Blended Whisky: We're Almost There

There are always trends in the booze industry, products that fall out of fashion then come roaring back in a newer, hipper, updated form. Rye whiskey was considered an old man's drink ten years ago. Now it's simply cool to be an old man and do things that old men did a century ago -- like play Bocce Ball, sport a twirly moustache, and dress like a banker from the 1920s. One of my favorite phenomena is the repackaging of beverages once considered cheap into a fancy, more upscale version. Canned beer used to be the preferred medium for brands like Bud Light and Coors. Now many of the smaller craft brewers are using the can as their container of choice, i.e. Oskar Blues, Maui Brewing, etc. Boxed wine used to be just for Franzia and Gallo, but now we're seeing high-quality vintners use the collapsible bag-in-a-box for everyday drinkers. Our custom-made Blason Italian White Box is one of the most asked about products we carry. We're always running out.

When people discover the difference between "good booze" and "bad booze" they tend to simplify a few rules down into general practice, often falsely stereotyping or pigeonholing products into neat little boxes within which they may not fit. To use the above examples, many people consider bottled beer as an upgrade to canned beer, which it can be, but isn't always. What are other examples? Organic is always better than non-organic. Small production distillation creates tastier products than mass distillation. Pot stills over column stills. I could go on and on. While most of those strongly-held beliefs are easily countered, one of the myths that has managed to remain strong with whisky drinkers is the idea that blended whisky is cheap. They're cutting down your precious single malt with some sloppy grain distillate and cheating you out of your money. Blended whisky can be cheap, just like any stereotype can be true from time to time, but you can't go around generalizing like that. Each case must be evaluated on its own merit.

Would you rather drink Glenkinchie than Johnnie Walker Gold? Not I. Would you rather drink Glenlivet 12 than Bank Note Blended? Not I. Would you rather drink Yamazaki 12 over the Hibiki 12? Once again, I would take the blend over the malt in that instance. Education is very important in the beverage world. Only by reinforcing the message that there are always exceptions to the rule can we begin to change the way people feel about certain products. By continuing to seek out casks like the 1979 Faultline, or the 1991 Cambus, we're changing the way our customers feel about grain whisky and opening them up to new possibilities. It also expands the selection for people who might once have limited themselves to a few specific choices.

That being said, it's still tough for some whisky geeks to get into blended whisky simply because the educational aspect of it is being taken away. Most blends do not tell you the cepage, but whisky geeks are dying to know which whiskies are being used to create the flavor. What are we paying for? This is changing however. Cadenhead's new sherry-aged blend is very clear about which distilleries were included in the recipe. David Stirk is also transparent with his new 21 year Exclusive Malt blend. John Glaser, of course, has always been open about revealing his sources, and the Morrisons have had no problem telling us that the Bank Note is largely Bowmore and Cameronbridge. More importantly, all of the above whiskies are delicious. They offer value, quality, and honesty. We're slowly seeing all the pitfalls of blended whisky being removed, as a new generation of producers updates the genre for the new generation of drinkers.

If single malt prices keep going up, while blended prices remain stagnant, we might see more rejuvenance as well. The price of a quality 18 year old single malt is slowly moving towards the $150 average, while blended whiskies of 20 years or more still hover at the $100 mark. We're keenly aware of this here at the K&L spirits department. There are some secrets we haven't yet revealed concerning next year's long-delayed shipment. We think blended whisky is the way forward and possibly the antidote to ever-increasing prices. The craft whiskey industry is not helping to curb demand and ease the shortage on big-brand whiskey. If anything, it's making it worse as it provides justification for brands to charge more. With careful blending, however, you can create something great from something inexpensive.

How will the public respond? If there's one thing I've learned working here at K&L, it's that people like spirits that taste good and are reasonably priced. They're willing to trust us at least once, no matter how deep their resistance to an idea. There's a strong resistance to blended whisky, but I think we're close to breaking it down. We're almost there. We just need a few more winners.

-David Driscoll


I Give This Whisky 666 Points

One of my favorite new releases from this ever-growing, ever-expanding holiday whisky season is this satanic little number from one of Scotland's most conservative distilleries. Bowmore seems to always be the Islay distillery with the most boring limited edition whiskies. Ardbeg is always hyping up some Supernova explosion, Diageo usually delivers with Lagavulin and Caol Ila exclusives, and Laphroaig has been one of the steadiest suppliers with their wonderful Cairdeas series. Bowmore, perhaps tied with Springbank and Kilchoman for David D's personal favorite distillery, never seems to bring anything fun to the limited edition party. Until now....

The new "Devil's Casks" series is to Bowmore what the A'Bunadh is to Aberlour: big, young, bold, first-fill sherry casks at full proof, non chill-filtered. I popped a bottle yesterday to see what was going on. There's a lot going. A lot.

There's no heat in the "Devil's Cask" 10 year old like there is in the A'Bunadh. It doesn't bowl you over with power. What is there, however, is a thick, meaty, dark, fudgy, chewy mouthful of Bowmore goodness. The smoke and oil don't come in until the backend of this thing. Only after you swallow do you get the phenolic explosion of peat, smoke, and that sooty Bowmore magic. It almost goes minty after that.

In any case, I can't promise you that the Bowmore is for you, like I know it is for me. I'm a big fan of heavily-sherried Bowmore whisky, so others who feel the same will probably dig this tremendously. People looking for Lagavulin DE will probably fair better with that whisky for about the same price. That's the sugar-coated Islay whisky. This is old school one.

