France 2013 - Day 5 - Hennessy

Since we had to pass back through Cognac on the way north to Normandy, we thought we should visit the largest producer in the region seeing we had spent so much time at the smaller ones. At least for the sake of perspective. Hennessy owns 200 hectares of vineyards in the Grand Champagne region alone (pretty much all of it) and they work with another 2500 or so producers from whom they purchase either distillate or the wine from their various grapes. They're owned by LVMH, the same company that owns Ardbeg and Glenmorangie, so we knew we'd get a great response if we asked to stop by. As usual, the people at LVMH set us up with an outstanding tour.

While there is no distillation on site at the Hennessy headquarters in downtown Cognac, there is a fantastic museum. It's great to visit the smaller farms like Jacques Esteve or Bouju, but you're not going to see a whole lot of production happening in late March. The models that are in the Hennessy museum, however, make understanding the entire process – from vineyard to bottle – quite simple and fun. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more because you reall get a grasp of what's happening. Hennessy does do some of their own distillation from three different sites all equipped with ten stills or so like the alambic pictured above.

One of the coolest displays at the museum is the breakdown of soils between the various regions in Cognac. You can see the limestone directly underneath the top soil in Grand Champagne.

Whereas Fin Bois has much more clay, producing wines with lower acidity levels that aren't quite as good for distillation. This all makes a big difference in the flavor of the final eau-de-vie.

Hennessy still has insanely old Cognacs sitting in barrel at their warehouses. They also have a guy whose sole job is the write the name of the distillate and the vintage upon each one. Our guide Fay told us he has a master's degree in calligraphy just to do this one job!

They also have really old Cognac resting in glass demijohns so that they don't mature any further in wood. Two hundred and twelve years in a barrel might be a bit too long for some brandies.

If you really want to get crazy you can purchase one of these super exclusive Cognac packages. This one sells for $100,000 and they only made 100 for the world. Who's in?

The story of Hennessy as a producer is really quite interesting. Richard Hennessy himself was not French, but rather an Irishman who came over to found the company in 1765. You can still see the date scratched on the original warehouse he bought in 1774. Today it's grown into a company that sells 63 million bottles a year worldwide. You can see why they need to work with so many farmers and producers to maintain a solid stock of distillate. They've got 300,000 barrels aging in fifty large warehouses today and all of the expressions are still blended by the Filloux family, who have been doing so for seven generations.

It's crazy to think about how large businesses develop. We were talking about it in the car on the long drive yesterday. You buy some land, make some Cognac, sell it to a few locals, and then you need some more. If you sell more bottles then you can buy some more land in order to make more product, but then you'll have to hire more help. You want to spend some more time with your family, so you need to hire some workers. If you make enough money to hire more help you can spend more time finding new customers. You know how it goes from there. It's amazing to think that Hennessy started that way. Just a guy from Ireland using his successes from the brandy business to expand an empire.

Today the top market for Hennessy is the United States, believe it or not. China and Taiwan are right behind us, but we drink the most VS in America. It's still quite popular with the young club scene and the hip-hop movement, so there's no sign of Hennessy losing business as their customer base matures over the next decade. They're going to have to worry about what most brown booze businesses are currently freaking out over – where are they going to find more product? Unlike single malt, you can't just buy more base ingredient and distill it. It has to come from a specific designated region and there's only so much of it. Crazy!

We spent last night with the Camut brothers and we're all a bit hung at the moment. It was a long and crazy night. Lots of cheese, lots of apple-based products. We're out in Normandy today if we can drag ourselves out of bed and into the car.

More on our adventures later today.

-David Driscoll


Calvados Overload

6 hours in the car and 6 hours of tasting Calvados has left Driscoll asleep at the wheel. I'm taking April, 1st to examine myselves just a little bit and so I'm turning the comments ON just because I can. Got a problem? Have a question? Really feeling like you need to respond to a blog post from six months ago? Waiting to comment on Driscoll's taste in music? Now is your chance. Please feel free to bombard us with your opinions because I don't think you'll have another chance this year. By the way, that 1960 Malt Mill they found tastes terrible...

