You Know Things Must Be Desperate When....

...Beam Global decides to take its most iconic brand, the red wax-dipped Maker's Mark Bourbon, and lower the proof from 45% to 42%. Apparently, there's not enough Maker's Mark to keep up with global demand, but of course this isn't news to any of you. We've been discussing the current whisk(e)y shortage for over a year now. However, while the UK was treated to news of an ageless Macallan last summer, the average American consumer is practically clueless about what's been going on in the booze world. Most people are not interested in hearing about it, either. I was trying to tell a guy last week about why his search for Elijah Craig 18 was likely to be a difficult one and he turned his back, mid-sentence, and walked away in a huff. People always shoot the messenger!

Regardless about how you feel concerning the Maker's Mark reduction, no one can deny what it means. There's no way in hell that Beam made this decision lightly, which speaks to the severity of the shortage and the insatiable thirst for more brown booze. When Macallan decides to mess with its 12 year cash cow and Maker's Mark introduces a new Pepsi Light, you know something's amiss. Maker's Mark drinkers are the most fanatical. They're brand people who expect a brand to live up to its end of the bargain, which is basically: don't change anything. The boys at Beam know they're about to get pummelled with complaints, however, that's better than an empty shelf in their opinion.

We've got our Macallan moment now in the U.S. This is happening. I have to say, personally, that I'm glad to see it occur. For the last year, customers have looked at me skeptically, thinking this story of a booze shortage was probably a way for me to cover my ass in front of an empty shelf. People have been rolling their eyes, smirking, and getting all hot and bothered when I tell them about what it's going to take if they want a bottle of Pappy, Parker's or Stagg. It's been very frustrating. Now I can simply say, "Did you hear what Maker's Mark just did?" Oh.....maybe this guy isn't simply lying to us. BevMo didn't have it either.

-David Driscoll


Revisiting Your Favorites

We didn't do very many awards this year at K&L, mainly because we're moving further away from that kind of recognition. Most awards only honor new whiskies anyway. But what about the ones that have been around for ages? The faces you've always known? The standard expressions? "I've already had those, years ago," some people think. Are they still the same, however? What makes you so sure?

One thing I did touch on recently was how spirits will change on you - literally. Whisky can taste different to you over time for a number of reasons. Maybe you've had the bottle open for years and it's oxidized. Maybe the whisky company you love is now releasing a different batch (remember that few whiskies are exactly the same from year to year). Maybe that whisky without an age statement on the label is using younger whisky than it did last time. Maybe your own tastes have simply changed. Maybe you want something different, a new flavor, a more extreme version of what you already like. Maybe you want something more restrained.


What are your favorite spirits right now? Are they the same as they were a year ago at this time? We think we already know what Lagavulin 16 tastes like because we tasted it a while back. However, what does it taste like now? You've got to keep revisiting things to know for sure (that's why it's good to meet people who also collect single malt). No one would ever say, "I know what Lynch Bages wine tastes like," because you have to be more specific. Which vintage? 2001? Wines vary from vintage to vintage, so wine is spoken about within these parameters, but we rarely talk about whisky in the same way.

For example, Lagavulin increased production in 1997 and began operating all year long at a much higher volume. That whisky is scheduled to turn 16 years old this year and become eligable for the standard release. Is that whisky going to taste the same as the whisky from 1996? I don't know. Maybe it tastes better because they're no longer scraping the bottom of each barrel to keep up with supply. Maybe it tastes worse because the increased volume took away from quality. Maybe nothing will change!

Vintages are important to wine because the weather plays the ultimate role in how a particular wine will taste. It isn't necessarily playing a factor with single malt from year to year, but batches are indeed different (as the obsessive Aberlour Abunadh batch chasers will tell you). The whisky you had two years ago is probably not identical to what's on the shelf now for any number of reasons (age, warehouse location of the barrels, the palate of the master blender, etc). Weather can play a role, however, if a particularly warm summer resulted in greater oak extraction from the wood.

