When All of Life is a Contest

Some people have always viewed life as a race for the ultimate prize - power, money, prestige, and fame - but I feel like my generation has brought competition to a whole new level.  Christian Lander's Stuff White People Like brilliantly captures the insecurity and one-upsmanship that characterizes urban life in today's modern world.  Some of them simply hit too close to home (the Graduate School post is genius, and I am definitely guilty of the New York Times syndrome).  The thread that runs through his keen observations is the way in which people use simple pleasures in life to make themselves feel more important or special.  I'm a big believer in the idea that my generation was praised too much while growing up, leading us on a never-ending quest for affirmation, rather than information - a search for positive reenforcement by taking every moment possible to point out how your experiences are some how less authentic or meaningful than their own.  Here's an example:

I was sharing my excitement with a friend yesterday about scoring New Order tickets for their upcoming show in Oakland.  His response, "Did you hear that Peter Hook isn't touring with them this time?"  I had heard that the legendary bass player and co-founder was sitting this one out, but it wasn't particularly meaningful to me.  "Too bad you couldn't have seen them when I did in 2001 with the original lineup."  Really?  Is that where we're at today?  Three original members, minus one bass player, equals less of an authentic experience.  I shouldn't even bother going at this point.  He wins, I lose.  Contest over.

The truth is that I'm more interested in dancing, having fun, and weeping like a little kid in the dark while listening to "True Faith" and "Regret."  I'm over the contest that life has become.  I want to actually enjoy myself, not worry about someone else thinking I did.  Some how choosing to enjoy the less authentic experience, however, proves that you don't really get what life is about, which is proving to other people how much you know.  Another example came the other day when I told someone how I went to Chipotle for lunch.  They said, "Chipotle? Why would you eat there when there are so many authentic taquerias in Redwood City?"  Maybe because I was in the area, it tasted good, and it was cheap?  I didn't realize how important it was to justify every action in life by maximizing the amount of culture included.  It's like when someone makes you feel guilty for watching TV or not going outside enough.

Wine and whisk(e)y are not immune from such competition. There's nothing worse than when a single malt or Bourbon puts batch numbers on their bottles because it sparks an instant desire to collect the "good" ones and discard the "bad" ones.  What fun is booze if you can't hold that fact over the head of others? "Oh, you got batch 26?  That's cool, I guess.  I got batch 10 and 11, which are considered two of the best."  It's not enough that you got the whisky.  You still aren't on the same level as other enthusiasts unless you dig deeper.  As much as I like to talk about booze, this isn't a conversation I'm willing to have anymore.  I simply don't care.  It makes me want to bury my head in the sand.  I generally look at my job as a way to spread information about cool new booze.  I want to help people discover something new and exciting, something they may not have tried before.  Authenticity can make booze very interesting, as in Oaxacan mezcal distilled in traditional clay pots versus larger production methods.  It doesn't make it inherently better, however. 

To me, there are no winners and losers with alcohol.  Booze is there to help make life more enjoyable, not present you with a new challenge to master, adding to the already giant chips on our shoulders.  You got a great bottle?  That's fantastic.  Drink it.  However, please don't tell how me it's different and, therefore, better than my bottle.  You win.  I concede.  I'm not competing anymore. 

-David Driscoll


Introducing Lost Spirits Distillery

 (Photos courtesy of Lost Spirits Distillery)

When Bryan Davis contacted me a few weeks back and asked if I wanted to taste a few new single malts, I said, "Sure, why not?"  He said he was a big fan of the store and wondered if I remembered the Obsello Absinthe and Port of Barcelona gin, two products he had distilled while living in Spain. "Of course, I remember those! That was you?" I replied.  It turned out that Bryan had dropped that project in 2009 when he headed back to California and down to the central coast to build his own distillery - literally.  The picture you see above is the custom-designed, hand-built, steam-powered still sitting at the Lost Spirits Distillery outside of Salinas.  The original idea had been to recreate different types of "lost" spirits using old American distillation methods no longer in production. 

What happened, however, was the invention of a new genre for single malt whisky.  Bryan brought me two cask strength, unchillfiltered, California Cabernet-aged expressions that were heavily peated using another custom-designed, hand-built smoker and peat imported from Canada.