-David OG

HEY! What the hell is going on? This is crazy! This is anarchy! I'm turning these back off!

(thanks for all the nice words everyone!)

-David Driscoll


France 2013 - Day 4 - Easter in Montreal

No time to type anything right now! We're on the move. As Charles would say, "You don't need to play Erin Brockovich all the time." I'll let these photos speak for themselves.










-David Driscoll


Communication Breakdown 

Have you ever written a text or an email to someone where you said something sarcastic, but it didn't come across in the email? Maybe you were straight to the point about an issue or you know what you meant when you wrote it, but any humor or tongue-in-cheek was lost in translation and the written word didn't convey the smirk on your face. It's happened to me before. In fact, it's happened to me quite a lot. I tend to write quickly and sometimes I just assume that everyone knows what I mean.

When you're on the road tasting booze all day long and you're writing down information, jotting down quotes, trying to come up with a quick summation of the day's events, you tend to get worn down by evening's end. So far on this trip I've had about thirty minutes right before bedtime to try and put something interesting together that explains what we've been doing. Sometimes my eyes have glossed over while typing. Sometimes the articles have been full of spelling errors. Sometimes I've just written and assumed that others could see where I was going. When you write like that you miss things and sometimes you don't convey the true intent of your message.

I can think of a million times where I've publicly said something private about my wife that I don't think is particularly embarrassing or controversial – maybe that she doesn't like steak or something trival like that. Then we'll end up eating dinner at someone's house and that person will say to her, "Oh right, you're the person who doesn't like red meat." My wife will then glare at me and I already know what that look means. It means, "How in the hell did this person know I'm picky about my meat?" I know what my first response will be. I'll always say, "Why is that such a big deal?" I'm an open and outgoing person who doesn't get humiliated easily. My wife is the opposite, however. She doesn't want to draw any attention to herself if possible, so even minor details about her preferences or habits can make her upset. I need to remember to respect that at all times.

What does this have to do with anything? It has to do with a post about Bladnoch I wrote a few days ago. Let's refresh our memory on some of what I wrote late one evening:

The South of Scotland isn't a very populated region. About 25,000 people live in a 100 square mile radius. There's not much of an economy down there unless you're a farmer, a plumber, an electrician, or a butcher.
The coastline is completely barren in some places. Some parts look across to the Isle or Arran and at other places you can see Northern Ireland. It is deep within this part of Scotland, almost down near the border with England, that you can find one of the true Lowland distilleries in the Lowlands. It's not near anything you'd want to visit as a tourist and it's not on the way to anywhere else. You need to make the effort if you're going to visit this facility.

Literally everything I wrote in those few sentences came out of the mouth of our hotel manger who was answering a few questions about the region. I was doing my best to write down what he said and when I finally got back to my hotel room that evening I simply typed up this information as fast as I could. It was my intention to paint the Lowlands as a quaint, endearing, small-town country region that most people tend to ignore or forget about. I wanted to start with this description because I wanted to make everyone think I was talking about some forgotten backwoods, only to let you all know that this was really the home of some great people making some great whisky. I was planning to write a second part to this article that showcased all of this, but I got busy and couldn't get back around to it. While nothing I wrote was inherently negative, it was written in a dry and direct manner that seemed rather cold and uninterested. That rubbed some people the wrong way and I can see why. I was planning to say more later.

The river Bladnoch flows through the town bearing the same name. Immediately situated upon this waterway sits the eponymous distillery, a mysterious distillery that has been the subject of much rumor and drama over the past few years. Takeovers, familiy feuds, buyouts, reopenings, closures, and fist-fights have all made their way into this distillery's recent whisky lore. What was once a Diageo operation was purchased by the Armstrong brothers in 1994 and nothing has gone as planned ever since.

