2013 Whisky Season: First Cask is Here!

Our first cask from Scotland has arrived and, yes, I know, we didn’t tell you about this one during the initial pre-arrival campaign. Some casks, we’ve realized, don’t cause all that much of a stir when we release them as a pre-order, simply because they don’t have the star power name recognition. When you’re selling people whisky that they can’t taste, yet they still have to pay upfront, it can be difficult unless the cask has a big name. We find that casks like this Glen Elgin are more word-of-mouth phenomena – meaning someone gets a bottle, realizes how good it is, and then tells a friend. That happened with the Mortlach and that’s definitely going to happen with this:

1995 Glen Elgin 17 Year Old A.D. Rattray K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - YUM! Why is Glen Elgin such a delicious Speyside whisky? It seems that everytime we have the opportunity to get a peek at this Diageo-owned Highland distillery the whisky just cries out: DRINK ME! Glen Elgin has one of the longest fermentation times for its wort and one of the slowest distillation times as well. The combination of both results in a heavy, robust spirit that remains light and fruity at the same time. Longer fermentation periods usually result in fruitier worts, while slow distillation times allow the spirit to slowly capture all that flavor. It's a gum-smackingly great phenomenon. Unfortunately we don't get the chance to buy very much Glen Elgin seeing that it's not released in the states as a single malt. It's mostly known as the key ingredient in White Horse. That's why we jumped at the chance to snag this lovely little number from the Morrison's warehouse. This is classic Scotch, in the style of Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, but with far more viscosity and a ton of fruit. It reminds me of the few 1970s Glenlivet bottlings I've been fortunate enough to taste. The whisky was aged in hogshead, so there's not much wood influence, just that lovely little kiss of vanilla you expect from ligher Speyside malts. The finish is clean and soft with the malt's heavy mouthfeel taking center stage. Nothing short of lovely, throwback single malt whisky. Less than 200 bottles available.

Do you miss Scotch that tastes like Scotch? Then this whisky is for you. No wine-finished casks, no story, no gimmicks. Just booze.

-David Driscoll


Introducing Fuenteseca - A Marriage of Very Old Tequilas

Wow. Where to begin? How long have we been working on this thing? Let me give you some context here:

A few years ago I met Jacob Lustig, the former tequila expert for Southern Wine and Spirits in the U.S. Basically, he was the guy who educated the sales reps for the country's biggest distributor about the tequila they were selling. Jake eventually started working on his own label and bought into a Oaxacan distillery where he began his own brand called Don Amado. However, Jake didn't come to K&L carrying mezcal, he came with a bag full of tequila. ArteNom was a label Jake started to help bolster his fledgling mezcal company. He had returned to three producers he had met during his SWS days and asked them each to produce one tequila for his brand. Each of the three, the blanco from Rancho El Olvido, the reposado from El Ranchito, and the añejo from Enrique Fonseca, instantly became the staff's personal favorites.

Jacob's approach to tequila was refreshing: let's market tequila like single malt whisky, focusing on the distillery and its specific production methods, rather than a flashy brand name. No one else was using the independent label approach in the tequila game and customers responded with glee. Not only was the tequila unadulterated and pure, but Jake could tell you exactly why the flavors tasted the way they did. Whether it was the elevation of the agave field, the natural yeast used in fermentation, or the type of barrel utlized for maturation, there was a clear and honest answer for each product. The ArteNom añejo from Fonseca was an instant customer favorite and would go on to become the best selling tequila in K&L history. It was all so new and exciting.

As the relationship between K&L and ArteNom continued to thrive, Jake and I became fast friends. We had so much in common and we both loved travelling to Mexico. We talked about possible exclusive projects with ArteNom that would push the selection a bit further and offer something new to tequila drinkers everywhere. That's when Jake told me a little secret about Enrique Fonseca - apparently the guy had been laying down tequila for the past two decades, using refill barrels so that the spirit wouldn't get overly woody. I had never even heard of a tequila older than five years old at that time, but, according to Jake, Fonseca was sitting on juice with more than 20 years of age. In February of 2012, we got a box of samples in the mail from Enrique and we started tasting. I posted this blog that day. The original plan was to pick a single cask and bottle it exclusively for K&L, much like our whisky program had been working. The job was simply to find one that worked.

