Reader Reactions: First to the Party

I get a lot of emails from readers, so every now and again I like to post one here (with their permission). Mark wrote me this message in response to last night's piece about buying in early:

I just read your "First to the Party" post, and I couldn't resist chiming in again, with the perspective of a fairly new whiskey drinker.

I only started REALLY getting in to it earlier this year (I'll spare you that story though). As I did, I started reading more and more blog/review sites, and came across all the stellar reviews for BTAC/Van Winkle etc, which, as you could probably imagine, made me start looking around for it, and realizing fairly quickly that finding some of it would be somewhat akin to finding a real, live unicorn, and being disappointed I was late to the party. There is a part of me that would very much like to just not care about all those hyped products, and it has me testing the Armagnac waters a little bit (who knows how long before that takes off though). I went and got a bottle of 25 yo Delord for $70, and while the intrinsic quality of it is quite good, perhaps just short of the BTAC if tasted blind side by side...the excitement factor just isn't there. The buildup to getting, and the excitement when I got my Stagg, ER 17, and Pappy 15 (I had quite a streak of luck) was light years beyond getting anything more easily obtainable. I had the same feeling when I got the BTAC/Pappy that I did when I was a kid on Christmas morning, which is something that hasn't happened in a long time.

I think my point is the excitement level when the hunt pays off by itself almost makes it worthwhile. I'm not sure it will be the same again though, now that I've had a chance to try that stuff. On balance, though, my preference would very much be to have the currently hard to find whiskies more regularly available. There are whiskies more readily available whose intrinsic quality is right there with some of the BTAC/Pappy - but, to go back to your car analogy in the article, it's like if Hyundai made something just as fast and handled just as well as a Porsche - it's still not a fucking Porsche.

Also, I'm much more a victim of marketing than I previously thought.

Mark pretty much nails the modern whiskey crisis on the head here: the hunt is so important to the reward. There are so many of us who feel that same giddiness--that "Christmas morning" feeling we get when we finally track down a special bottle. The same sense of awe often applies to elite brands, which is exactly why they've spent millions of dollars for decades: to create that image of elite status. Only a Tiffany diamond will show her how much you love her. Only Dom Perignon will be enough to celebrate the diamond. And they're right!! Because of the engrained emotional response in all of us there are simply some products that will always hold a special place in our hearts--regardless of if we're able to see through their marketing. As Mark also states, the glowlingly-positive reviews from magazines, spirits bloggers, and professional reviewers only heighten those desires. I'm totally susceptible to it, as are many other whisky drinkers out there. But I love it when people can just admit it, rather than try and disguise it (and not very well, at that) as contempt or disinterest.

-David Driscoll


First to the Party

Even though I'm pretty much priced out at this point, I'm still always keeping my eyes open when it comes to property on the San Francisco peninsula where I live. I would love to eventually own a house, not because it's a life-long dream, but simply because I'd like to start investing in something that's mine alone. I'd like to start having an experience that I won't have to move away from when the landlord decides the rent needs to be raised. Being at the mercy of someone else eventually gets old. However, finding an affordable house in the Bay Area today is like finding an affordable bottle of Pappy Van Winkle -- you need to know someone who has access.

I know people who are teachers, yet live in Atherton or Palo Alto. They're not rich, but they live in incredibly wealthy neighborhoods. How so? Because they bought in early--before the prices went through the roof. They were the first ones to the party and it never even occurred to them that they were getting a deal. American whiskey was the same way for many years. As were first-growth Bordeaux wines. I know plenty of working-class guys who have cellars full of thousand dollar bottles. That's not because they have thousands of dollars to spend, but rather because they bought in when these bottles were $50 instead of $1500. Like with Bordeaux, there are plenty of Bourbon drinkers out there with cabinets full of Pappy, Stagg, and Weller Larue who got in while the gettin' was good. Today's budding Bourbon enthusiasts have no chance at that type of score unless they're willing to pay up.

You can get a nice house in San Mateo right now. There's a two bedroom, one bathroom down the street from me for $725,000 that's in a great school district. But that's a huge increase over what the original buyer paid. Much like the $500 price points online for Pappy Van Winkle 20 are nearly five times what they should be. The market is responding to a simple lack of supply with a ferocious demand. I talk to my co-workers at K&L who are also renting and we say to each other, "How will we ever be able to afford a house on the peninsula?" much like young whiskey drinkers long for a chance to buy some affordable Port Ellen or Brora. We're all simply victims of timing--we didn't come of age when the moment of opportunity was upon us. While many anonymous message boarders ripped us a few years back for our $600 bottle of K&L exclusive Port Ellen, I think they'll likely whimper at what awaits them now. Gordon & MacPhail's new 1979 vintage Port Ellen will retail for around $1400. I haven't seen pricing for the latest Diageo release, but I think it will probably be the same.