I've been going back and tasting a lot of standard releases lately. A lot of Glenlivet, Macallan, and basic expressions that I usually take for granted. It's greatly changed the way I look at our selection. I used to think I already understood what we had available. Now I'm methodically retasting almost everything so that I understand them now - as they taste today. It's forced me to take a look at where my palate is at, as well as the type of products I want to focus on.  Here's where I'm at for February 2013:

Current Favorites:

Scotch Whisky under $50: Aberlour 12 NCF $49.99 - So we're only a penny under fifty bucks, but this is simply where my palate is at right now. I want chewy, I want oily, and I want viscosity. But I don't want too much sherry. I don't want it sweet. If I want sherry, I'll open a bottle of sherry. I still want the maltiness of the whisky to come through. This is a fantastic bottle of booze. Easy to drink and my friends who don't drink much single malt instantly adore it. Accessible, affordable, good.

Scotch Whisky under $100: Glenmorangie 18 Year Old $89.99 - This whisky actually took a price increase last year, so I bought in to protect the $90 retail sticker for as long as I can. We've got a good supply of this and it doesn't really sell off the web. I think most people don't know how good this bottle is. When's the last time you had this whisky? If you've never had it, you should try it soon. Very soon. I'm guessing this bottle shoots up to $150+ by January 2014. Mark my words.

Bourbon: Four Roses Yellow $19.99: I was on an Old Weller Antique kick like you wouldn't believe for months, but I'm starting to tire of the whole pencil shavings, extra wooded quality. I'm really into smooth right now. Yeah, I said it. Smoooooooooth. Don't be afraid to use that word. Sometimes you just want to take it easy. Four Roses Yellow is like Sunday morning, baby.

Gin: Berry Bros & Rudd No. 3 Gin $34.99 - This is one area where my palate has not changed. I have a lot of gin open at home, but there is still no better product on the market than this. No. 3 is still the benchmark.

Cognac: Ferrand 1840 1er Cru Cognac $37.99 - I've been drinking Cognac cocktails lately and I've been enjoying it on the rocks. The 45% really helps and the booze is simply clean and easy. You can sip it, but I've been on a French 75 kick like no other.

Tequila: ArteNOM 1079 Blanco $39.99 - Another spot where I feel exactly the same as I did a year ago. In fact, after a year of expanding my horizons, trying all the old brands, looking for new ones, I feel even more strongly than I did back then. This tequila just makes every other tequila look.......uh........really bad. The purity of the spirit, the delicacy of the flavor, and the restrained nature of the alcohol all perfectly in harmony.

Rum: Mount Gay Extra Old $34.99 - Part of the reason people love Bourbon cask-aged spirits is because the residue doesn't overwhelm the flavor of the spirit itself, unlike sherry-aged spirits. The Mount Gay is a perfect example of richness, depth, and spice for a relative bargain. Load up.

-David Driscoll


Annual Obligatory Sherry Pitch

About once a year I try to write something about Sherry (or Jerez si vamos a hablar en Español) mainly because the crossover appeal between it and single malt is blatently obvious. Every year I write it and most people think, "Huh........Sherry, eh?" and that's about as far as it goes. I know plenty of Scotch drinkers who have made the transition to Bourbon, yet no one ever wants to learn more about the fortified wine that shapes their Macallan, Glenfarclas, Springbank, or Lagavulin whiskies. There are very few single malt producers that aren't using ex-Sherry barrels to mature their whisky, yet we seem to forget the huge influence these wine-soaked butts have over our beloved bottles. I get emails from customers all the time about how wonderful the Glendronach K&L single barrel they just purchased tasted. "How do they get all that rich, toffee-laden, fudgy flavor into that whisky?" they ask. "They must have really good distillers."

Distillers? No. Really good Sherry barrels? Yes.

