Aspirational Delight

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 because big brand Cognacs are not what most K&L shoppers are looking for (and we have so many interesting grower/producer options), but nevertheless I always have a bottle of Hennessy at home. To me, Hennessy is no different than Campari or Ricard -- and no less indispensable. It's a spirit of distinct flavor and cultural heritage that simply transcends the detailed manner in which we talk about booze these days. Hennessy is not a small artisanal producer making small batches of rustic brandy. It's a 250 year old Cognac house that is as much an icon of the booze industry as Chanel is to the fashion world.

You don't drink Hennessy as a pedagogical exercise, or to gain an understanding of grape-based distillation. You drink it because it's easy and it tastes good. You drink Hennessy simply because it's fun, glamorous, and because you like to drink. Certain brands still have a role in my home bar, even with all of the new boutique options that we carry now. Despite all of the crafty, high-quality, bitter liqueur substitutes that have hit the market over the past few years, I still reach for Campari when I want an Americano; just like I still reach for that bottle of Hennessy VSOP Privilege when I want something tasty over rocks.

Because I myself like to drink and enjoy glamorous surroundings, I headed up to Hakkasan in San Francisco last night for a special Hennessy dinner with Maurice Hennessy himself. I wasn't there to learn about the brand, or to take copious amounts of notes for a detailed blog post. I was there simply as a fan of their spirits; I was there only to enjoy myself.

The ladies were dressed up and the fellas had their finest suits on. The low-lighting set an intimate mood for the small crowd that had gathered to meet Maurice.

Delicious cocktails were mixed up and the tables were beautifully set. I love big brand events because of the attention to detail. If you go to a Hennessy party you can be damn sure that you're going to enjoy yourself, which is ultimately what drinking is about. The dinners always feel as if they're very special -- and by extension, I feel special as well. One of the most important facets of building a brand is associating your product with enjoyment. There are few companies that understand this concept more than LVMH. Not only do they have good taste and impeccable style, but they're also staffed with the nicest and most dedicated employees. It's no secret that we're big fans of the way these guys do business here at K&L.

If you've ever been to one of our Ardbeg or Glenmorangie events, then you know exactly what I mean. You can't help but love their products by the end of the evening.

I am not someone who disassociates the liquid in the bottle from the bottle itself. I hate ugly booze labels and, no matter what anyone else tells you, most people feel the same way. There's a reason whisky consumers get upset when there's a tear on the label or if the box has a dent in it (and I don't think anyone is as well-versed in that subject as I am). Booze is just as aesthetic as it is gustatory -- our eyes help us recognize the beauty in the bottle long before we ever taste it. The visuals of any event are just as important.

When you drop a significant amount of money on a bottle of liquor, you want it to taste good obviously, but you also want it to look nice. It's for that indisputable reason that booze and fashion have always gone hand-in-hand. Hennessy has always done a great job with their packaging and their presentation, which is why so many artists and musicians are drawn to the brand: they appreciate those same aesthetics.

Glassware is also part of the sensual experience. A fine spirit should be served in fine crystal, should it not? I know it's fun for the more-grounded drinkers to poo-poo the high-browed antics of the top-shelf brands, but sometimes it's enjoyable to simply give in to the occasion and allow yourself to get carried away in the moment. Dressing up and drinking Hennessy Imperial out of fancy glasses is fun; I'm not going to lie.

But amidst all the glitzy-glam and hobnobbery going on in that room last night, one man shone like a beacon of humility and class: Maurice Hennessy. Considering the guy is practically Cognac royalty, overseeing one of the most luxurious brands in the entire industry, one might expect a bit of stuffiness or superficial pleasantry. I was surprised, however (and incredibly pleased), when I found him to be quite the opposite.

The first thing I asked Maurice when I met him was whether he originally wanted to be in the Cognac business, or if he was forced into it out of familial duty. 

"I didn't want to do this at the beginning," he said with a smirk on his face. "I wanted to raise cows."

