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Thursday
Dec202012

30th Anniversary

Fresh off the delivery truck!

St. George 30th Anniversary Single Malt Whisky $349.99 - To celebrate 30 years in the distillation business, St. George gurus Lance Winters and Dave Smith went deep into their older stocks of single malt whisky to find some pretty remarkable casks. One barrel was the from the first that Lance ever filled at the distillery. Another was the sister cask to the original K&L barrel a few years back, but this one was aged in pear brandy, rather than apple. After tasting through and deciding which casks best represented their history, their ability, and their flavor profile, the guys married them into one very special batch of 30th Anniversary whisky. The flavors are classic St. George. Lots of fresh stonefruit, loads of that beery, oily wood profile and a strong malty finish. It's a celebration of everything that makes St. George single malt whisky so special and it's very, very, very limited. Only 12 bottles available from K&L up north.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Dec202012

K&L Awards 2012: Best Distributor - JVS

When you buy liquor for a major retailer, you can't just call up the distillery and send a truck over. There are these guys called distributors who must act as the middlemen between K&L and the hard stuff. Southern and Young's are the two big players. Wine Warehouse is a distant third, followed by Henry, and Pacific Edge here in California. Then you've got little JVS, who also act as importers for us when we buy our casks in Scotland. Every analogy you can think of about size comes into play when you're talking about distribution. The big guys are slow, the little guys are fast. The big guys are more powerful, the little guys more cunning. The big guys spend money like the Yankees, the little guys have to do more research like the A's. Eventually, the little players find a superstar, only to have that superstar poached from them like Jason Giambi.

Being a little distributor, you do all the grunt work. You drive from account to account. You try and convince guys like me to buy your products. The big guys have all the brand names. People come to them, not the other way around. You've probably heard me talk about my friend Val before. He's the guy running the show over at JVS. He's the guy who makes sure that we've got Kilchoman in stock. He's the guy who will drop everything at a moment's notice to come and pour spirits in our tasting bar. He's the guy who busted his ass for years, spreading the word about Gordon & MacPhail and Signatory, before those two companies decided to move on to the big boys. The irony now is that both independent bottlers have gone drastically downhill in California since they left JVS. Why? Because no one understands the smaller independents like JVS. It was similar to the WWE putting the heavyweight title belt on Daniel Bryan. They have the talent, but they have no idea how to use it. Young's doesn't even know that they have Signatory in their portfolio. I have to remind them.

Then there's the cask importation side. Which casks arrived on time this year? Let's see...Kilchoman, Sovereign, Exclusive Malts, and Chieftains. Hmmmm......what a coincidence! All of those casks were imported to California by JVS on behalf of K&L. Which casks are not here yet? Hmmmm.....let's see......Benriach, Glendronach, Glen Garioch, and Glenfarclas! All of these barrels are being handled by Southern and Young's, the two biggest companies, and they're all ridiculously late! I called today about our Glen Garioch cask, which was supposed to be delivered four weeks ago. You know where it is? Fucking New Jersey!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Are you serious?!!!!!!

When you need something done fast in the business and you need it done well, you don't call the big boys. You call Val at JVS and he gets shit done. No haggling, no prices that don't match up, no refunds due, no missed deliveries, no mismatched products, no mistakes. You need a cask, he'll get you that cask. You need a sample of something? It's there on your desk by the following morning.

What a HUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGE difference between small distribution and major distribution. JVS gets it done. Chieftain's, Arran, and Kilchoman are all on the right team. JVS makes the playoffs this year and every year by busting their asses and working harder than anyone else.

Distributor of the year for 2012. No contest.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Dec192012

Old Scotch, Back in Stock

We've been out of these whiskies for some time and we'll likely be out of them again soon. Might want to grab these while they're here for a last minute gift!

Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old Islay Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - Color: Rich golden amber Nose: Liquid caramel bubbling on the stove, banana cream pie, macadamia nut brittle and the blowing sea breeze coming off the Sound of Islay. Palate: It lies on your palate like heavy syrup that coats your mouth. The flavors are all creamy butter; toasted almonds and Brazilian nuts, fresh pipe tobacco and a sea brininess that is a classic taste of Bunnahabhain. The weight of the 18 year old is very heavy like your favorite blanket on a cold winter's day. The finish is extremely long and warming with just a wee bit of spiciness. What a stunning dram!

Oban 18 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - Always tough to find - this is a limited edition bottling for the US only.  As the cannister states, "only so much can be made, it is never enough."

Old Pulteney 21 year old Single Malt Whisky $129.99 - Rated the #1 Whisky in the World by Jim Murray's Whisky Bible for 2012.  Get it while you can because there's likely to be a run on this once the word gets out.  Aged in a combination of Bourbon and Sherry casks, the 21 year has loads of dried apricots and a supple mouthfeel.  The expression, which was created at the Pulteney distillery in Wick, Caithness, scored a record-equaling 97.5 points out of 100 and in doing so became only the third single malt to have claimed the title since its inception in 1994. (There are another 12 cases coming to NorCal this Friday)

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Dec192012

K&L Awards 2012: Best Discovery - Jacques Esteve

While traveling to Scotland has given us the opportunity to purchase some amazing whiskies, everything we buy is a one-off. We have to buy barrels with finite quantities of juice that will last a couple months until we sell through. Then we have to hope we can do it again. Our French spirits program, with the help of our friend Charles Neal, has worked much like our direct import wine program - we find small producers that are not represented in the U.S. and import their booze right to our store. We can consistantly offer the same products from the same producers because we're importing their standard portfolio, not something made just once for our store. It gives people a reason to shop at K&L. You can't find these wines or these spirits anywhere else domestically and, over time, people begin to depend on them.

