K&L Awards 2012: Best Whisk(e)y of the Year

Out of my own personal interest, I asked our spirits specialists in all three stores which whisk(e)y stood out most to them from everything we had opened this year.  I wanted to get some feedback on how the staff's interest in whisky was coming along. Which whiskies did they like? Which whiskies didn't they like? David and I already knew we loved the 1979 Glenfarclas, but we were actually a bit surprised when everyone else seemed to choose that whisky as well. It's not easy to find concensus when speaking in absolutes, especially when you're dealing with a bunch of opinionated drunks. It was exactly this full-fledged agreement that inspired us to give a "best whiskey" award this year.

"If we all agree, then why shouldn't we tell people that?" I asked. At first, I didn't want to give an award because I knew it would fuel discussion about how our choice was wrong or different from what other people thought. I could envision the message boards lighting up.

"Hey David, I tasted your whisky and I don't agree with you that it's the best of the year! You're an idiot who's just trying to sell whisky."

Yikes! I didn't really want to deal with that. But then I thought more about it.

If someone doesn't agree with our choice then what do you want me to do about it? They don't agree, so what? We're not lying to you. It's our opinion. We can have ours and you can have yours. I think it's the best whisky I've had this year. So does the DOG. So do many of our staff members. I had to remind myself that this was the K&L Awards, not the United Internet of Whisky Blog Readers Awards. There are people who read this blog who want to know what we think because we taste whisky every single day of the year.

You want to know which whisky we most enjoyed this year? Which whisky made the largest impression on our staff? Which whisky WE like the most (even if no one else does). Here it is:

1979 Glenfarclas K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $299.99 - Glenfarclas is well-renowned for its heavily sherried character, a mainstay of the Highland distilleries in its region. Located just down the way from Aberlour and other famous Speyside institutions, the dried raisins and fruit cake flavors of sweet sherry casks are ubiquitous in the region and in Glenfarclas whisky expressions. For that reason, the single cask of 1979 vintage malt we tasted from a fourth-fill sherry cask really caught us off guard. Because the barrel has already been used three times to mature other whiskies, the sherry residue left on the wood is quite faint, therefore having less of an impact on the eventual color and flavor of the spirit aging inside of it. After more than 30 years, the result is absolutely incredible and very unlike most other Glenfarclas whiskies (exactly why we wanted it!). Instead of rich sherry, the whisky opens with oily resinous notes, sweet barley, and supple texture that can only come from three decades of wooded slumber. The finish turns somewhat smoky, filling in the gaps with more oil and a wave of vanilla.  The whisky is simply delicious, loaded with character, and unlike anything from Glenfarclas or any other distillery offering currently on the market. David and I are always on the lookout for the delicious oddball and we definitely found one deep in the plentiful warehouses of Glenfarclas. Easily one of the top five whiskies from our trip.

Mike Barber, K&L San Francisco - One of the best glenfarclas I have ever tasted- this is a fantastic bottle for any lover of real highland whiskey. There is a lot of oak on the nose and flavor (hey, it's been in wood for 33 years), but I'm amazed at how much all the floral and fruit notes have held up and even developed in this very bright and delicious older single malt. Rich and malty with an incredibly long finish- this is beautiful whiskey.

Melissa Smith, K&L Customer Service - Mmmm, this is yummy. There is this sweet barley thing going on with just the faintest imposition of sherried oak. A suppleness that you allow to linger on your tongue while the vanilla and spirits macerated dried fruit make appearances, leading to a long waxy classic Glenfarclas finish.

Greg St. Clair, K&L Italian Buyer - If you’ve heard me talk about having my breath taken away by a Single Malt Scotch, I was probably talking about a cask strength undiluted version whose fierce alcoholic nature literally took my breath away; this Malt however took my conceptual breath away, I wasn’t quite prepared for the depth, viscousness and layers of dynamic yet subtle flavors this incredible spirit gives. So often we taste wines or spirits that are so flavorful they are out of balance, impressive as hell they can stuff all of that flavor into one bottle but not really a pleasure to drink. This Glenfarclas is so stylish, so at ease, so complete I don’t think I’ve ever had anything quite like it. The nose is attractive, inviting and shows great depth that beckons you to explore further, on the palate the Malt is surprisingly rich, the nose is so balanced and delicate it doesn’t prepare you for the density. This isn’t a smoke filled, charred molasses barrel Malt this is true sophistication, balance, depth and unrivaled character. This is quite the spirit; you’ll not regret this experience.

