Tastings Tonight!

St. George finally makes it over to Redwood City to pour some bourbon and other knick-knacks.  In the San Francisco store we've got the lovely Amy Schwartz pouring Bunnahabhain single malts, including the fantastic 25 year old.  Both tastings start at 5 PM and run until 6:30.  Free of charge, as always.  See you there!

-David Driscoll


Independent Ownership

I figured that as long as we're talking about which giant corporations own which distilleries, it might also be useful to bring up independent bottlers and their distilleries.  I don't know this for a fact, but the vibe I've been getting from the indies lately suggests to me that sourcing casks is harder than ever.  The practice of sending one's own barrel to the distillery, having them fill it, and leaving it there to age is coming to an end.  The independent bottlers of Scotland have therefore a need to create their own whisky if the big boys won't sell them any.  At the same time, independent distilleries who have also been able to source aged stocks have created their own independent labels to sell off these barrels.  Here's a quick list:

Springbank/Duthies/Cadenhead - J & A Mitchell, who also own the Glengyle distillery next door to Springbank, release the Duthies and Cadenhead products as well.  While neither is available in the U.S. at the moment, we carried the Duthies selections briefly in 2009.  We do have the saffron-infused Cadenhead gin as a full-time item.  If you visit the distillery, there's a giant Cadenhead's shop where you can find the whiskies pictured above.

Bruichladdich/Murray McDavid - Independently owned Bruichladdich also releases a series of cask-enhanced malts under the Murray McDavid label.

Glengoyne/Chieftain's - Ian MacLeod Distillers has been a family-owned business since 1933.  As you can see by all the Chieftain's products we carry (and have on order for 2012) we love working with these guys.  However, realizing that independent bottling couldn't sustain them forever, they purchased Glengoyne from the Edrington Group in 2003 as well as Tamdhu in 2011.  Luckily for them, Glengoyne is a key ingredient in some high-profile blends owned by big companies, which makes getting interesting casks easier to negotiate.

Edradour/Signatory - Signatory, who bottled our lovely Ladyburn, purchased Edradour Distillery from Pernod-Ricard in 2002.

Benromach/Gordon & MacPhail - Benromach was originally moth-balled by UD (pre-Diageo) in 1983, but then sold to Gordon & MacPhail in 1993 after ten years of inactivity.  It didn't begin operating again until 1998.  Gordon & MacPhail is perhaps the most widely known and distributed of all independent bottlers.

Who's next in the game of "We need to control our own whisky supplies?"  Rumor on the street is that Weymss Blended Malts tried to buy Bladnoch recently, but the entire thing blew up in their face!  Bladnoch is owned by two feuding brothers and apparently one of them agreed to sell behind the back of the other.  When the other brother found out about the promised deal, he immediately refused both to sell the distillery and to ever speak to his brother again.  I wonder which distilleries are even on the market.  I'm sure that A.D. Rattray would also love to own something again.

-David Driscoll


K&L Casks & Diageo

Since I posted the last article about Diageo's take on their single malt distilleries, I thought I'd also enlighten you all a bit as to how many of our 2011 K&L whiskies are independently-bottled Diageo malts.  As a company, Diageo does not do retailer bottlings, but that's not anything to moan about.  Very few distilleries are willing to do retailer casks because the amount of work needed to get it done can be more than it's worth.  They're mostly about goodwill and keeping relationships strong, rather than lucrative opportunities.  Needless to say, because Diageo has a number of distilleries that are either not released as single malts, or are no longer in production, we take a certain pleasure in bringing these whiskies into the U.S. market. We're collectors like anyone else, so we want the chance to explore Scotland's many distilleries just like any other enthusiast.  Here's how our recent K&L barrels fit under Diageo's gigantic umbrella:

1998 Blair Athol K&L Exclusive 11 Year Old Provenance Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky - The most recent of our latest arrivals was a lovely little barrel of old school malt from one of Scotland's oldest distilleries.  In 1798, two businessmen founded Aldour Distillery which was a play on the nearby river Allt Dour (seen in the above photo taken on our trip).  In 1825, the name was changed to Blair Athol when the facility was expanded.  Twice closed (once in 1832 and again 100 years later in 1932), the distillery was sold to Arthur Bell & Sons in 1933 where it became the foundation for what would become the UK's most popular blended whisky today - Bell's Blended.  The Guinness Group purchased Arthur Bell & Sons, and therefore Blair Athol, in 1985 and the distillery became the property of Diageo when the Guinness Group merged with Grand Metropolitan in 1997.  After Talisker and Oban, Blair Athol is the third most visited distillery of Diageo's holdings with around 40,000 per year.  It is not released as a single malt, with the exception of a few rare Manager's Choice releases now and then.

