Fun New Things to Try

What comes in a crazy package, wrapped in straw, with all kinds of fun side materials and inserts? 

Why it's batch two of the Mackinlay series from Whyte & Mackay! And let me tell you something folks, this whisky is L-E-G-I-T!

The Mackinlay's "The Journey" Rare Old Highland Whisky $172.99 is the second attempt to recreate the legendary Shackleton whiskey found frozen in Antarctica by explorers a few years back. This year's batch is faaaaaaaaaaaaaar better than last year's - and last year's was really good. Unlike most attempts to capitalize on successful momentum,  the Scottish producer has upped both the packaging and the quality this time around. 

Each bottle is wrapped in heavy straw and tagged with a label faithfully replicated from the excavated relics. Whyte & Mackay are also revealing the contents of the whiskey this time, to the extreme delight of whisky geeks everywhere: 1980 Glen Mhor (one of the rarest whiskies in the world), Glenfarclas, Mannachmore, Tamnavulin, Ben Nevis, Aultmore, Fettercairn, Pulteney, heavily-peated Dalmore, and Jura aged in Limousin oak casks. The result is wonderfully balanced blended single malt whisky without any grain component.. The smoky, peaty component plays center stage this time around, much more dominant than last year's version, but balanced by rich vanilla and a soft fruited palate. The Journey is like a far-tastier version of Johnnie Walker Blue, but made only with single malt whisky and designed specifically for Islay fans. If you're looking for a gift for the whisky lover who has everything, this is as fun, cheeky, delicious, and serious as it gets. I couldn't have been more taken aback by the stunning quality of this whisky.

The new Kilchoman release should be in stock here next week. This year's special edition, the "Loch Gorm" is fuller in body than last year's Machir Bay, but also more earthy and peat-focused. The smoke is there, but the actual peat is what's on display. Very well done, but not nearly as accessible as the Machir Bay - more for serious Islay fans.

I normally shun everything Blackadder releases because of the high price tags and the questionable quality, but this unnamed special release really got my attention. It's supposedly a single cask of unsherried Balvenie that's been teaspooned with a bit of Glenfarclas. It's light, but oily, with sweet malty grains and a classic Highland profile. For about $130 it's also quite reasonable (note: the photo is of the 200ml)

It wouldn't be a true tasting with Val if there weren't a weird, far-corner-of-the-world spirit thrown in for good measure. He's always got some crazy bottle up his sleeve. This time it was Indian rum. The Old Monk is like a breath of stale 1970s air, but it's still quite fun. Obviously colored heavily with caramel, it still brings the Old Goslings flavor. It's not going to be expensive, so I'm definitely in. Under $20 for sure.

You can also get it in the monk-shaped decanter. That's the way to go, right?

-David Driscoll


American Whiskey: A Character Guide

While it's always been common with American whiskey to name a product after the person who created it, historical labels have never been more fashionable. If there isn't an actual vintage brand name available to resurrect, whiskey companies will create a legend of their own. Stories abound as to why these men were so important and why they're now being glorified upon a bottle a whiskey, but do we really know who these people were? Right now there's a cast of characters on our liquor shelves more complex and widespread than an episode of Game of Thrones. I've been writing up some informational sheets to help educate the K&L staff about our selection, so I figured why not share that info here as well? Let's get to know some of these folks, shall we?

E.H. Taylor Jr. (Buffalo Trace label) - You've probably heard of Old Crow whiskey. It's now a label owned by Jim Beam, but back in the 1830s it was made the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery in Woodford County. The whiskey was named for Dr. James Crow, a Scotsman trained in chemistry who emigrated to Kentucky and used his scientific knowledge to improve the quality of his distillates. When Crow died in 1856 he left no heir to his brand, which was subsequently sold to man named W.A. Gaines. Gaines would form a firm that employed a young E.H. Taylor Jr., who was immediately sent to Europe on a research mission. Taylor's job was to visit every distillery he could and bring back information about modern distillation. Upon his return a new distillery was built for Old Crow using the knowledge Taylor brought home with him. He eventually purchased his own distillery in 1869, where he used pot still distillation like he had seen abroad. His attention to detail and his modern marketing methods were far ahead of their time. Taylor's branding of Old Crow brought the whiskey national attention.

George T. Stagg (Buffalo Trace label) - While the Buffalo Trace website will tell you that George T. Stagg "teamed up" with E.H. Taylor, Michael Veach's book paints a bit of a different picture. Due to difficult financial times and "an overproduction of whiskey," Taylor lost control of the OFC distillery to the firm of Gregory and Stagg from St. Louis. Taylor would go on to build another distillery and market his own Old Taylor brand, but the OFC distillery would be modernized and upgraded by Stagg, later rechristened to bear his name in 1904.