Bowmore Devil's Casks Islay Single Malt Whisky $99.99

-David Driscoll


Whisky Label of the Year

While I've decided to get out of the "Whisky of the Year" judging business (because, believe me, it is a business no matter how "independent" the critic), I have no problem with quirky designations like this one. This should be a unanimous decision among all whisky drinkers: what bottle has a better label than this year's Compass Box Peat Monster 10th Anniversary? Not only is the bottle amazing (the label was designed by a Texan artist for John Glaser), the whisky inside of it is pretty stellar as well. Made from a large percentage of older Laphroaig and Ardmore casks, with a bit of Clynelish and Spice Tree married in for good measure, this was a big hit with the K&L staff. Our Spanish buyer Joe Manekin still comes in every Monday morning talking about how he hit the Peat Monster bottle again over the weekend.

This was one of my personal favorites this year as well. What a cool job John Glaser has. And boy is he good at it. I like that he takes the time to make a beautiful bottle as well because anyone who thinks aesthetics don't matter with whisky should come work the sales floor with me for a day.

We just got another batch of this in stock at a bit of a better price than last time if you're interested.

Compass Box The Peat Monster Tenth Anniversary Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $99.99

-David Driscoll


It's Back, But Not For Long

I'm not even going to say anything. I'm just going to post Greg St. Clair's review because he says it all. Greg is our Italian wine buyer, known for having one of the best palates in the business. He does not drink spirits. He certainly doesn't drink tequila. Yet, this is what he had to say about our new Fuenteseca, as posted in his staff review on the product page:

This is something new, something that you may not be ready for, I wasn't. I've tasted a lot of high end Tequila and I've always liked Jimmy Buffet and Sammy Hagar as singers or Justin Timberlake as an actor, but I've never been enchanted with the smell of new oak unless it is in a piece of furniture and I've heard people use the word smooth so many times that I think they must have been raised on Jello or have no teeth. Tequila for me has always lacked that one extra…je ne sais quoi… that great Cognac, Armagnac and Single Malt whisky seem to have in their back pockets, but after tasting this Tequila it is obvious what they’ve been missing.... age. This unbelievably delicious spirit has taken Tequila to a new level, this is creating a new category of spirits that hasn’t existed before…..and it is worth the price.

We had enough to make an extra 240 bottles. They're here now (or in route to one of our retail outlets)

They won't be here after this time next week.

Fuenteseca K&L Exclusive Extra Anejo Tequila $189.99

-David Driscoll


Adventures on El Camino: The Van's

My birthday was on Monday, a day both my wife and I have off together, so we decided to go somewhere special for lunch––a place that we had both been dying to try, but never seemed to find the time to actually visit. After such a great experience at Joe's of Westlake a few weeks back, and then the shock of learning it was about to close next month, the two of us went scrambling to see if we could find a similar hangout with that same old-school style. We loved the nostalgia, and the historic Peninsula feel of Joe's, but we knew that magic wouldn't be with us much longer. Where else could we go to capture that steakhouse atmosphere, a place where old timers would be lining the bar at all hours, drinking Bloody Maries and vodka martinis? We thought we might know of such a place, but we needed to check it out. The Van's on the Hill in Belmont was the spot.

There's a storied history to the building set back off El Camino, high upon the perch. It was an old speakeasy during prohibition, a place for gamblers and back-door dealers. Built in 1915 as part of the Japanese Exhibition in San Francisco to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal, it's one of the few buildings left standing from that exposition (along with the Palace of Fine Arts and the Japanese Tea Garden). Operating through the 1930s as an illicit den for no-good, the saloon was finally turned into an Italian restaurant in 1945. It became known as Van's in 1973, and it's been packed with Peninsula loyalists ever since. We went for lunch at 11:30 on a Monday thinking we would be the only people there. Ha! The bar was full of old men right at opening, already getting their drink on.

The menu at The Van's is quite spectacular, as is the view. You can see the city off in the distance, the San Mateo bridge, and much of the Peninsula from the panoramic windows. You can get Oysters Rockefeller, a wedge salad with a hard boiled egg, and any kind of steak dish you can imagine. I started with a big, spicy Bloody Mary, a plate of fried peppers and a bowl of minestrone, before heading face-first into the official Van's Scallop Burger and a side of slaw. Yum. There's something classic going on up on the hill in Belmont. A feeling that some things won't change, at least not within those walls. You can go there, to the Van's, and rest assured that everything will be as it once was. After ten minutes of sitting in an empty dining room, the place filled up and it was a lively affair. Not an empty chair in the place –– on a Monday at 11:45.

While things might never change at Van's, I was shocked to learn that Mike Tyson had been replaced by Mr. Dream after getting home to play my new Nintendo Wii U (a gift from my wife). After Tyson's troubles in the late 80s, Nintendo cut ties with the boxer and replaced him with a white, 1950's era, Rock Hudson look-a-like who I don't care for whatsoever. There was a time when I was the best Mike Tyson's Punch Out player alive. I could go through the entire game without getting hit. Then I could go through the entire game without getting hit AND beat every boxer in the first round (except Tyson). When they changed over to Mr. Dream, however, they changed some of Tyson's patterns and it has completely thrown me off. He behaves like Tyson, but then he switches a few things and I get knocked out fast. I was so pissed.

I will beat you, however, Mr. Dream and then things will go back to the way they used to be. 007-373-5963 is the code. I will enter it, go directly to you every time, and then I will knock you out without getting hit. I will celebrate this victory with a Bloody Mary at the Van's on the Hill.

-David Driscoll