Tuesday
Aug142012

Whisky Season 2012 Continues: Three Sleepers

One of the best alliances we formed last year in Scotland was with Sovereign, a label from the Laing Brothers located in Glasgow that we now bring in exclusively for K&L.  Sovereign has deep stocks from outstanding producers, always showcasing the essence of each distillery in the whiskies they bottle.  While we love finding powerful, bold, expressive flavors that leap out of the glass, there are many of us who appreciate delicacy and nuance - two terms I will use ad nauseum to describe these whiskies.  One of the most important skills I have learned as a taster of booze is the appreciation for fine flavors.  Not everything has to punch you in the mouth.  Some whiskies are so subtle that they are quickly written off by some as lacking or boring.  Last year's Banff cask we purchased is a fantastic example.  Some customers emailed me to tell me it was the best whisky they had ever tasted.  Others were entirely underwhelmed.  It all depends on what you want out of your single malt.  Expectations are everything.  With that being said, I think we've found three fantastic whiskies that exemplify perfectly what these three distilleries do best.  Whether those flavors are exciting or not, will be up to you.  Personally, I'm a big fan of the lighter style and I find them more satisfying in the end.  For enthusiasts looking to know Caol Ila, Linkwood, and Caperdonich more intimately, check out the following:

1996 Caol Ila 15 Year Old K&L Exclusive Sovereign Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - One of the most surprising visits from our 2012 trip was at Caol Ila distillery on Islay. The Diageo plant is so big, so efficient, and so sterile that our appointment was more about professional growth and crossing another distillery off our list. We didn't expect to be wowed. For all of the criticism Caol Ila takes as being a whisky factory, the single malt made on site is damn good. Caol Ila uses big, fat-necked stills that produce a round and fruity spirit. That soft and supple character compliments the peat smoke of Islay perfectly. None of their whisky is aged on the island, so the brine and salt character attributed to Islay aging never really appears. What's frustrating for U.S. customers is that most of the expressions that showcase the depth and potential of the distillate don't make it across the water. The 18 year old we tasted there was one of the best whiskies I had tasted all year, but since we can't buy casks directly from Diageo, we were going to have to look elsewhere for something similar. Last year's visit to Sovereign resulted in a 30 year old Caol Ila cask of supreme complexity, but we were so intrigued by the 18 year that we wanted something with less age and more fruit. Tasting the 15 year old cask on the mainland in Glasgow, we found what we were looking for. Soft, supple textures, youthful campfire smoke, brandied fruit on the palate, with vanilla accents that smooth out the finish. A tasty winner that we can't wait for you to try.

1991 Linkwood 21 Year Old K&L Exclusive Sovereign Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $115.99 - Diageo's Linkwood distillery is generally considered one of, if not the best of, the Speyside distilleries that are not sold stateside.  We're lucky to find a delicious, independently-bottled expression from time to time and we're always on the lookout for something special.  While most Speyside distilleries use heavy amounts of sherry, Linkwood's elegant, fruity style stands on its own when aged in hogshead barrels as an alternative.  Unfortunately, getting that delicate nuance of fruit and vanilla takes time and we haven't seen older expressions of Linkwood very often.  Our friends at Sovereign dug deep into their inventory, however, and surfaced with exactly what we desired: unsherried Linkwood with more than two decades of time in the barrel.  Graceful, playful, and light with flavors of stonefruit, with the vanilla from the wood acting as a backbone.  Because it's bottled at cask strength, water is key to toning down the proof and releasing the potential for more flavor.  A few drops helps balance the power and brings out notes of baking spice, resinous oils, and more richness from the wood. This is a whisky we expect many to pass over in favor of our other, more exciting casks, before coming back around later to realize they've overlooked a true gem.  The sleeper of the older expressions we've had bottled.

