Stressed Allocations

Yesterday in the store I rang up a customer who said to me, "For the last ten minutes all I've heard in this store is talk about allocations. What's going on right now with alcohol?" He was referring to the previous conversation I had just had with the man in line before him -- a man looking for more Pliny the Elder beer. "We have a two bottle per person limit," I had told him, "and we won't get very much this week, so it will go fast." He was also referencing the conversation before the Pliny customer, when I had been talking with Michael DellaSantina -- our William Grant representative -- who was in the store to pour Glenfiddich last night. We were discussing the increased intensity surrounding this year's Balvenie Tun 1401 release -- the limited edition, small batch single malt comprised of the distillery's finest older casks. "I've never seen anything like this happen with whisky," he had told us. "I'm getting twenty calls a day, over and over again, the same guys hounding me about when we're going to get our allocation," he confessed. "We're not getting much, either," he added, "Maybe a few cases -- but the cases are three-packs."

If you thought the current whisk(e)y craze was just limited to American Bourbon and rye, you'd be mistaken. We hear less about the crazy demand for single malt because there is simply more of it to be had. There is a lot more mature whisky in Scotland than in the states, so we've been blessed by easier availability. Plus, most of the fanaticism in America is simply geared toward the domestic side of production. Seven out of ten K&L phone conversations about whiskey are centered around the availability of Pappy or Stagg, while the other three might be about single malt. American limited edition whiskies are also much less expensive than their Scottish counter parts, so the affordability allows for a larger demand, but that doesn't mean there isn't the potential for certain single malt releases to obtain that same cultish mystique. If there was a Scotch whisky with the potential for Pappy status, the Balvenie Tun 1401 is as good of a candidate as any. Here's why:

1) There's not a lot of it available.This isn't by design necessarily, but rather simply the case. Every year Balvenie blender David Stewart picks some of his favorite casks from the Grant warehouses and vats them in "Tun 1401" to create a special marriage. I think it's about six barrels total, so figure a couple thousand bottles for the entire world allocation. The less there is of something, the more people want it.

2) It's relatively affordable. Part of the reason there's such a demand for the American special editions is their pricing. Most people can string together $80 for a one-time-only purchase. If the price of Chateau Lafite or Port Ellen were under $100 a bottle you could bet that demand would triple instantly. The Balvenie Tun 1401 usually comes in at around $250. While that might not seem "affordable" keep in mind that most 18 year old selections are running between $100 and $200 these days. The Balvenie 30 costs $750 respectively. Batch 3 of the Tun series had whisky from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s in it, so considering the age and rarity of the casks involved the price is definitely lower than it should be.

3) Insiders talk about it frequently (and gushingly). If you're one of those people who doesn't understand why Pappy Van Winkle is as popular as it is today, I can give you the quick synopsis: people who don't understand whiskey often want someone to tell them what "the best" whiskey is. Pappy has been the answer many "insiders" have given for the last few years. If you tell someone that Pappy is the best whiskey around, they're going to remember that. When you tell them they'll never find a bottle, they want it even more. From my experience, the more that we blog/message-board/Facebook/Tweet about our favorite whiskies, the more this information eventually permeates the general market. The Pappy craze we're currently in the midst of began with blogs and message boards, word of mouth, etc. In the same vein, numerous respected review sites have expressed their love for the Balvenie 1401 series. The LA Whiskey Society did an event this past September with the Tun. Internet guru Serge Valentin loved last year's release and called the whole Tun series "a masterstroke." And, earlier this year, the Whisky Advocate decorated it with the "Best Speyside Whisky of 2012" award. When groups of experienced collectors, staunch tasting veterans, and commercial publications all agree on what they like you know there's going to be some serious action in the marketplace. People love consensus when it comes to drinking. 

4) It's allocated and only comes out once a year. Sometimes the best part of a great experience is the hunt. The hunt for a loving spouse. The hunt for the great California taco truck. The Hunt for Red October. And, of course, the hunt for that hard-to-find whisky bottle during the Fall allocation season. If everyone could get Pappy then no one would want it. The limited availability is part of the rush. Finding a bottle completes the high. Like the mystical Scottish town of Brigadoon, these things are only accessible for a short period of time before they vanish once again.