That's when things started to stall.

We didn't have a name. We didn't have a label. We didn't have pricing. Enrique had never even considered selling these before. It was only due to his friendship with Jake that he was even offering us the samples. He had no idea what to charge for something of this magnitude. Then there was the problem with the samples. I wanted to bottle something old and rare, to be the first retailer with a 20 year old tequila, but the younger ones were more tasty on their own. The super old tequilas had an amazing herbacious character, but they were overwhelming when tasted alone. Then the pricing finally came back. Enrique definitely wanted to make sure he was compensated for his booze. I couldn't imagine selling a $500 bottle of tequila, so we were stuck in limbo. That's when Jake proposed the idea of a blend.

Jake is not a blender. I am not a blender, but I'd hung around Dave Smith, Jim Rutledge, and John Glaser enough to know how it worked. I thought maybe we could give it a try and see what happened. Jake and I picked a date to sit down with the samples and catagorize each one. We would work out a price per selection based on the milliliters used in the marriage, and then group each tequila by its main flavor profile. The rich and buttery tequilas in one group, the peppery in another. We worked out forty or so different possibilities and kept tasting them, over and over. Finally, after considering price, richness, and general accessibility, I worked out a blend using 4, 7, 11, 14, 18, and 21 year old tequilas. The four year old had all the caramel and butterscotch, so I wanted to use about 30% of that as the base. The other 70% would be the more mature tequilas, each adding in their own unique accent to the recipe.

Somehow, it all came together.

Jake and I retasted our final batch over and over. I had the staff taste it. I had my wife taste it. I had my father-in-law taste it. We sent it down to Enrique, he tasted it. Everyone agreed. It was decadent. The tequila was rich and soft enough to please the general palate, but packed with enough spice, pepper, salt, and savory flavor to inspire multiple visits. It tasted like tequila, there was no mistaking it for anything else, yet it transcended anything we had previously experienced. The brandy-like nature of the palate is stunning because you've never tasted anything this soft with this much punch. As far as I know, this is also the first tequila to hit the market with anything older than 10 years old in it. We can't put an age statement on the bottle because we don't want to label it as "4 year old," but I can tell you that 50% of it is 11 years or older.

When I look at the comparable tequilas on the market, Don Julio 1942 at $120, Deleon Extra Añejo at $250, even Casa Dragones for $250, I have to laugh because none of those three are even close to the quality of the new Fuenteseca. They're not as clean. They're not as flavorful. They're not as old. They're not as interesting. Those three tequilas are all about one thing: smooth. They are selling the luxury of supple booze. With the Fuenteseca, we're offering the opposite: big, bold, explosive flavor in a delicate package. The Fuenteseca Reserva isn't as much smooth as it is ethereal. It's a concentrated core of tequila vibrancy wrapped in delicacy. That's the best way I can explain it.

As of right now, we're ready to begin pre-arrival orders. Our initial plan is to make 200 bottles total, however, we might make a little more if the demand outsells our expectations. As usual, we're going to offer customers a discount for ordering in advance on pre-arrival. We can't come in anywhere near the bargain pricing we have on the Don Julio 1942 right now, but we'll be waaaaaay under the Casa Dragones and Deleon. We'll be working with Haas Brothers here in San Francisco to get everything home. Here are the official notes below. We're expecting delivery sometime this Fall, hopefully by late October.

Fuenteseca Reserva K&L Exclusive Extra Añejo Tequila $169.99 (PRE-ORDER) - It's finally happening! After more than two years of planning, false starts, negotiations, tasting, and finally blending, we've finished up our exclusive tequila project with Jake Lustig and Enrique Fonseca, the producers behind the top selling tequila we carry: the 1146 Añejo. Fonseca is an anomaly in the tequila world. He was the only producer in the entire region with the foresight to use refill Bourbon barrels and put spirit down for a long-term aging process. While other companies might tell you that the oldest tequila in the world is ten years old, it's only because they don't know about Enrique Fonseca's treasure trove of old casks, most far more than 11 years old. Our original intent was to bottle one single barrel, much like we do with whisky, but after tasting through these ancient selections we realized a blend was the best way to go. All had unique flavor profiles, unlike any other tequila we'd ever tasted before, so as long as we combined them well we'd be in great shape to offer our customers not only the oldest tequila ever made, but also one of the best tasting. We ended up with a marriage of 4, 7, 11, 14, 18, and 21 year old tequilas in the final product and it's jawdropping stuff. The nose is a blast of pepper, agave, sea salt, and caramel. The first sip is rich, but never sweet or supple, moving quickly to savory herbs and spices, The finish is long and soft with butterscotch and white pepper. This is historic tequila, epic in every way possible. Orale!

