Epic Islay News

Ah.....Islay. That magical place where peated whiskies are born and where whisky lovers hope to die. As the shortage of mature malt continues to remove age statements from the bottle, we've been piecing together a deal that we think will get you excited about the olden days of Islay malts. Like 2007, eons ago, when you could buy things like 21 year old Lagavulin off the shelf -- on a whim.

We’ve been patiently waiting for the right pieces to come into place and for all the stars to align on this deal, and we think we’re finally there. We’re ready. We’re ready to unleash this monster.

Are you all ready?

As many of you know, we've teased the idea of three ultra-mature Islay casks since this past March, but we were never able to give any specifics. "Three ancient casks, reminiscent of what we used to see all the time back in the day, from the same warehouse as our fantastic Port Ellen cask a few years back." People were curious, we received a lot of email questions about the statistics, and we hoped the pricing would come down a bit so that we could actually make these affordable (although that's a relative term these days). That’s finally happened. Then there was the question of what we would have to do to get them released to us. If you ever hear anyone say, "There's no more old whisky in Scotland," they're not completely off-base. At this point, it's no longer about who will pay the most or who's got the most coin--it's only about access. Do you have the connections, the relationships, and do people actually want to do business with you? Luckily for us the past few years of hard work, loyalty, respect, and friendship have opened more doors for us.

Three doors, actually. Three very special doors that we weren’t sure would ever open up again on the island of Islay.

And what's behind door number one?

(drum roll please….oh, and please note that these are all pre-orders due in late March) (oh, and please also note that there are only 100 bottles of each available for pre-order)


1992 Ardbeg 21 Year Old Sovereign K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $299.99 (PRE-ARRIVAL PRICE) -- An ultra-rare, highly-coveted cask of rockstar Islay whisky: a 21 year old Ardbeg with all the smoke, salt, peat, and spice the distillery is renowned for. More than two decades in wood however have tempered this beast down to a very reasonable 49.6 percent, allowing one to sip easily without the addition of water. The wood has mellowed the intensity a bit, but it has also concentrated it. There are only 150 bottles available from this ancient cask and they won't last long. Independent Ardbeg bottles have become unicorns here in the spirits world. Luckily we're able to bag one every now and again to keep the magic alive. While they last....

Wow! That’s a pretty exciting door to start off with! Can door number two get any better?


1993 Laphroaig 20 Year Old Sovereign K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $159.99 (PRE-ARRIVAL PRICE)  -- A magical cask of 20 year old Laphroaig at 44.5% cask strength. This is quite a fun whisky, mainly because of the balance between the more-mellow mouthfeel and the concentration of peat and smoke. We've become big fans of older Laphroaig here at K&L simply because the slowly-matured wood influence works so well with the bright, fresh, and lively peat flavors inherent in the malt. This cask ranks alongside the best we've found from other bottlers and the price is quite reasonable as well. Only 139 bottles were available from this reduced barrel. They will reward those who manage to get one.

Geez! I’m not sure my heart can take another door. The Ardbeg was exciting, but the price on the Laprhoaig looks great. Can door number three even come close to these first two?


1980 Caol Ila 32 Year Old Sovereign K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $239.99 (PRE-ARRIVAL PRICE) -- The sister cask to our former K&L exclusive, a 1980 Caol Ila now two years older than when we last visited her. While our former cask was rather light on its feet, its older sister comes in at a whopping 57.1% and brings all the earthy peat you can handle. It's also classically Caol Ila with a rounder, fruiter palate from those famous, fat-necked pot stills. The price is in line as well with that offering. Our 30 year old cask sold for $199.99, so considering inflation, the increasingly-insane demand for whisky, and the extra few years, we think $239.99 is pretty reasonable. If 150 people agree with us we'll be sold out.

I was going to leave this Islay trilogy alone, letting the magnitude of these announcements sink in without any other distraction, but I figured, “This is an Islay blog post, so we might as well pile it all on.” I teased these on the blog earlier this week and, now that we have pricing confirmed and delivery dates scheduled, we can start offering pre-orders.

