New Lost Spirits Polynesian Rum

It's here! I know a number of you were waiting patiently, so I thought I'd get it on to the blog and into our stock as fast as I could!

Lost Spirits Distillery Polynesian Style Rum $39.99 - Bryan Davis presents us with a second rum from his Lost Spirits distillery -- a Polynesian-inspired rum that brings the funk and rummy goodness without the sweetness or the richness we experienced in his navy strength. Once again, Bryan states that their are no additives involved with the making of the rum, just natural cask color and pure spirit. The palate is much more fiery and, at 66%, the earthiness of the molasses takes center stage. It reminds me of the Mount Gilboa pot still rum, albeit a drier version of it. The possibilities for mixing are endless. I can imagine Mai Tais, Daiquris, punches, just about anything with rum in it! It's a fantastic contrast to the Navy Style expression and another notch in Bryan's ever-expanding belt.

-David Driscoll


Detailed Kavalan Preview

With my stuffy nose finally drained, and a much better environment for detailed tasting available to me (our tasting bar), Kyle, Angie (our own Taiwanese-born K&Ler), and I met up with Ian Chang and Wan-Lun Wu from Kavalan in the Redwood City store for some serious sampling. We had Ian all to ourselves for more than a half-hour of questions, discussion, and dealing. Let me start by saying this -- we all left the appointment very impressed. The whiskies from Kavalan are of a very high quality, especially for whiskies between the four and seven year maturity range. What we're facing, however, is another Kilchoman situation -- one that presents consumers with low age statements combined with high price tags, forcing them to decide for themselves if the whisky is worth the extra cash.

Thankfully, much like with Kilchoman, the whiskies are fantastic, so that helps make the decision a bit easier. They're so good that, even though they're quite pricey, you can't help but want to throw down your money right then and there after tasting (don't worry, we'll get them into the tasting bar for a public event so that you can decide for yourself). But I'll tell you this right off -- I am ALL IN on the Kavalan whiskies. I'm throwing all my chips into the stack and betting on them to win big. Let me take you through a detailed account of each whisky to tell you why.

Kavalan Classic Single Malt Whisky (expected retail circa $90) The first release from Kavalan back in 2008 was their classic expression that uses ex-sherry, ex-Bourbon, and ex-wine casks of between four and four and a half years of age for the marriage. The American release will be bumped up from 40% to 46% ABV as well. The first thing that strikes you as you taste it is how un-youthful it is. It might as well be a 12 year from the Highlands, but with an incredible supple-fruited character. It tastes like well-made, mature, Scottish single malt with extra concentration. It's new and exciting, yet familiar and easy-to-place.

At the moment, Kavalan is producing about 1.5 million liters of spirit a year and they've got about 65K barrels laying down in their warehouses. However, they plan on expanding to 4.5 million liters within the next two years to keep up with global demand. I think there's going to be big demand, too. 

Kavalan Concertmaster Port Cask Finish (expected retail circa $95) The Concertmaster is aged in ex-Bourbon casks for the first three years of its maturation, before being transfered to Ruby Port pipes for an additional year of finishing. The integration is flawless and perfectly balanced -- there's enough malty texture from the Bourbon maturation with just enough red-fruited sweetness to round out the edges. It never tastes gimmicky or overdone. It's somewhere in between the Glenmorangie Quinta Rubin and the Balvenie 21 year. The Concertmaster is less decadent than the Balvenie, but has more chocolate and cocoa flavors than the GlenMo. Lovely.

Kavalan imports their barley from England, Scotland, and Sweden, but the water is all from Taiwan. They also have their own cooperage on sight with six employees who have all travelled to Scotland, Kentucky, and Spain to learn the techniques of each particular region.

King Car Conductor (expected retail price circa $110) Much like Suntory owns Yamazaki and Hakushu, Kavalan is owned by the King Car Group, which wanted a namesake whisky that would represent the company's involvment with the distillery. The formula is similar to the classic expression, but uses about twice the amount of sherry. The result is a whisky that reminds me quite a bit of something in-between the Yamazaki 18 and the Glendronach 12. It's chewy, but not sweet. There's barrel spice, but also richness. It's going to be a big hit.

