Consumer Confidence

Picture it ("Sicily, 1932," as Sofia from the Golden Girls would say): it's the end of the week and you've got an extra $50 to blow from your paycheck, so you head on down to your favorite liquor store (hopefully one of ours) to treat yourself on a Friday night. What to get, what to buy? It's been a while since you've purchased a bottle of whisky, so you've done a little online research on your lunch break. You originally wanted to get a bottle of Bruichladdich 10, but after persuing the blogosphere you've noticed the reviews weren't all that strong. Maybe you don't want it? Now you're unsure. After browsing around for a bit on the insider blogs, you notice that the new Kilchoman Machir Bay has an excellent review from the experts, although you weren't really in the mood for something smoky. But now you're at the store, both bottles are staring you in the face, and you need to decide which one it's going to be. You know you love Bruichladdich. You've enjoyed every one of their expressions in the past. It's what you were planning on getting originally, however your confidence was weakened by a lackluster review from one of the internet's experts. Now that you're in the store, that mid-90 point review of the Kilchoman is flashing in your mind. You cave. Hopefully, the Machir Bay will be as good as everyone said it is, you think as you head back to your car, bag in hand.

You can't wait to get home. Red light again?! Come on! How can the next one turn red right after the last one turns green?! Doesn't anyone understand how the flow of traffic works? You get the parking spot right in front of your place (woo hoo!) and you speed walk up the steps. The key slides easily into the door and you're in, right to the bar to grab yourself a glass. Glop, glop, glop goes the single malt; the golden color of the Machir Bay glistening in the late evening sun. You smell. Hmmm. You sip. Pause. Then it hits you. It's just OK. After all that anticipation this is kind of a bummer. It's not that you don't like it, it's that you know you'll never really finish it. It wasn't really even what you wanted, and you knew that from the beginning, but the opinions of others had you thinking that you might. Now you're wishing you'd bought the Bruichladdich instead, but it's too late because the bottle is open. It's just too smoky – exactly what you didn't want. Oh well. There's always next time.

Sound familiar? While I've never really had the above experience with whisky (only because I have the luxury of tasting everything first), I've had numerous scenarios throughout my life that played out similarly with video games. I was a pretty big gamer from the first Nintendo I got back in 1986 all the way throughout college. I slowed down a bit in my early twenties and then completely got out of it in 2007 when I purchased the Wii and just couldn't justify the expense. Now that I'm married, settled down, working all the time, and finding myself with about two to three hours of much-needed down time during the week, I decided to buy an Xbox 360 yesterday. I probably blow at least four nights a week just drinking cocktails while mindlessly surfing the internet with the TV on in the background. I've been watching the first fifteen minutes of Ski School, Bloodsport, and other favorite flicks, but then I don't really feel like committing, so I end up zoning out, answering emails instead or doing more work as a result. It's not helping to lower my anxiety levels, so I'm hoping that a few hours to destress with the old joystick will solve my issue.

Now - to the problem at hand! Which games do I buy for my new Xbox? I've missed out on so many new classics, it appears! Red Dead Redemption, Fall Out 3, Bioshock, where do I even start? After not having even looked at a game for almost five years, I needed to get a semblance for where the market was at. While on my lunch break at work I began to revisit my old haunts, logging into IGN for some detailed game reviews. Wow, they've really updated that site over the last half-decade! What are the highly-rated games right now? Halo 4!! That doesn't come out until tomorrow, so I'll pick that up before work Tuesday. What about now, however? I just saw the commercial for Assassin's Creed III and that game looks insane! You can fight the English during the Revolutionary War as a colonist or a native American! It also got great reviews. However, even with all that hype, I know myself. I know that I don't have the patience to sit down and figure these games out anymore. I need something I can turn on for twenty minutes and then turn off without too much commitment. There it is! WWE 13! As a huge wrestling fan this is just what I need. I think I gained at least 25 pounds in college eating Jack in the Box while smoking Marlboro reds and playing WWE No Mercy for the Nintendo 64. That's what I really want. Let's check the review. Oh no, it's good but not great. At first I thought that was perfect, but now this review has me second guessing myself. What should I do?

