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Sunday
Apr142013

The Burnout Antidote (Part IV)

Why spend a whole week talking about whisk(e)y burnout?

First off, because I can sense it in the air. There's a glitch in the Matrix. A disturbance in the force. We're selling more whisk(e)y than ever, so it's got nothing to do with sales. People aren't buying less whisky, but I do feel like they're enjoying it less. I also get the feeling that many devout drinkers are getting less overall satisfaction from what it is they're spending. I had lunch with my friend Brian the other day who is in real estate and he confirmed the same pattern in the Bay Area housing market. Everyone thought the bubble was going to burst, but it bounced right back and now there's no inventory. You can still buy a house. As long as you've got a million dollars. Oh, and you'll need to pay in cash. Up front.

Let's say you've got a million in cash, up front. Is that what you want to spend it on? My friend Brian is reporting the same type of burnout with some of his clients. They're tired of waking up every morning, going to open houses, getting their hopes up with an offer, only to find out they've been outbid by someone else. Another friend of mine is in the same situation. He's been trying to buy a place for the last year and he's finally given up. All of the promotion about low interest rates, loans coming easier, and a strong market got him all excited. Then, when he went out to actually get a place, he found there weren't any places to get. There were plenty of places he wanted to buy, but the prices kept going up, up, up. When you finally close on a deal you might find you've overspent and that doesn't make for a satisfied consumer.

When we walked into some of our favorite Scottish warehouses last month, we could feel that something was wrong. Again, there was just that feeling in the air. It was confirmed when we looked at the price sheets after tasting through samples. $140 a bottle for 14 year old Laphroaig? $60 a bottle for a 6 year old Caol Ila? We purposely tasted through less-mature whisky, thinking some of these younger malts might offer value, much like someone going after a condo instead of a house. But then you're hit with the HOA fees and other hidden costs that take away from any possible savings, so you really didn't save much in the end. That's part of the reason that last year's casks were mostly in the $100+ range. It was simply worth spending the extra money to get something better.

What did we do differently this year as a result? We really put in the research. We found guys who sell casks, but don't bottle. We found ex-distillery employees who kept a few casks after retirement, but now want to part with them. We dug up every barrel we could find, no matter what the name, provenance, or age and we tasted them. All of them. Close to 250 casks in all. Many of these brokers are not as connected as brands like Signatory or Gordon & MacPhail. They don't have the customer base or the reputation for quality, so they're not charging the same premium. We found young peated whiskies. We found fifteen year old casks from places like Fettercairn or Blair Athol. We tasted blended whiskies as well. If we could find value we could possibly help relieve our market from sticker shock and further whisky burnout.

I can't imagine buying a house with a mortgage that took up every dollar I earned each month. Not being able to go out, living off of tuna fish, just so I could own my own place. It's not worth it to me and I know I would burnout fast with that type of lifestyle. Similarly, I don't want K&L customers to look at quality whisky as something they have to scrimp and save for. Maybe for a bottle of Port Ellen, but certainly not for a bottle of Laphroaig 14. There are plenty of value-priced whiskies on the market still, but die-hard whisky customers want new things. What's next? What's new? "I want something that I can't just get anywhere else," is the number one request in the K&L liquor department. I get asked for something new and unique fifty times a day. These guys have had Clynelish 14, Aberlour 12, and Highland Park a jillion times. They're beyond those bottles now. After nurturing a passion for single casks over the last couple of years, it seems like such a shame to call $100 the new $50 for this type of product.

What can we do about it as retailers? Work harder. Find deals. Do your job. I think we've done it this year. Royal Lochnagar. Bowmore. Fettercairn. Aberlour. Longmorn. Blended whiskies. Blended malts. Whatever we could find that had a great taste and a great price. That's the antidote for whisky burnout. Value. Finding a new, exciting, interesting whisky that you can afford to drink and still have money left over. Many of the K&L bottles this season will be geared towards consumption. You won't have to dollup out a thimble-full here and there. If things go as planned (fingers crossed) we could have as many as fifteen single barrel, high-proof whiskies that should sell for far less than $100. Less than $70 in many cases. Maybe even less than $60. I don't know yet because we haven't done all the math.

I'm hoping that this stimulus package puts a jolt back into the industry. We can't win by purchasing Diageo whisky and selling it for cost anymore (although that was fun, wasn't it?). I'm hoping that fun, drinkable, and affordable whiskies can make drinking single malt whisky something we do every night, rather than only for special occasions.

We'll see.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Apr132013

Our Whisk(e)y Could Be Your Life

There's a famous book by Michael Azerrad called Our Band Could Be Your Life that documents the influence of punk rock during the 1980s. I've always loved the title of that work because I think it succinctly summarizes how seriously some people take their music. Imagine if you started a band and you had people following you from city to city, getting tattoos of your name across their chest, reciting your lyrics at every show, even arguing over what they think you mean by them. I remember going to watch Stephen Malkmus at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco about five years ago and it was nuts. The whole room was full of people who were cat-calling songs they wanted him to play. He already had a setlist he was working through, but people were really clamoring for old Pavement tracks. At one point he forgot the lyrics to a song he was playing by request, "Vanessa From Queens." We all shouted the words out to him so he could keep going. I remember thinking, "I know all the words to every Stephen Malkmus song by heart, but Stephen Malkmus doesn't?" When it comes to music I think we, as fans, have a tendency to over-inflate the importance of these songs to the artists themselves. What may mean the world to you could be just another jingle to them, one of hundreds that they're forgotten about over time. I think similar analogies could be made about whisky.

