Wine Geek Wine Spirits

Are you like me--fully into both the wine and spirits world? Completely enveloped in your cellar full of Bordeaux, yet simultaneously checking the fills on your single malt collection? Then this is where both of your worlds collide together into a netherworld known as fortified, aromatized wines. Port and sherry are still technically wine. Vermouth, on the other hand, falls into the spirits department here at K&L, which is fantastic for me because I'm obsessed with this stuff. My former mentor and ex-K&L German wine buyer Jeff Vierra left the store a few years back to open up his own import/distribution operation and he began representing the Louis/Dressner portfoilio: one of the most prestigious books due to its dedication to discovering all-natural, hand-harvested, unmanipulated wines from small farmers around Europe.

A few years back they added Mauro Vergano's products to their selection. We were all completely smitten here at the Redwood City store, but then the supply chain fell apart and we were out of stock for a long period of time. Finally, I heard from Jeff this week that the Vergano wines were once again available and that they had added a new Chinato and Vermouth Bianco to the mix. I was ecstatic. Now that they're in stock, I'm happy to report back with my findings on their quality: in short, they're enough to make any serious cocktail geek wet their pants. If you thought quality vermouth was only for sweet expressions like Carpano, you might want to check out this Bianco. I've been nipping on it for the last ten minutes and I can't get enough. Man, I can't wait to get home and experiment with this thing!!

I'll post a quick summary of each here, but you should visit the Louis/Dressner page for more info. Make sure you click on the little plus signs to expand each section and provide more detailed information.

Vergano "Luli" Moscato Chinato $46.99 - The wine used here is Moscato d’Asti with a higher alcohol content (more than 10%) compared to the ones that are commonly available. The Moscato comes from the prestigious winery of Vittorio Bera & Figli. Their Moscato’s fragrance and its full-bodiedness meld perfectly with the aromatic extract composed of citrus zest, cinnamon and vanilla. These fresh and sweet aromas are balanced by the bitter flavour of the China (Calisaya and Succirubra) which give it a persistent taste that is absolutely unique.

Vergano Americano Aperitif $36.99 - Think of the Vergano Americano as a traditional Vermouth/Bitter Piedmontese aperitif. It uses Grignolino as the base wine rather than Nebbiolo, and like most vermouths, it contains herbal and aromatic components. In order to transform a Vermouth into an Americano you have to integrate the herbs at its base with other more bitter ones like Gentianella, citrus zest like Bitter Orange and Chinotto.The result is like an Italian wine version of Campari or Cynar. Try using it in a Negroni or with soda and a twist. Absolutely lovely stuff.

Vergano Nebbiolo Chinato $42.99 - Made with Nebbiolo from Barbaresco that comes from the Rabajà hill. It is produced by Giuseppe Cortese’s winery in Barbaresco; this is a small-scale producer who produces excellent quality wine. The extract is the result of a complex mixture of aromatizing substances. Besides China in its Calisaya and Succirubra varieties, there are particularly bitter ingredients like Chinese Rabarbaro and Ginseng, while the aromatic component comes from spices and herbs like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, coriander, bay leaf, etc. What makes this wine characteristic is the extreme persistence of its aroma due to its perfectly balanced ratio between sugar, alcohol and aromatic extract content.

Vergano Vermouth Bianco $42.99 - Vermouth is the only fortified and aromatized wine with a precise historical origin. It was first concocted 1786 in Turin by Benedetto Carpano. Since then the Vermouth has become one of the most famous drinks in the world both as aperitif or as an ingredient in cocktails. Its name derives from the German word "Vermuth" which means Absinthe, one of its main components. Originally, the base wine was Moscato, but different wines have been used over time. In the case of the Vergano Bianco, the base wine is a blend of dry Moscato and Cortese, another typical white grape of Piedmont. This mixture gives a correct balance between acidity and flavor.The mixture of herbs and spices is very complex, dominated by herbs such as thyme, marjoram, basil, oregano that provide fresh and aromatic notes. The Absinthe component mainly in the variety "Gentile" contributes to the bitter taste. As is the tradition Vermouth should be light yellow, clear, sweet. while also bitter and fragrant.

-David Driscoll


Deep Breaths Everyone

It's getting crazy out there on the road right now. Everyone is scrambling to get their holiday gifts taken care of, their texts responded to, and their emails answered -- while they're driving. I almost got killed twice yesterday and once this morning by a series of serial iPhone-using motorists. That, of course, sent my heart rate up to twice its normal (and healthy) level and resulted in an outburst of prolific profanity that would have made Richard Pryor blush. Then, while waiting for my coffee at Starbucks, the guy in front of me ordered fourteen specialty drinks for his entire office -- each with its own specific set of instructions. Everything so far this morning seems as if it was specifically engineered to break me -- to send me off on a Michael-Douglas-in-Falling-Down type of tirade where I just completely lose it and flip out.

