Whisky as Art

While I was holed up in the Standard hotel a few weeks back, I lay in my bed, watching the Art House channel on repeat, catching the ten minutes or so I had missed from each portion of the Jean-Michel Basquiat documentary that had been on a 24-hour repeat loop. Listening to his early patrons talk about his ability, but his difficulty in breaking through to the mainstream New York modern art scene, I was reminded quite a bit of Bryan Davis and his Lost Spirits single malt whiskies. Namely, the fact that Basquiat's work was originally considered crude, rough around the edges, and primative. Then Warhol embraced him, he showed up in a few exhibits, and suddenly his paintings were cutting edge. Today, Basquiat's paintings sell for tens of millions of dollars and are some of the most coveted by art collectors everywhere.

One day Basquiat is a street kid playing around with paint. the next day his paintings are worth millions. His art didn't necessarily improve, or change, or get better, it's just that the public perception of art caught up to where he was already at. This type of phenomenon can happen when people don't understand the nature of what a particular artist is doing, especially if it doesn't match up with what they're used to. That's called being ahead of one's time. For example:

This is a self portrait painted by Basquiat.

This is a self portrait painted by Cezanne.

The Cezanne is what many people traditionally think of think of as a classic painted portrait – so romantic and rustic in its own post-Impressionist way. Can you imagine being an art collector in the early 80s and being told that you should buy the Basquiat painting instead of the Cezanne? They'd have said, "You're out of your freakin' mind!" The Basquiat looks like a cave version of street graffiti in comparison, yet today is recognized as a masterpiece of its own particular asthetic.

In a similar scenario, the people who have criticized Bryan Davis's whiskies usually do so in comparison to other peated whiskies, a la Ardbeg or Laphroaig. "I'd rather drink Lagavulin for that price," they say. Fair enough. Some people would rather look at a Monet exhibit than a Jackson Pollock display. However, much like I wouldn't compare Cezanne to Basquiat, I wouldn't compare the Lost Spirit whiskies to anything from Islay. Or Scotland, for that matter. Sure, they're both distilling barley flavored with peat, just like Cezanne and Basquiat are both using a canvas with paint and brushes. But while Scottish distilleries are producing a classic style of whisky, based on hundreds of years of tradition, Bryan Davis is creating an entirely new genre. The more I taste them, the more I'm convinced that they need to be judged completely on their own context.

Of course, saying that someone is "ahead of his time" is an easy way to deflect criticism when it's aimed at ability and talent. Sometimes an artist isn't ahead of his or her time, they're simply not all that good. I don't think that's the case with Bryan Davis, however. Every time I taste a new whiskey from him it's better than it was previously. And he's getting more creative, more ambitious.

Maybe his whiskies are a little rough around the edges and primitive. But maybe that's the direction we're going with American single malt and maybe Brian is paving the way.

It's too early to tell right now, but there are a lot of people who appreciate his whiskies already and recognize his talent.

-David Driscoll


Photo of the Day II

Cutting peat outside of Port Ellen on Islay.

It was rainy, misty, and cold that day and it made us crave a glass of peated whisky. In fact, looking at this photo makes me want a glass right now.

-David Driscoll


Photo of the Day

Shadows of the trees on the chai at Chateau Ravignan, one of our Bas-Armagnac producers.

I'm very sensitive to weather and lighting when it comes to my mood. My fondest memories usually have to do more with the seasons than any particular event – walking home from school in November, playing outside in the Summer, etc. When I think of early Spring now, the transition out of Winter and into a softer light, I often think of Gascony now – the way the trees looked and the color of the sky.

Memories like that are often linked to booze as well. Thinking about early Spring makes me think of Gascony, which makes me want to drink Armagnac. Nostalgia plays a big role in why I like what I like. I know many people who can't stand the taste of grappa, yet I associate it with my parents staying up late in the Summer time after dinner. Today when I drink it I get a warm sensation – both in my stomach and in my heart.

-David Driscoll


Scattered Thoughts

For all of you asking when we would get Elmer T. Lee back in stock, we've got it right now. The distributor for California, Young's Market, was out of stock for almost a month meaning that no retailer could reorder during the shortage. I got a lot of questions about when I was planning to order more, but I had to reply with, "I can't order more unfortunately. It's out of stock." That's how rumors of a Bourbon shortage get started, people take this information and run with it, yet in this case it was true: there wasn't any Elmer T. Lee to be had. This week Young's got another shipment from Buffalo Trace, but, since many retailers and bars had been out of stock for weeks, the demand was pent up – everyone bought in for double the amount they usually did, emptying out Young's Market instantly (along with all the Weller 107 that came with it), meaning that it's once again out of stock. The retail world of buying from distribution works just like the consumer version from retailers. Currently I've got 30 bottles of Elmer T. Lee until they're gone again and I'm out. That doesn't mean you won't find other stores that have it (just like some stores still have their Weller 12 and Rock Hill Farms), it just means that we might face a few periodic shorages here at K&L. I did try to put in another 20 cases for delivery next week, so hopefully those show up and fortify us until the inventory catches up. Again, I'm competing with everyone else who's hoping to avoid their own inventory issues.

