavender Lemon Drop for example. The lavender makes the entire drink.

Or the beet-infused mezcal margarita. Eloy boiled fresh beets in a broth of lime juice and sugar to create a beat/citrus simple syrup. Coupled with the smokey tang of the mezcal, it drinks like a harvest time dream.

Mixing cocktails with fresh produce can be as simple as just macerating fresh ginger into your tonic water before adding it to your gin. The Ginger Gin & Tonic was outstanding (because I switched them over to North Shore #11, I will take some credit) and it was just what I felt like sipping on mid-meal. By the way, if you've never eaten at Flea Street you're missing out on one of the Peninsula's great institutions. I've never had a meal there that was anything less than jaw-dropping. Besides the booze, we gorged on wild salmon crudo with fresh slaw, fried green tomatoes with a summer corn salsa, butternut squash soup, and all kinds of other subtle delights. I consider Flea Street to be Chez Panisse West. Jesse Cool is our Alice Waters.

And, of course, sitting around the house I'm just draining this bottle of Singani 63. I've drunk three bottles now in total and I'm still searching for a way to mess it up. It's like the ketchup of the bar. This is the only cocktail I've mixed so far that didn't work--a floral take on a Pimm's Cup that was totally out of whack. Too much soapy violet with the Pimm's in conjunction. But one drink out of fifty-seven isn't so bad! Singani continues to dominate my attention right now.

-David Driscoll


What's Really Good? (Updated 9/20/14)

I remember when the K&L spirits blog used to be just about updating customers on "what's really good" from our current selection. It was a way for David and I to carefully examine our spirits selection and come up with "the best" choices for discerning customers who wanted our personal opinion. But, of course, that was when you had "the best" selections available whenever you wanted them. That was when Black Maple Hill 16 and Vintage 17 Bourbons sat on the shelf all day long. Things are obviously different today, so I don't really see the point in writing that kind of blog anymore (nor am I really interested in that subject these days, anyway). Drinking "the best" spirits in today's market will require one or both of two things:

1) Time to call every store, scour every location, and troll every retailer website around the world.

2) Money to blow on the prices "the best" spirits are demanding (and "the so-so" ones, too).

If you asked me what "the best" Bourbons are—my personal favorites—I'd probably go in this order:

-Four Rose's Limited Edition Small Batch 

-Weller 12 Year Old


-Any of the Pappy Van Winkles

Those are the four Bourbons I would choose to drink if I wanted to drink "the best" American whiskies. Telling that to customers, however, is pointless because none of those whiskies are currently available on my shelf, nor will they be any time soon (if ever again, because most of this stuff either needs to be raffled, or it sells off the web in seconds). So there's no point in talking about what "the best" whiskies are anymore. It's about what you can actually get, and what hasn't doubled in price. I think most of us know that at this point, but it's always good to remind people every now and again.

I stopped worrying about "the best" years ago. It's great to try the best, to know the best, and to understand what makes one spirit "better" than another, but it's often not worth the struggle in my opinion. There are so many interesting things going on with spirits these days that I find I'd rather drink something new, exciting, or different than a better version of something I've already had. I could grab a bottle of Pappy for myself if I wanted to, or build a bunker of great bottles, but the truth is I don't get off on that. I just need a sip to remind myself every now and again—that's it. 

Enjoying "the best" whiskies available to man is a futile task in this current shortage. But the vacuum left in their absence is allowing for an entirely new wave of producers to try their hand at this whiskey thing. There's so much new stuff going on right now in the industry that you'd be crazy to sit on the sidelines and let it all pass you by (needless to say, I know plenty of grumpy grouches doing just that). With that philosophy in mind, I'll give you a list of a few things that I think are really fantastic right now and that I personally really enjoy:

1) Corbin Cash Rye Whiskey $46.99 - If you're going to compare this against that Van Winkle Reserve 13 year bottle you've got at home, then fuck off. This isn't for you. The Corbin rye is for people who think it's awesome that the liquid in this very interesting bottle comes from local rye grain, planted and harvested by David Souza in Atwater, CA as a cover crop for his sweet potato fields. The fact that it tastes great is an afterthought. It's all about the concept and the functionality. That's what makes drinking the Corbin rye enjoyable, in my opinion. If you're so pissed off about Templeton sourcing MGP whiskey, then go out and support someone like David doing everything from scratch simply because he loves it.

2) Westland Single Malt Whiskey $69.99 - I got to have lunch with Emerson Lamb from Westland Distillery a few weeks ago and I was very impressed with what he had to say. The guys at Westland in Seattle understand everything about this business in a very honest and positive way. They didn't jump into this adventure blindly. They dotted their i's and crossed their t's before investing in their infrastructure and it shows in their product. Their standard single malt whiskey is right there with Cut Spike as one of the best American versions on the market. Emerson brought me a sample of a new peated expression that was also stunning. Again, if you're going to compare this against Glendronach 12 or other older Scottish expressions, then you're missing the point. Those looking for price-performing comparisons need not apply. The Westland is for those of us who love trying new things from enterprising new producers. It transcends the abysmal craft scene, and extends to a new range of young new producers who respect their customers too much to offer them anything less than top-quality whiskey. 

3) Kavalan King Car Conductor Taiwanese Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - Sherry, sherry, and more sherry. Get over the fact that it's young and from Taiwan, and revel in its spectacular flavor. Sure, you could get a bottle of Glenmorangie 18 instead, and maybe the Glenmo 18 is a better whisky. But I'm not going to eat pizza every night just because it's better and cheaper than sushi. 

4) Nikka Coffey Still Japanese Grain Whisky $62.99 - YUM! Japanese grain whisky distilled on a Coffey column still, aged in sherry! Nope, there's no age statement. That's right—you don't know how old it is. Yes, it is more expensive than Aberlour 12 NCF, by about $13 per bottle. What would I choose? I think you know the answer. If you're hung up on the whole grain thing, then don't get one. No one's twisting your arm. There's not enough of it for those of us who love it, anyway. We had to slap an allocation on it a few weeks back. In fact, don't get a bottle. This whisky sucks. No one likes it but me.

5) Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Gin 375ml $44.99 - Our old German wine buyer Jeff Vierra emailed me this week to ask me if Christoph Keller was actually going to be in the SF store this Wednesday for the big Monkey 47 tasting. "Indeed, he will be," I replied. "That guy makes the best schnapps in the world, hands down," he answered back. Believe the hype. It's on another level. You want "the best" gin? It's here right now.

-David Driscoll