But we can't let that happen. Deep breaths. Everything is going to be alright.

The holiday months are stressful. Getting everything done around K&L is a constant test of patience: packages need to be consolidated and shipped, pick-up dates from UPS need to be scheduled, and the bottles need to arrive on time. We need to make sure everything is in stock, that all customer needs are met, and that we monitor inventory every few minutes. We might have 60 bottles of Elmer T. Lee one minute and then realize a large firm has placed an order for 60 gift orders. All of a sudden we're at zero and I'm dashing over to the phone to get another delivery scheduled.

We're doing our best over here right now, but it's getting hectic. Make sure you stretch, breath deeply, get enough sleep, and don't let the little things get you down. We've still got a long way to go!

-David Driscoll


JVS/Impex Gettin' It Done

I have to admit I was once a little nervous for my friends Val and Sam over at JVS and Impex. Gordon & MacPhail had switched distribution, as had Signatory -- two major blows at around the same time. Then Chieftain's began running out of whisky to sell (we're no longer able to select casks from them). The smaller craft distilleries weren't working as long-term options and there was a period where I thought my Moldovan friends might not get their heads back above water. But no one works harder than Val and Sam. If you think you work hard, then I invite you to listen to Val talk about working as a military driver in Moscow during the day for high-ranking officials, then continuing to drive at night as an unregistered taxi around the sprawling city. You cannot outwork these guys.

That's why not long after the loss of two major independent labels, the guys at Kilchoman decided to get on board with Val and Sam. Smart move. Next came the Isle of Arran, who noticed the work these guys were doing on Kilchoman's behalf. We introduced David Stirk to the dynamic duo as well and now the Exclusive Malts are coming to the U.S. via Impex and JVS. And what has happened to Signatory and G&M stateside since they moved on to greener pastures? Nothing, at least here at K&L. Besides the casks that we go and seek out on our own behalf, we have done very little business with either bottler outside of private affairs. This wasn't by choice or out of any ill will. Business is business. However, I still feel that both labels underestimated how much of their success was coming from the hustle by my Moldovan friends. It takes dedication and hard work to push a brand very few people have heard of. I don't think either company has seen an increase in sales since moving to larger distribution either. If anything, I think their products have been buried in a sea of larger, more important brands.

But that's fine because Val and Sam worked hard to find new products they believe in and their dedication has paid off. In my opinion, no two distilleries are more exciting to watch right now than Kilchoman and Arran. Both are putting out stellar new release after stellar new release, and each sip leaves me more impressed than the previous one. I'm more excited about these two new casks of Kilchoman (pictured above and due in next Spring) than I have been about any whisky this year. They are INSANELY good. So good I almost want to cry.

And I finally got the chance to taste the newest release of Arran's Devil's Punchbowl series -- a marriage of different casks, similar to the Balvenie 1401 Tun series, but on a larger scale. They've included sherry-aged whiskies, peated whiskies, and some Bourbon casks as well and the result is splendid. It's rich and round on the entry, but brings some mild phenolic action on the finish. I've been taking pulls off the bottle in between will call orders all afternoon. We've also got a 16 year old sherry cask in from Arran right now, and the wonderful new edition of the 12 year cask strength. Plus, there's always our 14 year restructured Sherry hogshead that's still hanging around.

I love that two of the last independent distilleries in Scotland (and two of the best as well) are teaming up with two of the best importers in the country. Dedication breeds more dedication. I still think G&M and Signatory made a huge mistake by switching distribution, but that's their business. Val and Sam will find other distillers, bottlers, and producers to represent and they'll be getting the best representation possible. I'm always up to speed on the latest whiskies from Kilchoman and Arran. I'm always getting to taste the recent arrivals from David Stirk. And I always know that I'm getting a fair price.

Relationships are everything in this business. Remember who your friends are and make sure you support them. Val and Sam always have our full support because they're always here to support us. If you already felt good about supporting an independent distillery like Arran and Kilchoman, you can feel even better knowing you're supporting a great importer and distributor as well.

-David Driscoll


Blended Whisky: We're Almost There

There are always trends in the booze industry, products that fall out of fashion then come roaring back in a newer, hipper, updated form. Rye whiskey was considered an old man's drink ten years ago. Now it's simply cool to be an old man and do things that old men did a century ago -- like play Bocce Ball, sport a twirly moustache, and dress like a banker from the 1920s. One of my favorite phenomena is the repackaging of beverages once considered cheap into a fancy, more upscale version. Canned beer used to be the preferred medium for brands like Bud Light and Coors. Now many of the smaller craft brewers are using the can as their container of choice, i.e. Oskar Blues, Maui Brewing, etc. Boxed wine used to be just for Franzia and Gallo, but now we're seeing high-quality vintners use the collapsible bag-in-a-box for everyday drinkers. Our custom-made Blason Italian White Box is one of the most asked about products we carry. We're always running out.

