A Reminder of the Microcosm

It's easy to get wrapped up in the issues of the most vocal, and even easier to believe that the most vocal represent the majority of opinion; simply because they're so vocal. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, they say.  But I watched Ted Turner's WCW wrestling promotion cater to internet "smarks" (smart fans) in the late 90's and crumble into bankruptcy after scripting their show to please a vocal, yet relatively small base of loyalists. I've also worked at several establishments that completely changed their operations due to one or two negative Yelp reviews, to the chagrin of the silent majority. That didn't end well either. When you read something online, or see a certain point-of-view repeated in print, you can't help but think to yourself: "This is what people think, eh?" But to get caught in that trap is to fall victim to a skewed sense of reality.

I think one of the most difficult aspects of the liquor business for whisky superfans to understand is how relatively tiny our influence is: both our vocal influence and our economic influence. Even more important is how little others care for the amount of passion we all exude. For those of us who communicate with the online community, we tend to look around at other blogs, message boards, and chat sites to see what people are thinking. What are they talking about? What are people excited about? What are they upset about? We sometimes think these vocal enthusiasts -- those writing and commenting -- are a representation of whiskey drinkers as a whole; at least I do. But everytime I think that way I realize quickly how wrong I am.

Let's look at some of the pet peeves of the online whisky world as an example:

Misleading Labeling/Packaging: Do you want to know how many times I've ever had a customer come back in anger when they found out that Whistle Pig rye was made in Canada, and not Vermont? Never. It's never happened.

Do you want to know what happens when I tell people that Whistle Pig is Canadian whiskey? Nothing. They might say, " it still good?" and then buy a bottle anyway. While provenance is a hot-button issue online, it means next to nothing in the day-to-day conversations of the K&L retail stores: and we're a store that actually caters to people who care about this!!! We tell people all the time about misleading label information and often they respond with, "Ok, are you done talking yet? I need to buy this and go."

Shortages/Price Increases: There's a very sarcastic and rather sardonic attitude online about what's really going on in the booze industry. Many people believe the idea of a whisky shortage is a marketing tool used to increase sales. Regardless of how true the information we're hearing is, there is one very simple motivator when it comes to retail capitalism: can you get something when you want it for the price it should normally cost?

We can write articles about how there's no real shortage, we can complain about rising prices due to these distribution blackouts, but in the end people don't rely on internet writers to tell them what is or isn't going on with their whisky. 99.999% of whisky consumers go to the store and buy what they want. If the bottles they want are not there when they want them, they get upset. If obtaining their whisky of choice becomes a hassle, they buy more the next time around so that they don't have to deal with the hassle in the future. You can call that a shortage, or you can call that poor distribution, but it really doesn't matter what we call it because it doesn't change the reality of the situation. People will figure out what's true and what isn't when they go back to the store and either find what they're looking for, or see a gaping hole where their favorite whiskey used to be.

The Lack of an Age Statement: See my experience with customers concerning misleading labeling and packaging.

I used to be very passionate about all three of these issues when it came to my writing because there wasn't much information out there when I started this blog (plus, these were new problems at the time). When it comes to my personal drinking, I still am. I want to know where my whiskey is made and who made it, for sure. It's what I enjoy about drinking and the research that I do. But, while it's important to many of us, don't assume that it's important to everyone. In fact, assume that it isn't (because really it isn't). It's not that people are idiots, it's that they don't care as much as we do. And there's nothing wrong with that. We can care about our issues all we want, but we shouldn't get mad when people ignore our explanations and continue to buy what they like.

As one blogger wrote me in an email a while back:

We should treat our readers like they're smart whisky lovers not dolts we're trying to save from burning themselves.

I couldn't agree more.

-David Driscoll


Dramarama Deal #1

I'm a total gossip at heart, and I loooooove me some drama; hence my penchant for professional wrestling and reality television. The booze industry is rife with eccentric personalities, which is a big part of what I enjoy about working in it. That being said, while I love to hear about behind-the-scenes dirt and I constantly pepper my sales reps for juicy tidbits, I'm not someone who likes to talk shit myself. I don't have anything bad to say about any of our competitors and I don't really care about other people who work in the industry that don't affect K&L's day-to-day business. That means other retailers, other bars, and other booze companies -- I don't know what they're up to, I don't care what they're up to, I don't care what their pricing is, I don't look at their websites, I don't care what deals they're getting, and I don't care if they've got more hooch than us. I don't care. Period.