1992 Bladnoch K&L Exclusive 18 Year Chieftain's Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky - While Bladnoch is no longer owned by Diageo, it was acquired by the Guinness Group as part of the same Blair Athol deal mentioned above (as Arthur Bell & Sons took over in 1983).  However, Bladnoch was mothballed by United Distillers (a combination of Arthur Bell and Distillers Company run by Guinness - the pre-cursor to Diageo) in 1993 when they also shut down Rosebank, Pittyvaich, and Balmenach.  In 1994, a businessman from Northern Ireland named Raymond Armstrong purchased the copper-stripped distillery under the condition that he would not produce any whisky with it.  Why he did that is beyond me because he did not get any of the aged stock as part of the deal.  However, after heavy lobbying by both Armstrong and the community surrounding the distillery, Diageo agreed to allow limited production in 2000.  The 18 year old we have is therefore from one of the last Diageo runs before shutting the distillery down.

1983 Dailuaine K&L Exclusive 27 Year Chieftain's Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky - One of Diageo's blending blocks, Dailuaine operates solely to provide quality malt for its owner's great blended brands.  However, since the middle of the last decade, Dailuaine has produced three different types of malt so that there are various flavors to choose from.  Founded in 1852, the distillery was included in a series of mergers until it was ravaged by a fire in 1917.  In 1925, it was purchased by Distillers Company which eventually became Diageo.  The interesting part about our 1983 is that its from the same year that the facility ceased on-site malting.  Is our bottling one of the last home-made malts before barley was sourced externally?

1988 Auchroisk K&L Exclusive 21 Year Duncan Taylor Single Octave Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky SOLD OUT - Auchroisk is just a baby compared to the previously-mentioned distilleries, having only been around since 1974.  The building began in 1972 by the company that would eventually become Grand Metropolitan to help provide a new source for their blended whiskies.  It was the original malt under the Singleton name (now sold stateside with Glendullan whisky) when released as a 12 year in 1986.  Grand Metro merged with Guinness in 1987 to form United Distillers.  Our 1988 was distilled one year later.

1975 Banff K&L Exclusive 35 Year Duncan Taylor Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky - Founded in 1824, the history of Banff distillery is a tragic one (one that I documented in our printed newsletter last month from K&L).  The building's propensity for catching fire was simply incredible and numerous times there were terrible losses as a result.  It was family-owned for more than 80 years, but was sold to Distillers Company in 1932.  Banff was closed in 1983 before Distillers became Diageo, but Diageo still holds the remaining stocks.  Even though the distillery was non-operational, it still caught fire again in 1991 and this time was completely destroyed.

As you can see, Diageo has had quite a role in the making of some of our exclusive casks.  We still have a 1980 Caol Ila K&L Exclusive 30 Year Old Sovereign Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky on the way, which of course is also part of the umbrella, as well as some unannounced casks coming late February that are all Diageo products.  We have to work with brokers, independent warehouses, and various bottlers to acquire these casks, but all were purchased through dealings with Diageo at some point. 

Speaking of those three unannounced casks coming early next year.......they're going to cause quite a stir.

-David Driscoll


Thanksgiving Thoughts

I'm sitting at the counter in my parent's kitchen reading some articles about whisky in a new book I just ordered from the UK.  So far, most of them have been absolutely bland, boring, and poorly written - focusing on the growth of the industry, the geographical location of the next big boom, and corporate executives who want to make more money off of whisky.  However, this quote from one of Diageo's head honchos really stuck with me.  He says:

"Diageo is a blended whisky company.  Diageo does not make single malts for me to enjoy.  We do not make single malts for the afficionado to enjoy.  We make single malts for our blending team."

You can obviously read that quotation a number of different ways, but it's kind of a chilling statement.  I say "chilling" because Diageo owns 28 of the best distilleries in Scotland including Lagavulin, Oban, Talisker, Caol Ila, Clynelish, Dalwhinnie, Cragganmore, as well as the remaining stocks from the no-longer-existant Port Ellen, Brora, Rosebank, and Banff.  While I understand completely that Diageo's big bucks come from the Walker blends, it's still a bit frightening to hear them admit something like that.  If you haven't kept up with the current trends in the whisky economy, single malt whiskies account for only 7% of world sales.  That means they're an afterthought.  Johnnie Walker comes first and everything else gets made if there's a bit of whisky left over. 

Demand, however, for collectable whiskies has only gone up over the last few years.  You can't get Pappy anywhere anymore and the newest Port Ellen release didn't even make it to California (we got one whole bottle, whereas last year we could buy as much as we wanted).  Diageo is also known for demolishing their "less profitable" distilleries, rather than selling them off.  Letting another entity have a go with something like Rosebank would only lead to more competition.  One of the rare exceptions came in 1993 when they sold off Bladnoch, however they still put a contractual cap on how much the distillery can produce on a yearly basis.

