Whisky Box Blues

I had an email exchange recently with a friend about the new age of whisky consumerism, the one that prizes ratings over flavor and packaging over consumption. Unless you're a retailer, I don't think it's possible to understand how troubling this trend is. To give you an example: if a bottle of wine is worth $10, we don't hear too many complaints about the quality of the label attached to it. However, when we sell a bottle of wine for $300 there are a number of expectations from the consumer that extend far beyond the juice inside of it. Is the label centered? Are there any scratches or stains? Is the corner of the label peeling off? Any little fault can make or break a sale with discerning customers because they're buying an object to be displayed or gifted rather than a substance to be consumed.

All of this is taken to a new level, however, when it comes to whisky. Because many whisky bottles are packaged in tins or boxes, the collectable-minded customer is very, very interested in possessing these extra additions. When we're shipping bottles in tight, form-fitting, Styrofoam containers, there's little room for a canister or bulky box, which can seriously complicate things. To many buyers in the new age of whisky consumerism, the box is just as important as the bottle. Like an action figure collector who leaves the plastic model in the plastic, many collectors of whisky are not interested in a bottle without its packaging.

Now we know this trend with whisky is nothing new, but I can't even begin to stress how much more complicated it's becoming. If you were to look at my email inbox right now there are at least forty emails from customers related to a problem with whisky packaging. Where's the box? My box is wrinkled. I didn't get my container. The packaging was damaged in transit. And the fallout from the Karuizawa deal is absolutely insane. I'm getting emails from all over the world, asking if we have extra cardboard boxes or extra labels due to shoddy packaging jobs from third-party shippers. Because we are limited in the number states we can legally ship to, a number of collectors purchased bottles from us and had their friends take care of the shipping surreptitiously. When the packages arrived with smeared labels, leakage stains, or damaged cardboard, these guys immediately looked up my email and reached out about securing an extra display box or adhesive label. Not an extra bottle, mind you -- because the whisky arrived in fine condition -- but extra packaging, stemming from a problem that had nothing to do with K&L whatsoever.

I'm happy to provide any customer with any extras that should arrive with a bottle of whisky, be it a metal tin, a cardboard display box, or a wooden case. The expectation, however, that these extras should be automatically included, or shipped at no cost (but at a cost to K&L, of course) is a bit aggravating. Then, when we do include the packaging (some of the cheapest, flimsiest materials around, mind you), many consumers are often not satisfied with the condition in which it arrives because it can't have a ding, dent, or scratch on it. I'm at the point where I'm asking vendors to simply stop packaging their whisky in any type of container whatsoever. It's a huge headache for us and it's only getting worse.

This is why we're no longer including packaging for most of our K&L Exclusive single malts. Like our new Signatory whiskies, for example, which normally come in metal tins. We told them simply this year: "We're no longer interested in the packaging." Only bottles for us from now on, if we can help it. No tins with this year's crop, just the straight glass.

That way there's nothing to get upset about.

-David Driscoll


Whiskey-related Movie of the Month: Giant

We've all been there: you sit down to watch a movie and suddenly there's a whiskey bottle on the set. You start by looking for the brand label, the way the actors are drinking it, with ice or without, in a cocktail or as a shot, until eventually you've lost all track of the plot and your wife is mad at you for asking her about what happened. It's simply something we do as whiskey fans (I received at least four emails asking if I knew which Japanese whisky was used during the plane scene in the new Wolverine movie). Sometimes you become so inspired by the use of whiskey in a film that you can't help but hit the cupboard, grab a bottle, and pour yourself a glass as well. If the people on screen are drinking and having a good time, why shouldn't you?