I used to let the reviews for a video game completely dictate my purchasing because I liked the idea of playing what other people thought was good. I didn't want to make a mistake. $50 was a big chunk of change for something I wouldn't end up playing. That being said, I wasn't confident enough back then to admit that I didn't like long, puzzling, drawn-out adventures that required high levels of skill. Nevertheless, I would buy them, play them for two days, then give up out of frustration (yet, tell my friends that they were awesome just to fit in). I have become even less patient as I've gotten older and now I really don't have the attention span to play these intensely realistic adventures.

However, even after my five years of experience at K&L, where I watch some customers follow ratings and reviews like biblical scripture, I still allowed myself back into that same frame of mind. "Buy what you like!" I constantly preach to customers, but yet there I was – standing at the Redwood City Target, looking at both Assassin's Creed III and WWE 13, knowing that it was going to be a battle between my own personal desire and wanting to play what the experts like best. Even after everything I've learned, after all the posts I've written about the terrbile point systems, I still caved to the high score review. I bought the Assassin's Creed game. This is what everyone else likes, right? Hopefully it will be good. I had to head to work from there so I put the bag of gear in my office and walked down to the sales floor. After a few hours of helping customers, it was time for lunch and time to head back over to Target. Who was I kidding? I wasn't going to let this happen yet again – another game that I spend $50 on just to get home and realize I'm never going to play it. Being at K&L, helping customers to make confident wine decisions, helped me to realize that I need to get what I like no matter how good someone else said the other game was. Who cares what the review said? I know I like wrestling games (as does my expanding waistline!).  I walked in with my receipt, swapped the game for WWE 13, and went back to K&L to finish my lunch.

I've been playing wrestling all morning and I couldn't be happier. I can play as Shawn Michaels and do a cage match with Steve Austin, battle for about ten minutes, hit the super kick for my finisher, and then move on to my grown-up responsibilities. It's important to try new things and be open to suggestion, but it's also important to know your personal preferences and comfort levels. It was an interesting experience to be put back into a position where I needed some consumer guidance. It helped to remind me of what my customers experience every day while shopping through the liquor aisles. As someone who wants drinkers to constantly expand their horizons, it was an important lesson in retail sales. As a retailer, I need to make sure that the customer is ultimately getting a bottle they're comfortable with. As customers, we need to make sure that we're honest with ourselves about what's going to make us happy.

I remember trying my hardest to like George T. Stagg Bourbon because I knew everyone thought it was amazing. I finally admitted to myself that I just don't like it and I was so happy to say it. Other people love it and that's great! Forcing yourself to drink whiskey you don't like is the same as playing a video game you don't enjoy. I personally don't like George T. Stagg Bourbon. I also don't like super-long, intensive video games. No matter how badly I want to fit in with the rest of the whiskey and gaming world, to understand the pleasure they seem to derive from something, it's just not what satisfies me in the end. Being honest with yourself will ultimately allow you to avoid these disappointments.

I just saved myself another $50 letdown. Thank goodness I rediscovered my confidence.

-David Driscoll


DOG Nails It


Wow. Simply delicious. David OG's new selection from down south is finally making its way up north. This is loaded with rich Bourbon goodness and cinnamon baking spices on the finish. Absolutely stunning.

2002 Evan Williams Single Barrel #726  K&L Exclusive Bourbon $26.99 - Our first ever Evan Williams exclusive barrel is here. Enchanting as it is affordable, Evan Williams is one of America's great whiskies. Here we have a single barrel that we selected after combing through countless samples. While the standard Evan Williams is great and bottled one barrel at a time, occasionally you get a bottle that just out shines the rest. Trying to find another bottle from that same cask is next to impossible. What we have is an entire cask of this superior quality, one that will certainly be compared to the best offerings from this famed brand to date.  It's extremely limited yielding less than 16 cases. This is one of the more elegant Evan Williams, I've come across. Easy and approachable, but with tons of depth.  Some tropical citrus flavors, mark the overal honey and spice.  The palate shows great depth, although it's not one of these sticky bourbons. The sweatness is balanced by a lovely exotic tea element, not bitter, but a bit tannic. It all come together with a lovely drinkable balance and a totally lack of any heat at all. This is painfully easy to drink. Be very careful! (David Othenin-Girard)

