New A.D. Rattray Half-Bottles

A.D. Rattray really has the interests of serious whisky drinkers in mind here. You can buy two bottles for the price of one and come away with two different whiskies in sizes you can handle on your own. Here’s what came in today:

Bunnahabhain 23 Year Old A.D. Rattray Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky 375m $72.99 - This is classic Bunnahabhain whisky, through and through. Supple in texture, light in fruit flavor, hints of earth and smoke, with that little kiss of vanilla on the back end. Lovely stuff.

Clynelish 17 Year Old A.D. Rattray Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky 375ml $49.99 - Bursting with lemon and juicy citrus, this expression of Clynelish brings the fruit up front before settling down into waxy oils and soft vanilla. A summer whisky if there ever was one.

Longmorn 20 Year Old A.D. Rattray Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky 375ml $59.99 - Lot's of big vanilla and fat fruit showcase what has become one of our favorite distilleries at K&L: Longmorn. Just another reason to start loving this whisky: big fruit, big richness, without the sherried sweetness.

Mortlach 22 Year Old A.D. Rattray Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky 375ml $67.99 - This Mortlach starts out lean and fruity before the remnants of the refill sherry butt come through strong on the finish. The cocoa and chocolate are but a whisper after the Speyside character of Mortlach takes your palate on a lovely ride between sweet grains and stonefruit.

and in full size…..

Caol Ila 21 Year Old A.D. Rattray Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $119.99 - The fruit-laden, rounder profile of Caol Ila is on full display here. The smoke comes after the fruit and helps to wash down one tasty, mature Islay single malt. Yum!

-David Driscoll


Mount Gay Tasting Tomorrow!

We're bringing back Wednesday night tastings tomorrow in Redwood City. Come by the store and meet Big Frank, try the Black Barrel, the Extra Old, and the legendary 1703 for free! Three amazing rums for just a few minutes of your time. We start at 5 PM and run until 6:30.

Come on by!

-David Driscoll


Lagavulin Lover's Lament

Here we have another one of these moments when I feel like I’m just gloating, but from what people tell me they enjoy reading about this sort of thing so here goes. A few months ago, I sat down with my fellow LAWS members to examine one of my favorite distilleries. K&L has always had a tumultuous relationship with the little “hollow by the mill”. We are constantly struggling to remain competitively priced on the very important Lagavulin 16 year old. Considering it’s now available at many big box retail outlets, this hasn’t been an easy goal. When David and I first visited the distillery 3 years ago, our loyalty status in hand (you may not be surprised to learn that our Diageo Loyalty Status is “Loyal”), some sort of scheduling mishap left us without an appointment. We were kindly invited on the public tour with several large Scandinavian gentlemen, but knew better than to subject the unsuspecting public to a painfully long tour with the two Davids. Needless to say, we were not happy and we turned to this very venue to express our displeasure. Diageo was more than apologetic and in retrospect I fully understand how incredibly difficult it is to keep their billion moving parts in sync. When we returned to Scotland last year, the distillery was VERY ready for us. It is truly a magical place. The short squat stills churning out that oily peaty gold. The babbling brook that feeds the perfectly whitewashed distillery. Tasting this whisky right out of the cask with one of Scotland’s great whiskymen, it was truly a dream come true. But every dream has a dark side.

Let me preface the following with a little personal information. Lagavulin has always been a sentimental favorite of mine. I cut my teeth on the 16 year old. I’ve always revered it as one of the most important malts available and still believe it to be one of the great values in whisky today. That’s why it was so important for us to truly understand this distillery. When we finally did get to sit down with the distillery manager, we realized that our romantic image of this historic place had very little to do with the distilleries current goals. Today, a Diageo distillery’s goal is efficiency. How can we get the most out of our mash, our stills, and our casks? This comes with the obvious caveat that quality is never to be compromised, but I have true concerns about how recent changes in the name of efficiency will affect the product in the long run.

