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Saturday
May182013

The Redemption of Bryan Davis

Last year we learned about a new distillery south of the Bay Area called Lost Spirits that was making peated single malt whisky. It was being run by a guy named Bryan Davis who brought us two of his newest creations: the Seascape and the Leviathan. Bryan had worked as a distiller in Spain before relocating to California and building a steam-powered, outdoor still near Salinas. These were the first whiskies he was ready to bring to market. They were bold, exciting, and interesting, but they weren't for everyone. Nevertheless, I thought they deserved an audience, even if it meant taking back a few returns for people who didn't "get it."

There were a lot of people who didn't "get it." Bryan was using Canadian peat, Canadian barley, an odd type of still, and wine casks for maturation. It wasn't surprising that his distillates didn't at all resemble anything one would find on Islay. They were experimental. They were works in progress. Most importantly, however, they were quite polarizing.

While Bryan quickly drew the attention of single malt enthusiasts all over the world, not all of that press was positive. Many drinkers found the whiskies simply too bizarre and they weren't afraid to share their opinions with the blogosphere. Like most people that put themselves out there for the world to judge, Bryan was nervous about the public response and quite sensitive as well. To him, the criticism was personal because he had invested everything he had into these whiskies. It got to the point where he emailed me wondering what he should do. I told him to lay low for a while and just keep working. He told me he was considering just shutting everything down. After a lukewarm response from some online reviewers, Bryan was wondering if he even should be making whisky.

I told Bryan that we had actually lost money selling the first batches of his single malts, which is not what he wanted to hear. I told him that the amount of returns we had on those bottles eclipsed any of the profits we made from selling them. However, I made sure to point out to him that I was completely fine with that. As a retailer, it's my job to anticipate this kind of response. I knew full well what I was putting on the shelf and I knew it might not go over well with many of our customers. I was willing to take that risk. I believed in what Bryan was doing and I didn't care about the revenue. I just wanted to support a local guy who I thought was capable of doing something great.

I didn't hear from Bryan again for a few months until he emailed me again last week, wondering if he could stop by the store to taste me on a few new samples. He came to Redwood City yesterday with two bottles in hand: one labeled as Ouroboros and the other called Bohemian Bonfire. We went to the tasting bar and poured them off into the glassware. I nosed and sipped. I asked him, "How much of this stuff do you have and how much can you get me?"

After the debacle that occured post-Seascape/Leviathan, Bryan was discouraged and disheartened. He was looking for inspiration and doing a bit of soul-searching. That's when he stumbled upon a single barrel of Kilchoman at a whisky tasting he attended. The flavors were bright, clean, and surprisingly drinkable, despite the youth of the whisky itself. When Bryan inquired into what Kilchoman's magic consisted of, he learned that the distillery takes one of the smallest heart cuts in the business (with pot still distillation, the distiller usually takes the middle cut, dumping off the heads and tails for redistillation). Bryan didn't add the cuts back in, however. He took a small middle cut and left it at that.

That was step one. The next step was to get better cooperage. Rather that use the wine-soaked casks for extra flavor, Bryan wanted mild oak aging as to not detract from the high-quality distillate. He scrubbed out his wine barrels and cleaned profusely, leaving only the wood in its place. His new, ultra-spirit was placed into the barrel and laid down to rest. The result is the Bohemian Bonfire, the same whisky as Leviathan with a smaller heart cut and normal oak aging. It's by far the best whisky Bryan has ever made and it's much more mainstream without losing the Lost Spirits character. It's also, without a doubt, the best peated American whiskey I've ever tasted.

The other bottle Bryan had with him was called Ouroboros and it was dark like sherry. When Bryan was unable to secure fresh sherry butts, he decided to create his own. He took his own cooperage, filled them with sherry, let the barrels sit, emptied them out, and filled them with a new distillate - comprised of 100% California single malt and smoked with 100% California peat (sourced from the San Joaquin delta). Again, the result is outstanding. It's all of the plant-like, beery flavor of Lost Spirits distillery with the mellowing agent of sherry to help balance it out.