1994 Caperdonich 18 Year Old K&L Sovereign Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - We love finding great casks of whisky from "lost distilleries," single malt institutions that are no longer in operation making their whisky more collectable and difficult to find.  While the buildings at Brora and Port Ellen still stand today 30 years after their closure, Caperdonich, closed forever in 2002, was completely gutted and destroyed just recently.  Nothing remains from the former Pernod-Ricard institution other than the single malt already sitting in cask.  Much like its demolished cousin Banff, which we featured in last year's K&L single malt lineup, Caperdonich has a distinct and understated character that doesn't jump out of the glass immediately.  It needs to be coaxed out.  Our single barrel of 18 year old malt is a tease at first - hinting at supple fruit on the nose, yet lithely avoiding any serious concentration on the palate.  Water is a must with the cask strength in order to temper the heat and bring out the nuance.  With the alcohol in check comes the classic character of the distillery - grass, hay, and notes of pepper with more stonefruit.  It's a keenly interesting whisky that offers a chance at understanding a fallen soldier.  Again, the Banff comparison will be key. Some people thought last year's cask was underwhelming, others thought it was the best they had ever tasted. This year's Caperdonich barrel will likely polarize drinkers much the same, wowing those who appreciate delicacy. Like the distillery itself, it will be missed after it's gone.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Aug142012

Tastings Tomorrow!

Our free, educational spirits tastings continue tomorrow with Combier making their way to San Francisco for some liqueur sampling.  They'll have their classic orange recipe along with the new pamplemousse grapefruit, as well as a third expression to be determined.  They are tasty and worth your time.  I've been drinking the grapefruit with tonic water all week. 

Redwood City will host Pacific Edge who will be pouring their latest acquisitions from Springbank.  We'll have the new Hazelburn 12 and the Kilkerran "Work in Progress," as well as a third whisky to be decided later.

Tastings start at 5 PM and run until 6:30.  They are free of charge.  See you there!

-David Driscoll

Monday
Aug132012

You Can Trademark That?

I was emailing with Ron Cooper from Del Maguey mezcal yesterday and he told me he had a trademark on the term "single village mezcal," which totally blew my mind.  I'm not an expert on Oaxacan history, but I'm guessing that they've been making different mezcals in different villages for decades, if not longer, so it's amazing to me that a descriptor that specifies something traditional and historic can be owned.  In Italy, every town across the entire country seems to have its own special amaro, fernet, or special herbal liqueur that is village specific or unique to a certain region.  I'm wondering if someone started a brand that marketed each of these liqueurs as "single village Italian liqueurs," and then trademarked that term, would that then make it illegal for any other producer to market its product as a regional specialty?  How far and how specific does this trademark go?  What if someone trademarked the term "single island single malt" or "single distillery Bourbon?"  It's interesting to me because I had previously described the Alipus mezcals in the post below as "single village" because they are from single villages.  No one from the company told me they were specifically "single village," I just know that the names of the products are based on the villages where they are made, hence my descriptions.  However, according to Ron, "single village" can only apply to Del Maguey products when it comes to mezcal, so I had to change the wording. 

I'm totally intrigued by this idea.  I hope to do more research as to what is possible when it comes to trademarking booze.  It's important to know what is universally protected and what can be owned by one brand.  More on this as I delve into the law books.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Aug102012

Hot Weather Drinkin'

I love mezcal.  I'm learning more about it every week and I'm finding myself in need of a Oaxacan pilgrimage.  While I'm hoping to take some time off in October to wander through the agave fields, the people at Craft Distillers have been keeping me busy here in the store.  In addition to their outstanding Mezcalero label, they've now begun importing Mezcal Alipus - a very special collection of distillates that showcase various styles of mezcal making.  At about $40 a bottle, these are as good as I've seen for the price.  There are plenty of more-expensive mezcals that don't come close to the Alipus three.  Check out the notes and see what you think:

Mezcal Alipus San Andres Mezcal $42.99 - New mezcals de un pueblo from Craft Distillers!  The Alipus line is fabulous selection of quality selections at reasonable prices.  The San Andres mezcal was fermented in cypress vats and distilled by Don Valente Angel from agave Espadin grown at 5,000 feet.  The flavors are tangy on the entry, but then turn bright with sweet agave notes, before transforming into earth with hints of baking spice.  Very complex and extremely tasty.  Instantly one of my favorites.

Mezcal Alipus San Baltazar Guelavila Mezcal $42.99 - The San Baltazar Guelavila mezcal is fermented in pine vats and distilled by Don Cosme Hernandez from agave Espadin grown at 5700 feet in white, rocky soil.  More delicate in mouthfeel than the other two, the palate is still quite expressive with sweet fruits and white pepper notes intertwining with the smoky tang.  Earthy notes on the finish.  Delicious.