For a man who spends many an evening with famous rappers, as well as foreign dignitaries, he's incredibly down-to-earth. "I still want to raise cows," he added after I laughed at his initial statement.

He's also quite cynical, in a very Kurt Vonnegut kind of way. He asked me to sit next to him at dinner so that we could further chat, but also to protect him from the onslaught of photographs and bottle-signing requests that he was being peppered with.

"You're asking me this, despite the fact that I did nothing but take photographs of you from the moment I walked in?" I asked him.

"Yes, but you did it in a very discreet and respectable way," he answered with a twinkle in his eye. "You were far away from me, so I couldn't tell you much I didn't like it."

What most impressed me about Maurice, however, was the way he handled people. He never gets flustered, frustrated, or fatigued. Connecting with all types of different consumers is what he most enjoys about his position. He's quick to joke about the somewhat ridiculous nature of wealth and new-money desire, but he's just as quick to defend those with an aspiration for the finer things in life.

"Everyone begins by pouring Coke into their alcohol," he told me after I made a joke about certain drinking tendencies. "But eventually they learn to appreciate it, just as you and I did."

Later in the night, after the woman seated next to me ordered an XO on the rocks, he leaned in and whispered, "You know why I love this crowd? Because they don't sit here at dinner and ask me about all the little details. They sit back and enjoy it. No one's worried about following the proper protocol. They drink their Cognac the way they want to."

Maurice's calm and collected demeanor coupled with the wisdom he's acquired after more than forty years in the booze business was an absolute pleasure to experience. We talked about boise, about small producers versus large producers, and about the growth of the global market; never once did his answers disappoint. He's completely at peace with many of the conflicts that plague my angst-ridden mind when it comes to the industry, saying to me: "David, why would you let that bother you? There's nothing you can do about it, so move on and do the best you can do."

Maurice understands the distillation side of the business as well. He owns his own vineyards independently of LVMH and he actually distills his own eau-de-vie (which he then sells to Hennessy, or course). The guy understands and appreciates the entire picture. We were surrounded that evening by a crowd of Hennessy admirers aspiring to luxury, but I left the dinner with an aspirational desire to be more like Maurice.

-David Driscoll


The New Regime

When I posted a link to Steve Hyden's article about the Pixies last week, I meant it as a conversation starter to discuss the emotions we all feel when a beloved b(r)and moves on to greater success. In the whisky world, no example looms greater than Bruichladdich distillery -- the indie darling that cashed in to mainstream success after a decade-long run without corporate sponsorship. I've thought a lot about this story over the last year and I've come to this conclusion: we need to get over ourselves. David, Kyle, and I visited Bruichladdich distillery a few weeks back on our trip to Islay and everything was just as friendly as it had always been. The people are great, the vibe is upbeat, and the attitude is still fresh and exciting. I still email with Simon Coughlin regularly, and now I get to work with some of my friends at Remy on a brand they're incredibly excited about. Nothing about Bruichladdich has really changed so far, other than my mindset.

Back in the early 90s, an independent band signing with a major record label was instantly considered a sellout -- another corporate-sponsored artist that chose money over credibility. We lamented the success of these artists because it meant the end of our seemingly intimate relationship with their music; an expression we thought was more legitimate because they weren't getting paid big money to do it. In reality, we used our association with independent musicians to say something about ourselves and what we were about -- it was really more about us than it was about the music. When Bruichladdich sold out to Remy Cointreau, it seemed the ability to stand for "fiercely independent" whisky was taken away from the brand's loyal consumers. Yet, this wasn't really the case.

While Bruichladdich is no longer an independently-owned company, being "independent" as a consumer doesn't mean you automatically side with small brands over big brands, or artisanal over mass-produced. It means you think for yourself and you decide if the whisky is good based on what it tastes like. It means you wait and see how the dust settles before forming an opinion. It means you keep an open mind before coming to a conclusion. It definitely means that you don't fall prey to the co-option of "small batch, hand-crafted" and the other marketing bullshit that has run completely amok, thereby becoming just as much of a label whore as anyone paying top dollar for a big name.