Jeff Garneau, K&L Bordeaux Specialist - An exceptional single cask bottling, this '79 Glenfarclas is a model of subtlety and finesse. Aged in a fourth fill sherry butt, the whiskey trades typical Glenfarclas overt sweetness for layered complexity. A honeyed nose offers notes of dried fruits, butterscotch, and vanilla. On the palate intriguing gingerbread spice and a wonderful black licorice note that reminded me of the old fashioned penny candy we used to buy when I was a kid. The creamy, rich texture makes this a whiskey to savor.

Gary Westby, K&L Champagne Buyer - Greatness is a word that gets thrown around far too often in the single malt (and wine for the matter!) world. In order for a whisky to be truly great, it needs to have balance, individuality and trickiest of all maturity. The 1979 Single Barrel Glenfarclas is one of the most finely balanced drinks to pass my lips this year, with its faint hint of sherry and gentle (although full cask) power. This cask is a real individual and full of clean highland air and round maltiness despite its long time in Sherry wood. It is also mature- calm and round, but still full of vigor. Most Scotch of this age tastes too old and reduced for me, but this is full of verve. This is the malt of the year for me and a true great. If it is within your means, don't miss it!

Kyle Kurani, K&L Redwood City - A Golden Malt- This Scotch has proven to be one of the best single malts that I have had the pleasure to taste all year. It is over all one of the most complete and complex Whiskies that I have had the pleasure to introduce to my lips. This 1979 malt is at a natural cast strength of 41.7%, the Angel’s share in Scotland takes longer to have a real effect, but this whisky has had 30 plus years to mellow. The best thing that happened to this whisky all those long years ago when it was first being distilled was that it was put into a 4th fill sherry cask, giving it the ability to evolve for decades without being taken over by the wood. The harmony of wood and whisky is what makes this so darn special to me. Out of the bottle it is a rich golden colour, beautifully vibrant and inviting. The nose continues this golden theme with pure notes of Asian pear and crisp apple, enveloped with notes of vanilla and cream. The purity and freshness of the nose jumps out at you, and continues on the palate; velvety and soft, elegantly supple. The balance struck between the flavors the barrel imparts, vanilla, spice, butterscotch, and the flavors of the whiskey, creamy apples, yellow pears, a touch of honey, are in beautiful lock-step. This whisky is the epitome of a word that I hate using in the Liquor business, but I will break down on this occasion because it is an apt adjective, this whisky is truly smooth. Rounded, soft, textured and just plain delicious, this whiskey fits firmly into the category of smooth. Please enjoy this with good company, it is a whisky that any level of drinker can appreciate, and should be enjoyed by many!

Matthew Callahan, K&L Redwood City Assistant Manager - This whiskey really impressed me. From the nose to the first moments on the palate it's all about finesse. While not completely obscured, the sherry notes are definitely not overpowering - there's round, rich, supple texture and plenty of dried fruit. What struck me the most, however, was the marriage of ethereal flavors (smoke?, vanilla, dried fruit, slight medicinal note?) and incredible mouth-feel. This is a really special whiskey.

Sarah Covey, K&L Redwood City - Caramel, vanilla, and baking spice with a pretty, lingering sweetness- this 4th fill sherry cask scotch is one to sit with and ponder as it reveals itself. Gorgeous.

David Othenin-Girard, K&L Spirits Buyer - Tasting this whisky again brings me right back to the foot of Ben Rinnes, where we found this astounding cask among several of it's siblings of the same vintage. Many of the other '79s showed promise, as we were looking for something special the showcased the GlenFarclas spirit without the characteristic sherry character. This is truly one of the most elegant malts I've ever come across. After 32 years and at the surprisingly low 41.7%, this whisky has SO much life it's incredible. It starts malty, with an ever so slight earthiness. It truly reminds me of standing in the gorgeous GlenFarclas warehouses where this spent the last 32 years. With a bit of air, GlenFarclas' true character comes out. Typical of the famous distillery, herbs and mint, tons of fresh fruit. White peach skins, mango ripe and uncut, subtle tropical flavors that just make you want to guzzle this stuff. On the palate, you get cake frosting and more of that fruit. There is absolutely NO HEAT at all. The first sip finishes slowly, but lingers on the mid-palate, this malty fruitiness that you want to last forever. It obliges nicely. It's not over the top whisky, it's not in your face or 75% ABV. It is absolutely a pleasure to drink, potentially dangerously so. We may never see another quite like this one, so get on it!

David Driscoll, (in a photo circa 2007) K&L Spirits Buyer - Simply amazing whisky. This cask dipped down to 41% naturally and is now softer than silk. This is serious aged whisky that fulfills all your expectation for mellow and mature malt. $700 for Macallan 25? Or $300 for 32 year old, single barrel, natural cask strength Glenfarclas? Easy choice in my book. There's no one who wouldn't like this. Utterly drinkable and dangerously delicious. The most accessible mature whisky I've tasted all year.

