Scotland โ€“ Day 2: The Road to Islay

We skipped Islay last year, mainly because there weren't any casks to be had at that time. It's a multi-day commitment, as well, so we figured that time was better spent searching down more whisky. This year, with Kyle in tow, Islay was an absolute must. It's like whisky Disneyland, a mecca for Scotch geeks, so there's no better place than the Queen of the Hebrides to get you pumped up about single malt. It's also quite a beautiful drive around Loch Lomand, through the Argyll forest, and over the lip of Loch Fyne before heading down the Kintyre Peninsula. You head through misty valleys…

…past mountain streams...

 …by seaside towns…

…and eventually end up at the Kennacraig ferry.

Then you pull away from the mainland and head out towards the Straight of Islay and Port Askaig.

-David Driscoll


Scotland โ€“ Day 1: Glasgow Nights

After checking in at our hotel downtown and grabbing a quick pint at the local pub, we headed to the new office of Hunter Laing – located just a few blocks from the old one in a picturesque neighborhood with gorgeous 19th-century era Victorian architechture. Stewart Laing used to run Douglas Laing & Co. with his brother Fred, but the two recently decided to divide the stocks and move in different directions as the next generation of Laings begins to take over. Stewart now runs Hunter Laing with his son Andrew and they're still our source for the Sovereign whiskies we import each year. Our latest batch of Ardbeg 21, Laphroaig 20, Caol Ila 32, GlenGoyne 16, and Glenrothes 8 year has already been a huge success offering big names and collectabilty along with supreme value and high quality. However, the supply of mature whisky with independent bottlers in Scotland is as bad as it's ever been. If we're going to come back with fresh and exciting selections in 2014, Stewart's available stock is absolutely the best place to start. 

I wish I could cleverly capture the interior of these red sandstone buildings – the white walls with green and blue tartan for carpeting and an obvious hint of Greek classicism in some of the decor and wall carvings. It's really quite inspiring. As we approached the Hunter Hamilton office we couldn't help but peek inside the various residences and daydream about possibly occupying one. For now, however, I'll have to just make do with photographing the tasting bar in Stewart's new sampling room. While many other bottlers are really scraping the bottom of the barrel for whisky right now (literally), the Laings are still in pretty good shape all things considering. We immediately set Stewart's mind at ease by letting him know we weren't coming for more Port Ellen or Ardbeg.

"We need more value," I told him, straight off the bat.

"That's good news," he said, "because we're in a great position to provide you with it."

Even with value on your mind, however, there's so much whisky to taste through and only so much your mouth can handle in a single evening (especially when it's been travelling for fifteen hours). We narrowed down our criteria further by looking for sherry-aged malts, young peated whiskies, and mature grains with modest price tags.

"You fellas do alright with grain, do ya?" Stewart asked.

"Definitely," Kyle answered. "We did a cask of Cambus with Signatory last year that was very well received."

With those descriptors in mind, we began scavenging through available stocks and tasting through selections.

We really enjoy working with Stewart and, now that his son Andrew is on the staff, we're looking forward to his input as well. Over the past few years he's become one of our favorite appointments and I think he gets a kick out of us as well. One thing that's been on my mind for the past few weeks is how important it is in life to surround yourself with good people. We have so little time on this planet, so why waste it dealing with the insufferable when you could utilize it by working with people you like? I enjoy drinking whisky with good people, so in turn I've grown to appreciate buying whisky from good people. To some, there's little room in the business world for sentimentality and emotion. I'm not one of those people, however. More and more, I'm gravitating towards the people who appreciate our relationships and treat us with honesty and respect. I'd like you all to get to know these folks, as well, so maybe we'll make this an on-going theme for our trip.

What did we find, you ask? Plenty of good leads. If you remember the Girvan and Caledonian grain casks we did a few years back, then you'll know that the Laings have some pretty fantastic grain whisky lying around. We're looking at more than ten different candidates, including a possible grain whisky retrospective if we can find enough samples we like. As for sherry-aged selections, we really wanted to taste everything, so we started with some of the lesser-known distillery names in the hope of finding something tasty, yet inexpensive. I think we all really enjoyed a Craigallachie 18 year old sherry butt that exploded with baking spice and rancio oloroso notes. A 12 year old Braeval also made the short list.

We finished the evening by dining with both Stewart and Andrew at a local Chinese spot and talking about the lasting news in the booze industry. There have been some very interesting developments over the past 48 hours that are going to significantly affect our trip (more on that later). We might have to do a bit of rescheduling, but I think we're off to a good start. 

Islay tomorrow.

