I've become fairly cynical over the past few years in the booze business, mainly because I've realized much of the allure with wine and spirits lies in the fact that there's so much to know that others do not, rather than the sheer pleasure of drinking. There's a certain personality out there that gravitates towards the areas of least resistance, hoping that the percevied mastery of something less ordinary is better than the competance of something familiar. I remember my friend's brother growing up, who wanted to be revered as a basketball star like his brother was. The only problem was he wasn't any good at basketball. Or baseball. Or soccer. Or any of the normal sports kids play. That's why he started looking at roller hockey leagues and lacrosse clubs, hoping that out of the ten kids in Modesto interested in these sports, he would be good enough to stand out. It wasn't about doing something he liked or having fun. It was about garnering praise.

Sometimes I feel like wine carries a similar intrigue for those seeking attention. A little bit of wine knowledge is generally held in fairly high regard, at least in the major metropolitan areas. You don't even have to be right! I sat next to a guy at dinner last night who was just making things up, hoping to impress his date ("This wine is made from a grape known as White Burgundy, it's different than chardonnay, much sweeter"). Because very few people understand the details, facts, or nuances regarding what is a very large and complicated wine world, it tends to draw in those with a tendency for pedantry, which is why wine is often linked to snobbery. After a few chapters of reading in a basic wine manual, the odds are that you'll know more than your neighbor. The same thing could also be said for art, another genre where the patron has very little idea of what makes one subject better than another. Much like with wine and spirits, we rely on experts who tell us why certain works are considered masterpieces and others simply child's play.

Because of this gulf in understanding, the wines (and even whiskies) that are obvious to the general consumer are rarely embraced by the experts. It's difficult to appreciate merit if you have no understanding of what came before it. Sometimes, however, the wines that are rated highly by critics tend to be too esoteric for the newbie palate. This can often result in bitterness between the two groups because one cannot understand the absence of practicality, while the other hates the idea of basic mass appeal. What I really appreciate, however, is when these two roads intersect and something wonderful is created that is easy to grasp, yet profound and new. Something like that happened during the 1980s in New York City.

The early 80s in New York was one of the most important periods in the history of modern popular culture. The downtown scene was bustling with young creatives like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Madonna, Debbie Harry, Fab Five Freddy, and a slough of other artists whose impact would forever pave the way for future talents. One of the most famous artists from that period was Keith Haring, whose street murals and graffiti style transcended the basic subway tag, using simple imagery to tackle issues of gender, race, and homosexuality. You didn't need to visit a museum or a studio to view Haring's work. He would paint huge murals on the side of buildings, around the walls of a local pool, or in the bathroom at a community center.  Haring's mural at the LGBT Center (pictured above) on West 13th Street is still there if you ask at the front desk to see it. Like his pal Basquiat, critics weren't sure how Haring fit into the legacy of modern art, simply because so many people who didn't know anything about art history were enjoying his work. How can it be good if so many regular folks without MFA degrees appreciate it?

Sometimes it takes a while for praise to come your way. While Haring was definitely celebrated by his own community in New York, his stock only really began to soar after his death in 1990. Many of his paintings sell for seven figures these days. Haring was good at what he did and he stuck with it, regardless of whether the experts wanted to call it fine art or not, because it made him happy and it made the public happy as well. There was never any attempt to condescend or impress with his work, only to make life a little bit more beautiful. If only all of our motivations in life could be so simple and pure.

-David Driscoll


Our In NYC


I'm armed only with my iPhone camera and I'm without the aid of photo software, so please excuse the blurry, out of focus images. This is just a quick update to let you know that New York City is full of amazing places to eat and drink (as if I needed to tell you that). If you want to live it up in Gotham, the Nomad Hotel is an absolute must. We went there for brunch today, as well as drinks yesterday evening, and it is one of the classiest places I've ever visited. The Library Room, with its leather-bound chairs and mahogany shelves, is where we started the morning with coffee, before heading into the main dining room for our meal.

There are four Bloody Mary options for lunch. My wife got the classic tomato base with horseradish, but I opted for the manzanilla sherry base with beets and hot chili peppers. Oh my God. Maybe the best Mary I've ever danced with.

