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


Updated Signatory Tasting Notes

It's one thing to read our previews based on our straight-from-the-cask experience, but it's another to see how the whiskies actually taste when they arrive in the bottle (because ultimately that's how all of you are going to taste them). Here are some updated descriptions on our latest arrivals:

1997 Benrinnes 17 Year Old K&L Exclusive Signatory Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $79.99 – UPDATED NOTES: This is just glorious—like what whisky used to taste like back when we carried Chieftain’s and Signatory full time. The nose is a complex layer of stonefruit and vanilla, and a drop of water unlocks an entirely new world of flavor. Sweet tea, brandied fruit, sweet barley—it’s all awaiting you here. So far the best feedback from the staff and customers has been a tie between the Benrinnes and the Bowmore.

2002 Bowmore 11 Year Old K&L Exclusive Signatory Single Refill Sherry Hogshead Single Malt Whisky $79.99 – UPDATED NOTES: W-O-W. This is sooooo much better than we remember it tasting. I’m going to post my colleague Jeff Garneau’s tasting notes so you can all see how the staff reacted to this one:

You stumble at the foot of the stairs, eyes struggling to adjust in the dim interior of the nightclub. Somewhere a piano plays an old jazz standard. You are certain you have heard it before but you can’t recall where or when. Soft voices murmur in the darkness, the words themselves indistinct. Suddenly a cigarette flares nearby, illuminating a face of porcelain etched in shadow. Smoke winds upward, disappearing into the gloom. Silk whispers against soft flesh as she raises a hand, gesturing to the chair opposite. You move to sit. The night is full of mystery and possibility. Who knows what might happen? Each year as I taste through the latest single malt offerings from Scotland painstakingly selected by our K&L Spirits team, one bottle in particular will inevitably speak to me. I never really know which one it will be. This year I was shocked to discover it was the 2002 Bowmore 11 Year Old K&L Exclusive Signatory Single Refill Sherry Hogshead Single Malt Whisky. Although I enjoy peated whiskies, I am usually more of a Speyside fan. Yet this Bowmore had that extra something – something indefinable, ineffable – something that makes you take a step back, set down your notebook, and just – stop – for a moment. Incredibly soft and silky with a weight you want to savor forever on the tongue. And smoke. Not the raw choking smoke of mistakenly sitting downwind of the campfire. Something deliciously subtle. A memory of old peat fires, permeating the roof beams of a favorite pub. A stolen kiss, the flavor of tobacco on soft lips. A suggestion, a hint, a grace note. Remarkable. Transcendent.

1997 Glenlivet 16 Year Old K&L Exclusive Signatory Single Sherry Butt Single Malt Whisky $79.99 – UPDATED NOTES: This is everything you want it to be: chewy, rich, raisined, round, bursting with fresh sherry, but without the big spice or gigantic proof. It’s an elegant profile. When we email this whisky next week it’s going to FLY outta here (that will happen next week). There are about 500 guys who missed out on this whisky last year who still want a bottle, so it’s now or never on this one.

1995 Glen Elgin 18 Year Old K&L Exclusive Signatory Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $89.99 – UPDATED NOTES: This is Kyle’s favorite and it’s easy to see why certain folks love this whisky: there’s a beautiful floral note followed by round, soft Highland fruit. This is poetic stuff that should please fans of the style. A sleeper hit.

1998 Laphroaig 15 Year Old K&L Exclusive Signatory Single Refill Sherry Butt Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $169.99 – UPDATED NOTES: $169 seems steep when you're talking about 15 year old single malt, but trust me when I tell you that old casks of iconic distilleries like Laphroaig are not going to be available much longer -- at least for a retailer like K&L to purchase. This is a huge, in-your-face version of Laphroaig; no water added, not diluted in any way. Big peat, big smoke, big Islay in a bottle. The fact that this was aged in refill sherry is icing on the cake. Again, we went for quality over price on this one.