I explained all of this to Michael DellaSantina as we cleaned up the tasting bar last night. He sat there looking at me with a look of both excitement and fear. Excitement, of course, over the fact that his company had developed a serious player in its portfolio. Fear, obviously, because he had already gotten a taste of what having a player like that on his roster would entail. If you're a Sazerac rep in control of Pappy allocations then your job is to simply take a beating every Fall. Everyone wants more, everyone is pissed at you because they didn't get enough, and at least thirty accounts will promise never to buy anything from you again. Michael said there's already a whiff of that mentality in the air.

We'll see if it ever actually gets that intense.

-David Driscoll


Creating Different Bourbon Expressions #2

Four Roses Yeast Tub #2Driscoll asked some really good questions last week about where the bourbon's flavor comes from. While the general consensus, at least for the marketing departments, is that you have a sour mash, you have a still, you have a barrel, you add some magic fairy dust and voila, delicious bourbon. The truth of the matter is much more complicated, but also I believe better studied than the marketers would have you believe. David noted that Buffalo Trace Distillery distinguishes between two similarly produced bourbons, Eagle Rare Single Barrel & Buffalo Trace, simply by their taste. They’re all very honest and open about how the barrels are selected, “these barrels right here, they taste like Eagle Rare.” While this seemingly simplistic answer is coming from the tour guide and not Harlan Wheatley it's certainly more detail than some distilleries divulge. If it was truly out of their control as to which barrels taste one way or another, one day the folks at Buffalo Trace might find that none of their bourbon tastes like Eagle Rare anymore. We cannot control the unknown afterall. I know from experience that drink companies do not take risks like this without some sort of contingency. We also know from various sources, as well as Mr. Jim Rutledge himself that the bourbon industry has spent years trying to understand exactly how the process works. Four Roses (and Seagram's before it) is basically a giant whiskey experiment that for many years has employed a number of scientists to help them understand how the flavor of whiskey develops. I'm certain that most, if not all, established Kentucky distilleries employ several sciency types to help them better understand whats going on. This quest stands in stark contrast to the motto embossed above the entrance of the Stitzel-Weller Ditsiller, “No Chemists Allowed.”

Buffalo Trace keeps boxes of packaged yeast on hand in the fermentation room (highlighted in the bottom circle)You don’t need to be a scientist to know exactly what factors go into the ultimate flavor of whisky. Simply examine the process from start to finish and all your inputs are there. We know that the mash bill, water source, grain quality, yeast strain, cook temperatures, distillation temperatures/proof, barrel entry proof, and warehousing decisions will ultimately affect the flavor. Certainly, as with Scotch, the time of year of distillations also affects the ultimate flavor as the grain profiles are seasonally variable and specifications of fermentations and distillation may change based on ambient temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure. The key to making great bourbon consistently is understanding how all those various factors intertwine to produce a certain flavor profile. Four Roses is really a perfect example of how important each factor is and how they can be controlled to interact with each other differently.

Each distillery has a proprietary process for fermentation. Clearly, the yeast is an incredibly important factor for creating a consistent product. Most distilleries cultivate yeast (either a single strain or multiple strains) using a souring process that’s completely separate from the fermentation of the bourbon. The yeast mash is first “soured” or inoculated with Lactobacillus in order to create a better environment for yeast to grow as well as prevent other negative bacteria to take over. These yeasts are usually re-cultivated on a weekly basis, meticulously tested, and evaluated to make sure that no mutations have occurred in the propagation process. Mutations are bad. This is then added to the mash during cooking to ensure that the proper yeast takes over during fermentation. The yeast will have a strong influence on flavor, but its ultimate importance is disputed. If you look at Four Roses, they’ve developed 5 yeast strains to offer different types of flavors.

The Dona Tub at Wild TurkeyWhile, we assumed that these were developed out of simple experimentation or a search for a particular profile, Seagram’s had actually focused on yeast character in response to the closure of other plants and warehouse in various locations. When their Maryland plant closed they knew that they’d need to replace that flavor profile in the blends. Four Roses is the glorious result of esoteric decisions made by a company completely committed to blended whisky. Because Four Roses is so meticulous about its yeast cultivation, you don’t have many flavor outliers on either end of the spectrum. Jim even related a story about the one time in many decades they accidentally let the yeast cultivation go longer than usual, their mutant strain of yeast was one of the mot robust they’d ever had. This was nearly 20 years ago and Jim wondered aloud if it was that monstrously vigorous yeast that was used the week they distilled the legendary 18 year old bourbon that went into this year’s 125th Anniversary bottling. Needless to say, that special mutant strain was not cultivated further and the yeast was discarded despite possibly being responsible for one of the greatest bourbons ever produced there.