I do care about two things: getting our customers great booze at great prices, and forming strong relationships with the companies that allow me to do this. That's about as far as my concerns take me and doing those two things well requires me to focus completely upon their accomplishment. There's no time to worry about the other guys, especially when they can't keep up with our pace anyway. David OG and I can outwork and out-hustle anyone -- any time, any place, and day of the week. I react to a challenge by working harder, not by getting upset.

I take pride in my work and my dedication to this position. I've always let our actions and our products back up all of our hype. That's the best way to make a statement, in my opinion. I have never once complained to a rep about another store's pricing, bitched about another store's allocations, threatened a brand with dismissal to get favorable pricing, or influenced key accounts to change their attitude about competitors. Again, that would require me to care about other competitors, which I don't. Plus, it just makes you look bad, griping about like a disgruntled benchwarmer. It's embarrassing, really, and it doesn't reflect positively on the person doing it. Nevertheless, that's the way a few of our competitors are reacting to K&L's recent prominence in the booze world and this week's drama newsletter was full of more national retailers taking shots at us, complaining about our abilities, and wanting to diminish our success. The word spreads quickly though the industry grapevine, and I just have to laugh and take it as a complement.

Other than note that it's happening, I don't really have a reply. I try to let our deals do the talking, which is why -- to celebrate the recent drama regarding K&L in the booze world -- I'm going to unleash a K&L Dramarama deal of the week! The more hot deals we release, the more national drama we'll create, which will lead to more frustration and anger, and hence: more K&L Dramarama deals! The more I hear about complaints from competitors, the more I'm going to lower pricing. I'm going to turn this negative mojo into a positive for our customers. Let's start with this:

The Singleton of Glendullan 12 year old Single Malt Whisky 1L $27.99 (elsewhere $49.99) - A soft and easy-drinking 12 year old Speyside single malt from a marriage of both Bourbon and Sherry casks. Glendullan does a 75 hour fermentation to create a fruity, light-bodied profile in the style of other Dufftown area producers like Glenfiddich. The Singleton 12 year, however, is much more complex and richer on the finish than its larger competitor. A kiss of vanilla on the entry and a flurry of sweet grains on the palate make this a simple, straight-forward, and delicious deal. At $27.99 for a LITER, how can you say no? Why not get a case! (NOTE: due to the size of the 1L bottle this item ships like a 1.5L bottle which increases shipping costs a bit)

-David Driscoll


Whisky Season 2014 Kicks Into High Gear

The Signatory warehouse in Pitlochry is the warehouse that keeps on giving. This should wrap up the first batch of barrels due in at the end of summer. We'll get back to you in a few weeks about the second drop planned for later this winter.

Now get ready for more barrels from someone besides Signatory! But, of course, check through these first:

1992 Bruichladdich 21/22 Year Old Signatory K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $139.99 - Now that Bruichladdich has been purchased by Remy and the older stocks have become harder to find, we just couldn't pass up the opportunity to bottle a 20+ year old hogshead of the unpeated Islay distillate -- especially for a price this hot! At 53% cask strength, the malt is bold enough to offer a bit of a kick, yet reduced enough to allow the more delicate side of the whisky to shine. The salty, supple notes are apparent right on the initial sip, bringing back memories of Bruichladdich's "Waves" expression, albeit with much more complexity and age. The stone fruits are soft and enticing, with more saline, maritime notes undulated under "waves" of richness and oily textures. If you were ever a fan of Bruichladdich from the old Susan Purnell days here at K&L, then this whisky is like a nostalgic ride down memory lane. This is the flavor that many a K&L customer cut their teeth upon, and at the price we're selling it for, it's not all that much more than it cost back then. For all the whiskies we taste in Scotland each year, this is the flavor profile I've found most difficult to duplicate -- mature Island whisky without smoke. (David Driscoll, K&L Spirits Buyer)

