The News for Today

Signatory pre-arrivals are processed and should be ready to pick up by today (Hollywood should get their's tomorrow or Thursday). The Glenlochy, Longmorn, and Benrinnes are all in stock at both NorCal stores as we speak if you want to grab yourself a bottle. The Glenlochy is unreal. It really is as good as advertised. So rich and butterscotchy with candied fruit and such a supple mouthfeel. It's one of the more sublime spirits I've ever had and it compares very closely to the Ladyburn we did last year, except maybe with more power. The Benrinnes is wonderfully fruity and playful. It's the kind of whisky we don't see anymore with super-peated, cask-finished, double-matured malts taking all of the attention. Ditto for the Longmorn. Everyone is going to be pleased. That's right! I've got single barrel Longmorn for $55. Deals R us. Check the right-hand margin for the links if you want to order. Call the store if you need us to ship your pre-order.

I also met with Mr. Bernard Boisson today from A. Edmond Audry Cognac and tasted through his line. His family purchases small estate Cognac and then blends them at their facility. These are serious brandies with spice, nuance, and power. No boise. No caramel. The goods. These should be coming in soon for all you super Yak fans.

Remember! No tastings this week. Gotta hit the restaurant scene all week with customers for private events.

-David Driscoll


No Spirits Tastings This Week

I have to do some offsite tastings this week with a few spirits companies, so we won't be conducting any events tomorrow in Redwood City or San Francisco. The November schedule is going to be sporadic as we have people coming into town on other days besides Wednesday to do special events. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is also the busiest day of the year at K&L sometimes, so we definitely won't have a tasting that day either. Keep an eye on the schedule in the right hand margin of this blog for more info. David Stirk, the man we teamed up with for four of our exclusive casks, will be making an appearance in late November, as will Diageo's Steve Beal, who will be bringing all of you up to speed on the Johnnie Walker collection. Sonja Kassebaum from North Shore will also be in town mid-month. Some of these tastings will be on Tuesday or Thursday instead, so again please read the schedule carefully! We don't want you driving all the way over just to leave as thirsty as you came.

-David Driscoll


Consumer Confidence

Picture it ("Sicily, 1932," as Sofia from the Golden Girls would say): it's the end of the week and you've got an extra $50 to blow from your paycheck, so you head on down to your favorite liquor store (hopefully one of ours) to treat yourself on a Friday night. What to get, what to buy? It's been a while since you've purchased a bottle of whisky, so you've done a little online research on your lunch break. You originally wanted to get a bottle of Bruichladdich 10, but after persuing the blogosphere you've noticed the reviews weren't all that strong. Maybe you don't want it? Now you're unsure. After browsing around for a bit on the insider blogs, you notice that the new Kilchoman Machir Bay has an excellent review from the experts, although you weren't really in the mood for something smoky. But now you're at the store, both bottles are staring you in the face, and you need to decide which one it's going to be. You know you love Bruichladdich. You've enjoyed every one of their expressions in the past. It's what you were planning on getting originally, however your confidence was weakened by a lackluster review from one of the internet's experts. Now that you're in the store, that mid-90 point review of the Kilchoman is flashing in your mind. You cave. Hopefully, the Machir Bay will be as good as everyone said it is, you think as you head back to your car, bag in hand.

You can't wait to get home. Red light again?! Come on! How can the next one turn red right after the last one turns green?! Doesn't anyone understand how the flow of traffic works? You get the parking spot right in front of your place (woo hoo!) and you speed walk up the steps. The key slides easily into the door and you're in, right to the bar to grab yourself a glass. Glop, glop, glop goes the single malt; the golden color of the Machir Bay glistening in the late evening sun. You smell. Hmmm. You sip. Pause. Then it hits you. It's just OK. After all that anticipation this is kind of a bummer. It's not that you don't like it, it's that you know you'll never really finish it. It wasn't really even what you wanted, and you knew that from the beginning, but the opinions of others had you thinking that you might. Now you're wishing you'd bought the Bruichladdich instead, but it's too late because the bottle is open. It's just too smoky – exactly what you didn't want. Oh well. There's always next time.

