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Friday
Feb222013

Bruichladdich Bere Barley 

I've spent the last week exchanging emails with Jim McEwan and Simon Coughlin - the two men running the show at Bruichladdich these days. They used to be two guys I knew via Susan Purnell, our old spirits buyer and Bruichladdich enthusiast. Then they became two guys we visited when we went to Islay. Now, I'm very lucky to say, they're two guys I can call on when I need information, a favor, or when I just want to say hello. Last time we were on Islay we had dinner at Simon's house and bonded over our mutual love for wine and spirits. Simon fell asleep while we were talking to him, David OG was plastered after too much privately-bottled Lagavulin, and I drove us back to Bowmore with my head hanging out the driver's side window as I navigated us through thick fog and pockets of roaming sheep.

When Bruichladdich sold to Remy Cointreau last year, I think every Bruichladdich fan felt a pang in their heart. We not only loved the whisky, the passion, the enthusiasm, and the progressive spirit, we loved that these guys were doing it without a corporate sponsor. Being independent allowed them to do things others wouldn't dare to do and say things corporations wouldn't think of saying. It felt like Remy Cointreau would stifle this energy. However, we're more than a few months into the new regime and I haven't noticed much of a change. Bruichladdich is still releasing a ridiculous amount of wacky new expressions, Jim is still a raving romantic about his spirits, and the booze keeps getting better and better like it always has. Mark Reynier is out as the head of the company and my friend Simon is in. Simon wants to focus more on the barley. He says Remy is the perfect owner because they leave Bruichladdich alone to do what they do best. He's still keeping in touch just as he did before.

Not a whole lot has changed. Maybe it was just the idea of corporate ownership that scared us?

I emailed Jim last night after tasting the newest release in Bruichladdich's local barley series. The 2006 Bere Barley $69.99 that is made from an ancient strain of the grain, supposedly brought by Norse invaders when they occupied the Hebrides during the 9th century. I was flabbergasted by its quality. I had to share this with Jim. He wrote me back this morning:

The Bere is so young and pure, no make-up just as nature intended. Its history, honesty, and the harmony of guys working on a dream which the consumer can experience and wonder just how the seed survived since the 9th century, brought by the Vikings to Scotland. What a living timeline!!!!! It's incredible and once again it's Bruichladdich that recognised this is a national treasure and cannot be compared. A miracle in a bottle from a seed that was planted over 1000 years ago.

He was excited. I was excited. We were both brimming with excitement as we exchanged notes. I could keep going about how fascinated I am by the different flavors Bruichladdich is creating by focusing on different barleys from various farms and genetic backgrounds. It's a wet dream for us whisky geeks (and even beer geeks). The thing about the Bere barley whisky, however, is that it's not just an interesting dram - it's an absolutely delicious one! It's unbelievably round, full of vanilla and oak, with a grainy aroma on the nose that actually speaks to the barley itself. It's young, but it's not hot, out of whack, or full of quarter-cask wood like so many craft spirits today. I'm not sure I would want to mature this whisky much longer because that would detract from the barley flavor and showcase further the barrel maturation.

I don't want the barrel in this case. I want to taste the barley. That's what you taste, but in perfect balance with the oak.

I asked Simon this morning if they had any more of this at the distillery. They don't. I called their importer WineBow to see if there were any more bottles sitting in their warehouse. There aren't. What we have today is all we're getting. Ever.

One bottle limit per person. I don't want any one person hoarding all of this. I would get a bottle if you like whisky. I won't even mention the collectability aspect. You need to be drinking this if you like single malt.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Feb212013

How Important is the Barley?