Kavalan Ex-Bourbon Cask Strength (expected retail circa $160) The American TTB has rejected the word "Solist" for the Kavalan expressions (no one knows exactly why), so the U.S. bottles will not feature the name. The whiskies, however, will remain the same. Kavalan uses ex-Bourbon casks from Beam, Buffalo Trace, and Heaven Hill to mature their full proof Bourbon expression. The flavors are much lighter with tropical hints of coconut and mango. The high proof keeps those flavors from dominating, however. Great stuff.

Kavalan Fino Sherry Cask Strength (expected retail circa $360) I know what you're thinking: "$360 for seven year old whisky??!!" It's expensive, there's no doubt. But there's also no doubt that this is the best whisky in the Kavalan portfolio -- hands down, no bones about it. It's not like it's the most expensive because of the proof or the age. It's actually the most expensive because it's the best -- and also because getting fino sherry butts isn't an easy task these days. The palate is incredibily round and supple, even at 57.8% alcohol. The richness turns into sweet honey, decadent caramel, and soft butterscotch. It's a total delight. It's like nectar of the gods. Incredbile.

Kavalan Vinho Barrique Cask Strength (expected retail circa $160) Kavalan uses a process, not unlike Lagavulin for their Vinho Barrique expression, called STR: shave, toast, and re-char. In the case of Kavalan, they take old wine casks from Portugal and reseason them to create a dark, heavily-oaked, intense flavor of whisky. It couldn't be further from all the quarter-cask, super-oaked craft stuff we see here in the U.S. This is like a more concentrated version of Macallan Fine Oak that has way more intensity. It's actually quite spectacular, especially with the extra proof to balance the spice.

Kavalan Oloroso Sherry Cask Strength (expected retail circa $180) If you're a fan of the heavily-sherried Karuizawa whiskies, then this whisky is going to light your fire. It's a total sherry bomb, dark and dense, and loaded with big, heavy Oloroso flavor. It's totally concentrated as well, despite only seven years in the butt. That's that Taiwanese heat, I guess. I don't know how else to explain it. It's not youthful or hot or out of whack. It's the real deal -- lots of cakey baking spices, dark fudge, and rich decadent sherry action. All of Kavalan's casks are filled at 59%, so despite losing 10% to the angel's share each year, the whisky still maintains its proof quite well -- neither increasing nor decreasing, really.

So there you have it! I'm sure much of the enthusiasm has drained from your initial curiosity now that you see what these bottles are going to sell for, but we'll make sure to organize a few public events so that you can form your own conclusions about whether or not to purchase. I can tell you this with complete honesty -- I will be buying a few of these for myself.

We're still a few weeks away from delivery, but we'll be back before then for an interview with Ian Chang and some more photos of the production process.

-David Driscoll


Uncouth Vermouth is Here!

I had read about these in the New York Times last year, but it wasn't until today that I was able to finally try the Uncouth Vermouths for myself. Made in Brooklyn by Bianca Miraglia and dedicated to both transparency and sustainability, the wines are made with ingredients either personally foraged by Bianca herself, or purchased from a nearby farm. You can read more about her mission statement here and further explore the Uncouth Vermouth site here to see photos and learn more about their production.

Having just tasted through the lineup of five, I was quite impressed. These are very much aromatized wines and not liqueurs, much like a more heavily-flavored Lillet. In no way are they sweet or over-the-top, rather focusing on subtle intensity and purity of flavor. I thought the eucalyptus-beet and lavender-chile expressions were the stand-outs, but they're all pretty great. We're not getting any more beyond what we were able to purchase, so these are quite limited to what we have on hand.

