Armagnac Preview #2 — Baraillon

We've been carrying the Baraillon Armagnacs for three years now and it's been a match made in heaven for K&L, the Claverie family, and our customers—we're their biggest account and their biggest fans. There's something special about walking into the tasting room at Baraillon, which is really just a little hut next to their home with plastic furniture and humble offerings (like fresh fois gros straight from the farm next door). Mr. Baraillon will come in from feeding the pigs wearing rubber boots, while his daughter Laurence stands by quietly, yet does most of the talking. It's as "real" of a rustic French experience as I think exists, in that there's absolutely no romantic marketing or salesmanship going on in the room. You're simply stopping by a small farm in the Bas-Armagnac that sells meat, preserves, and also happens to have a little reserve Armagnac in the chai outside—some amazingly-delicious Armagnac, no less.

We've brought in several expressions from Baraillon over the last few years: the heralded, customer-favorite 1985 vintage, a simple 10 year expression, a lovely 1998 Folle Blanche vintage, and a trio of super-old, ultra-rare gems from 1893, 1900, and 1933. Tasting through the line-up at Baraillon is not only incredibly-exciting, it's also exhausting! There are so many different expressions available, many of which have been archived in glass demi-johns to prevent further maturation. The Claverie vineyards are divided evenly between baco, folle blanche, and ugni blanc, so there is also the opportunity to taste single varietal Armagnacs versus blends of the three grapes together. As far as I know, the Claveries only distill folle blanche as a single varietal; although there are some 100% baco distillates from past generations in their chai.

While normally we taste from samples out of bottles, pulled by by Laurance in advance of our appointment, this year we decided we wanted to bottle a single cask selection. We headed with our glasses into the warehouse where Laurence dipped the rubberhose into the casks and got the booze a flowin'. We walked out with a killer barrel of single varietal Folle Blanche from 1995 that should make fans of the genre very, very happy. On top of that we picked out a straight 20 year marriage and a few other vintage selections that show the breadth and scope of the Baraillon Armagnacs.

Unlike distilleries that operate day in and day out, perfecting the distillation process in order to improve consistency, the Claveries are not worried about consistency. They only distill one week out of the year, so each batch reflects not only the vintage of the grapes, but the conditions on the farm at that particularly time. You have to remember—the Claveries have been living in the same house since 1749. They use fruit from around their property, but also from Mr. Claverie's sister in Le Freche. They do not use new oak, but rather 5,000 liter, used-vats that house the brandy until other barrel space opens up, or until they can afford to buy more wood. It's not about consistency at Baraillon, but rather what's possible at that particular moment in time (which each vintage represents). Sometimes the barrels from a vintage are blended together, sometimes they're not. It all depends on what's needed.

And that's why we feel the Baraillon Armagnacs are the most "authentic" spirit we carry; they reflect the everyday issues of everyday people attempting to make something great with their own two-hands.

-David Driscoll


Armagnac Preview #1 — Pouchegu

We're big fans of the Tenareze Armagnacs—that third-on-the-list, lesser-known region of Armagnac that seems to get lumped under both Bas-Armagnac and Haut-Armagnac in terms of recognition. However, unlike Cognac with its Grand Champagne, Petit Champagne, Borderies, and Bois designations, I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that the soil plays as big of a role in determining flavor with the Tenareze brandies. When you taste a sampling of Fin Bois Cognacs versus Grand Champagne expressions, the difference is clear from the moment the brandy hits your lips—the elegance, and the fineness of the GC distillate proving that terroir does matter. With Armagnac the differences tend to be more about grape choice and stylistic differences—baco vs. folle blanche, or large barrique vs. smaller, charred barrels. It's not that terroir doesn't matter with Armagnac (because it certainly plays a role), it's that it isn't as obviously apparent.

The link that connects the three Tenareze producers we feature at K&L—Pellehaut, Ladaveze, and Pouchegu—is the richness in their spirits from the new wood maturation. All three producers have "modern" (a relative term in Armagnac) warehousing facilities and invest in their cooperage, which can stand in stark contract to more rustic producers like Baraillon from the Bas-Armagnac. Pierre Laporte, the proprietor of Domaine de Pouchegu, believes that new Limousin oak is essential to producing top quality Armagnac and strives to fill only freshly-constructed barrels. The Pouchegu Armagnacs are also bottled at higher alcohol percentages, which helps to balance out the richness and the power inflected into the spirit from the wood.

