More French Booze, Plus Two

Well, after that last little huff n' puff, I give you three wonderful new products that were not distilled in Indiana.

Germain Robin K&L Single Barrel Blend CB2014B Alambic Brandy $59.99 - Labeled as Blend CB2014B - Barrel #134, this is our second barrel purchase from California legends Germain Robin in Ukiah. Aged in French Limousin oak, this brandy begins with a lovely flurry of fresh fruit before settling into more classic Cognac flavors of caramel and subtle toffee.  The balance of this batch is impeccable and the brandy is decidedly better than the standard Craft Method in our opinion.  Germain Robin already makes an amazing and affordable brandy, so we weren't going to take a cask unless it was significantly better or different than the standard expressions.  In this case, it's both. Round, supple, but full of life and character. This is a bottle you won't want to miss. Only 200 bottles available.

Domaine d' Ognoas K&L Exclusive XO Armagnac $49.99 - We're back with another new release from one of our favorite French producers from whom we buy spirits directly! 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. Perhaps the coolest part of the operation is that 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. Rather than another vintage selection, this year we opted for an XO marriage of vintages that brought heaps of rich flavor at a very affordable price point. Softer fruit and rich woody flavors permeate the intial sip, and the accents of spice and dark caramel carry through to the finish. There's no better deal in the $50 range.

Lost Spirits Distillery 151 Proof Cuban Style Rum $39.99 - Our madcap distiller friend Bryan Davis is back with a new 151 proof Cuban style rum that represents his best work to date. While Lost Spirits started off as a whisky operation, no one can argue that their best releases so far have been the Navy Style and Polynesian rums. They are taking the country by storm and this new Cuban style rum -- lighter and more focused on the sugar cane flavor -- just debuted at this year's Tales of the Cocktail. Despite its incredibly high proof, this rum drinks like a dream. The flavors are seamless and subtle, never funky or out of whack, and the cocktail mixing potential is endless. Plus, it's only $40! No one else is putting out rum of this quality, let alone of this value (and the label is absolutely gorgeous). Bryan Davis is killing it right now.

-David Driscoll



I read a really thorough article yesterday from the Daily Beast concerning a "craft" whiskey trend that's been going on for years: the fact that small distillers are purchasing bulk whiskey from MGP (formerly known as LDI), putting it into their own custom package, and posing as if they distilled it themselves; usually opting not to mention that the whiskey was made elsewhere (which is technically illegal). However, unlike many fine, outstanding people I know who care deeply about booze and its provenance, I'm not really all that offended by the idea of this practice. It's not that I don't care, or don't understand what's happening; because I do. I get why people think it's annoying, believe me.

1) Prideful producers who do distill their own whiskey have to compete against a cheaper product posing as a producing competitor. That's really annoying.

2) People think they're buying Iowa whiskey, or Oregon whiskey, or Wisconsin whiskey from a small, local producer, only to find out that they're buying bulk product from a plant in Indiana.

3) The practice is misleading, somewhat dishonest, and meant to capitalize on the sentimental nature of certain shoppers.

It's not like I haven't been doing my share to debunk these romantic tales. I've spent five years educating consumers about the fact that High West, Bulleit, Templeton, Old Scout, Redemption, Willett, Crater Lake, Dickel, and a slew of other rye labels are all made by the same distillery in Indiana, thinking they'll be shocked at the news. What I've found, however, is that the large, overwhelming, staggering majority of my whiskey customers do not care. One guy said to me last week:

"They don't all taste the same, though."

"That's true; they don't," I answered.

"Then what does it matter? There's still a difference between them. I'll just pick the one that tastes the best to me."

