Beams of Sunshine

Every single time I meet with my Jim Beam rep I tell him, over and over again, that Beam is really missing out by not releasing anything old or unique in this insatiable Bourbon market. Heaven Hill has the Parker's Heritage Collection, Four Roses has the LE releases, Wild Turkey is starting to release single barrels, and Buffalo Trace has the Antique Collection. Hell, even Brown-Forman has the Birthday Bourbon. What does Beam have? Beam, the largest producer of Bourbon in the country, pumping out 3,000 barrels worth a day -- why not add something new to the mix? 

I got to taste these yesterday and I thought they were nice additions to the portfoilo. The single barrel won't be available until January, but we've got the new 12 year and the Spanish Brandy in stock now. While these won't "wow" consumers the way that the Parker's or Stagg might, these are also much more reasonably priced. Beam has such a large consumer base that I think anything too radical might really shake things up, therefore we get something safe, but tasty nevertheless.

Jim Beam 12 Year Old Signature Craft Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey $31.99 -- The richness and creaminess of the Beam style is on full display here, finishing with a hint of bitter herbaceousness that really characterizes Beam's whiskies. Gentle and round through the mid-palate, this is one easy, easy sipper that showcases a bit more maturity than Beam's standard releases.

Jim Beam Spanish Brandy Finished Signature Craft Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey $31.99 -- To be clear, this whiskey is not Spanish Brandy cask finished, but literally brandy finished -- as in they actually added some brandy into the whiskey. There's no real hint of sherry or any flavor outside the scope of Bourbon here, but the whiskey is quite mellow and soft -- almost like a Tennessee whiskey such as Dickel. Those looking for easy sipping will be pleased.

-David Driscoll


Does Anyone Still Use Yelp?

I have to admit that I still use Yelp to help find the address of a restaurant, or to see how popular a bar might be, but I can't say that I actually read the reviews anymore. If there's one thing I've learned about the internet and the incessant commenting it's that mild-mannered people often don't add their two cents. The most-outspoken reviewers either think a restaurant is the best place in the history of the world, or they're out for blood with a serious axe to grind. I've had some pretty negative experiences lately with other online retailers, but nothing that would make me rush to my laptop, log on to a consumer review site, and unleash the fury within these fingers. On the flip side, the positive experiences I've accrued will merely lead to more of my business, not necessarily a five-star review.

If you check out the last few reviews for K&L Redwood City on Yelp they're either one star or five stars. Either we're the best possible liquor store, or we're the worst possible liquor store. Which one is it? Obviously you can read through the reviews and get a sense of what we're all about, but is anyone making a decision to shop with us based on these totally polarized experiences? I don't think so. There are so many factors that go into making a great experience -- both with whiskey and with the whiskey retail transaction. If you happen to catch me with your whisky question you're going to get more than you bargained for. Ask Jim Barr about whiskey, however, and he'll look at you in a state of sheer confusion. On the other hand, if you ask Jim Barr about California Chardonnay you'll get some expertise from one of this state's true wine veterans. One's experience at K&L is totally dependent on a number of different factors. How busy were we? Who was working that day? What did you need? What did we actually have?

Reviewing a business on Yelp after one visit is like tasting one sip of whisky and then rushing to a final conclusion -- it's a knee-jerk reaction to a rigid emotional response. More importantly, such a review is of no help to the consumer whatsoever. The guy at the hamburger place was a jerk? Maybe that's because the reviewer was a total prick in the first place, or maybe the server had a bad day. Maybe the reviewer was a former employee looking to get revenge. A glowing five star review? Maybe it's the boss's daughter, or another family member posing as a customer. Who knows? The squeaky wheel gets the grease, however. In the end, neither the glowing five star review, nor the terrible one star review is indicative of what you'll find on a day-to-day basis at K&L. Sometimes we're exhausted and out of gas. Other times we're exuberant and full of pride. We're people just like anyone else.

To summarize that with a simple five star system seems silly to me. But then again, whisky ratings are silly to me too.

-David Driscoll


New Cadenhead Creations Arrives

You can tell things are getting intense when we have three blog posts in one day before lunch time. If you read that last post about the demand for new “small batch” single malt (i.e. the Balvenie Tun 1401), then you can see where the market is headed. Personally, I’m on board with this new trend. After working on the Fuenteseca tequila blend, I’m more convinced than ever that great whisky can be the result of numerous whiskies. What’s necessary, however, are the specs – what’s in the blend that makes it so special? Don’t leave us in the dark!! Mark Watt over at Cadenhead in Campbeltown is sitting on a serious treasure trove of old casks. Cadenhead has always had the goods. They just needed someone to start utilizing them. The last few products we’ve received have been outstanding (Highland Park 21, Bowmore 14, Cameronbridge 24, Caperdonich 35, etc) and this new blend is no different.