Part of what we do on the K&L blog is cover the subjects going on within the industry that don't usually make it onto the average website. That's why people like reading this blog, I think. They learn something about the business they love that they might not have previously known about. Personally, I've been curious about the Bladnoch distillery for years. When I've asked people in the industry about it I've always heard the same thing: it's run by two brothers who don't really get along. That's the first thing people say. That's all anyone seems to know. I've heard all kinds of crazy rumors about the Armstrong family's distillery, but I never knew what to believe and what not to. Gossip is usually just like that. When I wrote the sentence about the "lore" of Bladnoch it was reflecting the nature of what I was predisposed to. I've read emails and message board comments about how the distillery wasn't operational or about how it was on the verge of being sold. I've read all kinds of crap, but I never knew what was true and what wasn't. Therefore, I was excited to go down and find out for myself. What I wanted to do was be the person to dispell all that rumor and replace it with fact.

I could continue to explain why I wrote what I eventually wrote, and I could completely justify why I wrote it, but that would go against the point of what I have to say right now. Regardless of whether what I stated was true, I got completely lost in trying to get to the bottom of a mystery rather than paying attention to the personal feelings of a family. It was just like the situation with my wife. When I don't think it's a big deal I assume it's not a big deal for that person either. There was plenty of widely-known information about the Bladnoch situation. There was a story just a few years back about Wemyss thinking they had a purchase agreement for the distillery until the brothers decided they weren't in agreement and things fell apart. These stories were corroborated upon our visit when we asked. In my opinion it was already widely known that the Armstrongs could disagree at times. It didn't seem outlandish to simply state that as a fact and try to move beyond it. When we learned that Bladnoch was at a complete standstill for the moment because of a current dispute, it seemed that the story got more interesting by the minute. I just kept writing from what I had in my notes.

Ultimately, what I wanted to actually talk about was how, despite all of the problems that Bladnoch had faced and overcome since 1994, they had still managed to create some damn fine whisky. Despite the fact that some critics of the distillery had dismissed the direct expressions as funky or sulphury, we had been able to taste directly from the cask and were very impressed. Despite what you might have heard about these brothers, we had met directly with Colin who had stopped everything, welcomed two strangers into his distillery, and continued to show them a fantastic time. The problem with all of this is that I was supposed to make all of this clear in that article. What happened, however, was that I ran out of time, had to run off and take care of something, and ended up posting a half-assed review of a distillery that, while completely factual, wasn't really indicative of what I wanted to convey. First I was talking about how crazy this place was, but then I was talking about how good the booze was? What the heck was I trying to say?

More importantly, I assumed that because the disagreements between the brothers seemed to be publicly known, and that there was no attempt to hide this fact during our visit, it was therefore alright to shed further light upon this situation. That's what I can't really justify thinking about it now. No matter who is aware of that fact it isn't something that really needs to be brought up again and I should have realized that. In my mind, the story of Bladnoch is the Armstrong brothers. That's what gets me interested in their booze. It's an endearing story of two guys who are passionate about what they do. To me, a single malt whisky is only as good as the people making it and what I had wanted to eventually say about these gentlemen is that their fiery emotions had led to some outstanding hooch. I thought all of these details would get people interested in trying the whisky as well. That all of this hoopla we've heard on the internet or on message boards is really irrelevant. I wanted to get some of this whisky for K&L and show people why it was important. I wanted to say to our customers, "This whisky isn't available in the U.S. but we drove all the way down to Bladnoch to get it because of this crazy story we had been hearing. A story that intrigued us and made us want to know more. However, in the end these passionate emotions had been distilled into an amazing distillate. That's why we purchased three casks of it and we can't wait for you to try them!"

Unfortunately, I've never been able to finish that story. Because of my poor writing I've upset some people who deserved better represention. They didn't need to have their grievances hashed about again on some stupid blog. My intent was to take that information, throw it out there, and then move beyond it to what was really important: the whisky. What I should have known, however, is that while I see all of this as an endearing, emotional, and exciting story about some damn fine whisky, this is real life to other people. While I find it amazing, it's not the way that the Armstrongs want to market their whisky. Not because it isn't true, but because it isn't something they want to discuss publicly.