Because that's what you're tasting when you taste our new Glendronach 19 year old Oloroso cask. You're tasting sherry. 95% of that whisky's flavor comes from the Oloroso. The other 5% is the alcohol and the eau de vie. If you should ever visit Glendronach distillery, that's where the majority of your visit will take place: in the barrel room. They're firm believers in the idea that most of whiskymaking takes place after distillation. They'll talk your ear off about cooperage and the influence that Jerez has over their malt. Yet, Scotch drinkers in search of something different still look to rum or Bourbon due to their "similar" flavor profiles. Not that you shouldn't enjoy rum or Bourbon. They're fantastic spirits. I just don't get why more people aren't interested in Sherry, considering that for those producers using Sherry wood, it is far and away the number one influence on their single malt whisky's ultimate flavor.

And it's delicious to drink on its own!!!!!!

Besides the deliciousness of its character, the relatively reasonable price tags, the fact that you can open a bottle and have it last for months, and the complexity of its different flavor profiles, there is one standout reason why Sherry is ripe for hipster exploitation: no other wine, beer, or spirit offers the potential for so much geekery. I mean, isn't that what hipster culture is about? Taking something completely phased out from our past and ressurecting it once again as the measurement of coolness? Turntables, beards, and carpentry! No other alcoholic beverage is as antiquated and associated with old people as Sherry. If you want to know more about something than someone else, Sherry is your key to pedantic bliss. All of us at the Redwood City store just purchased the book Sherry, Manzanilla, & Montilla in an attempt to increase our own collective knowledge. We're all committing to this movement.

Sherry is so complicated to produce and comes in so many different manifestations that it would take years to truly understand it. It can be briny and austere, yeasty and funky, nutty yet dry, nutty but sweet, raisined and chewy, chocolatey and earthy, and any other combination of these flavors already mentioned. You can serve it chilled as an aperitif with hard cheeses and nuts, or sip it after dinner like you would a glass of single malt. It combines viticulture, soil, winemaking, distillation, barrel-aging, and most importantly: flor.

What is flor you ask? It is to Sherry as peat is to whisky and as bret is to beer or cider, in that it offers a unique complexity of flavor that can take some getting used to. Flor is a veil of Saccharomyces yeast cells, which multiply and form a layer of film that covers the wine as it ages in barrel. The barrier on the surface prevents total oxidation by limiting the wine's contact with oxygen (flor also needs oxygen to survive, so what little leaks into the wine is immedately consumed by the yeast). Sometimes these layers can be very thin, other times extremely thick – how thick will affect their influence over the wine. Geography, temperature, and cellar conditions have everything to do with a flor's nature (bringing serious terroir to Sherrytown). The flor also consumes what sugar is left in the wine, which results in some seriously bone-dry fino and manzanilla sherries. Flor layers can last for years and they age with the sherry in the oak barrel. As yeast cells die off from the flor, they drop to the bottom of the wine where they become part of the lees, the dead yeast cells that bring a rich, savory note to many Sherry and Champagne wines. Those aging closer to the sea have different flors than those more inland and can be salty and briny much like Islay whiskies.

Then there's the barrel maturation. Jerez uses American oak and European oak. They use barriques and they use giant butts. Some wines are aged purely in a single barrel, others are added to a solera system that continuously marries younger wines with older ones to keep a consistent flavor (like marrying whiskies together in the Ardbeg Uigeadail). There are a few Sherry selections at K&L that have wines dating back to the 1800s floating around within them. What about distillation, too? Sherry uses brandy to fortify its wines and prevent them from oxidizing too quickly after the bottles are opened. It's crazy to think about all of these different facets.

So here we are. Another year is upon us. Another post about Sherry that will find its way into your RSS feed, but will likely be skimmed over and forgotten as fast as the other non-whisky-related pieces. However, for anyone who truly wants to understand single malt whisky, you can't do so without understanding Sherry. You can know everything about every distillery in Scotland – their barley sources, their fermentation times, their still size, and their cooperage program – but you won't understand why their whiskies taste the way they do unless you understand what Sherry is. If you're drinking Laphroaig 10, or any other Bourbon barrel-aged whisky, then you're exempt. However, there are few distilleries who don't use some Sherry as part of their ultimate formula. Springbank 15? Bowmore 15? Glenlivet 15? Queue the Frankie Valli hit!