Bryan is a total geek for peat.  As you'll hear in the video interview embedded down below, he's is extremely knowledgeable when it comes to which compounds in the moss result in which types of flavor.  The science behind the Seascape and Leviathan whiskies is so tight that there was no possible way he wasn't going to succeed.  Bryan's problem is going to be supply.  He's going to need a lot of this stuff and we're talking one year old whisky here.  I can only imagine where this project is going.

So the whiskies are here - they're in stock and ready to rock.  Take a listen to what Bryan has to say about them first and see what you think:

 The best part is the price.  These weren't cheap to produce, but Bryan is a veteran who understands the market's current disappointment with over-priced, under-matured, "craft" whiskies.  I think he's done an admirable job at keeping these affordable.  As for my opinion, I really like them.  They're not for the casual consumer.  I wouldn't have a bottle of Glendronach and a bottle of Seascape as my two house whiskies, if you know what I mean.  Having tasted the two over ten times now, I find that they're different each time that I sample them and I appreciate that.  They're very drinkable, but they defy categorization.  You're all gonna have to take the leap and see what you think.  I plan on getting him into the store very soon for a tasting, but I don't know if we'll have anything left at that point.

Lost Spirits Distillery Seascape I Single Malt Whisky $44.99 - Bryan Davis used to be the distiller for a small Spanish operation known mostly for their Obsello absinthe.  Since 2009, he's been living outside of Salinas where he's build a custom, steam-powered still by hand alongside a hand-built smoker.  By taking organic California barley and importing peat from Canada, he's managed to craft a small collection of smoky, locally-produced single malt whisky with ppm levels that compete with Ardbeg and Octomore.  Aged entirely in California wine casks, these whiskies are completely unique and undeniably geeky.  The Seascape is the lighter of the two in both color and smoke flavor.  The peat really dominates the flavor and not with just the standard campfire element.  The essence of the peat, earth and moss, entangles itself with the beery flavor of the young whiskey with the richness from the late harvest Cabernet cask imposing itself on the finish.  It's bottled at cask strength, unchillfiltered, and it's reasonably priced.  While it's definitely not Laphroaig, it's not trying to be.  Bryan is creating an entirely different genre of single malt and I think five years from now we'll all be kicking ourselves we didn't buy more of the early collectables.  Easily one of the most fascinating whiskies of the past few years and a giant signal that California is slowly carving out its own single malt niche.

Lost Spirits Distillery Leviathan I Single Malt Whisky 54.99 The Leviathan is the heavier of the two in both weight and smoke flavor.  The aromas are very beery, like a wash tun, but the big, bright peat eliminates that flavor from the palate.  The flavors are spicy, medicinal, and bold.  It's bottled at cask strength, but entirely drinkable from the bottle.  Unchillfiltered, reasonably priced, and smoked to an incredible 110 ppm. 

-David Driscoll


Jim Rutledge Stops By

I'm not really close with many master distillers. I'd consider Jim McEwan an acquaintance, I guess.  I've shaken hands with Jimmy Russell and I've talked to Harlen Wheatley on the phone once.  Jim Rutledge, on the other hand, is a man who I've been communicating with more frequently as of late.  I have a lot in common with him.  Beside the fact that we're both devilishly handsome, we seem to share common philosophies when it comes to whiskey. I find that the more I correspond with Jim, the more I like what he has to say, which has led to numerous conversations over the past few weeks.  We all know that his whiskey is masterful, but there's a lot more than just fine Bourbon keeping Four Roses in the game.  Rutledge's keen insight and common sense have a lot to do with the success of the brand.  Seeing that he was in the area, he freed up a few minutes to drop by our Redwood City store and have a brief chat.  Here are some of the highlights:

- Jim was interested in what other distilleries had to say about the current corn drought.  I told him that of all the people I had spoken with, he was the only person who had mentioned non-GMO corn or a decrease in quality as part of the problem.  Everyone else had discussed price increases and availability.  Jim said that their current agreement with several farmers (which has been in place for more than 50 years) is a big help to their supply issues and quality concerns.  They've worked with the same families for decades so there's a long history of loyalty.  He did hint that other producers have tried to convince these same farmers to switch sides, but that they've remained dedicated to Four Roses.  He was candid, however, about the fact that GMO corn may be unavoidable in the future.  Not so much because of production concerns, but because there may be no other choice.