I didn't have an answer for that because he was completely right. Here was a guy who simply cared about the taste, not the story. If your primary concern is flavor (which is what we all like to think dictates our purchasing decisions), then the news that your favorite "craft" whiskey is really made at MGP in Indiana isn't really all that devastating. It's only the people buying on the specs who are annoyed (as I've written in the past, buying purely on specs is often a way to guarantee your own disappointment). Most casual drinkers could care less about where their whiskey comes from as long as it tastes good and has a proportional quality to value ratio—and, honestly, the MGP ryes are often both cheap and tasty. As one commenter on the Daily Beast article wrote:

So pompous, ignorant snobs who wouldn't know a single malt from a chocolate malt get ripped off. Where do I go to care about this?

With the exception of whiskey geeks on the internet, this is actually how most people I meet react to the MGP story (Devious practices being pulled on eager enthusiasts? Why is this news?). But as a self-proclaimed spirits geek, and someone who cares about alcohol and strives his hardest to find the most authentic, charismatic, and interesting spirits on the planet, why am I not outraged? Because, as one of my favorite rappers Slick Rick once said: this type of shit happens everyday.

Human beings are obsessed with authenticity, originality, and natural ability, yet we continue to idolize and be fooled by those claiming to present us with hyper-versions of these assets—those hoping to bask in our collective awe. This duplicitous behavior, in my opinion, isn't so much about getting paid as it is about ego and giving people what they think they want. In my thirty-four years on this planet, I have watched a number of people pose as if their own natural ability were responsible for their success—much like those "craft" distillers in the article who believe they actually had something to do with making the whiskey. When certain people are hungry for attention and accolades, they're always going to do what's necessary to obtain them. And they are always going to lie about how they did it. I've been watching it happen my entire life.

- How many athletes have broken records and shattered the limits of what was physically possible, claiming that their own natural ability was the only thing at work in their achievements?

- How many celebrities, from A to D-listers, have had plastic surgery, tummy tucks, face lifts, and physical enhancements, then claimed that diet, exercise, and hard work brought them their good looks? (read this story for a fun look at how far this fad has gone)

- How many of my friends in high school cheated on exams, took short cuts, and lied about ethnic backgrounds and achievements on their college applications, then got accepted to Harvard and Stanford, and had the balls to say it was their own intelligence that got them there? At least twenty (including my "native American" friend who got into UCLA because of her stunning 2.9 GPA).

- How many authors have written books about personal struggle and overcoming diversity, only for us to find out it was all a hoax? More than we know, but James Frey's A Million Little Pieces is a good place to start.

- How many Cognac producers will tell you that they add nothing to their brandy, and that the flavor and color are due to 100% French oak maturation and quality fruit? Answer: all of them. Truth: maybe a handful of them actually don't use boise or caramel coloring.

There are many things in life that continue to baffle and annoy me, like why does that guy on the freeway think he can go 55 mph in the fast lane and not yield to faster drivers? However, wondering why "craft" distillers lie about their whiskey isn't on that list. I already know the answer to that question. It's the same reason that Barry Bonds lied about taking steroids to break both the single season and all-time home run records. It's the same reason that girl at the bar said she had surgery for a deviated septum and not a cosmetic nose job. It's the same reason that cases of celiac disease have gone up 2000% in the face of the new gluten-free dieting fad. And it's the same reason that people who have fake British accents claim to have "picked something up" while living abroad for a year. Some people want to be seen as special, significant, and superior—and they are willing to delude both you and themselves to do so (watch HBO's Eastbound and Down for a HILARIOUS take on this subject).

In the end, if every one of these bottlers were to print "distilled in Indiana" on the label and follow the law as it is written, I don't think it would make all that much of a difference to consumers. Even when the information is right there on the bottle, it's often ignored in the face of the bigger story (which is why these people know they can lie!). Every single day I have customers tell me they love that delicious Bay Area-distilled Bourbon—you know, St. George Breaking & Entering (despite the fact that the label clearly says "Kentucky"). I have daily vendors coming in, telling me about their new "craft" whiskies—100 % self-distilled—even though it says "Indiana" right there on the bottle. People often don't read labels, or pay attention to detail. When this happens, it's quite easy to take advantage of a little white lie. Once you've been burnt, you just learn to be skeptical all of the time (as I've said before: assume that everyone is lying to you).

