Post-Modern Boutique Retail

"Do you have these in a size 40?" I asked the lady at the ________ store in the Westfield Mall. 

"No, they're not available in that size, unfortunately," she said with a sympathetic frown.

"These just came out though, right?" I asked to be sure. I had been waiting for the new season of Fall flats to arrive.

"Yes, just last week."

"And is it that you didn't get any of these in a size 40, or was it just that all your size 40 options sold out quickly?" I inquired.

"To be honest," the lady told me, "Sometimes they don't even bother sending out all the sizes to the retail chains anymore. Everything sells immediately online, and they only make a few in each size, so they don't always see the point in distributing to brick and mortar these days."

"Ain't that the truth!" I thought to myself.

I've become a highly-competent shopper in the women's fashion world over the past few years. I've learned what my wife likes and what sizes she wears so that I can surprise her every now and again with a nice gift. But the more I start to understand the way the fashion world works, the more I see the parallels in the booze business. You'd think buying a simple pair of shoes would be easy, especially from a designer with numerous boutiques across the country. The reality, however, is that the internet has changed the way fashion retail works, much like it has with distilled spirits. You might expect to walk into K&L and find that rare Bourbon you've been searching for among our stock, but the fact is that most of our collectable stuff gets poached online long before we can even put it out on the shelf. Retailers like us have become so accustomed to a large pool of online consumers that often we don't need to make space in the store—we simply load it into inventory and the internet takes care of the rest.

And it's not just the instant availability aspect that's upping the ante for competitive shoppers; the internet is also increasing the amount of interested buyers by spreading the marketing information more freely. I can't even imagine what it must be like for high-schoolers to throw parties these days. I remember wanting to invite about twenty people over when my parents went out of town during my sophomore year, and going out of my way to only tell a few friends the details. If you weren't careful you'd have the whole school show up on your front doorstep with cold twelve-packs and a street full of honking cars. With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and dozens of other social media services, there are no more secrets. You can't quietly mention anything to anyone these days without the entire world knowing about it seconds later. The same thing goes for booze, and apparently for women's shoes.

You think no one knows about that local distillery down the road from your house? Think again. There are probably people in Hong Kong trying to get a bottle of their limited Spring release. You think that tiny little microbrew behind the local Safeway is just marketing its beer to the neighborhood? HA! There are probably twenty guys in Des Moines trying to order the remaining inventory via the brewery's website. Want those new ballet flats in size 40? So do hundreds of other women reading fashion blogs, Pinterest sites, and Instagram accounts about the hottest new shoes. It's a Catch 22 for enthusiasts these days. We like to Yelp about our favorite restaurants, but then we're mad when we can't get a table. We like to take photos of our newest outfits, but then we get annoyed when everyone's wearing the same thing. We like to brag about our latest whiskey acquisition, posting photos of the bottle on Facebook, but then we bitch about how good whiskey is getting harder to find. But you can't have it both ways.

If you like to post online information about whiskey, then you can't complain about whiskey's sudden popularity—because ultimately you're part of the problem! The more information we put online, the more people are going to discover our passion and our interests. The more that retailers put their inventory online for e-commerce, the less they'll need to rely on brick and mortar outlets. The less we rely on actual physical retail outlets, the harder it will be to get what you want because no one has to actually go to the store to buy what they're looking for; everything is just a few clicks away. 

You used to be able to get front row tickets for any concert if you got up earlier than your neighbor and waited in line at the local Ticketmaster outlet (sometimes people would even camp out overnight). Not anymore. Today the fastest internet connection wins that battle. Today's savvy shoppers are the ones who sit in front of a computer screen all day, not actually make the rounds to the local mall. All the really good stuff isn't there, anyway.

-David Driscoll


You'll Regret It

For as much as I love drinking, there are times when I overdo it. Part of the reason I'm the spirits buyer at K&L is because I thoroughly enjoy every single spirit known to man; there's practically nothing made out of liquor that I'm not a fan of. I like whiskey, gin, vodka, tequila, brandy, grappa, rum, aquavit, and whatever else can be distilled into alcohol. You can't give someone professional advise about boutique mezcal if you don't like it yourself, so you need to develop a taste for everything if you want to be taken seriously. Because I respect both my position and my clientele so highly, on any given night I will be drinking a combination of any or all of the fore-mentioned beverages in an attempt to gain greater insight (yes, I said that with a straight face).

