High-Low Fashion (and Drinking)

Esquire's graphic for helping men navigate the perils of high-low fashion

There's a trend in the fashion world called "high-low," which essentially means pairing expensive, "high"-end pieces with affordable, "low"-end options. For example, you might see a woman walking down the street with a Chanel purse and Alexander McQueen shoes (at least $2000 and $1000 a piece), yet wearing a dress from H&M and a belt from Target (maybe $40 and $10 each). Or maybe you'll see a guy at the supermarket wearing $700 Cole Haan shoes, but an $80 Banana Republic suit. The theory behind the "high-low" trend is that some things are worth spending the money on. You're going to wear shoes and a watch much more often than you'll wear a sports jacket or slacks, so you might as well spend the money on those items, while looking elsewhere for less-pricey versions of the basic essentials.

In reality, however, "high-low" fashion isn't so much a trend as it is just basic intelligence; you have to actually know what looks good in order to do it well -- you can't just follow the rule, copy the idea, or buy based on the label. I liken this to what I mentioned yesterday about specs versus quality. You can look at a bottle and read all the details, but you'll never know if it's good or not until you taste it. While information on the label can help lead us to better whisky, you're still a label whore if you buy a bottle based purely on those details -- you're just a more modern version of it. Smart fashionistas can spot a $1000 dress at Yves St. Laurent, see that it looks amazing, but know that they can get a similar dress at Zara for $120. At the same time, they'll know when a $400 pair of Salvatore Ferragamo shoes are worth the price -- even with the designer name mark up.

The same "high-low" principle can be applied to drinking as well: a smart spirits aficionado knows when to splurge and when to look elsewhere for alternatives. There are times when $100 for a brand name label is definitely worth the money (i.e. Glenmorangie 18) and times when you might look outside the major players to find better value. Ultimately, what I love about high-low drinking is that it combines the skeptic's mindset of being smart with one's money with the free-spirited mentality of enjoying oneself -- without the penchant for following trends, labels, points, or ratings. Being a high-low shopper means you know when to employ the basic tenets of $8 Spanish garnacha, but also the supreme pleasures of the $60 aged Bordeaux. It means you know when $10 Prosecco will do the job, but also when to shell out for the $50 bottle of Champagne. High-low drinking requires an understanding of alcohol that goes beyond the label and into the personal -- you alone have to decide what is and isn't worth buying.

Of course, you have to taste the booze in order to know for sure, but that's where experience counts; you have to take risks every now and again. Those who live in fear of buying the wrong bottle and painstakingly analyze every purchase will always be governed by that anxiety (and that takes the fun out of drinking!) You'll never know what is and isn't worth buying until you make a few mistakes.

-David Driscoll


What Isn't The Case (with italics)

Waking up this morning with a bit of a crick in my neck has me a little feisty. I've been thinking about how easy it is to spread misinformation -- not intentionally, but rather just out of sheer naiveté. Here are some things that are not the case:

- The term "hipster" does not refer to someone well-dressed. Hipsters are young people who follow the latest trends. If you wear a pork pie hat or a timeless suit, you are not necessarily a hipster. You might simply be stylish. Yet, today the term is used by many to describe anyone who makes an effort to do anything modern with gusto. It's used most often by people who have no idea what it means.

- No one knows for sure what happens at any distillery except for a select few who actually work there. You've been on the tour? Good for you. You still don't know anything for sure about what happens at that distillery when you're not there -- especially when you're not there. Most of the misinformation we have about brands comes from people who argue against the company line, claiming they know what's really going on. If you want to be nit-picky, then you might as well dismiss all information rather than provide your own theory. Everything about booze is speculatory and based on hearsay -- except for the statements "Bourbon is brown" and "Vodka is clear." Everything we know is based on what each brand tells us.

- Specs are merely specs -- they do not tell you anything for sure about quality. By knowing the age of the distillate, the barrel type, proof, type of grain, name of the distiller, and the source of origin, we know more about what we're drinking -- which is what makes drinking fun. What we do not discern from that information is how good the spirit is. Yet, what we do create from those specs is a price tag! Three times this week I've been told by a foreigner in the booze industry that Americans care more about specs than quality. This is the reputation we have abroad.