Elmer T. Lee (Buffalo Trace label) - Elmer T. Lee was the master distiller at Age International, which would eventually become part of Sazerac. Lee was pretty much the first person to market single barrel whiskey, taking a page from Colonel Albert Blanton (Buffalo Trace) (let's kill two birds with one stone here), the former manager for George T. Stagg distillery where Lee got his first job, would bottle high-quality barrels on their own and use them as gifts for important visitors. Lee introduced Blanton Single Barrel Whiskey in 1984. Buffalo Trace would eventually name their own single barrel whiskey after Lee who still continues to advise the distillery and help with cask selection when needed.

William Larue Weller (Buffalo Trace label) - Born in 1825, W. L. Weller was one of the early figures in the Kentucky whiskey business, yet records show that his grandfather Daniel Weller had a license for a still as early as the year 1800. Weller is credited by some as the first distiller to used wheat instead of rye as the flavor grain in the mash, debuting his wheated Bourbon in 1849, but it's more likely that one of the Stitzel family did it first.. When Prohibition hit the U.S. in 1920, only six companies were allowed to keep distilling for medicinal purposes, one of those being the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery, upon whose license the company W. L. Weller & Sons functioned.

Pappy Van Winkle (Van Winkle/Buffalo Trace label) - After Prohibition, the companies of A. Ph. Stitzel and W. L. Weller & Sons merged in order to stay afloat during the difficult period. According to Michael Veach, they needed a product that tasted good in the short term to keep fresh product on the market, so they used a wheated formula that became quite popular despite its youth. Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle ran the Stitzel-Weller company along with a man named Alex T. Farnsley. After Farnsley died in 1941, Van Winkle was in sole control and his marketing ideas included cask-strength and extra-matured releases that have become the norm today. Cabin Still, Old Fitzgerald, and Weller Reserve were some of the brands Van Winkle championed under the Stitzel-Weller banner before a decline in sales forced the Van Winkles to sell the company in 1972.

Jim Beam (Jim Beam label) - Jacob Beam was one of the first settlers in the Kentucky region known to have made whiskey. He would go on to spawn many a whisky maker within his progeny. James Beauregard "Jim" Beam, his great-grandson born in 1864, would go on to be the most famous of them. According to Chuck Cowdery, "Jim and his younger brother, Park, took over the family business in 1892, along with their sister's husband, Ablert J. Hart. They operated this distillery until Prohibition closed it. As Prohibition approached, Jim also bought a controlling interest in the F. G. Walker plant where his cousin Joe was master distiller and part-owner." When Prohibition ended, the seventy-year-old Jim, along with his sons, built a new distillery with investors at Clermont, where they resurrected the Old Tub brand, but added a new label simply called "Jim Beam."

Basil Hayden Sr. (Jim Beam label) - A devout Catholic and proponent of the church, Hayden helped lead a group of families from Maryland to Nelson County, Kentucky back in 1796 and became an early settler in the territory. When he wasn't farming or working on behalf of the church, Hayden was distilling and became known for his high-rye mashbill according to Beam, but many dispute this claim. He would pass that knowledge on to his son, who in turn passed it on to his son. His grandson Raymond Hayden would eventually build his own distillery in 1882 and call his brand Old Grand-Dad in honor of Basil. Today Beam Global owns the Old Grand-Dad label. The Basil Hayden label was created in 1988 as part of a small-batch collection.

F. Noe Booker II/Booker's (Jim Beam label) - Booker Noe was the master distiller at Jim Beam for more than 40 years before his death in 2004. His namesake Bourbon was part of Jim Beam's small batch collection and, like the story of Colonel Blanton, represented Noe's penchant for bottling high-proof, unfiltered for his own use and for gifts. He was the grandson of Jim Beam.

Elijah Craig (Heaven Hill label) - Craig was a Virginian Baptist preacher and historical frontiersman that is often credited with the invention of Bourbon whiskey. Chuck Cowdery has a great in-depth look at Craig's background in his book Bourbon, Straight. While Craig was definitely one the region's earliest distillers, his distillery was never located in Bourbon County, therefore discrediting the idea that Bourbon was named after Craig's distillery locale. Records show that Craig was more known for establishing the first fulling mill, paper mill, and rope walk in Kentucky, but no mention is ever made of the first distillery.

Evan Williams (Heaven Hill label) - While Evan Williams is known as "Kentucky's first distiller," Michael Veach's research shows that this claim does not hold up. Reuben Durrett first made this assertion in 1892, claiming that William's had distilled corn whiskey as early as 1783; however, records show that Williams did not emigrate from Londron until May of 1784.