Single malt whisky is made from barley, just like Calvados is made from apples and Cognac from grapes. While my journeys to France have taught me much about the importance of agriculture in distillation, Scotland's distillers have never given much glory to their golden grain. Just how important is the barley to the ultimate flavor of a whisky, you ask? It all depends on how much the distillery allows the barley to speak. Is the quality of the apples important to the flavor of a Calvados? Do different types of apples have different flavors? The answer to both questions is "yes" and the more you visit different Calvados distillers, the more you'll see proof of this affirmation. However, the longer that the brandy spends time in a barrel, the more the Calvados becomes about the wood and less about the fruit. Single malt whisky works the same way, but while I've heard single malt producers call a whisky overly-wooded, it was never because the maturation was compromising the natural flavors of the barley.

When single malt whisky is aged in fresh Sherry barrels the richness of that sweet wine usually coats the inherent flavors of the white barley spirit. When it's aged in used Bourbon casks, however, or even refill Sherry butts, we can taste more of the barley itself. That being said, almost every distillery in Scotland is buying their barley from the exact same commercial maltsters, which means that every one of them is using the same base materials (like winemakers all starting from the same grapes). As a distillery, why focus on how unique or fantastic your barley is when it's really no different from everyone else's? Are there even superior types of barley anyway? Barley that, while more expensive to farm, malt, and mill, would result in a far tastier whisky?

Have you ever actually tasted a piece of malted barley? It's sweet, grainy, and mealy, but I never really think that translates over clearly into a whisky. There are a few whiskies that really taste like malted barley, Glen Garioch being one of them. However, where as eau-de-vie producers spend a lifetime trying to capture the essence of a pear, distilling the essential flavors out of barley is a conversation I've never once heard at a distillery. I've never heard Dr. Bill Lumsden say, "You know, David, we were really just trying to pay homage to that great Scottish barley we had at Glenmorangie last year." Single malt whisky has always been about the wood - the vanilla, the sweet sherry, the oak, and the richness that it provides to mellow the alcohol. The barley provides the creamier mouthfeel and texture. Bourbon is the same way. Who's really talking about that awesome crop of corn that came in last Fall and how you can taste it in Buffalo Trace's newest release? It's more of a canvass for the toasted wood.

Barley-specific whiskies are starting to gain notoriety in Scotland, but there have been local barley releases in the past. For the last few decades, Springbank distillery has been making limited releases of whisky using barley from local farmers. They've always been celebrated for their collectability, however, rather than their superior quality. Kilchoman has been releasing "100% Islay" single malt whiskies made from barley grown right next door to the distillery. The result has been exciting and quite different, but no one ever really told us why they tasted the way they did (and maybe we didn't really even care to know!). It was more of a novelty, about being able to say it's entirely Islay, through and through. Bruichladdich has also dabbled in the regional barley experiment with several micro-releases of localized barley expressions. They've been fun, educational, and even tasty and their organic barley whisky has been stabilized into a full-time item.

What totally blew my mind today, however, is the new "Bere" barley release from Bruichladdich - a 2006 vintage, six year old whisky aged in ex-Bourbon wood that has a creamy, full-bodied graininess unlike any other young single malt I have tasted. I sampled it along side the 2006 Islay Barley "Donlossit Farm" release (made and matured in the exact same way) and it was fascinating. Both were delicious, but the Bere barley was simply better in every way. It had an instant charm, a flavor that all whiskies should have, but making it wasn't easy from what I've heard. According to Bruichladdich, Bere barley is an ancient strain that was brought to Islay by Norse vikings back in the 9th century. It's a denser and thicker grain that flourishes in sandy, island soil, but results in crops less than half the size of what's being grown now in Scotland (hence, why no one is using it $$$$$). However, they also claim that Bere barley was used to make the early whiskies from Scotland's origin. They claim it gave their mill one hell of a beating, as well.

