Adventures on El Camino: The Van's

My birthday was on Monday, a day both my wife and I have off together, so we decided to go somewhere special for lunch––a place that we had both been dying to try, but never seemed to find the time to actually visit. After such a great experience at Joe's of Westlake a few weeks back, and then the shock of learning it was about to close next month, the two of us went scrambling to see if we could find a similar hangout with that same old-school style. We loved the nostalgia, and the historic Peninsula feel of Joe's, but we knew that magic wouldn't be with us much longer. Where else could we go to capture that steakhouse atmosphere, a place where old timers would be lining the bar at all hours, drinking Bloody Maries and vodka martinis? We thought we might know of such a place, but we needed to check it out. The Van's on the Hill in Belmont was the spot.

There's a storied history to the building set back off El Camino, high upon the perch. It was an old speakeasy during prohibition, a place for gamblers and back-door dealers. Built in 1915 as part of the Japanese Exhibition in San Francisco to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal, it's one of the few buildings left standing from that exposition (along with the Palace of Fine Arts and the Japanese Tea Garden). Operating through the 1930s as an illicit den for no-good, the saloon was finally turned into an Italian restaurant in 1945. It became known as Van's in 1973, and it's been packed with Peninsula loyalists ever since. We went for lunch at 11:30 on a Monday thinking we would be the only people there. Ha! The bar was full of old men right at opening, already getting their drink on.

The menu at The Van's is quite spectacular, as is the view. You can see the city off in the distance, the San Mateo bridge, and much of the Peninsula from the panoramic windows. You can get Oysters Rockefeller, a wedge salad with a hard boiled egg, and any kind of steak dish you can imagine. I started with a big, spicy Bloody Mary, a plate of fried peppers and a bowl of minestrone, before heading face-first into the official Van's Scallop Burger and a side of slaw. Yum. There's something classic going on up on the hill in Belmont. A feeling that some things won't change, at least not within those walls. You can go there, to the Van's, and rest assured that everything will be as it once was. After ten minutes of sitting in an empty dining room, the place filled up and it was a lively affair. Not an empty chair in the place –– on a Monday at 11:45.

While things might never change at Van's, I was shocked to learn that Mike Tyson had been replaced by Mr. Dream after getting home to play my new Nintendo Wii U (a gift from my wife). After Tyson's troubles in the late 80s, Nintendo cut ties with the boxer and replaced him with a white, 1950's era, Rock Hudson look-a-like who I don't care for whatsoever. There was a time when I was the best Mike Tyson's Punch Out player alive. I could go through the entire game without getting hit. Then I could go through the entire game without getting hit AND beat every boxer in the first round (except Tyson). When they changed over to Mr. Dream, however, they changed some of Tyson's patterns and it has completely thrown me off. He behaves like Tyson, but then he switches a few things and I get knocked out fast. I was so pissed.

I will beat you, however, Mr. Dream and then things will go back to the way they used to be. 007-373-5963 is the code. I will enter it, go directly to you every time, and then I will knock you out without getting hit. I will celebrate this victory with a Bloody Mary at the Van's on the Hill.

-David Driscoll



I thought I was going to have time today to play catch up, but as usual a number of opportunities fell into my lap and I went scrambling off in five different directions, trying to finish a number of tasks I never even planned on starting. That's the holiday season, though, so you can't really complain about it. If you're not expecting the unexpected then you're bound to go insane. I was at the post office yesterday picking up a package and people were groaning and grumbling about the wait. I was thinking, "If you didn't think there was going to be a huge line at the post office in December, then you're the idiot."

In any case, where was I?

My wife and I have started the process of looking for a home and I can't help but reflect on how similar the whole idea of housing is to the current whiskey boom. The new era of flipping has people saying things like, "Well you probably won't be living there for long, so just look for something you can sell in a few years." I'm thinking, "No, actually I do want to live there. That's why I want to buy a house. So I can live there." It reminds me of people who buy extra bottles of Handy, Stagg, or other hard-to-find bottles when they see them, knowing full well they'll never drink them. They're for investing--for a possible sale down the line. I remember when people would buy whiskey to drink it. Do people no longer buy houses to live in?

What's new this week?

-Our 1996 Pellehaut Armagnac $59.99 came back into stock today. My friend Steve over at SKU's Recent Eats was a big fan of this, as were many drinkers who are making to switch from Bourbon over to brandy. It's the most Bourbon-like brandy we found on this year's trip. And it also sold out ridiculously fast after the word got out about how good it was. We've got another 120 bottles for the holiday rush.

-The Fuenteseca Tequila should be in stock by tomorrow afternoon. When we send the email out to the big list these will sell through in hours. Believe me. If you want one you need to buy one at some point this week. The waitlist has thousands of customers on it.