-David Driscoll


The Case for Armagnac

Before you make any assumptions concerning what I'm about to write, this is not a column about how Bourbon drinkers should crossover to Armagnac. This is not a piece about how Armagnac is under-appreciated. This is certainly not an article addressing the many ways in which one should train themself to like something they do not. When I typed in the title, "The Case for Armagnac," I was thinking solely about the way things work in the booze business today. I was thinking about what it takes to start a distillery and the motivations behind doing so. I was imagining the endless parade of sales reps, ad men, business cards, and financial advisers who take up most of my work day. And then I thought about Armagnac and Gascony, a spirit with hardly any marketing from a place where booze is simply something else you do on the side. If you want to understand what drinking is like without the pretense, the competition, the collectability, and the pedantry, I think this is pretty much the last place on earth you can do it.

Diageo owns half of Scotland and the other half is divided between Beam, Pernod-Ricard, and LVMH. Kentucky becomes more profit-oriented by the minute, especially with the current shortage and the demand for more barrels creating a hoarding frenzy among collectors. Cognac has always been about money and image and it remains so today. Even rum is becoming more corporate with recent buyouts in Barbados and Jamaica. Of course, you can always go radical and embrace the craft spirits industry, but more and more producers I meet now are simply counting the days until someone buys them out. Very few are in it for the long haul. Now none of this profiteering, presented in a rather negative light by me, I know, means the booze doesn't taste good. We know it does. I'm merely pointing out that there is a place, with over a century's worth of booze in barrel, where you can taste serious, complex, mature spirit without a bunch of guys stepping over you to get the last bottle. A place free of guides, points, experts, and bloggers. This is a place where no one really thinks they're all that special simply because they have fifty year old brandy on the table. In fact, the people of Gascony are rather puzzled as to why we place so much value on something this basic.

You can geek out on Gascogne culture just as much as you can with any other spirits genre. In fact, doing so with Armagnac isn't even a charicature. You see guys at tastings, wearing kilts, playing bagpipes, trying to prove that they're more Scottish (and therefore more knowledgeable) than the rest of the bunch, but no one at Springbank or Glenfarclas is wearing a kilt. No one at Mount Gay is wearing a straw hat with a linen shirt decorated with palm trees, sipping rum out of a coconut. Still, these cartoonish images are what many feel embody a true love affair with booze. You have to go one step further than the average drinker to prove yourself an expert, moving that gigantic chip a bit further up the shoulder. You've got to "get into" Bourbon. You've got to read every Michael Jackson book, and quote the various experts of the moment. Yet, what does one do to show they love Armagnac? What does a true Gasconite even look like? Which romantic Armagnac ideal can we exploit to sell more bottles? I'm not sure. And that's a good thing!

If you dressed in overalls, work boots, put a plate of terrine and bread out on the table, and poured a small glass of Armagnac for your guests, it might seem like you're trying a bit too hard, but at least you wouldn't be exaggerating the reality of Gascony. This is honestly what Armagnac producers wear (because they are actual farmers doing other things besides distillation) and it's actually what they eat. We like to imagine our Scotsmen in kilts, but really they're just Diageo employees in khaki pants carrying a clipboard while they check the automated still. We like to picture our old friend Pappy smoking a cigar on the porch, decked out in a linen suit, but really it's just some Buffalo Trace guys wearing denim shirts, checking the fill levels before heading back to the office. In Gascony, the romantic imagery actually matches up with reality and we know this because no one is out there trying to sell us on it (except me right now, obviously). There are no billboards of Tariquet on our freeways, no color ads of rustic French farms within the pages of the Whisky Advocate. There are no corporations in Armagnac, buying up land and marking their territory, while gearing up for the next booze explosion. There are only people. Quiet, humble people with little to say and little to prove.