So let me close with this: the whisky we found at Bladnoch is outstanding. It comes from a quaint, rustic place in the Lowlands that is actually deep within the region. It's the real Lowland distillery, in my opinion, and it's run by two brothers who are quite passionate. We tasted three casks from this distillery and we thought they were quite outstanding. Despite what we had been told, we went drove a long way for this whisky and we learned not to believe everything that people tell you.

And I learned that sometimes whisky doesn't need a story to get people excited about it. It can just be good. That's it. My apologies to the Armstrongs for the poorly-crafted, incomplete, and rushed-to-print report. I hope to be a better ambassador for your whisky.

-David Driscoll


France 2013 - Day 3 - Real People, Real Booze

I love single malt whisky. I love Cognac, too. However, to me there's nothing more real and authentic in the booze world than Armagnac. There are no corporations, no giant distilleries, no grains coming in from Poland, no tricks, and no brand managers when we make our trip through the region. With Gascony's rugged spirit there is only the various Chateaux and country homes with local farmers occupying them. These people own vineyards. They make wine. They distill some of it. They have pigs and chickens. It's a way of life for them and it's not about designing the next big money-maker. When we pulled into a small domaine called Louis Dupuy we were met by a guy named Peris – a man whose house is like something from an old country fairytale. Except this isn't a Disneyland tasting bar. This is the real deal.

Located on the border of Bas Armagnac, Dupuy hasn't distilled for a few years and has a very small selection of casks, but what Peris has is terrific. With only a few hectares of Baco, his vintage selections were quite distinct and easy-to-like. A 1987 cask we tasted was quite delicate and refined with a fresh fruit character that was balanced and in tune with the barrel spice. We liked it tremendously. A 1990 cask exhibited high-toned baking spices like cloves and cinnamon with lots of pizzazz. Because Peris doesn't make wine in addition to his brandy he has more land to plant Baco, which is really only good for distillation. When wine became a lucrative side project in the early 1980s many of the local farmers ripped out their Baco and started planting Ugni Blanc and Colombard instead, however, the old Baco spirits are much more interesting in our opinion. Peris believes that Armagnac offers a better and more individualistic expression of land, which to him makes it more interesting than Cognac. But of course he would say that! :)

Our next stop after Dupuy was another new face for K&L: an estate called Domaine du Miquer that is run by Jacques Lasserre. Jacques is a veteran of the business and for years was the distiller for many other producers in the region (remember than many Armagnac producers have no stills and hire other people to distill their wine). He knows the production from the vineyard to the bottle and you can tell it right away when you taste his brandy. They are polished and exquisite in quality. His crazy old still was made in 1900 and continues to create one masterpiece after another.

Both David and I expect Miquer to be a big player for K&L in 2013. There were a number of selections that interested us. Even though Jacques only has six hectares of fruit, with which only four are dedicated to distillation, he had tons of great booze. A 1986 Folle Blanche sample was incredibly refined and polished. We were hooked right off the bat. A 1993 showed beautiful aromas and wonderful hints of Blackjack and Big Red gum on the finish. A 1982 Baco was also stunning.

If all goes well we might take as many as five expressions from Miquer because they're so impressive. We can't really ask for better brandy to sell at K&L. Jacques was also a very nice guy who is the kind of person we want to be doing more business with.

After Miquer came last year's big K&L Armagnac hit: Baraillon! The quaint country estate became the star of the K&L brandy department with a 1985 that simply wowed everyone who tried it (we still have plenty of it by the way). We pulled up to a big smile from the Claverie family.

Based on the success of the 1985 vintage we wanted to do a number of additional expressions for the store. The crazy thing about Baraillon is that they have some old vintages. I mean really old.

Have you ever had the '93 Baraillon before?

Which one? The 18 or 19? (queue aristocratic male laughter)

Last on the list was Chateau Briat - an estate that has been run by Stefan Deluze since his family passed away. The estate was originally owned King Henry VI before it was taken over by the Baron Pichon-Longueville of Bordeaux wine fame, hence the mention to the property on the Armagnac label.

Stefan is a great guy who has kind of fallen into the business, but is loving every minute of it. We tasted some outstanding casks before calling it a night.

I'm out of time as we're due at dinner!

-David Driscoll