-David Driscoll


Re-evaluating Johnnie Walker

Since I started buying spirits for K&L I have never devoted much time to the Johnnie Walker whiskies. The retail market for them is competitive, the margins are slim, and my shelf space for booze is even slimmer. I don't have the luxury of buying 10,000 bottles, storing them in a gigantic warehouse, and letting them go for nothing while waiting for the volume game to even out the deal.  When I took over for Susan in Redwood City it was a trial by fire. We were a single malt store. We loved Bruichladdich. We didn't really sell blends. That's all I knew. No one ever taught me anything about Johnnie Walker.  There were no Walker staff training sessions. I was never a Walker drinker in my younger days, so I had little experience with the brand even back when I was primarily consuming the blended stuff. When customers ask me about these whiskies today I avoid the topic, mainly because I know very little about them. 

As a whisky professional, however, this was a major hole in my industry knowledge. How can the buyer for K&L not know anything about Johnnie Walker, the top-selling Scotch whisky brand in the entire world? I can lecture you about the barrel program at Lagavulin. I can show you personal photos of Caol Ila. I can even wax intellectually about the fermentation times at Mortlach. What I cannot tell you, however, is what these whiskies taste like when you blend them together.

I find it amusing that Talisker, Linkwood, and Clynelish are some of the most popular single malts in the world among whisky geeks, yet these same drinkers are entirely uninterested in how they work together in a blend. I'm utterly fascinated by whisky blending.  I think combining flavors is far more interesting than dumping yeast into a washback. Diageo has the most amazing portfolio of distilleries in the world, which are all primarily used for Johnnie Walker rather than single malt brands. One of the Diageo heads is actually on record as saying that if they could actually stop bottling single malts, they would! Their network of about thirty distilleries functions as a palate of colors with which they can paint a variety of different pictures.

So which whiskies are in which Walkers? That information is top secret, but we know a little bit about the ingredients from hearsay and from Diageo directly. Looking at the Black, the Green, and the Gold (perhaps the three most highly-regarded of the portfolio), there are some rather obvious flavors involved in each that can be discerned with a little bit of work.  The Black is obviously peated and one would have to assume there's a heavy dosage of Caol Ila in play. The Green is actually composed of only single malt whiskies, so it's much richer than the Black on the finish. I've heard that Talisker, Cragganmore, Caol Ila, and Linkwood make up a heavy proportion of the cepage. The Gold is Clynelish all the way.  I know this for a fact, but even if I hadn't known there's no doubt about it when you taste it.

After talking to Diageo last week about cost increases, we worked out a deal to help bring some of the Johnnie Walker whiskies back into the store at competitive pricing. However, I wanted to evaluate them first and not just use someone else's tasting notes when promoting them. I needed to understand this portfolio if I was going to keep any of my credibility as a whisky buyer. After spending some time with these guys, here are my conclusions.

First off, a few things to think about:

- Diageo sold almost 16 million cases of Johnnie Walker in 2010. You can find it in over 180 countries around the world. How they can keep it tasting good is mind-boggling with that kind of demand.

- I have been thrashing Diageo on this blog lately. That's what eventually led to us even discussing this very attractive deal. I have no motivation to love these whiskies whatsoever. They will sell themselves whether I like them or not. In fact, as I said earlier, I've never paid much attention to them simply because they're so ubiquitous. Any praise I heap upon them is genuine (and there will be praise).

- The Green and Gold labels are going to be discontined next year in the U.S. and in many other international markets.  The Green will remain in Taiwan, I believe, while the Gold will be replaced with the Platinum, if I remember correctly.

- If I'm going to sell these at K&L, then customers should know my honest opinion of each, which is as follows:

Johnnie Walker Black 12 Year Old Whisky $29.99 - Strikingly soft and easy to move over the palate (some people might call this "smooth"), with a leaner mouthfeel due to the grain. This is a blend of around 37 different whiskies, so there's nothing really standing out in the overall malty sea of flavor. It tastes like Scotch and there are hints of smoke behind the maltiness, but as my friend Marc said, the obvious design of this whisky is to simply taste good.  The whisky definitely tastes good.  However, for $30 there are better options in my opinion.  I think the Bowmore Legend is killing this at $23.99. That being said, Bowmore isn't making millions of cases of Legend to supply to the world's population. Considering how much Walker Black is being pumped out into the market, it's a much more impressive achievement.