If there is one battle we're not willing to fight in the spirits world, it's the idea that "craft" whisky is better whisky. We don’t think being small makes your whisky better and we definitely don’t think it’s worth charging more. We don't think using quarter casks to mature whisky faster makes for better whisky. We don't think using organic grains or designer barrels make for better whisky either. What makes whisky better? Time. If you're not willing to let your whisky come around naturally, then you're not going to convince guys like David and me to support your stuff. Kilchoman, in my mind, is the one "craft" distillery that does it right. Their whisky is still young, but it's already light years beyond what we're seeing from standard Islay releases these days. There are reasons for this. They operate their still at a slow drip --that takes TIME. They only use standard size Bourbon and Sherry casks, which take TIME to mature. And they hired John MacLellan, the former distiller for Bunnahabhain, who has decades of experience from putting in his TIME! And they keep getting better. TIME is on their side and I am willing to pay more for a “craft” whisky if it tastes better. These whiskies are better than anything I’ve tasted from Islay this year, so that’s why we bought them!

When Val brought us these single barrel samples a few weeks back I didn’t plan on buying anything. After I tasted them, however, I was scrambling for him to find me more. These are the most exciting Islay whiskies of 2013. They’re not new or different, but they hearken back to a time when Islay whiskies were explosive, flavorful, and lit your mouth up like a pinball machine. I don’t mean with alcohol or brute force, either. I mean with flavor. With unbridled, pure, clean, undeniably-Islay flavor. You’ll find that happening in both of these casks:

Kilchoman K&L Exclusive Single Bourbon Barrel #172 Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $99.99 (PRE-ARRIVAL PRICE) -- This Bourbon cask #172 is so delicate in mouthfeel, yet bursting with white pepper, smoke, and fresh peat that it almost seems unreal. At 60% it tastes like 45% because it's in complete harmony with a small dose of butterscotch on the finish and then a lingering floral note. At only five years of age it's more flavorful, satisfying, and exciting than anything I've tasted from any Islay distillery over the past year. It is AWESOME!

Kilchoman K&L Exclusive Single Bourbon Barrel #74 Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $99.99 (PRE-ARRIVAL PRICE) --  This Bourbon cask #74 is zippy, lively, peppery, and bright with cinnamon red hots and bursts of sweet wood. It's like a mezcal made on Islay, but with more vanilla and sweetness. What's more amazing is the sheer drinkability at 59%. It's never hot, overpowering, or out of whack. This DESTROYS Ardbeg Uigeadail. It makes Lagavulin 16 look like a sick joke. It makes Laphroaig 10 irrelevant. It makes any standard Islay release look boring and out of date. Kilchoman is the future, my friends. Everyone else is living in the past.

-David Driscoll


Wine Geek Wine Spirits

Are you like me--fully into both the wine and spirits world? Completely enveloped in your cellar full of Bordeaux, yet simultaneously checking the fills on your single malt collection? Then this is where both of your worlds collide together into a netherworld known as fortified, aromatized wines. Port and sherry are still technically wine. Vermouth, on the other hand, falls into the spirits department here at K&L, which is fantastic for me because I'm obsessed with this stuff. My former mentor and ex-K&L German wine buyer Jeff Vierra left the store a few years back to open up his own import/distribution operation and he began representing the Louis/Dressner portfoilio: one of the most prestigious books due to its dedication to discovering all-natural, hand-harvested, unmanipulated wines from small farmers around Europe.

A few years back they added Mauro Vergano's products to their selection. We were all completely smitten here at the Redwood City store, but then the supply chain fell apart and we were out of stock for a long period of time. Finally, I heard from Jeff this week that the Vergano wines were once again available and that they had added a new Chinato and Vermouth Bianco to the mix. I was ecstatic. Now that they're in stock, I'm happy to report back with my findings on their quality: in short, they're enough to make any serious cocktail geek wet their pants. If you thought quality vermouth was only for sweet expressions like Carpano, you might want to check out this Bianco. I've been nipping on it for the last ten minutes and I can't get enough. Man, I can't wait to get home and experiment with this thing!!

I'll post a quick summary of each here, but you should visit the Louis/Dressner page for more info. Make sure you click on the little plus signs to expand each section and provide more detailed information.

Vergano "Luli" Moscato Chinato $46.99 - The wine used here is Moscato d’Asti with a higher alcohol content (more than 10%) compared to the ones that are commonly available. The Moscato comes from the prestigious winery of Vittorio Bera & Figli. Their Moscato’s fragrance and its full-bodiedness meld perfectly with the aromatic extract composed of citrus zest, cinnamon and vanilla. These fresh and sweet aromas are balanced by the bitter flavour of the China (Calisaya and Succirubra) which give it a persistent taste that is absolutely unique.