When people discover the difference between "good booze" and "bad booze" they tend to simplify a few rules down into general practice, often falsely stereotyping or pigeonholing products into neat little boxes within which they may not fit. To use the above examples, many people consider bottled beer as an upgrade to canned beer, which it can be, but isn't always. What are other examples? Organic is always better than non-organic. Small production distillation creates tastier products than mass distillation. Pot stills over column stills. I could go on and on. While most of those strongly-held beliefs are easily countered, one of the myths that has managed to remain strong with whisky drinkers is the idea that blended whisky is cheap. They're cutting down your precious single malt with some sloppy grain distillate and cheating you out of your money. Blended whisky can be cheap, just like any stereotype can be true from time to time, but you can't go around generalizing like that. Each case must be evaluated on its own merit.

Would you rather drink Glenkinchie than Johnnie Walker Gold? Not I. Would you rather drink Glenlivet 12 than Bank Note Blended? Not I. Would you rather drink Yamazaki 12 over the Hibiki 12? Once again, I would take the blend over the malt in that instance. Education is very important in the beverage world. Only by reinforcing the message that there are always exceptions to the rule can we begin to change the way people feel about certain products. By continuing to seek out casks like the 1979 Faultline, or the 1991 Cambus, we're changing the way our customers feel about grain whisky and opening them up to new possibilities. It also expands the selection for people who might once have limited themselves to a few specific choices.

That being said, it's still tough for some whisky geeks to get into blended whisky simply because the educational aspect of it is being taken away. Most blends do not tell you the cepage, but whisky geeks are dying to know which whiskies are being used to create the flavor. What are we paying for? This is changing however. Cadenhead's new sherry-aged blend is very clear about which distilleries were included in the recipe. David Stirk is also transparent with his new 21 year Exclusive Malt blend. John Glaser, of course, has always been open about revealing his sources, and the Morrisons have had no problem telling us that the Bank Note is largely Bowmore and Cameronbridge. More importantly, all of the above whiskies are delicious. They offer value, quality, and honesty. We're slowly seeing all the pitfalls of blended whisky being removed, as a new generation of producers updates the genre for the new generation of drinkers.

If single malt prices keep going up, while blended prices remain stagnant, we might see more rejuvenance as well. The price of a quality 18 year old single malt is slowly moving towards the $150 average, while blended whiskies of 20 years or more still hover at the $100 mark. We're keenly aware of this here at the K&L spirits department. There are some secrets we haven't yet revealed concerning next year's long-delayed shipment. We think blended whisky is the way forward and possibly the antidote to ever-increasing prices. The craft whiskey industry is not helping to curb demand and ease the shortage on big-brand whiskey. If anything, it's making it worse as it provides justification for brands to charge more. With careful blending, however, you can create something great from something inexpensive.

How will the public respond? If there's one thing I've learned working here at K&L, it's that people like spirits that taste good and are reasonably priced. They're willing to trust us at least once, no matter how deep their resistance to an idea. There's a strong resistance to blended whisky, but I think we're close to breaking it down. We're almost there. We just need a few more winners.

-David Driscoll


I Give This Whisky 666 Points

One of my favorite new releases from this ever-growing, ever-expanding holiday whisky season is this satanic little number from one of Scotland's most conservative distilleries. Bowmore seems to always be the Islay distillery with the most boring limited edition whiskies. Ardbeg is always hyping up some Supernova explosion, Diageo usually delivers with Lagavulin and Caol Ila exclusives, and Laphroaig has been one of the steadiest suppliers with their wonderful Cairdeas series. Bowmore, perhaps tied with Springbank and Kilchoman for David D's personal favorite distillery, never seems to bring anything fun to the limited edition party. Until now....

The new "Devil's Casks" series is to Bowmore what the A'Bunadh is to Aberlour: big, young, bold, first-fill sherry casks at full proof, non chill-filtered. I popped a bottle yesterday to see what was going on. There's a lot going. A lot.

There's no heat in the "Devil's Cask" 10 year old like there is in the A'Bunadh. It doesn't bowl you over with power. What is there, however, is a thick, meaty, dark, fudgy, chewy mouthful of Bowmore goodness. The smoke and oil don't come in until the backend of this thing. Only after you swallow do you get the phenolic explosion of peat, smoke, and that sooty Bowmore magic. It almost goes minty after that.

In any case, I can't promise you that the Bowmore is for you, like I know it is for me. I'm a big fan of heavily-sherried Bowmore whisky, so others who feel the same will probably dig this tremendously. People looking for Lagavulin DE will probably fair better with that whisky for about the same price. That's the sugar-coated Islay whisky. This is old school one.

Bowmore Devil's Casks Islay Single Malt Whisky $99.99

-David Driscoll