Following the Rules

When I was in junior high Guess jeans were all the rage. They were expensive and my parents weren't all that keen on buying a twelve year old designer clothes to impress his friends. Nevertheless, all the cool kids at school had them and I wanted them - BADLY. That little triangle on the rear right-side pocket continued to call my name. Then one day while perusing the Macy's sale rack, I noticed a plethora of Guess jeans and shirts for fifty percent off. I almost fainted. I grabbed a handful of various pants and shirts, ran to tell my mom, and got final permission after making sure they fit. I was so pumped. I couldn't wait to go to school the next day in my new, head-to-toe Guess outfit.

There's a reason I still remember this day clearly. It was humiliating. I remember the looks on every person's face as we gathered in the courtyard before class - the snickering, the wide eyes, the scornful expressions. Just because I had on super trendy designer Guess clothing, didn't mean I looked good. There was a reason those clothes were half price. Instead of the acid-washed denim, I was sporting a tan colored fade. Instead of the blue and white striped T-shirt, I had a button-up green and orange pattern. I'm pretty sure I was the laughing stock of Somerset Middle School for the rest of the day. In my mind, I had just followed the rules for being cool. The cool kids wear Guess clothes, so by my logic, wearing Guess clothes would instantly make me cool too.  I was so caught up in the math, it never crossed my mind that looking good and being yourself were part of the equation. 

Label whoring is no less prominent today than it was in 1992. Plenty of women still fawn over the LV that's written all over their leather purse, but as Countess LuAnn will tell you, "Even Louis Vuitton makes mistakes." Buying designer clothes because they're expensive is like buying designer wine or whisky because it's expensive - just because it cost a lot of money, doesn't mean it's good. Good taste, on the other hand, never goes out of style. If you're looking for respect, you won't find it by following the rules. The only way to develop good taste when it comes to booze is to taste as many things as possible, not just the highly-rated ones. You can't know what's good unless you know what isn't good and you can't develop an opinion by simply following everyone else's. There are no rules to booze, despite what people say. Much like the junior high courtyard, there is no easy checklist for acceptance.

Following rules, however, is much easier than developing an understanding. Why do I need to learn more about wine? White with fish, red with steak. What more do you need to know?  Aside from fashion, no other interest bombards people with strict rules for proper enjoyment than alcohol.  You can't put ice in your Van Winkle, John!  For God's sake, NOOOOOOO! Much like my childhood obsession with Guess jeans, the people with the least amount of understanding are usually the most obsessive about following the rules and, worst of all, enforcing them. Back then, I was the first person to point out who did and didn't wear Guess because I was the most insecure. By citing off what you should and shouldn't do when consuming your liquor, people make themselves feel confident by telling you what you did wrong.

The booze world is a large and ever-expanding one. There are so many varietals of grapes to learn, vintages to understand, and whiskies to comprehend, that it makes complete sense to look for guidance. However, if you find yourself following rules, rather than your own interests, then stop and think about why you're doing it. You're not suppose to drink white with fish, it just happens to taste good. You're not suppose to like anything. There are plenty of great whiskies that people love and I just don't get - and vice versa.

I love fancy booze, but I sometimes hate fancy booze events. Why? Because that's where rules get enforced. It's a grown-up version of the junior high playground, but instead of Guess jeans it's trophy bottles and wine pedantry.

Label hunting and rules are about pedantry. Drinking is about pleasure.

-David Driscoll


Second Half Predictions: Market Trends for Bourbon

A vendor told me the other day he thinks I have an eye for the next hot thing.  I don't think that's true, but I do pay attention to my environment.  I never look at numbers.  I don't monitor most sales.  I have no idea how much whiskey we've sold this month.  I watch people.  I read blogs.  I talk to customers.  You can learn a lot about this business by listening to people (I think it was Thunderheart where Graham Greene tells Val Kilmer to "listen to the wind").  One thing I'm noticing right now is a downturn in limited edition enthusiasm.  Last year at this time the harder something was to get, the more people wanted it.  Now people are exhibiting more restraint.  We've sold a good amount of Ardbeg Galileo over the past few days, but not at the speed which we preciously sold the Rollercoaster and Alligator.  I still get a few emails here and there about the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, but it used to be five a day.  Last year, if you could find it at the store, it wasn't worth drinking. Now, people tend to be a bit less affected. 

I think we're witnessing a maturation of the Bourbon consumer as well as the Bourbon market.  With everyone racing around to collect every last bottle of Stitzel-Weller they could find, some people never got around to trying the fairly basic brand expressions.  One of my best customers just re-discovered Weller 12 Year Old recently.  He said he prefers drinking it over some of his more expensive or rare selections.  All that quality for $25.  Who would've thought?  Now that it's practically impossible to find some of the older, legendary bottles of American whiskey, people are starting to try the things they knew they could always drink, but never did.  It's like last week when I finally got around, 25 years later, to finishing the second half of Risky Business (my credibility as an 80's film geek is now completely shot).  Because I knew I could watch it whenever I wanted, I kept procrastinating!