While we all like to talk tough about how stupid these rising prices are, we all secretly yearn for the ability to enjoy these new-found luxuries. I like to bitch about the rising price of real estate, but I still want to buy a house. I don't need to buy a house. It isn't a God-given right of mine. But I know it's something I eventually would like to do, much like buying a bottle of Pappy 20 is something that many budding whiskey drinkers aspire to. No matter how much we like to blast the bullshit going on around us, it really comes from our own envious ambitions--anyone who says they're done with hard-to-find whiskey would still jump on the opportunity to buy Stagg, Weller, Sazerac 18, or Pappy if given the chance. It's simply our own frustration coming to light.

That being said, wouldn't the easiest solution just be to find an alternative? Rather than looking to find the diamond in the rough, shouldn't we all just stop obsessing over diamonds? That's easier said than done. Brand recognition and loyalty run deeper in us than we like to believe. No one aspires to a Hyundai, or an Acura despite the fact that both companies make fantastic cars that are affordable for what you get. A Porsche on the other hand is something special. Something unobtainable that seems forbidden almost. Or how about being a movie star? We all like to shit on the stuck-up, superficial Hollywood lifestyle, but very few of us would turn down the chance to star in our own cinema blockbuster. Aspiration is part of what turns a simple brand into a pop culture icon--it's what separates Kate Spade from Chanel, or a Timex from a Tag.

If you can separate yourself from it all, however, and get in on the ground floor somewhere you can completely change the trajectory of your life. I can't afford to drink Lafite or Latour the way many older K&L employees were able to twenty years ago. Younger whiskey drinkers can't afford to drink Pappy and Parker's and Port Ellen the way I was able to for the past half-decade. I can't afford a house the way Bay Area residents could twenty years ago, but I can afford a place in Oakland or Morgan Hill -- I just don't want to live there. I want to live in San Mateo. We can't always get what we want, however, so we can either sit around and bitch about it, or we can move on and find the next great thing. Are we going to overpay for Haut-Brion, or are we going to realize that there are plenty of other great French cabernets we can afford? Are we going to pine for Pappy our whole lives, or are we going to realize that there are many fantastic Bourbons available year-round?

It's up to us to break the cycle. We all don't have the luxury of being first to the party. Many of us have to make do with the modern age. We all couldn't see the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. We all couldn't see the Ramones at CBGB. But that doesn't mean we missed out on the best that life has to offer. It just means we're too busy worrying about the past. There's a bright future out there for those of us willing to look towards it. That's where the entrepreneurs make their mark.

-David Driscoll


Best Spirit of 2013?

I'm very wary of picking "best of" bottles anymore on the spirits blog simply because of the responsibility that comes with stating something determinate like that. I don't want to ever use the blog as a marketing resource for other companies when the review doesn't come from a real, honest emotional response. More importantly, I don't want people reading the blog to ever feel that I'm reviewing something positively, or calling a spirit the "best of the year" purely to increase our sales or the sales of the brand. The K&L Spirits Journal is obviously a marketing resource for our company, but I try to never abuse that. Our credibility is everything and the moment we start making stylish or politically-motivated selections that credibility is shot.

Last year we chose the 1979 Glenfarclas as our official K&L "whisky of the year." That prompted people to send us emails about how we shouldn't be selecting our own house exclusives as "the best." It seemed too obvious, too geared towards tooting our own horn, and I can't really argue with that. But it truly was the staff's favorite whisky of the year. If that were to happen this year--the staff getting behind a K&L selection unanimously--we simply wouldn't name a "K&L whisky of the year." I'm pretty sure that's going to happen in 2013, hence why there probably won't be an official selection, so I've been trying to focus only on non-K&L exclusive spirits when naming possible bests on the blog this year (because that's all they ever are: "possibly" the best bottle I've had this year--nothing is ever clearly the case).

What the blog is supposed to do is share information and passion about spirits we feel passionately about. Right now I can safely say that no non-K&L exclusive spirit has captured the staff's enthusiasm like the Darroze 20 year old Assemblage Armagnac. Their importer just got another shipment back into California and I made sure to take everything that was available. Not only is the Darroze 20 delicious and world-class in every way, it's one of the biggest crowd-pleasers I've tasted this year. The staff loves it, my friends love it, our customers who have tasted it love it -- everyone agrees: it's terrific. Even when considering our K&L exclusive Armagnacs and Cognacs, I would still choose the Darroze 20 year in a heartbeat as my favorite. It's the perfect combination of caramel richness, spicy barrel notes, and round, creamy fruit. The finish is a lingering blast of cinnamon and toasted oak. Every flavor is in complete harmony and the brandy itself is exhibit A in my quest to prove how a marriage of various spirits can often exceed the potential of single barrel or single estate products.

