The Golden Age of Whisky?

I've heard more than a few industry people recently refer to our current time as the "golden age" for whisky and they weren't talking about quality – they were literally talking about gold.  It's no secret to anyone that brown booze equals big business right now, however, I'm getting the feeling that some producers feel they've been giving away their product for too little.  Capitalism allows whisky companies to charge whatever they feel their product is worth. More than ever before we're seeing big prices for whiskies that don't seem all that special.  However, if people begin to actually pay these crazy fees, it will only reinforce the producer's belief that the asking price was appropriate.  Scarcity isn't helping.  The planet is drinking so much whisky right now that stocks are draining faster than ever, leading to shortages, only driving prices higher due to the laws of supply and demand.

I was perusing a message board yesterday when I noticed a thread with my name in it.  People were concerned that the Vintage 17 Bourbon was going away and I was used as the source of the news.  As far as I know, it is in fact true that the Willetts are completely out of older stock.  We bought their last 20+ year old cask exclusively for the store (arriving this week), which will mark the end of any older single barrel releases, as well as the demise of the Vintage 17.  As soon as KBD announced that the Vintage 17 was leaving the building, the price shot up more than $10 a bottle wholesale.  If they were going to lose one of their most popular whiskies, they were going to try and make a few extra bucks in the process.  It's completely understandable, but still troubling for the dedicated spirits consumer.  Stores that don't normally buy deep quantities of booze are going to have to begin doing so if they want to keep pricing competitive (hence why you'll still find a few other stores with the old Vintage 17 price - grab it if you see it for less, by the way).

This past Winter I told as many people as I could to stock up on Elijah Craig 18.  Not only because it was drying up, but because there will surely be a price increase when it returns.  Heaven Hill has been underselling that whiskey at $50 for the two past years, but you can bet that will all end soon.  Older Bourbon has been hit hardest by the whiskey boom, but single malt is beginning to feel the heat too.  Independent bottlers have been practically cut off by the distilleries they once dealt with freely.  Diageo doesn't even have enough whisky for itself, so how can it possibly provide left overs for guys like us?  Independents are facing the same problem us retailers are - you had to buy big over the last few years to sustain your supply.  Like bears needing to store fat for the long, cold winter, independents are hoping just to tread water until the supply catches up and the industry once again produces a surplus.

In the meantime, however, some companies are trying to milk the current demand.  Prices for single casks have never been higher, with some producers demanding insane prices for whiskies that normally would sell for significantly less.  Normally is no longer a relevant word though.  David and I have been in negotiations for the past few weeks, since returning from our trip to Scotland, and a few of our talks have reached an impass.  There were several casks we really had hoped to bring home that now appear to be out of play.  Not because they aren't available to us, but because the prices are very, very high.  We have to ask ourselves: are people really going to buy these single malts for what we would have to sell them for?  There's no doubt that we could sell them, it's more about do we want to sell them?  For the first time ever I'm beginning to believe that a bubble could be forming.  Like the housing market that incorrectly believed people could afford to keep going higher, some whisky companies may be overplaying their hand.

There's a difference, however, between simply charging more money because people can afford to pay it and asking for more money because you're almost out of booze.  The former is a brazen attempt to make more money, while the latter is simply the effect of supply and demand.  The problem here is the role reversal.  For years, independent bottlers have offered significantly lower prices than those of the actual distilleries.  A Port Ellen whisky from Signatory has always been far less expensive than the official Diageo release.  What would happen however if a private cask of Bunnahabhain 30 year went up $200 to $350 a bottle?  What would happen if a barrel of Glenlivet 15 went from $75 to $115 per bottle?  Are these whiskies still worth the money at those prices?

As a retailer worried about his customers, these are the type of questions that keep me up at night.  This very issue caused me to toss and turn from two to four AM this morning.  With so many distilleries still offering value for quality booze, it doesn't make sense to overpay – yet.  Whether it will ever make sense to pay 20-30% more per bottle is up to the consumer.  If people want something badly enough they'll pay for it.  In this new "golden age" of whisky, the gold depends on how badly we want it.

-David Driscoll


Mad Men Season 5 Finale

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains references to tonight's Mad Men episode.  Do not read any further if you want to avoid knowing what happened!

I'm not going to write a long article about television and pose as a critic, I just want to mention that Megan Draper's desperate attempt to become an actress reminds me of what I've been writing about the last few days.  A girl, who is beautiful, intelligent, gifted, and an incredible ad writer, who thinks she should really be an actress.  She hates her mother for telling her the truth, that she has an artist's temperment without the ability to create any real art, that in reality not everyone can grow up to be what they want to be.  Her mother calls her ungrateful, and Megan blames her for not being more supportive.  Finally, she sinks so low that she uses her husband's pull to land an advertisement.  Don is confused.  Megan had been so adamant that she was an artist – meant for the theater, or something with meaning.  To her, advertising had never been true art.  Yet, here she was, begging for a chance to actually work again in advertising.  Despite Don's advice that she didn't want success to be given to her, that she didn't want to land a role because she was someone's wife, eventually he acquiesced and got her the part.  Megan was so happy – she felt like she was truly acting. 

