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Tuesday
Nov152011

Judging Out of Context

"I don't add ice to my whisky and I don't water it down."  Fair enough.  These are words that I hear often on the sales floor when I recommend proofing down certain whiskies.  If you like the George T. Stagg at full strength, then you are a braver man than I am.  There's no harm in sipping full throttle Bourbon or even single malts for that matter, in my opinion, because most of the time it's done by guys who appreciate the whiskies anyway.  What worries me, however, is when I hear that same remark after someone decides to buy the Hibiki 12, the new Compass Box Great King Street, or any other blended whisky that was made to drink on the rocks. 

I remember hearing someone from the industry trash the Isle of Skye blended whiskies at a trade tasting, saying that it didn't sip as neatly as a standard Talisker.  Since when did any one say that we're supposed to "sip" the Isle of Skye?  That's a whisky meant to throw down with a handful of ice and a highball glass and it's a darn good one at that.  I understand the idea of not enjoying water with one's whisky, but why judge one of these products on the same standard as a single malt meant to be taken neat?  If I have people over for some spicy Szechuan cuisine and I open a bottle of German riesling and a bottle of young, tannic Bordeaux, the riesling is going to taste great.  The Bordeaux on the other hand might taste terrible with all that spicy chili - a flavor profile it isn't meant to pair with.  That wouldn't be the Bordeaux's fault, however, that's my own ignorance at play.

From everything I've learned and experienced about Japanese whisky, it's specifically designed to be watered down - sometimes heavily so.  John Glaser specifically crafted the Great King Street for highball cocktails.  That doesn't mean that you can't enjoy these whiskies without water, but it does mean that you shouldn't be holding them to the same standards as your after dinner night cap if you choose to drink them out of context.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Nov152011

Special North Shore Tasting Tonight

Sonja Kassebaum from Chicago's North Shore Distillery will be stopping by K&L Redwood City tonight to taste the public on her amazing gins and hopefully her tasty aquavit as well.  She is perhaps one of the nicest and most genuine people in the booze business so come out and show your support for good people who make good spirits!  Tasting starts at 5 PM and goes until 6:30.  The #11 is still today unrivaled for what I think is the best gin made in America.  Don't believe me?  Come taste and see.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Nov132011

K&L Spirits Podcast #20 - Ed Hamilton's Ministry of Rum

I've been wanting to do this podcast for some time, but Ed Hamilton is a tough man to track down.  As an author, an importer, and a general world expert about rum, Ed is always on the run.  Whether it's to the Caribbean to visit a distillery, or to the Bay Area for an entertaining seminar, Ed's services are always in demand thanks to the success over his wonderfully informative website - the Ministry of Rum.  I was fortunate enough to spend an hour on the phone with him this morning and tape that conversation for what I think will be one of our best episodes ever. 

This podcast episode can be downloaded here or by visiting our page on Apple iTunes.  Previous episodes can be downloaded in the archive, located on the right hand margin of this page.  You can also listen via the embedded Flash player above.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Nov132011

What is Rhum Agricole?

While all rum is in some way a byproduct of sugar cane, most rums are made from molasses.  Those sweet and creamy Ron Zacapa, Zaya, and El Dorardo rums that fly off our shelves daily are examples of the most accessible - rich molasses distillates that are aged in sherry barrels for smoothing out the flavors.  Right next to those bottles on the K&L shelf, however, are bottles like Rhum J.M., La Favorite, and Batiste that seemingly are interchangable with the above mentioned producers, since all produce rum in the end.  Neverthesless, about once a month a customer will walk back into the store with an open bottle of Agricole Rhum and say to me, "I bought this here for making mai tais and there's something wrong with it.  This tastes totally herbal and weird."  "Ah yes, my friend," I'll reply, "that would be the common response to Rhum Agricole," the rum distilled not from the byproduct of sugar, which would be molasses, but rather from the fresh juice of the sugar cane itself.

Generally speaking, Rhum Agricole is produced on the French Caribbean island of Martinique where there is an actual AOC Martinique Appellation, like France has for the wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy.  However, there are other islands that produce it, such as Guadaloupe.  The link between all of the agricole producing locales is their heritage as French-controlled protectorates.  When the French colonized the Caribbean and built sugar refineries, rum was a way to make use of the byproduct.  But in 1870, when France found a cheaper way to produce sugar from sugar beets, the price of sugar plummeted and many of the refineries, which had taken out debt on their mortgages, were forced into bankruptcy.  The remaining rum drinkers on the islands were forced to get creative and Rhum Agricole was their solution - the natural juice of the sugar cane could be fermented and distilled without refinement.