Beyond its merit as a fine Armagnac, I'm exceedingly pushy about the Darroze 20 because it's such a good substitute for those looking for mature Bourbon replacements to Pappy 20 or Jefferson 18, etc. I'm not trying to say that Armagnac tastes like Bourbon, but there are plenty of similarities -- the sweet baking spices, the accents from new charred oak, and the ultimate richness of the spirit. The fruity caramel is the major difference, but I feel passionately about the crossover potential for spirits like the Darroze 20 during the absence of mature American whiskey. Not all Armagnac falls into this category, but there are plenty of producers using new charred oak for their spirits (our 1996 Pellehaut would be another fine example of a sure-fire Bourbon substitute --we're sold out right now, but have more on the way).

Part of my own enjoyment of fine spirits is watching others enjoy what I've been able to provide them with. Actually, most of my enjoyment derives from this. I get excited about spirits that I think other people will get excited about. I simply cannot imagine anyone not loving the Darroze 20. For $99.99 it's as good as any spirit we have in the store and as good as any spirit I've tasted this year. To me, the "best" means the most readily enjoyable, and, seeing that I managed to get more of it, I feel comfortable writing about it because it's also readily available. There are more great spirits coming, more great casks and K&L selections arriving before the year is over, but nothing I haven't already tasted. And there are other spirits I've really, really enjoyed (Glenmorangie Ealanta, Parker's Heritage "Promise of Hope" come to mind as other favorites). I'm pretty sure this is possibly my favorite bottle of 2013, however -- and that's as sure of a "best of" bottle as I can think of.

-David Driscoll


More Conversation

I am a terrible, horrible, implacable eavesdropper when at a bar or restaurant. At times it can drive my wife absolutely crazy. She'll want to tell me something, but I'm totally focused on the conversation next to me--unable to break away from the gossip occurring nearby--and I'm always trying to get her to listen in too. Most of the time it's booze-related, as in someone is talking about wine or spirits. Sometimes it might be a fight or a disagreement and I want to hear what people are fussing about. Often, however, it's simply my interest in other humans that draws me in--my desire to study how people interact with one another. This past weekend my wife and I drove down to San Luis Obisbo for a little R&R and we stopped downtown to have lunch. Even she couldn't help but get sucked into the politics of the table next to us. I don't think the two of us said a word to one another the entire time. There was the most wretched girl absolutely blabbering about anything she could think of and we couldn't help but stare at the wreckage.

If there were ever a shining example of self-centered egoism in this world, it's me. However, I've worked very hard over the last decade to drop many of my bad habits. Today I'm much more thoughtful and considerate of others (not that I was ever a jerk, just uninterested), especially when having a conversation. Call it maturity if you want, but it wasn't always easy for me to allow others to talk. Because of that tendency, and my current embarrassment about past behavior, I'm incredibly sensitive to others who still engage in that practice. They say that people often can't stand those who are just like them. I definitely have little tolerance for folks who want to dominate the conversation, mainly because of my own shame. Working in customer service this attitude definitely will not fly, which is why I sent this article out to all of my colleagues this week -- a blog on the San Francisco Chronicle website about conversational skills.

Author Kim Thompson lays out five basic guidelines when having a conversation with others, as a reminder to practice etiquette during the intense pace of the holiday season:

Be genuine with what you convey to the other person. A good conversation is not a debate to win a point it’s more about an exchange involving all of your senses such as non-verbal language, eye contact and sending cues that you are interested in the other person.

Share the conversation, aim for a 50-50 balance combination of talking and listening.

Be focused when talking and listening. Rarely can a person convey their interest in you when looking around the room to check out who is present.

Questions fuel good conversations use open-ended ones to help the other person talk.  Make comments and add feedback, your input is just as important.

Use the “WAIT” technique an acronym for “Why Am I Talking?” This is a good reminder to help you internally  monitor your actions when communicating with another person. If you can’t come up with a good reason as to why you are talking, it might be a sign that you are dominating the conversation.

