Wine Based Spirits - What You're Missing

The revival of hard liquor has been given the current generation of young drinkers a way to rebel against its predecessors. In Silicon Valley, where I spend most of my time selling booze, the hip thing has always been wine. Wine parties, wine tastings, wine cellars, wine and chesse, Robert Parker, 100 points, Bordeaux futures, big Napa cabs. The Steve Jobs-inspired techies high-tailed it out to California, bought their 49ers season tickets, went to the Grateful Dead reunion shows, became inspired by the passionate wine scene, and built their collections as fast as they built their microprocessors. However, like the child who rebels against his parents, this new wave of Facebook and Electronic Arts employees has decided to invest in whiskey, cocktail culture, and the well-mixed Manhattan. They prefer Bourbon and Branch to Chez Panisse. They have a booze cabinet with seventy open bottles of various hooch, rather than a wine cabinet with sealed vintages of Dunn Howell Mountain. Like the punks who railed against the mods, or the grunge-era stoners who lambasted the big hair and enthusiasm of the Sunset Strip, the new era of connoisseurship runs from Kentucky to Scotland, rather than Sonoma to Bordeaux.

It's a generational divide that pits wine against liquor, father against son, clean-shaven snob against bearded snob, but it doesn't have to be this way.

Wine drinkers find spirits to be harsh and disruptive. One or two cocktails and you're done for the night! How can you enjoy hard liquor without getting totally plastered? How do you pair it with a meal? Spirits drinkers consider wine too stuffy and antiquated. All this waiting and aging, money spent on temperature-controlled maturation! When do we get to drink it? Plus, once you open it the wine goes bad within a day or two! I want to nurse this thing over the next decade, man! This conversation goes on daily at K&L between our own staff members. The old school guys stick to their Bordeaux. The newer kids are interested in beer and Bourbon.

How do we bring these two diverging mentalities together? How do we unite the clans?

Sherry. Pineau des Charentes. Vermouth. Madeira. Port. Chinato. Amaro. Aperitif.

We do share some common ground.

I'm a man who wanders between both of these realms and I'm here to tell you that you can enjoy wine and liquor together. I'm currently sippng on a magnificantly concentrated Moscatel-based Sherry that comes from a small village in Spain called Chipona. Very little Sherry is produced from Moscatel grapes anymore because the varietal has been virtually wiped out in the Jerez region. Chipona's sandy soils, however, make it the perfect location to support the aromatic grape. The interesting thing about Chipona's Moscatel wine is that the dried grapes are so sweetly concentrated that they can only ferment to about one percent alcohol. Yet, the "wine" I'm drinking is listed at 17.5%.

This rich, sweet, soft, supple, orange-blossom, golden raisin and toffee flavored delight is mostly distilled grape spirit (i.e. brandy) mixed with hyper-sweet muscat wine and aged in a barrel. Most Chipona Sherries are matured in a solera system, meaning that younger wines are added into older stock to keep the flavor consistent. Over time, the Moscatel-brandy concoction gains an incredible level of depth and complexity, much like a fine Cognac or single malt whisky. I'm currently sipping on a glass of Cesar Florido Moscatel Especial, which is only $12.99 for a 375ml bottle. This particular Chipona wine has had a bit of arrope added to it – grape must that has been reduced to a blackish syrup, whcih darkens the color and adds a caramel note to the flavor profile. At less than 20% alcohol, I can enjoy the lush, exotic flavor of an aged, fortified, barrel-matured spirit, yet still remain sober enough to type this article! It is a Tuesday night afterall.

Wow, David, that sounds nice and all, but I'm just not interested in wine-based spirits. I like the romance of the Highlands and the rural tradition of Bardstown. These historical traditions are what drive my desire to learn more about whisk(e)y. I also love to geek out about distillation and cooperage. I love how a spirit will change after resting for years in an oak barrel. There's simply nothing like that in the wine-based spirits world, right?


First of all, people have been making wine in the Jerez region since around 700 BC. Between then and now those people have been conquered by more cultures than an urban food court. Yet, the wines are still produced in the old-fashioned, traditional method. Today most barrels in Jerez are imported from the States and are made of American white oak. While the barrels are seasoned with lesser wines to make sure the influence of the wood is less profound, the maturation in the barrel is far from neutral. According to Peter Liem:

Old fino and manzanilla casks (have) a biological memory acquired from many years of exposure to flor: each barrel will develop in different ways, with their differences becoming increasingly pronounced over time, and no two barrels will ever produce identical wines. Eduard Ojeda, technical director for the bodegas of the Grupo Estevez, uses the word "contamination," in a positive sense, to describe the effect of the individual yeast populations in each barrel and the distinctive personalities found in the resulting wines. "One of the most important things in Jerez is (the preservation of) thes old, well-contaminated casks," he says.