Now I'm not saying that authenticity makes for a better spirit. I'm not saying that farmers make better spirits than corporations. I'm merely saying that no one in Armagnac is acting like they're a small company when they're really a big one. No one in Armagnac is acting like anything. There is no marketing because no one has the time, money, or desire to do it. No one's trying to get rich, or become the next Tariquet (one of the largest producers in the region, yet still smaller than Kilchoman). If you don't like Armagnac, then you don't like Armagnac. This isn't a ploy to get you to embrace something that simply doesn't speak to you. It is, however, a notice that it's quite refreshing to leave all the bullshit behind every now and again and simply drink. Your mind can't be swayed by the latest Armagnac review because no one reviews Armagnac. You can't be baited into bulking up on the latest limited edition release because there's no shortage of supply. You won't have to prove your Armagnac knowledge at the office or on the golf course because no one will have any idea what you're talking about, and they definitely won't be impressed.

No one cares if you've got Darroze 20 open at home. Except maybe for Marc Darroze.

Armagnac is free from advertising. Free from marketing. Free of corporate suits. Free of 90 point reviews. Free of hustling and bustling. Free from forums, message boards, and blogs. Free of must-have-it limited edition releases that sell out in thirty seconds. Free of Diageo. Free of pundits and pedants. Free of caramel coloring and additives. Free! If you want to release yourself from the shackles of your own preconceived notions regarding booze, you need to take a trip to Gascony. You can start over there. Make a new life for yourself. Get back to basics. However, you've got to accept the fact that there's nothing cool about doing so. Drinking Armagnac is definitely not cool. It's not even ironically cool. Not even the hipsters will touch Armagnac.

Armagnac is the last bastion of pure spirit. It's there if you need it.

-David Driscoll


Thinking About Selection

When I was a kid I often thought about how great it would be to own every Nintendo game ever made. All of them, there for the playing whenever I wanted them. Fifteen years later, when emulators were born, I had hundreds of classics at my fingertips on my laptop with a classic controller: Mario, Metroid, Castlevania, Zelda, you name it. Yet, I ended up mostly playing Mike Tyson's Punch Out over and over, simply because I couldn't make up my mind which game to play next.

This is the irony of selection. We think we want everything, yet when we get it we don't know what to do with it. When Napster first debuted during my junior year of college, I remember stockpiling MP3s like it was a full-time job. It was like a dream come true, hundreds of thousands of megabytes there for the taking. I could download albums I had always wanted, but didn't want to actually purchase (illegally, I know, but that's irrelevant for this conversation) just to check them out. I could put thousands and thousands of songs on a player and use it like my own personal jukebox, forever changing the way we would DJ our house parties back then. Today I have more than 5,000 records backed up on my hard drive, yet I still prefer to listen to the radio.

Why is it that I get more excited about hearing my favorite song at a local bar than I am in the comfort of my own house? I can YouTube any song at any time and listen to it on my iPhone, yet there's something special about experiencing that moment when it comes unexpectedly. I remember waiting around all day as a kid to see Cinderella's "Save Me" video on MTV. I would sit there for hours, hoping they'd play it. When it finally would appear I would go crazy, picking up an old tennis racquet that would serve as my fake electric guitar. These days I can watch that video at my leisure, anywhere I am in the world at anytime. While having that access can be a wonderful thing, if I were to randomly see that video on VH1 Classic today I would be far more excited.

It's this phenomenon that's on my mind right now as I eat my lunch and think about my reunion with friends tomorrow in Modesto. We'll be having an all-day party at my friend Eric's house, the site of many memorable nights from my high-school days, and I need to bring the booze. What to bring? We were all born in 1979, so maybe I should grab the 1979 Glenfarclas? Are we really going to drink whisky though? What about wine, should I bring Champagne? Some Bordeaux from the year we graduated? Maybe I should bring a whole case of different spirits that my friends can try and sample as the day progresses. There are so many things I want to share with them! How in the world can I choose just a few?

Ultimately, I know what I need to do, it's just a matter of doing it. I need to spend the day talking to my friends, not talking to my friends about booze. I need to just pick something good, keep it simple, and let the booze speak for itself. Bringing too many things would simply overload my friends' ability to enjoy themselves. We'd all feel pressured to try everything, getting drunk way too fast, and likely sick before the day is over. Limiting our options is definitely the best way to go.