While I know that these bold points may seem like common knowledge to many of you, I can assure you (as if you haven't had a run in with people like this) that there are plenty of folks out there who have no concept of these skills. One of the worst, most despicable, and embarrassing examples of bad conversational skills was on display at the table next to us in San Luis Obisbo this past Sunday. It was so bad that at one point I spit out my food laughing and I had to act like my wife made a joke because it was obvious I might have been listening in. Two parents, their son and daughter, and their two finaces were having lunch at the Creekside Diner and five of those six people were being dominated by one person. The son's fiance was talking over people, dismissing their stories in place of her own better story, bragging about travel, sharing her basic and rather trite epiphanies as if they were incredible realizations, and whenever others would talk she would check her phone or whisper in the son's ear. It was so ridiculous I thought at one point it had to be staged.

I don't know if it's a generational thing, or just a result of a more ego-centric world, but it seems to me like this pattern of behavior is getting worse. Maybe it's just an unlucky string of incidents on my end, but I'm experiencing it more wherever I go. I might also just be super-sensitive to it. Whatever the case, I can assure you that people notice when you don't allow others a chance to speak or share their own experiences. Working at K&L on the sales floor we have people come in everyday who are as excited to tell me about a whisky they've tried as they are to shop for more whisky. Listening to those experiences genuinely and politely is a big part of what we do (and I enjoy doing it). Every now and again, however, some of us need a reminder of proper conversation skills (me included -- don't think I fail to see the irony of writing a piece about good conversation skills while eavesdropping and ignoring my own). Especially during this time of year when the stress and strain of the holidays pushes people to vent.

We all need someone to listen to us. We just need to be prepared to listen to them in return.

-David Driscoll


"I'm Looking to Get Into Bourbon..."

I've probably written twenty different posts like this in the past, but I've been at work for about four hours so far today and I've already received this question ten times: "I'm looking to get into Bourbon, so what's a good place to start?" It's that time of the year--whiskey season--so we might as well settle in.

There's really no one great place to start when it comes to any spirit, in my own opinion, so I always advise people to try and understand the products of each distillery. Despite the fact that we're sporting more than sixty Bourbons on the shelf, they're mostly coming from just a handful of places -- the others are independently bottled.

So where to start? Why not start with Four Roses? We have the...

-Four Roses Yellow Label -- a marriage of all ten Four Roses formulae, soft and mellow

-Four Roses Small Batch -- a marriage of three Four Roses formulae with more spice and richness

-Four Roses Single Barrel -- one single barrel (and one recipe) of Four Roses at a higher proof (50%)

Once you've mastered those three and diciphered the differences why not move on to Wild Turkey? Wild Turkey only makes one Bourbon recipe (a high-rye formula) so the various flavors come from the location of the barrel, the marriage, the age, etc. You can choose from:

-Wild Turkey 101 -- the classic $20 bottle

-Wild Turkey Rare Breed -- A small batch with loads of richness and baking spices. Love it.

-Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit -- A single barrel version.

-Russell's Reserve 10 Year -- A more mature, yet mellow marriage of flavor.

-Russell's Reserve Single Barrel -- A blast of cloves and cinnamon at 55%

-Wild Turkey Unforgiven -- A marriage of rye whiskey and Bourbon whiskey by accident.

That's already a hefty load of homework, but if you're the studious type you might want to keep pushing. Check out the huge Buffalo Trace portfolio:

-Buffalo Trace -- The standard recipe.

-Eagle Rare 10 -- The same standard recipe but from a 10 year old single barrel.

-Elmer T. Lee -- The high-rye recipe from a single barrel.

-Blanton's -- Also the high-rye from a single barrel, yet richer than Elmer

-Weller Reserve -- The wheated recipe at 90 proof (about 6 years old)

-Weller Antique 107 -- The wheated recipe at a higher proof

-Weller 12 year -- The wheated recipe at about twice the age.

There are a ton of other limited and harder-to-find Buffalo Trace items, but focus on these for now. Once you're done with Buffalo Trace, why not head over to Bardstown and Heaven Hill's facility? If you tried to taste every Heaven Hill product you'd be here for months. There are so many labels that don't make it to California floating around that facility, but let's stick to these for now:

-Elijah Craig 12 -- The standard recipe.

-Evan Williams Single Barrel -- The same high-rye recipe from a single barrel.

-Old Fitzgerald 12 Year -- The wheated recipe, similar to the Weller 12 from Buffalo Trace.

-Larceny -- A younger wheated recipe, comparable to Maker's Mark.

There's obviously all the Jim Beam stuff, Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, and Maker's Mark, along with Tennessee producer George Dickel. We can cover those later. If you want to get "into" Bourbon I would print out this list and start checking them off one-by-one. If you can taste the differences between these four distilleries then I think you'll be in pretty good shape.

-David Driscoll