Scotland 2013 - Day 7 - The Last King of the Lowlands

Of all the regions hit hardest by the recent snowstorms, the Isle of Arran, Kintyre Peninsula, and Lowlands where at the top of the list. Just a few days ago this area was buried in powder. Now when I say Lowlands, I'm not talking about Auchentoshan or Glenkinchie Lowlands. Those distilleries are no further South than Glasgow or Edinburgh. Even the newest Lowlander, Daftmill, is due North of these cities - on a longitude with Glen Goyne, which is considered a Highland whisky. Yet, the Lowlands still remains a geographical whisky-producing region, despite the fact that the true South of Scotland contains only one distillery currently releasing single malt expressions.

The town of Girvan has a distillery. A gigantic grain operation run by William Grant (some K&L customers might remember the Girvan grain cask we did a few years back). Ladyburn used to be inside of this facility. Grant has recently build a new Lowlander named Ailsa Bay, which sits next door, but that whisky has yet to mature into anything yet. Another small operation, Annandale, was recently founded deep in the Lowlands as well, but it too is still too young to release any whisky of merit.

The South of Scotland isn't a very populated region. About 25,000 people live in a 100 square mile radius. There's not much of an economy down there unless you're a farmer, a plumber, an electrician, or a butcher.

The coastline is completely barren in some places. Some parts look across to the Isle or Arran and at other places you can see Northern Ireland. It is deep within this part of Scotland, almost down near the border with England, that you can find one of the true Lowland distilleries in the Lowlands. It's not near anything you'd want to visit as a tourist and it's not on the way to anywhere else. You need to make the effort if you're going to visit this facility.

The river Bladnoch flows through the town bearing the same name. Immediately situated upon this waterway sits the eponymous distillery, a mysterious distillery that has been the subject of much rumor and drama over the past few years. Takeovers, familiy feuds, buyouts, reopenings, closures, and fist-fights have all made their way into this distillery's recent whisky lore. What was once a Diageo operation was purchased by the Armstrong brothers in 1994 and nothing has gone as planned ever since.

We didn't really have an appointment at Bladnoch. Getting the current operation manager on the phone isn't possible. He doesn't answer email either. However, after a series of successful independently-bottled Bladnoch bottlings that have had K&L customers singing their praises, we knew we needed to get into this distillery. We knew it was family-owned. We just didn't know the extent to which this family's internal fighting had affected operations. The story of Bladnoch over the past decade is absolutely insane. It's so over the top that I don't really feel comfortable reporting the details here on this blog.

Did we make it in to the distillery? You bet we did. Did we sample casks? Yes. Apparently, getting the chance to purchase booze from Bladnoch depends upon which brother is operating the site that day. Do we plan on getting some whisky directly from the distillery into the states? Yes we do. That's the important part.

What some may not know, however, is that Bladnoch is effectively a silent distillery. They haven't operated the stills in more than three years, actually. The inability for the two Armstrong brothers to agree on a direction has put a complete halt on operations, but the whisky they've distilled over the past ten years is outstanding. We've all (at least us in the industry) heard stories about the current situation. We've tasted some of the current distillery bottlings (not all that impressive). That's not what's happening in the barrel, however. The lukewarm reception to the current expressions is based upon weak blending skills, not distillation or maturation.

You'll see what we mean later this year. When we bring the first post-Diageo Bladnoch distillate to California, you'll all be believers, too.

More on this later.

-David Driscoll


Scotland 2013 - Day 6 - It's Who You Know

I think I've written this in every blog post so far this week, but I'll say it again now: our relationships are everything. We wouldn't be getting great whisky to bring back home if we hadn't met some incredible people over the past few years. We definitely wouldn't be bringing you all such fine specimen if we hadn't made an effort to keep these relationships strong and healthy. Last year we met David Stirk who runs a small operation south of Glasgow called the Exclusive Malts. He sold us four outstanding casks, three of which are already sold out (one of which was widely considered the best malt we've found in some time). At that point in time David didn't have any representation in the U.S., nor did he know anyone to help him. We introduced him to our friends Val and Sam at JVS and created a new relationship between friends. We love David. We love JVS. We're all friends. We're all doing business now.