The Bere Barley from Bruichladdich will be coming into stock tomorrow (Friday) and we'll be getting every bottle we can get - about 150 total. It is something I think every whisky fan should consider investing in. It will be $70 and I'm going to limit it to one bottle per person so that we make them available to as many people as possible. Not only is this whisky freaking delicious (I'm serious, this is really good single malt whisky that anyone would enjoy), it's an example of what agriculture brings to our beloved booze. While I've waxed poetic about orchards and vineyards when it comes to brandy making, I've never tasted what quality barley can do to a whisky. The question is, however: is the Bere whisky so tasty because of the Bere barley, or was it simply a great batch by Jim McEwan? I want to know more. If this whisky tastes the way it does because of the grain, then I'm all for paying extra in the future to make it this way.

More Bere barley whisky please. I'll front you some cash to get it started.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Feb212013

K&L Single Cask Tasting c/o LA Scotch Club

I know everybody in SoCal has been chomping at the bit for more tastings. While we haven't got the SoCal Salon up and running yet, I am trying to find ways for all of you to taste our various offerings before having to shell out for something that is untested. I mean I want you to take my word that the 1970 Glenfarclas we bought is worth $580, but I'm not going to be upset when you tell me you'd like to taste it first. While that idea was previously an idiosyncratic pipedream of nearly all who shop at K&L, today for a limited group it will become a reality. Thanks to the LA Scotch Club and their dedicated followers, we've been lucky enough to host our second "K&L Exclusive Bottle Tasting." It's popping off next Wednesday at a private location. The tasting fee includes dinner, which is just shocking for the price you're paying, and I will personally vouch for the quality this place is going to provide. Basically, we get a restaurant to ourselves with great food, great scotch, and great people. Don't get pissed that it's sold out, just...

BUY A TICKET NOW

Here is the official line-up:

1970, Glenfarclas

1993, GlenDronach 19 Year Old

1984, Benriach 27 Year Old

Faultline 10 Year Old North Highland

2003, Bruichladdich Peated

1998, Glen Garioch 14 Year Old 

Kilchoman 100% Islay Single Sherry Finish

1994, Caperdonich 18 Year Old Sovereign

I will also have a few extras on hand from my own personal collection. You may be lucky enough to also taste our Caol Ila 15 year Sovereign, Aberlour 20 Year Exclusive Malts, Benrinnes 12 year old Signatory, and maybe if you're super lucky get a little dribble of the last little bits of my Glenlochy 31 year (that one is a secret, so seriously don't tell anyone). If you have any questions about the event please feel free to reach out to me davidgirard@klwines.com.

-David Othenin-Girard

Thursday
Feb212013

Coming Back Around 

I have never understood the draw of the Midleton Very Rare Irish Whiskey. For $130, I always thought one could do better. It's mild, easy, mellow, and soft, just like blended whiskey is supposed to be, but aren't there fifty other whiskies that I could say that about for fifty dollars less? Nevertheless, I wanted to include the revered bottle in our upcoming Salon St. Paddy's Day party (which will be on March 17th - tickets coming soon!). It's still considered the standard for high-end Irish whiskey and, regardless of my own feelings, I knew people would be excited to try it. Since Tuesday was staff education day I decided to open a bottle for the K&L employees and get their opinion as well. I myself didn't have time to taste it then, but I did take a bit of the bottle home to try later – simply as a reminder and as part of my exercise to revisit certain products.

The Midleton Very Rare is made by Irish Distillers in Cork County, the same people behind Jameson, Paddy, and Redbreast, which has been part of the Pernod-Ricard portfolio since 1988. It's one of three distilleries in Ireland (four if you count Kilbeggan) along with Bushmills and Cooley. Bushmills was actually part of Irish Distillers back in the day. The group was founded in 1966 as a merger between Power, Jameson, and the Cork Distillery company. When Bushmills joined in 1972 it gave Irish Distillers complete control of the country's whiskey production. Cooley distillery became Ireland's third major distillery in 1987, bringing an independent party into the mix, and Diageo eventually purchased Bushmills in 2005, which officially ended the monopoly and divided up Ireland's whiskey producers among three separate companies. With Beam's purchase of Cooley at the end of 2011, all of Ireland's whiskey distilleries are now the property of foreign hands.

