Why American Whiskey is Getting Harder to Get

We got an allocation of Angel's Envy 100 proof rye whiskey last week and it sold out about two minutes after we sent out an email alert. Many long-time customers were absolutely confounded.

Angel's Envy rye? Really? Two minutes?

Are you telling me that we have to be ready to pounce on things like Angel's Envy rye from now on? Not just Pappy, or Stagg, or Black Maple Hill, but fucking Angel's Envy rye for a costly $67.99 a bottle?

Yes. That's what I'm telling you. I can't speak for other stores, but this is the reality at K&L.

We all know that there's a bit of a whiskey shortage in the states right now, but that's not the whole problem (if you didn't know you should read this - scary!). The popularity of American whiskey is through the roof right now, and the fact that Robert Parker is dipping his toe in these waters is only more evidence of this.

However, that's not the whole problem either.

The problem is the increase in accounts looking to sell American whiskey - as in retailers, bars, and restaurants.

Remember that a large chunk of all spirits end up behind a counter, not just on a retail shelf. With every new whiskey bar or cocktail lounge that opens up (about five a day in San Francisco alone, it seems), that's another account that wants part of what's available. They want Buffalo Trace products, they want Heaven Hill products, they want popular whiskies on their menu - period. I've watched the upswing in Bay Area booze-related businesses drain K&L allocations steadily over the past three years. We used to get Black Maple Hill whenever we wanted it. Then it was down to 120 a month. Then 60. Now it's a case here and and case there whenever it's back in stock.

Willett Bourbon is another casualty of this phenomenon. It's not anyone's fault. I don't blame Pacific Edge or any one at the distribution center. They've got more customers than whiskey, plain and simple. That's the same problem we have! Everytime a new whiskey customer starts shopping at K&L, another name goes on the email list, another person clicks on the hotlink, and another competitor for these whiskies joins your ranks. The distribution game works the same way. K&L is competing with other retailers, bars, and restaurants for the hottest products on the market, i.e. American whiskey.

I used to get about 60 bottles of every Willett expression as it was released. More if I asked for something in particular. Sometimes I didn't even take my entire allocation! With the immenent arrival of the new Willett 4, 6, and 10 year old Bourbons, I'm looking at less than 25 bottles total of each expression. That's less than half of what I used to get, simply because Pacific Edge has to spread the wealth a little more these days. And, believe me, these bottles will sell out in two minutes or less.

This is the same reason we have to put "one bottle per customer" limits on things like Russell's Reserve Single Barrel, Elijah Craig Cask Strength, or other super-limited releases. We're getting paltry allocations of rare American whiskey right now, almost to the point that it's not worth the time or effort to take care of three bottle drops (i.e EC 12 cask strength). It's frustrating. It's tough. But it's the reality of the business right now.

We're in the same situation as all of you.

-David Driscoll


Planning Ahead

I know that those of you who read the Spirits Journal for news rather than product information have probably been a little miffed as of late. There's so much action going on that actually has to do with what K&L pays me for, however, which has left me little time for writing. Not that I've got that much news to tell you, anyway. Do you want to hear more about price increases? Because that's all that's going on right now, but I figured we'd pretty much run that topic into the ground. All Diageo Classic Malts are taking price hikes this summer, not that it really matters. We're all competing to be the low price-leader when it comes to these whiskies, so we'll have to take the hit, not you - and certainly not Diageo.

In any case, most of the emails I've received over that past few weeks have pertained to budgeting. Namely, how does one know what to pull the trigger on when there may be something better and more exciting around the corner? I can tell you this: there are no trophy malts on the table right now. There may be something in the works, but it's not looking too promising at the moment, mainly because of the asking prices. It's going to be hard to beat the current Mortlach 22 Year when it comes to sherry-aged malt, and there's still not a whisky I've tasted this year that outshines the 1979 Glenfarclas from last year's haul. Those bottles are fairly priced for what they are. We've still got about forty bottles of Port Ellen and Glenlochy lying around, as well, and those whiskies are damn fine for those looking to splurge. Everyone who's had a taste agrees. That being said, why splurge for less exciting casks with higher price tags when we're pretty set for the moment? Value continues to be the focus.