Johnnie Walker Green 15 Year Old Blended Malt $55.99 - I really, really like this. According to Diageo, there are 15 single malts in this marriage, all at around 15 years of age. Talisker, Cragganmore, Caol Ila, and Linkwood all lead the way. I would reckon there are probably portions of Dailuaine and Benrinnes as well, simply because of the fruity richness. This whisky was designed to taste good. It's so full of toffee and nougat with delicious butterscotch across the mid-palate. The viscosity is also quite satisfying. While it's nothing wildly different, it's good for the money and I would happily drink this at home. What else can you get in the 15 year range at this price? Talisker 10 costs $50, as does Caol Ila 12. Cragganmore 12 is $44. Why would we not pay $55 to have 15 year old versions of these single malts married together into something so tasty? It's a shame they're getting rid of this because it's amazing considering how much they make of it. This absolutely destroys Macallan 12. I should probably sit on this and jack up the price when it's all gone, right? :)

Johnnie Walker Gold 18 Year Old Whisky $75.99 - I also really like this.  The sweet vanilla on the entry is delicious, that waxy fruit of Clynelish comes out to play on the palate, and the finish is malty and lasting. It's not exciting or new, but who expects that from Johnnie Walker? I'm not going to hold that against it. Again, for the price I can't argue. The grain component of the Gold isn't nearly as noticeable as it is in the Black, perhaps due to the fact that the grain must also be 18 years old (Cambus and Cameronbridge?). There's also a lovely creme brulee element that I think must come from the addition of more Speyside malts. What are the 18 year old options at this price? Oban 18 is now going up to $130 or so. Clynelish 18 wouldn't be that price if it existed (our 21 year cask sells for $125). If you were ever interested in trying a Clynelish 18 this would be the whisky for you. It also tastes expensive, which is important for mass-market sales.  I would have to think that Diageo is getting heavy customer satisfaction with this, however, they're obviously not getting the sales they want. Might have to squirrel one of these away.

- Here's something else to think about: while other producers are getting rid of age statements, Diageo still puts 12, 15, and 18 year labels on these whiskies. They're not gutting their flavor with younger juice while charging you the same price.  At least for now, they're not. That's admirable.

- The prices are competitive. Because every store in the world sells Johnnie Walker, we all have to compete with each other.  That's good for consumers and for prices.

- Considering that Thailand alone counts for 10% of Walker sales, this stuff is being made in gigantic quantities. When they replaced the stills at Caol Ila, they couldn't even take a quick break! They had to get their neighbor Bunnahabhain to loan them their distillery for a few weeks! (that's right - there is some Diageo-made Bunnahabhain out there in barrel at the moment). I have to be impressed by the quality at those levels.

So there it is. Johnnie Walker. Back at K&L. Nothing new or exciting, but good whisky with very good pricing, I think. Even for single malt geeks like me, it's fun to try and taste the components in each particular recipe. That would make for a fun tasting, in my opinion.

We're all friends again.

-David Driscoll


The 411

Again - there is about five blog posts worth of information that I would like to share with you, but I simply don't have the time to write five blog posts.  I can write one quick one, however, and we'll have to make do with that.  Here's the latest:

Suntory's Mike Miyamoto was in the Redwood City store last night to pour the Hakushu 12 and Yamazaki 12 single malt whiskies. Having master distiller Miyamoto personally lead the tasting was a rare honor and one that we all took full advantage of. The information was invaluable to our whisky-loving customers. Two interesting things I didn't know about Yamazaki - they have multiple stills, of various shapes and sizes, to produce different types of spirit. This allows them to play with different flavors and create marriages that usually requires ownership of multiple distilleries (i.e. Diageo blending together Talisker, Benrinnes, and Clynelish to make an expression). The other fact is that Yamazaki 12 is running at around $100 per bottle in Japan right now. They're basically subsidizing the foreign markets to keep their momentum going.  We're selling this for about $40 right now.  I'd expect a pretty big hike here in the U.S. at some point in the near future.  There's just not enough of it to go around.