While David and the Exclusive Malts will now have a presence in American stores outside of K&L, don't think our good buddy isn't holding a few secrets back for his old pals David & David. We tasted five slam-dunk whiskies at David's warehouse that will surely be five of the fastest selling whiskies at K&L come this Fall. Best of all, these will all be super value-priced whiskies. I don't think any of them will go for more than $70. They could be $60 or even less if we can really make this work.

One of the most surprising finds in David's stock was the presence of blended whisky. More importantly – vintage-dated blended whisky meaning that all of the whiskies in the blend were distilled the same year. Perhaps even more impressive than that: vintage-dated whisky from the 1970s. Yet even more exciting still: vintage-dated blended whisky from the 1970s at a very, very, very reasonable price. Faultline? You bet.

We had lunch with David after selecting our casks and we talked for a while about the independent bottling industry and the battle for superior casks happening at the moment. It's a crazy time to be here. Much like our cask-hunting business, it's literally about who you know in the independent game. David got his start because he had a friend at Diageo. That friend got him some very good casks out of Diageo's vast stocks. Those casks helped David create his bottling business and the rest is history. We met with a bottler last year outside of Edinburgh who had once bottled some amazing whiskies and we were hoping he could do some business with K&L. He brought some cask samples to dinner and they were total shit. When we asked him why these samples were not on par with his previous offerings, he told us that he used to have a close contact at Diageo, but that person had since passed away. No friend at Diageo = no booze. That made all the difference! One moment this man had a thriving independent business, the next he was out of business!

After a two hour drive through a beautiful forest with falling snow covering us in blanket of white, David and I have arrived in Newton Stuart, a small village in the far south of the country. If you look on a map you'll see that there's only one distillery anywhere near this place, so you can guess where we'll be headed tonight. Things are going to get interesting. Another brotherly battle is upon us. Can we unite the clans?

After all this talk I'm sure some of you are wondering how the independent bottling business continues to exist, especially considering that today's distilleries are running short on supply. I'll give you a brief explanation, followed by my own personal observation. When you distill whisky you're basically ten to fifteen years out from making any real profit because you have to wait for the whisky to mature. One way to make some money in the meantime is to sell it young. You might sell a barrel with some maturity, or you might offer an independent bottler a filling contract meaning that they can send their own empty barrels to be filled. These buyers will then sit on these barrels, usually paying you a warehousing fee each year for storage. When they're ready to bottle they'll come pick it up. In both cases, selling young whisky is a way to make some quick cash while you continue to save for the future. For the past several decades there have been periods of surplus, which also resulted in the sale of casks when distilleries were overburdoned with stock. Over the years, many independent operations have amassed quite a supply of barrels through numerous channels, which they now use to facilitate their own blends or to bottle as single barrel expressions. These are the people we usually visit when we come to Scotland.

Today, however, the game has changed somewhat. Scotch whisky is experiencing an unprecedented boom and the distilleries are scrambling to halt any sales of barrels and actually buy back the casks they may have sold over the past decade. When they're sitting in your warehouse it's easy to know what's available. Bruichladdich and Springbank are actually making offers to their private cask owners in an attempt to recoup their booze, as are many other small operations. Since mature barrels are pretty much off the market right now it means that getting a cask comes down to relationships, much like getting a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle from your local retailer. You might get lucky on the open market, but you'll probably have to make some inroads with someone who has access.

I'm wondering if the current freeze on cask sales (Diageo apparently has really put on the brakes) is perhaps also a new attempt to completely starve out the independents as well as secure future investments. I've watched the faces of a few corporate workers over the past few days when we mention our independently-purchased casks for K&L. They don't like it. Yesterday's customers are today's competitors. While the independents are competing with the big brands (who are the sole source of their whisky anyway!), there is further competition between the independents themselves. One person with access might be selling their booze too cheaply, causing problems for other cask owners who are looking to make their own profit. It's an all too familiar game as a retailer, but it's an interesting and exciting one!

More on this later!