- We talked about some of the special releases and the fact that Four Roses is one of the few distilleries that hasn't faced a shortage, or been forced to allocate their product.  Jim told me that he approached the company board about California's booming market years ago, letting them know about the huge spike in whiskey sales they should expect and that Four Roses would need to be prepared for it.  That foresight paid off big.  Jim makes regular visits to the Bay Area, so he's experienced the scene for himself.  He definitely recognized early the feeling in San Francisco when it comes to Bourbon - there's an insatiable thirst.

- I also mentioned to him that the shortage of aged stocks has limited my top shelf selection - no more Elijah Craig 18, no Vintage 17, no older Bourbon of any kind.  I told him that the current 2012 single barrel release from Four Roses is probably the best choice I have for any customer in search of a special bottle.  There are no older, pricier options right now from any producer, which surprises many people who see the exact opposite on the single malt shelf.  Jim mentioned that they would be releasing a new limited-edition small batch in September that would feature some older 17 year old stock as part of the marriage.  He did say that the Four Roses gift shop currently sells this 17 year Bourbon as a special in-store-only single cask, so if you're in the area get one for me!  However, Jim has more respect for the small batch creation than for the single barrel stuff because it's a creative process that allows for artistic expression.  He said, "One plus one doesn't necessarily equal two when it comes to crafting a whiskey.  We might be able to make a four or a five if we do our job well."  For him, the upcoming small batch edition is one of the best whiskies Four Roses has ever released.

Like me, Jim feels that Bourbon tends to peak around eight to twelve years of age, so he's definitely out there trying to put an end to age-ism, or the idea that older is better.  However, he refuses to tell people that any type of whiskey is "better" than any other, choosing to taste with enthusiasts and demanding that they make up their own mind about quality.  I love the way this guy thinks about whiskey.  He's quality-oriented and dedicated to education.  We'll likely be sitting down together again soon for a podcast episode (it's been quite a while, hasn't it?) where we can flesh out some of these thoughts in more detail.

In the meantime, I've got a store full of autographed bottles.  It's the first thing he does every time he walks in.  Straight to the shelf, pen out, ready to go.  A true professional and a class act in the booze industry.

-David Driscoll


Who Makes What?

I think I've posted a similar list before, but I thought I'd do another piece about Bourbon and where it comes from because I need a template for in-store customers.  There are also many emails in my inbox that could be cleared up pretty fast were I able to refer them towards a hard copy of this list.  With single malt, it's usually pretty easy to see where the whisky is coming from.  Talisker comes from Talisker.  Macallan is made by Macallan.  Bourbon isn't so easy, however, because there are a lot of brands that don't match up with the distillery name.  With Scotch, it seems that many customers enjoy trying another product by the same producer after they find one they like, i.e. getting a Springbank 15 after some success with the 10 year.  I'm hoping this cheat sheet will help some blossoming Bourbon fans navigate the minefield that is American whiskey. (NOTE: I'm only including whiskies that we carry, so it's not a complete list by any means).  While I know the Scottish distilleries like the back of my hand, I still trip all over the Kentucky facilities (and there are far less of them!).

Here we go.

Four Roses Distillery - Lawrenceberg, KY - Owned by the Japanese company Kirin, obviously they make Four Roses Bourbon.  They're one of the easier distilleries to remember because they only have one brand.  However, Diageo contracts them to make Bulleit Bourbon, so add that to the list.

Buffalo Trace Distillery - Frankfort, KY - Perhaps the most diverse portfolio of any distillery around, these guys make a ton of different expressions:

Buffalo Trace, Elmer T Lee, Eagle Rare, Weller, Rock Hill Farms, Blanton's, George T Stagg, Handy Rye, Sazerac Rye, and many other experimental or limited edition releases.