One stark example of our different points of view (Diageo vs. K&L) was simply our terminology. There is some controversy over what percentage of Lagavulin is aged in sherry butts. When we walked into the warehouses, we noticed almost exclusively sherry butts being aged onsite. When we mentioned this revelation to our hosts, how we were excited to finally know the truth, they corrected us. These were not Sherry Butts so much as they were European and American Oak Casks that happened to be in the shape of a sherry butt. This distinction was made to emphasize the practice of wood reconditioning. Basically, when they reuse certain barrels at Diageo, they will strip the wood and retoast the barrels. So, in effect there is very little sherry influence left in these oak casks despite the fact they almost certainly once held sherry. These barrels throw more tannin than a standard refill sherry butt, but are significantly less vinous. European Oak tends to throw spicier flavors and a deep color, while American oak is known for its sweetness, vanilla and lighter colored tannin.

This strategic technique was a point of great pride for our hosts, not only because it saved them money, but also because it was ecologically more advantageous. The goal is to have casks that last as long as it takes an Oak tree to grow (approximately 100 years) an admirable goal, but perhaps the least romantic thing I’ve ever heard. We always talk about wanting first or second fill barrels, but these guys are figuring out how to use a barrel 8 or 10 times. IN another example, the use of industrial yeasts and maturation were points of great honor for those running the distillery, for us they just seemed unnecessary. Of course, Diageo have hired experts to evaluate the spirit during every change at the distillery and to mitigate whatever effects technical changes might have on the whisky. What many people don’t realize is that Lagavulin still plays an integral role in Diageo’s blending program and it is therefore subject to the same rigorous standards of efficiency as all Diageo’s Single Malts (with the exception Oban, which has the surprising distinction of being Diageo’s only distillery used exclusively for Single Malt production).

So, you may ask, how the hell do I reconcile my love for this special distillery with the image that they so effusively project? All you have to do is drink a bit of this stuff and the paradox seems to vanish into thin air.

Luckily, the boys at LAWS put together this outrageous tasting to really reaffirm our willingness to pull the wool over our eyes when necessary.

Lagavulin 16 Year Old “White Horse” circa 1990 43%

Here is one of these much sought after “White Horse” bottlings. Perhaps it’s the 20+ years in bottle, but this is exactly what I like when I taste Lagavulin. On the nose, we have a very subtle struck match (the good kind of sulfur or is that phosphorous, eh?), a spicy ginger note, a very clean earthy peat, and an all encompassing sweet saltwater taffy backbone, which makes me feel like I’m standing outside some large scale candy factory. Palate: This is spicier than I remember modern Lags to be. It alternates between the peppery spice, ginger, roasted pine nuts, resin, and green apples. The richness is impeccable with only the most subtle hints of peat smoke stretching into the long finish.  Oily, spice, fruity, rich. To bad this one is quite rare, 'cause I could drink it every day.

Lagavulin 16 Year Old circa 2005 43%

This is a bottling that I’m very familiar with as 04-05 was my Lagavulin lovin’ heyday.  Here, despite Diageo’s best efforts to remain consistent we see some clear stylistic change. More peat up front than the White Horse (perhaps attributable to bottles age). Powerful black pepper and none of the spicy ginger that I loved in the last one. All around more phenolic and dryer, although it’s not one of these acrid peats. It’s earthier and nuttier than say the medicinal style from the distillery right down the road. Still a great whisky.

Lagavulin 16 Year Old circa 2012 43%

Well, this is the big rich powerful 16 year that I was expecting. A few significant notches up on the peat scale than the last two (perhaps there is some OBE here after all). It’s got more of the acrid smoke and less sweet earth. Salted nuts, burning coal, much more oceany stuff, more clear cut than the others. One might say one dimensional, but I think it’s just louder in general.  Still a great whisky, but it’s definitely a departure from the white horse style from 20 years ago.

On to the 12 Y.O. Special Releases. I’ve always been a huge fan of these yearly limited releases.  These are bottled at cask strength and usually aged in American oak barrels (not ex-bourbon, ex-sherry American Oak. Or is it? You see?)I’m a huge fan of these cask strength limited releases. I like Lagavulin in the buff! I’m happy to constantly repeat the reason why the 12 yo is more expensive than the 16, because it’s just so darned delicious. Let’s take a look at a couple of relatively recent releases.