- Hockey is an exciting sport, but there is no question that it's better enjoyed in person. After almost two decades of being a fan, I finally went to my first Sharks game on Thursday night -- game one of the Stanley Cup playoffs against Los Angeles -- and I was reborn. There are moments when I'd rather be watching football or baseball on television. This will never be the case for a hockey game.

- If you think that getting mad at someone is going to result in you getting your way, think again. It's only going to make someone go out of their way to see that you don't get your way.

- The K&L Spirits Journal is not a journalistic news source. It has never been, never claimed to be, nor will it ever be. This is mainly because there is no such thing as booze journalism as far as absolute truth is concerned. There is only booze romanticism or booze antagonism. The president can be held accountable for lying to the general public, but booze companies cannot be, nor should they be. Unlike publicly elected officials, it's not their job to tell you the truth. It's their job to sell you something. As consumers, it's our job to decide whether or not to give them our money.

-David Driscoll


Blind Beam

Since I've been talking about the cool cache of certain brands lately, I thought I'd mention the blind tasting of Bourbon I went through yesterday, curated for the purpose of identifying richness without bias. After tasting about twenty whiskies -- all beneath the $30 price point -- I found that two really stood out as displaying both superb richness and weight: the new Jim Beam single barrel release and the 8 year old Black (which comes in at $27.99 for a liter). The former is recognizedly a Beam product -- it carries that corny sweetness that I find permeates through the entire Beam portfolio, but it does it with a bit more balance than some of the other expressions. The latter is all wood spice and cinnamon, and I was shocked to discover that Beam made the whiskey.

What both of these Bourbons do well is offer a more-supple style of whiskey for a very reasonable price. I think (in fact, I know) that this richer, sweeter flavor profile is what many Bourbon fans are craving right now and not finding in most standard releases. People invariably want new whiskies that taste like Pappy, Booker's, and Blanton's -- three of the richer, sweeter Bourbons on the market. Yet, they're continuing to purchase more herbaceous, spicier, leaner whiskies that don't give them that burst of sweet oak they're looking for.

In times of shortage it really pays to revisit the big brands -- the guys with inventory who aren't being forced to stretch their stocks as thinnly. I've never expected greatness from Beam, but I respect their ability to make a good product for a good price. They're on the shelf as of now.

Jim Beam Single Barrel Kentucky Bourbon $29.99 - One of the best and most balanced Bourbons from the Beam portfolio, displaying a soft and supple entry of sweet corn, followed by hints of banana and wood spices. At 95 proof the alcohol balances out the richness perfectly and the Bourbon ends up being much leaner than it initially appears. Batches will obviously vary and the tasting notes a bit different depending on which barrel you're purchasing, but I think Beam is on to something with this value-oriented release. It's undoubtedly Beam whiskey through and through, but it's the best possible expression of it, in my opinion.

Jim Beam Black 8 Year Old Kentucky Bourbon 1L $27.99 - The one thing most Bourbon drinkers say about Knob Creek, Booker's, Baker's and Basil Hayden is that -- for all their differences -- they are all identifiably Beam products. There's a certain flavor profile that's consistent through each expression that gives the distiller away. It's a certain sweet corn flavor that manages to materialize across the board and sometimes it's a love it or hate it type of thing for serious Bourbon fans. When I first tasted the Beam Black 8 year expression I was certain that Heaven Hill made the whiskey. The high spice of the rye, the char flavor of the wood, and the weight of the palate all screamed Elijah Craig. But I was utterly shocked when I took the whiskey out of the brown bag (this was at a blind tasting) and saw that the liter-sized bottle read Jim Beam Black. At $28 a liter, this is killer Kentucky juice. Double-aged in new oak and proofed down to 43%, the sweet corny flavor of Beam is completely gone and in its place stands an integrated oak profile and lots of spicy clove and cinnamon. It's very well done and very well-priced.

-David Driscoll


Letters to the Editor

An anonymous reader sent this to me yesterday concerning my dinner with Maurice Hennessy and I about jumped out of my chair laughing:

I'm so glad you wrote this, David:

"You may not know this, but I'm a big fan of Hennessy Cognac. I don't often recommend it to customers or write about it on the blog... but nevertheless I always have a bottle of Hennessy at home."

Me too!  I love Paradis, but have long loved/dreaded it silently. Like Dorian's portrait under a tarp in the attic. I make absolutely zero mention of this watered-down, colored, additive-laced over-priced delight to my whisky acquaintances. Not because I care what they think, but because it takes years off my life processing the passive aggressive, subversive responses.

