Gettin' Dirty

Yes—given my penchant for dive bars, street food, movies like Roadhouse and Ski School, and the wonderful world of professional wresting—I do love to sample the ridiculous flavors of booze out there that might fall into the "so-bad-it's-good" group, or the ironic consumption category of "I'm only drinking it because it's so terrible."

I have bottles like the one above scattered all over my desk, and every sales rep in the Bay Area knows that I'm always interested in tasting things like peanut butter and jelly liqueur, or bubble gum flavored schnapps. But this new flavor from Pinnacle takes the cake—literally; it takes the cake and liquefies it into vodka. My favorite part about the new Cinnabon-flavored vodka from Pinnacle is the fact that it's not called "cinnamon roll flavored vodka," but rather "imitation cinnamon roll flavored vodka." It's not saying that the vodka is an imitation of a cinnamon roll. It's literally saying that Cinnabon's products themselves are so chemically-enhanced that they aren't really cinnamon rolls, but rather imitations of a cinnamon roll!! Hence, the vodka is flavored to taste like an imitation of a cinnamon roll, rather than, say, an actual cinnamon roll. Amazing!

I love being the spirits buyer. It's days like this that make all the hard work worthwhile.

-David Driscoll


Cognac Preview #1 — Claude Thorin

We are going to sell so much Claude Thorin Cognac at K&L this year that I expect it to be a household name with our customer base by 2015. Brandy drinkers searching for Grand Champagne quality at reasonable prices are going to be thrilled—there's nothing this good for this cheap on the American market and we're bringing in a whole lotta Thorin for that very reason.

All of the new-make from Claude Thorin goes into new Limousin oak for the first twelve months before being transferred into used russet barrels. From what I tasted, there is very little coloring or boise being added to the final blends as the clean, fruit-driven flavor of Grand Champagne is front and center. There's nothing transcendent going on with each sip, just good, honest brandy from a French farmer. It's when you see the price tags that your eyes jump out of your head.

We were very interested in just about everything that Mr. Thorin poured us that afternoon at his chateau, but we narrowed our scope down to four basic expressions: the core range of VS, VSOP, and Napoleon, along with a 2002 Vintage that was so clean it reminded us of the Bruichladdich Bere Barley whisky from a while back. We're expecting the VS (a five year old marriage) to clock in around $29.99, the VSOP (made from eight year old brandies) at $39.99, and the Napoleon (a fifteen year old expression) for around $59.99. The 2002 Vintage should be about $59.99 as well. These will be the work-horse brandies of our collection and we're pretty sure that—after trying out a bottle or two—you'll be back for seconds.

-David Driscoll


Armagnac Preview #5 — Domaine d'Ognoas

The seigneury of Ognoas dates back to the 11th century. For more than seven hundred years it was occupied by various lords and viscountesses until 1847, when the last remaining heir donated the property to the church. In 1905, the Domaine was passed over to the regional government and today the 565 hectare estate is run by the Conseul General des Landes and is operated as an agricultural school.

The distillery at Ognoas is considered the oldest in Gascony and has been in operation since 1780. The estate has baco, ugni blanc, and folle blanche planted on site and—perhaps the coolest part of the operation—Ognoas uses its own trees (from the 300 hectares of forest on the property) to make their own oak casks for maturation. A local cooper does all the work at the Domaine and selects the trees himself.

In the past we've bottled single vintage expressions from Ognoas that have always offered soft-fruited texture and a round, creamy profile—unlike some of the woodier, spicier selections we see from other producers. This year we opted for an XO marriage of vintages that brought heaps of rich flavor at a very affordable price point. We think we can possibly get the XO on the shelf for around $50, which will—at that price—be the best deal we carry in brown booze, period.

-David Driscoll


Armagnac Preview #4 — Pellehaut

Along with Baraillon, we've been working directly with the Pellehaut Armagnacs for three years now (and even longer if you count the standard Reserve expression that Charles Neal has been importing for the last decade). They're one of the largest producers in the region and they're definitely the biggest name from the Tenareze (they also make a great deal of wine at the estate). "Big" is a relative term in Armagnac, however. Pellehaut would be considered a tiny craft distiller in the United States, but since their scale of production is vast and efficient, they're usually a source of supreme value when it comes to mature sprits. It's not unusual for us to find 30+ year old Armagnac for around $100 when we visit Pellehaut.

Located near the town of Montreal-du-Gers, Pellehaut has 140 hectares of fruit in the Tenareze (compared to 16 hectares at Baraillon) and they mature their distilled spirit in a variety of different casks. Owned by the Béraut family, which purchased the estate after WWII, the property is run today by the sons of Gaston: Matheau and Martin, who have apprenticed at Tariquet, Beycheville, and even Au Bon Climat near Santa Barbara. Today they grow mostly ugni blanc and folle blanche (which also make for tasty wine). For maturation, they begin with new oak (of various types), but often transfer the brandy to 400 liter barrels when the wood becomes too dominant a flavor.

We've bottled a number of Pellehaut expressions from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s in the past, and this year's crop will showcase a similar level of diversity. We chose more of the 1973 vintage, still as creamy and rich as we remember it, and a larger quantity of 1978; which popped in all the right places and finished with dry herbs and baking spices. We also opted for a 100% Folle Blanche expression from 1994 that showcased the new oak much like a fine Bourbon would, yet finished with the dusty complexity that only folle blanche brandies seem to offer. A fruit driven 2000 vintage offered contrast with more of a vinous character, and of course we stocked up on more L'Age de Glace—the young mixing brandy that took the store by storm last year.

The 1973 should clock in right around the $105 mark with everything else far under the century mark. There's a reason these brandies sell out first every time we bring in a new crop—they're delicious and low-priced.

-David Driscoll


Armagnac Preview #3 — Domaine de Laballe

Armagnac has been distilled at Domaine de Laballe since Jean-Dominique Laudet returned from the Caribbean to his native Gascony and purchased the estate in Parleboscq. It was Noel Laudet, however, who modernized the operation in the 1970s when he left his position as director at famed Bordeaux producer Chateau Beycheville in St. Julien and returned home to expand his family's estate into wine production, as well as Armagnac. After Noel, however, production at Laballe stopped until the 8th generation came back to take the reigns. Today, Cyril Laudet and his wife Julie have restarted operations at the Domaine and have recommitted to the tradition of their ancestors.

Julie was there to meet us when we visited the property this past March and taste us on a number of selections. Because of the stoppage between generations everything available at Laballe is either quite old or quite young—pre-1993 or post 2001. As we were searching for more value-priced expressions, we were excited to taste the simple VS and VSOP selections. We were instantly impressed by their precocious drinkability; they had spice and richness without too much oak-dominated tannin. Laballe has been using the same wood-fired still since 1923. The older expressions are mostly baco, while the newer releases focus mainly on ugni blanc.

We were very happy with the basic Laballe VS expression—to the point that we loaded up substantially. We're counting on general drinkability and a shockingly-low price point (think $32-ish) to woo our discerning drinkers into Armagnac happiness. We also selected one vintage from the old guard, and one from the new blood: a very Bourbon-esque 1992 selection that shows rich wood and notes of barrel spice; and a young, vibrant 2004 expression with lovely fruit and toasty oak.

-David Driscoll