So what does that mean for Bourbon right now?  With customers finding time for the standard, everyday bottles, they're going to gravitate toward consistency.  As I wrote in another article a few days back, people are getting sick of playing the can-you-find-it game.  They've been searching high and low for a bottle they can't get, or they've been taken by the romanticism of a new craft whiskey, only to realize they liked it half as much as their standard brand, yet paid twice as much.  The old and rare are unobtainable, the young and new too brash, so customers are returning to the basics.  The classics.  A black T-shirt and a pair of jeans - a style that never gets old.  The market is leading consumers back to Bourbon that's not sold out when they need it and continues to deliver quality time after time.  It's leading them to that Bourbon they've been meaning to try, but never did.  It's leading people to Four Roses.

Why now?  Four Roses has always been good.  The Yellow is a solid rocks choice.  The Small Batch, a fine sipper.  The Single Barrel, always intense.  The single casks we've selected for the store have consistently been the hottest deals around.  Over the three years I've spent as spirits buyer at K&L, I've never heard customers mourn the loss of a bottle like they have for our first Four Roses selection.  Yet, I've watched people pick over the Limited Edition selections repeatedly, looking for an older, more trendy Bourbon instead.  Four Roses has been playing young Winnie Cooper for the last few years, but now she's all grown up and she's smoking hot.  She's no longer the little girl next door you thought of as a friend.  The problem now is that other people are taking notice and you may have some competition.  That bottle of 2012 Limited Edition single barrel is gone from the shelf (thank you, John Hansell).  In fact, I've sold twenty-six bottles of the regular single barrel over the past few days because I don't think people knew the difference.

With Four Roses finally blooming for the market to see, I'm predicting one small craft distiller will emerge victorious from the rest of the pack, mainly because they're not releasing their own craft-distilled product.  High West continues to impress the hell out of me, releasing two new whiskies over the past two months that are totally unique, yet consistent with their house style and flavor.  The Campfire and the American Prairie Reserve are both fantastic whiskies with a special graininess that I'm beginning to associate with their Wild West image.  Their packaging is terrific and they've really carved out their own niche in the market.  The new whiskies actually taste like what I imagine cowboys drank at a campfire out on the prairie!  David Perkins is slowly becoming the John Glaser of the American whiskey industry, yet he's also distilling, bunkering his whiskey away until it's actually ready to drink.  Like I've written before, there's a small backlash brewing against young, expensive craft whiskies, so having the patience and ability to wait is paramount to success right now.  It's getting to the point where I'm as excited about a new High West product as I am any major American distillery release.  That's a serious thing to say.

What Four Roses and High West have in common (besides the fact that Jim Rutledge taught David Perkins how to distill) is their drinkablilty.  Their mainstay selections are not over-proofed and the flavors are complex yet inclusive.  The whiskies don't punch you in the mouth, nor do they stand out as the loudest in the room.  They're high-quality, polished products that deliver every time you drink them and are always on the shelf at a reasonable price.  It's this direction that I think the market is gravitating.  Affordable, delicious Bourbon that's available.  It sounds crazy, I know.  What a ridiculous business plan.  However, in the booze business, where nothing is ever obvious, image plays a big role.  Buffalo Trace has been the "cool" distillery in the class for three years running, but I think they're about to get some competition.

Only time will tell.  Let's see what happens.

-David Driscoll


Last Call to Join the Gang

Tomorrow is the last day for all you domestic producers to enter this year's Good Food Awards competition.  So far we've received ninety entries from all over the country, much more than we were planning on!  I know there are still a few people on the fence, so check out the above photo for an idea of who else has already signed on.  Competition is going to be stiff this year, which is why winning would be an even bigger accomplishment!  If you are a distiller and you source your base materials responsibly from eco-friendly farms, then we need to hear from you!  Enter this year's Good Food Awards by visiting the website and filling out the form.  We don't need the samples yet, just a commitment to the cause!

I'm counting on tasting some good booze come October.  Hopefully your product is among the final entrants.

-David Driscoll


Customer Feedback

One thing I love about Wednesday evenings in the Redwood City store is the amount of loyal K&L customers that we get roaming the spirits aisle during tasting hour.  I love shooting the shit with all the hardcore whisk(e)y fans and talking booze with people who love drinking booze.  Today, I was discussing the Smooth Ambler/Pappy 15 comparison with Nick Kiest, a K&L customer with an affinity for rye - particularly his bottle of Sazerac 18. He picked up a bottle of the Very Old Scout today and, to him, the high rye content of the Bourbon reminded him of the Sazerac. The richness of the mature casks, married with the peppery rye flavor, didn't at all remind him of Pappy Van Winkle, but rather another legend of the Buffalo Trace Distillery.  Nick's also a big fan of Four Roses and he thought the Smooth Ambler was more similar to their high-rye recipe than anything wheated.

I found that fascinating.  I never would have compared the two, but it's been a while since I've tasted the Sazerac 18.  That's why I love Wednesday nights.  I love talking booze with people and hearing from customers with their own personal experience and perspective.  Come join us one of these Wednesday nights and talk shop with us.