Paradoxically, the few people I've met who've mentioned (to me) liking Hennessy have nearly always seemed kind, humble, fun-loving people. The kind of people completely lacking in awareness that there exists (within booze appreciation) a rich tapestry of zealots, conspiracists, and run-of-the-mill buttholes whom all seem to primarily feed off their snarky moral/personal judgements of other's booze preferences. One of the nicest people that I've ever met inside a wine/spirits store introduced me to Hennessy.

This was during the late 1990's when most liquor stores were still organized so that vodka, gin, and Crown Royal occupied the first aisles -- with all the brown stuff in some corner by the aromatic bitters. Anyway, one Saturday afternoon I was loading-up a cart with booze, intensely reading labels, etc. Basically I had no idea what I was doing. As luck would have it, an older gentleman who happened to be in the store--writing on a clip board--says, "Son, can I help you?" 

I said, "Oh, no... I'm just looking." 

He replied, jokingly, "Did you notice all the liquor in your cart?"

Now I'll add here that during the 1990's customer assistance was not yet a thing in most liquor stores.  So this guy's offer felt odd and suspicious. He goes on, "I don't work here, but I have spent 30 years working for the distributor that supplies most of the stores around here. I'd be glad to help you. Are you building a home bar? Or just not sure what you like?"

I pointed to my cart and said, "Have you ever tried any of these?" He smiled.

He grabbed the front of my cart and said, "Come with me." 

He proceeded to put every bottle in my cart back on the shelf. When he was done he asked, "How much do you want to spend?" 

I said, "Well... if it tastes great then I'll buy it." 

He goes and puts my empty cart away, comes back, walks-over to the bourbon aisle and puts a bottle of Blanton's in my hand. Then has me follow him to another aisle, opens a Plexiglas case, hands me a bottle of Paradis and says, "That should do it."  He was beaming.  He added with 100% conviction, "These are delicious. The Paradis is expensive, but you will never again find it for less." 

I said, sheepishly, "Okay."

Walking out of the store, having just spent more on one bottle of booze than I'd ever spent on a home appliance or a lawnmower, I thought, "Well, either I am the stupidest person on Earth, or this is going to be great."  When I got home and tried them I was floored by the quality.  Just stunned.  I could taste the Paradis ten minutes after swallowing it. I was hooked. And there were no bloggers, forums, or horrible people at tasting events to illuminate the idiocy of my purchases.

Since then whisk(e)y's just exploded. I've tried and bought all kinds of interesting and delicious stuff.  But to-date Paradis and Blanton's are my sentimental favorites. I've just never told anyone, nor told them why. And that's just wrong.

So there you have it! The lesson? Don't be afraid to let your freak flag fly! Or, in this case, your penchant for booze that doesn't exude cookie-cutter cool. It reminds me of my first week in film class when I used to tell others that my favorite movie was "Ski School." At first they scoffed. Then they laughed and said, "Oh I get it! You're being ironic."

"No, I'm not," I answered.

What's funny is that the anonymous author above also dropped a link to this week's Salon piece about David Foster Wallace and irony -- an article I really enjoyed. The quote he emphasized was:

He could see a new wave of artistic rebels who "might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels… who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles… Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue." Yet Wallace was tentative and self-conscious in describing these rebels of sincerity. He suspected they would be called out as "backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic." He didn’t know if their mission would succeed, but he knew real rebels risked disapproval.

I genuinely think "Ski School" is a great movie, just like my anonymous friend and I sincerely enjoy a glass of Hennessy every now and then. There's no reason to be "tentative" about these things. People these days understand and can see who the real poseurs are.

-David Driscoll


The Choppers Return!!

The Ardbeg choppers return to K&L next Wednesday, which means I get to break out one of my all time favorite photos from the archive (hint: the one above).

It won't just be choppers at the Redwood City store next week, however. It will be a full-out Ardbeg tasting with INSANE Ardbeg pricing for in-store customers only. I can't post the prices online because it will likely cause an inter-state incident, but you might want to come by the store and hang out next Wednesday if you feel like picking up a bottle of Ardbeg (and tasting some Ardbeg while you're at it).

And don't forget to pose for a photo with the new choppers! You might get lucky and capture a gem like I did with my pal Lester.

Hey Big L -- call me Ducket!

-David Driscoll