2002 Bowmore 12/13 Year Old Signatory K&L Exclusive Single Refill Sherry Hogshead Single Malt Whisky $74.99 - Bowmore is ALWAYS such a sleeper for us. Each year, we find a cask or two of Bowmore that we absolutely fall in love with. There are so many reasons why Bowmore is special, it's hard to pinpoint why exactly we love it so much. Is it because they are malting more than 25% of the barley on site? Or perhaps it's the fact that the distilleries main warehouse sit below sea level. Maybe it's the incredible resources and expertise that the distillery has or the peculiarity of the stills. Either way, we are absolutely entranced by most millennial Bowmore. This 2002 was so taught and powerful at full strength that we decided to experiment with bottling at lower proof. When we added water the whisky turned around and smacked us right in the face! What started as a sharp spear of smoky and peat seemed more like a catapult with a flaming ordinance. Not as bracing or angular, the lower proof actually broadens the whisky considerably. It's smoked seawater, strange spices, and wisps of wild dried fruits. Bowmore deserves to be expensive, but this whisky delivers far beyond its price point. Inevitably it will go unnoticed, until you know, someone notices and buys it all. It's always the same with Bowmore, so get a head of it. (David Girard, K&L Spirits Buyer)

1983 Caol Ila 30/31 Year Old Signatory K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $259.99 - We just can't stay away from these old Caol Ilas. Maybe it's because they're the last old Islays available, but we keep coming across these casks of Caol Ila that are just on fire. Caol Ila (arguably the most unsung Islay distillery) was spared closure in 1983, while its sister distillery Port Ellen was not so lucky, and reliably churned out whisky throughout the 80's whisky slump to provide a smoky base to the big name blends. While collectors the world over search for the final few bottles of Port Ellen left out there, few realize that if they just expanded their horizons slightly, they'll find equally wonderful old Islay whisky is still being produced and I might even call it affordable. This spectacular cask from the Signatory warehouses is strikingly different from the 32 year we released last year. Here, we have much less focus on the exotic wood, earth and funk and much more classic Islay in every sense. We can go down the list and describe the expected and clearly evident flavors, smoke, ash, brine, lemon peel, oyster shell, nuts, it's all there. It takes a slightly herbal turn on the finish, but remains above all other things powerful yet balanced. Of course, that doesn't tell you anything about how special this whisky actually is. All I can say is that Caol Ila is one of our favorite distilleries and this malt is exactly why. (David Girard, K&L Spirits Buyer)

1998 Laphroaig 15/16 Year Old Signatory K&L Exclusive Single Refill Sherry Butt Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $159.99 - Des McCagherty is a man of few words, but when he said to us, "You might want to load up on Laphroaig this year," we listened. Apparently, this is one of the most difficult and costly distillates to purchase on the independent market and stocks are depleting faster than ever from Signatory's Pitlochry warehouse. A yearly barrel of two of Laphroaig at K&L has become commonplace since we started our barrel program and we don't want that to change -- at least not while we can help it. That's why we snagged this 16 year old sherry butt of peaty goodness, full of big smoke, cinnamon, tar, and brine, but rounded out by a rich, sherry-laden note that fans of Laphroaig's PX edition will recognize. That combination of sweet and peat is one of the most popular flavor profiles on the market right now, which always adds a few dollars to the cost. In this case, it's fully worth it. The sherry adds the perfect raisiny balance to the bold, ashy flavors of the 61% spirit. If you've already loaded your cabinet with numerous, collectable bottles from Islay's iconic distillery, then I won't say that this bottle will offer anything new to your selection. However, if you've been taking mature, full proof, relatively-affordable, single barrel expressions of Laphroaig for granted, you might want to start thinking about snagging a few of these. That's what we did, at least. (David Driscoll, Spirits Buyer)

-David Driscoll


The Disease is Spreading

Yes, my friends, the Faultline virus is now expanding its gene pool and infecting other locations besides just the three K&L retail stores. I've allowed a few choice accounts (and close friends) to dip into our inventory and feature some of our selections in their drink-oriented establishments.

Starting right now you can head over to the Coachman on Mission Street in downtown San Francisco and order a glass of our Miltonduff 30 year, Bowmore 16 year, Talisker Speakeasy, and Caol Ila 32 year from Sovereign right off the menu. When you've got the coolest, tastiest selections in town, why not share the wealth?