Rather than depend on a government-approved label to tell me what's what, I just look for the play. If you're really interested in the truth, a few words on a piece of paper isn't going to cut it. We'll all need to be a little more like Sam Rothstein from Casino:

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. But that's hardly news to me, nor is it all that upsetting, because it's what I've come to expect in life. The TTB should definitely start enforcing the distilling laws as they've been written, but it's not going to stop people from being human. Nor will it make the whiskey in your bottle taste any better.

-David Driscoll


No More Bottled Tonic

I have tried a few various tonic syrups in this new era of home-made potions, but I've always gone back to Fever Tree or other pre-bottled tonic waters in the end. Many of the syrups I've tried completely changed the flavor of my gin and tonic into something wildly different—not necessarily bad, but not at all what I was looking for. I wasn't really interested in trying newer versions until my friend Jennifer Colliau recently added one to her Small Hand Foods collection. For the record, if Jen makes something—be it a cocktail, or the ingredients for a cocktail—you can count on it tasting good. I've sat at the Slanted Door counter enough times, drinking myself into oblivion while she tested new concoctions on me and my wife—us moaning and groaning with pleasure, while Jen innocently asked, "Is that good?"

So this past weekend I took home a bottle of her new tonic syrup and followed the instructions on the label: add one half ounce to soda water; with some gin, of course. The result? A classic G&T flavor with the concentration turned up just a bit. The quinine is there, front and center, but the touch of sweetness and accent of spice is lovely. I'm a new convert. After vowing never again to stray from bottled tonic water, now I don't see myself ever going back.

The SHF tonic syrup is a must-have product for the home bartender (but, really, all of her syrups are).

-David Driscoll


French Second Wave

Hang on to your hats, people! This second wave is much larger than the first, and it's the one that might knock you off your feet and drag you deeper down into the dangerous sea of brandy. We sold through a lot of the initial stock after yesterday's email, but there's more coming today, Tuesday, and to Los Angeles on Friday, so don't worry!

Domaine de Baraillon

Unlike distilleries that operate day in and day out, perfecting the distillation process in order to improve consistency, the Claveries are not worried about consistency. They only distill one week out of the year, so each batch reflects not only the vintage of the grapes, but the conditions on the farm at that particularly time. You have to remember—the Claveries have been living in the same house since 1749. They use fruit from around their property, but also from Mr. Claverie's sister in Le Freche. They do not use new oak, but rather 5,000 liter, used-vats that house the brandy until other barrel space opens up, or until they can afford to buy more wood. It's not about consistency at Baraillon, but rather what's possible at that particular moment in time (which each vintage represents). Sometimes the barrels from a vintage are blended together, sometimes they're not. It all depends on what's needed.

And that's why we feel the Baraillon Armagnacs are the most "authentic" spirit we carry; they reflect the everyday issues of everyday people attempting to make something great with their own two-hands.

Domaine de Baraillon 20 Year Old K&L Exclusive Armagnac $69.99 -  If you like big, bold, chewy, meaty, mouth-filling spirits, then this 20 year old Baraillon is for you. It's a big, teeth-gripping Armagnac that packs caramel and fruit into one monstrous mouthfeel.

1995 Domaine de Baraillon 19 Year Old K&L Exclusive Folle Blanche Armagnac $89.99 - The 1995 is classic Baraillon -- loaded with dark, brooding fruit, heavy oak and caramel, but with the bright, flurry of spice that only Folle Blanche Armagnac can offer. It's both rustic and lively.

1988 Domaine de Baraillon 26 Year Old K&L Exclusive Folle Blanche Armagnac $109.99 - While older than the 1995 Folle Blanche expression we also have, the 1988 vintage is much less rich and more fruit-driven than its sister cask. The vanilla is lighter, the wood less dominant, allowing the perfumy nature of the varietal fruit to shine.

