Booze School

I considered myself an academic at one point, but I fell out of it when I realized that my professors couldn't provide me with the knowledge I was looking for. That's not to say that they didn't know anything (because I learned a lot about German literature in graduate school), but rather they didn't have the answers I personally wanted. That was my shortcoming, however, not theirs. My expectations were way out of whack. They were teaching me the lessons I needed to become a scholar; I was looking for definitiveness. I was naive in a way – I wanted to read Herman Hesse and learn the truth. They could only tell me their opinions. There was no one true answer to their questions, despite what I thought. It was up to me to come with my own truth. Ultimately, that was the biggest lesson I learned in my brief tenancy as an academic and it might be the most important thing I've learned in the past ten years.

There are no definitive truths in the booze world – especially if you're relying on the people in the industry for your information. 100% of the producers in Cognac will tell you they don't use caramel coloring or any kind of sweetener additive. 99% of them are lying – to your face, no less. Yet, a new generation of drinkers wants certainty, definiteness, and clear cut answers to their drinking. We want to know:

- what's good and what's bad?

- what's authentic and what's designer?

- what's the considered the best and what's considered tacky?

- where do the best spirits come from and why?

- how did this producer make such a good spirit and why did this other producer not?

 So the people in the booze business come up with answers:

- it's the terroir 

- it's hand-crafted

- it's made in small batches

- it's craft

- it's organic

- it's our heritage.  

That's why, silly! Don't you understand now?

I remember sitting in film class during a lecture with Jean-Pierre Gorin (a former Godard colleague who had no problem telling us we were full of shit) after watching Scorsese's Mean Streets. He was going on about the scene (in his thick, cigarette-weakened accent) where DeNiro gets on top of the pool table and begins swinging a cue at his would-be attackers, calling his movements "serpent-like, a snake, a demonic transformation." We all took notes. The next week, when we all came back to present our "original" papers in front of the class, every single student referred to the "serpent-like" DeNiro "transforming into a demon" in the pool hall. Gorin buried his head in his hands. "You're just repeating what I told you!" he screamed furiously. "Did anyone come up with their own observation?"


Later on, as a teacher, I always remembered that moment when I watched a student simply repeat my opinion back to me, rather than think deeply to derive one of their own. I would tell them: "That sounds good, but what do you really think?" Lately, as a booze professional, I've been thinking about that experience when confronted with representatives who are tasked with teaching me about their products. I feel like they're simply repeating buzz words they've been told, rather than actually teaching me something important (or even true!) about their booze. "Our gin tastes this way because we've been making it in small batches for decades." But who knows what the answers actually might be? Not me. I know what I've been told, obviously, but as a friend in the industry told me years ago: "Assume everyone is lying to you." 

Despite the advice I was given, I'm not pessimistic enough to think you can't believe anything you read or hear. It just means you have to use your brain. Wine and spirits are fascinating products with rich histories and inspiring legacies. It's only human to be captivated by the vast scope of all there is to know. I wake up everyday, bursting with excitement at the fact that I get to learn more about alcohol when I go to work. But it's important to actually learn something rather than just repeat what other people say. It's important to listen to what the experts tell you, but then do your own research on the side. There's nothing more annoying than a serial contrarian, but a close second would be an insistent fanboy. You've gotta land somewhere in the middle.

If I were to open a booze school it would have one lesson: always make your own judgements, rather than simply mimic the actions and opinions of others. 

That's what Gorin was trying to teach us about film as well.