2008, Lagavulin 12 Year Old “Special Release” 56.4%

This is exactly what I like about the 12 year. It’s the prettiest sucker punch you’ve ever seen. Power and finesse. Nose: wafting peat smoke, fresh pomace fruit, ocean air, crushed rocks and a sort of nougat/vanilla sweetness on the backend.  Palate: Power, mouth puckering intensity, vibrant smoke and oily texture, ultra fine unadultered spirit. With water it gains sweetness, but stays clean as a whistle. No dirty smoky here just pure peat and clean fruit. A really serious whisky.

2010, Lagavulin 12 Year Old “Special Release” 56.5%

I was expecting this to follow the trend of younger bottlings showing more peat up front, but this goes the other way. Less on the fresh smoke, more on the embers, coal, and earth, but at the same time sweeter and more voluptuous. Not as ultra clean as the last one, but maybe more complexity? The phenolic intensity hides some of the fruit we saw on the ’08, but I still get that almond, marzipan sweetness. Altogether harder and more serious.  With water it just expands. It’s a pretty hefty boy this guy.

2012, Lagavulin 12 Year Old “Special Release” 56.1%

Somehow these three do remind me slightly of the progression of the 16 yos, although in reverse. Now we’re moving somewhere much more herbal, more sweetness, more “bourbony” altogether. Much more dark smoke, soot and powerful tarry stuff, but it stays fresh with a generous briny side. Plenty of sweetness on the palate to balance these darker flavors as well as acidity (I wrote “sour/tart”, but in a good way)! This works well with the building sweetness. These 12 year old’s are totally worth $100.

Onto the big boys

Lagavulin 25 Year Old Distilled 1977 Bottled 2002 57.2%

An old glory that’s become very expensive. Dense Umami meaty flavors, struck match, roasted herbs and warehouse floor. Great complexity but rather dirty on the palate, wet peat, moss, shellfish, sherry funk, fruit cookies (Pepperidge Farm Veronas?), all of which I love. I find it to be incredibly well balanced. The finish is sweat highland herbs, heather, chocolate, and texturally very rich. If you’ve got bankroll you should probably start looking for this before it’s gone for good.

Lagavulin 30 Year Old Bottled 2006 52.6%

This is one I’ve always wanted to try. Heard good things, very excited. Wow, that ginger note from the White Horse is back. I’m totally in love with that flavor. Cake frosting, tangy peat smoke, Christmas cake.  All this on the nose, implying richness and great complexity to come! On the palate, the texture is much lighter than expected. The peat is hidden somewhere behind some spiny oak staves, but a bit of water brings it out. Unfortunately, that’s all it brings out. The finish was shorter than expected, but with a soft pleasurable peatiness. Don’t get me wrong it’s really delicious stuff, just not AS delicious as I was expecting. Maybe it was my high hopes, but I would not be happy spending the money on this, although others did like it more.

Lagavulin 21 Year Old Distilled 1991 Bottled 2012 52%

Everybody was clamoring for this one. We got 3 bottles or something. Here is one of them. Nose: Well here is that sherry that everyone was wondering about. Not just “European Oak,” but nutty sweet sherry. It must be sweet oloroso or PX. Strong earthy peat, with almost no briny saltiness on the nose at all. On the palate dense dried fruit, baking spice, orange liqueur and butterscotch. It all finishes drier than expected which I think helps to hold it together. It’s not a knock you down dead classic, but it’s pretty serious stuff despite the high price tag.

Lagavulin 21 Year Old Distilled 1985 Bottled 2007 56.5

I’m not sticking my neck out by announcing that this is one of my all time favorites. Let’s do some formal notes so you know how I really feel. This was aged in European Oak with Sherry! YAY! Specifics are so important. N: The depth of flavor is not matched by any of these other malts tasted today. While I was expecting the 30 yo to come closest only the 25 truly holds its own against this magnificent beast. Deep funky sherry, some of that wonderful fino flor mushroom flavor, which combined with peat usually reminds me of cured meats. We’re moments after a large fireworks display, breath deep. On the palate it’s as rich as remembered. Herbal, sweet and savory. Powerfully viscous and chewy, a bouquet of herbs – all varieties available! Builds into a crescendo of briny fruit, and spicy smoke. I’m sweating and crying softly to myself.