This month's whisky-related movie is Giant (1956): the over-long, overly-ambitious Texan epic from George Stevens known mostly for being James Dean's final appearance. Until yesterday, I hadn't watched this movie since high-school, but I was interested in screening it again after briefly flipping through the final moments on AMC the other night. Flocks of nouveau-riche oilmen were clinking cocktail glasses and celebrating in a large banquet hall, while Rock Hudson and Jimmy Dean had their words in a giant supply room full of booze. As a teenager, I was more interested in the mystique behind these two men rather than all the liquor being consumed, but as the spirits buyer for K&L I was utterly transfixed this time around by how much Bourbon is guzzled during the three hours and twenty-one minutes this movie runs. There's a ton of Old Grand Dad orange label being drunk in Giant, amongst other various concoctions. At one point an inebriated Rock Hudson stirs up his own Bourbon punch recipe with what appears to be vermouth and other spices. Even the lovely Elizabeth Taylor herself gets into the brown water frequently.

No scene, however, is more bizarre and more hilarious than when a made-up-to-be-elderly Dean (who still looks twenty-four even with his gray hair and Clark Gable mustache) is so ridiculously drunk that he falls asleep during his big speech and completely biffs it over the stage table when he awakens. Even more bizarre and somewhat progressive are the racial themes concerning Texans and their treatment of native Mexicans, which often use Caucasian actors in "brown face" or goofy and rather laughable metaphors to make their point. But, hey, it was 1956. No one knew that big, tough, burly, all-American Rock Hudson was gay either. Nevertheless, there are plenty of redeeming moments in Giant, and definitely enough of them to justify spending more than three hours with a bottle of Bourbon on your living room sofa.

If you're looking for a bit of inspiration or just an excuse to whip up some Manhattans and hang out at home (there are some delicious looking Manhattans made towards the end of the film), then add Giant to your Netflix queue and watch some awfully-fine whiskey cinema. There are plenty of talking points, like how much James Dean resembles a young Brad Pitt and how much older Rock Hudson seems than thirty. Plus, there's a lot of whiskey on screen and it gets imbibed in numerous entertaining forms and fashions. By the end of the movie you'll be craving Texas barbecue and screaming "Yee-haw!"


-David Driscoll


48 Extra Bottles from Batch 1

Our first ever collaboration with Enrique Fonseca and Haas Brothers has arrived! The pre-orders have been filled and the notices have been sent, leaving us with an extra forty-eight bottles from our initial batch of Fuenteseca Reserva Extra Anejo tequila. We sold almost 400 bottles in less than 48 hours on the initial announcement. Now I've got one bottle left for each hour it took to sell through.

They're up for grabs as you read this.

If you miss out for now, or decide that you're not in the market for a $189.99 bottle of super old, super delicious tequila consisting of the oldest tequilas ever released to the general public, then don't fret. We're already working on Batch #2 that will be identical in formula to the first. I talked to Enrique this week and he said he had enough supply to make another 500 bottles of this recipe. How could I say no? Those bottles won't be here until Christmas time, so if you're curious, grab one of the initial release bottles by clicking the link above.

You won't be disappointed. It's truly amazing in every way.

-David Driscoll


I Don't Have the Time or the Money

Two things you'll hear people say about wine or whisky appreciation that really drive me up the wall are:

"I don't have time to drink bad whisky."

"I don't have the money to make a mistake and get a bad bottle."

That's why we love reviews that tell us what's good and what isn't. I only listen to albums that get an 8.5 or above from Pitchfork. I only watch movies that get an A- review or better from Entertainment magazine. I only eat at restaurants that get four stars or better from Yelp. That way I won't waste any time or make a silly mistake (mistakes are for pussies and idiots, by the way). This whisky is good, you should get it. This whisky is bad, you should avoid it. What more do you need to know? Let me tell you the drawback of an entire population that only buys what critics like Robert Parker says it should buy: homogenization!!!!

If you follow the wine industry you may be aware of what's happening in Napa, or in France's Rhone river valley: Parker points. Big points equal big money. Big money equals wine that strive for big points. Wines that strive for big points all taste the same. Big, oaky, rich, and concentrated.