What to order? There are many options and they all sound and look fantastic. I saw a number of people order the chicken sandwich, which sounds rather bland, but is far from it. It's served with black truffles and foie gras on a brioche bun. It looks absolutely divine. In the end, however, I opted for the steak and eggs and it was a fine choice. The meat comes topped with salsa verde and is cooked to a stunning perfection.

We ended up walking around to number of fine watering holes, including one of our favorite SoHo bars called Officina Latina (they've got fantastic spicy cocktails). If you thought getting a bottle of Pappy or Pliny the Elder was tough, however, it's nothing compared to the Cronut - the half-croissant, half-donut concoction that has swept over lower Manhattan like the Tickle Me Elmo doll. Black market Cronuts are selling for $100 a pop because you've gotta line up at 6 AM to even have a shot. Many people wait all morning long only to find out that the Dominique Ansel bakery has sold out. It's absolutely nuts. But not unfamiliar. I totally get it.

-David Driscoll


Eating to Drink

One of the biggest fronts that wine drinkers like to put up is the idea that wine should always be paired with food. That's what it's for. It's not meant to simply be drunk alone or enjoyed on the side. You can only drink Rioja if you're eating lamb. You can only open that Cabernet if you plan on grilling a steak. Not doing so would represent an egregious mishandling of fine alcohol. You wouldn't really be getting the wine's true potential. While sometimes a bit strict and fanatical, these rules have never really bothered me because the right meal can and will enhance the flavors of the drink. They might be a tad pedantic from time to time, but at least they're based on real results.

However, one of the most incredible ironies concerning American wine drinkers, and usually among those who consider themselves foodies, is the fact that there's never enough food on the table to enjoy the wine they're drinking. Dinner will involve Champagne, white wine, red wine, maybe even a Sauternes, but all you'll get along side them is maybe one crostini, a tiny salad, and a small slice of meat with a piece of arugula. How in the hell do they expect you to soak up all that booze? Even worse, this small plate phenomenon has completely infiltrated the cocktail world. You'll sit down at the bar to slurp two glasses of pure liquor, but the only nibbles available are a tiny olive plate or maybe a few candied nuts. But, hey, the olives were house-brined.

If you're going to drink, you're going to need to eat. There's a reason people who are hungover crave greasy food like Jack in the Box or fried eggs with hash browns - it makes you feel better to put something substantial in your stomach. Heavy eating usually neutralizes heavy drinking, in my experience. I'm currently on the 18th floor of my hotel in Manhattan, sitting by the window, enjoying the incredible view to the north and the Empire State Building. It's early. I'm awake because I couldn't sleep any longer, but it's not because I'm hungover, despite the heavy drinking from last evening's events. It's because I am full. My stomach is still pushing at the elastic on my pajamas, testing its give. My wife and I don't play around when we go out boozing in New York. There's no time to be groggy and useless the next day.

After taking a nap yesterday afternoon, we rose around six to have a drink before dinner. Looking to escape the humidity, we passed on the rooftop bar at the Standard and decided to head a block over to Pastis instead, looking for the air-conditioned, basserie cocktail experience. We sat at the counter, gazed at the wall of Ricard behind it, and ordered some beverages. Both of us began with the Rive Gauche - an agricole rhum drink with St. Germain, white wine, and lemon juice - and after warming up to the bartender, we started talking about the Bay Area. It turns out that our man had just spent two weeks in California and had fallen in love with the state and its many micro-breweries. After revealing my industry credentials sometime during the second drink, he said we absolutely must stay for a third and that's how I wound up drinking another large glass of pastis on an empty stomach. Talking about your liquor-buying job with a bartender can be quite hazardous if you've got other plans for the evening, but luckily we did not.

Rolling deep with three cocktails before dinner at Pastis is quite fun, I'd highly recommend it, as long as you're not eating dinner there when you're done. I'm sure the seared organic salmon with baby spinach, fennel, and pequillo peppers is quite delicious, as is the classic steak frites. However, I'm also quite sure that, along side a bottle of wine, neither are capable of balancing out the food to booze ratio needed to keep my stomach from turning itself over - even if I did add on the arugula salad, chicken liver mousse, and oysters on the half shell appetizer. I'm sorry, but the American version of French cuisine just doesn't pair well with alcohol. I've never had to ask for seconds in Gascogny. I've walked away from meals in complete agony, clutching my stomach, sweating pure fat out of every pore during the night, but I've never complained about not getting enough to eat. For some reason, however, Americans like to pretend they're not hungry when they are - and they add way too much booze on top of it.

