It's Memorial Day....Drink Your Booze

I'm in Modesto, spending the weekend at my parents' house, eating well and drinking my fair share in the warm, Central Valley weather.  Even though I brought plenty of booze with me to sample, my parents have a large selection of wine and liquor (as do most people who have remained in contact with me since I started with K&L).  After diving into some of the single malts I received in Scotland, I opened the cabinet under the sink where my mother stores most of her supply and found a treasure trove of great stuff: Camut 6 year old Calvados, High West Rendezvous, Labet Marc des Jura, No. 3 gin, Firelit Coffee liqueur, Kuchan's Walnut, even a freaking bottle of Berry Bros & Rudd Guadaloupe rum!  "Wow!" I exclaimed, "You guys have some great stuff!" As if they had ordered it all on their own.

When my liquor cabinet gets too big to handle, I bring bottles to parties, pass samples off to friends, or load up a box for my parents in Modesto.  I simply can't drink all of it.  Between the wine, the beer, and the cocktails, it's not always easy to make it through dessert and on to the nightcap.  When we visited France last January, this was a major concern of the brandy producers.  People were becoming healthier, driving laws more stringent, so most were trying to drink less, and spirits were the sacrifice many French citizens were making.  Looking through my parents' liquor supply, I realized that my generous donations to the Driscoll booze cabinet were presenting my mother and father with the same dilemma I had hoped to shed: when the heck are we going to drink all of this?

It's all so delicious! What should we drink right now? We only have enough room for one, so which will it be?  I can't decide with all of these options!  We ended up going with the Port Ellen because that's what I had planned for in advance.  The 200ml bottle of the 25 year 5th Release had been a generous gift from some friends at Diageo and I had been looking forward to sharing it with my parents.  No time to get sidetracked now.  Stick with the original plan. 

For anyone who loves to drink as much as I do, a well-stocked liquor supply can become a guilty burden from time to time – a neglected stepchild that gets overlooked.  I know many of you out there drink only spirits, forging a fantastic relationship with brown water due to a lack of interest in red or white.  For the equal opportunity drinkers like myself, we sometimes have to choose one or the other because work, exercise, or other responsibilities await us the following morning.  That's why it helps to devise a plan for consuming your liquor.  I have to decide in advance what we're going to drink and it aids my plan to eventually sap each and every bottle.

Memorial day is a fantastic excuse to drain something special.  Look through your supply and use today as the special occasion you've been waiting for to open that Brora 30 you bought earlier this year.  There's no point in saving this stuff because we all know we're all going to keep buying more (even though we promised ourselves we wouldn't).  Every bottle we add to the collection presents another challenge to be conquered. I'm a minimalist.  I don't want fifty open bottles in my house.  I want ten to fifteen and I want to drain one before bringing in another.  That's why we're drinking Port Ellen this weekend.  I'm in Modesto, my family is here, they've been following the blog, they understand what makes it so special, so let's f-ing drink it.  I might die tomorrow anyway.

Done.  Happy.  Satisfied.  Guilt free.  Phew.

-David Driscoll


Post-Scotland Musings

As I lay dozing in bed this morning, thoughts of Scotland fluttering around in my brain, a few questions came to mind about single malt and this crazy obsession we all share.  When you go to Scotland and tour the distilleries, watch the process, taste the booze, meet the people behind the curtain, and dine with various industry folk, you are continuously pelted with information that needs to be stored and processed –searched for patterns and for themes.  My internal computer is only now finalizing some of this deciphering and is beginning to ping me with its conclusions.  Here are some of the issues I've been pondering.

- We are not all the same and we are not all motivated by the same concerns.  What motivates me about single malt (and booze in general) is the understanding.  For me, it's simply a fact that whisky tastes better when you know something about it.  That being said, information and education are not what necessarily drive other people towards single malt.  Prestige, conformity, fun, tradition, money, and disease all play a role as well from time to time. 

- If whisky tastes better when you understand it, how often are we actually, truly getting it?  I've read all the books, met with all the brand ambassadors, watched all the videos, even began a series of podcasts, but I don't think I really "got" anything until last week.  Go through Michael Jackson's fantastic Whisky book and there are various chapters about how water, barley, yeast, malting, peat, fermentation, distillation, aging, warehouse conditions and countless other minutiae leave their mark on the whisky's final flavor.  I'm not sure, however, that all of these processes are equally important for each distillery.