Instead of folding under the pressure and criticism, Bryan Davis used the negative attention as fuel to get better. He went back to the drawing board and retooled his whisky. I think the Bohemian Bonfire is so good that I bought all of it - every single bottle. If that means I'm going to lose money again, then so be it, but I don't expect anyone to object this time around. That whisky has the soft sweetness found in Bruichladdich's outstanding Bere Barley release with the sweet peat of Laphroaig, never losing the beery malt flavor that has become Bryan's trademark.

I can't wait to get these in. I love a good comeback story.

-David Driscoll

Friday
May172013

More New 2013 K&L Scotland Pre-Arrivals!

Alright! Two more and then we'll give you a little break. We wanted to make sure we had some grain whisky this year after the Girvan and Caledonian were so well received back in 2011. We also needed more tasty Laphroaig because it's getting harder to find affordable Islay barrels these days. So here they are and for fantastic pricing!

These are the last two barrels from the Signatory deal. After this we’ll move on to the Exclusive Malt whiskies:

1991 Cambus 21 Year Old K&L Exclusive Signatory Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Grain Whisky $99.99 - Here we go! After two years of hunting for a replacement to our wildly successful single grain Girvan, we've finally found a cask of grain worthy enough for our discerning customers. Cambus is one of the most difficult to find grain distilleries for a couple of reasons, it's been closed since 1993 and it is rumored to be at the heart of the Johnnie Walker Blue bottlings. No surprise that it's difficult to find, if Diageo is relying on this whisky to produce one of its most sought after blends it will certainly be controlling as much stock as possible. Occasionally small lots slip out of the blenders grasp and into our glass! Here we have a super high quality grain in all its awkward splendor. This nose is all oak spice and vibrant fresh fruit. Clove, coriander, freshly grated nutmeg, apple skins, under-ripe mango. On the palate the fruit takes over, plus vanilla cake frosting, the baking spices remain subdued, onto a bit of coconut and some fresh oak. A perfect example of why, sometimes, we must not blend all the grain. (David Othenin-Girard)

1997 Laphroaig 16 Year Old K&L Exclusive Signatory Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - We love Laphroaig. Everybody loves Laphroaig (if they don't hate it). Not a lot of people on the fence regarding Laphroaig. That's why it's really hard to get. It's really expensive as well. These are both cause and effect. We've seen prices go up, while quality has remained consistent. We took on a middle aged Laphroaig last year and sold it for what seemed like a reasonable $140. Now we have another cask of Laphroaig and it's difficult not to oversell it. If we're always so effusive about every whisky we taste people start to question our judgment. So, I'm not going to do it like that. I'm just going to say that this is top tier Laphroaig. It's in that prime moment between the intensity of a young Laphroaig and that depth of the older offerings from this legendary distillery. This was the whisky that we spent time wringing our hands about because we were expecting to be paying the same price as our 18 year from 2012, but somehow we were able to get the price down to something far more reasonable. It won't last and it will go up significantly after the pre-arrival campaign is finished.  Don't miss it! (David Othenin-Girard)

These will be on the same container as the other malts and are due to arrive in late August or September.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
May152013

New 2013 K&L Scotland Exclusive Cask - IN STOCK!

What's darker than maple syrup, brimming with spice cake, supple as all hell, yet massively powerful at 58.1% alcohol? Our new K&L Exclusive single barrel, first-fill sherry cask of Mortlach!

This is not a pre-arrival. This baby is in stock right now!

Why did we not sell it in advance? Here's the story:

Chieftain's has a pretty cozy relationship with Diageo because Diageo needs Glen Goyne for its blends and Ian McCleod owns both the distillery and the Chieftain's independent label. For that reason, Chieftain's often has access to stuff from the big D portfolio that no other indy bottler has. We didn't have an appointment with Chieftain's this year because they are running out of casks to sell and they weren't going to offer us anything. However, this Mortlach cask was one of the last things they were willing to sell us, mainly because they knew I really, really wanted it. They were going to bottle it whether we wanted it or not because it needed to get out of the wood or risk oversaturation, so that meant we could probably get to the states by mid-May if we pushed. We did. It's here. That was fast!