Midleton's Very Rare Irish Whiskey became an annual release in 1984 to celebrate the name of the town where the distillery is located. There is no age statement on the bottle and each release is somewhat different than the previous one. It's comprised of a special selection of casks ranging from twelve to twenty-five years of age – both Bourbon and Sherry barrels. Each release is labeled with the year it was bottled. That's a bit of history for you.

Last night I went out for sushi in the city with a friend. I got home at a quarter past ten and I was itching for a shot of something. I needed a hit. We had drunk a few beers at dinner, but I still needed a nightcap. I remembered the Midleton sample I had brought home and poured myself a wee taste. I know that I'm someone who is supposed to analyze whiskey critically, professionally, and in depth, but I'm going to divert from all of that for the sake of this review. At the late hour, with a stomach full of raw fish and rice, that glass of Midleton Irish was like velvet. It was a gentle elixir being poured down my esophagus on a bed made of butter. Context. It means everything when you're drinking. The right moment. The right time. The right frame of mind. The right expectations. I had that moment last night with this glass of Midleton. Then I had it with a second glass. We always talk about pairing alcohol with food, but what about pairing it to your state of mind?

I remember doing a private tasting in someone's home a few years back where we did a geographical tour of single malt whisky - a bunch of guys in a man cave getting drunk and I was their paid bartender. One guy planted himself at the bar and talked my ear off all night long. He kept saying, "Have you had the Midleton Very Rare? Now that is smooth!" Every whisky I poured wasn't as good as the Midleton, according to him. I remember being really annoyed and not wanting to like the Midleton simply because this man liked it so much. However, he was totally right. The first thing I noticed last night was neither the flavor profile, nor the weight of the whisky, but rather the way the whisky finished. It was really smooth. This whiskey is smooth in a way that few other whiskies are. What does smooth even mean? Smooth has to be the number one descriptor of liquor in the world, used by at least ten people every day on the K&L sales floor, but there is no official consensus on what it actually implies (hence why professional whisky writers avoid it).

I think most people substitute smooth for sweet, in that sweetness helps to mask the burn of alcohol. People call Macallan smooth because of the sherry influence. They think of Laphroaig as being not smooth because it's full of peat and doesn't finish with much richness. Texturally I think every whiskey is equally as smooth as the next, so it's more about masking the burn of alcohol than about the actual composition of the liquid. People think quality spirits shouldn't taste like gasoline and they're right! The question is: is it smooth because of added sweetness, from barrel maturation or added sugar, or is it smooth because of quality distillation?

What's my point? I'm starting to get sidetracked here. The point is that I never thought much of this whiskey. I thought it was overpriced and that it didn't offer much nuance in the way that single malt whisky does. It's a blended whiskey and blends are meant to be easy drinkers. However, something clicked with the Midleton last night. Something about the character of this whisky made me think of "smooth," in a way that I've never really considered. It's almost seamless, flowing, but I can't quite describe it actually and this quality intrigues me greatly. It's not sweet, so it's not simply the sugar speaking. It is triple distilled, but so is Auchentoshan and it doesn't taste this good. This is why you have to revisit whiskies. They can change on you. You can change on them. You also have to think about the moment. If I were to taste this whiskey at 3 PM in our tasting bar, in a flight of twenty other whiskies, I might not think too much of it. But last night the two of us shared a moment. I don't know if it was the influence of my Irish blood or the clan of O'Driscolls back in Cork County speaking to me through a bottle of hooch, but I'm in a new place with Midleton Very Rare Irish Whiskey.

Just in time for St. Patrick's Day.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Feb202013

Cartron to Pour Tonight in SF!

Last minute change! Cartron will be in the SF store tonight to pour their Orange, Ginger, and Grapefruit liqueurs. If you're in the area and feel like sampling some serious stuff, then drop on by between 5 PM and 6:30.

Still no tasting in Redwood City tonight. We need a break down here!

-David Driscoll