-David Driscoll


Winner By Default?

I've been so careful about not comparing the new Smooth Ambler Very Old Scout 14 Year Bourbon to the Pappy 15 that I think I've been doing it a disservice.  True, it's the only older Bourbon we have in stock at the moment, but it's not simply a winner by default.  The Bourbon is fantastic.  In all honesty, if I had to compare it to something, I'd compare it Pappy 15 because it's the same age, the same price, and it has a similar low 50's proof.  They're simply two Bourbons cut from the same cloth.  Obviously, there are some differences.  The Pappy 15 uses wheat for its flavor grain, the Smooth Ambler uses rye.  The Pappy 15 is pretty much 15 years old exactly, while the Smooth Ambler has older Bourbons blended into it.  That being said, I feel like someone who likes Pappy 15 would like the Smooth Ambler.  I'm not saying they'd like it better, but they might be interested in trying something new, much like someone who likes Laphroaig might want to try Ardbeg. 

Despite their obvious similarities, I just couldn't bring myself to say that yesterday.  Once you throw the Pappy 15 comparison out there it looks like cheap pandering.  "Hey, that guy at K&L said he has a Bourbon that tastes like Pappy." I could just see the sea of emails pouring in, accusing me of trading on the Pappy popularity, my credibility funneling out the door faster than Walter White draining methylamine from a freight train.  So what to do?  Was I so far off in my comparison?  There was only one way to find out.  I needed to put my best Bourbon boys in the bar for a blind tasting, have them write down their notes, and then talk about what they thought.  Again, I wasn't so much interested in which one they liked better, but more if the styles were even comparable.  Would they group them together as similar Bourbons, or were they totally different?

Bourbon A was the Smooth Ambler and Bourbon B was the Pappy 15.  Jim Boyce and Kyle Kurani, two of our best spirits guys at Redwood City went in first.

Kyle: Bourbon A has more cocoa, more wood, and the flavors are more focused.  Bourbon B has a big honeyed nose with spicy brown sugar.  Hot.

Jim: Bourbon A is much more focused and the flavors more balanced.  Bourbon B has big maple notes, honey, brown sugar.

Both guys were able to identify the Pappy as Bourbon B, but thought Bourbon A showed favorably by its side.  Kyle and Jim both said they'd rather drink the Smooth Ambler personally, mainly because the Pappy came across as hotter.  It does have an extra 3.5% of alcohol, but they thought the Smooth Ambler was more in balance.

Next were our Bourbon-drinking customer service guys, Shaun Green and Joel Nicholas. 

Shaun: Bourbon A has a sweet nose with caramel and grain.  It's quite smooth with nice butterscotch on the finish.  Bourbon B is less supple on the nose, hot and course on the palate, with a bit of dirt on the back.

Joel: Bourbon A starts off rich then dies on the mid-palate.  Alcohol comes through. Bourbon B is big, rich, and much more drinkable.

This was an interesting dichotomy.  Shaun thought the Smooth Ambler was terrific (so much so that he bought a bottle right after) and did not like the Pappy at all.  Joel felt the exact opposite.  He did not like the Smooth Ambler, but did like the Pappy.  "That's good," I thought because if I write an article about a taste test and everyone likes the Smooth Ambler better, no one's going to believe me!  Someone had to like the Pappy better for this to have any credibility.

I was ready to call it a day when Todd Smith from Pacific Edge walked in the door with some samples for me to taste.  I gave him a glass and said, "Go taste Bourbon A and Bourbon B."  I didn't say anything else.  Todd's been a bartender in San Francisco for years and knows his whiskey well.  He walked back out of the tasting bar and said, "Well Bourbon B is obviously Pappy, but where the hell did you get Bourbon A?" 

"Why, do you like it?" I asked.

"It's delicious!" Todd replied.  We talked booze for a few minutes and then I sent him home with a bottle of Smooth Ambler under his arm.  Todd loved the Pappy and thought it was the better Bourbon, but still liked the Smooth Ambler enough to buy one.  Again, I was ready to call it a day when another familiar face came through the door (one who will remain anonymous because I didn't ask him if I could post his opinion).  He was actually coming to talk to me about Bourbon, so I sent him into the bar for another round of tasting.  Being an experienced taster, he came back and said, "Bourbon B tastes like Pappy.  You can tell because it's just so big and intense."

"How do you think Bourbon A compares with it?" I asked.

"Quite well," he said. "They're both in the same school of Bourbon with similar levels of richness and age.  I'd choose the Pappy over it, but I'm still going to buy one of these!"  This man also left the store with a bottle under his arm.  So now, after debating whether I wanted to say it or not, I feel more comfortable with the comparison.  Some people loved it, some people liked it, and one person didn't like it, but not one person found the Pappy comparison out of place.

Because of that, I feel I can say that the Smooth Ambler Very Old Scout is a Bourbon that you should check out if you like Pappy 15.  If I had to compare it to something, that's what I would compare it to.

There, I said it.

-David Driscoll