Maybe it's time to give Sherry another look. Come to Redwood City and talk to our Sherry buyer Joe Manekin (any advice I give you will just be a repeat of what he tells me). I'll try and post some of my favorites, but I have to check our inventory first.

-David Driscoll


The Salon is Burning up!

Our new whisk(e)y party group, The Salon, is burning through tickets like wildfire! We've already sold more than 70 spots for our Bourbon fiesta next Saturday in San Mateo. I've added ten more tickets to the inventory because we're selling fewer guest seats, which gives us a little more wiggle room. Last time I looked we had room for fifteen more people. Party on!

Ticket sales have been so strong that we've already booked our second event with the Vault 164. The Salon will once again take over the private events dining room on Friday March 15th for a St. Patrick's Day extravaganza, so mark your calenders. Expect a showdown between Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley, as well as some corned beef and cabbage sliders. Tickets for the next event will go on sale immediately after next week's party is over.

Thanks so much for all of your support. I know we're going to make you proud!

-David Driscoll


The Romance of Big Brands

I've been reading The Sun Also Rises this week as I lay in bed, dying from fever, ravaged by this wretched flu bug. Someone recommended I take another look at Hemingway's masterpiece since my high school experience left little to be desired. It's amazing how reading a great book at the wrong time can really tarnish one's penchant for literature. At 33, I'm about the same age as most of the characters in the story which makes all the difference. Reading it this time around, it's hard for me to believe this isn't a modern day novel. The problems are the same. The men have all the same romantic delusions. The drinks are the same: Pernod and water, Jack Rose cocktails, brandy and soda, and tons of Champagne. I should make The Sun Also Rises required reading for K&L customers (I'd sell a ton of booze after the first night alone).

There's something about reading a novel where people are drinking that makes one want to drink along with them. In fact, that's one of the points Hemingway makes in the story itself (the fact that many people imitate the behavior of fashionable novels). Jake and the boys of The Sun Also Rises are constantly dropping the Pernod name, which definitely sticks in the back of my mind as something fun and desirable. Casablanca was on TV the other night and I'll be damned if Victor Lazlo didn't walk up to the bar and order two Cointreaus. Big stars, big brands, bright lights, tons of romance. I'd never wanted a glass of Cointreau so badly, if just to share the moment with Ingrid Bergman. You can see where I'm going with this.

Exactly two years ago, I declared the death of brand loyalty on this blog. Last August, I thought we might be seeing a ressurection. What I've realized now, however, is that the return of big brands isn't a possibilty, it's a certainty. They've got the romance, they've got the history, they've got the marketing and they've got the image. No matter how big or mass-produced the brand, there is someone out there who doesn't care about drinking something more interesting or outside the norm. That's not to say the customer doesn't care about quality, it's to say that there are other factors at play.

My grandmother loves Champagne. She's 92 years old and still drinks a gin martini (or two) every single evening. When I told her I would send her some Champagne for Christmas one year, she was very excited. She talked about Dom Perignon and how she always had wanted to visit the vineyards. She imagined the monks picking the grapes, making the wine, and how romantic it all seemed to her. I told her I would send her a bottle of Champagne that was three times as good as the best Dom Perignon money could buy, which I did. Our in-store secret, the Franck Bonville Belles Voye, found its way to her doorstep one day and she opened the bottle to share with a friend. She said she really enjoyed it, however, I could tell that she wasn't super impressed. If I had just sent a bottle of Dom Perignon, she would have been ecstatic - not because of the price, or the bling-bling image. It's simply the romance of the brand at play and there's nothing that can be done after its been engrained into us.