Don, however, walked off the set and into a dark and smoky bar.  At the episode's end, he is approached by a good-looking woman who asks him if he's alone.  The scene goes dark before we hear the answer.  My guess is he says "Yes."  His wife, who all season long has acted as his moral compass, has just revealed that she too is capable of selling out.  Without her guidence, Don is lost.  Megan doesn't respect that advertising requires true talent, believing she's meant for greater, more "artistic" heights.  She longs to be successful in a craft she has no special talent for.  She reminds me of myself as a young kid who once thought he was too smart to work in a liquor store. 

Fortunately for me, no one reinforced my entitled way of thinking and I learned that working with booze was a fantastic opportunity I was overlooking.  Unfortunately for Megan, her loving husband did.  Now it appears he may regret it.

-David Driscoll



Yesterday evening, towards the end of our shift, I was discussing my previous blog post with a colleague.  He's much less brash than I am and he doesn't always understand why I feel the need to "blow the whistle" on things when I write.  I thought that was a funny way of looking at it.  The frustrations I experienced as a teacher and grad student are much the same as the ones I experience now as a wine store clerk.  Both academia and the wine industry are full of people who think their education means more than it does.  In fact, they think education means they're capable of more than they actually are.  They think their academic accomplishments make them more capable of deciphering quality, of formulating an opinion, and of demanding the respect of others.  However, one of the biggest lessons I learned in life was that getting an "A" in film class doesn't mean you can actually make a film.  

Yesterday's post was a hodge-podge of various examples that I feel illustrate this mindset perfectly (hence, the American Idol contestant who justified his terrible singing by referring to his grades in choir).  Why the need to actually write a blog post about this phenomenon?  Because when I first started in the wine business I was intimidated by these types of people.  I thought these people knew what they were talking about.  I deferred to them, questioned my own opinion, felt they knew more than me, and tried to emulate them as a result.  Eventually, I realized they didn't know half as much as they thought they did and that I was the fool for believing them.  My hope in "blowing the whistle" on this type of behavior is to prevent other enthusiasts from going down the same path.  You don't have to have a certificate to know about booze or to appreciate it more.

Of course, there are some jobs that require specialized education, like doctors or lawyers, but with booze the point of education is enjoyment.  It's not about pedantry.  I like to learn more about whisky because it helps me appreciate each sip a little bit more.  I have a master's degree in German, yet I am far from fluent in actually speaking the language.  How is that possible?  Because having a master's degree doesn't mean you know anything.  It means you can pass a class.  It means you can look at a set of tasks and do what's required for that specific requirement.  In the real world, it doesn't translate into anything other than that.  I learned how to speak better German by actually living in Germany and doing it.  School, private tutors, extra lessons are all helpful, but they don't replace experience.  

There are PhDs and MAs in the booze world.  People can become Masters of Wine or Certified Sommeliers by passing various courses and attaining certificates.  I've done some of them myself.  They were helpful in organizing important information and for motivating me to actually buckle down and read more material.  However, what bothers me about any degree or title is that people use them to add credence or credibility to their opinions.  If you read that link I posted about the wine buyer at Costco, you'll notice a flurry of arguing in the comment field below.  You'll know exactly what I'm talking about if you read through a few of those.  For some reason educational accomplishments are referenced when determining another person's capabilities or intelligence, as in "He went to Berkeley," or "She went to Stanford."  That's nice, but what does that really mean?  

If you asked me to name five texts that best represented deutsche Sturm und Drang, I could give you an answer.  However, if you want me to translate an actual German conversation for you, I probably won't be able to help.  What's the goal of education?  Is it to prove to other people you're smart or talented?  Is it to impress other people or is to learn how to actually do something?  Ultimately, people are impressed by ability.  If your education helped you build a rocket to the moon, or cure a deadly disease, then people are going to be impressed.  However, just because you got an "A" in wine class doesn't mean you have good taste in wine.  It doesn't mean anything.  It means you knew how to pass a class.  There's no way anyone can learn in a six month course what K&L guys like Jim Barr and Ralph Sands have learned over decades of working in the industry.

So what's the point? Don't be intimidated by wine "experts." Don't let yourself be browbeaten by whisky "professionals."  You'll never see John Hansell touting his credentials as a "certified whisky specialist."  He's just a guy who's been drinking single malt for a very long time, yet his reviews carry more weight than anyone else in the industry.  If you want to be the next editor of the Whisky Advocate, writing reviews that thousands of people read and respect, getting a credential or certificate won't do the trick.  You need time, experience, passion and ability and those are things that cannot be taught.