The reliance on yeast cultivation at Four Roses is a stark contrast to the way they do things at Buffalo Trace. No yeast cultivation occurs for regular distillation; instead they simply hold back a portion of the last batch and add a significant quantity of distillers yeast. So how can two wildly different approaches produce equally good bourbon on a consistent basis? What the hell, right?

more on that soon...

-David Othenin-Girard


BTAC Whiskies Sold Out 

We ran our raffle yesterday for the annual Buffalo Trace Antique Collection whiskies, so that's one less thing we have to worry about this holiday season. I still have to put in a few more orders for the winners, but then we're done. Congrats to those who managed to get a bottle.

To give you an idea of what we're dealing with numbers-wise, a store like K&L -- which buys a shit-ton of Buffalo Trace products throughout the year -- gets about two bottles of Weller, two bottles of Sazerac 18, two bottles of Eagle Rare, seven bottles of Handy, and about ten bottles of Stagg total. That's twenty-three combined bottles for a demand consisting of thousands of insider customers. Imagine how many raffle entries we'd have if we actually told the entire database about it! We only allow each winner to get one bottle total (and that then disqualifies them from future raffles) and we don't jack up the price -- we keep it at $79.99 -- but that still means that a lot of people go home unhappy.

I must get ten emails a day about the George T. Stagg and Pappy Van Winkle whiskies. The store gets about thirty phone calls a day on the customer service line. "Are you guys expecting any Pappy this year?" "How can I get on the list?" If we actually had a list for these products there would be no point in adding yourself to it. It would be ten miles long and your name wouldn't come up for allocation until the year 3067. Like my friend SKU wrote earlier this Fall: if you have to ask or do a Google search on how to get Stagg or Pappy then the odds of you getting one are pretty slim.

I can't imagine a situation where someone calls a retailer and actually gets "Yes, we have Pappy in stock, would you like one?" for an answer. It might happen somewhere in some netherworld I don't know about, but I honestly can't see it at this point. I tell people every single day: you'll never, ever, ever walk into a store in California again and see these whiskies on the shelf. Not for the standard retail price, at least. Maybe for a gigantic mark-up, but not for what they're worth. There are too many people after these products. There are people who spend their entire day calling around, hitting every store in the phone book, trying to secure a bottle. I can't speak for other stores, but at K&L there is ZERO chance of any new customer ever getting a bottle like that from us. We use them as raffle rewards for people who shop with us frequently and I have to believe that most other stores work the same way.

That being said, if you're still calling around to random stores, asking about these bottles and doing Google searches about how to get one, you're probably wasting your time. Based on what I know about K&L and other local retailers, there's simply no way that's going to work. Obviously, it might possibly work for someone at some point (and that person will definitely send me an email telling me how wrong I am), but the word is out at this stage. Many retailers are holding them back, buying the bottles personally at their staff discounts, and then heading out to the black market to quadrouple their money. People are charging thousands on Ebay. It's just not going to be as simple as calling a store and giving them your credit card. Not anymore.

-David Driscoll


Ealanta is Whisky Bible Whisky of Year....Ugh

When I wrote that post a few days back about the Glenmorangie Ealanta being on the short list for my personal 2014 favorites, I noticed a flurry of activity on our website the following day. The bottles started ticking away until we were out of stock. Just like that! Poof!

"Wow," I thought to myself, "people actually care about what I think!" This wasn't a new whisky we had just released, or a limited spur-of-the-moment thing, but rather something we'd had in stock all year long. We'd been sitting on a few cases and it appeared that my little plug (an honest one, at that) had finally helped move the last few along.

I should have known better, however. I'm not that good.

Of course, one day after I wrote that, Jim Murray came out and called the Ealanta the "official" best whisky in the world for 2014. And I agreed with him. The guy who previously called the Old Pulteney 21 and Thomas Handy as world's best for the past two years was in agreement with me. Ugh. I feel sick.

Can I take back my choice? I mean, I do think that the Ealanta was my favorite, but maybe I can just say that it wasn't?

-David Driscoll


Spirits Tastings Resume Tomorrow!

Tomorrow we've have spirits tastings back in the SF and RWC store. San Francisco will feature the Tullamore Dew Irish whiskies, while the Redwood City store will feature Glenfiddich single malt whiskies. The tastings will start at 5 PM and run until 6:30. They are free of charge!

We'll see you there!

-David Driscoll