As I sit here with a bit of Ladyburn by my side (a lost distillery which Diageo doesn't own the rights to), I'm more thankful than ever for independent bottlers like Signatory who made this bottle possible.  I'm thankful to work with people who live to drink single malt whisky, rather than analyze its market potential.  If you think about single malts with your mouth and your heart, rather than with charts and graphs, it's a much more human experience.  There are so many wonderful distilleries in Scotland that make fantastic, unique, and compelling single malt whisky.  Many deserve to be drunk on their own.

Happy Thanksgiving. Drink some whisky. Share the bottles you love. Tell people the story behind those distilleries and make sure they know why individual single malts are so interesting.

-David Driscoll


Top Ten Single Malt Holiday Picks

This is going to go out to the gigantic K&L email list very soon, but I thought I'd give you all a sneak preview here first. 

Now that K&L has become the nation’s premier destination for unique spirits, we’re receiving more inquiries from single malt fanatics in search of something new and interesting for their whisky-drinking loved ones.  To help ease the process of gift-giving this year, we’ve asked our two energetic spirits buyers to rank their top ten single malt picks for the holiday season: in order – factoring in quality, price, exclusivity, and general drinkability.  The following list comes straight from our in-house experts with updated notes and commentary!

10.  Blair Athol K&L Exclusive 11 Year Old Provenance Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $74.99With all the cask enhancement flavors and super-smoky aromas coming out of the single malt world these days, it’s nice to find an old-fashioned, “they-don’t-make-em-like-this-anymore” type of whisky.  Blair Athol is not known as a single malt distillery, but rather for its role in Bell’s Blended – one of the most widely-appreciated blends in the UK.  It has wonderful fruit, classic malted barley flavors, and lovely whisps of vanilla and syrup. We found this cask in a Glasgow warehouse and immediately fell in love.  At cask strength, a dollop of water works wonders – bringing out new flavors in the malt and adding complexity with every drop.  This is a rarely seen whisky that should make plenty of new friends while it lasts. -DD

9.  Ardbeg Uigeadail Islay Single Malt Whisky $58.99Our continuous work with what has become Islay’s most beloved distillery has been incredibly successful.  We’ve managed to turn hundreds of new whisky drinkers on to the high-octane flavors of Ardbeg at an incredible rate, while continuing to deliver great new pricing at the same time.  The Uigeadail was voted the world’s best whisky in 2009 and has never looked back since.  Loads of peat moss, iodine, smoke, salt, and brine make this a “love-it-or-hate-it” type of malt, but judging by amount we’ve been moving this year, it seems that most people are loving it.  While many people consider Lagavulin 16 to be the standard of peated Islay malts, the Uigeadail just seems more alive – zippier, zestier, and always enjoyable. -DD

8.  Lagavulin 16 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $64.99 - Okay, so not every top ten single malt can be from the casks we brought back from Scotland.  Lagavulin is a pillar of quality in a single malt market filled with excellent brands.  I would call Lagavulin the consummate classic. While some critics swear it was better twenty years ago, most honest observers have to admit that this is still one of the finest malts available.  While Lagavulin is not known for their exciting or avant-garde bottlings, they are noted for being incredibly consistent over the last 50 years of whisky production.  The small distillery outside of Port Ellen is a living legend.  The 16 year exemplifies everything that is great about single malt whisky.  It’s familiar and inviting.  It’s unusual and nuanced.  This is the perfect whisky to cut your teeth on, but is just as good every time you come back to it.  It just NEVER gets boring. -DOG

7.  Compass Box Great King Street Blended Whisky $39.99With single malts dominating the boutique market for the past few years, it was time for someone to create a hand-crafted blend that really highlighted the strength of what grain whisky could bring to the picture.  Dubbed by Compass Box guru John Glaser as the “Johnnie Walker killer,” this whisky was created to drink on the rocks with a splash of soda.  The fruit really opens up with the addition of ice and the sweet grains mingle beautifully with the vanilla.  If you’re an “on the rocks” person who has been scolded for ruining fine quality whisky, this is your bottle.  Straight sippers might be a bit underwhelmed, but those of us who love a good Highball will be in whisky heaven. -DD