Mezcal Alipus San Juan Del Rio Mezcal $42.99 - The San Juan del Rio mezcal is fermented in oak vats and distilled by Don Joel Cruz from non-irrigated agave Espadin grown in sunny mountain top plantings in ferriferous soil at 4600 feet.  Perhaps a bit more user friendly than the other selections, the flavors are concentrated but mild and more in check with the alcohol.  Brilliant depth, loads of pepper and spice, but a subtle hint of sweet baking spices keeps it together.  Classic mezcal for people looking for a starting point. 

These spirits are so alive with flavor and character that it's hard to believe they're unaged.  That's not to say that they taste barrel-matured, just that in the whisky world we're accustomed to complexity as something that comes with time.  Here it's all about distillation methods and quality agave.  Mezcal is definitely the new frontier for spirits fans.  I'm gravitating that way, at least.  On a hot California afternoon like today, I'm definitely game for a few shots after my Mexican dinner. 

-David Driscoll

Friday
Aug102012

When All of Life is a Contest

Some people have always viewed life as a race for the ultimate prize - power, money, prestige, and fame - but I feel like my generation has brought competition to a whole new level.  Christian Lander's Stuff White People Like brilliantly captures the insecurity and one-upsmanship that characterizes urban life in today's modern world.  Some of them simply hit too close to home (the Graduate School post is genius, and I am definitely guilty of the New York Times syndrome).  The thread that runs through his keen observations is the way in which people use simple pleasures in life to make themselves feel more important or special.  I'm a big believer in the idea that my generation was praised too much while growing up, leading us on a never-ending quest for affirmation, rather than information - a search for positive reenforcement by taking every moment possible to point out how your experiences are some how less authentic or meaningful than their own.  Here's an example:

I was sharing my excitement with a friend yesterday about scoring New Order tickets for their upcoming show in Oakland.  His response, "Did you hear that Peter Hook isn't touring with them this time?"  I had heard that the legendary bass player and co-founder was sitting this one out, but it wasn't particularly meaningful to me.  "Too bad you couldn't have seen them when I did in 2001 with the original lineup."  Really?  Is that where we're at today?  Three original members, minus one bass player, equals less of an authentic experience.  I shouldn't even bother going at this point.  He wins, I lose.  Contest over.

The truth is that I'm more interested in dancing, having fun, and weeping like a little kid in the dark while listening to "True Faith" and "Regret."  I'm over the contest that life has become.  I want to actually enjoy myself, not worry about someone else thinking I did.  Some how choosing to enjoy the less authentic experience, however, proves that you don't really get what life is about, which is proving to other people how much you know.  Another example came the other day when I told someone how I went to Chipotle for lunch.  They said, "Chipotle? Why would you eat there when there are so many authentic taquerias in Redwood City?"  Maybe because I was in the area, it tasted good, and it was cheap?  I didn't realize how important it was to justify every action in life by maximizing the amount of culture included.  It's like when someone makes you feel guilty for watching TV or not going outside enough.

Wine and whisk(e)y are not immune from such competition. There's nothing worse than when a single malt or Bourbon puts batch numbers on their bottles because it sparks an instant desire to collect the "good" ones and discard the "bad" ones.  What fun is booze if you can't hold that fact over the head of others? "Oh, you got batch 26?  That's cool, I guess.  I got batch 10 and 11, which are considered two of the best."  It's not enough that you got the whisky.  You still aren't on the same level as other enthusiasts unless you dig deeper.  As much as I like to talk about booze, this isn't a conversation I'm willing to have anymore.  I simply don't care.  It makes me want to bury my head in the sand.  I generally look at my job as a way to spread information about cool new booze.  I want to help people discover something new and exciting, something they may not have tried before.  Authenticity can make booze very interesting, as in Oaxacan mezcal distilled in traditional clay pots versus larger production methods.  It doesn't make it inherently better, however. 

To me, there are no winners and losers with alcohol.  Booze is there to help make life more enjoyable, not present you with a new challenge to master, adding to the already giant chips on our shoulders.  You got a great bottle?  That's fantastic.  Drink it.  However, please don't tell how me it's different and, therefore, better than my bottle.  You win.  I concede.  I'm not competing anymore. 

-David Driscoll