-David Driscoll


Some Final Thoughts

I pulled out the stock market trader analogy at dinner again last night: the idea of buying when the market is low and selling when the market is high. Scottish single malt whisky is like Apple stock right now – you want in? You'll be paying a premium price per share. American whiskey is relatively inexpensive, but there's no stock available. French brandy, on the other hand, with backwoods Armagnac producers selling off 20+ year old barrels for American whisky prices, is where you want to buy in. If you don't like brandy and you only prefer to drink Scotch, well.....we don't have good news for you. Our first round of pricing came back for some of the casks we tasted and they're not cheap. With the Pound/Dollar ratio in the toilet and the scarcity of quality mature whisky where it is, don't expect many deals with this year's crop. We're looking into a few strategies, but the price is the price. These are the moments when I always tell drinkers to diversify their portfoio if they want value. Try developing some new tastes for different spirits. There are plenty of new adventures out there. Look at what we've been tasting over the last week, for God's sake! 

With whisky bottlers dipping into their younger stocks and realizing there are some tasty selections available to them, it's clear that necessity is the mother of invention. The world wants more booze and producers are looking to give it to them. But you don't have to settle for less. That's the whole point of us being here right now – to find out the truth behind what's being said. Is there really not much mature whisky available? It seems so – at least for us to purchase. But so much of what people "want" to drink is based on what they've been told is good. Old whisky is better than young whisky. Grand Champagne Cognac is better than Bon Bois. Grand Cru Montrachet is better than Premier Cru Chablis. These aren't so much truths as they are simplifications, as in most of the time these generalizations are correct (according to the experts). But who's going to question them? Who's going to actually taste through all the examples to see if the rule holds true? Who's going to do side-by-side comparisons to look for the exceptions? Because if Bon Bois Cognac isn't as good as Grand Champagne then it shouldn't cost as much (wink wink). 

One thing that's clear to me after the past two weeks is that the wine and spirits industry is still dominated by a classism that is hardly ever checked. It's that built-in reputation for quality, right or wrong, that allows shitty Grand Champagne producers to sell their shitty Cognac for $100, while the Borderies guy with great juice is forced to settle for less. The branded names of whisky's pantheon can skate by with mediocre booze that no one questions because, hey, they're supposed to be the best! Who are you to say otherwise? Who am I? I'm just a loud-mouthed guy who works in a liquor store. What do I know? I know that you can drink good booze for great prices if you're willing to look outside the box, so ultimately I'm fine with these classist beliefs. 

The longer people keep thinking they're drinking the best, the more we can keep flying under the radar, providing you – our customers – with great stuff at great prices.

That's it. We're off to the airport. See you later.

-David Driscoll


France โ€“ Day 7: The Way Forward

Today we had two final appointments in Cognac; the first was with a negociant (independent bottler) in the town of Saintes called Grosperrin. We were impressed from the moment we walked in to their downtown retail store and saw their carefully curated selection of fine spirits. In France, you can be a retailer, and a distributor, and an independent bottler -- there are no legal restrictions separating these parties. Therefore, Grosperrin has its finger in a number of pies. One of them is the new forward-thinking Cognac market -- a collection of producers and bottlers who are exploring new varietals, brut de fut (cask strength), less caramel coloring, and more modern marketing.

Walking down the stairs and underneath the main store, you'll find a number of casks and demijohns full of various Cognac expressions, purchased from various estates and warehouses across the region. Grosperrin puts the name of the appellation, producer, vintage, and varietal on each of their independent bottlings, making them one of the first of their kind in the business. We tasted a few very appealing selections and we think at least two or three of them will make it into K&L. The pricing was quite fair for such intriguing spirits.

Our last appointment was with a larger Bon Bois producer called Vallein, who has multiple stills and sells much of its liquid to Courvoisier. We had run the Grand Champagne and Petit Champagne gambit as far as possible. It was time to venture out further into the outer regions of Cognac, despite our disappointing experience yesterday. There had to be some quality hooch out in the countryside.

The estate at Vallein was rustic and beautiful, almost gothic. We almost got the feeling we were in a vampire movie while traversing the property. 

Stephane added to that feeling. He has piercing, sky-blue eyes, intensely-dark pupils, and some very-defined incisors. He could have been the next Christopher Lee, but he decided to marry into a large Cognac-distilling family and take up a quiet existence making fine spirits. We sampled a large number of brandies from various properties owned by Vallein, which had been distilled and matured separately into different expressions.