I finally got to taste through Bruichladdich's new (and stable) line-up of whiskies yesterday and give them the due consideration they deserve. And, as an independent retailer and independently-minded individual, I found them to be quite good. Especially this one:

Bruichladdich Islay Barley Single Malt Whisky $59.99 - This six year old whisky uses barley from nearby Rockside Farm (the same source Kilchoman uses for their 100% Islay whiskies) to make an expressive, pure, and dynamic single malt of supreme character. Much like Bruichladdich showcased with their fantastic Bere Barley release a while back, the barley really can make a huge difference when you don't mask the inherent flavor of the whisky with sherry maturation or heavy peat. The aromas of the whisky are full of sweet grains, heady vanilla, and hints of caramel mixed with faint butterscotch. The palate is lean and peppery, but not lacking in weight or richness. Yet, this isn't a supple whisky. It's piercingly pure and straightforward in a way that inspires more sampling and contemplation. It's exciting, yet familiar. In essence, it's everything you want regionally-specific whisky to be -- both interesting and tasty.

I've really come to my limit with the tension between small booze versus big booze. "Craft" is a dead and dated term -- it rarely means what it implies and it handcuffs a producer to a penchant for size over quality. I don't care about size anymore. I'm much more interested in working with good people and good booze. The people at Bruichladdich have always been our friends and the new regime hasn't changed that at all. And the whisky still tastes damn good.

-David Driscoll


New Elijah Craig Casks

David OG has been very busy tasting through the 50+ barrel samples Heaven Hill sent us, so he hasn't had much time to blog lately. Thankfully, he found some real winners before the boys in Bardstown decided to shut down their single barrel program. With the new demand for cask strength Elijah Craig, their depletion rate of mature casks is rapidly increasing. That means no more single barrels for retailers like us, but hopefully more EC barrel strength for consumers like you. Enjoy these while they last!

Check out David OG's notes below:

Elijah Craig 12 year old Single Barrel K&L Exclusive #8446 - $26.99 -  This is the smallest barrel in the batch turning out only 10 cases. This was ultra concentrated and powerful at full strength, but at this proof the typical mellow maple quality of EC12 is superseded by powerful exotic wood, caramel corn and Asian spices. Heady and complex, yet it goes down extremely easily. The woodiness on the nose does not become astringent on the palate and in fact it retains a wonderful freshness all the way through the finish. Oak is not the driver on the palate at all. There's a surprising lack of pepper or heat instead softness abounds. At the front, we get candied fruits (maybe plum or even apricots), this goes totally rancio on the end, full on sandalwood, fresh coffee beans, and a long pleasing culmination that stays very balanced all the way through.

Elijah Craig 12 year old Single Barrel K&L Exclusive #8434 - $26.99 - This cask turned out a reasonable 15 cases. It’s a wonderful contrast to cask #8446 and showing quite a different profile. Here we have all that vanilla that you’d expect, but it’s not artificial at all. It feels as though you’d just grated fresh Tahitian vanilla bean into a bowl of Seville orange peels. This gives way to a lovely savory oak spice, which has a definite underbrush note. We’re walking in the forest now. The savory forest notes almost gives a sense of salinity, which translates well on the palate. Salt water taffy and more oak spice. This has that pepper we missed in #8446. It’s quite a bit drier as well, but the oak does not become harsh or bitter, it’s rather warming and inviting.  

Elijah Craig 12 year old Single Barrel K&L Exclusive #2387 -$26.99 - This cask contained twice as much whiskey as #8446 (20 cases) and as expected it couldn't be more different. This is definitely going to be very familiar to some readers, but it's totally outside the flavor range of the other casks. Here we've got incredible freshness with aromas of spiced apple, subtle nuttiness, red apple skin, dried herbs, and a hint of maple syrup. Texturally, this is surprisingly rich considering it was the largest cask, which logically means it's less concentrated, but apparently not. On the palate it's definitely the most feisty of the three casks in this lot, showing strong oak spice, which dry the maple syrup quality on the front palate nicely. This has the longest finish of the three and moves into the fresh tobacco flavors with a building spice (cinnamon, clove, etc.) character. Crazy contrast between the relatively restrained nose and the powerful attack in the mouth.