-David Driscoll


The End of Industry Talk

I spent the better part of 2012 talking about the whisky industry on this blog - how companies are raising their prices, how shortages are affecting the market, how demand is going through the roof, and about how producers are looking to exploit all of the above for their own profit. I've voiced my own frustrations, provided satirical dialogues about real-life altercations, and stirred the pot as much as I possibly could to bring all of these subjects to light. However, I think I'm done with it all. I'm done talking about all of these problems because I don't see any way to fix them and I hate it when people sit around and bitch without trying to improve their situation. The past month has given me a glimpse into what 2013 will bring and it only looks like more of the same, which means that my writing trajectory is not going to change unless I make an effort to change it. I'm bored of this. I'm bored of myself.

Here is a summary of what happened in 2012 that should explain why I have nothing more to say about the inner-workings of the booze industry.

- May 5th - we talked about how every new craft producer is now "artisinal" - While I continue to support the smaller American distilleries wholeheartedly, nothing annoys me more than some crappy new craft spirit that wants us to carry their whisky simply because they made one. Nevertheless, I get emails from customers all the time who want us to carry more $70 one-year-old whiskies.

- June 27th - we talked about price increases - While I've continued to be vocal about price increases, people seem to have no problem paying them. I have spent so much time telling people NOT to pay more for the same whisky (which goes completely against my livelihood and profession), yet we continue to sell these same whiskies at a record pace.

- July 17th - we talked about NAS whiskies - While many enthusiasts continue to vocalize their discontent for non-age statement whiskies, we continue to sell them at K&L without explanation. Hooker's House, Black Maple Hill, Old Weller Antique, Rock Hill Farms, etc. Most people don't care about age if the whiskey tastes good to them.

- August 30th - we talked about whiskies that deliver - In the midst of all this industry mayhem, there continue to be producers who simply offer great whiskies at great prices that you can buy all year round. However, who wants a whiskey that anyone can get?

- October 18th - I wrote a three-part play about my frustrations with whisky companies - This one didn't go over very well with the empire. Yet, it's all true and it all happened. My readers seemed to enjoy it, however. We had some great feedback here.

- November 28th - we talked about liquor laws and distribution - This might have been the most important post of the year. When I hear people talk about how competition will eventually bring down the price of whisky I have to sigh. There is no real competition in the U.S. because all of the markets are protected. We can only ship liquor to nine states, so how are we competing nationwide? We're not selling books, or electronics here. There are laws in the United States that prevent the flow of alcohol between states and therefore prevent competition. Costco's liquor prices in Washington state are through the roof. Why? Because they managed to oust the government liquor stores and stepped in to replace them. The citizens thought they were getting a free liquor market, but instead they got a new dictator. In California, they sell liquor at a loss with prices so low that no one can compete. When local stores go out of business as a result, they won't have to worry about competition anymore. But that's a whole 'nother conversation, isn't it?

That's all I have to offer. I've got nothing more to say. I've given you everything I have. Plus, I've found that telling customers about the mess we're in concerning booze only infuriates them even more. We won't have Pappy on the shelf ever again. We have one bottle limits on Black Maple Hill. Laphroaig 10 is now $43 instead of $30. These conversations usually end in frustration, defensiveness, or anger.

I don't see anything changing in 2013. What will change, however, is my train of thought. I can't change the whisky world. I can't stop companies from raising their prices. I can't please everyone. I can't get everyone the bottle they want at the price they want it. All I can do is offer great customer service, advice, exciting new products, and education. That's where we'll be taking the Spirits Journal in 2013. More information you can use. Less information about a trend that none of us can stop.

The only way anything changes is when people stop spending, but that's not happening - not here, at least. If you're upset about the rising price of whisky, the only thing you can do is stop buying it. I heard from some customers today who told me about their plans to stop purchasing whisky in 2013 as a protest. That being said, if you're no longer buying whisky, then why should the whisky companies care about what you think? Kind of a Catch 22. You want the companies to make more whisky that you like, yet you've pledged to stop giving them your money. Meanwhile, millions of new drinkers have taken your place. What can you really do?

My advice for 2013 is to find a whisk(e)y you can still enjoy and start enjoying it. Stop worrying about what you can't get and can no longer afford. There's always something else, believe me. Focus on the positives and let the negative aspects of this business slide off you. I love writing. I used to love writing this blog. It's time to stop writing about all of these problems so I can start enjoying it again. It's time to work harder in the name of good booze.

-David Driscoll


Looking Forward to 2013?

Price increases scheduled for Jan 1st, as follows:

-Macallan 12

-Eagle Rare 10

-Elmer T. Lee


-Peychaud's Bitters

-Rock Hill Farms

-Regan's Bitters

-Tequila Forteleza

.....and many, many more! In all honesty, most of these increases are in the neighborhood of 60 cents to $3 per bottle, so you probably won't see all that much change in your everyday market. However, to anyone waiting for prices to start dropping, I wouldn't hold my breath.

