Central Valley Rye Harvest

Some of you might remember my article about Corbin distillery from the five part series I did about vodka last year. But, then again, it was a blog post about craft vodka so you might have just skipped over it. If you don't feel like going back and perusing the details, I'll give you a quick summary: Corbin is a farm located in Atwater, California (just south of my hometown of Modesto in the Central Valley—we had some heated baseball games against Atwater High School) that grows sweet potatoes. A few years back, David Souza—whose family has farmed in the region for a hundred years—decided to add a still to preserve the unused harvest (just like farmers have been doing for hundreds of years) and Corbin Sweet Potato Vodka was born.

However, what I just learned recently (during a phone call with the distillery) is that sweet potatoes need a lot of nitrogen to grow. Therefore, a nitrogen-heavy fertilizer is used to help the soil provide the necessary nutrients for the crop. The sandy soil of Atwater, however, leaches a lot of the nitrogen deep into the earth and a cover crop is needed to help remove some of the nitrogen before another round of sweet potatoes can be planted. It just so happens that rye is the perfect cover. Erik Teague, the brand manager for Corbin, told me:

While sweet potatoes are our primary crop, a hearty, drought tolerant cereal grain, native to California— called ‘Merced Rye’— is planted after sweet potato harvest. Merced Rye not only flourishes in our extreme climates without a high demand for irrigation, it has a very helpful extensive root system. Reaching soil depths of up to thirteen feet, Merced Rye naturally mines nutrients that have leached into our sandy soil, back to the surface. When the stocks are disked back into the ground, it provides a soil base rich in nutrients for following seasons’ crops.

The fact that Merced Rye is a grain we know very well and is in no short supply to us, creates a desirable substrate for us as distillers.

Rye being ground into grist at Corbin distillery

You can guess where this is going. It turns out that Corbin hasn't only been distilling sweet potato vodka over the past few years; they've also been growing, harvesting, fermenting and distilling their own rye—purchasing custom-charred, 53 gallon white oak barrels from Missouri and filling them with their 100% farm-to-bottle distillate. They began maturing their whiskey four years ago and today we finally get to try the finished product. I know my pal Chuck Cowdery will be happy to hear that when you buy a bottle of Corbin Merced Rye Whiskey, it's actually entirely made in the region designated on the label (unlike a large number of other rye whiskies on the market).

It's also not some six-month-old, quarter-cask-aged, rushed-to-market, let's-capitalize-on-the-whole-rye-boom, "craft" whiskey. It's the real deal, and the story is a big part of what makes it so special. I can't think of one other distillery that is handling every step of the rye-making process from literally planting the seed, to bottling the mature spirit. If you care about that kind of thing, you're going to want a bottle of the Corbin Merced Rye Whiskey—especially if you have any California pride! If you don't care about that kind of thing, you're still going to want a bottle simply because the whiskey tastes good.

Corbin Cash Merced Rye Whiskey $46.99Distilled on the same German Holstein still, the almost 4 year old rye (3.75 years to be exact) shows a perfectly-balanced nose of rich oak and rye grain aromas, and a leaner, more classically-styled mouthfeel with hints of baking spice from the barrel aging. It's not a full throttle high proof experience, nor is it a softer, gentler spirit like the Bulleit or Templeton products. It falls somewhere in between Russell's Reserve 6 and Rittenhouse, if you're looking for a comparison, but after multiple tastings it's clear that the Corbin is its own thinga purely Californian whiskey, 100% from farm to bottle.

I have a feeling 2014 will be an important year in the annuls of small-production whiskey (I'm disowning the word "craft" from this point on because I think it adds a negative connotation), simply because it's the first year where smaller distilleries have begun offering viable alternatives to the big-boys at reasonable prices. Both Willett and Corbin have turned in fantastic rye whiskies this month, and there are a few more regional secrets I'm sitting on for later this Fall. More importantly, we're back to working with families rather than global conglomerates, which is much more fun for me. There's something wonderful about two family-run, California businesses bringing booze to the people—K&L and Corbin working as farmer and merchant.

That's as romantic of a story as I can tell in the booze business—and the whiskey tastes good, too!

-David Driscoll


Orphan Barrels—Round Three

Diageo's third release in its Orphan Barrel series is the Rhetoric, which comes in another fantastic-looking bottle. It almost looks like the old art-deco covers of the Ayn Rand novels put out during the 1960s—the Rhetoric is like The Fountainhead of whiskey labels.

How does it stack up? It's the best of the three so far, in my opinion.

Rhetoric 20 Year Old Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey 750ml (ships as 1.5L) $99.99 - Another 20 year old release from Diageo's Orphan Barrel series that showcases ultra-mature Bourbon from Bernheim Distillery. Whereas the Barterhouse 20 year began with a soft and rounded profile, showcasing the extra oak from two decades of aging, the Rhetoric is far more balanced with less initial sweetness and more peppery spice. The tobacco and herbaceous notes carry through to the finish, which is decidedly longer and more intense than what the Barterhouse offers. Considering both stocks originate from the same distillery, it's interesting to taste how Diageo has chosen to blend together the remaining barrels. Fans of the richer, more supple style of Bourbon might lean towards the Barterhouse, but those in search of what's ultimately underneath the sweetness will prefer the Rhetoric without question. The baking spices on the nose are more alluring, and the complexity of flavor far more interesting.(NOTE: Due to the width of the Rhetoric bottle all shipping orders will be charged as 1.5L bottles)