For example, we learned on Islay that during the brief closure at Caol Ila last June (in which they installed new equipment) they couldn't afford to actually stop production.  Therefore, they kept distilling down the road at Bunnahabhain, using their own recipe, water, and employees to do the job elsewhere.  Granted, they can't call it Caol Ila, but it's all going into Johnnie Walker anyway, so it's no matter.  In my opinion, the beauty of Caol Ila is in the aging and the blending, not the actual distillation.  When they send tankers full of that juice over to the mainland for filling and warehousing, the team at Diageo works wonders with it.  It's the marriage of casks and the art form of flavor enhancing that make Caol Ila what it is.

With Lagavulin, I'd say their cooperage is the most important component of flavor.  That toffee/butterscotch note on the back of the 16 year makes that whisky what it is.  It's not vanilla from new oak and it's not burnt sugar or cakebread from sherry residue.  It's the result of Diageo's cooperage program that strips the barrels of any wine remnants, then re-chars the inside of it, bringing out the flavors in the wood itself.  To me, the essence of Lagavulin also comes from the mainland, rather than from Islay.  It begins in Diageo's Cambus cooperage plant and it leaves a major mark on the whisky.

Kilchoman's new make is so special, you'd be crazy to think that the distillation process isn't the most important aspect of that whisky.  Oban's slow, 90-hour fermentation gives it so much mellow fruit that everything else becomes rather insignificant at that point.  Springbank's inconsistency comes from its inconsistent malting process, and the funky, earthy notes in the sherry cask malts are derived from that funky, moldy warehouse they're stored in.  Glendronach's tap water tastes like Glendronach, so I'd say that water plays a major component there.  In each distillery that we visited, specific parts of the overall process seemed to carry more weight than at other places.  If someone were ever going to write a new book about whisky distilleries, this would make a fascinating theme (No, I'm not doing it).

- There's a lot of insecurity in the whisky world.  There's a lot of false confidence.  There's also a huge divide between the last generation and the new one.  The old school guys, like Iain McArthur at Lagavulin, are who keep the true spirit alive.  They're humble, hard-working, kind, and they'd never say a bad word about any other distillery.  The new generation is cocky, forward-thinking, and bold, but without experience.  They wouldn't hesitate to take a swipe at a competitor in front of other business folks.  I definitely came of age with all of the negative attributes from the new generation - arrogant and sure of myself.  I'm hoping, however, to become more like Iain, like John MacLellan at Kilchoman, like Des McCagherty at Edradour – guys who quietly do their jobs well and know that's enough.  Young people tend to think the world won't notice you if you don't point yourself out constantly.  People do notice, however, and not always for the better.  I've certainly noticed the difference.

-David Driscoll


News & Notes

Well, I'm at my desk, eating a package of Whole Foods sushi (which is actually pretty good), and I'm getting ready to go back down to the store where we've got former Giant J.T. Snow pouring wine in the tasting bar.  I'm likely going to blush like a little girl because J.T. is my all time favorite Giant, I think.  Love the way that guy played first base.  In any case, I thought a few little notes would be nice before the long weekend.  Here's the scoop.

- More K&L exclusive Armagnac hitting the store on Tuesday.  We'll have two crazy deals from Chateau Pellehaut: a 1974 vintage for about $130 and a 1987 vintage for around $80.  Both are crazy good and represent tremendous value.  A 38 year old brandy of this quality for $130!  It's nuts.  We'll also be bringing in the value bottle from Domaine d'Ognoas.  All three of these bottles are must-haves for me.  I'll retaste them before posting the final descriptions, but my notes from the trip are super enthusiastic (but really, when are they not?). 

- Ardbeg's "Day" Committee Release will be coming out next weekend.  I'll send an email to the list and post a link on the blog.  We'll have a good amount.  Price should be around $90 or so.  This is a special release that has been matured an extra six months in sherry, so there's a bit more richness on the back end.  Please.......please, don't send me an email when they're all sold out telling me that you're in the actual committee and that these bottles were supposed to be for committee members only. 

- We'll be focusing on a few new rums over the next week.  I met with the head of Ron Abuelo from Panama the other day and was really impressed with the operation.  They do everything themselves from their own sugar cane, and the value is there - especially the 7 year, which I plan to bring back into stock immediately.  For $26, it's going to "wow" a lot of people.

