Scotland – Day 2: Components

Alright, alright! I'll tell you what we drank at Ardbeg last night. Normally, I'm not the type to brag when I get to taste amazing whisky (mainly because I hate it when other people do it), but since fifty people emailed me after the last post (and I'm not going to answer fifty separate emails right now) I'll show you a close-up of the photo.

In my honest opinion, the best whisky in the group was the first: a 1999 single Bourbon cask. Even compared to the 1974, I thought the 15 year old was better. I could drink that whisky for the rest of my life and be happy. It's really a dynamic experience tasting single barrel Ardbeg samples because most of what Ardbeg releases are marriages of various ages from various barrel types. Getting the chance to isolate one of those components is really eye-opening – the fruitiness on the nose, the phenolic elements, and the hint of vanilla and butterscotch from the wood carrying through the finish. 

I now badly wish Ardbeg had a standard 15 year old expression.

-David Driscoll


Scotland – Day 2: Whirlwind Tour

Only a few years ago, the idea of travelling to Islay on behalf of K&L was just one of Kyle Kurani's many dreams. Earlier today he stood on the deck of the ferry, gazing towards Jura in the distance, brimming with the anticipation of what was looming before him. One moment he was on a boat powering through the Irish Sea towards Islay...

...the next he's standing in front of Caol Ila overlooking the Straight of Islay.

No more than twenty minutes after leaving Port Askaig, he was turning the barley at the Bowmore floor maltings.

No less than thirty minutes after leaving Bowmore, he was standing with the rest of us at Ardbeg watching Mickey Heads water down the grist. That's pretty good for an hour's work.

In the midst of all the hoopla and hot press, it's easy to forget that Ardbeg is a pretty tiny distillery when compared to most standards. They have only one wash still and one spirit still. That's the same amount of stills as Kilchoman, the only distillery on the island with a smaller output than them.

It's also easy to forget that the Uigeadail once cost more than $100 per bottle, yet now costs less than it ever has. True, they're not dumping any more ancient sherry casks into the marriage, but they're also charging you $50 less per bottle. That stands in stark contrast to many other companies charging you more for less. What's not easy to overlook is the incredible generosity of their staff and their employees. Ardbeg may be owned by one of the world's largest luxury brands, but they manage to generate the feel of a small, family-run operation. We had an epic tasting with Mickey, accompanied by our good friend Lester Lopez from LVMH. It was his first time on the island and he was absolutely stoked.

We laughed, we told stories, we drank. 

We really enjoyed that whisky.

-David Driscoll


Scotland – Day 2: The Road to Islay

We skipped Islay last year, mainly because there weren't any casks to be had at that time. It's a multi-day commitment, as well, so we figured that time was better spent searching down more whisky. This year, with Kyle in tow, Islay was an absolute must. It's like whisky Disneyland, a mecca for Scotch geeks, so there's no better place than the Queen of the Hebrides to get you pumped up about single malt. It's also quite a beautiful drive around Loch Lomand, through the Argyll forest, and over the lip of Loch Fyne before heading down the Kintyre Peninsula. You head through misty valleys…

…past mountain streams...

 …by seaside towns…

…and eventually end up at the Kennacraig ferry.

Then you pull away from the mainland and head out towards the Straight of Islay and Port Askaig.

-David Driscoll


Scotland – Day 1: Glasgow Nights

After checking in at our hotel downtown and grabbing a quick pint at the local pub, we headed to the new office of Hunter Laing – located just a few blocks from the old one in a picturesque neighborhood with gorgeous 19th-century era Victorian architechture. Stewart Laing used to run Douglas Laing & Co. with his brother Fred, but the two recently decided to divide the stocks and move in different directions as the next generation of Laings begins to take over. Stewart now runs Hunter Laing with his son Andrew and they're still our source for the Sovereign whiskies we import each year. Our latest batch of Ardbeg 21, Laphroaig 20, Caol Ila 32, GlenGoyne 16, and Glenrothes 8 year has already been a huge success offering big names and collectabilty along with supreme value and high quality. However, the supply of mature whisky with independent bottlers in Scotland is as bad as it's ever been. If we're going to come back with fresh and exciting selections in 2014, Stewart's available stock is absolutely the best place to start. 