I love sherry-aged Mortlach. I adore it. To me, when done properly, it has no equal in the world of single malt. I think it's better than Macallan, Glenfarclas, Glendronach, Balvenie, or any other similar whisky profile in the business. This isn't a fact, this is just my personal opinion. Finding a sherry cask of Mortlach has been kind of a white whale search for me. I don't mean finding a bottle to purchase. I mean finding an entire cask, just for K&L and whatever customers wanted to share it with us.  I ask every producer we visit if they have any. The answer is almost always "No." When they do have a barrel it's never the right one. This 22 year old butt, however, was like a ray of light coming down from the grey, overcast, Scottish sky.

Why is old, sherry-aged Mortlach a rarity? Because Diageo needs every drop for Johnnie Walker. It's not like I can't get a cask of Mortlach in general. I can buy Mortlach whenever I want because there's plenty of it on the independent market. It's just that it doesn't taste like this.

I'll put this out there right now: this single barrel of Mortlach is easily the best sherry-aged whisky we have in stock. And I'll put this out there, too: I can't remember selling a better one.

Personally, I like this more than any of the Balvenie 1401 Tun series malts. I like this more than our 1970 Glenfarclas. I like this Mortlach more than anything I've ever tasted from Glendronach. It's crazy rich, concentrated, and supple, but it's never sweet. It's powerful and spicy, but the complexity of flavor is delicate and elegant. It's the total package for sherry-aged malt in my world. With water I could drink this all day and all night.

That's just my own personal opinion. Normally when we buy whisky I'm not thinking about myself, but rather what the customer would want and what will represent quality to the greatest number of people. But this barrel purchase was entirely selfish. I bought this cask for me. It represented my own tastes and my own desires. It was another notch in my quest to bottle the greatest Diageo whiskies in the world without having to buy them from Diageo. It was everything I love about my job all rolled into one wooden barrel.

If you like big, massive, super-sherried whisky that pushes the maturation right up to the edge without going over, then I hope you'll share this whisky with me. Because there's a lot of it. Like 500 bottles.

And I can't drink it all myself.

1990 Mortlach 22 Year Old K&L Exclusive Chieftain's Single Sherry Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $169.99 - If you've ever taken a sip of Johnnie Walker Black then you've tasted Mortlach whisky. The Speyside distillery is one of Diageo's most-prized institutions, creating richly-textured whiskies that provide the backbone to many of its legendary blends. Yet because the whisky isn't sold as a single malt in the United States, the name Mortlach doesn't necessarily stir the emotions of the whisky-loving faithful. But there's another reason Mortlach hasn't achieved stardom abroad: most of what does make it to the States, under the guise of an independent label, is unsherried. To drink Mortlach out of an unsherried hogshead barrel is like drinking Laphroaig without peat or Macallan without richness. It's not at all representative of what the distillery does best. Nevertheless, the occasional hogshead makes its way over every now and again, devoid of the toffee, the cocoa, the spice, and the power. It's no wonder that these oddballs have done little to boost the distillery's rep. On our last visit to Scotland, however, we finally found a prize worthy of purchasing: an ancient, first-fill sherry cask of delicious, traditional, full-throttle Mortlach. Think Macallan 18 on steroids: big, opulent, dense, chewy, meaty, caramel, fudge, baking spices, herbaceous notes, and cakebread. Considering that Macallan 18 just took another price increase, this Mortlach looks like a super value. We've never found a cask of Mortlach this good, and we don't expect to again. Just make sure to add water!

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
May142013

New Rusty Blade Casks (Plural!)