Like most Armagnac producers, Pierre does not own his own still, nor does he carry out his own distillation. It's important to remember that most Armagnac producers are farmers first, and rarely do they have time to get around to a second title or position. Pouchegu, like many producers, hires a traveling stillman to drive an alembique on a flatbed to the property when the fermentation is done, and distill everything for the year in one fell swoop. His property is planted solely with baco grapes. When we visited Pierre in 2013 he hinted that distillation might be done at Pouchegu for the foreseeable future—he feels he has enough back stock to retire at this point and doesn't have any kin looking to carry on the tradition. What's currently in the barrel at Pouchegu is likely all that will continue to exist at this point.

Pouchegu Armagnac has been winning awards and accolades in France for decades, and the brandies are considered some of the best in the region. Because of the small size and scale of the operation, it's taken us more than a year to get our batch of the 1986 vintage bottled in 750ml and ready for export to the U.S. (remember that we visited Pouchegu on last year's trip, not our most recent journey this past March). On June 30th, however, the wait will finally be over as one of the most-anticipated Armagnac releases of the year docks in Oakland and awaits customs inspection.

We're hoping it won't be more than a week or so after that before the bottles are the store and ready to go.

-David Driscoll


Sherry Tonight in Redwood City

Since the CA liquor laws are practically useless in our retail locations, preventing us from having the type of tastings we really want to offer, we'll be doing some serious Sherry action tonight in place of a booze event. Joe Manekin, our resident sherry expert, will be in the bar pouring six different expressions--two of which are future K&L single barrel releases. Here's the list:

La Cigarrera Manzanilla $11.99

La Cigarrera Manzanilla Pasada $41.99

Alexander Jules Manzanilla 17/71 $39.99

Alexander Jules Amontillado $34.99

Plus two single barrel Amontillado single casks!

This will only cost you $5. We start at 5 PM and run until 6:30. You should definitely come check it out, especially if you like sherry-aged whisky. This is a chance to taste the building blocks of that particular flavor.

-David Driscoll


July Heatwave

I know you're all getting restless. After two weeks of podcasts, mail bag questions, and long, ridiculous ponderings about the nature of man's ego, there's still no new K&L booze! What the fuck, dude?

To all of you getting itchy for something new, I say: get your engines ready.

We needed to let you all cool out for a few weeks because July is going to get hot and heavy. We can't have everyone sprinting through the warm months of June, only to be burnt out by the time we need you in peak physical condition! Take the next twelve days to empty out what you have, finish the last drops of your coveted favorites, and make some space in the bar. It's about to get nuts.

If the winds are in our favor, the government customs agents on our side, and the heavens working with us, we might see as many as 90 (yes, I said N-I-N-E-T-Y) new K&L Exclusive products hit before the end of August (if you include the pre-arrival whiskies we've already released). It's going to be the biggest summer ever at K&L for brown booze (which might be poor planning on our part because people drink way more brown booze in the winterbut is drinking really seasonal anymore?).

Here's a snapshot at what's docking in Oakland in the near future:

June 30th: 1986 Pouchegu Armagnac (click here to revisit our time at this estate with Pierre Laporte); Pellehaut L'Age de Glace (the most popular brandy in K&L history), and a few other knick-knacks.

July 9th: a smattering of new Baraillon Armagnac releases (some single casks, too); new selections from Domaine d'Ognoas; the debut of Claude Thorin's Cognac expressions (remember them?); the debut of the reopened Chateau de Laballe (with some hot deals buried in there).

July 31st: more Armagnac from Pellehaut; the debut of the high-proof Forgeron Cognacs; the debut of the jaw-dropping Ladeveze Armagnac (maybe the best we found this year).

And don't forget that at some point in there we'll be receiving a secret shipment from Burgundyand it ain't wine.

That's just a sneak peak. There's a lot more coming in-between the cracks, including a few single malts we "forgot" to tell you about.

-David Driscoll


Golden Guides

I have a pretty vivid memory when it comes to the early 80s; especially considering the fact I was only four in 1984. I remember that year quite well because it was when I got my first Golden Guide––a series of pocket-sized books about nature, originally released in the 1950s. Stars was my first acquisition in the catalog and it sparked in me an interest for reference books that was insatiable. I would eventually collect just about every entry there was––Birds, Reptiles and Amphibians, Cacti, and even Tropical Fish––and I was proud of this collection. Last night, as I went to sleep, I thought back to an afternoon in 1986 on our back patio when my parents had friends over and I showed one of the women these books. I watched as she flipped through the pages, ran her fingers over the images, and made comments like, "Oh, now isn't that interesting." In retrospect, she was obviously patronizing me the way most adults do to small children, but at the time I loved it. A warm sensation went through my body as she showed enthusiasm for my things.