Elijah Craig 12 year old K&L Exclusive Single Barrel #111 - $25.99 - Well there it is. Four wonderfully different little barrels. The last four casks of ECSB should be trickling out of Bardstown in the next few months, but these won’t last that long so don’t think too hard about this. We just picked out new Four Roses plus working on getting more of all that hard to get Orphan Barrel. Other things in the works, but that’s all for now. Have a great week everyone!

-David Driscoll


Rogue Visitations

If David and I know we're going to buy a cask of whisky from a particular distillery, and we're in the vicinity of where that distillery operates, we like to drop by and see if we can visit the site. We're always looking to increase our knowledge of single malt producers and we like to have photographs to show interested customers. However, since many of the distilleries in question are owned by Diageo, one must be quite careful about showing up unannounced. Sneaking up on a Johnnie Walker satellite can be like creeping up on a sleeping tiger -- if you startle them you might anger the beast. Dailuaine distillery, a picturesque stone complex set along the river Spey, is one such example.

We fell in love with a 1997 hogshead of Dailuaine while tasting through the casks at Signatory, so we knew we wanted to drop by the distillery after visiting Glenfarclas. However, because we're never sure about how we'll be received, the plan usually consists of David OG entering the main office, while I hang back and wait for his signal.

"Kakah.....ka-kah!" I yelled from the bushes, doing my best crow impression. Girard shook his head. We were not getting into to Dailuaine. I instantly made a break towards the hill, up the path behind the distillery and into the woods where I could secretly record my reconnaissance. Dailuaine also operates a "black grain" facility next to the distillery buildings, which is essentially a bio plant that converts the spent lees and water from distillation into clean water, while at the same time producing energy for the distillery itself.

After taking the necessary documentation and securing the microfilm into the compartment located in the heel of my boot, I made my way through the trees towards the main road where I found our car waiting for me.

Just down the street from Dailuaine, on the other side of the Benrinnes hill from Glenfarclas, is the eponymously-named distillery known for its light, fruity, and generally drinkable character. We knew we were likely in for a barrel of 1997 Benrinnes from Signatory as well, so we might as well knock that visitation out too.

Approaching the distillery site, we followed the same plan: I hopped out of the car, went by foot around the back of the compound, and waited in the wings for David and Kyle to give me the signal.

Kurani's charm and Girard's wit apparently worked with Paulie, the girl who worked in the main offce, because we were welcomed with open arms at Benrinnes.

"Sure, I'll take you around the distillery," she said. "You guys are so much nicer than most of the people who come through here." What have I always said? It pays to be nice and treat people with kindness and respect!

There are two wash stills and four spirits stills currently operating at Benrinnes, but this is a recent modifcation. Up until a few years ago they were running three and three with a partial triple distillation (a la Mortlach, from what I understand). Now each wash still feeds into two spirits stills.

Fermentation lasts about sixty-five hours in Oregon pine washbacks, which contributes to the fruitiness of the eventual spirit. Due to the recent demands of the global economy, the distillery now operates seven days a week, pumping out 3.5 million liters of booze per year. Overall, it's an efficient and admirable operation.

The best part for those of you who want to understand the basic character of these Diageo distilleries is that we'll have examples to offer you later this year: both from the same vintage, aged in the same type of cask, for the same amount of time in the same warehouse. And both should be about the same price! What a fun comparison.

-David Driscoll


The Beginning of the End

I usually mention "Mad Men" to a customer at least once a day while working on the sales floor.

"You guys don't have any older Bourbons, do you?" someone will inevitably ask after walking up and down the aisle a few times.