Sometimes two barrels of gin are simply better than one, especially when two barrels of gin, made the same way and aged in the same warehouse, taste this differently from one another. I simply couldn't decide between the two, so I bought them both. The only way to tell them apart is with the batch number (one says KL413A and the other KL413B), so we're referring to them as Cask A and Cask B. These finally showed up today and are in stock as we speak. Check out the notes below!

Rusty Blade K&L Exclusive "Cask A" Single Barrel Cask Strength Barrel-Aged Gin $67.99 - Our local distillery on the Peninsula, Old World Spirits, has once again brought the goods with these two single barrels of Rusty Blade. Cask A is much more along the line of what we've featured before: Christmas spices, cloves, and nutmeg, all mingling along with the juniper. For fans of our previous batches, this one is for you.

Rusty Blade K&L Exclusive "Cask B" Single Barrel Cask Strength Barrel-Aged Gin $67.99 - Cask B was obviously aged in more of a late-harvest zinfandel cask because the richness of the wine really takes hold, much like sherry does in a single malt whisky. The flavors are more Port-like and the finish is chewy with gumsmacking notes of plum and baking spices. Delicious, and a bit of a change from the normal Rusty Blade flavor profile.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
May112013

Mortlach

I took the above picture of Mortlach distillery on our trip to Scotland in 2012. David and I were driving around Dufftown and I wanted to see the actual site before leaving. I'm a big fan of the whisky, when I can get the type of Mortlach that I'm looking for, so I wanted to get a look at the distillery in person. I love Mortlach when it's matured in first-fill sherry casks, massively rich, and bursting with baking spices. Finding that specific style in the U.S., however, isn't always easy.

Alfred Barnard wrote about his visit to Mortlach more than one hundred years before I got around to it. In his day the proprietor was a man named George Cowie. He writes:

Dufftown is a quaint village, almost aspiring to be a town, and stands close to Mortlach Church... The village is screened by Benrinnes, and there are two beautiful glens in the vicinity, Glenfiddich and Dullan... Mortlach Church and churchyard are famous as having been the scene, in the year 1010, of the great battle between Malcolm II and the Danes, resulting in the defeat of the latter... The Mortlach Distillery was built in the year 1823 and consists of an irregular pile of buildings on the right and left of the principal gateway. The barley lofts are 360 feet and the maltings 300 feet long, with a kiln floored with metal plates, and where peat only is used in drying the malt... The whisky is Highland malt and the annual output is 85,000 gallons.

Fast forward more than a century and we've got an entirely new Mortlach. The facility is now owned by Diageo and pumps out about 3.8 million liters of whisky a year. It's one of the key components of Johnnie Walker Black, providing the robust and flavorful backbone of the world's most recognizable blended Scotch. Millions of people all over the world love the flavor of Mortlach, they just don't know it.

The 2013 edition of the Malt Whisky Yearbook writes:

The...single malt from Mortlach distillery has many fans. This became apparent when it was virtually impossible to get hold of a few years back, when it was needed for the evermore popular Johnnie Walker Black Label. It's popularity is nothing new though. Already in the 1860s when the distillery was owned by John Gordon, Mortlach was sold in Leith and Glasgow under "the Real John Gordon."

I know a lot of UK whisky drinkers love Mortlach. John Glaser loves using it in his Compass Box blends and vattings. Like the above paragraph states, Mortlach's popularity is nothing new....for the UK, where one can find the 16 year old distillery bottling under Diageo's Flora & Fauna label. However, most whisky drinkers in the states have no idea what Mortlach tastes like - not because they can't find any, but because most of what's available is wildly inconsistent. What we've sold at K&L over the last few years has been bottled by A.D. Rattray, Duncan Taylor, Murray McDavid, Gordon & MacPhail, and numerous other labels, but an overwhelming majority of these selections have been a far cry from what UK drinkers expect from Mortlach.

