Whisky Season 2012 Update: Two Must-Have Casks

I know many of you have been waiting for the big guns - the "must-have" casks (that don't cost $500) that represent the finest from our trip.  Now, while I have a certain affinity for everything we bring back, there are two whiskies that I think represent the best value for the flavors most customers are searching for: sweet and peat.  For those who love Macallan, Balvenie, and the rich, sweetly supple flavors of sherry-aged whisky, Glendronach is our answer.  Last year's visit really showed us how special this distillery is.  Their standard 12 year blows the Mac 12 or Doublewood out of the water.  I've never touched either of those whiskies again after tasting it.  Our cask of 16 year old Glendronach was a huge customer favorite - perhaps the most successful whisky of last year's expedition.  Benriach, not normally known for it's peated whisky, did in fact dabble in the smoky alchemy back in 1983 under the Seagram's banner.  We nabbed one of the famous PX-sherry-aged barrels from that era, perhaps giving us a replacement for the other famous peated-Highland - the legendary and now-extinct Brora.  It's really that good.  In fact, I found the Benriach more interesting and tastier than any older Brora I've ever had (granted, I've only tasted a handful, so that statement may not mean all that much). 

1993 Glendronach 18 Year Old K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky (Pre-Order) $115.99 - On the heels of our Glendronach 16 year old cask, perhaps the most generally beloved of any cask we've ever purchased for K&L, we knew we had to look for a quality successor.  Even if we couldn't match the greatness, the concentrated sherry sweetness with that unctuous, chewy, malty goodness, we had to at least try.  Our relationship with Glendronach went from non-existent to bosom-buddy in 2011 after our visit.  This year, our trip to the remote Highland institution offered us another chance to scour their wonderful selection of aged stocks.  First off, we tried some younger 10 to 12 year old casks, but really found them less interesting than the already fantastic distillery bottle. Some twenty year old casks were rich and decadent, but they were perhaps too over-the-top.  The 18 year old selection, however, smelled of Armagnac and rich caramel with roasted fruits and big sherry aromas.  The palate was soft, integrated, and very smooth, even at full proof.  The richness was powerful, but unlike the older selections, it was completely in check and balanced by the spice and alcohol in the malt.  It offered many of the same characteristics that last year's cask displayed, but in a more subdued and elegant way.  The result is a familiar, yet intriguingly new expression of Glendronach bottled entirely for K&L and it's the same price as last year's cask! I find this 18 year to be even more accessible and expect it to be even more successful.

1984 Benriach 27 Year Old K&L Exclusive Single PX Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky (Pre-Order) $179.99 - While tasting through the cask samples at Glendronach, David and I noticed a few older barrels from Benriach as well, its sister distillery run by the same ownership group.  While we've really championed the former whisky, Benriach has always remained in the background at K&L.  We like the whisky, especially the fantastic new 12 year expression, but it's never lit a fire under us.  However, when David noticed that one of the casks was dated "1984," our curiosity instantly peaked.  During the early 80's, when Benriach was still owned by Seagrams, the distillery was known as an experimental laboratory, turning out all kinds of interesting malts, some of them heavily peated.  We poured ourselves a sample, noted the rich sherry color, and suddenly the whiff of peat smoke tickled our noses.  This was one of those storied whiskies - a PX sherry-aged peated whisky of 27 year old maturity with the same integration of richness and smoke that one finds in old Islay malts or the legendary peated Brora.  In fact, David and I were so floored by the quality, we thought it was better than some of the older Lagavulins and Broras we had tasted.  "No one is going to believe us if we talk that way," I said, but the truth couldn't be denied.  This whisky is phenolic, oily, briny, supple, chewy, rich, raisined, and smoky. It hangs with the great aged island malts, but prices far below them.  Easily one of the top three whiskies from the trip and destined to become a K&L classic.

-David Driscoll


The Genius of Modesto

Here at K&L in the Bay Area, we're way too focused on the liquor thing. While driving through my native Modesto this weekend, I found this little gem on a back country road.  Part liquor store, part hotel, and part cafe, the Blu-Lite offers the ultimate in customer service.  Grab yourself a room, head over to the front desk (which also happens to be the liquor store counter) and grab a 12-pack of beer while you're at it.  Maybe a bag of chips, too.  The rooms are just behind the sign.  I would have taken a better picture, but they didn't seem too keen on my documenting the secrets of their enterprise. 