-David Driscoll


Summer Is Here

The weather on the SF Peninsula is hot. We've got the back door open and the front door as well to bring in the cross breeze. There's take-out pizza on the coffee table, reality TV on the tube, and a huge glass of Blason Box-o-white in my hand. It's gotten to the point where I feel summer can't begin until our annual Blason shipment arrives—the Italian producer that has become one of our most popular K&L exclusives over the past few years. Along with the various selections we import, we actually commission a pinot grigio/pinot bianco blend in a 3L box that never goes bad and stays fresh as a daisy in a collapsible bag. When I say "commission," I mean we make it for ourselves, not for customers—I usually drink about 10 boxes each summer. We can't drink it all ourselves, however, so we have to sell a bit of it to get through all of the inventory; but we drink 70% of the shipment within K&L.

If you want to join in on the summer party, you can snag yours by clicking here; plus you can read the review I wrote six years ago (have I worked at K&L that long?).

I'm loving Monday Night Raw right now. Summer can begin. I'll leave you with my hometown of Modesto's finest export: Grandaddy performing their classic "Summer Here Kids." Memories...

-David Driscoll


Sky Lounging

We were flying back from Los Cabos last weekend; my wife and I having attended a wedding for her cousin. Our flight had been delayed by a half hour, our legs were tired after a long night of dancing, and we were ready to board the plane and take our seats. As we reached 22 F we noticed a little girl and her father taking up two of the three chairs in our row.

"Hi, we're coming in here," I said softly with a smile.

"You're sitting here?" the girl said with anxiety in her voice. "But I'm sitting here with my dad."

"I think I'm sitting there with my wife," I answered with a laugh, as her father began explaining to her that he had to leave now because his seat was at the front of the plane. The little girl immediately buried her face in her hands and began to cry.

"Nevermind!" I quickly stated, realizing what was going on here. "I can switch seats with your dad." The man asked me if I was sure, and I said it wasn't a problem. I could go take his spot at the front of the plane and they could sit with my wife.

"Thank you so much," he said to me as I waded my way back through the incoming line of passengers. I took my new seat towards the cockpit and settled in next to a pair of old school boozers who were already busy ordering their first round of drinks.

"Why not?" I asked myself, as I punched in a Cazadores with a side of ice on the flat screen in front of me. Straight tequila on the rocks is an under-estimated beverage. By the time we took off and my cocktail was being delivered, the stewardess handed me three minis instead of one.

"That was very nice what you did back there," she whispered, and slipped me the extra contraband without once looking my way. I took my first sip and a warm, fuzzy feeling overtook my entire body. Tequila really does have an entirely different buzz than other spirits; it's more buoyant or lifting in a way.

When the flight attendants had finally cleared the aisle, I went back to check on my wife. The man had now switched seats with his other daughter and the three ladies seemed to be hitting it off. I asked the two sisters how they were doing and they asked if I could help set up their video games for them. After we got the software working, my wife mouthed something silently and pointed in the direction of the father.

"What?" I mimed, not understanding. She made a motion like she was shoveling dirt, which only added to my confusion. After a few minutes, I figured out what she was trying to convey.

"My daddy plays hockey," the younger daughter finally said.

I eventually made my way back to the front, offered a mini bottle of tequila to the couple next to me (they accepted immediately), and enjoyed the rest of my short high. When we landed, I exited the plane far ahead of my wife and went forward to save a spot in the customs line. My wife walked out a few minutes later hand-in-hand with the two girls. When she lifted up one of the ropes to move underneath it and take her place with me, one of the daughters ran out to give her a hug. The dad came over to shake my hand and thank me again for switching seats.

It was the same man who did this back in the late 1990s. I remember that game well.

-David Driscoll


Kulsveen (aka Willett) Whiskey Finally Here

For years we've been waiting for the Willett distillery to start making whiskey again. Today, we finally get our first taste.

Willett Distillery 2 Year Old Rye Whiskey $43.99 - It's been a long time in the making, but the first batch of 100% Willett distilled rye is finally here--and it's glorious. For years, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, run by the Kulsveen family, has been bottling fantastic whiskey under their numerous labels; Willett being just one of the expressions (along with Noah's Mill, Rowan's Creek, Johnny Drum, etc.). Willett Distillery was actually founded in the 1930s by former Bernheim superintendent Thompson Willett, but subsequent generations of the family would become disinterested in Bourbon until the distillery finally closed. Evan Kulsveen, who married Willett's daughter, purchased the abandoned site in 1984 with plans to reopen his father in law's once-great operation. Almost thirty years later, his son Drew and son-in-law Hunter have the site refurbished and back on track. This batch of two year old rye marks the first time the whiskey in a Willett rye bottle has been the product of the Willett distillery and not a purchased barrel from LDI distillery in Indiana. It's shockingly good considering the young age. Imagine the pure rye flavors of Anchor's Old Potrero with the cinnamon and baking spices of the Templeton. Bottled at 54.7% ABV, the power and intensity of the whiskey is also on display, but it's balanced beautifully by the richness. It's a giant leap forward for the Willett distillery and it's an exciting day for those of us who have been waiting for this moment for some time.

-David Driscoll