I met with David Suro-Piñera from Siembra Azul tequila yesterday and received what was the equivalency of a graduate course in agave production. David has been working in the tequila business for thirty years and today contracts his Siembra Azul tequila from the Vivancos family distillery, otherwise known as NOM 1414 (the same as the ArteNOM reposado and Gran Dovejo tequila). I think our best tequilas at K&L are from Feliciano Vivancos, but it seems that David took his production methods to the extreme, specifying even the type of jima from the agave production – the process in which the penca (the agave leaves) are pulled from the ground. David went on to describe how the jima can affect sweetness, bitterness, and ultimately the flavor of each tequila. He prefers to control flavor via the jima, which to him is the most important process of tequila production overall.

We'll be bringing in Siembra Azul tequila next week, but you can check out the side label above that reads like a page from a technical manual. I'm hoping to bring David on for a podcast episode in the near future. He said some things yesterday that made my jaw drop concerning agave and the history of tequila production. Some of these ideas were very controversial (like his opinion that blue agave, the only species from which tequila can be made, is on the verge of extinction due to monoculture). Oh...and his tequilas are fantastic. The blanco is a revelation of pure agave flavor.

Every now and then people ask what I'm drinking at home, just out of curiosity. I'm currently in the midst of a big herbal liqueur phase. I've been doing a bottle of wine with dinner every night and then going straight to the Zwack - a Hungarian liqueur that drinks much like an Italian amaro. I recently got a great little sample kit from Diageo (yes, we're now trying to be friends and work together - remember?) that had the regular Zwack, plus their new plum Unicum along side the regular Unicum. It also came with these thick little shot glasses that remind me of the kind Karen Allen drank out of in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I've really been enjoying all three in the evening. We currently have the standard Zwack in stock as usual, but we're still waiting on the other two. I think they're quite fun and hope they help nurture in a new tradition of herbal liqueur enjoyment here in California.

Zwack has kind of a fascinating history. It was invented by a Dr. József Zwack in the 1790s who was the physician for Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones's role in Amadeus "Well then...there it is."). His son eventually founded the Zwack company in 1840 and it thrived into the early 1900s. Communism soon came to Hungary, however, and the Zwack family wasn't about to see their recipe become property of the Red Army, so they fled to the U.S. According to legend, the recipe was torn into four pieces and smuggled out to America, while a fake Zwack recipe was given to the new regime. When communism fell in the late 1980s, Peter Zwack returned to Hungary and repurchased his family's company from the state where they once again began making the original formula.

And that's the short version! In any case, I've been alternating between Zwack, Chartreuse, and the new Dolin Genepy as of late. My digestion has actually improved, so maybe I'll keep this up.

-David Driscoll


Good Writing

Every now and again I get a complement from someone who enjoys reading the spirits blog. "You're a good writer," they'll say. I appreciate it. I like writing and it's brought me a lot of joy. Part of what I enjoy about my job is the interaction with people, both in the store and via email, that illuminates for me a great deal about the human condition. In the ways that people respond to alcohol, I learn more about the ways of people in general. I try and write about those observations and draw analogies that make sense, hoping to increase our understanding of spirits and each other.

However, there's a difference between a few observations regarding booze and the level of thought that went into Americanah, the latest novel from Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. This is good writing, and I'm not talking about an intellectual brain teaser, or dictionary-required romp from the latest Infinite Jest wannabe. What gets me is when someone can describe something familiar, a truth about life and the relationships between humans, in a way that makes me stop and smile – either because I recognize it in others, or perhaps (gulp!) about myself. That's what impresses me about a writer – not necessarily their prose, their vocabulary, or their quirky imagination, but rather their ability to observe society and capture those observations in a way that anyone can appreciate and understand. That's what I aspire to do on this blog; that's what I wish I could do as a writer.

I won't go into a plot rehash about the various storylines in Americanah, but I will say that if you're a blogger of any kind you need to read this book – soon. There's a lot of talk about blogging in there. More importantly, however, there's an honest dialogue about happiness and how our tastes and perceptions change as we're exposed to new ideas and experiences – about the people we meet and what must be going on inside their heads. This is fundamental knowledge to any writer who strives to connect with an audience, hoping to strike that chord of understanding with his or her readers. These observations are cleverly and carefully woven into a story about Nigerian life, immigration to America, issues of race, and love. I've never been so wowed by profundity and challenged by an image of myself that matches up with some of the characters described in the novel. I cringed, laughed, cried, and mostly thought while reading Americanah. I questioned it. Went back to it. Talked about it with my wife. And now, after finishing it, am writing about it here.

What does it have to do with booze? If you've ever thought about why we drink, why we like what we like, how perception skews our tastes, and how our ego is ultimately in the middle of it all, then you need to read this book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There are dozens of quotes I've considered posting over the past two weeks that remind me of attitudes and ideas surrounding whisky right now, but there were simply too many to post! Since this blog is also about writing and relationships, I've never read a book this aware and able to explain the state of modern day American living and I felt I should pass that on. Sometimes it takes an outsider to tell us exactly what's happening on the inside. That's what Adichie has done with this book.

I'm breathless. I'm inspired. And I'm jealous. I wish I could write like this.

-David Driscoll