Barrel-aged, wine-based spirits not only mature in the barrel, but they interact with various biological barrel contaminants!! That's freakin' crazy.

Ultimately, you can get just as geeky with wine-based spirits as you can barrel-aged spirits if you so desire. What I think you're missing, as a drinker who chooses to abstain from WBS selections of quality, is the chance to experience a complexity that rivals the rich, concentrated core of a whisky like Glendronach, but at a proof that allows for more frequent and accessible sipping. Unlike Sherry, a bottle of Macallan owes very little of its flavor to the barley that created it. Wine-based spirits allow you to experience both the character of the grape and the spirit that is ultimately used to fortify it. They also offer 10, 20, 30, and 40 year old, barrel-aged expressions – just like your favorite whiskies.

It's really a win-win for everyone. I'm moving on from this Chipona to the new Cocchi Americano Rosa. That thing is really quite delicious. After that, some 20 year old, barrel-aged Sandeman Port. Three glasses of high-quality hooch that won't put me to sleep before my wife gets home. Wine-based spirits have completely changed the way I look at weeknights! You should join in on the fun.

-David Driscoll



From the people who brought you Cocchi Americano and Cocchi Vermouth 2: Electric Boogaloo, comes the brand new rose, quinine-flavored, aperitif wine you've been anxiously waiting for. The Cocchi Americano Rosa $18.99 has the lush mouthfeel and weight of a sweet vermouth, the fruit of a sangria, and the spice of a mulled wine, finishing with a tingle of bitterness on the tongue. It's absolutely delicious. Time to make a rose-colored gin martini!

-David Driscoll


You Know Things Must Be Desperate When....

...Beam Global decides to take its most iconic brand, the red wax-dipped Maker's Mark Bourbon, and lower the proof from 45% to 42%. Apparently, there's not enough Maker's Mark to keep up with global demand, but of course this isn't news to any of you. We've been discussing the current whisk(e)y shortage for over a year now. However, while the UK was treated to news of an ageless Macallan last summer, the average American consumer is practically clueless about what's been going on in the booze world. Most people are not interested in hearing about it, either. I was trying to tell a guy last week about why his search for Elijah Craig 18 was likely to be a difficult one and he turned his back, mid-sentence, and walked away in a huff. People always shoot the messenger!

Regardless about how you feel concerning the Maker's Mark reduction, no one can deny what it means. There's no way in hell that Beam made this decision lightly, which speaks to the severity of the shortage and the insatiable thirst for more brown booze. When Macallan decides to mess with its 12 year cash cow and Maker's Mark introduces a new Pepsi Light, you know something's amiss. Maker's Mark drinkers are the most fanatical. They're brand people who expect a brand to live up to its end of the bargain, which is basically: don't change anything. The boys at Beam know they're about to get pummelled with complaints, however, that's better than an empty shelf in their opinion.

We've got our Macallan moment now in the U.S. This is happening. I have to say, personally, that I'm glad to see it occur. For the last year, customers have looked at me skeptically, thinking this story of a booze shortage was probably a way for me to cover my ass in front of an empty shelf. People have been rolling their eyes, smirking, and getting all hot and bothered when I tell them about what it's going to take if they want a bottle of Pappy, Parker's or Stagg. It's been very frustrating. Now I can simply say, "Did you hear what Maker's Mark just did?" Oh.....maybe this guy isn't simply lying to us. BevMo didn't have it either.

-David Driscoll


Revisiting Your Favorites

We didn't do very many awards this year at K&L, mainly because we're moving further away from that kind of recognition. Most awards only honor new whiskies anyway. But what about the ones that have been around for ages? The faces you've always known? The standard expressions? "I've already had those, years ago," some people think. Are they still the same, however? What makes you so sure?

One thing I did touch on recently was how spirits will change on you - literally. Whisky can taste different to you over time for a number of reasons. Maybe you've had the bottle open for years and it's oxidized. Maybe the whisky company you love is now releasing a different batch (remember that few whiskies are exactly the same from year to year). Maybe that whisky without an age statement on the label is using younger whisky than it did last time. Maybe your own tastes have simply changed. Maybe you want something different, a new flavor, a more extreme version of what you already like. Maybe you want something more restrained.


What are your favorite spirits right now? Are they the same as they were a year ago at this time? We think we already know what Lagavulin 16 tastes like because we tasted it a while back. However, what does it taste like now? You've got to keep revisiting things to know for sure (that's why it's good to meet people who also collect single malt). No one would ever say, "I know what Lynch Bages wine tastes like," because you have to be more specific. Which vintage? 2001? Wines vary from vintage to vintage, so wine is spoken about within these parameters, but we rarely talk about whisky in the same way.