1992 Bruichladdich 21 Year Old K&L Exclusive Signatory Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $149.99 – UPDATED NOTES: Just a beautiful, ghostly, haunting whisky that seems rather linear at first, but with water transforms into a specter of salt, the sea, and the maritime air. A lost breed of Island malt.

1983 Caol Ila 30 Year Old K&L Exclusive Signatory Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $279.99 – UPDATED NOTES: Man…just nosing this thing makes my mouth water. It’s all that sweet apple fruit that you get from Caol Ila, but then the salty, peat, smoky notes that just get concentrated supremely after three decades in wood. I just tasted it before typing this. It’s divine. Not bright peat like Port Ellen, or big peat like Laphroaig, but a heavier peat that gets oilier due to the weight of the whisky.

1981 Glenlivet 32 Year Old K&L Exclusive Signatory Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $299.99 – UPDATED NOTES: The label says “hogshead” but this wasn’t just any old “hogshead.” It was a re-coopered sherry butt from Gonzales Byass – one of the best sherry producers in Spain. The rich, dark, savory sherry notes are on full display in this Glenlivet, but the influence never overwhelms the fruit, which is still more than present on the initial mid-palate note. It’s stellar and it’s not going to last very long in this climate for old Macallan and Glenlivet (hint: we sell them fast these days).

-David Driscoll


Four New Four Roses Casks

It's no secret that we love Four Roses distillery and it's also not a secret that our K&L Exclusive casks from the Bourbon maker are some of the best whiskies we get each year. However, drinking great Kentucky Bourbon isn't always enough these days as consumers are always looking for something more to sink their teeth into. That's why we decided on a little theme for our most recent batch of Four Roses selections. The distillery makes two different mashbills: "E" which uses 75% corn, 20% rye and "B" which uses 60% corn and 35% rye. They also use five different types of yeast, creating the permutation potential ten different recipes. We decided to pick two yeast strains and see how they interacted with the two different mashbills, side-by-side.

Four Roses K&L Exclusive OBSF (10 Years Old, 9 Months) Single Barrel Cask Strength Bourbon $59.99In the OBSF cask, the higher percentage of rye comes through on the finish, as the peppery notes and minty flavors from the grain dominate the backend. The nose is all fruit, however, and a bit of water helps to tame that 59% cask strength proof. It's a different animal than the OESF, which we also brought in this time around as a comparison. The extra boost of rye really gives it that in-your-face spice that many Bourbon fans truly enjoy. It's a great whiskey for rocks sipping or even a bold Manhattan.

Four Roses K&L Exclusive OESF (10 Years Old, 2 Months) Single Barrel Cask Strength Bourbon $59.99OESF uses that higher corn mashbill, which gives it a mellower flavor than its OBSF brother. The minty notes are still there, but they're more subtle, allowing the wood to play the dominant role in the flavor profile. The nose is full of big vanilla oak and baking spices, but the palate is a huge burst of black pepper that carries all the way through to the finish. At 58.6%, it's a bold Bourbon, but it's nuanced and complex enough and to enjoy neatly--as long as you enjoy the spice! 

Four Roses K&L Exclusive OBSQ (10 Years Old, 5 Months) Single Barrel Cask Strength Bourbon $59.99The OBSQ has the higher rye content of the two Q whiskies and the result is a monstrous Bourbon with big richness, big spice, big floral rye notes, and big everything! It's the richest of all the four casks and it has the most power at a whopping 60.3%. It's an in-your-face Bourbon that delivers all the goods.

Four Roses K&L Exclusive OESQ (9 Years Old, 5 Months) Single Barrel Cask Strength Bourbon $59.99The OESQ is the softest of the four casks at 56.7% and it's the creamiest of the bunch (perhaps due to the higher corn content). The flavors are green banana, soft vanilla from the oak, and a wave of baking spices that coat the palate on the finish. It's a striking difference from the higher rye OBSQ whiskey that offers big power and bold flavor. In this case, the corn really played a dominant role, bringing richness and creaminess instead of pure spice.