We've all been to a concert where an older artist is supporting new material. The artist wants to play the new stuff, but we want to hear the old stuff. We politely tolerate a few Bridges to Babylon tracks because we know Mick is going to pump out "Brown Sugar" and "Gimme Shelter" if we're patient enough. As it pertains to whisky, I've watched grown men practically grill brand ambassadors or master distillers over releasing more Supernova or making another batch of Parker's Heritage #1. I've sponsored customer events where people show up for free food and free booze with the whiskymaker, but sit there and argue with the guest over changing the specs to fit their particular desire. "Can't you make a peated Aberlour? Why not? I'd buy one! Isn't that reason enough?"

In all of my time playing the middleman between customers and producers, I've learned one very important lesson: the companies making the spirits usually don't care nearly as much as the customers do about their alcohol. They're trying to make money, not friends. If their particular product resonates with you, that's great. They're happy to hear it. However, when a customer starts showing up at company meetings, emailing regularly, and exhibiting groupie-esque behavior, it can start to get a little weird for the guys making the whisky. On the other side of that coin, the producers often times do not understand that creating a spirit automatically enters them into a passionate community of liquor fans. Whether they like it or not, they now have websites dedicated to their cause, message board threads documenting their every move, and an HR employee whose inbox is likely overloaded with detailed questions about production. Some spirits will achieve rock star status. Some will simply enjoy a few years of moderate fame. Some will resent success, others will embrace it.

If you asked me to list off every Ardbeg release since 2005 in chronological order, I could do it. If you asked Bill Lumsden the same question on the spot, he could probably answer it as well. However, if he forgot a few names or misplaced the order of a few, I wouldn't be surprised. Nor would I read anything into it. The guys making the whisky are busy doing that - actually making the whisky. They're not categorically managing the entirety of whisky culture in their minds at all times. A lot of whiskymakers have no idea what's going on outside of their own company. Kilchoman? What's that? Whereas someone like me thinks about booze all day and all night, it doesn't necessarily follow that the people making it do as well.

Like the time I had to help Stephen Malkmus remember the lines to one of his more obscure songs. What was more embarrassing? The fact that he had forgotten them? Or the fact that I knew them and had the nerve to shout them out?

-David Driscoll

Friday
Apr122013

ArteNom Developments

I had lunch with Jacob Lustig today, tequila afficionado and K&L hero. We're Jake's top account for tequila in the world, mainly because everyone who works here is in love with his booze. It's practically the only tequila we recommend anymore. When your stuff is that good and this well-priced, it's hard to put another bottle in someone's hand. In any case, Jake was stopping by to tell me that the distillery in Santa Maria, which makes the 1079 Blanco tequila, has changed ownership and filed for a new NOM number. The next batch of Blanco will therefore carry the new 1580 number. Jake was worried that this change would confuse people, but since the tequila is from a new batch anyway (with a distinctly different flavor) it might be better to change the number along with it. I got the chance to open the new 1580 and I almost like it better. There's a distinct vegetal note that really pops along with the spice.

Jake also runs a distillery in Oaxaca where he's making some fantastic everyday mixing mezcal. Like myself, Jake is not interested in collecting or amassing, he's interested in consumption. His goal was to make a clean, tasty mezcal that you wouldn't feel guilty about when you emptied the bottle in a single evening with friends. A mezcal that you could pour out generously and celebrate with, alongside a 24 pack of beer. He's definitely achieved that goal.

We'll have these in stock next week!

-David Driscoll

Friday
Apr122013

Time to Relax (Part III)

Do you remember that scene in Amelie when Audrey Tautou gives the man the video of the horse running through the bicycle race? It's a touching moment when a shut-in who hasn't been able to leave his house realizes that life is beautiful and he needs to get back out into the world.

A friend sent me this video this morning via email and I just sat spellbound for the entire duration watching this guy shred the keyboard. I completely forgot the order I was working on, the whisky notes I needed to type up, and I just sat there smiling. Remember to keep up with the world as a whole, not just the internet whisky scene. It's a great big planet and there are many wonderful things happening as we speak. Now can someone please get married and invite this guy to play at their wedding?

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Apr112013

Black Barrel Arrives (Ginger Beer, Anyone?)

While we're still waiting on the two single barrels of Mount Gay Black Barrel to arrive, the standard edition is now available at K&L. I'm a big fan of this rum and I think it's really going to appeal to Bourbon fans. Again, if you're getting tired of the standard fare this is great chance to spend relatively little and taste something new, yet familiar. The spice, richness, and overall flavor are classic vanilla, sweet cane, and barrel spice. I could dump this over a glass of ice, sit outside, and finish the whole bottle with ease. We drank this with ginger beer in Barbados and no one was complaining (and that's not because we were being polite to Uncle Remy). 

Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum $25.99

-David Driscoll