1974 Domaine de Baraillon 40 Year Old K&L Exclusive Bas-Armagnac $139.99 - There are big hopes when someone plunks down their hard-earned money on a 40 year bottle of Scotch because you're probably talking at least $500. For $140, you're getting the deal of a lifetime from Baraillon -- 100% baco-distilled goodness that has seen four decades of oak maturation. There are deep, concentrated flavors of caramel, rancio galore, and tannic wood spices that are completely balanced by the sweetness of the fruit. The fact that we're the only people importing this stuff is shocking (but of course we're not going to complain!)

Chateau 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. (NOTE: Charles and I were laughing yesterday about another negociant label floating around called "Laballe" that is all purchased, reduced, watered-down leftovers, and not Laballe Armagnac directly from the Domaine. Don't be fooled if you see that elsewhere).

Chateau de Laballe K&L Exclusive VS Armagnac $34.99 - The VS is going to be a fan favorite -- it has all the varietal flavor of the fruit, but enough richness to round out the palate and give the wooded spirits fans their dessert. It's spicy and dry on the finish, making it perfect for rocks drinks or cocktails.

2004 Chateau de Laballe 10 Year Old K&L Exclusive Vintage Cask Strength Armagnac $99.99 - This ten year old 2004 vintage Armagnac is for Bourbon drinkers who want to try something new. All the wood spices, pepper, oak, and heat are packed into this cask strength number. Big, bold flavor (52.4%) that finishes with an herbaceous kick. It's quite stunning and will definitely be one of the stars from this year's crop.

1992 Chateau de Laballe 22 Year Old K&L Exclusive Vintage Armagnac $119.99 - Those who loved the 1996 Pellehaut or Darroze 20 year expressions from past years are going to go bonkers for this. It's a huge, rich, dark chocolate and sweet fruited entry that blasts you with baking spices and sweetness right off the bat. The richness is tempered by oak and wood along the mid-palate and the brandy finishes with a dry, savory note. This is the kind of Armagnac that changes both hearts and minds.

Claude Thorin Cognac

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.

Claude Thorin K&L Exclusive VS Cognac $29.99 - The VS is fresh, clean, and fruit-driven, mimicing the best $40 options of Grand Champagne but for $10 less. 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. Grower-producer Cognac for $29.99 -- it's about time that our French brandy program caught up to our Champagne department. With that analogy in mind, Claude Thorin is the Frank Bonville of Cognac.

Claude Thorin K&L Exclusive VSOP Cognac $44.99 - The VSOP is older, and therefore richer than the standard VS with plenty of soft caramel, rich vanilla, and pure Grand Champagne fruit behind it. The result is stunning and we'd expect something of this quality to sell for $60 or even $70. At $44.99, it's almost too good to be true.

2002 Claude Thorin K&L Exclusive Vintage Cognac $59.99 - There's very little vintage Cognac being sold on the market because of the strict laws surrounding the process and the fact that most Cognacs are carefully-crafted blends. To taste a Grand Champagne brandy from one single year is quite rare, and therefore a bit more pricey. Nevertheless, we thought the result was definitely worth the extra few bucks. For those whisky fans who were fortunate enough to taste Bruichladdich's Bere Barley experiment, this Cognac is just as wonderfully pure. Gone are the creamy, undulating waves of richness and in their place are fresh and snappy fruit flavors contained inside of a leaner, brighter mouthfeel. It's quite surprising and it's a peek at what's possible for French Cognac when you dare to step outside of tradition and into something more rudimentary and interesting.