William Forrester/Old Forester (Brown-Forman label) - The firm of Brown-Forman was originally founded by two brothers, George Brown and J. T. S. Brown Jr., back in 1870 with the release of its Old Forester Bourbon. Whiskey was still considered medicinal at the time, but according to Veach: "physicians resisted prescribing it beacuse it was mostly sold by the barrel and quality could vary greatly from barrel to barrel." The Browns decided to sell their whiskey by the bottle as a result, making Old Forester the first Bourbon to be available exclusively in this format. The whiskey was appropriately named after the Louisville physician William Forrester, but the second r was dropped from the name when Forrester retired. Veach writes, "the label was designed to look like a physician's prescription and inludes a handwritten claim to quality: 'Nothing Better in the Market.'"

James E. Pepper (independent label) - According to Michael Veach, James E. Pepper was a distiller who "attempted to thwart counterfeiters by affixing strip stamps carrying his signature across the corks in his bottles of whiskey. His advertisements warned consumers to buy only bottles with intact stamps. Otherwise, they may not be buying 'Genuine Pepper' whiskey. The concept of the strip stamp over the cork would later be taken up by the government in the form of tax stamps."

Jimmy Russell/Russell's Reserve (Wild Turkey label) - James C. Russell has been the master distillert at Wild Turkey distillery for more than 50 years. He grew up near the distillery and followed his father and grandfather into the industry.

I'm leaving out Jack Daniel and George Dickel because I don't really care about those guys. Now that we know who everyone is maybe it's time to start filming our historic television show based upon all of these characters.

-David Driscoll


Two New K&L Single Malt Pre-Orders!

See that guy in the above photo? That's David Stirk. He's a friend of ours in Scotland that continues to hunt down delicious single malt barrels on our behalf. Having just secured pricing on more of the casks we were interested in, we're ready to start making more announcements about our deal with David and his Exclusive Malt label. We've got two new value-priced whiskies that we're going to start offering on a pre-order basis, beginning right now! Check out David OG's notes below:

2000 Aberlour 12 Year Old K&L Exclusive "Exclusive Malts" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $59.99 - After the success of last years 21 year Aberlour, we weren't planning to buy a repeat from this lovely little distillery. That all changed in David Stirk's little warehouse south of Glasgow. This lovely hogshead was just singing to us. Its rich and warming style will delight any lover of Speyside whisky. On the nose we get powerful toasted grains, biscuits, honey (some exotic type, tilleuil?) and pears. The palate is super soft and rich, which more of the oak spice evident than on the nose, but the similar blend of sweet floral and grainy flavors. On the end those spices come back with heavy dose of that biscuit (I'm thinking Walkers). Maybe this is not the most exciting whisky on paper, but it will certainly be several peoples' favorite this year. (David Othenin-Girard, K&L Spirits Buyer)

2006 Island Distillery 7 Year Old K&L Exclusive "Exclusive Malts" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $54.99 - This little mystery malt was a favorite of ours from the moment the bung popped out of the cask. Both David and I are huge fans of young smoky whisky and this is one of the best under-10 year olds that we've found. It's vibrant, salty, supple, with all the intense that you'd want out of the best young peaters, but beautifully restrained as well. Now this whisky was distilled on one of Scotland's numerous Isles, that's about all I can tell you regarding the specifics of the distillery. I can tell you that, it is not from the Island of Islay, I can tell you that this blows the young Caol Ila that we loved out of the water and I can tell you that our price for this whisky is well below what we'd expected to pay, not to mention well below the cost of that Caol Ila. One thing that struck us about this cask was how different it was from others that we'd seen from this distillery. This whisky is powerful, but with a great deal of nuance at this age. A subtle fresh rubber quality transitions to subtle fruit (maybe light red berries). Altogether a wonderfully idiosyncratic whisky and the first of what we hope to be several young peaty mystery malts to come. (David Othenin-Girard, K&L Spirits Buyer)

These are due to arrive later this Fall!

-David Driscoll


New Darroze Stuff & More

This morning I had the pleasure of running through some sample bottles of new Darroze Armagnac vintages now available in the California market. I was thoroughly impressed with the quality and am really excited about their imminent arrival here in the Redwood City store. If you're unclear as to who or what Darroze is, I'll give you a bit of background information, but you can also check out our visit to the Darroze estate back in January of 2012. There's a lot of explanation in that post about Armagnac in general for those of you looking to learn more.