-David Driscoll


Scotland 2013 - Day 5 - Making A List

We're back at the hotel in Glasgow, going over the samples and making a list. Where are we at right now? We don't know pricing on a lot of these, but this is a short list so far:

1991 Cambus - a fun little grain whisky with some serious age. The distillery is no longer open as well.

1995 Glenlivet - a sherry butt that might be really fun at 46%. Just rich and easy and delicious.

1995 Imperial - this is so fruity, soft, and round. Very much like our beloved Bladnoch cask from 2011.

1994 Benriach - a peated ex-Bourbon barrel that offers sweet grains and oily smoke. Yum.

1993 Glendronach - a powerful, woody, less supple sherry number.

1995 Glendronach - a softer, sweeter, supple sweetheart.

1993 Balblair - this one really surprised us. It's full of stonefruit, vanilla, with a wonderfully rich finish.

2006 Caol Ila - Don't laugh, but this is our favorite cask so far. It's what we've been drinking all night.

1990 Glenfarclas - classic sherry from the classic Highland distillery.

2001 Glenfarclas - a softer, more easy going expression.

2000 Glenfarclas - rich and supple, full or orange liqueur on the nose.

We've still got four more appointments and this list doesn't count anything from today with the Laing brothers. There might be another six casks from Sovereign, or even seven. Again, once the pricing comes through on some of these we might say, "Whooooooooooooa."

-David Driscoll


Scotland 2013 - Day 5 - Old Relationships

Getting coffee this morning in Glasgow, I realized how much I really love this city. Edinburgh has the charm, the castle, the beautiful streets, and the bustling markets, but Glasgow has the hipster character. If you're thinking European analogies, Edinburgh is the Munich to Glasgow's Berlin. If you're thinking Bay Area terms then Edinburgh is the Upper Fillmore to Glasgow's Valencia St. There's a vibrant art scene, rundown buildings have been taken over by musicians and young students, the bars are ubiquitous and overflowing, and the coolness vibe is resonating loud and clear. It was under these conditions that we sipped our coffee, made the day's arrangements, did a bit of people watching, and headed over for our first appointment.

One of the biggest shocks for us this year was the separation of the Laing company into two factions. Brothers Stewart and Fred have worked together for more than forty years, but have finally decided to take different paths towards the future and divide the assets in half. Our appointment was therefore split into two different meetings with Douglas Laing and Hunter Laing respectively. It's no secret that the Laing brothers have some of the healthiest stocks of whisky in Scotland. They echoed the same message we'd been hearing all week upon our arrival: there is no whisky for sale on the open market for wholesalers. You can only trade for it, much like Des has told us at Signatory. It's no longer about wanting the whisky. It's about being able to get it. Therefore, it's about who you know.

If you had two tickets to the Superbowl and found yourself unable to go, you could do one of two things. You could put them up on Ebay and watch them go to the highest bidder (we've obviously done that with a bottle of Jefferson's Ocean before), thereby assuring yourself the maximum amount of profit. You could do that. Or, you could call up a friend who you knew wanted to go and make a deal with him (normally what we do with our insider whisky list). You know you're going to have no problem selling them. That's not the issue. The question is to whom and for how much? Some bottlers we meet with are opting for strategy number one. Luckily, the Laing's value their relationship with us, as do we with them, so it's more about option number two when we come to Glasgow.

Stewart told us that a potential client from Taiwan had called him this morning. "He told me he was only interested in Ardbeg thirty year old whisky from a sherry butt. Nothing more. I told him I'd get back to him," he told us with a wry smirk. Some people aren't aware of what's going on with the whisky market, much like the guy who wanders in off the street asking for a case of Pappy Van Winkle. Good luck with that, buddy. In a similar vain, if we've got hundreds of customers with whom we've done business with for years then why would we waste those Van Winkle bottles on a guy we've never met before and who might never come back again?

After hours full of conversation, a look through their stocks, and a wonderful Italian lunch, we're very excited about what our relationship with the Laings has blossomed into. It's a genuine admiration for one another based on mutual respect and the fact that we honestly get along with one another quite well. We simply like doing business together. When the Laings have Superbowl tickets they're not the type to put them up on Ebay. They're coming to us with them along with other valued business relationships. You won't believe what's coming on the horizon for K&L under the Sovereign label. Honestly, you wouldn't believe me if I told you here on the blog, so I won't say anything for now. Old stocks of impossible to get whiskies? Yes, you'd be close. Relatively affordable pricing for what they represent? Definitely. Islay? Yes. Don't Beg me for any other hArd facts. It would take 21 years to get that info out of me.

