Guyana: Day 1 - Into the Night, Awaken Anew

INTERNET! We've had some technical difficulties over here, but I've got them worked out for now. Let's get you all up to speed.

We landed in Georgetown late last evening and the air was electric. There was no terminal for the plane to pull into, so we exited onto a stair cart and stepped into the humid Guyana night. There was an energy on the tarmac – a feeling that we had finally arrived in the tropics. Whereas the airport in Trinidad was industrial and standardized, the scene at Cheddi Jagan International was entirely different. We all felt a jolt of excitement as we walked through the colorful hallways and into the customs office. There are six main cultures in Guyana, all living together along in northern South America: Chinese, Indian, Portuguese, African, Amerindian, and the mixed Guyanese. It's a melting pot of religions, cultures, holidays, and cuisines.

After a forty-five minute drive through dark jungle roads, we spotted the column still towers of DDL and pulled off onto a dirt entrance way. A guard opened up the gates and showed us the way to the guest houses towards the rear of the campus. We stepped carefully along the wet grass, through the symphony of insects buzzing and chirping, and into a cozy, three-bedroom flat that was stocked with everything we needed: tropical fruit and rum.

I awoke in the morning to the sound of birds chirping, but in a manner I wasn't used to. There were all types of whistling, calling, and singing emanating from the direction of my bedroom window, so I walked out to the balcony to have a look.  A family of white cranes and various yellow and red species that I couldn't identify were all fluttering about. The distillery was looming far off in the background.

And then I heard the sound of dishes clanking in the kitchen. Our new friend Britney was cooking away, fixing up eggs, bacon, fruit, and tea. 

The others eventually rose as well, slowly coaxed out of bed by the smell of breakfast frying away on the stove. We sat outside on the balcony and took in the scene. I asked Britney what one would normally eat in the morning here in Guyana, to which she replied, "Roti and various Indian dishes." We all agreed that, while the American breakfast was absolutely delicious, we'd all love to taste her Chana Masala." She beamed and flashed her incredible smile.

-David Driscoll


Trinidad: The Layover

I've never been much of a pill-popper. I've always preferred to tough out the pain, or keep my senses about me during times of stress and strain. For that reason, I hate red-eye flights because I always arrive at my destination in terrible shape – exhausted and glassy-eyed with little energy to do my work. Last night, however, I decided to take something to put me out during our overnight flight to Miami and it was the best decision I could have made. I was dreading the trip to Guyana, with a four hour layover in Miami, a three hour flight to Trinidad, and another six hour layover on the island before we take off for Georgetown. I slept the whole way to Miami, however, and then conked out again on the flight to Trinidad. I'm feeling great at the moment. The mountains of Trinidad are visible from the the edge of the airport and they look rather mysterious – as if there's something secretive going on within them.

Since we had so much time to kill before our final leg, we decided to walk out of the airport and down the road to where we heard there was some killer Trinidadian street food. We're here with Roger and Mollie from the Henry Wine Group, California's distributor for El Dorado, and we all decided that the double stand was the way to go. A "double" seems to be the hot snack in Port of Spain, as there was a line of locals waiting their turn at the stand. Hanif's little operation consists of taking two fresh pieces of roti Indian-style bread (hence the term "double"), dumping in a spoonful of curried garbanzo beans, then topping them with a cucumber slaw and both a sweet and spicy salsa. He then flips the bread and twirls the sandwich into paper, as you can see sitting on the counter in the above photo.

There are different types of bread as well. Once of them is stuffed with potatoes. Yum. 

Now we're sitting in the VIP lounge at the airport, enjoying our first chance at WiFi and some Angostura Trinidadian Rum (Mollie somehow had free passes for all four of us!). We've got a few more hours to kill until we board the last flight in our long journey to Guyana. So far it's been an easy trip. I'm very, very relieved.

-David Driscoll


And We're Off (What's New? - Part II)

The American psyche is always obsessed with what's new -- we love the newest phone, the new app, the new restaurant, the new app that tells us about the new restaurant -- and we see this phenomenon in presidential races. Voters say they want experience, but time after time a party nominates the guy we don't know all that well and he wins.

- Bill Maher, on Real Time this past Friday

Americans love what's new because we love to be inspired by new ideas – not just new products, but also new exposures to historic and cultural traditions that many of us lacked growing up away from our various motherlands. Therefore, we go to Europe for vacation and decide we want to be more like the French or Italians, eating locally-sourced dinners around the table instead of fast food on-the-go. We learn about German education and decide we want our kids to go to a Waldorf school where they'll learn how to knit sweaters and make furniture instead of watch cartoons. But rarely do these values, doctrines, or philosophies translate into our permanent American lives in a way that's sustainable. We buy a French cookbook, try a few recipes out for fun, but that's about as far as we ever make it. Let's face it: most of our schedules are not built for this kind of lifestyle. When you get home at 8 PM it's tough to make a wholesome, locally-sourced meal and sit around the fire afterward telling stories. That's why we embrace these new experiences abroad – because they're what we sometimes wish we could be.

We long for new things in America, but what's new can come in one of two forms: the shiny new toy that, like a child, you play with for a few hours until you're bored again and want something else, or the type of new experience that opens your eyes to the world around you and evolves into a lasting appreciation. When it comes to the world of wine and spirits there are definitely many examples of both. There are plenty of whiskies released each year that are new, simply because the marketing companies need something new to market. They know we like new things, so they do their best to give them to us (and we buy them!). But David and I have tried to shape K&L into a spirits retailer that specializes in the other type of experience as well. We're looking to discover spirits that are new to us as Americans, but not necessarily new in general. When we bring in a hot new item from over seas, we're looking to build upon tradition, history, and heritage, rather than the latest trends. We don't want our exclusive spirits to be the kind of thing you drink a few sips of and then say, "NEXT!" We want our spirits to inspire you to the extent that you want to learn more about them and continue to enjoy them for the rest of your life.