Here's what is still coming:

- A flurry of affordable deals from the Exclusive Malts: six casks in total, all under $100.

- Another peated Benriach, another sherried Glendronach, another hogshead of Glen Garioch.

- A stunning sleeper from the Isle of Arran. The type of whisky that won't sell as a pre-order, but will go out the door fast once people taste it.

- Bladnoch. Three casks. Just got more samples in the mail, so I think this is happening. I'm keeping quiet until this is over.

- New casks from new producers. Some ancient malts from some not so familiar faces. Cheeeeeeeap.

If you're holding out for that Brora or Ardbeg super announcement, don't hold your breath. Those days are over. We were thinking about a 22 year old Ardbeg cask until we realized we'd have to retail it for $500 a bottle. Yikes.

That's the news for now. We might do a new podcast soon. Faultline Bourbon labels just went to the TTB for approval. Faultline Rum labels are being designed. New Faultline Gin Batch #3 is in development. New Lost Spirits whiskies should show up this week. There's plenty to keep you busy.

Myself, as well.

-David Driscoll


Mad Man Walker


Has anyone else seen this commercial for Johnnie Walker that usually airs during Mad Men? I saw it again this past Sunday night and after about seven viewings it's really starting to bother me.

First off, this is the most blatent attempt yet to use the popularity of Mad Men's drinking culture to sell a particular product. What surprises me is the fact that Diageo paid for it, rather than just aluding to it like everyone else does. Every whisk(e)y company out there is capitalizing on the success of the show, especially rye producers (I say this because more people come into K&L every week looking for rye to make Manhattans for their Mad Men party), but this new Johnnie Walker spot marks the first time I've actually seen a paid actor from the show making an attempt to market one particular brand.

Like most major companies looking to capitalize on pop culture trends, Diageo is about three years late to the party. Forget the fact that Don Draper seems to drink Canadian Club more than anything and that Roger Sterling always pours vodka. Forget the fact that the past two seasons have focused more on the business than the boozing. It's still fun as hell to drink liquor while watching an episode of Mad Men. What I don't see anymore, however, is the same glamour in Don Draper's character. We know too much about him now and his recent actions have made him look weak and childish. He's like a rock band releasing a new album after rehab. The music may be interesting and profound, but it's no longer fresh or cutting edge.

So instead of Jon Hamm, Diageo hires the sultry Christina Hendricks to play a combination of Don Draper and Joan Harris. She walks with the sexy swagger of our favorite secretary (now SCDP partner), but talks with the forceful authority of an ad writer. A piano-driven jazz hook plays that can't decide whether it's playful or seductive. Christina turns around and we see her face. The shot cuts to a pair of high-heels, slowly walking towards the camera, toe over toe. We see Christina's full-figure (no pun intended) and everything is slightly muted except for the lighted area over her breasts. She saunters towards the screen. "It's classic," we hear her say, although her mouth does not move. We see a shot of her waist as Christina stops, sways her hips, and places one hand on her side, saying "It's bold." She grabs a rocks glass of whisky, holds it up to the camera, and finally claims, "It's Johnnie Walker. And you ordered it." A static shot of the bottle along side a whisky and soda closes the commercial, with a stenciled version of Christina's signature tracing the screen.

So, what do you think?

If I'm Don Draper I tear that idea up. I throttle the writer who came up with something so derivative, obvious, and boring. "If I wanted something that sounded like me, I would have written it myself," is what I imagine Draper saying to this proposal. It's not only that the Mad Men opportunity is past its prime, it's the technical aspects as well. The direction is first-year film school, the cinematography is amateurish, and the lighting rather trite. The commercial is attempting to bring Christina's sex appeal to Walker Red, yet Hendricks' movements seem too choreographed and unnatural. She moves like a doll rather than the intimidating force of her character, limiting her effectiveness. The line "It's Johnnie Walker and you ordered it" irks me as well. It's too much Mad Men, not enough Johnnie Walker. It makes Walker Red feel like a punchline rather than a centuries-old product. It's such an attempt to be Don that it's almost a caricature.