Next on the list was a trip to the head office of Morrison-Bowmore. We're longtime friends with Jamie MacKenzie and Rachel Barrie, so we're lucky enough to be one of the few retailers allowed to select casks privately from the Suntory-owned whisky company's warehouse. Last year Rachel had gone through the Glen Garioch stocks to find some wonderful expressions for us. She was ready for us again this time around.

There were samples dating as far back as 1991 and as recent as 1999. They were all quite tasty and really offered room for various flavor preferences. In the end, David and I both agreed that a 1997 Glen Garioch 15 year old was the clear winner. With water this malt became simply voluptuous, round and fat with pineapple and big vanilla. We touched on this last year in our distillery visit post, but to reiterate: Glen Garioch's short stills create an incredibly oily spirit. Rachel told us that these whiskies had the highest concentration of fatty acid esthers she had ever witnessed as a blender. For that reason, Glen Garioch bottles at 48% abv to help cut through this texture. Adding water to the spirit creates a lava lamp of oily ripples and waves. It's quite amazing to watch.

Unfortunately, the Isle of Arran is still completely out of commission. The ferry is running, but there's no power on the island and the roads are still a mess due to the storm. We're not going to make it out to the distillery, but we hope we can still sequester a few samples to make purchasing decisions. We'll see what happens. Rather than continue southward tonight towards David Stirk and the Exclusive Malts, we decided to head back to the Citizen M hotel in downtown Glasgow and post up in the city. Tomorrow morning we'll meet with David and discuss the various options for K&L in 2013. After that we'll make our way down to Bladnoch where we have two appointments on Thursday.

That's it for now!

-David Driscoll


Scotland 2013 - Day 4 - Downtime

Driving north along the A9 from Tain one can see the rugged coastline of the Northern Highlands as the North Sea collapses upon the rocky shore. There are a few distilleries further north of Glenmorangie. Old Pulteney sits right on the tip of the peninsula near the town of Wick, looking across at the Orkney Islands where the Highland Park and Scapa whiskies are distilled. Between the extreme north and the village of Tain is a small town called Brora.

Though it sits right upon the sea, there are rolling hills and vast fields with livestock just above the town limits. Upon one of those hills sits one very special distillery – one of the most beloved in all the world. Immediately next door are the remains of what was once its partner in crime.

With steam puffing out of its chimneys, the very-modern Clynelish distillery captures the essence of late-60s/early 70s factory architecture: tall glass windows, tan and brown colors, red brick accentuating its facade. Mr. Brady couldn't have designed it better!

The back is no more romantic. Large tanking equipment, a truck stop, and other industrial riff-raff make up most of the scene. While I truly love the whisky coming from the six large pot stills pumping away through the front windows, I can't say that the site of the building sets my heart aflutter. However, turning around from this view shows the entry ways towards another facility.

Follow the pipeline out of Clynelish and you'll spot the warehouses full of whisky barrels. Yet, beyond those buildings lies a pagoda roof and chimney. What's that all about, you ask?

Follow the road around the back of the distillery and you'll come to a gate.

You're not supposed to enter through that gate, but we're in the middle of freakin' nowhere. I don't think there's much private property enforcement in the town of Brora.

Through the gates one can see the neglected remains of the original Clynelish distillery, now more commonly known as Brora – the legendary site of what is now one of the most beloved and collectable whiskies in existance. The stills are still inside. The walls are still standing. Yet, nothing has been distilled at Brora since it was closed by DCL in 1983. Clynelish was renamed Brora after the Scotch Whisky laws determined that two distilleries couldn't maintain the same name (Clynelish I and II had been operating under the same banner once the new distillery was built). When the glut hit the industry at the beginining of the eighties, the decision was made to can the original in favor of the modern addition.

It was fun to visit one of my favorite distilleries and site of single malt royalty. There's not much one can do with whisky on a Sunday because not one of the distilleries take appointments on the weekend, so we didn't get a peek inside. Plus, we really needed to head south to reach Glasgow by the evening, so there wasn't much time to dilly-dally.

Further south, however, lied peril. Despite blankets of snow still paralyzing the south of Scotland, we rolled into Glasgow a few hours ago. Tomorrow we'll visit a few independent bottlers before checking to see if Arran is still in play. The entire island was still without power earlier this morning. We're just hoping the ferry is operational, otherwise we'll have to find something else to do with our Tuesday.

More on actual whisky tasting tomorrow!

-David Driscoll