Sound familiar? While I've never really had the above experience with whisky (only because I have the luxury of tasting everything first), I've had numerous scenarios throughout my life that played out similarly with video games. I was a pretty big gamer from the first Nintendo I got back in 1986 all the way throughout college. I slowed down a bit in my early twenties and then completely got out of it in 2007 when I purchased the Wii and just couldn't justify the expense. Now that I'm married, settled down, working all the time, and finding myself with about two to three hours of much-needed down time during the week, I decided to buy an Xbox 360 yesterday. I probably blow at least four nights a week just drinking cocktails while mindlessly surfing the internet with the TV on in the background. I've been watching the first fifteen minutes of Ski School, Bloodsport, and other favorite flicks, but then I don't really feel like committing, so I end up zoning out, answering emails instead or doing more work as a result. It's not helping to lower my anxiety levels, so I'm hoping that a few hours to destress with the old joystick will solve my issue.

Now - to the problem at hand! Which games do I buy for my new Xbox? I've missed out on so many new classics, it appears! Red Dead Redemption, Fall Out 3, Bioshock, where do I even start? After not having even looked at a game for almost five years, I needed to get a semblance for where the market was at. While on my lunch break at work I began to revisit my old haunts, logging into IGN for some detailed game reviews. Wow, they've really updated that site over the last half-decade! What are the highly-rated games right now? Halo 4!! That doesn't come out until tomorrow, so I'll pick that up before work Tuesday. What about now, however? I just saw the commercial for Assassin's Creed III and that game looks insane! You can fight the English during the Revolutionary War as a colonist or a native American! It also got great reviews. However, even with all that hype, I know myself. I know that I don't have the patience to sit down and figure these games out anymore. I need something I can turn on for twenty minutes and then turn off without too much commitment. There it is! WWE 13! As a huge wrestling fan this is just what I need. I think I gained at least 25 pounds in college eating Jack in the Box while smoking Marlboro reds and playing WWE No Mercy for the Nintendo 64. That's what I really want. Let's check the review. Oh no, it's good but not great. At first I thought that was perfect, but now this review has me second guessing myself. What should I do?

I used to let the reviews for a video game completely dictate my purchasing because I liked the idea of playing what other people thought was good. I didn't want to make a mistake. $50 was a big chunk of change for something I wouldn't end up playing. That being said, I wasn't confident enough back then to admit that I didn't like long, puzzling, drawn-out adventures that required high levels of skill. Nevertheless, I would buy them, play them for two days, then give up out of frustration (yet, tell my friends that they were awesome just to fit in). I have become even less patient as I've gotten older and now I really don't have the attention span to play these intensely realistic adventures.

However, even after my five years of experience at K&L, where I watch some customers follow ratings and reviews like biblical scripture, I still allowed myself back into that same frame of mind. "Buy what you like!" I constantly preach to customers, but yet there I was – standing at the Redwood City Target, looking at both Assassin's Creed III and WWE 13, knowing that it was going to be a battle between my own personal desire and wanting to play what the experts like best. Even after everything I've learned, after all the posts I've written about the terrbile point systems, I still caved to the high score review. I bought the Assassin's Creed game. This is what everyone else likes, right? Hopefully it will be good. I had to head to work from there so I put the bag of gear in my office and walked down to the sales floor. After a few hours of helping customers, it was time for lunch and time to head back over to Target. Who was I kidding? I wasn't going to let this happen yet again – another game that I spend $50 on just to get home and realize I'm never going to play it. Being at K&L, helping customers to make confident wine decisions, helped me to realize that I need to get what I like no matter how good someone else said the other game was. Who cares what the review said? I know I like wrestling games (as does my expanding waistline!).  I walked in with my receipt, swapped the game for WWE 13, and went back to K&L to finish my lunch.

I've been playing wrestling all morning and I couldn't be happier. I can play as Shawn Michaels and do a cage match with Steve Austin, battle for about ten minutes, hit the super kick for my finisher, and then move on to my grown-up responsibilities. It's important to try new things and be open to suggestion, but it's also important to know your personal preferences and comfort levels. It was an interesting experience to be put back into a position where I needed some consumer guidance. It helped to remind me of what my customers experience every day while shopping through the liquor aisles. As someone who wants drinkers to constantly expand their horizons, it was an important lesson in retail sales. As a retailer, I need to make sure that the customer is ultimately getting a bottle they're comfortable with. As customers, we need to make sure that we're honest with ourselves about what's going to make us happy.

I remember trying my hardest to like George T. Stagg Bourbon because I knew everyone thought it was amazing. I finally admitted to myself that I just don't like it and I was so happy to say it. Other people love it and that's great! Forcing yourself to drink whiskey you don't like is the same as playing a video game you don't enjoy. I personally don't like George T. Stagg Bourbon. I also don't like super-long, intensive video games. No matter how badly I want to fit in with the rest of the whiskey and gaming world, to understand the pleasure they seem to derive from something, it's just not what satisfies me in the end. Being honest with yourself will ultimately allow you to avoid these disappointments.