There were some others, but this is the important stuff. Keep an eye out this Friday we’re going to hammer through the important PLOWED Society bottlings. These famous bottles include the sought after Ardbeggeddon, Broraggeddon, as well as some choice casks from Laphroaig, Springbank, BenRiach, and Port Ellen. Considering we finished the Broraggeddon last time we opened it, I think I’ll be taking a cab home.

 -David Othenin-Girard


Blending Exercise Part II - Blending Whiskies

How foolish of me! To get everyone all excited about blending their own whiskies at home, but then not list any selections or recommendations for use during this exercise.

I got many an email last night from readers who are interested in trying this out. The only thing we need to consider here is that your standard distillery edition single malt has already been "blended" for you. I don't mean it has grain whisky in it, but rather that it's a marriage of different casks that has been artfully crafted into the expression you have in the bottle. To really get an idea of what blending your own whisky would be like it's best to use your single barrel, cask strength edition whiskies for this exercise.

In order to encourage more people to do this, as well as stand by my word as someone trying to bring value back into the single malt market, I'm going to heavily discount some of our single barrel selections for a limited time only. We at K&L want to help subsidize the costs for anyone looking to enhance their own single malt education, therefore:

1996 Caol Ila 15 Year Old K&L Exclusive Sovereign Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky (was $120) NOW $99.99

1994 Caperdonich 18 Year Old K&L Sovereign Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky (was $125) NOW $99.99

1991 Linkwood 21 Year Old K&L Exclusive Sovereign Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky (was $135) NOW $105.99

I know these whiskies are still a bit pricey, but they're the best whiskies we have in stock at the moment for blending and they're the only ones we're in any position to offer serious discounts on. With the Linkwood you've got your classic "Glenlivet" or Speyside malt. The Caperdonich gives you the "North Country" flavor and the Caol Ila is the perfect Islay blender. Now, if you've still got a bottle of the Springbank Bourbon cask we did a while back, one of the Auchentoshan barrels we bought from A.D. Rattray, and the Girvan we had from Sovereign, you're in the perfect position to recreate Barnard's blended recipe! We'll also have half bottles of A.D. Rattray single casks coming next week if you want to wait for those. If you recently purchased the new K&L Clynelish 16 year, that's another good choice.

Best of luck with your exercise.

-David Driscoll


Blending Exercise

There's a great book about single malt whisky called The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom published in 1887 by a man named Alfred Barnard. I turn to this book every now and again when I'm looking for information or inspiration about my drinking habits. The tome is a giant travelogue that documents Barnard's visits to active distilleries in England, Scotland, and Ireland towards the end of the 19th century and there are even blending tips and advertisements in today's reprinted editions. One chapter I had never paid much attention to was the section called "The Art of Blending Scotch Whisky." I probably wouldn't have ever paid it much attention had John Glaser not pointed it out as a source of inspiration when we visited him recently.

Having read through the section today, during the commercials between Mad Men, I managed to pull out a few interesting passages that I thought I would share with you here on the blog.

It is a fact well known that the old-established Scotch houses, above all others, are enabled to give a higher class of whisky, by reason of their careful study of the science of blending, which they have now reduced to a fine art....The idea is, to produce a blend so perfect that it strikes the consumer as being one liquid, not many – i.e., having absolute unity, tasting as one whole.

To anyone who's recently found an affinity for single malt whisky (me included), it's important to remember that the idea of drinking the whisky of one single distillery is a relatively modern phenomenon – as in within the last few decades. It's not that single malts didn't exist before then (Laphroaig was one of the first to pioneer the idea back in the early 1900s) it's just that blends were considered superior. Barnard's view is among the majority of opinion during his time. Creating truly top-level whisky required a knowledge of blending.