Just recently a customer in our Redwood City store, who had purchased a 1995 Macallan Duncan Taylor bottling, came back to the shop and asked for his money back. Why? Because to him this whisky didn't taste like Macallan. I gave the customer his refund because he was totally right. It didn't. This particular 1995 Macallan was from a refill hoggy and had absolutely zero sherry influence whatsoever. Macallan without Oloroso sherry or new oak tastes like fruity, light, grassy Highland malt. It could have been Linkwood or even Auchentoshan for that matter. The point is: this customer expected to taste Macallan flavor when he purchased a bottle that said Macallan on it, not knowing about the vast world of independently bottled casks that offers many unique and out-of-the-ordinary versions of familiar brands.

Why mention that? Because most of what we've carried from Mortlach has also been completely unsherried, it's just that for most customers there's no expectation for what Mortlach should taste like.

If you look up tasting notes for the official Mortlach 16, a whisky I know and love (and bring back with me when I fly back from the UK), you'll read descriptors like: rich, raisins, Christmas cake, spicy, and powerful. When you see notes like that you know you're dealing with sherry; likely first-fill juice. Yet, let's look at the last ten or so Mortlachs we've had here at the store (NOTE: most of these are long sold out):

Mortlach 15 year, Gordon & MacPhail Single Malt Whisky $69.99 - This is pretty close to what I expect from Mortlach, but it's not quite as heavy. That's because it's a marriage of first-fill sherry casks dilluted by the addition of refill casks.

Mortlach 22 Year Old A.D. Rattray Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky (half-bottle) $67.99 - This whisky is from a refill sherry butt, so it has flashes of the robust Mortlach spice, but not at the level that I'm looking for personally.

Mortlach 17 Year Old The Exclusive Malts Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $129.99 - More refill action. Some richness, but nothing like what I'm on the hunt for.

Mortlach 17 year Malt Trust Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $125.99 - Single Bourbon cask. No sherry.

Mortlach 17 year Duncan Taylor Dimensions Single Malt Whisky $134.99 - Hogshead. Light and lean.

Mortlach 13 Year Old Murray McDavid Yquem Cask Single Malt Whisky $54.99 - Hogshead Mortlach, sweetened up with the dessert wine cask.

Mortlach 17 year old Cask Strength, Murray McDavid Mission Gold Olorosso Sherry Cask Single Malt Whisky  $125.99 - YES! This one was fantastic. Just what I'm looking for. Too bad we sold our last bottle on February 7th, 2010.

Mortlach 18 Year Old Hart Brothers Sherry Aged Single Malt Whisky $124.99 - This one was almost there. It had the sherry, but it wasn't a single cask and ended up a bit too lean and soft. The cakebread and Christmas spices were absent.

1990 Mortlach 19 Year Old, A.D. Rattray, Cask Strength Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - This was a hogshead so the flavors were light and grainy. No richness.

Mortlach 12 year old, Murray McDavid Bourbon/Guigal Cotes Rotie Syrah Cask Single Malt Whisky $54.99 - This was the first "K&L Exclusive" I ever bought for the store back in 2009. Delicious, but not because it tasted like Mortlach.

So, out of all the Mortlachs I remember selling here at K&L over the past few years, only one of them ever really came close to what I think of when I think of great Mortlach - the Murray McDavid Gold because it had the intense sherry action at a high proof.

And that's just what I've sold at K&L. Then there's all of the casks I've been offered in the last few years. Second fill hogsheads galore! Tons of mild, mediocre, drinkable whiskies that were overpriced because they had the Mortlach name stamped on the bottle (similar to that Macallan bottle I mentioned before). If this selection accurately assesses what the American public has been subjected to when it comes to Mortlach, then it's no wonder that the distillery isn't nearly as revered here in the U.S. as it is by some of my Scottish industry friends.

If I could just find some first-fill, full-throttle Mortlach I think we could really show some of our California customers what this Diageo distillery is capable of.

If I could just find the right whisky, the kind that reminds me of what Mortlach does best, I think we'd really have a winner.

If......

-David Driscoll