-David Driscoll


Ready to Go!

Today is going to be a big day at K&L. The Signatory whiskies are hitting the shelves in all three stores, pre-arrivals will be ready for pick up in Los Angeles (finally!), and we'll get all the new tasting notes updated so you can peruse the new crop (remember: unless you've notified us in the past, pre-orders do not automatically get sent to the store for pick up—you have to let us know). We're still waiting on the Balmenach and the Dailuaine, but we can't let that little hold-up slow us down—we've got twenty new French brandies landing today as well!! Oh, and did I mention four new barrels of Four Roses Bourbon? And I forgot one last thing—a new cask of Germain-Robin California brandy. Shoot—and I also forgot the first batch of Bryan Davis's new Cuban-style 151 rum. One last thing—a new cask of Bunnahabhain 16 heavily peated from Chieftain's. OK—I think that's it.....for today.

So, yes, there are a few things going on today around K&L in the spirits department. If I don't answer your emails right away I hope you'll understand.

I'm super pumped about the reaction we're getting already concerning the Signatory whiskies. One of my best whisky customers told me earlier this week, "David, this entire crop is a home run. These whiskies taste like what I used to drink five years ago—the quality is there and the prices are more than fair." That was music to my ears. The Glenlivet 16 is so rich and supple. The Bowmore, so creamy and smoky. The Bruichladdich is ghostly, with hints of salt and seawater. The Benrinnes, a burst of vanilla and fruit when you add a drop of water. The Glen Elgin is floral and fruity, a fun summer time sipper. The Caol Ila, a masterpiece of three decades—oily, hypnotic, and complex with evolved peated tones. And, of course, the ancient 32 year old Glenlivet—a sherry hogshead that delivers all the goods.

If there's one thing we learned from last year's experience, it's that value can only take you so far. I thought a number of whiskies from 2013 represented a good bang for the buck. The feedback I got, however, is that a large, overwhelming majority of our single malt customers would rather have something great and pay a little more for it. That's what this crop of Signatory whiskies represents: the best whisky we could find—regardless of the price (although they're all pretty reasonable price-wise); not just what constituted value or a good bargain. I've learned from shopping with a number of fashion-conscious ladies that quality will always win out over price. Rest assured—there's nothing on the American market right now as good as any of these Signatory whiskies. If you've got $80 to spend, it will be best spent on the Glenlivet 16 or Bowmore 11 selections we've got currently. If you've got $300, then grab either the Glenlivet 32 or the Caol Ila 30—you won't regret it. All of our sales staff, from SF to LA, feel entirely confident that these Signatory casks are the best bottles we've got—and the best we've had in years.

There's a reason that 80% of this year's crop came from Signatory. They're sitting on the best stock of mature single malt in the world, as far as we're concerned. And we're only interested in the very best.

-David Driscoll


Malacca Part II

You've gotta give it up to Diageo's new label designer—whoever is creating these retro-tastic bottles for the spirits giant is hitting it out of the park. Even if the new Tanqueray Old Tom—the follow-up to last year's mega-successful Malacca rebirth—tasted like total garbage, I still might buy it just for the cool-looking package. How does the new Old Tom taste, though? Like Tanqueray with a little bit of sweetness. Nothing crazy; just another solid release that should please fans of the genre (as long as you like sweet gin).

Tanqueray Old Tom Gin 1L $31.99 - Diageo is back with a new Tanqueray meant to replace the limited edition Malacca re-release from a year ago. This new Old Tom expression adds just a bit of residual sugar to the mix, creating a rounder, more supple palate; but without losing any of the herbaceous character Tanqueray is known for. With its old school packaging and liter-sized format, we expect the Old Tom to be just as big of a hit with cocktail fans. Try it in a Gimlet, Tom Collins, Martinez, or a Gin Fizz, and add it to a Negroni for extra weight. Bonus points for the liter-sized bottle, as well.

-David Driscoll