-David Driscoll


I Can Do Anything - The Formula for Success

I tried to embed this video to kick start this article, but unfortunately YouTube is blocking that function, so you'll have to open a new window.  The Big Bang Theory, for all its mild, sitcom humor, is actually quite an intelligently written TV show.  I appreciate any form of entertainment that bases its content off of real human observation.  In this episode, Sheldon needs to use the university's lab equipment, but the man who gives permission only lets his "friends" have access.  Sheldon, however, doesn't realize that making friends isn't an exact science, which leads him in search of an algorithm for friendship, as well as to the local bookstore in search of friendship manual.  Some skills in life, however, can't be translated into a logical formula.  Making friends, like many other personal abilities in life, is not something that can be learned in a few hours by reading a book.  It requires a combination of experience, understanding, common sense, insight, and observation (or what we know as wisdom). 

It seems to me that the writers of the Big Bang Theory have made the same observations about our current society as I have.  Some people today believe they're talented enough to do anything, they just need practice or a few days to catch up on the required reading.  Costco's head wine buyer doesn't think selecting wine is any different than purchasing toilet paper.  Of course it isn't!  There can't be that much wisdom required to make a decision regarding one's beverage, can there?  There's nothing more aggravating than when a person believes a certain skill or talent can be mastered in matter of minutes, or reduced to the status of a simple chore.  It's the ultimate sign of disrespect towards people who actually know what they're doing.  Yet, it seems to me there are more and more people everyday who think they're good at things they are not.  I have an idea as to why this is.

As a young elementary school student partaking in California's GATE program (Gifted and Talented Education), I was told by my teachers that I was a bit more advanced than the other children.  I was told that I was being prepared for college at an accelerated rate.  I was told that once I got into college, I would get a good job and be happy.  I was five years old at the time.  I was not alone.  Thousands of other kids along side me matriculated into the real world believing we were future CEOs with no patience for the entry-level position.  When we couldn't attain success instantly we blamed society for not understanding our genius. 

More than twenty five years later I am watching the terrible results of the GATE program all around me.  Young adults from my generation believing they possess special abilities they do not.  I know an old friend who went to Berkeley and was a talented scientist until one day she wanted to be a baker.  After a year of making terrible cupcakes, she quit, blaming others around her for her failings.  Another former friend was a talented teacher until one day he wanted to form a band.  He couldn't sing, play an instrument, or write a lyric, but he was determined he could "pick it up" in a few weeks.  He never understood why no one went to his shows.   Our teachers repeatedly told us, "You can do anything you want if you put your mind to it."  Unfortunately, my generation took those words literally.  Oh, former educators, what damage you have inflicted upon this world.  The truth is that some people are inherently gifted and talented, a result of being born with something special or an aptitude for specific skills.  Others work hard, pay their dues, learn from experience, and eventually acquire humility, or a respect for their craft.

As a professional wine and whisky salesperson, I've learned that you can't understand wine from reading Wine Spectator magazine or the Wine Bible, or any other manual.  They're certainly helpful in attaining an overall perspective, but they will never replace time and experience.  The only way to truly understand alcohol is to drink it, think about it, dwell on it, and appreciate it - over and over again.  Nevertheless, there are always a few people who think they can master the whole thing in a few weeks - find a list of the ten best wines, track them down, drink them, and there it is - that's wine appreciation in a nutshell.  What more do you really need to know?  There are no shortcuts, however.  There is no "friendship algorithm."  Knowledge is power, but only if it's coupled with experience.  That's a fact some from my generation still fail to understand.

In the end, I guess it's about perception or even results.  Too much positive reinforcement has lead many skilled musicians or athletes to believe they can also act.  Actress Gwyneth Paltrow's cookbook has made her millions, only re-enforcing her belief that she's an actual chef.  Unfortunately, she became so deluded by this association that she thought hanging out with rappers actually made her a rapper too!  I'm sure that some guy out there has managed to purchase everyone of Jim Murray's top whisky picks, re-enforcing his belief that he's an actual collector and appreciator of single malt.  Some people do manage to convince others that they have wisdom when they're actually borrowing someone else's (I've managed to trick some people into thinking I know something about whisky).  Ultimately, I have to believe they'll eventually be exposed, either by the judges on American Idol, or by a sheer failure to achieve.  Hopefully, like me, they'll learn from those experiences.

-David Driscoll


Kyle is Back to Talk New Booze

It's been almost a month since we heard from young Kyle Kurani, the enthusiastic spirits expert in our Redwood City store who is both capturing and breaking hearts with his series of videos.  Today we catch Kyle in the warehouse with the big stacks, talking new booze and new arrivals to the K&L spirits department.