There's a great part in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new novel Americanah where the main protagonist, Ifemelu, an imigrant from Nigeria, is working as a nanny while attending college in New York. She notices the sister of her boss asking her two-year old daughter if she wants a red, blue, or yellow balloon and the child starts crying when she can't make up her mind. Ifemelu thinks to herself, why even give the kid an option at all? Just give her a balloon! She'll be happy no matter which color she gets because in the end its still a balloon. Adichie writes that one of the great pleasures of childhood is not having to make decisions, but rather living in that bubble, free from responsibility and pressure. Yet more irony, right? As a child we might long to have grown-up options, but as an adult some of our greatest pleasures come from not having to think about these decisions.

What do you want to listen to? I don't know, just put something on the stereo. What do you want to eat? Surprise me. What do you want to drink? You pick it. I've found that many of my most memorable experiences with food and drink have been at the houses of colleagues or friends that planned out the menu for me. I didn't have to do anything but sit back and relax. That's what I'm going to do tomorrow. I'm going to pick a few wines and a bottle of whisky for us to enjoy and that's all there's going to be. No bar full of fifty options, no explaining to my friends why they might want one over the other. I'm just going to pour and that's it.

Sometimes having access to everything results in complete overload and there's nothing fun or fantastic about that.

-David Driscoll


New K&L Exclusive Armagnac

Domaine du Miquer is finally here and I expect this producer to be one of the strongest players in our French spirits department for some time to come. These are both knockouts, classic in every way.

It’s been pretty well documented over the last few decades that many of the most complex and interesting Armagnacs have been distilled from Folle Blanche wine. Besides the rather stubborn varietal, Armagnac can also be stilled from Ugni Blanc, Baco, or Colombard, but Folle Blanche seems to be a very special grape for distillation. The problem, however, is that Folle Blanche is a much more difficult grape to grow, plus it’s not as valuable for wine production as Ugni Blanc and Colombard are. So if you’re into making wine as well as brandy, you’re more likely to grow Ugni Blanc or Colombard. If you’re into making durable, long-lived Armagnac, you’re probably growing Baco. If you’re interested in making tasty, esoteric, miniscule amounts of Armagnac that will only be appreciated by a handful of super-geeky, anal-retentive spirits nerds around the globe, then you’re probably making Armagnac from Folle Blanche. Unfortunately, there are not many producers who cater to us geeky types, so these selections are quite special for that reason.

A bit more info about Domaine du Miquer, you ask? Why sure!

Taken from the blog this past March:

Our next stop after Dupuy was another new face for K&L: an estate called Domaine du Miquer that is run by Jacques Lasserre. Jacques is a veteran of the business and for years was the distiller for many other producers in the region (remember than many Armagnac producers have no stills and hire other people to distill their wine). He knows the production from the vineyard to the bottle and you can tell it right away when you taste his brandy. They are polished and exquisite in quality. His crazy old still was made in 1900 and continues to create one masterpiece after another.

Both David and I expect Miquer to be a big player for K&L in 2013. There were a number of selections that interested us. Even though Jacques only has six hectares of fruit, with which only four are dedicated to distillation, he had tons of great booze. A 1986 Folle Blanche sample was incredibly refined and polished. We were hooked right off the bat. A 1993 showed beautiful aromas and wonderful hints of Blackjack and Big Red gum on the finish. A 1982 Baco was also stunning.

If all goes well we might take as many as five expressions from Miquer because they're so impressive. We can't really ask for better brandy to sell at K&L. Jacques was also a very nice guy who is the kind of person we want to be doing more business with.

1993 Domaine du Miquer K&L Exclusive Bas Armagnac $115.99 - The 1993 is absolutely stunning with a beautiful bouquet of warm baking spices and woody barrel notes. The finish has a vibrant Big Red cinnamon note and hint of anise that really gives it pep. This is a very special brandy that matches some of the best we have ever carried from producers like Darroze, Baraillon, and Ravignan.

1986 Domaine du Miquer K&L Exclusive Bas Armagnac $129.99 - The 1986 is rich, spicy, full of woody notes, but also the softer side of the grape. The Folle Blanche gives this brandy finesse and an elegance that is rarely seen with Armagnac these days.

-David Driscoll