Darroze is like the independent bottler of Armagnac, but they're much more hands-on than say someone like Signatory or Gordon & MacPhail. Not only are most of these producers only available from Darroze, but many of the brandies were actually distilled by Darroze as well. Not everyone has their own still out in the backwoods of Gascony, therefore many of the names adorning the Darroze labels are simply the names of the farm or the estate, not of an actual distillery. In many cases, Darroze will simply purchase the wine from these estates and do their own distillation and barrel maturation, much like Hennessy does in the Cognac region. Unlike Hennessy, however, Darroze will actually separate and label the brandies by the estate name. Much of what makes each Armagnac different from another begins in the vineyard, rather than in the still or the barrel. Darroze is dedicated to making that concept clear with each expression.

Exactly what is is that makes each brandy different? How about the grape varietal? Armagnac can be distilled from Baco, Colombard, Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and any combination of those four. Different grapes produce different flavors and the cepage will also affect how each of the spirits ages. Baco, for example, is capable of aging for decades and decades without losing its fruit. The nuances of Folle Blanche, however, might be better appreciated in the short term. Because Armagnac is usually aged in new oak, often times charred on the inside, the flavor profile can be strikingly similar to American Bourbon where the wood spices and sugars from the cask load the spirit with richness and power. Many of the Darroze selections I tasted today would appeal to any Bourbon lover looking to branch out.

Besides its role as archivist and preserver of vintage Armagnac, Darroze also functions as a blender. Like a large house in Cognac, they often release age statement marriages of multiple brandies. Along with the many individual vintage and producer options, you can try the 8, 12, 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60 year old assemblages for more steamlined and rounded flavors. While I know the spirit geek in us tends to favor the undilluted, pure expression of the single estate, it's the assemblages line-up that I think will knock your socks off.

These won't be in stock until tomorrow and we will be featuring most Darroze items as "Special Order Only," but I'll give you my notes right now for the ones we plan on bringing in full time:

Darroze Les Grand Assemblages "20 Year Old" Bas-Armagnac $99.99 - Absolutely stunning Armagnac with incredible richness, spice, and balance. I can't say it enough, so I'll say it again: everyone who's out there chasing things like Pappy 20 or BMH 16 should be stocking up on things like this instead. Or maybe I shouldn't say that because the people who actually drink Armagnac regularly will get pissy. In any case, this is a slam dunk spirit. Big wood, lots of spice and vanilla, and a rustic fruit character with seamless execution. My new favorite brandy for the moment.

Darroze Les Grand Assemblages "50 Year Old" Bas-Armagnac $349.99 - Where as the 20 year assemblage is bold, rich, and powerful, the 50 year old is silky, supple, nuanced and gentle. This is an absolutely masterful marriage of caramel and vanilla, soft fruits and haunting richness. Amazing in every way.

1975 Darroze Domaine Bordevieille Bas Armagnac $189.99 - A rare vintage from the 1970s composed of 100% Folle Blanche, this is one of the prettiest brandies we carry - period. The nose offers hints of soft fruit covered in rich caramel, while the palate proves to be just as delicate. The finish is long and lasting, showcasing waves of soft toffee and fruit that ripple along for minutes. Bordevieille was growing Folle Blanche when other producers thought it wasn't worth the effort. Now we can clearly see that it was!

1993 Darroze Domaine Pounon Bas Armagnac $115.99 - The 1993 vintage from Domaine Pounon is loaded with bold, spicy wood flavor, much like a high-proof Bourbon. The nuance of the fruit is overpowered by the caramel and vanilla of the wood, but it's not a bad thing. This is crossover spirit - capable of pleasing American whiskey fans without losing the rusticity of the Armagnac character.

In addition to these four new expressions, we already carry the 12 year and 30 year old assemblages as well as a few other vintage Armagnacs. Darroze has always had a tough time catching on in the American market because their products are pricy and their focus is narrow. They are the epitome of the boutique French brandy house. However, now more than ever, I feel like this might be the right time to nudge them back into the marketplace. They were imported by Preiss Imports in San Diego for years until its eventual merger with Anchor here in San Francisco. After that they were without representation and absent from the states for more than a year (hence, why we stopped by back in 2012 looking for some possible exclusives). They now have a new importer who is focused on artisan French spirits and who has done an outstanding job selecting some of the jewels from the cellar. I'm very happy Darroze has a new home in the U.S. and I think K&L customers will really enjoy some of their offerings, especially Bourbon drinkers looking for a new experience.