Because I've spent so much time with alcohol, I've definitely learned which spirits need to be sipped slowly and savored rather than slurped (and I have a tendency to drink fast). Some people say bad tequila gives you a hangover, but if I had to make a list of the worst hangover spirits, tequila wouldn't even crack the top ten. There are far deadlier alternatives for those of us who like to indulge ourselves. Which ones, you ask? Let me tell you. Without further ado, I give you the top five spirits you'll regret drinking if you go on a bender. I've personally drunk each one of them in horrific excess (for the purpose of professional research) and awoken the next morning in utter agony.

5. Ricard - Let's just put it out there right now: any spirit that combines a high alcohol percentage with caramel coloring and sugar has the potential to play havoc on your head. The only thing that prevents Ricard from being number one on this list is the fact that most people can only finish one glass of it. The intense flavor of anisette (black licorice) is not something that you necessarily want to drink glass after glass of. Nevertheless, I’ve done it and it’s not pretty.

4. Navy Strength Gin - As if you needed me to tell you: 57% grain alcohol distilled with botanicals can be quite dangerous. The problem with navy strength gin is that you rarely scale back the volume in the face of the higher alcohol percentage. I enjoy the extra intensity of flavor that a high-proof gin brings to the party. Gin and tonics seem brighter and fresher; a Negroni all the more herbaceous. It’s when you go back for that second and third drink that you suddenly remember what you’re playing with because you end up passing out shortly after.

3. Hennessy VSOP - Again, we're back to the high-proof, caramel, and sugar combination. The thing about Hennessy VSOP is that it goes down so easily. Too easily, and usually with something else that has sugar in it (like Coke or ginger beer). That's why Jamie Foxx says, "Blame it on the Henny" when he talks about bad drunken behavior. Too much of it is bad, bad news. I put down half a bottle one night and I paid for it dearly.

2. Zwack Unicum - I LOVE the Zwack Unicum. LOVE it. That's a problem. Why? Because it's 40% alcohol, loaded with sugar and caramel, and it tastes sooooooooo good. Plus, you tend to drink it out of small glasses, so you end up going back and pouring shot after shot thinking the small amount couldn't possibly contain that much punch. How bad can it be? A few little, teeny-weeny shots never hurt anyone, right? "I'm just sipping it!" I yell to my wife when she says not to drink anymore. And then the morning comes. There's a reason I tell my customers not to get "Zwacked." It sucks.

1. Chartreuse - There is no doubt in my mind that Chartreuse is the absolute worst thing you could over-imbibe as a consumer of fine spirits. It doesn't matter if you're drinking green or yellow (although green is worse), or the standard formula versus the higher-end V.E.P. You will without a doubt regret the decision to pour yourself a third, fourth, or fifth glass of Chartreuse should you choose do so. Even drinking one glass of Chartreuse is like playing with fire (because you've probably already had a few drinks by the time you get around to doing so). The green is 55% ABV and there's plenty of sugar involved. I've never been in such misery while working at K&L as I was the night after I played around with Chartreuse cocktails. It was like a screw being driven into my brain, while waves of nausea pummelled my body into a series of cold sweats. A little Chartreuse is like medicine. But too much Chartreuse is the worst of all poisons.

-David Driscoll


A Fine Balance

I have learned a great deal from working with the public. I have been presented with generosity when it was least expected, found humility where it was largely undue, and received a genuine kindness from strangers just when I had started to believe that true courtesy was a thing of the past. I have had numerous handshakes and hugs bestowed upon me. I have also been yelled at, demoralized, called a "racist bigot" when I didn't offer one man the refund he was after, and even challenged to a fist fight in the K&L parking lot. I have finished some days with my head in my hands, my patience worn down to its bitter nub, my faith in humanity in ruins. At other times, I have rejoiced in the compassionate nature of our customers and their incredible care for what we do as a retailer, wondering what I could have done in a past life to make my current situation so fortunate. Working with the public, every single day, year after year, is a reminder of everything that's humanly possible in life—from the worst, most-insensitive characteristics of man, to the most-redeeming, unappreciated surprises we often overlook. In the end, what we achieve is a fine balance.

In Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance the true potential for both suffering and joy are presented in an epic and awe-inspiring tale of life in India during the 20th century. It's a novel that has been praised as "utterly Dickensian" in its realistic and honest portrayal of poverty and the struggle humanity faces in its woe (although not being a huge fan of David Copperfield myself, I can say that A Fine Balance is much less tedious). It's a story that will arouse in you a storm of emotions and force you to examine your own behavior as a result. You will not walk away from this book the person you were before.

What most amazes me about Mistry's writing is his acute awareness of how anger is often misplaced due to a lack of understanding; how someone's attitude or actions might rub you the wrong way, yet you have no idea what that person has suffered or experienced to make them so (and if you did know you might not have been so upset or judgmental). It's that awareness—that ability to put yourself in the shoes of anotherthat Mistry poetically serves his readers in A Fine Balance. Taking that extra step—pausing for reflection rather than reaction—is what makes for good writing. Hell, it's what makes for a good human being (and actually for good customer service as well). It's the fragile foundation of what dealing with the public is based upon and it can easily crumble if you're not properly equipped to handle its challenges.

A Fine Balance is a firm reminder of how cruel the world can really be, and all you can hope to do in the face of it. It should be required reading for anyone who leaves their home and interacts with the outside world.

-David Driscoll


K&L Spirits Journal Podcast #31 – Elisabetta & Antonella Nonino


I was taking a look back at the K&L Spirits Journal archive and I realized that we had a gaping hole in our subject matter—I'd covered Scotland, France, the United States, the Caribbean, and even Mexico, but I'd never spoken to anyone about the rich distilling traditions of Italy. Given my recent penchant for amaro and grappa (actually an old penchant that's recently resurfaced) I really wanted to talk to someone knowledgeable concerning this topic. My first thought was immediately the Nonino family—the most-respected distiller of fine grappa and amari liqueurs in all of Italy.

When I mentioned this idea to our Italian wine buyer Greg St. Clair, he said to me, "You need to make this one a video podcast. Have you ever seen the Nonino sisters?"

Yes, of course, I had. They're absolutely beautiful. But don't let their good looks fool you. These women are the brains and the brawn behind the entire Nonino empire; a dynamic portfolio of high-quality distillates and one of the few old-world operations to aptly anticipate the cocktail movement and embrace it with open arms (click here to visit their informative website). Their products are not only top-notch, but the labeling is also stylish, modern, and classy—offering a sophistication and intelligence that matches their carefully-crafted flavor. The Nonino sisters—and their spirits—are the total package.

Elisabetta, Antonella, & Cristina Nonino with a bottle of their Chardonnay grappa

On Thursday morning (early because of the time difference—hence my rather scratchy, unenergetic voice) I sat down with Elisabetta and Antonella Nonino for a lovely phone conversation about Italian spirits. Listen to us talk about amaro history, the excitement of the mixology scene, and what makes the Nonino products more elegant and delicious than any other Italian spirit on the market.

You can download this episode of the Spirits Journal podcast here or on our Apple iTunes page. Previous episodes can be found in our podcast archive located on the right hand margin of the page. You can also listen via our embedded Flash player above.

-David Driscoll


That's Amaro

“Amaro” means bitter in Italian and it’s the word used to describe a category of spirits that uses bitter roots, flowers, or barks in conjunction with sugar and a base alcohol (usually grain spirit, but sometimes wine or brandy) to create a flavored liqueur. The recent renaissance of amari like Campari has created a bitter resurrgence in the cocktail world, with bartenders raising the bar far beyond simple staples like a Negroni or a Black Manhattan. Whereas Campari, Cynar, and newer products like Gran Classico are meant specifically for cocktails (I think you'd be reaching for the toothpaste if you drank Campari straight up), traditional amari are meant for sipping after dinner; they're digestivos made with medicinal herbs to help ease your stomach after a big meal. 

For more than one hundred years, different areas of Italy have been producing regional versions of amari; typically from herbs, roots, and botanicals found in that particular locale. Just like Tuscany is known for Sangiovese, and Piedmonte is famed for its Nebbiolo, each region of Italy has its own special recipe (usually heavily-guarded and top secret) for an amaro. I've personally been cutting back on my brown booze consumption as of late, instead opting for a shot of Nonino or Montenegro before bedtime. Let's take a look at our current selection that continues to grow as more and more Italian amari are imported:

LiguriaAmaro Di S. Maria al Monte $36.99 – First created by the monks of the Santa Maria monastery near Florence, the recipe was sold to a Mr. Vignale in 1911, who began producing it for the Liguarian region. The ingredients are 100% natural with absolutely no artificial flavors or colors: Chinese rhubarb, China root, gentian root, orange peel, angelica, juniper, muscat nut, saffron, plus many more herbs are used to create the flavor profile.