For example, Lagavulin increased production in 1997 and began operating all year long at a much higher volume. That whisky is scheduled to turn 16 years old this year and become eligable for the standard release. Is that whisky going to taste the same as the whisky from 1996? I don't know. Maybe it tastes better because they're no longer scraping the bottom of each barrel to keep up with supply. Maybe it tastes worse because the increased volume took away from quality. Maybe nothing will change!

Vintages are important to wine because the weather plays the ultimate role in how a particular wine will taste. It isn't necessarily playing a factor with single malt from year to year, but batches are indeed different (as the obsessive Aberlour Abunadh batch chasers will tell you). The whisky you had two years ago is probably not identical to what's on the shelf now for any number of reasons (age, warehouse location of the barrels, the palate of the master blender, etc). Weather can play a role, however, if a particularly warm summer resulted in greater oak extraction from the wood.

I've been going back and tasting a lot of standard releases lately. A lot of Glenlivet, Macallan, and basic expressions that I usually take for granted. It's greatly changed the way I look at our selection. I used to think I already understood what we had available. Now I'm methodically retasting almost everything so that I understand them now - as they taste today. It's forced me to take a look at where my palate is at, as well as the type of products I want to focus on.  Here's where I'm at for February 2013:

Current Favorites:

Scotch Whisky under $50: Aberlour 12 NCF $49.99 - So we're only a penny under fifty bucks, but this is simply where my palate is at right now. I want chewy, I want oily, and I want viscosity. But I don't want too much sherry. I don't want it sweet. If I want sherry, I'll open a bottle of sherry. I still want the maltiness of the whisky to come through. This is a fantastic bottle of booze. Easy to drink and my friends who don't drink much single malt instantly adore it. Accessible, affordable, good.

Scotch Whisky under $100: Glenmorangie 18 Year Old $89.99 - This whisky actually took a price increase last year, so I bought in to protect the $90 retail sticker for as long as I can. We've got a good supply of this and it doesn't really sell off the web. I think most people don't know how good this bottle is. When's the last time you had this whisky? If you've never had it, you should try it soon. Very soon. I'm guessing this bottle shoots up to $150+ by January 2014. Mark my words.

Bourbon: Four Roses Yellow $19.99: I was on an Old Weller Antique kick like you wouldn't believe for months, but I'm starting to tire of the whole pencil shavings, extra wooded quality. I'm really into smooth right now. Yeah, I said it. Smoooooooooth. Don't be afraid to use that word. Sometimes you just want to take it easy. Four Roses Yellow is like Sunday morning, baby.

Gin: Berry Bros & Rudd No. 3 Gin $34.99 - This is one area where my palate has not changed. I have a lot of gin open at home, but there is still no better product on the market than this. No. 3 is still the benchmark.

Cognac: Ferrand 1840 1er Cru Cognac $37.99 - I've been drinking Cognac cocktails lately and I've been enjoying it on the rocks. The 45% really helps and the booze is simply clean and easy. You can sip it, but I've been on a French 75 kick like no other.

Tequila: ArteNOM 1079 Blanco $39.99 - Another spot where I feel exactly the same as I did a year ago. In fact, after a year of expanding my horizons, trying all the old brands, looking for new ones, I feel even more strongly than I did back then. This tequila just makes every other tequila look.......uh........really bad. The purity of the spirit, the delicacy of the flavor, and the restrained nature of the alcohol all perfectly in harmony.

Rum: Mount Gay Extra Old $34.99 - Part of the reason people love Bourbon cask-aged spirits is because the residue doesn't overwhelm the flavor of the spirit itself, unlike sherry-aged spirits. The Mount Gay is a perfect example of richness, depth, and spice for a relative bargain. Load up.

-David Driscoll


Annual Obligatory Sherry Pitch

About once a year I try to write something about Sherry (or Jerez si vamos a hablar en Español) mainly because the crossover appeal between it and single malt is blatently obvious. Every year I write it and most people think, "Huh........Sherry, eh?" and that's about as far as it goes. I know plenty of Scotch drinkers who have made the transition to Bourbon, yet no one ever wants to learn more about the fortified wine that shapes their Macallan, Glenfarclas, Springbank, or Lagavulin whiskies. There are very few single malt producers that aren't using ex-Sherry barrels to mature their whisky, yet we seem to forget the huge influence these wine-soaked butts have over our beloved bottles. I get emails from customers all the time about how wonderful the Glendronach K&L single barrel they just purchased tasted. "How do they get all that rich, toffee-laden, fudgy flavor into that whisky?" they ask. "They must have really good distillers."