The only answer for a three-cocktail warm up is pizza, especially when you're near Greenwich Village. John's of Bleecker St. is a fifteen minute walk from Pastis, so we high-tailed it down Hudson street and hopped in line with the other hungry guests. When we finally were seated I ordered a bottle of pinot grigio and a large pie with onions and olives. After taking our first sip of wine, however, we knew it wasn't going to be enough. The two of us can take out a large New York pizza when we're not hungry, so I quickly added a second to the bill. The waiter looked surprised, then smirked slightly and said rhetorically, "Wow, you're not kidding, are you?" No, sir, we most definitely are not.

We plowed through the first pizza like it was made out of paper, but that's to be expected. It was only our second night of seven in Manhattan and, to us, John's pizza is among the best in the world. The first pizza was the treat, the prize for our vacation. The second was merely a reenforcement for the alcohol. We were in familiar territory. Last year's jaunt in New York involved one evening where a forty-minute wait for a table ended up with two pre-dinner Negronis before we sat down for wine and pasta. By the time we made it over to the Library Bar in the East Village, we were feeling it. After a round or two at the iconic punk watering hole, we were down-right drunk. However, that's when my wife headed into Burger King and I stumbled into the Popeye's next door, and we both emerged with bags of french fries and bisquits. We sat there on the street bench, stuffing our faces, laughing at the predicament we'd found ourselves in, but knowing the grease would save us. We awoke the next morning in fine shape.

Last night's pizza explosion was no different. We fortified our guts, stopped off for rehydrating coconut water in Abingdon Square on the trek back north, and made it back to the hotel for slumber. I remember cursing the fact that I had never been so full, but I'm certainly not regretting it now. I'm ready for some coffee and another warm day in the city.

-David Driscoll


Glenmorangie Cask Masters

You might remember the post we did from Scotland this past March when David and I stayed at the Glenmorangie House and tasted through the three new Cask Masters selections. Glenmorangie is now letting consumers register on their website and vote for which of three whiskies should make it to the open market. Since Glenmorangie isn't doing any tasting events locally for these whiskies, you'll have to vote blindly and based on what sounds good to you. However, I can tell you from experience that between the Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Manzanilla sherry finishes, the Manzanilla is the clear winner. It's not even close.

Help me help you get some of the Manzanilla-finished Glenmorangie by going to the Cask Masters website, registering for the vote, and casting your ballet for the best whisky.

-David Driscoll


A Few Things

I was emailing with Todd Leopold the other night about our pop music preferences and he said a very poignant thing at the end of his message:

"It was welcome to see you state (on the blog) that this business is all about relationships.  I would add that ALL business and life is about relationships, and it's these relationships that are the entire point of what we do.  The rest - bottles of rare whiskies, mash tuns, pot stills - are simply tools that gain us these great relationships."

I thought that was a beautiful thing to write. In the end, that's what I look forward to when I go home to make a drink - thinking about the people I've met in this business and how their products have shaped my life. I used to get excited when I drank a wine that got 90 points in the Wine Spectator. That's honestly what once thrilled me when starting out at K&L, mainly because I thought that's what booze was about - about drinking what other people thought was good. Now, however, my pleasure is derived from the people, the story, and the process. I love drinking Todd's gin because Todd's an awesome guy, we have a lot in common, and he actually made this stuff with his own hands! It's the difference between buying a tomato at the grocery store and picking one out of your own garden. They're both just tomatoes, except that they're not. The latter is simply more special.

When you meet the people behind the products your whole perspective changes about drinking. It can work the other way, too! (I can't tell you how many jerks I've met and how terrible their products have tasted after those encounters!) That's been one of the great parts about doing the Good Food Awards over the last few years (by the way, if you're a producer reading this the entry period for 2013 is now open). I've gained a serious insight into the minds behind some of America's great products and it's those relationships that I think about as I make a cocktail or pour some booze over ice. The Leopold Brothers Navy Strength Gin took home top honors last year for its vibrant and clean flavor. As did the one below.