"Hey Jacques, I know you were planning on making an old school, rustic, personally-styled grenache wine this year, but if you micro-oxidize, age the wine in new French oak, and extract more fruit during maceration, I'll bet you Parker will give you a better review. If you get 90 points or more you could make some serious money!"

"Really, Francois? Why is that?"

"Because that's the kind of wine Parker likes. And what Parker likes, people will buy."

All of a sudden the entire Cotes du Rhone has become one giant, homogenized, dark, inky, fruit bomb with a hot-shot review from the Wine Advocate. 91 points! Best buy! Deal of the year!

Except that all these wines are beginning to taste the exact same. There's no individuality. No variance. It's a sea of sameness. A vast wasteland of Parkerdom that has ruined the Rhone and negated much of Napa. Big oak, big fruit, big alcohol, and therefore big points.

And, believe me, whisky is next. Not necessarily because of Parker, but because the same whiskies are getting all the love.

There's a trend going on in whisky reviewing right now. Big sherry, big alcohol, and big peat are getting big scores. We can sell a 600 bottle barrel of high-proof, first-fill sherry Mortlach no problem (and that whisky was delicious by the way), but no one wants the more nuanced stuff anymore. Lighter, leaner, more delicate whiskies are slowly morphing into sherry-finished, extra-matured, Distiller's-Edition monsters that bring the richness right off the bat. Single malt whisky is getting the Napa Valley treatment and people are loving it. That's why Aberlour A'Bunadh is currently out of stock in California, while the far-superior 16 year continues to sit in squalor.

"Is it sherried?"


"Is it peaty and from Islay?"


"Is it rare or limited?"


Hmm....I'll just wait for something that is.

When retailers and bars can't sell a certain type of whisky, that style of whisky goes into retirement. It's called the free market: capitalism decides what can stay and what can't. It's like the tag-team division in the WWE or Arrested Development on FOX: it doesn't matter how good the product is. If no one will pay to consume it, then you've got squat. Big sherry sells. Big peat sells. Cask strength sells. Everything else simply isn't one of those three.

What happens, however, when every single malt whisky becomes a 59%, sherry-aged, super-rich monster? What happens when you can't get a single barrel, hogshead Clynelish anymore? Something with a delicate touch? Something that doesn't punch you right in the mouth? Homogeneity.

You also get fairweather drinkers. People who root for the San Francisco Giants when they win, but become A's fans when they lose. Like the people who wore Angels caps and waved the rally monkey in 2002, but are now wearing Dodger blue. Like the people who flock to Bordeaux for the 2009 vintage, then stay away for 2011 and 2012 because someone said those vintages "weren't as good." There's no comprehension of what "good" is. There's no understanding of passion or loyalty. There's simply a desire to side with the winning team, to drink the "best," to run with the pack, and to be considered "up to speed."

"Have you seen Bob's wine cellar? He's got only the best wines from the best vintages."

Guess what?! Bob isn't smart or sophisticated. Bob simply read a magazine and bought what someone told him to buy. You can do that. I can do that. Anyone can buy a San Francisco Giants 2012 World Series Champions jacket and wear it proudly. Does it actually mean anything to you, however?

Do you have time to watch a baseball game where your favorite team loses? I hope so. Because that's what creates a true connection in sports. The good times and the bad. The ups and the downs. That's why winning is so satisfying when it happens.

Do you have the time to read a book that bores you to death? I hope so. Because only by reading something dull and ordinary can you recognize good writing and talented prose, and therefore be enthralled by it.

Do you have the money to buy a $25 bottle of Weller 12 year old Bourbon? I hope so. Because Pappy will only taste amazing to you after you realize how the cask selection and extra maturation make such a huge difference.

If you don't have the time to follow a team through its ups and downs, then who gives a shit if you were there when they won the title?  If you don't have the time to make a mistake then how will you ever learn what constitutes value? If you don't have the time or money to drink wine or whisky regularly, to appreciate variety and nuance, to put the work in, to recognize quality and understand regularity, then how will you know a "good" bottle when you taste one? You won't. Which means you're simply buying what someone else told you was good.