I just saved myself another $50 letdown. Thank goodness I rediscovered my confidence.

-David Driscoll


DOG Nails It


Wow. Simply delicious. David OG's new selection from down south is finally making its way up north. This is loaded with rich Bourbon goodness and cinnamon baking spices on the finish. Absolutely stunning.

2002 Evan Williams Single Barrel #726  K&L Exclusive Bourbon $26.99 - Our first ever Evan Williams exclusive barrel is here. Enchanting as it is affordable, Evan Williams is one of America's great whiskies. Here we have a single barrel that we selected after combing through countless samples. While the standard Evan Williams is great and bottled one barrel at a time, occasionally you get a bottle that just out shines the rest. Trying to find another bottle from that same cask is next to impossible. What we have is an entire cask of this superior quality, one that will certainly be compared to the best offerings from this famed brand to date.  It's extremely limited yielding less than 16 cases. This is one of the more elegant Evan Williams, I've come across. Easy and approachable, but with tons of depth.  Some tropical citrus flavors, mark the overal honey and spice.  The palate shows great depth, although it's not one of these sticky bourbons. The sweatness is balanced by a lovely exotic tea element, not bitter, but a bit tannic. It all come together with a lovely drinkable balance and a totally lack of any heat at all. This is painfully easy to drink. Be very careful! (David Othenin-Girard)

-David Driscoll


Re-evaluating Johnnie Walker

Since I started buying spirits for K&L I have never devoted much time to the Johnnie Walker whiskies. The retail market for them is competitive, the margins are slim, and my shelf space for booze is even slimmer. I don't have the luxury of buying 10,000 bottles, storing them in a gigantic warehouse, and letting them go for nothing while waiting for the volume game to even out the deal.  When I took over for Susan in Redwood City it was a trial by fire. We were a single malt store. We loved Bruichladdich. We didn't really sell blends. That's all I knew. No one ever taught me anything about Johnnie Walker.  There were no Walker staff training sessions. I was never a Walker drinker in my younger days, so I had little experience with the brand even back when I was primarily consuming the blended stuff. When customers ask me about these whiskies today I avoid the topic, mainly because I know very little about them. 

As a whisky professional, however, this was a major hole in my industry knowledge. How can the buyer for K&L not know anything about Johnnie Walker, the top-selling Scotch whisky brand in the entire world? I can lecture you about the barrel program at Lagavulin. I can show you personal photos of Caol Ila. I can even wax intellectually about the fermentation times at Mortlach. What I cannot tell you, however, is what these whiskies taste like when you blend them together.

I find it amusing that Talisker, Linkwood, and Clynelish are some of the most popular single malts in the world among whisky geeks, yet these same drinkers are entirely uninterested in how they work together in a blend. I'm utterly fascinated by whisky blending.  I think combining flavors is far more interesting than dumping yeast into a washback. Diageo has the most amazing portfolio of distilleries in the world, which are all primarily used for Johnnie Walker rather than single malt brands. One of the Diageo heads is actually on record as saying that if they could actually stop bottling single malts, they would! Their network of about thirty distilleries functions as a palate of colors with which they can paint a variety of different pictures.

So which whiskies are in which Walkers? That information is top secret, but we know a little bit about the ingredients from hearsay and from Diageo directly. Looking at the Black, the Green, and the Gold (perhaps the three most highly-regarded of the portfolio), there are some rather obvious flavors involved in each that can be discerned with a little bit of work.  The Black is obviously peated and one would have to assume there's a heavy dosage of Caol Ila in play. The Green is actually composed of only single malt whiskies, so it's much richer than the Black on the finish. I've heard that Talisker, Cragganmore, Caol Ila, and Linkwood make up a heavy proportion of the cepage. The Gold is Clynelish all the way.  I know this for a fact, but even if I hadn't known there's no doubt about it when you taste it.

After talking to Diageo last week about cost increases, we worked out a deal to help bring some of the Johnnie Walker whiskies back into the store at competitive pricing. However, I wanted to evaluate them first and not just use someone else's tasting notes when promoting them. I needed to understand this portfolio if I was going to keep any of my credibility as a whisky buyer. After spending some time with these guys, here are my conclusions.