Normally when you're dealing with a smaller producer, you're getting something a bit different from the norm. When we buy a cask from Kilchoman, it's a much younger, spicier single malt. Same goes for when we buy casks from small independents. There's a big difference between our barrel of Bunnahabhain and the standard distillery expressions. In the U.S., there's a large chasm between, say, the rye from Old World Spirits and something like Rittenhouse. Cognac, however, is a big industry made of little producers. Remy, Hennessey, and all the large houses buy all of their product from the same little guys we're buying from. Take Jacques Esteve, for example. He sells a ton of his brandy directly to Remy and Hennessey. That's where his financial stability comes from. The income he earns from his big house contracts allows him to focus on making more serious Cognac under his own family label.

When you drink big house Cognac, you're essential drinking a marriage of many different brandies. If you drink Hennessey XO, there's probably some older Jacques Esteve brandy swimming around in there. However, why not buy it straight from Jacques Esteve himself and get an older, undiluted Cognac for less than half the price? That's what Hennessey does! That's why we wanted to go to France and that's what we did when we got there. The Esteve brandies are not different, unique, or outside the norm of standard Cognac. They're simply richer, more supple, more textural, and more delicious. The Coup de Coeur we imported costs about $90 and blows every other Cognac we have out of the water. I don't see how anyone could go back to big house Cognac after tasting it. It's a combination of 1979 and 1981 vintage brandies and the length and complexity of flavor are astounding.

The best part about Jacques Esteve's Cognac is that we can keep buying more! True, the Tres Vieille Reserve de Famille is a single cask of 1979 bottled under his standard label, but we're heading back over in March to find more sustainable expressions. The Coup de Coeur is fully-stocked and loaded for the holiday season. It's a brandy we hope to have on our shelves for some time. I can't remember a spirit at K&L that has had a larger influence on the category as a whole. There have been some fun single barrels in the past, but nothing we could continuously sustain. That's why discovering the Jacques Esteve Cognacs and securing their exclusivity for K&L was probably the best thing we did all year.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Dec172012

K&L Awards 2012: Most Improved Player - St. George Distillery

When Proximo purchased Hangar One Vodka from St. George Distillery at the very end of 2010, something very amazing happened. Like a blossoming artist being subsidized by a wealthy aristocratic patron, the peace of mind that Lance Winters and Dave Smith achieved by no longer having to worry about bulk vodka gave them the freedom to start working on their own personal passions. "All of the work was being handled by someone else," Lance told me earlier today. "We didn't have to worry about coming up with new flavors or developing the brand." Instead of coming up with fruit flavors or fancy marketing ideas, Lance and Dave buckled down and started churning out some serious booze. They had time to visit Kentucky and invest in a Bourbon blending project (in case you didn't know, Dave Smith and Anthony Rosario are as passionate about blending as they are distilling). They released three, wildly-different, new gins to widely-recognized acclaim. They also teamed up with us to make two additional gins under our Faultline label.

Not only did St. George have more time to engage in exciting new adventures, everything in their original portfolio seemed to get better. Way better. The single malt whiskey releases started to "wow" people. The absinthe became more polished. The fruit eau de vies were almost unrecognizable. I'll give you a bit of insider information here. At this year's Good Food Awards, there was one pear eau de vie that simply destroyed every other fruit brandy in that room. We thought we knew who had made it, but when we lifted the brown bag at the end of the day, it was the Aqua Perfecta beneath that veil. None of us could believe it. We'd all tasted that pear brandy a million times and it had never tasted this good. It was clear that Lance and Dave had stepped up their game. They were continuing to get better at their craft.

How many producers show this type of improvement over one year's time, especially those that are already incredibly successful? Success causes most people to let up, to draw back, to enjoy the fruit of their labor and take their foot off the throttle. Not St. George, however. Success has made them more determined to improve and live up to the reputation they've earned after thirty years in the business. What was started by Jorg Rupf as a small shack in Emeryville is now being taken to an entirely new level. The team at St. George is tight and everyone is playing a role: Andie in the bar, James and Chris on the still, Lucy in the office, with Lance and Dave on the front line. It's a team effort over there in Alameda and when you play as a team you succeed.

A few weeks ago, I was able to get a sneak preview of the 30th Anniversary edition of the St. George single malt scheduled for release next week. It's going to cost $400 and it's representing three decades of whisky evolution for the distillery. The whisky is magnificant and those who can splurge on the bottle are going to have something very special in their collection. To call St. George the "most improved player" for 2012 might sound a bit negative to some, as if they were only mediocre before and now have finally made the transition forward. I know Lance and Dave, however, and I have to believe they'll be more proud of this distinction than any other award we could give them. I believe this because I see how hard they both work and how dedicated they are to getting better at what they do.

Whatever it is you're doing, guys, it's working. Over the course of 2012, St. George Distillery has gone from quirky microdistillery to major industry player based solely on the quality of its booze. There's nothing these guys can't do and do well. I think it might be time to revisit that tequila project.

-David Driscoll