Heaven Hill (Bernheim) Distillery - Louisville, KY - Heaven Hill used to be located in Bardstown, which you'll see references to all the time when people distinguish between the two.  However, that facility was gutted by a huge fire back in 1996, forcing the company to look elsewhere for production.  In 2000, they began distilling at the Bernheim distillery in Louisville after purchasing the site from Diageo.  Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, and Parker's Heritage are the most popular HH expressions we carry.  Rittenhouse Rye is also part of their collection, however it's been distilled at Brown-Forman over the past few years.  I'm pretty sure that it's being made at Bernheim again, but I'll have to check on that.

1792 Ridgemont Reserve Distillery (Barton) - Bardstown, KY - Also known as the Tom Moore distillery, Sazerac purchased the site in 2009 (I believe) and renamed it for their new 1792 Brand.  We bought our own single cask from them earlier this year and we currently carry both the regular and K&L expressions. 

Wild Turkey Distilery - Lawrenceburg, KY - Owned by the Campari group (who bought it from Pernod-Ricard in 2009), Wild Turkey is another straight forward brand.  They make Wild Turkey and Russell's Reserve, named after their legendary master distiller Jimmy Russell.

Maker's Mark Distillery - Loretto, KY - Maker's Mark was the only product made at the facility until Maker's 46 came out a few years back.  Pretty straight forward, easy to remember.

Brown-Forman (Early Times) Distillery - Shively, KY - Old Forester is the main brand coming out of Shively, but I believe some of Woodford Reserve is made here as well, then brought over the Woodford Reserve distillery (also owned by Brown-Forman) and married with the other whiskey.

Woodford Reserve Distillery - Versailles, KY - Woodford Reserve makes Woodford Reserve - pretty simple.

Jim Beam Distilleries - Boston, KY and Clermont, KY - From what I understand, it's not really possible to designate which Beam whiskies come from which distillery, so you can only narrow it down to Beam in general.  Beam produces Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Booker's, Baker's, Old Overholt Rye and Old Grand Dad to name a few.

Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI) - Lawrenceburg, IN - Formerly owned by Seagram's, this until-recently independent distillery (purchased just recently by MGP Ingredients) is probably the most popular distillery you've never heard of.  Their aged stocks of rye dominate the market at the moment, even though you probably didn't know you were drinking their booze. High West Rye, Redemption Rye, Willett Rye, Templeton Rye, Bulleit Rye, and a few other Bourbons were all made from LDI stock.  They happened to have a ton of rye just sitting there for the taking, while other distilleries were caught with their pants down. Many companies jumped at the chance to fill the market gap while Rittenhouse, Wild Turkey and Sazerac reloaded.

So where does everything else come from? 

Kentucky Bourbon Distillers - Bardstown, KY - While the Willett distillery is finally up and running again, nothing from the KBD portfolio was distilled there.  Noah's Mill, Rowan's Creek, Pure Kentucky, Willett, Johnny Drum, Black Maple Hill, Michter's, and a slew of other independent labels are all mixed from various whiskies at KBD headquarters.  They buy Bourbon from every distillery except for Maker's Mark, so your guess is as good as mine as to which whiskies comprise their many fine selections.

Other brands like Hooker's House, Hirsch Small Batch Reserve, and Big Bottom are smaller versions of KBD - independent labels that have purchased Bourbon from somewhere and repackaged it.  Then there are new, smaller distilleries like Stranahan's, Breckenridge, and others that make their own whiskies in house. 

By no means a complete list, this should get you started if you're looking for some way to wrap your head around the Bourbon game.  If you need more info you should pick up Chuck Cowdery's book - Bourbon, StraightEverything I've talked about here (with a few updated exceptions) can be explored in more detail within its pages. 

-David Driscoll


Tastings Tonight

For San Francisco, a real treat - Val from JVS will be there pouring the newly-returned Kilchoman Machir Bay along side the brand new Glenglassaugh Revivial single malt with the ancient 26 year old.  Redwood City will host Wild Geese and Irish Soldiers Whisky, a very well-crafted independent label of Cooley casks.  Both tastings start at 5 PM and run until 6:30.  Free of charge!

-David Driscoll