There's another customer like this who shops at the Redwood City store. He's a nice guy and he loves Champagne, but you can tell he doesn't know a lot about it. We always try and get him to buy bottles that are less expensive than the ones he's buying, but he's not interested. He only wants Dom Perignon or Cristal. He's willing to go big, spend $200 to $300, but he's definitely not flush and really has to save up for each bottle. Nevertheless, he loves his Dom Perignon. He loves it like other people love classic MGM cinema or like Jerry Seinfeld loves Porsche. There's a sense of awe, a feeling of "Wow," and an aspiration towards something grand (regardless of whether we think these things deserve it). Why even try to mess with that?

If the past few years have brought us Brand Wars, then you can definitely count on 2013 being The Empire Strikes Back. Even with the price increases we're all facing (Balvenie 12 Doublewood just went up $7 a bottle today, by the way), they pale in comparison to what the little guys are facing. It used to be the case that independent bottlings were a source for value in the single malt realm. However, Duncan Taylor's recent Macallan 15 year offering runs $140 a bottle. The standard Macallan 15 Fine Oak, in comparison, is $80. Even though the DT bottle is a single barrel, cask strength expression, is that really a $60 difference maker? As single malt producers face their own shortages currently, they're continuing to suffocate the supplies of the independents, forcing them to drastically raise their prices as a result. Then there's the whole sliding scale economic aspect.

Even with a recent increase in pricing, Kentucky Bourbon producers like Buffalo Trace continue to provide plenty of bang for the buck, simply because they're making so much product. The larger the production numbers, the lower the price paid per unit. We just have to hope that the increase in goods produced doesn't lower the overall quality. Let's put whisk(e)y aside however, only because we've beaten this subject like a dead horse. What about gin? Most "craft" or small production gins come in at the $30 to $40 price point. If they're really good, then they're worth it. Yet, look at Citadelle for $20. Look at the Royal Dock at a whopping Navy Strength for $28. Plymouth's Navy Strength for $33 is perhaps the best gin I've had in months and that takes me twice as long to drink because it's 57%. That's like an extra half bottle!

Brands understand that to stand victorious over the new craft spirit movement, they will have to work smarter and cheaper. And they can do it. Small producers cannot afford to take risks or take the hit. $5000 on discounts or rebates to key retailers is nothing to a big brand. It can make or break a new distillery, however. I'm getting phone calls from labels we haven't carried in years and their ideas are finally starting to make sense. "You've revamped your juice, changed your label, and lowered your prices? I'm listening!" The price discrepancy between large brands and craft distillers has been so large that many producers have been able to raise their prices, yet still offer value in comparison to their smaller competitors. Now is where the romance angle comes back into play.

Cointreau and Grand Marnier continue to dominate the orange liqueur market because no one has been able to come up with a better product for less money. The closest I've seen so far has been the new Ferrand Dry Curacao, but I wouldn't consider that a sipping liqueur like the other two. There are some fantastic other brands out there: Cartron, Combier, Leopold, and Santa Theresa, but they all suffer from either poor packaging or poor marketing. Grand Marnier's legendary status and iconic packaging will always carry the day. Cointreau's French roots and Hemingway references give it a huge advantage as well. These are the products we already want to buy. The burden is on the smaller producers to give us a reason to do otherwise. An ugly bottle with a high price tag will never succeed in this scenario, no matter how good the juice inside of it is.

As single barrel prices continue to rise, what independent can compete with Balvenie at $42 a bottle? With Laphroaig and Ardbeg 10 at $40? With Lagavulin 16 at $65? With Old Weller Antique, Buffalo Trace, and Four Roses Yellow at $20? With Ferrand Ambre Cognac for $35? With Belvedere Vodka for $25? With Paddy's Irish for $32 a liter? More importantly, what small company can compete with decades of advertisements, product placements, and built-in brand loyalty? It's always been an uphill battle, but 2013 is the year that smaller producers will face their fiercest challenge. The machine has adapted. The Matrix has updated. Agent Smith is smarter than ever. In George Lucas's trilogy, the Jedi doesn't return until three years after Empire. Hopefully, he's going to return with some reasonably-priced, mature, great-tasting products, otherwise this is likely to be a double feature.

-David Driscoll