David OG's notes are below:

Uncouth Apple Mint Vermouth 500ml $39.99 - The vermouth renaissance is upon us. As excitement builds for aromatized and aperitif wines, there's no question that Uncouth's founder Bianca Miraglia will be heralded as a pioneer if not a visionary. These spectacular products are the result of an unwavering commitment to transparency, sustainability, and creating the best possible vermouth. All ingredients are foraged or sourced farm-direct, while the wines are sourced from top quality vineyards in Long Island and the Finger Lakes. There is never any coloring, sugar, or any other additives in any Uncouth products making them perhaps the only producer of vermouth who can make such a claim. The apple mint vermouth is somewhat of a misnomer because it actually contains no apple. Instead, it uses a variety of mint that has a distinct apple character. Absolutely refreshing and delicious.

Uncouth Beet Eucalyptus Vermouth 500ml $39.99 - Here the eucalyptus takes a back seat to the sweet earthiness of the beets. The color is a vibrant pink and the flavors are perfect for pairing with all types of summer fair or mixing with whiskey!

Uncouth Butternut Squash Vermouth 500ml $39.99 - This is by far the most esoteric flavor profile from the line. The fresh sweet aroma of peeled butternut pops right out of the glass. On the palate and subtle earthiness balances out that strong aromatic element. Seems like this is the perfect accompaniment for your ham or turkey!

Uncouth Pear Ginger Vermouth 500ml $39.99 - This is perhaps the easiest of the bunch to wrap your head around. Straight forward, but incredibly delicious - the creative combo of fresh pear and spicy ginger works wonders. While this is perfectly wonderful on it's own, I'm desperate to experiment with this in my cocktails. There's lots of potential to mix with rum, agave & definitely gin.

Uncouth Serrano Chile Lavender Vermouth 500ml $39.99 - The Serrano Chile Lavender is a wild concoction, using a base wine of sweet racy riesling from the Finger Lakes, the lavender is very subtle, which is good because I was worried it would go soapy. It doesn't! It's the perfect balance of sweetness, acid, heat, and bitter. For some weird reason this kind of reminds me of amontillado sherry or madeira, but then the chile comes in and smacks you around a bit. A triumph.

-David Driscoll


Kavalan Dinner

As I mentioned in my previous post, I spent yesterday evening at Hakassan in San Francisco as part of a small group invited by Anchor to celebrate their impending importation of Kavalan Taiwanese whisky. We've all heard the hype surrounding these spirits and last September at Whiskyfest many of us Bay Area locals finally got the chance to meet Ian Chang and taste them for ourselves. I remember being very impressed by the selection at that time, but I was even more excited to finally sit down to a meal and give these babies a real test run.

To give you a bit of background, all spirits production in Taiwan was government-controlled until 2002 when the country joined the WTO, thus ending the state's monopoly on booze. Entrepreneurs wasted no time getting to work, as the King Car Group began laying down plans for the construction of Kavalan distillery -- named after the county in which it would be located. By 2005 they were ready to begin building and a mere nine months later they were ready to begin distillation. The first new make ran off the still on March 11th, 2006 and since that day Kavalan has been running 24/7, 365 days a year to prepare for what will surely be a high global demand for their single malt whisky.

I really like Ian Chang, Kavalan's master blender. He's soft-spoken, humble, and very easy going, no matter what type of scenario he's presented with. I remember fighting the urge to punch a fellow Whiskyfester in the face last year when he rudely interrupted my conversation with Ian and demanded his "super pour" during the VIP session. While I was getting ready to dish out a right hook, Ian calmly took the bottle of Solist, smiled, and sent the man on his way. He's always calm and collected and I really respect people who can maintain that demeanor in the face of adversity (I'm not always as professional).

Ian spoke for a few minutes last night before we tasted through the King Car, Solist Oloroso sherry, and Concertmaster expressions. He mentioned that the weather in Taiwan is much warmer and more humid than conditions in Scotland, which leads to faster maturation, and noted that at four years of age (the youngest maturity used in any of the Kavalan expressions) the whisky really begins to come around. I was very impressed by the dark, intensely-sherried, Glenfarclas-like depth of the Oloroso-aged malt, yet pleasantly surprised by the subtle, yet wonderfully-polished King Car. Unlike many young, unpeated single malts, the whiskies were in no way harsh or new-makey. However, to be honest, I was nursing a cold last night, blowing my nose every few minutes, so I wasn't in the best condition for tasting.