I wish I could cleverly capture the interior of these red sandstone buildings – the white walls with green and blue tartan for carpeting and an obvious hint of Greek classicism in some of the decor and wall carvings. It's really quite inspiring. As we approached the Hunter Hamilton office we couldn't help but peek inside the various residences and daydream about possibly occupying one. For now, however, I'll have to just make do with photographing the tasting bar in Stewart's new sampling room. While many other bottlers are really scraping the bottom of the barrel for whisky right now (literally), the Laings are still in pretty good shape all things considering. We immediately set Stewart's mind at ease by letting him know we weren't coming for more Port Ellen or Ardbeg.

"We need more value," I told him, straight off the bat.

"That's good news," he said, "because we're in a great position to provide you with it."

Even with value on your mind, however, there's so much whisky to taste through and only so much your mouth can handle in a single evening (especially when it's been travelling for fifteen hours). We narrowed down our criteria further by looking for sherry-aged malts, young peated whiskies, and mature grains with modest price tags.

"You fellas do alright with grain, do ya?" Stewart asked.

"Definitely," Kyle answered. "We did a cask of Cambus with Signatory last year that was very well received."

With those descriptors in mind, we began scavenging through available stocks and tasting through selections.

We really enjoy working with Stewart and, now that his son Andrew is on the staff, we're looking forward to his input as well. Over the past few years he's become one of our favorite appointments and I think he gets a kick out of us as well. One thing that's been on my mind for the past few weeks is how important it is in life to surround yourself with good people. We have so little time on this planet, so why waste it dealing with the insufferable when you could utilize it by working with people you like? I enjoy drinking whisky with good people, so in turn I've grown to appreciate buying whisky from good people. To some, there's little room in the business world for sentimentality and emotion. I'm not one of those people, however. More and more, I'm gravitating towards the people who appreciate our relationships and treat us with honesty and respect. I'd like you all to get to know these folks, as well, so maybe we'll make this an on-going theme for our trip.

What did we find, you ask? Plenty of good leads. If you remember the Girvan and Caledonian grain casks we did a few years back, then you'll know that the Laings have some pretty fantastic grain whisky lying around. We're looking at more than ten different candidates, including a possible grain whisky retrospective if we can find enough samples we like. As for sherry-aged selections, we really wanted to taste everything, so we started with some of the lesser-known distillery names in the hope of finding something tasty, yet inexpensive. I think we all really enjoyed a Craigallachie 18 year old sherry butt that exploded with baking spice and rancio oloroso notes. A 12 year old Braeval also made the short list.

We finished the evening by dining with both Stewart and Andrew at a local Chinese spot and talking about the lasting news in the booze industry. There have been some very interesting developments over the past 48 hours that are going to significantly affect our trip (more on that later). We might have to do a bit of rescheduling, but I think we're off to a good start. 

Islay tomorrow.

-David Driscoll


Scotland – Day 1: Good Luck

We had an empty flight leaving San Francisco, which allowed both Kyle and myself to stretch out in the vacant rows, move the arm rests vertical, and get a few hours of shut-eye. Five hours later, I woke up, watched the rest of Elysium with Matt Damon, managed to power through the touching and solemn Nebraska with Bruce Dern, and before I knew it we were landing in London.

Even though David OG was supposed to arrive at Heathrow hours before us, his plane out of LAX was apparently delayed for almost two hours due to missing paperwork. He had to literally sprint out of his gate, fast-track it through customs, and high-tail it down through the terminal to make the flight. He did it, however, and his suitcase made the transfer as well. We arrived in Glasgow, picked up our rental car, and drove into downtown amidst grey skies and cool wind. We all managed to sleep on the plane, so all three of us are currently feeling quite fresh.

I hope this great momentum for the beginning of our journey continues on into the week. We're off shortly to our first appointment. I'll keep you abreast of any important news, of course!

-David Driscoll