First off, a few things to think about:

- Diageo sold almost 16 million cases of Johnnie Walker in 2010. You can find it in over 180 countries around the world. How they can keep it tasting good is mind-boggling with that kind of demand.

- I have been thrashing Diageo on this blog lately. That's what eventually led to us even discussing this very attractive deal. I have no motivation to love these whiskies whatsoever. They will sell themselves whether I like them or not. In fact, as I said earlier, I've never paid much attention to them simply because they're so ubiquitous. Any praise I heap upon them is genuine (and there will be praise).

- The Green and Gold labels are going to be discontined next year in the U.S. and in many other international markets.  The Green will remain in Taiwan, I believe, while the Gold will be replaced with the Platinum, if I remember correctly.

- If I'm going to sell these at K&L, then customers should know my honest opinion of each, which is as follows:

Johnnie Walker Black 12 Year Old Whisky $29.99 - Strikingly soft and easy to move over the palate (some people might call this "smooth"), with a leaner mouthfeel due to the grain. This is a blend of around 37 different whiskies, so there's nothing really standing out in the overall malty sea of flavor. It tastes like Scotch and there are hints of smoke behind the maltiness, but as my friend Marc said, the obvious design of this whisky is to simply taste good.  The whisky definitely tastes good.  However, for $30 there are better options in my opinion.  I think the Bowmore Legend is killing this at $23.99. That being said, Bowmore isn't making millions of cases of Legend to supply to the world's population. Considering how much Walker Black is being pumped out into the market, it's a much more impressive achievement.

Johnnie Walker Green 15 Year Old Blended Malt $55.99 - I really, really like this. According to Diageo, there are 15 single malts in this marriage, all at around 15 years of age. Talisker, Cragganmore, Caol Ila, and Linkwood all lead the way. I would reckon there are probably portions of Dailuaine and Benrinnes as well, simply because of the fruity richness. This whisky was designed to taste good. It's so full of toffee and nougat with delicious butterscotch across the mid-palate. The viscosity is also quite satisfying. While it's nothing wildly different, it's good for the money and I would happily drink this at home. What else can you get in the 15 year range at this price? Talisker 10 costs $50, as does Caol Ila 12. Cragganmore 12 is $44. Why would we not pay $55 to have 15 year old versions of these single malts married together into something so tasty? It's a shame they're getting rid of this because it's amazing considering how much they make of it. This absolutely destroys Macallan 12. I should probably sit on this and jack up the price when it's all gone, right? :)

Johnnie Walker Gold 18 Year Old Whisky $75.99 - I also really like this.  The sweet vanilla on the entry is delicious, that waxy fruit of Clynelish comes out to play on the palate, and the finish is malty and lasting. It's not exciting or new, but who expects that from Johnnie Walker? I'm not going to hold that against it. Again, for the price I can't argue. The grain component of the Gold isn't nearly as noticeable as it is in the Black, perhaps due to the fact that the grain must also be 18 years old (Cambus and Cameronbridge?). There's also a lovely creme brulee element that I think must come from the addition of more Speyside malts. What are the 18 year old options at this price? Oban 18 is now going up to $130 or so. Clynelish 18 wouldn't be that price if it existed (our 21 year cask sells for $125). If you were ever interested in trying a Clynelish 18 this would be the whisky for you. It also tastes expensive, which is important for mass-market sales.  I would have to think that Diageo is getting heavy customer satisfaction with this, however, they're obviously not getting the sales they want. Might have to squirrel one of these away.

- Here's something else to think about: while other producers are getting rid of age statements, Diageo still puts 12, 15, and 18 year labels on these whiskies. They're not gutting their flavor with younger juice while charging you the same price.  At least for now, they're not. That's admirable.

- The prices are competitive. Because every store in the world sells Johnnie Walker, we all have to compete with each other.  That's good for consumers and for prices.

- Considering that Thailand alone counts for 10% of Walker sales, this stuff is being made in gigantic quantities. When they replaced the stills at Caol Ila, they couldn't even take a quick break! They had to get their neighbor Bunnahabhain to loan them their distillery for a few weeks! (that's right - there is some Diageo-made Bunnahabhain out there in barrel at the moment). I have to be impressed by the quality at those levels.

So there it is. Johnnie Walker. Back at K&L. Nothing new or exciting, but good whisky with very good pricing, I think. Even for single malt geeks like me, it's fun to try and taste the components in each particular recipe. That would make for a fun tasting, in my opinion.

We're all friends again.

-David Driscoll