If you're a Bay Area bar that wants to stock some of our stuff, then hit me up. You know where to find me.

-David Driscoll


Mistaking One-Offs For Continuity

There's an old saying in the wine industry: "There are no great wines, only great bottles." Once a wine has been bottled, there are a number of things that can change, transform, and go wrong that can ultimately influence how the liquid tastes when the bottle is opened. How was the bottle stored? Where was it stored? For how long? Basically, as the statement implies, when you're drinking a bottle of wine (especially an older one) you can't simply depend on the vintage or the name of the producer, or even the reputation of the wine itself; the ultimate flavor can still be a crapshoot because of all these outside variables.

It's not uncommon while working the sales floor to hear a customer say something like, "I don't like _______ wine because I had a bottle one time that tasted terrible." However, like we just discussed, there are a number of things that could have affected that wine that had absolutely nothing to do with the wine or the style of winemaking. It may have been a great wine, but the cork happened to have been infected with bacteria. The bottle may have been left in the sun too long. Who knows? My point is this: it's not a good idea to form conclusions about a particular producer based on a small sample of experiences. This goes for wine, but it also goes for single malt whisky.

There's no distillery in Scotland that hasn't produced a bad barrel of whisky, it's just that those barrels don't always make it to the market. Because of the amount of tasting we do and the access we have to samples, I've probably tasted more than 1,000 casks of single malt whisky over the last five years, and within that experience were plenty of bad Macallans, terrible Clynelishs, and stale Glendronachs; despite the fact that all of these distilleries are known for their consistent quality. It's because a single cask of whisky can vary so wildly in its flavor that producers blend large quantities of barrels together, using the qualities of the "good" whiskies to mask the flaws or off-putting flavors of the "bad" ones. Boring barrels usually go into blends, while those that can function as a solo act are carefully selected.

So, for example, when you taste a bottle of Talisker 18 (a pretty good bottle of Scotch), you're actually tasting both great whisky and subpar whisky together; a marriage of casks balancing out into one consistent flavor. When you taste a single barrel selection, however, the quality control is dependent upon the person bottling the whisky, not the distillery itself. It's for this reason that many producers do not like independent bottlings by labels such as Signatory or Cadenhead; not because they're competing against their own distillery names (like Diageo's Mortlach vs. Signatory's Mortlach or Edrington's Highland Park vs. Cadenhead's Highland Park), but rather because they cannot control the quality level. Therefore, a customer might form an association about a rogue bottling of Highland Park that has nothing to do with Edrington's product. This person may assume that, because it was distilled at Highland Park, that all Highland Park will taste that way, yet the whisky they tasted was really just an odd single cask. That must be incredibly frustrating for some of these companies who are trying to control the reputation of their brands.

Because an independent bottler can legally use the distillery name, many consumers are easily confused between single cask releases by third-party bottlers and distillery-direct expressions. More importantly, they don't realize that one is a raw bottling, and the other a carefully-crafted marriage. Therefore, when I hear someone say, "David, I loved your ________ cask that I bought last year. Do you have any other whiskies by that distillery?" I get a bit nervous. One of the most beloved barrels we've sold in the last few years was a 22 year old sherry cask of Mortlach; a decadent, meaty, first-fill sherry delight. However, the 25 year old Mortlach we currently have in stock tastes nothing like it, whatsoever. You could line up twenty barrels of Mortlach, of various ages and from various types of casks, that may or may not have been used multiple times, and not find any continuity between the whiskies; despite the fact they were all made at the same place.

Like I mentioned before concerning a bottle of wine, there are so many factors that can influence the whisky after it's been distilled. What type of cask was it aged in? For how long? Where was it aged? Who bottled it? It's for that reason that I caution our customers about forming summations about distilleries based on their limited single barrel experiences. There are obviously certain characteristics like peat smoke that will cross over between the distillery expressions and the various single barrel releases, but quality is something that doesn't always begin with the distillate. I've had great single barrels of Glen Scotia and terrible single barrels of Port Ellen. I've even tasted some fairly drinkable casks of Loch Lomand, while spitting out bitter, over-aged samples of Brora in disgust.

When it comes to single barrel malt whisky, it's important to direct our judgement towards the barrel as well as the distillery.

-David Driscoll