After two days of driving for hours on end, I realized one important fact about Cognac: it's very, very big! There are so many producers distilling brandy that we've barely scratched the surface of what's available. The orange and yellow-colored sections of the above map are Grand and Petit Champagne; the smaller off-white section above them is the Borderies. The rest of the outer blue region is all Fins Bois and Bon Bois, and I learned there are even islands off the coast of the Atlantic that also count as Cognac-producing regions.

We're seeing an increased awareness from a new generation of producers towards the expanding, boutique spirits market and a number of young distillers that are looking to reach those customers. I think the work we've done over the past few days will allow us to bring in some of those Cognacs for the K&L consumer base. We were very impressed with much of what we tasted and we think you'll be excited by what they have to offer -- especially for the prices we're looking at.

That's it! We're done. We've got two late flights tomorrow, which means we can sleep in for once! Then we can mosey our way over to CdG airport, catch the connector to Heathrow, and fly our behinds back to the west coast. I'll be back in the store this Saturday if anyone wants to talk shop.

We hope you've enjoyed following along with our journey. Now we hope you'll enjoy the fruits of this labor.

-David Driscoll


France โ€“ Day 6: Yackety Gnac

Cognac – the rich, successful, older brother to Armagnac who drives a Mercedes, wears a fancy suit, and travels the world in search of new export markets. I kid Cognac, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a hint of truth to the above statement. Over the past few decades, financial success has turned the brandies of the Charentes into mass-produced, overly-sweetened, highly-adulterated, and far less interesting spirits than those of the Gascogne. That doesn't mean we've given up on Cognac, however. It just means we have to look harder to find producers with integrity. We began our morning far outside the Grand Champagne region, in the outer zones of the Bon Bois. Andre Petit was first on a long list of new producers we wanted to visit.

"Are you talking about my Cognac? I don't see anyone else here."

If you've ever wondered where Robert DeNiro has been lately, the answer is: he's in the Cognac region distilling brandy. This isn't the best photo of Andre, but he looks so much like DeNiro circa The Deer Hunter that we couldn't really focus on his brandies. I thought his selections were fine, but you can really taste the difference in the fruit compared to Grand and Petit Champagne expressions. They were rich, but they didn't pop in the right places. We thought maybe the terror in Cognac was overrated, but we left strongly believing in everything we'd previously been told.

Next on the list was Michel Forgeron – a Grand Champagne producer who has been using single malt whisky as an inspiration for innovation. That was music to our ears. We've been telling producers for years that they should take a page from Scotland and try new concepts like single barrel, cask strength, vintage-dated releases, or single vineyard expressions. Michel has all four currently for sale in his gift shop. 

I can safely say right now that you'll be seeing the Cognacs of Forgeron on K&L shelves very soon. Most of his expressions were proofed from 45% to 50% and were clearly marked with dates and maturity levels. The brandies were spicy, rich, fruity, and completely balanced with the alcohol. We asked him why other producers weren't following his lead, looking to bring Cognac into the next generation.

"Most of these producers don't even drink Cognac," he answered. "They do it because they were born into it. They don't even like Cognac, most of them."

Wow. What an indictment!

Whereas Forgeron is going to excite the dedicated spirits geeks with raw power, Claude Thorin is going to wow you with nuance. His Grand Champagne expressions are incredibly pure and they're insanely inexpensive. Not only are they delicious and value-priced, they're also a bit outside the norm. Claude has also been toying around with single vintage, single varietal, and unsweetened expressions. We tasted a 2002 100% folle blanche expression that was so delicate it brought a tear to our eye.

I think the most exciting part for us was his standard line-up of VS, VSOP, and XO. We should be able to get these on the shelf for $30, $40, and $50 a bottle. And did I mention they're great?

We were dragging a bit by the afternoon, but we put our game faces on and powered ahead to the Borderies and Fin Bois regions where Francois Giboin creates rustic, old school brandies with earth, power, and panache. 