-David Driscoll


Scotland โ€“ Day 1: Good Luck

We had an empty flight leaving San Francisco, which allowed both Kyle and myself to stretch out in the vacant rows, move the arm rests vertical, and get a few hours of shut-eye. Five hours later, I woke up, watched the rest of Elysium with Matt Damon, managed to power through the touching and solemn Nebraska with Bruce Dern, and before I knew it we were landing in London.

Even though David OG was supposed to arrive at Heathrow hours before us, his plane out of LAX was apparently delayed for almost two hours due to missing paperwork. He had to literally sprint out of his gate, fast-track it through customs, and high-tail it down through the terminal to make the flight. He did it, however, and his suitcase made the transfer as well. We arrived in Glasgow, picked up our rental car, and drove into downtown amidst grey skies and cool wind. We all managed to sleep on the plane, so all three of us are currently feeling quite fresh.

I hope this great momentum for the beginning of our journey continues on into the week. We're off shortly to our first appointment. I'll keep you abreast of any important news, of course!

-David Driscoll


Kilchoman Dinner @ Donato - April 1st

It's no April Fool's joke (even though some people think the prices for five year old Kilchoman are seriously funny): we are having a fabulous whisky dinner on April 1st with the founder of the distillery himself, Anthony Willis. For $45 you can enjoy a multi-course meal, dessert, cover your tax and tip, and ask as many questions as you want about this precocious little distillery. I'll be there (fresh off the plane from our trip) as will Val, Sam, and the rest of your friends from JVS. Both of our K&L Exclusive casks will be there, too, as will the entire portfolio of Kilchoman selections. It's going to be a wonderful evening, full of wonderful food and drink. We've only got 60 spots available, so make sure you reserve your place early. This is a great chance to learn why - despite everything we know about whisky and maturity - these malts from Kilchoman continue to get better and better at such a young age. Anthony will break everything down for those who want get seriously geeky.

You won't want to miss it. Especially if you don't feel like forking down $200 to try both of these K&L single casks.

We'll be taking over the backroom of Donato Enoteca in downtown Redwood City. Come join us!

K&L Whisky Dinner w/Kilchoman @ Donato, Tuesday April 1st, 7 PM - $45 - NOTE: There are no physical paper tickets for this event, your name will be placed on a guest list.

-David Driscoll


Scotland/France 2014 Preview

We're off tomorrow night -- taking the red-eye to London, catching the connection to Glasgow, and then heading right downtown for our first appointment. I'm getting tired just thinking about it! For the fourth straight year, David OG and I will be heading across the Atlantic in search of those wonderful spirits that seemed to have escaped American importation somehow. This time we'll have young Kyle Kurani with us, whose youthful exuberance we hope will keep us motivated and energized. We've got a packed itinerary with very little downtime, which hopefully means more booze than ever before.

What are we hoping to find? The same things you're all hoping for: hot deals.

Kyle asked me today about our expectations, but I told him that's like trying to plan a dinner party without knowing what you'll actually be able to buy at the grocery store. If you don't know what you can get, then you can't figure out a menu in advance. You just have to wing it and hope something great is available.

The real problem with the single cask market for value hunters is that single barrel cask strength malts are always more expensive. There's a higher taxation rate and a higher premium put on the time it takes to do one small bottling versus a larger volume order for the producer. There's not a lot of value in that niche, hence why most of what we're bringing are $100 bargains (if that's not an oxymoron). For $100, our money goes a long way in the single cask market. For $50, not so much. That's where big brands and big blends have the advantage (hence the post I wrote recently about the new Kilchoman casks). But with clever math and some bulk purchasing we might be able to find some deals. We were able to switch up a few things in this last shipment that allowed us to get the Glenrothes 8 year down to $50 and the Glengoyne 16 down to $79. Both of those are slam dunk deals in my opinion, especially when you taste the quality in those bottles.

But then there's the Catch-22 of the single malt world always staring you in the face: customers want value, but they also want fresh, exciting new products. Those two things don't go hand-in-hand very often, unfortunately. Nevertheless, that's what people want and we're in the business of giving people what they want (even the things they don't know they want....yet!). We need to dig, get creative, work hard, and make sure we use our connections to find some interesting options -- both with the single malts in Scotland and the brandies in France.

While we've been geeking out about pre-Phylloxera legends and ancient 100-year-old selections from our smaller producers, we need to find more solid $50 options from both Cognac and Armagnac. We've got a good thing going with the Bouju Fines Saveur and the Pellehaut L'Age de Glace. They've been excellent gateway brandies for the uninitiated (we'll have more Pellehaut soon). The 1996 Pellehaut has been huge hit as well. We need more vintage Armagnac in that style to keep this movement going.

Can we find it? Will we find it? Will we cause more international incidents? Will we make it back alive and with our sanity?

There's only one way to find out: stay tuned into the K&L Spirits Blog.

-David Driscoll