So there it is – the genius of Modesto. Blu-Lite Motel & Liquor.  I'm taking this idea to K&L ownership.

-David Driscoll


Weekend Thoughts

This weekend I was once again reminded of the similarities between booze and art.  Here are a few musings:

– While watching the first epsiode from this season's Project Runway with my wife (a show that has taught me a lot about doing my job, I should add), the two judges discussed whether a contestant was good enough to make the cut:

"I wouldn't wear her clothes personally, but I think they would sell right off the rack."

I've felt the same way about whisk(e)y many a time.  There are whiskies that I personally wouldn't buy for myself, but I still think they have general appeal and should be included in the K&L selection.  It seems that the judges on PR are divided between the designs that are easy to like and the more challenging fashion that appeals to their sense of art.  Spirits are no different.  The difficulty on PR is that they have to eventually choose one winner.  Fortunately, I do not.  I get to have shelves and shelves of both types!

– Driving in the car yesterday, I was listening to some old Sonic Youth songs and remembering how much I loved their music in high school.  In all honesty (which I have to confess if I want to make this point), I think I liked the idea of Sonic Youth back then. Much like Christian Lander claims that white people like "the idea of soccer," I thought that people might be impressed by my musical tastes, seeing that Sonic Youth were always the critical darlings without much general fanfare. I, therefore, perhaps stood out a bit from the crowd by professing my admiration for the art-house rockers.  Just like in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, there are certain records you just have to own if you want any credibility as a serious music fan.  The same is entirely true about wine and spirits.

I think there's a certain amount of pretending going on in the booze world, but it's mostly innocent.  I definitely liked Sonic Youth (and I probably like them even more now), but I don't think they were actually my favorite band like I claimed they used to be.  I've seen the same type of relationship with esoteric Burgundy or Loire Valley reds that possess a certain cool factor when brought to a dinner party.  Ultimately, they're never really the most friendly wines, but they are interesting.  However, you get the same type of street cred if you talk about how much better they are than California Pinot Noir, even if the Swan Russian River really was the most enjoyable of the evening.

If you define yourself by the musical artists you admire, then telling people what you drink is no different than telling people what you listen to – you always craft that list carefully to include some interesting, off-beat choices in between some safe selections.  If you've ever read High Fidelity, or even seen the movie, it's really the same thing going on at K&L.

-David Driscoll


Mark Your Calender!

Charles Neal will be invading the San Francisco store this Wednesday evening to pour some Chateau Pellehaut brandies, including two K&L exclusive vintages!  Don't miss your chance to taste some of the best Armagnac we've ever carried - for FREE. 

Redwood City will be hosting Boyd & Blair vodka for another session on macerating your own herbs and spices into a collection of homemade bitters.

Tastings start at 5 PM and run until 6:30.  See you there!

-David Driscoll


More Fun Stuff

Jacob Lustig, the fabulously-connected importer who brings us the jaw-dropping ArteNOM tequilas, is back with his latest Mexican acquisition - Vallet bitter liqueurs.  In 1864, Henri Vallet moved to emigrated to Mexico from France and chose to stay put in his adopted homeland.  By the 1880s, he had become one of Mexico City's premier distillers.  Over 120 years later, the brand is still going strong and, with the new American palate for French and Italian bitters, the time was right to cross the Northern border.  The Fernet Vallet is made from a maceration of aromatic plants, roots and spices including cinnamon, clove, Quassia wood, gentian root and cardamom.  It doesn't have that menthol note that Fernet fans adore, but it is a fantastic expression nonetheless.  The Vallet Amargo Angostura is made from Angostura bark and a maceration of cherry fruits, cloves and other roots and spices.  It's the more traditional of the two, mirroring things like Nonino or Montenegro, but with that Angostura note that you get from the eponymous bitters.  Both are well under $30 and should make fans of the genre very happy.

We've all been a bit disappointed by the shortage of Tempus Fugit spirits since Gran Classico took the world by storm.  Supply and production issues have plagued the beloved producer, but we're happy to report that the Liqueur De Violette is back in stock for the time being.  Still no word on the Cassis or Menthe, but the Gran Classico should reappear in late August.  I have no idea if this is a temporary fix or if they plan to keep this around for awhile, so if you know you like this stuff it would be good to buy in early.

-David Driscoll