The soil in the Borderies region is much different than the chalky terrain of Grand Champagne. It's mostly gypsum – a calcium-based mineral that spawns a more rugged, yet fruity distillate. We were captivated by some of the single barrel selections we sampled and very interested in his standard Fin Bois vintage expressions.

Every producer we visited today was daring to branch out from the standard VS, VSOP, and XO handcuffs. Each of them was forward-thinking and open-minded, and all were scaling back on the boise. This made us very optimistic for the future of the spirit. There is room for the purity-minded spirits geek in Cognac, we believe.

Of course, we had to visit our old friend Jacques Esteve – the gentle giant behind our top-selling K&L exclusive releases. His Petit Champagne selections have been wonderful additions to our spirit shelves and customers have come back again and again to reload. He's one of the nicest guys in the business and we want to possibly expand on the business we've already done. Kyle was very impressed with the new expressions we sampled.

"That guy is so nice and his Cognacs are good!" he exclaimed on the way to the car.

"It's nice doing business with people you like, isn't it?" I asked rhetorically.

-David Driscoll


France โ€“ Day 5: Age Worthy

For the third year in a row we arrived at the home of Claudine and Gerald at Dudognon, located in the heart of Cognac's Grand Champagne region. This time, however, it was just a social call. While we carry their general line-up of expressions and believe deeply in the quality of their distillates, we've had a tough time committing to something exclusive due to the uniqueness of their brandy. 

What makes Dudognon Cognac so distinct?

The fact that it's the purest Cognac in existence – no added sweeteners, no caramel coloring, and no boise.

That might sound like a bonus to purists (and it most definitely is), but not everyone is ready for what Grand Champagne Cognac tastes like when you leave it unadulterated. Whereas great wine needs to mature in the bottle, Grand Champagne Cognac – made from wines with extremely high acid content – needs time to mature in the cask. 

While those who know good Cognac applaud Dudognon and continue to purchase their selections, first-timers looking for soft and sweet oak juice get whacked over the head with reality. It's like drinking chardonnay with no malolactic fermentation or oak maturation – you realize what the actual liquid tastes like before its been sexed up and manipulated. That's not to say I have a problem with sweetened spirits because I don't. However, I don't get why a Cognac house would want to market the brilliance of a specific terroir, with its potential for greatness and nuance, then obliterate the flavors they pretend to celebrate.

For everyday drinkers like a VS or VSOP expression, a little sugar goes a long way. But why pay $200 for Grand Cru Burgundy if someone's just going to slap some new oak on it and drink it tomorrow?

Claudine and Gerald feel the same way about their Cognac, which is why they respect it by leaving it untouched. However, there's no denying that we still live in a world where quality and "Wow, that's smooth!" go hand-in-hand. 70% of the global population still thinks "if it doesn't burn, it must be good."

The easiest way to take the bite out of your brandy is by adding sugar, just like the best way to balance the acidity in wine is with riper fruit. But there are still a few folks left out there who are willing to put their wine bottles in a cellar, forget about them for a decade or two, and let them come around naturally. Lucky enough for those people, there are still a few Grand Champagne Cognac producers willing to do the same thing in cask. But how many consumers understand and appreciate brandy on the level necessary to support them?

At the end of the evening Claudine pulled out the only selection in her portfolio we had never tasted before: the Paulin – a 60 year old marriage of their oldest stocks at Dudognon, just released for the first time early last year. It was sublime. Heavenly. Rich and delicate in ways I had never thought possible, yet without a drop of sweetness on the palate. When someone can achieve that level of oak integration over time (only by creating a spirit capable of maintaining its character over six decades) you almost can't believe what you're tasting. The Paulin is easily the best brandy I've ever tasted – by a long shot. In my mind, it's a masterpiece that no other producer can touch. 

"This has never been sold in the United States?" I asked, unable to believe it.

It looks like we'll have to remedy that.

-David Driscoll