The commercial wants the consumer to feel confident in his choice of Walker Red. The idea of affirmation is classic Draper. As Don once told Lucky Strike, good advertising is "a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance in whatever it is you're doing. It's OK. You are OK." However, the way the Walker commercial comes together is clumsy, and more reminiscent of Dudley Moore's pitch to Jaguar than Don Draper's.

While, to me, it seems that Johnnie Walker was looking to combine Don and Joan into one person, they ended up with Pete Campbell – frat boy chic.

Back to the drawing board, Peggy.

-David Driscoll


The Redemption of Bryan Davis

Last year we learned about a new distillery south of the Bay Area called Lost Spirits that was making peated single malt whisky. It was being run by a guy named Bryan Davis who brought us two of his newest creations: the Seascape and the Leviathan. Bryan had worked as a distiller in Spain before relocating to California and building a steam-powered, outdoor still near Salinas. These were the first whiskies he was ready to bring to market. They were bold, exciting, and interesting, but they weren't for everyone. Nevertheless, I thought they deserved an audience, even if it meant taking back a few returns for people who didn't "get it."

There were a lot of people who didn't "get it." Bryan was using Canadian peat, Canadian barley, an odd type of still, and wine casks for maturation. It wasn't surprising that his distillates didn't at all resemble anything one would find on Islay. They were experimental. They were works in progress. Most importantly, however, they were quite polarizing.

While Bryan quickly drew the attention of single malt enthusiasts all over the world, not all of that press was positive. Many drinkers found the whiskies simply too bizarre and they weren't afraid to share their opinions with the blogosphere. Like most people that put themselves out there for the world to judge, Bryan was nervous about the public response and quite sensitive as well. To him, the criticism was personal because he had invested everything he had into these whiskies. It got to the point where he emailed me wondering what he should do. I told him to lay low for a while and just keep working. He told me he was considering just shutting everything down. After a lukewarm response from some online reviewers, Bryan was wondering if he even should be making whisky.

I told Bryan that we had actually lost money selling the first batches of his single malts, which is not what he wanted to hear. I told him that the amount of returns we had on those bottles eclipsed any of the profits we made from selling them. However, I made sure to point out to him that I was completely fine with that. As a retailer, it's my job to anticipate this kind of response. I knew full well what I was putting on the shelf and I knew it might not go over well with many of our customers. I was willing to take that risk. I believed in what Bryan was doing and I didn't care about the revenue. I just wanted to support a local guy who I thought was capable of doing something great.

I didn't hear from Bryan again for a few months until he emailed me again last week, wondering if he could stop by the store to taste me on a few new samples. He came to Redwood City yesterday with two bottles in hand: one labeled as Ouroboros and the other called Bohemian Bonfire. We went to the tasting bar and poured them off into the glassware. I nosed and sipped. I asked him, "How much of this stuff do you have and how much can you get me?"

After the debacle that occured post-Seascape/Leviathan, Bryan was discouraged and disheartened. He was looking for inspiration and doing a bit of soul-searching. That's when he stumbled upon a single barrel of Kilchoman at a whisky tasting he attended. The flavors were bright, clean, and surprisingly drinkable, despite the youth of the whisky itself. When Bryan inquired into what Kilchoman's magic consisted of, he learned that the distillery takes one of the smallest heart cuts in the business (with pot still distillation, the distiller usually takes the middle cut, dumping off the heads and tails for redistillation). Bryan didn't add the cuts back in, however. He took a small middle cut and left it at that.