A normal kid would have presented this woman with one or two books and then gone back to playing with his toys. I, however, went back to my room to get a new Golden Guide each time she was done looking at the current one (despite the fact that she was only looking at them to be nice). Considering I had at least thirty different Golden Guides at this point, this must have happened about thirty consecutive times––and each time, despite the fact she was having a conversation with my parents, she would give me the same positive attention and look at each entry with the same level of detail. I think there was actually a moment where I thought I was doing her the favor by showing her all these books. Can you imagine that, however? Going over to your friends' house for dinner, showing their kid some attention, to the point that he goes back and literally brings out every single toy he has, so that you can continue to validate his possessions for about two straight hours? What kind of kid does that?

You could chalk that behavior up to the solipsism of an enthusiastic young person, if you really wanted to, but deep down I know what was really going on: it was the budding seed of narcissism planted deep inside of me––an enjoyment of the idea that everything I had to say and do was important without taking into consideration the feelings or needs of others. It's only solipsism if it eventually disappears. My narcissism did not, however.

While I don't consider myself an extreme narcissist, there's no denying that, when you look at the personality checklist listed in any basic psychological evaluation of the condition, I fit a number of those qualifications, if not all of them. But, of course, to write a blog everyday you have to have some narcissistic qualities, otherwise there would be no way you could keep it up. The main reason blogs fail, in my opinion, is because the author eventually loses interest after receiving little to no response to his or her words. However, when you're a narcissist, you never believe that's the case (or you quit because you don't want to believe that's the case). There was an article in the New Yorker a few weeks back about how tech CEOs never think their company is the one that's going to fail, and how this confidence is almost a requisite attitude for capitalism right now––otherwise, why would people continue to start new businesses when the odds of success are stacked so highly against them? Only a narcissist could believe so boldly in his or her own abilities.

And only narcissists would believe that people want to constantly read updates from their lives, see pictures of their vacations, and hear long, drawn-out stories about something funny that happened to them this past weekend. And only narcissists will get upset, on the verge of tears, when you criticize them or call them out on this behavior, forcing you to eventually acquiesce and tell them they are actually a nice, genuine person in the face of all that rage. They like to argue, to correct others, and to dominate the conversation, but don't you dare try to out-do a narcissist at their own game––they can dish it out, but they absolutely cannot take it. That's why blog comment fields often turn into name-calling, one-upsmanship, and general negativity. Narcissists didn't start writing blogs so that some jealous troll (because that's what every negative reaction must be the result of--a jealous troll) could crap all over it.

My attempts to out-grow my narcissistic skin have made generous leaps and strides over the last few years, but in recognizing my own tendencies I've become hyper-aware of this behavior in others. It's because I'm so ashamed of my own past transgressions that I tend to take a zero-tolerance policy towards others. However, giving a blog to a narcissist is like giving a bag of heroin to a junkie, or a book of matches to a pyromaniac––I'm not always sure that receiving attention from tens of thousands of people is good for my own personal growth. The only way I'm able to maintain my composure is by outlawing any photos of myself and turning off the comment field (which helps me to avoid positive feedback––which is what 75% of it is: "Nice post!" "Good job!")

However, in this day and age, the internet is like a giant playground for people like me; it's an entire society built around narcissism. My generation--the kids who grew up thinking they were special and better than others--definitely fulfilled its prophecy: to create more opportunities for self-adulation. However, the irony of all this social media is that part of being a narcissist is not knowing what people really think about you; it's simply part of the disease. You don't know what people are thinking because you're convinced that everyone is enjoying what you have to say (plus, you're too busy thinking about yourself).

But when you talk all of the time and think you have funny stories to tell, most people are not enjoying what you have to say. Most of the time they're waiting for you to shut up.

That's why I approach the Spirits Journal with more trepidation these days. It's only over the last five years that I realized how deeply my narcissistic roots reach. So while I like to believe that my blog is the exception to all that hot air out there, that's exactly what my narcissistic personality wants to believe: that I'm the exception.

But that's what all of us who write blogs have to believe. Otherwise there would be no blogs. There would only be straight-forward news and reference books; only Golden Guides.

-David Driscoll