-There are a number of new selections from the Exclusive Malts that JVS just brought in that really impressed me today. A young and affordable Laphroaig, a fantastic 21 year old blend, and a super-mature Longmorn made my shortlist. Those should be here tomorrow.

-I ordered some of the new Bowmore Devil's Cask today. That should be here tomorrow, but I haven't tasted it. I added the Glen Garioch Virgin Oak to that order as well, which I did taste at WhiskeyFest this year. I remember loving it. A lot.

-I tasted three new casks of Kilchoman today, all Bourbon barrels. I bought two of them. They were sooooooooooooooooo good I couldn't pass them up. They'll probably retail for about $100 a bottle and they'll probably trickle out of here at a slow drip, but I don't care. Kilchoman is hands-down the best distillery operating in Scotland today. Quote me on that if you want. I'll write it in caps if you missed it: KILCHOMAN IS THE BEST DISTILLERY IN SCOTLAND. They just keep getting better, and better, and better. These new K&L casks should be here by next Spring and they're just stupid good. Cask #74 is bright, fresh, with that type of peat that goes between smoke and cinnamon. Then it just explodes into this sweet grain burst of malted barley and candy corn. Cask #172 is heavier, more oily, more phenolic, and more brooding, but the depth is there. The smoke is covered in fresh peat moss and there's almost a Thanksgiving stuffing (maybe that's just leftover residue in my mouth?) flavor that comes midway, before finishing with citrus and sweet vanilla. Mindblowing. What is their whisky going to taste like at ten years of age?

That's it for now. Gotta run. I'm getting buried under email. If I don't answer each one as it comes I'll never get back to them. It's just not possible to answer this much email.

-David Driscoll


Some Year-End Perspective

I woke up this morning thirty-four years old instead of thirty-three. I've been working at K&L since I was twenty-seven. Time is moving quickly on us, but there's so much more to do. Spirits have gone from a last-minute vodka-bottle-addition to one of the top attractions we offer at our store. I checked the website last night to find that our owner Brian had made single malt whisky the front page attraction for the month of December. We're bringing more and more people to the party. As I frequently tell our ownership group, "I don't think people are buying more whisky, I just think people are buying more whisky from us." 2013 has been an amazing ride.

Repeat Purchases

Looking back over the last year, how many bottles of booze did you buy more than once? In this modern era of spirits exploration and the thrill-seeking desires of enthusiasts to keep drinking fresh, I know very few people who come back for seconds anymore. There is no such thing as brand loyalty with most K&L shoppers, and there's definitely no such thing among K&L employees. We're always looking for the next new experience, so how can we be bothered to buy the same thing all over again? I racked my brain (and then easily checked my order history in the database) to find which bottles hit my credit card bill more than once in 2013. There were three:

Campari - I drink Campari like other people drink tea or coffee. I bought more than 30 bottles of Campari during the 2013 drinking season. Campari remains the one and only spirit I will whore myself out for (in case any one over in Italy is listening).

Zwack Unicum - I'm on my sixth bottle of Zwack Unicum right now and it's only been available in the U.S. since August. If there were such an award as "Best Liqueur of the Year" and I had the power to bestow such an award, the Zwack Unicum would win hands down. My wife and I killed a third of our liter-sized bottle watching the Walking Dead mid-season finale last night. Sipping, screaming, then sipping some more.

Suntory Hibiki 12 - I bought three bottles of Suntory's Japanese blended whisky this year, but the number would have been higher if it weren't for self-imposed safety restrictions on my part. If I start drinking Hibiki and sodas then I might as well change into sweatpants and order a pizza because I'm not going anywhere. Each time I've delved into that beautifully-shaped, art-deco-style decanter I've ended up face-down on the hallway floor wondering what the hell happened. That whiskey is too good for my own good. A customer who frequently travels to Japan recently gave me a bottle of the older Hibiki 17, which is unavailable here in the states. Thank God that's the case. I would not be able to function with that stuff available to me.

The Growth of Faultline

We started with a barrel-strength Cognac (does any one still have any of that left?). Then we moved to gin. Then single malt. Then blended whisky. Then rum. And now Bourbon. As we continue to develop our relationships, our access to production, and our overall knowledge about booze, it only makes sense for us to continue working on our own house labels. One thing I love about working at K&L is the complete freedom David OG and I have been given to create these brands. There's absolutely no pressure to move numbers either, so David and I can sit back and wait for the truly drinkable stuff to emerge. Like I wrote earlier this year, we could have made a Faultline Bourbon two years ago if we had wanted to. And we did want to! We just wanted it to be something very, very good. Something better than what other independent labels were putting out. It's back in stock right now, by the way. We just got our second shipment in last Wednesday.