That was step one. The next step was to get better cooperage. Rather that use the wine-soaked casks for extra flavor, Bryan wanted mild oak aging as to not detract from the high-quality distillate. He scrubbed out his wine barrels and cleaned profusely, leaving only the wood in its place. His new, ultra-spirit was placed into the barrel and laid down to rest. The result is the Bohemian Bonfire, the same whisky as Leviathan with a smaller heart cut and normal oak aging. It's by far the best whisky Bryan has ever made and it's much more mainstream without losing the Lost Spirits character. It's also, without a doubt, the best peated American whiskey I've ever tasted.

The other bottle Bryan had with him was called Ouroboros and it was dark like sherry. When Bryan was unable to secure fresh sherry butts, he decided to create his own. He took his own cooperage, filled them with sherry, let the barrels sit, emptied them out, and filled them with a new distillate - comprised of 100% California single malt and smoked with 100% California peat (sourced from the San Joaquin delta). Again, the result is outstanding. It's all of the plant-like, beery flavor of Lost Spirits distillery with the mellowing agent of sherry to help balance it out.

Instead of folding under the pressure and criticism, Bryan Davis used the negative attention as fuel to get better. He went back to the drawing board and retooled his whisky. I think the Bohemian Bonfire is so good that I bought all of it - every single bottle. If that means I'm going to lose money again, then so be it, but I don't expect anyone to object this time around. That whisky has the soft sweetness found in Bruichladdich's outstanding Bere Barley release with the sweet peat of Laphroaig, never losing the beery malt flavor that has become Bryan's trademark.

I can't wait to get these in. I love a good comeback story.

-David Driscoll


More New 2013 K&L Scotland Pre-Arrivals!

Alright! Two more and then we'll give you a little break. We wanted to make sure we had some grain whisky this year after the Girvan and Caledonian were so well received back in 2011. We also needed more tasty Laphroaig because it's getting harder to find affordable Islay barrels these days. So here they are and for fantastic pricing!

These are the last two barrels from the Signatory deal. After this we’ll move on to the Exclusive Malt whiskies:

1991 Cambus 21 Year Old K&L Exclusive Signatory Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Grain Whisky $99.99 - Here we go! After two years of hunting for a replacement to our wildly successful single grain Girvan, we've finally found a cask of grain worthy enough for our discerning customers. Cambus is one of the most difficult to find grain distilleries for a couple of reasons, it's been closed since 1993 and it is rumored to be at the heart of the Johnnie Walker Blue bottlings. No surprise that it's difficult to find, if Diageo is relying on this whisky to produce one of its most sought after blends it will certainly be controlling as much stock as possible. Occasionally small lots slip out of the blenders grasp and into our glass! Here we have a super high quality grain in all its awkward splendor. This nose is all oak spice and vibrant fresh fruit. Clove, coriander, freshly grated nutmeg, apple skins, under-ripe mango. On the palate the fruit takes over, plus vanilla cake frosting, the baking spices remain subdued, onto a bit of coconut and some fresh oak. A perfect example of why, sometimes, we must not blend all the grain. (David Othenin-Girard)

1997 Laphroaig 16 Year Old K&L Exclusive Signatory Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - We love Laphroaig. Everybody loves Laphroaig (if they don't hate it). Not a lot of people on the fence regarding Laphroaig. That's why it's really hard to get. It's really expensive as well. These are both cause and effect. We've seen prices go up, while quality has remained consistent. We took on a middle aged Laphroaig last year and sold it for what seemed like a reasonable $140. Now we have another cask of Laphroaig and it's difficult not to oversell it. If we're always so effusive about every whisky we taste people start to question our judgment. So, I'm not going to do it like that. I'm just going to say that this is top tier Laphroaig. It's in that prime moment between the intensity of a young Laphroaig and that depth of the older offerings from this legendary distillery. This was the whisky that we spent time wringing our hands about because we were expecting to be paying the same price as our 18 year from 2012, but somehow we were able to get the price down to something far more reasonable. It won't last and it will go up significantly after the pre-arrival campaign is finished.  Don't miss it! (David Othenin-Girard)

These will be on the same container as the other malts and are due to arrive in late August or September.

-David Driscoll