"Not since Bourbon took off, unfortunately," I'll eventually answer.

"Why is that? Why did American whiskey suddenly become so popular?" is the fated response.

" pretty much began with Mad Men."

And then we're off.

There were many factors that influenced the explosion of the American whiskey category, but in my personal opinion, no factor was as influencial as Don Draper. It's no coincidence that the beginning of the trend coincided with the beginning of the show. Drinking is one of the many ways we pretend as humans and in 2007 -- the year I left teaching and started working at K&L -- millions of people around the country began pretending they were a part of Sterling Price, pouring themselves a glass of rye while tuning into AMC on Sunday evenings. By 2008, American whiskey was on a roll and we were running extremely low on Rittenhouse, Wild Turkey, and Sazerac. By 2009 -- the year I took over as spirits buyer -- we were completely out of Kentucky rye, which facilitated the transition to the LDI brands like Redemption, Bulleit, and Templeton. The category had exploded beyond any possible expectation as if Don had been writing the ads himself..

Mad Men didn't just inspire millions of people to drink historically, it inspired them to think historically. With the onslaught of 1960s fashion being displayed on the screen, American culture began to search for the authentic remnants of its past. It almost became a contest: who could out-retro the next person? You've pulled out classic recipes from the pre-Prohibition era? Big deal! I've gone back to the 19th century, found the description for an original Barbary Coast cocktail, and I'm sporting the twirly moustache associated with bartenders from that era. Beat that! Once again, alcohol became the framework in which we could pretend; it was a way to escape the mundane drivel of the day-to-day grind and imagine we were someone glamorous from another place and another time. Whiskey became the springboard for that mindset and an era of new Romanticism began.

Much like Americans were pretending to be hard-drinking figures from the past, ordering Manhattan cocktails at bars pretending to be Speakeasies, the characters on Mad Men were also pretending. Dick Whitman was pretending to be Don Draper. He was pretending to love his wife. He was pretending to be a hard-working family man, content with a house in the suburbs and all of the amenities of life he had acquired thus far. Who better to write copy, create desire, and convince other Americans that they should buy into his version of that dream? It takes a pretender to understand a pretender, and Don knew exactly how to pitch a product to the American idea of itself. Unfortunately, that dream wasn't based on reality and -- like most peoples' Facebook accounts -- the perception wasn't representative of the truth. Don was weak, needy, and starving for affirmation. He wasn't the dynamo he appeared to be and, over six incredible seasons, we began to learn more about his inner demons.

As the seventh and final season of Mad Men begins tomorrow, I have to ask myself: where is this all going to end? Not just the show, its plotline, and the future of its characters, but also the drinking culture the show has inspired. Mad Men has never been building towards any final payoff or foregone conclusion. It's not alluding towards an inevitable showdown between Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, nor a confrontation with the Yellow King. Mad Men has never been a televised page-turner, nor has it ever caused me to leap from my chair in anticipation of next week's show. Like the effects of a glass of whiskey itself, Mad Men is a slow burn -- a realization that gradually sinks in and envelopes you over the course of a few hours. It might cause you to laugh out loud, or it may make you feel terrible -- revealing aspects of your personality that you were hoping to ignore and forget.

Mad Men's course has no clear cut path; there has never been a linear storyline, so it's difficult to predict its final conclusion. I just have to wonder if the end of the show will predicate an end to the whiskey and cocktail culture established in its wake. Like the lives of Don, Roger, and Peggy themselves and the themes that have surrounded them, the whiskey industry's revival has also turned into a convoluted mess of lies, persuasion, and capitalistic desire fueled by marketing, merging, and masquerading. The parallels I've witnessed on both fronts over the past six years are striking in their similarity.

But what is ultimately going to happen when the show's over? Will Draper fall and will the whiskey industry collapse behind him? Or will we be stuck without a resolution, left on our own to decide what we think will eventually occur? My guess is the latter. Ultimately, we're the ones who have to decide when the pretending ends.

-David Driscoll