But that's no worry because Ian and the gang are coming by the store later today for a special tasting appointment, so I'll have a full description of each whisky and expected price points very soon! Anchor is still about three weeks away from getting everything through customs, but the wait will be worth it. There's some very special whisky coming out of Taiwan and I cannot wait for you all to taste them.

-David Driscoll


Formative Years

I was back at Hakkasan in downtown San Francisco last night for another booze event, this time celebrating the American launch of Kavalan Taiwanese whisky. While I have a lot of interesting information to tell you about those whiskies and my positive experience at the event, I'll get to all of that in a different blog post later today. What was actually most inspiring about the dinner at Hakkasan was the company I sat with, primarily my time spent with Tim Zohn who heads up the bartending at AQ on Mission Street. We were talking about our formative years with drinking and all of a sudden the conversation opened up into a much larger philosophical discussion.

I've been getting a lot of feedback concerning the two Lessons of the Industry as Told Through Popular Film Sequences posts that I've put up over the last week. People have been interpreting them differently and it's been interesting to see the various reactions. I was primarily struck by what readers had to say about yesterday's Ratatouille moment -- one of my favorite scenes in any movie ever. While most readers thought I was reinforcing the idea of taking a step back and simply having fun with one's whisky, that wasn't really my intention at all. I was actually trying to stress the fact that sometimes the most pleasurable things in life are the ones that remind us of being a kid, or the things we enjoyed during our formative years. But there seems to be a keen desire in the wine and spirits world to emulate the pleasurable experiences of others, hoping that through sheer mimicry we can create our own positive associations with the various fads and trends. In my opinion, however, you can't fake what isn't there.

It's entirely possible that, because I spend the majority of my time dealing with wine and booze, I'm disposed to a greater number of these scenarios (which may be why some of you are left wondering at my obsession with them), but let me share one example with you that highlights where I'm coming from. My wife and I were recently at a wine tasting, chatting with the representative from a famous California producer. I can't remember exactly how it happened, but at some point during the conversation my wife and I joked about having started our drinking with Boone's flavored wine and jugs of cheap Gallo. We then asked the girl pouring what her first wines were, to which she answered with a total deadpan:

"I actually started my drinking with the great wines of Bordeaux before challenging myself with Burgundy."

Come on! Why would someone lie like that? Do they think that's impressive; to never have tasted anything from the bottom shelf? She might as well have followed that up with "I never watch TV, I only read books." There are people who lie about their formative years everyday in the Bay Area booze business. They disown their pasts, pretend they were pros from the very beginning, and research extensively what they should or shouldn't say when questioned about the issue. It's like every social encounter is a test and they need to have the right answer prepared in advance.

What I appreciated about Tim Zohn was that, without me ever saying a word about this subject whatsoever, he launched into nostalgic memoir about how he started getting into whiskey with Maker's Mark, and how today that Bourbon still gives him a happy feeling every time he pours a glass. I immediately told him about my obsession with the Ratatouille sequence and how there seems to be a mindset that wants to deny these very authentic impulses. I told the story of my friend from high school who missed out on music during his formative teenage years, so he tried to make up for it by downloading every important album off of Pitchfork's Top 100 list. He listened to music like he was studying for a test, trying to impress upon others his longstanding-love for Sonic Youth and the Pixies, even though that "love" was synthetic and processed. We progressed further into the idea of cramming three seasons of television viewing into a few days -- how it's simply not the same as having to wait a week between episodes and a year between seasons. In the end, we agreed that if you didn't create positive associations, memories, and foundational experiences during your formative years, you might be left scrambling to create them later on in life, which made us both very sad.

And that's what the Ratatouille moment really signifies: that ultimately the best things in life inspire an emotional response from a real place inside of you. You can't make those moments happen, they have to exist there naturally, embedded organically from the culmination of your formative years. To pretend like you carry those associations for the purpose of impressing others is silly; but to deny those very real responses and pretend like they don't exist is heartbreaking.

-David Driscoll