One little knick-knack I also tasted along with the Darroze brandies was a fun Marcs de Bourgogne from Domaine de la Folie. Marcs is pretty much the French version of Italian grappa - a spirit distilled from the fermented must of leftover grape skins and pommace after pressing. Whereas many Italian grappas are clear and unaged, however, most of the marcs I've tasted from France are aged in wood. Until today, though, I'd never tasted one this mature. The La Folie Marc de Bourgogne was aged for a minimum of twenty years in refill Cognac barrels and offers all the flavor of grappa, with its earthy and petrol-like minerality, but with a healthy dose of vanilla and richness on the backend. The estate has been growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir since the 16th century, so I can see why they know what they're doing. The Marcs should run about $80 and will also be delivered with the Darroze stuff.

-David Driscoll


Bravo-lebrities & Booze

Do you know who that is holding the bottle of wine in the above advertisement? That's Ramona Singer. She's probably my favorite "Real Housewife" from any of the geographically-themed, reality-show extravaganzas on the Bravo network. Why do I know who Ramona Singer is? For the same reason my wife knows who The Undertaker or C.M. Punk is: we watch TV together. In return for two episodes of WWE Monday Night Raw, I am forced to watch the Real Housewives of New York, Atlanta, Beverly Hills, New Jersey, Orange County, and any other region that spawns its own spin-off. However, don't tell my wife this, but while she still abhors every minute of high-flying action she has to endure, I secretly love the Bravo-lebrities.

Maybe it's because there's so much on Bravo that has to do with my job. I'm the booze guy. I love booze. I love my job. If there's a show that has to do with boozing (a la Mad Men or Anthony Bourdain), I'm going to enjoy it. If there's melodrama involved, even better. I watched Beverly Hills 90210 every Wednesday for eight years. That's why the reality programming on the Bravo network has totally stolen my heart and turned me into an Andy Cohen junkie. The women on Bravo love to drink as much as they love to argue. So much so, that their new-found popularity has resulted in a number of brand creations that have crossed over onto my side of the couch.

Sassy, spunky Ramona Singer is always drinking Pinot Grigio on screen. That's all she drinks. In several hilarious episodes of the New York show, she ends up at a party without a glass of Pinot Grigio and throws a fit while trying to track down her beverage of choice. Ramona's side-splitting obsession with the Italian varietal finally lead to her own private label, a wine that eventually made it onto the shelf at the K&L Hollywood store. The moment that happened I called my wife. We had never bonded so closely over television before. Her passion for the Housewives and my passion for wine and spirits had finally joined hands and united. She watched it, I sold it. Viewing the show was actually going to count as research now!

Ramona wasn't the only New York housewife, however, to get her own specialty drink. The big payoff came when Bethenny Frankel created her own brand of low-calorie, pre-mixed margarita and sold it to Beam Global for more than $100 million. It was a huge part of the New York plot line and even turned into a separate series that focused just on Bethenny and her new life as a business woman. Once again, the programming I watched on television with my wife, the show that my friends would make fun of me for watching if they knew I secretly did so, resulted in tons of market research for me in my role as spirits buyer for K&L. At least, that's how I justified it to myself.

After the popularity of the Housewives began to skyrocket, producer Andy Cohen looked for a way to offer more programming for those who couldn't get enough of the show. He started an after-program called Watch What Happens Live that featured him, two celebrity guests (mostly Bravo-lebrities at first), and a special guest bartender to make them drinks while they chatted. The set became known as the Bravo clubhouse and the half-hour show, with its quirky games and fun-oriented atmosphere, became the secret obsession of people everywhere – for TV drunks like myself, and many a major celebrity as well. All of a sudden, the guests were no longer just various housewives and their friends, but actual men who enjoyed the show's energy. Jimmy Fallon would make an appearance. Actors like Ralph Fiennes and Ethan Hawke would drop by to promote their new movies. It turned out that a lot of talented, famous men really enjoyed a show that was mostly geared towards women. Imagine that!

How is it that a cable network producer single-handedly turned a group of eccentric women into one of the most talked about sensations on television? With energy, excitment, and a bit of alcohol. When you combine enthusiasm and a fun, friendly environment with cocktails and liquor, you're going to draw larger crowds than usual. This is the reason I always tell customers not to get too uptight with their drinking. Don't be afraid to have fun, drink some vodka, make some fruity cocktails, or even.....gulp.....put a little bit of ice in your single malt. You'd be amazed by what a difference letting down your inhibitions can make with your enjoyment of alcohol and life. Parties are always better when the guests can let down their guard.

I, for one, have had more fun drinking booze while watching the Bravo network than I have at most Bay Area bars lately. The programming actually was part of the inspiration behind our series of Salon parties, where we encouraged guests to drink and talk, rather than listen to a lecture on spirits. Who would've thunk it? I even have my own list of Watch What Happens Live-inspired drinks I make for my wife and her friends. Now I just need to get Andy to let me be his guest bartender!

-David Driscoll