-David Driscoll


The Big Easy at Hard Water

When I first started out in this business no local establishment was more helpful, friendly, and eager to help me understand the cocktail scene than the Slanted Door in San Francisco. I quickly met Erik Adkins, Erik Ellestad, and Jennifer Colliau over drinks at Heaven's Dog (now called the Coachman—and the only bar I allow to carry our exclusive Faultline selections), frequently popped in to see them and ask questions, and continued to bring excited enthusiasts to both establishments for some serious booze education. They are not only open and welcoming, they are the very best at what they do (maybe tied with the guys from Bar Agricole, but they all used to work at Heaven's Dog, so it's all the same thing, right?) Over the years I've continued to work with Erik Adkins, who now also manages the Slanted Door group's newest incarnation along the Pier 3 waterfront: Hard Water. I had been hearing great things about this place for months (the New York Times recently released a piece about the spot) and I had been long overdo for a visit. The last time I saw Erik he said to me, "You're like a unicorn, man. I never see you anywhere anymore." The perfect opportunity came last night, however, when my two favorite gals in the biz—Joan and Amy from Whiskey Advocate—called me up and said, "We're in town! Let's go to dinner!"

"Where should we meet?" they asked.

"Hard Water!" I exclaimed.

There is no better place to bring two American whiskey geeks than Hard Water. Their wall of Bourbon and rye is absolutely insane. Anything you could possibly want is open and available for purchase—Pappy, old Black Maple Hill selections, even A.H. Hirsch 16. The prices are even reasonable (you can get a flight of Weller 12, Jefferson's 18, and a few other wheaters for $30). I know Erik worked very hard before Hard Water opened to source as many old and rare American whiskies as possible, anticipating the bar's NOLA-American theme. Not only is the selection outstanding, but the service is first rate as well; the staff is professional and attentive (never snobby or elitist), they have great glassware, and even eyedroppers so that you can carefully add water to your whiskey with precision. You can be as obsessive-compulsive as you want and they'll back you up every step of the way.

My favorite part about Hard Water (and about the Coachman & Slanted Door), however, is the cocktail menu. I'm quite frank about not enjoying whiskey cocktails. They're just not my thing. Nevertheless, I wasn't going to sit down at the whiskey counter and order a Gin Fizz, so I chose the most complicated choice I knew I would never make for myself at home: a Mint Julep. And, man, did the bartender nail it—the metal cup, the perfectly-pebbled ice, the beautiful garnish, and the cold, chilled flavor of Old Grand Dad with a touch of sweetness. I had arrived early so that I could sit quietly for a while, take in the scene, and eavesdrop a bit on the crowd (one of my favorite things to do). There's a diverse and eclectic group at Hard Water—from the businessmen letting off steam, to the yoga pants-wearing women enjoying a post-pilates cocktail, to the well-dressed, well-groomed San Francisco scenesters. Everyone was enjoying themselves and some kind of whiskey concotion on a fine summer evening; it was a fantastic vibe. By the time Joan and Amy showed up, however, I was starved!

Let me tell you the most important facet about Hard Water: it's the food. The small plates are OUTSTANDING. And they're filling! I'm sooooooooooooooo sick of olive dishes, pickled things, specks of meat, and tiny bites when I go out drinking. If you're going to serve me a potion of pure distilled liquor, then you had better put something substantial in my stomach and not force me to go down the street for pizza. The menu at Hard Water may look a bit fancy-pantsy, but it's really just total down-home goodness. We had fried alligator with spicy mayo (almost like calamari), crispy pulled pork (like deep-fried carnitas), and a huge plate of fried chicken and waffles that was simply divine. I can't tell you how wonderful it is to have a beautiful bar where I can talk to friends, look at the Bay Bridge over the water, order a well-made whiskey cocktail, eat something delicious, and even pour a glass of something unique—like Hard Water's own privately-bottled nine year old Willett (which is worth the drive).

The Slanted Door group has knocked it out of the park with Hard Water. You can geek out, pig out, chill out, and pass out all in one spot. I will be back again very, very soon, as it's easily the best whiskey bar I've ever been to.

-David Driscoll