BolognaAmaro Montenegro $26.99First produced in 1885 by Bolognan citizen Stanislao Cobianchi, who traveled through the Principality of Montenegro he was struck by the extraordinary digestive powers of a local drink known as Karik. Returning to Italy, Stanislao cloistered himself away in a liquoreria of the Piemont where, after learning the secrets of distillation, he was able to reproduce the flavors of the drink once tasted in Montenegro. Returning to Bologna as an accomplished master of his trade, Stanislao opened a small liquor store and subsequently a distillery in order to produce and market his Amaro Montenegro, made with over 40 different herbs.

Friuli – Nonino Quintessentia Amaro $44.99 – From Distillatori Nonino in Italy's Friuli. This amaro is a grape distillate (brandy) infused with herbs and aged in barrique, which creates a more delicate and round amaro due to the higher quality base. It's also barrel-aged, adding extra richness.

SicilyAverna Amaro Siciliano $29.99Produced in Caltanissetta, Sicily, Averna is named after its inventor, Salvatore Averna, who invented the recipe in 1868. Herbs, roots and citrus rinds are allowed to soak in the base liquor before caramel is added. 

LombardiaLazzaroni Amaro $25.99 – Located in the town or Sarrono, in the Lombardian province of Varese, Lazzaroni has been producing traditional aperitivos, digestivos, and extracts based on guarded family recipes since 1851. Made from a special selection of herbs, plants, roots, and berries from the Alps.

Lombardia – Braulio Amaro Alpino $34.99 – Created in Bormio in 1875 by Francesco Peloni, a pharmacist who specialized in the field of medicinal aromatic herbs, Braulio is made with thirteen fresh herbs sourced from the Valtellina mountain region, including gentian, juniper, peppermint, star anise, wormwood, bitter orange and yarrow. After being infused with alcohol, it is then matured in Slavonian oak for two years, fully integrating the flavors and lending additional complexity. 

Piedmonte Cardamaro Amaro $18.99This secret family recipe was developed over the last century by the Bosca family using a wine base of Moscato, making it more like a vermouth.  Cardoon, blessed thistle and several other botanicals are infused into the base with a bit of sugar added.

BasilicataLucano Amaro $24.99This traditional Amaro from the far flung Basilicata region is made in the most traditional manner.  Using only natural botanicals and following a hundred year old family recipe, the secret ingredient that differentiates Lucano is a closely guarded family secret, but the recipe includes Roman absinthe, wormwood, Clary sage, musk yarrow, holy thistle, sweet orange, gentian, and aloe.

MilanFernet Branca $21.99Fernet Branca is an Italian amaro developed in 1845. The family's secret recipe still has never been disclosed, but what they can tell you is that it is a combination of 27 different herbs picked in four continents and aged for more than a year in oak casks. Fernet is also a specific type of amaro, now considered an entirely different subgroup of more minty, medicinal-flavored liqueurs.

MarcheVarnelli Amaro Sibilla $51.99From Italy's Varnelli family, a producer from the Marche region that has been distilling since 1868. It was created in 1868 by the herbalist Girolamo Varnelli. According to his recipe, the ingredients are an infusion of herbs and roots from Monti Sibillini made on wood fire, pure honey from Monti Sibillini, and alcohol. These ingredients, once blended, have to be decanted and aged for several months.

Varnelli Amaro Dell'Erborista $61.99Rhubarb, dried orange peel, cloves, gentian root, and more are used to take the Sibilla to a new level of bitterness. This is a cloudy and unfiltered spirit that is quite supple, but bitter as bitter can be on the finish.

And this is just a brief overview! There are about ten more I didn't list and there are five more samples sitting on my desk for approval. I can't get enough of this stuff. Every family with its own secret recipe, all the herbs and medicinal properties, and the variety of flavor.....I love it.

-David Driscoll