Not only do we want to widen the perspectives of our American drinking culture, we want to do it in a way that's interesting and authentic, not merely creating new opportunities for quick sales. So we're headed to Guyana tonight to find some rum. Not a brand new version of rum, or a limited edition release just to give you something exciting to buy a few months from now. We want to present rum in a new context rather than a new flavor. Why has rum played such a role in Caribbean culture since the 17th century? How does it function in modern Caribbean life and what are the traditions associated with drinking it? What else is there to know about rum that maybe we're missing here at home? More importantly, how can we make rum something more accessible and enjoyable to Americans who are longing to experience something new? We've all had a rum and coke, but maybe a bit more understanding of the process would change the perspective of those who have never given the spirit much thought beyond that one simple cocktail.

And this trip is not about coming back and saying, "This is how they drink rum in Guyana, so this is how we're all supposed to drink rum now." It's not about finding a new K&L exclusive that we can get you to buy once out of curiosity before you take a few sips and move on to the next new release. It's not a promotional ploy to cast a new light on an old dog, either. As an American, I love tasting what's new and what's next, but after a while I start feeling empty, looking at the mostly-full collection of bottles on my bar. I want to build a lasting relationship with alcohol based on an appreciation for everything I love about it and I want it to be sustainable, not dependent upon an increasingly ADD-like addiction to stimulus. Constantly searching for something new, simply for the sake of novelty, isn't going to fill the void. Eventually it gets old. I need substance, a story, and a reason to be inspired.

We're not looking to come back with the newest version of El Dorado and we're not planning on becoming Caribbean experts, desperate to showcase how much cooler Guyanese culture is than boring old America life. We're simply looking for a new experience that hopefully creates and inspires a bit of excitement among those who haven't thought too much about rum and its many possibilities.

-David Driscoll

ALSO: my friend K&L Spanish Buyer Joe Manekin is live blogging from Spain right now on the regular blog. Follow him as well! His adventures are quite interesting.


Why I Like Wrestling Analogies

One of my co-workers said to me yesterday, "You wrote another blog post comparing whisky to wrestling?"

Yes, I did.

It's just too similar. If you read the content of whiskey blogs and message boards, it's absolutely identical to the subjects being discussed on their wrestling counterparts. It's the exact same thing going on now in both industries with growing dissatisfaction among the diehards weighing in against the economic growth of a company.

- You've got insiders who know what's going on in the industry, and casual fans who don't.

- These insiders (smart fans who keep up on the internet) appreciate the product on an entirely different level and they want to uphold certain standards that maybe aren't as important to the casual fan.

- When the companies cater to the mass general audience, putting aside desires of the passionate smart fans, it drives them absolutely up the wall.

- The companies (or company as the WWE dominates wrestling these days) sometimes have to decide between taking care of their loyal, outspoken super fans, or what they think will sell to a larger audience and generate more revenue (this has actually been turned into a storyline on current WWE television).

- The smart fans absolutely cannot understand why their beloved company would cater to people who don't love the product as much as they do. Why aren't their desires, as diehard groupies, taken more seriously?

- Wrestling enthusiasts scream for Daniel Bryan, but instead they get John Cena. Whiskey enthusiasts scream for mature, full proof whiskey, but instead they often get 45% without an age statement. In both cases, the people in charge think it's better to go with a general appeal and a broader market.

- In both cases, the super fans are stuck. They don't want to stop consuming their beloved product because it's an important part of their life, but it's becoming more and more aggravating to watch it devolve in to something lesser than it once was.

- Both groups represent a very small portion of the overall consumer market, despite the fact that they're the loudest and most passionate. This is a key reason why their needs are rarely put forward as a priority by the people pulling the strings.

- Smaller companies are always more equipped to handle the needs of these super fans, but they're often difficult to maintain due to revenue needs and start-up costs. They almost always go under or get co-opted by the larger companies. Wrestling super fans had ECW, until the WWE bought it out. Whisky fans had Bruichladdich, until Remy Cointreau purchased it.

I am one of many wrestling fans who is completely unhappy with the current WWE product, so much so that I hardly watch a full program anymore. However, I'm so passionate about wrestling that I can always be hooked back in by something new and exciting, in the hope that it might get good again. I love reading about what's happening next on the internet and what might be in the works for this reason. I think many whiskey fans are the same way.

-David Driscoll


The Doctor Is In!

Is there a doctor in the house? (I must have used that line 50 times when talking about Bill Lumsden, and it never gets old!) There will be this coming Thursday in Redwood City when we present the master of whisky creation behind both the Ardbeg and Glenmorangie distilleries in our tasting bar. Dr. Bill will be on hand from 5 PM until 6:30 where he will be pouring the brand new Glenmorangie Companta, finished in red wine casks, and talking about how he came about creating the flavor profile for the whisky. He'll also be pouring two other selections along side it (maybe the Signet and something else?).

We'll have extra Companta bottles that we'll be releasing at that time to customers in the store. Any extra bottles we have will be available online after that point. Bill should have a special pen on hand as well if you want him to sign your bottle for you.

Look for Kyle if you have questions. He'll be running the show in my absence. Come on down and hang out at the store with Dr. Bill! He's always a lot of fun.

That's this Thursday, February 20th, from 5 PM until 6:30. It's free, of course.

-David Driscoll