-David Driscoll


K&L Awards 2012: Whisk(e)y of the Year?

Yes. We do have one. We weren't going to do a "best" anything this year, but after retasting this bottle we decided that if any whisky deserved it, this was the one. We tasted close to a thousand whiskies this year and we kept coming back to this bottle. It wasn't the most extreme, the most over-the-top, the craziest, or the rarest. It was a whisky that we thought just about anyone could enjoy and actually lived up to the price tag.

There’s a lot of weight thrown behind the term “Best Whisky of the Year.” When whisky critic Jim Murray called Old Pulteney 21 the best single malt of 2012, we sold through hundreds of bottles in few hours. That’s fine for Jim to say because he’s not the one selling you the bottle. He can say whatever he wants and no one will accuse him of trying to increase his liquor sales. When we at K&L throw around a phrase like that, there’s a lot of responsibility that goes along with it. We can’t easily play favorites - especially when it happens to be a K&L exclusive. Clearly, there are many great whiskies on our shelves. What makes one better than another?

In our opinion, for any whisky to be considered the “best,” it must be accessible. Anyone who likes whisky of any kind should be able to enjoy it. At the same time, it should be interesting and complex, historic,  but not esoteric. The best whisky of the year should also be special. It should be unique. It shouldn’t be something that tasted the same in 2010 or 2011. It can't be super peaty, or ultra-sherried. It needs to be good enough to entice any kind of whisky drinker. At the same time, it can't be obvious.

In the case of the this particular whisky, it also happens to be very limited. As a single barrel expression, the whisky is limited to the number of bottles able to be drawn from the cask. However, when you call a whisky “the best whisky of the year,” there should also be enough to go around. There’s nothing worse than hearing about something amazing, only to find out that it sold through in minutes.

David and I have both agreed that one whisky we tasted this year is better than all the rest. Adhering to the above criteria, we do have one unanimous selection that has won over the two of us, our entire staff, our owners, and everyone else who has been lucky enough to taste it so far. The flavors are subtle, haunting, and refined. The sherry aromas are present, but they’re not overpowering. The caramel aromas drift effortlessly out of the glass. On the palate the richness slides from candied fruit to hints of sherry rancio and rich vanilla. The finish starts slow, then comes racing on the back end, coating the tongue with delicious malty goodness. The entire experience is a soft and soothing wave of everything that three decades on a slow simmer can offer the single malt drinker. The whisky is utterly divine.

We have not yet released this whisky. It will be available this weekend and we will have roughly 500 bottles of it - all available at K&L only.

It is not inexpensive, but in the case of this particular whisky, the price is definitely worth it. It is over 30 years of age and is a product of slow, refill sherry maturation. There is no peat. No high alcohol power, despite being bottled at cask strength.

We'll let you know what it is this weekend (if you haven't guessed already). We've already told you about this whisky, but we deliberately held back our praise because we wanted to do a big year end celebration and we wanted to have enough left. If we would have come out and said, "Best whisky of the year" in August, we would have 1) sold through the pre-order allocation much faster and 2) still had four whole months left to possibly taste something better. Now that it's the end of the year and we're done tasting new whiskies, we're ready to stand by our earlier assessment.

There can be only one. This is definitely it.

-David Driscoll


Holiday Booze

I've always been of the mindset that big holiday occasions are not the time for fancy bottles. I've written that numerous times here on this blog. That being said, as long as you're comfortable with drinking your most prized possessions, there's no reason to save them either. Usually I try and talk people out of drinking Port Ellen with their family because their family won't necessarily understand what they're being given. I think Christmas is the worst day of the year for a twenty minute explanation about the 1983 Diageo closures and how rare that whisky in their glass is. Still, great spirits shouldn't be enjoyed in solitude. You're supposed to share them with others and enjoy them with friends. My Dad and I will be breaking out all the fancy stuff tomorrow because I want to drink them with my Dad. Great Champagne, great Brunello, great Bourbon. No booze talk. Just a quick salute and then down the hatch.

So, to amend any previous statements I made about holiday drinking, don't bring anything you have to explain, but don't hoard it away either. Just drink it. This is what you bought it for, right? For days like tomorrow?

When I take a sip of my first Champagne glass tomorrow morning, I will quietly send out a big thank you to everyone who reads this blog. Happy holidays to those who take the time to contemplate our drinking culture and email me those very contemplations. It fuels the fire at K&L. David and I are very blessed to have such a passionate group of spirits fanatics in our lives. We love all of you and wish you all the best this holiday season.

-David Driscoll