6.  Glenfarclas 17 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $89.99 - What can I say about this whisky that every critic hasn’t already?  Glenfarclas is one of the Highlands’s finest distilleries.  Nestled behind a beautifully lush outcrop of pines on the road between Keith and Inverness, this historic family owned distillery is in the top tier.  The boys at Glenfarlcas pride themselves on delivering incredible value for the money.  The house style is richly sherried.  Their 17 year is the flag ship and represents one of the finest values anywhere in single malt.  Here you’ll get plenty of that sherry character, but with a lot more depth than one would expect for the price.  Freshly roasted coffee beans, orange marmalade, cacao, and honey, the complexity is near infinite.  With a bit of air, a different set of aromas express themselves, sandlewood/cedar, dried fruits galore, the sweet caramel intensity nearly completely masking the tiniest hint of fresh mint.  Truly a gem, please don’t tell anyone how good this is! -DOG

5.  Kilchoman 100% Islay Barley Single Malt Whisky $99.99I know a lot of people have looked at the $100 price tag and wondered why what is essentially a three year old whisky should merit such a high price.  What most folks don’t know is that almost every distillery in Scotland uses pre-malted barley from the exact same source.  It’s almost the same as every winery beginning with the exact same grapes – the difference in flavor comes from technique rather than raw material.  What Kilchoman decided to do was grow their own barley next door to their Island distillery, harvest it, malt it at their facility in the old-fashioned floor method, and then distill it into a single malt that is 100% from Islay – the most beloved of all Scottish locales.  Brimming with zesty lemon, sweet barley, smoky peat, maritime saline flavors, and almost a blanco tequila-like aroma, the difference between their usual malt and the 100% couldn’t be more obvious.  For those interested in terroir, this whisky delivers it in droves.  It’s very unique, expensive to make, and all too rare. -DD

4.  Longmorn 18 Year Old Signatory Single Malt Whisky $79.99 - We don’t see a lot from Longmorn stateside because it’s generally not imported.  The Longmorn 16 year bottled at the distillery is good, but expensive!  This independent bottle from Signatory trounces the distillery bottling at a fraction of the price.  Powerful and classically Speyside, the balance here is incredible.  The nose is incredibly rich and brings the smell of fresh cereal grains with hints of sweet vanilla.  The slight sherry character (It's a Hogshead) is a forethought and not noticeable unless you look for it.  This is the perfect whisky to get for someone who you know loves single malt, but you don’t know which kind.  Even if they are a peat head they’ll have to appreciate this malts awesome viscosity and fabulous depth. -DOG

3.  1975 Banff K&L Exclusive 35 Year Old Duncan Taylor Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky 224.99 - Banff is one of my favorite distilleries.  Before its demolition, it was located in the most extreme north east of Scotland and this fully mature Hogshead barrel was a treasure for us.  This whisky might not be for everyone.  It’s not for those looking for a cheap substitute for Macallan 30 year.  It is, however, an exceptionally introspective whisky, which needs to be examined thoroughly to full understand.  Coming in at a rather low 90.4 proof, this Banff doesn’t feel tired or expired despite its age.   The nose has a powerful fresh woodsy feel that remind me of going off trail in the forest, cracking dried twigs under your feet, the smell of moss on bark.  Leafy green and apple tart on the palate.  The finish is puckering and dry, but not austere.  So many of the people who pre-ordered a bottle have come back for second and even thirds.  Don’t miss out. -DOG

2.  1997 Springbank K&L Exclusive 14 Year Single Madeira Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - I don’t know what to say about this whisky except that it makes me cry a bit every time I sip it.  I have to admit that I am not only a HUGE Springbank fan, but also a sucker for Madeira.  From the moment it pours out of the bottle you can tell you’re about to get the best flavors of both.  The shimmering golden color is matched by the utter viscous nature of the spirit as it pours from the bottle.  The nose is a complex mix up of sweet creamy icing, rich winter produce (persimmons and butternut), the richness of the Madeira influence totally covers the unique smokiness of Springbank.  Instead you get saline, fresh earth and a bit of warehouse floor.  On the palate, the smoke definitely takes the forefront.  The fruit is still there but plays a back seat to Springbank’s exceptional rich smoky malty core.  This is sure to go down as a classic.  -DOG

1.  Glendronach K&L Exclusive 16 Year Old Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $115.99Number one with a bullet! This is old-fashioned, old-school Scotch for people who love whisky. If you know someone who likes Macallan 18 or any other smooth-drinking, Sherry-aged single malt, then this is the ultimate alternative that will have their taste-buds singing. Imagine taking one single Sherry barrel out of the Macallan 18 blend recipe and isolating its concentrated flavor – big, chewy, raisined fruit with rich molasses and a hint of earth.  Add in a fuller-bodied, unctuous mouthfeel and a powerful backbone with a kiss of sweetness on the finish.  That’s this whisky in a nutshell.  We had them bottle it straight from the cask, so you’ll need to add some water to proof it down!  After that it’s smooth sailing into the New Year.  Very limited and sourced directly from the distillery warehouse.  -DD

-David Driscoll & David Othenin-Girard