Diane Paulson's Organic Nation Gin is the only two-time award winner at the Good Food Awards for spirits. That means that two years in a row her 100% organic gin has wowed the judging panel, comprised of myself, Jennifer Colliau from the Slanted Door, Amanda Womack from Cask in the city, and a number of other names you'll probably know from the Bay Area booze scene. They're one of the few producers that actually sources organic grain neutral spirit for their base (rye from Idaho) and if you check out their website you can see the efforts Diane and her family take to make their product taste so good. I talked to her on the phone again this week and she's pumped about possibly becoming our first three-peat champion. We just got a hot new bottle price as well ($24.99, previously it was almost $40), which instantly makes it the best bang-for-your-buck gin in the store.

We're just about ready to send out a big email for our two new casks of Mount Gay Black Barrel. If you haven't tried these out yet, you should grab a bottle soon. They're so perfect for summer drinking. Just dump a healthy chunk of the bottle over ice and you're golden.

Mount Gay K&L Exclusive Black Barrel Single Cask #1098 Barbados Rum $26.99 - Earlier this year, David and I were invited to experience the new expression from Mount Gay in the most appropriate setting, at the Mount Gay facility in Barbados. We spent the week experiencing the wonderful Bajan culture. This included High Tea in the cane fields, an authentic luncheon at a traditional Bajan Plantation, etc. We spent some time with Master Blender Allen Smith discussing and experimenting with blending the two types of rum produced, light distilled in a column and heavy coming out of a pot still.  We then moved to the warehouse. Waiting for us were 24 barrels of rum lined up and ready for tasting. Despite the festive atmosphere it was actually quite nerve wracking, in fact, as we'd drawn the short straws and were obliged to pick last after the other six special invitees. As each competitor selected their barrels, David and I let out sighs of relief. Somehow, the two barrels that we had independently agreed were superior to the all rest remained available. Maybe we are just lucky, but probably we just have great taste! Rich, fresh vanilla aromas were accented by light American oak spice. Brighter, lighter flavors on this one as compared to our other cask (#1140), which shows some darker spice and slightly richer texture. This stuff sing on the rocks and does wonders in a daiquiri, as the clean cane flavors pop right out of their citrus frame. This is truly a stupendous example of the high quality of Barbados' premier rum brand. (David Girard)

Mount Gay K&L Exclusive Black Barrel Single Cask #1140 Barbados Rum $26.99 - Last March, David and I flew to Barbados to visit the Mount Gay rum distillery and participate in what would be a celebration of their new label called Black Barrel - a younger, Bourbon cask-aged rum that would offer mixability as well as serious rocks potential. The standard Eclipse has always been the workhorse mixer and the Extra Old has always been one of our favorite sippers. A balance between the two - both in age and price-point - seemed like a fantastic idea. Since the Black Barrel rum would consist of Mount Gay finished in charred Bourbon casks, Remy decided to let a few retailers select their own barrels to bottle exclusively. We were at the top of their list. After careful tasting and note-taking, David and I decided that we should definitely take barrel #1140. It had the mellow cane flavor we love in a Mai Tai or Daiquiri, but added just the right amount of Bourbon spice and richness to accent that soft vanilla. The entry is dark and rich, but the finish is fresh with a flutter of sarsparilla and pepper. You can nurse a glass if you like, but, while delicious, the Black Barrel isn't a rum to sip slowly or concentrate heavily on. It's meant to be drunk in a single afternoon with friends, or dumped into a glass with tonic water and lime. We put away bottle after bottle at the local Bajan rum shacks with nothing but a few ice cubes. This is a high-quality, flavorful, tasty rum from a barrel that will only be available at K&L. (David Driscoll)

Another fun surprise was a new sweet potato vodka being produced south of my hometown of Modesto. Corbin Sweet Potato Vodka is being made in the central valley town of Atwater by the Souza family, who have been working the land for the last hundred years. They've set up a distillery onsite and their first release is this creamy, clean, and polished vodka that really caught me off guard last week. Also, if you've got a gluten allergy, you might want to give this baby a whirl as it's 100% sweet potato-based.

-David Driscoll