More Blending

As many of you know concerning the Faultline Bourbon, we had a hand in designing that blend. David OG and I sent samples back and forth on the delivery trucks that run between both stores, hoping to find the right marriage of whiskies for our bottling. Our single cask selection has brought us to the dance, so to speak, but it's going to be our blending that brings more people to the party. I can't tell you how many times David and I have stumbled upon insanely odd or esoteric casks that, while a bit too intense on their own, would make great components in a blend of multiple whiskies. While we're still pushing for that type of access in both Scotland and Kentucky, we were able to do something like this with tequila in 2013. Our Fuenteseca marriage of mega-mature tequilas sold out before it ever hit the shelf. Pre-orders skyrocketed in the database and we were scrambling to see if we could make more.

We did. And it's coming on Wednesday.

I've received more positive feedback about the Fuenteseca K&L Tequila than any other product we've ever sold at K&L. People absolutely love it. Which makes me feel great because I had never blended anything before! I know that David and I can continue to make truly exhilarating spirits like this if given the opportunity to do so. Our next chance might be in Guyana this February.

-David Driscoll


Three Words That No Longer Mean What They Once Meant

I've got a bunch of booze-related stuff on my mind right now, but I need a bit more time to let it sort itself out. In the mean time, I hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving. Maybe you noticed one of the following changes while you were visiting with friends and family:

Ironic – Any one who's familiar with the film Reality Bites can define ironic, as one of the funniest scenes in the movie comes when Winona Ryder seeks support from Ethan Hawk after another fateful job interview. "I mean, can you define ironic?" she asks, believing he'll laugh with her and say he can't. "It's when the actual meaning is the opposite from the literal meaning," he says quietly before walking away. While that may be the dictionary definition of ironic, it's not what the word means these days. Almost twenty years after Alanis Morrissette sang an entire song about things that were tragic, unbelievable, and the result of plain old back luck, calling it "Ironic", we're now faced with a new definition of the word. Ironic today means anything coincidental or too crazy to believe.

Literally – Speaking of the "literal meaning", the word literally itself has completely changed its meaning over the last five years or so – at least in Southern California. Literally used to mean something happened to the exact definition of the word. You would separate it from the figurative sense by saying that you "literally fell over laughing," meaning that you actually did fall over – you're not just saying that for dramatic effect. Today, however, the word literally is used simply as an intensifier, helping to separate something kinda intense from something really intense. It almost means the opposite of what it once meant because it's often used in a very unliteral fashion. If you need an example then check out an episode of the Kardashians and watch the three sisters light up the screen. "I literally just went shopping." "I literally am so late for my appointment right now." Rachel Zoe is a good example as well.

Dry (wine terminology) – A dry wine is a wine that isn't sweet. A dry martini is a martini without any additional sweetness, i.e. vermouth or simple syrup. The term "dry" simply refers to the lack of sugar – nothing else. It does not refer to the flavor of a wine, the mouthfeel of a wine, the acidity of the wine, or the tannic structure of the wine. However, when most people describe a wine as dry (and this has taken me years to figure out) I think they're really talking about the herbaceous flavor versus the fruit flavor in their drink. Most often when I hear the term "dry" used in an uncertain manner it's in reference to Sauvignon Blanc – a wine with grassy, peppery, herbaceous qualities. The same goes for gin martinis – a drink with savory, peppery, herbaceous qualities as opposed to soft and fruity ones. When most people say they like or don't like "dry" wines, they'll immediately follow up that statement with an example of a wine they do like. That wine will usually be the ultimate example of the opposite of what they just said (i.e. "I love dry wines. My favorite wine is Rombauer Chardonnay). Today, when you listen to people talk about "dry" wines, they're usually referring to an herbaceous characteristic and the lack of round fruit or supple texture, rather than the lack of sugar.

-David Driscoll


I'm Dreaming of a....

If you didn't see the big K&L email yesterday, this is in stock and moving fast. Anchor Steam releases a Christmas Ale every year and it's always one of my favorite parts of the holiday season. I've been drinking this beer with my dad every Xmas since I was 21. Last year Anchor had a few hundred bottles left over that they decided to distill secretly into a very, very, very small batch of bierschnapps, or white whiskey - depending on which title sounds more appealing to you. I got the chance to taste it this morning and, while I don't often advocate on behalf of white dog, this tastes very much like the beer itself. That clove, nutmeg, and foresty goodness are all there within the spirit itself. Now please note: this isn't going to go down as the best whiskey of the year. It's just a super-limited, fun experiment from a Bay Area legend. An iconic beer distilled into something fun for fans of the brand. LIKE ME! Anchor made around 600 bottles: TOTAL. We're getting a large chunk of that, but that's still not very much!

Anchor White Christmas White Whiskey $49.99

-David Driscoll