There's nothing wrong with taking someone's recommendation. I do it all the time. What's a good place to eat in New York? What's a good place to get a drink in Chicago? That's called asking for advice. People ask for my advice when buying a whisky all the time. That's what I'm here for. What's annoying, however, is when someone uses that advice to avoid any attempt at understanding, and comes to the declarative conclusion: "I don't have time to drink bad whisky, that's why I only drink the best."

The irony of that statement is that these people would never know a bad whisky if they tasted one. So how do they know what's best?

-David Driscoll


A Guide to the New Exclusive Malts

I know that we've had notes in the system for the last few months as the pre-sales have been active, but it's nice to revisit these whiskies on arrival to see how they've changed in the meantime. If you weren't aware, most casks don't get bottled the moment we make our selection. The juice sometimes stays in the cask for another four to five months, meaning that extra maturing often takes place before bottling. That can skew things just a bit, so I like to offer revised tasting notes on the blog as soon as they arrive.

One thing that I mentioned the other day is that the Bowmore definitely needed air before it opened up. I don't know if this is due to travel sickness (something that often happens with wine where the jostling and bumping shakes the liquid up and throws off the flavor) or just that the oxidation helped bring out the peat, but this whisky was totally closed and wound up on day one. By the second day it was showing just fine. This may happen to you if you open a bottle at home, or it may be that the resting period these bottles have had sitting in our warehouse for a week will help settle them down.

On to the notes! (all five of these whiskies will be in stock very, very soon)

2000 Aberlour 13 Year Old K&L Exclusive "Exclusive Malts" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $64.99 - Those who enjoyed last year's Faultline 10 year North Highland malt should like this Aberlour 13 as well. It's a similar oak cask flavor (sans that bit of refill sherry) with a fresh fruit character on the nose. Water really helps this whisky open up and release more fruit and vanilla. Consider this whisky the un-sherried version of A'bunadh.

2002 Bowmore 11 Year Old K&L Exclusive "Exclusive Malts" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $75.99 - Again, I'll stress aeration with this whisky. When I first opened this bottle I couldn't smell any smoke, let alone taste it. After a day, however, the whisky was right where it should be. The nose is classic Bowmore, oily peat and oak, and the whisky drinks like a pepped-up version of the Bowmore 12 distillery bottle. It's richer than both of the other Bowmore whiskies we're bringing in, despite its younger age. David Stirk's casks always have a good amount of oak and this whisky is no different.

1995 Fettercairn 17 Year Old K&L Exclusive "Exclusive Malts" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $89.99 - This is the sleeper hit. All ten K&L Redwood City staff members who tasted through these whiskies came away liking the Fettercairn best. It's just a classic unsherried whisky. Imagine an older, richer, woodier version of the Faultline 10 year North Highland but at a higher proof. It's nothing out of the ordinary or super special, it's just damn good. With water it really opens up.

2005 Island Distillery 7 Year Old K&L Exclusive "Exclusive Malts" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $59.99 - Bright peat, oily fruit, and a light kiss of vanilla on the back end. To me, the closest comparison would be Laphroaig 10 cask strength, but it's not nearly as medicinal. Imagine blending your Laphroaig cask strength with a bit of Glenmorangie and this is what you'd yet. Delicious stuff and another big hit with the staff.

1979 Faultline 32 Year Old Single Barrel Cask Strength Blended Scotch Whisky $109.99 - This cask is of unknown origin, but we know it's a blend and we know all the whiskies were distilled in 1979. It's nothing out of the ordinary, but it's just good blended whisky. The grain component isn't all that pronounced either, so it could pass for a lighter single malt whisky if you didn't know it was a blend. Nice richness rounds out the finish and the fruit comes out. It's more of a fun surprise than anything super amazing. It's ridiculously priced as well.

I'll be processing pre-orders all morning then we'll try nad get these babies into stock. Maybe by the end of the day.

-David Driscoll