Cadenhead's 20 Year Old "Creations" Batch #1 Blended Scotch Whisky $99.99 -- The first release of Mark Watt's highly-anticipated small batch blend has arrived -- a twenty year old, sherry-aged marriage of Bruichladdich and Mortlach single malts with the grain whiskies of Cameronbridge and Invergordon. The rich malty notes come instantly in the nose and burnt sugar and sherry spices are decadent on the first sip. The bits of toasted marshmallow and marzipan linger long on the finish. The grain component is definitely palatable, so the overall experience isn't as supple as sherry-aged single malt would be, but the blending talent of Watt is on full display. It's a seamless blend that really highlights the strengths of each whisky. There's not much available, but we're taking everything we can get. Cadenhead's resources have yet to be fully tapped, in our opinion.

-David Driscoll


Stressed Allocations

Yesterday in the store I rang up a customer who said to me, "For the last ten minutes all I've heard in this store is talk about allocations. What's going on right now with alcohol?" He was referring to the previous conversation I had just had with the man in line before him -- a man looking for more Pliny the Elder beer. "We have a two bottle per person limit," I had told him, "and we won't get very much this week, so it will go fast." He was also referencing the conversation before the Pliny customer, when I had been talking with Michael DellaSantina -- our William Grant representative -- who was in the store to pour Glenfiddich last night. We were discussing the increased intensity surrounding this year's Balvenie Tun 1401 release -- the limited edition, small batch single malt comprised of the distillery's finest older casks. "I've never seen anything like this happen with whisky," he had told us. "I'm getting twenty calls a day, over and over again, the same guys hounding me about when we're going to get our allocation," he confessed. "We're not getting much, either," he added, "Maybe a few cases -- but the cases are three-packs."

If you thought the current whisk(e)y craze was just limited to American Bourbon and rye, you'd be mistaken. We hear less about the crazy demand for single malt because there is simply more of it to be had. There is a lot more mature whisky in Scotland than in the states, so we've been blessed by easier availability. Plus, most of the fanaticism in America is simply geared toward the domestic side of production. Seven out of ten K&L phone conversations about whiskey are centered around the availability of Pappy or Stagg, while the other three might be about single malt. American limited edition whiskies are also much less expensive than their Scottish counter parts, so the affordability allows for a larger demand, but that doesn't mean there isn't the potential for certain single malt releases to obtain that same cultish mystique. If there was a Scotch whisky with the potential for Pappy status, the Balvenie Tun 1401 is as good of a candidate as any. Here's why:

1) There's not a lot of it available.This isn't by design necessarily, but rather simply the case. Every year Balvenie blender David Stewart picks some of his favorite casks from the Grant warehouses and vats them in "Tun 1401" to create a special marriage. I think it's about six barrels total, so figure a couple thousand bottles for the entire world allocation. The less there is of something, the more people want it.

2) It's relatively affordable. Part of the reason there's such a demand for the American special editions is their pricing. Most people can string together $80 for a one-time-only purchase. If the price of Chateau Lafite or Port Ellen were under $100 a bottle you could bet that demand would triple instantly. The Balvenie Tun 1401 usually comes in at around $250. While that might not seem "affordable" keep in mind that most 18 year old selections are running between $100 and $200 these days. The Balvenie 30 costs $750 respectively. Batch 3 of the Tun series had whisky from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s in it, so considering the age and rarity of the casks involved the price is definitely lower than it should be.

3) Insiders talk about it frequently (and gushingly). If you're one of those people who doesn't understand why Pappy Van Winkle is as popular as it is today, I can give you the quick synopsis: people who don't understand whiskey often want someone to tell them what "the best" whiskey is. Pappy has been the answer many "insiders" have given for the last few years. If you tell someone that Pappy is the best whiskey around, they're going to remember that. When you tell them they'll never find a bottle, they want it even more. From my experience, the more that we blog/message-board/Facebook/Tweet about our favorite whiskies, the more this information eventually permeates the general market. The Pappy craze we're currently in the midst of began with blogs and message boards, word of mouth, etc. In the same vein, numerous respected review sites have expressed their love for the Balvenie 1401 series. The LA Whiskey Society did an event this past September with the Tun. Internet guru Serge Valentin loved last year's release and called the whole Tun series "a masterstroke." And, earlier this year, the Whisky Advocate decorated it with the "Best Speyside Whisky of 2012" award. When groups of experienced collectors, staunch tasting veterans, and commercial publications all agree on what they like you know there's going to be some serious action in the marketplace. People love consensus when it comes to drinking. 

4) It's allocated and only comes out once a year. Sometimes the best part of a great experience is the hunt. The hunt for a loving spouse. The hunt for the great California taco truck. The Hunt for Red October. And, of course, the hunt for that hard-to-find whisky bottle during the Fall allocation season. If everyone could get Pappy then no one would want it. The limited availability is part of the rush. Finding a bottle completes the high. Like the mystical Scottish town of Brigadoon, these things are only accessible for a short period of time before they vanish once again.