Like any food or drink culture, societies are forced to work with the ingredients available to them and make those ingredients taste good (which is why street food is usually so delicious).  Rhum Agricole is a byproduct of an earthy, grassy, and sometimes funky tasting plant.  Those characteristics are therefore destined to come through in the distillate.  While I personally enjoy these flavors, I can completely understand why others do not.  When aged, the rhums are entirely sip-able, but the blancs can really throw people for a loop.  If pressed, I'd compare it to the difference between single malt whiskies and single grain whiskies - the grains have an herbal, almost gin-like flavor that is much leaner, and less soft on the mouthfeel.  Needless to say, there are some fantastic recipes for Agricole rum that have developed in the Caribbean over the years.  Doing a Google search for a few cocktails can be quite inspiring.

So if you end up with a bottle of Rhum Agricole by accident, or if you are simply curious about what makes these rhums so unique, grab a bottle of sugar cane syrup (which we sell) and a handful of limes from your local grocer as well.  Making a Ti Punch is quite easy - a tablespoon of syrup with about 2.5 oz of rum and a lime peel in the glass with an ice cube to cool it off.  A seemingly unhappy mishap could possible turn out to be life changing.  Just ask all the guys hanging out at your nearest Tiki bar.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Nov122011

Bring On The Haters

 I've touched on this topic before, but I couldn't help mention this troubling phenomenon again, seeing that it's a pet peeve of mine.  Another well-written Jon Bonne article for the SF Chronicle gets nothing but seething responses from the commenting public, many of whom are out simply to trash something for the sake of it (at least the comments that I made it through).  I honestly don't know how Jon deals with it, except for maybe just ignoring it all together.  The irony of the entire thing is almost laughable, considering Jon wrote an article about how mis-information concerning wine only breeds more hatred from people who don't drink it or understand it.  What I find most interesting is the overwhelmingly obvious fact that most who commented negatively seemed not to have read the article - they're just there to gang up on people.  I absolutely loathe comment boards that function as a way to bully, berate, or debase people (SF Gate is only slightly better than ESPN.com).  It's even worse when that hatred is based on ignorance because the comments are not only mean, they're entirely illogical and stupid. 

Jon is completely right when he says that cheap wine is exactly that.  The point isn't to avoid cheap wine, only to at least call it what it is, rather than callously claim that wine is always overpriced.  The truth is this: there are cheap wines that taste good and there are expensive wines that do not.  However, there is no all-encompassing fact, statement, or judgment that can collectively categorize all wine together (which is what people do when they say good wine shouldn't cost more than $3).  People love the idea of rich people getting screwed by their own inability to recognize quality.  They eat that stuff up.  HA!  Stupid rich guy thought he was paying $100 for good wine when in fact it's all the same as the $3 bottle!  I'm sure that has happened, but the truth is that some wine is expensive because it's better than others. The most obvious problem is that some people don't understand what "good" actually means when it comes to wine, despite Jon's attempt to shed some light on that subject.

"Good" is no different a term with wine than it is with, say, a car.  Is a Porsche a better car than a VW Golf?  That depends on what you're basing "good" on.  Horsepower?  Gas mileage?  Storage space?  What are the criteria?  All of those things seem go out the window however when the word good is used with wine.  Everything is combined into "good," even if it makes no sense at all.  Commenters who felt the need to write, "I don't need to pay $15 for a bottle of wine, when I can get my $3 bottle at Trader Joes," are really saying something to the equivalent of "I don't need to buy a Porsche because I just need something to get me from Point A to B."  There's nothing wrong with that statement.  However, if you claim that your junker is "just as good" as a Porsche, you're going to get laughed at.  Maybe it suits you better than a Porsche, and maybe a Porsche is a totally impractical car for you, but why state that your old Dodge is "better?" 

What people really mean by statements like that is that they're happy with where they're at - and that's great!  How nice to be content with minimal material goods in life.  However, if you're so content with your life then why are you on SF Gate posting about how much better you are for not drinking expensive wine?  Jon was definitely not saying that cheap wine is a dumb idea.  He was responding to an article that says expensive wine is a dumb idea!  Again, there is no secret conspiracy where all expensive wine is really just bulk wine with a different label.  And, yes, people who like wine can definitely pick out well made ones from the bad ones in a blind tasting.  However, all it takes is one over-priced California Cab getting a bad score, or a sommelier choosing Charles Shaw at a blind tasting to make everyone think the opposite.  That was Jon's point.  And he's totally right.  It's not even an opinion.  It's a fact! 

Nevertheless, the flood gates open and the vitriol spews......

-David Driscoll