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


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