Distillers? No. Really good Sherry barrels? Yes.

Because that's what you're tasting when you taste our new Glendronach 19 year old Oloroso cask. You're tasting sherry. 95% of that whisky's flavor comes from the Oloroso. The other 5% is the alcohol and the eau de vie. If you should ever visit Glendronach distillery, that's where the majority of your visit will take place: in the barrel room. They're firm believers in the idea that most of whiskymaking takes place after distillation. They'll talk your ear off about cooperage and the influence that Jerez has over their malt. Yet, Scotch drinkers in search of something different still look to rum or Bourbon due to their "similar" flavor profiles. Not that you shouldn't enjoy rum or Bourbon. They're fantastic spirits. I just don't get why more people aren't interested in Sherry, considering that for those producers using Sherry wood, it is far and away the number one influence on their single malt whisky's ultimate flavor.

And it's delicious to drink on its own!!!!!!

Besides the deliciousness of its character, the relatively reasonable price tags, the fact that you can open a bottle and have it last for months, and the complexity of its different flavor profiles, there is one standout reason why Sherry is ripe for hipster exploitation: no other wine, beer, or spirit offers the potential for so much geekery. I mean, isn't that what hipster culture is about? Taking something completely phased out from our past and ressurecting it once again as the measurement of coolness? Turntables, beards, and carpentry! No other alcoholic beverage is as antiquated and associated with old people as Sherry. If you want to know more about something than someone else, Sherry is your key to pedantic bliss. All of us at the Redwood City store just purchased the book Sherry, Manzanilla, & Montilla in an attempt to increase our own collective knowledge. We're all committing to this movement.

Sherry is so complicated to produce and comes in so many different manifestations that it would take years to truly understand it. It can be briny and austere, yeasty and funky, nutty yet dry, nutty but sweet, raisined and chewy, chocolatey and earthy, and any other combination of these flavors already mentioned. You can serve it chilled as an aperitif with hard cheeses and nuts, or sip it after dinner like you would a glass of single malt. It combines viticulture, soil, winemaking, distillation, barrel-aging, and most importantly: flor.

What is flor you ask? It is to Sherry as peat is to whisky and as bret is to beer or cider, in that it offers a unique complexity of flavor that can take some getting used to. Flor is a veil of Saccharomyces yeast cells, which multiply and form a layer of film that covers the wine as it ages in barrel. The barrier on the surface prevents total oxidation by limiting the wine's contact with oxygen (flor also needs oxygen to survive, so what little leaks into the wine is immedately consumed by the yeast). Sometimes these layers can be very thin, other times extremely thick – how thick will affect their influence over the wine. Geography, temperature, and cellar conditions have everything to do with a flor's nature (bringing serious terroir to Sherrytown). The flor also consumes what sugar is left in the wine, which results in some seriously bone-dry fino and manzanilla sherries. Flor layers can last for years and they age with the sherry in the oak barrel. As yeast cells die off from the flor, they drop to the bottom of the wine where they become part of the lees, the dead yeast cells that bring a rich, savory note to many Sherry and Champagne wines. Those aging closer to the sea have different flors than those more inland and can be salty and briny much like Islay whiskies.

Then there's the barrel maturation. Jerez uses American oak and European oak. They use barriques and they use giant butts. Some wines are aged purely in a single barrel, others are added to a solera system that continuously marries younger wines with older ones to keep a consistent flavor (like marrying whiskies together in the Ardbeg Uigeadail). There are a few Sherry selections at K&L that have wines dating back to the 1800s floating around within them. What about distillation, too? Sherry uses brandy to fortify its wines and prevent them from oxidizing too quickly after the bottles are opened. It's crazy to think about all of these different facets.

So here we are. Another year is upon us. Another post about Sherry that will find its way into your RSS feed, but will likely be skimmed over and forgotten as fast as the other non-whisky-related pieces. However, for anyone who truly wants to understand single malt whisky, you can't do so without understanding Sherry. You can know everything about every distillery in Scotland – their barley sources, their fermentation times, their still size, and their cooperage program – but you won't understand why their whiskies taste the way they do unless you understand what Sherry is. If you're drinking Laphroaig 10, or any other Bourbon barrel-aged whisky, then you're exempt. However, there are few distilleries who don't use some Sherry as part of their ultimate formula. Springbank 15? Bowmore 15? Glenlivet 15? Queue the Frankie Valli hit!

Maybe it's time to give Sherry another look. Come to Redwood City and talk to our Sherry buyer Joe Manekin (any advice I give you will just be a repeat of what he tells me). I'll try and post some of my favorites, but I have to check our inventory first.

-David Driscoll