I spent the morning at St. George Distillery with Dave Smith and we went over various points of business.  First off, we tasted the new 30th Anniversary Single Malt coming in early December.  It contains some of the oldest whisky the distillery has ever produced, including one of Lance's first-ever malts. It comes in a beautiful box and the label is pretty awesome as well.  It won't be cheap, but it will be delicious. One of the components was aged in a pear brandy cask (the sister to our apple brandy-aged barrel from a few years back). We also got rolling on our Faultline Gin Batch #2. Dave will be attempting to smoke some orange peels next week and begin maceration. Smoke and citrus - together at last!

The other thing Dave and I discussed was the sourcing of American whiskey from Kentucky. Prices are beginning to go up and we're both evaluating the future of the market. If prices come back down when stocks begin to increase, then we will have bought in at too high of a price.  If the market continues to raise the price of whiskey, then we will have to pay more if we wait. This is a perfect analogy to the housing situation I discussed previously.  No one is sure what the market will actually do so we're all being cautious. That being said, I went by Old World Spirits afterward to meet with Davorin and select a new cask of Rusty Blade (it's coming home - at cask strength once again for the holidays!). We began talking about rye and Davorin mentioned that he currently can't source any actual rye to distill.  The drought in the midwest has left little supply from the harvest and he mentioned that Diageo has been buying up most of it for their Bulleit brand. First we had a shortage of rye whiskey and now we have a shortage of actual rye.  This should keep prices nice and high for all you rye drinkers!

Speaking of rye, it appears that the Rittenhouse shortage is slowly beginning to fade.  We've got a ton in stock right now if you need any.  There's some Black Maple Hill as well.

Also, the wholesale price of Oban 18 is now over $100.  All of you who paid $77 got a real good deal.  Better than your local retailer can actually get! Wild. As I promised earlier, I now have to lower the price on another Diageo whisky. Let's seeeeeeeee................Dalwhinnie 15.   Was $50.  Now $41.99.  That should help even things out a little bit.  Remember, we need balance!

-David Driscoll


Housing Tips

After a week of faint optimistic hope that I might finally be able to afford a small house on the San Francisco peninsula, I'm now pretty sure there's no hope whatsoever. Even the tiniest fixer-uppers are going for $600,000 before all is said and done and unfortunately that's where my comfort zone says "No thanks." You might be thinking to yourself, "David, I just saw a two bedroom house in San Mateo for $480,000 last week!" To those thoughts in your head I would reply, "Yes, but did you see what the house actually sold for?" It wasn't the list price.

You've got to pay to play in the housing market right now. You've got to overpay just to get overpriced. Everyone's talking about low interest rates, but that doesn't help when you can't actually get the product your paying a low rate on. There is such fierce competition for "affordable" housing right now that every sale results in a bidding war. When there's a bidding war, the price of the house goes up. When prices go up, it gives people the impression that the market is booming. When the market is booming, people start making big money. Does this sound familiar to you, whisky fan?

One of my best friends is in the real estate game. We were talking on the phone last week and he told me that where banks were once looking to sell foreclosures quickly, in an attempt to recoup expenses, they began to notice that investors were turning around and selling those forclosures for even more profit (very much like what was happening on Ebay with the Van Winkle Bourbons). When the banks saw what these houses were going for later, they began to think to themselves, "Why the rush? Let's wait this out a bit and see what we can actually get." Whisky companies are currently thinking the exact same thing. Since banks and owners are now sitting on properties, waiting for the big sale rather than the quick one, it's diminishing the amount of available properties. With interest rates so low there are many interested buyers. We've got big demand, but low supply. Time to cash in.

The problem for me with the housing market is that people are paying these prices. $600,000 for a small shack that needs an extra $75,000 in repairs just to make it liveable?  Where do I sign? As long as that's the case, I'm going to be renting. It's in every business person's best interest to have low supply in times of huge demand. Not low enough to where you have zero inventory, but just low enough that it scares people into thinking that if they don't buy now, they may never get a chance to buy again.

I call it "fear capitalism." I've been watching it for the last two years.

I was asking my friend last night, "If I don't buy now do you think I'll ever be able to afford one down the road?" I could have been talking about a house or a bottle of Port Ellen.

-David Driscoll