I explained all of this to Michael DellaSantina as we cleaned up the tasting bar last night. He sat there looking at me with a look of both excitement and fear. Excitement, of course, over the fact that his company had developed a serious player in its portfolio. Fear, obviously, because he had already gotten a taste of what having a player like that on his roster would entail. If you're a Sazerac rep in control of Pappy allocations then your job is to simply take a beating every Fall. Everyone wants more, everyone is pissed at you because they didn't get enough, and at least thirty accounts will promise never to buy anything from you again. Michael said there's already a whiff of that mentality in the air.

We'll see if it ever actually gets that intense.

-David Driscoll


Creating Different Bourbon Expressions #2

Four Roses Yeast Tub #2Driscoll asked some really good questions last week about where the bourbon's flavor comes from. While the general consensus, at least for the marketing departments, is that you have a sour mash, you have a still, you have a barrel, you add some magic fairy dust and voila, delicious bourbon. The truth of the matter is much more complicated, but also I believe better studied than the marketers would have you believe. David noted that Buffalo Trace Distillery distinguishes between two similarly produced bourbons, Eagle Rare Single Barrel & Buffalo Trace, simply by their taste. They’re all very honest and open about how the barrels are selected, “these barrels right here, they taste like Eagle Rare.” While this seemingly simplistic answer is coming from the tour guide and not Harlan Wheatley it's certainly more detail than some distilleries divulge. If it was truly out of their control as to which barrels taste one way or another, one day the folks at Buffalo Trace might find that none of their bourbon tastes like Eagle Rare anymore. We cannot control the unknown afterall. I know from experience that drink companies do not take risks like this without some sort of contingency. We also know from various sources, as well as Mr. Jim Rutledge himself that the bourbon industry has spent years trying to understand exactly how the process works. Four Roses (and Seagram's before it) is basically a giant whiskey experiment that for many years has employed a number of scientists to help them understand how the flavor of whiskey develops. I'm certain that most, if not all, established Kentucky distilleries employ several sciency types to help them better understand whats going on. This quest stands in stark contrast to the motto embossed above the entrance of the Stitzel-Weller Ditsiller, “No Chemists Allowed.”

Buffalo Trace keeps boxes of packaged yeast on hand in the fermentation room (highlighted in the bottom circle)You don’t need to be a scientist to know exactly what factors go into the ultimate flavor of whisky. Simply examine the process from start to finish and all your inputs are there. We know that the mash bill, water source, grain quality, yeast strain, cook temperatures, distillation temperatures/proof, barrel entry proof, and warehousing decisions will ultimately affect the flavor. Certainly, as with Scotch, the time of year of distillations also affects the ultimate flavor as the grain profiles are seasonally variable and specifications of fermentations and distillation may change based on ambient temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure. The key to making great bourbon consistently is understanding how all those various factors intertwine to produce a certain flavor profile. Four Roses is really a perfect example of how important each factor is and how they can be controlled to interact with each other differently.

Each distillery has a proprietary process for fermentation. Clearly, the yeast is an incredibly important factor for creating a consistent product. Most distilleries cultivate yeast (either a single strain or multiple strains) using a souring process that’s completely separate from the fermentation of the bourbon. The yeast mash is first “soured” or inoculated with Lactobacillus in order to create a better environment for yeast to grow as well as prevent other negative bacteria to take over. These yeasts are usually re-cultivated on a weekly basis, meticulously tested, and evaluated to make sure that no mutations have occurred in the propagation process. Mutations are bad. This is then added to the mash during cooking to ensure that the proper yeast takes over during fermentation. The yeast will have a strong influence on flavor, but its ultimate importance is disputed. If you look at Four Roses, they’ve developed 5 yeast strains to offer different types of flavors.

The Dona Tub at Wild TurkeyWhile, we assumed that these were developed out of simple experimentation or a search for a particular profile, Seagram’s had actually focused on yeast character in response to the closure of other plants and warehouse in various locations. When their Maryland plant closed they knew that they’d need to replace that flavor profile in the blends. Four Roses is the glorious result of esoteric decisions made by a company completely committed to blended whisky. Because Four Roses is so meticulous about its yeast cultivation, you don’t have many flavor outliers on either end of the spectrum. Jim even related a story about the one time in many decades they accidentally let the yeast cultivation go longer than usual, their mutant strain of yeast was one of the mot robust they’d ever had. This was nearly 20 years ago and Jim wondered aloud if it was that monstrously vigorous yeast that was used the week they distilled the legendary 18 year old bourbon that went into this year’s 125th Anniversary bottling. Needless to say, that special mutant strain was not cultivated further and the yeast was discarded despite possibly being responsible for one of the greatest bourbons ever produced there.

The reliance on yeast cultivation at Four Roses is a stark contrast to the way they do things at Buffalo Trace. No yeast cultivation occurs for regular distillation; instead they simply hold back a portion of the last batch and add a significant quantity of distillers yeast. So how can two wildly different approaches produce equally good bourbon on a consistent basis? What the hell, right?

more on that soon...

-David Othenin-Girard