It should be remembered that a high-class blend cannot be made out of inferior whiskies, and that the first brands of Highland whisky are not procurable at a low price, or at least the same price as second and third-class brands, while experience will teach that it will be cheaper in the long run to use only the finest product of the finest pot stills.

As you can see from the above passage, there was no prevailing mindset among Barnard's group that the finest whiskies should be enjoyed on their own – unadulterated, from a single barrel, at cask strength. In his mind, the finest whiskies should be married together to create the highest-quality of blends – the highest echelon of whisky available.

Age is the first essential in Scotch whisky: common experience has always shown that new spirit is less wholesome and more intoxicating than old....For an ideal blend the age should range from seven to ten years, and for a high-class whisky for ordinary private trade the age should run from five to seven years, while for a public-house trade it should never be less than two and up to four years old.

Isn't that funny? Seven to ten years old for the ideal blend! My how times have changed. What's interesting is how surpluses and shortages affect the "ideal" age for Scotch whisky. I'm not going to deny that thirty year old Port Ellen tastes like pure heaven, but there is a good deal to be said for marketing. There was a glut of Scotch whisky in the early 1980s. Since that time we've been told that the older a whisky is, the better. Maybe that's because companies were sitting on vast supplies of old booze (Stewart Laing told us how they once blended old Brora into their basic label expression because they didn't know what else to do with it). Now we're in the middle of a global shortage. All of a sudden we're being told that age isn't important. In fact, many whiskies no longer carry an age statement. We're back to flavor again. The ultimate marriage is more important than the age of maturity. It could be said that the importance of age to a whisky depends entirely on what the industry needs to sell. I'm not saying that. I'm just saying that you could say that. :)

Speaking of flavor...

Flavour is the next essential in a good blend. All Highland whisky must have flavor, and it is the quality and degree of this flavour that denotes the value of the various Highland stills, just as it is in wine....A first-class blend must contain a careful selection of the choicest products of the Highland stills mellowed by age, and judiciously amalgamated by a practised hand; not like a mixture we heard of lately in the Midland Counties, in which a merchant had put together a second-rate Campbeltown, a cheap Lowland malt, and a deal of low-class grain spirit, and then called it a Highland malt.

How awesome is that paragraph?! Barnard is the outspoken whisky blogger before there was such a thing. Look at him, exposing companies that attempt to market their whisky as something it isn't. Fuck that shit!

Mountain air, peat moss of the richest quality, pure water from the hills, and the best Scotch malt, are absolute requirements for the manufacture of Highland whisky, in order to ensure the pronounced characteristics so highly valued by the experienced blender; and it is the development of these by age, which gives bouquet and relish to a fine blend. In order to appreciate good whisky we must fully realise the distinction that exists in the composition and properties of the blend....For the purposes of our argument we shall divide the distilleries of Scotland into six classes: Islay, Glenlivet, North Country, Campbeltown, Lowland Malt, and Grain.

Glenlivet is what we know today as Speyside (confusion between the actual distillery and the region). North Country we now refer to as Highland. Barnard goes on to describe the properties of each style and its particular use for blending together the perfect whisky. He even gives a recipe for one of the most popular blends he knows of, which you can see in the photo at the top.

Looking at Barnard's recipe for inspiration I took to my whisky cabinet and began mixing. Are you like me? Do you have fifty open bottles that have been quietly sitting there in your living room, taking up space and needing an excuse to finally empty their content? Maybe it's time we all tried our hand at blending. I want to see who can make the best vatted malt from their home collection. I know a few customers who already do this regularly, but I think learning how flavors work together is part of a sound whisky education.

While the term "blend" today has become synonymous with lower quality with newer whisky drinkers looking for "pure" authenticity, mixing up what's available is a great way to find value in an exploitative market. We're doing some mixing of our own right now with casks that have potential, but don't quite sing that solo the way we wish they could. Barnard's book is a great source of information for anyone interested in learning more about the process. I've already had a bit of fun with this recipe.

-David Driscoll