- David OG's bitter obsession is finally making its way North.  I just got the go-ahead today to take over an entire shelf back by the glassware in Redwood City, so I'm going to move all the mixers, bitters, tonic, cherries, etc, over to that area.  That means I can really expand our selection and you won't have to reach to the tippy-top of the normal shelf now. Maybe we'll add some bar tools as well.  I don't see why we shouldn't be the one-stop shop for everything available cocktail-wise.

- I've had a good amount of new shoppers in the RWC store lately who have found us due to this blog.  Hooray!  People actually read this thing!  Welcome to K&L.  Please visit us more often. If you need any help my email is so please feel free to ask questions.

- David Driscoll


Remember Me?

Hey everyone, remember me?  I'm the Hirsch Small Batch Reserve Bourbon $32.99 and I used to be one of the biggest sellers at K&L, back before young David Driscoll was even working at the store.  I was known to be soft, creamy, rich and smooth, and all of the staff members made me their number one choice for all customer recommendations.  People loved me.  I was so accessible.  Excited drinkers just getting into spirits found me easy to enjoy, while the grizzled veterans celebrated my quality at such a bargain price.  Then one day I went away.  There simply wasn't any of me left.  Hirsch had long since lost the Michter's distillery stock, so they relied on other sources to make more of me.  They couldn't find the whiskey they needed, however, so I was gone for quite a while.  Then, out of the blue, I awoke one morning to find that I once again existed.  I made sure to tell K&L right away so that they could buy more of me quickly, before the other stores found out.  Right now they've only got about 40 bottles of me, but the word is they're going to secure more soon.  Make sure you get some of me now while I'm still available!  It's so good to be back.  

-Hirsch SBR (David Driscoll)


Scotland - Day 13: Do You Have Access?

Not really a "day" in Scotland as David is already getting on a plane and I'm in the hotel lobby getting ready to leave in the next forty-five minutes.  However, we met with another bottler last night, one who has previously released fantastic expressions, to taste a few cask options and discuss some business.  The samples were unfortunately not quite up to snuff, so we ended up just having a nice dinner instead.  Our host apologized that he wasn't able to find us something exquisite, but cited that his previous successes were based on his then cozy relationship with Diageo – one that has soured over the past five years or so.  This didn't surprise us.  The independent bottle trade is all about access.  It's not a matter of there being a whisky shortage in total volume, it's a situation where the volume simply isn't for sale.

Diageo just built what is now the biggest distillery in Scotland – the monstrous Roseisle – a forty million pound whisky machine pumping out booze in the Highland region.  There's a reason for that: they didn't have enough whisky to supply demand.  Now there's word that they underestimated the market and may in fact build another gigantic plant somewhere else.  If only Pittyvaich, Banff, Port Ellen, Brora, and all the other closures were still in operation!  In the past ten years the whisky independents have been getting in in the distillery game as well.  Gordon & MacPhail purchased Benromach.  Signatory took Edradour.  Murray McDavid got Bruichladdich.  Ian Macleod bought Glengoyne, and now have just secured Tamdhu as well.  Duncan Taylor tried to buy Glendronach, as did Douglas Laing, and the word on the street is that Weymss was close to purchasing Bladnoch.  See the pattern?  Why would independent bottlers, who for decades have feasted on the excess whisky from Scotland's many distillleries, all of a sudden get into the distillation game?  Access.  They knew this day was coming and they wanted to be prepared.  The market has been hot for whisky since the turn of the millenium and all the signs pointed to a boom.

The tightening of the independent belts came as no surprise to us upon arrival, but it was rather disappointing.  Companies that had given us numerous quality options last year were quite limited this time around.  We might end up buying nothing from a few of them, concentrating the bulk of the purchasing from more recently-founded relationships.  I'm completely confident in our cask selection for 2012, even more so than last year, but there won't be a Brora or a Banff in the bunch.  Those casks have doubled, if not tripled, in value since last year and most bottlers just laugh when you even propose such an idea.  Going direct from the smaller distilleries, who are hungry for more exposure, is going to be the answer this year.  Benriach, Glen Garioch, Glenfarclas, and Kilchoman have all given us superb samples – so good that choosing will be difficult.  I hope these avenues remain open for next year because access is the key to everything right now.  Do you have it?

It's now time to pack up the computer, grab my bags, and head over to the terminal.  I'll see you all in seventeen hours.  

-David Driscoll