Vergano Americano Aperitif $36.99 - Think of the Vergano Americano as a traditional Vermouth/Bitter Piedmontese aperitif. It uses Grignolino as the base wine rather than Nebbiolo, and like most vermouths, it contains herbal and aromatic components. In order to transform a Vermouth into an Americano you have to integrate the herbs at its base with other more bitter ones like Gentianella, citrus zest like Bitter Orange and Chinotto.The result is like an Italian wine version of Campari or Cynar. Try using it in a Negroni or with soda and a twist. Absolutely lovely stuff.

Vergano Nebbiolo Chinato $42.99 - Made with Nebbiolo from Barbaresco that comes from the Rabajà hill. It is produced by Giuseppe Cortese’s winery in Barbaresco; this is a small-scale producer who produces excellent quality wine. The extract is the result of a complex mixture of aromatizing substances. Besides China in its Calisaya and Succirubra varieties, there are particularly bitter ingredients like Chinese Rabarbaro and Ginseng, while the aromatic component comes from spices and herbs like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, coriander, bay leaf, etc. What makes this wine characteristic is the extreme persistence of its aroma due to its perfectly balanced ratio between sugar, alcohol and aromatic extract content.

Vergano Vermouth Bianco $42.99 - Vermouth is the only fortified and aromatized wine with a precise historical origin. It was first concocted 1786 in Turin by Benedetto Carpano. Since then the Vermouth has become one of the most famous drinks in the world both as aperitif or as an ingredient in cocktails. Its name derives from the German word "Vermuth" which means Absinthe, one of its main components. Originally, the base wine was Moscato, but different wines have been used over time. In the case of the Vergano Bianco, the base wine is a blend of dry Moscato and Cortese, another typical white grape of Piedmont. This mixture gives a correct balance between acidity and flavor.The mixture of herbs and spices is very complex, dominated by herbs such as thyme, marjoram, basil, oregano that provide fresh and aromatic notes. The Absinthe component mainly in the variety "Gentile" contributes to the bitter taste. As is the tradition Vermouth should be light yellow, clear, sweet. while also bitter and fragrant.

-David Driscoll


Deep Breaths Everyone

It's getting crazy out there on the road right now. Everyone is scrambling to get their holiday gifts taken care of, their texts responded to, and their emails answered -- while they're driving. I almost got killed twice yesterday and once this morning by a series of serial iPhone-using motorists. That, of course, sent my heart rate up to twice its normal (and healthy) level and resulted in an outburst of prolific profanity that would have made Richard Pryor blush. Then, while waiting for my coffee at Starbucks, the guy in front of me ordered fourteen specialty drinks for his entire office -- each with its own specific set of instructions. Everything so far this morning seems as if it was specifically engineered to break me -- to send me off on a Michael-Douglas-in-Falling-Down type of tirade where I just completely lose it and flip out.

But we can't let that happen. Deep breaths. Everything is going to be alright.

The holiday months are stressful. Getting everything done around K&L is a constant test of patience: packages need to be consolidated and shipped, pick-up dates from UPS need to be scheduled, and the bottles need to arrive on time. We need to make sure everything is in stock, that all customer needs are met, and that we monitor inventory every few minutes. We might have 60 bottles of Elmer T. Lee one minute and then realize a large firm has placed an order for 60 gift orders. All of a sudden we're at zero and I'm dashing over to the phone to get another delivery scheduled.

We're doing our best over here right now, but it's getting hectic. Make sure you stretch, breath deeply, get enough sleep, and don't let the little things get you down. We've still got a long way to go!

-David Driscoll


JVS/Impex Gettin' It Done

I have to admit I was once a little nervous for my friends Val and Sam over at JVS and Impex. Gordon & MacPhail had switched distribution, as had Signatory -- two major blows at around the same time. Then Chieftain's began running out of whisky to sell (we're no longer able to select casks from them). The smaller craft distilleries weren't working as long-term options and there was a period where I thought my Moldovan friends might not get their heads back above water. But no one works harder than Val and Sam. If you think you work hard, then I invite you to listen to Val talk about working as a military driver in Moscow during the day for high-ranking officials, then continuing to drive at night as an unregistered taxi around the sprawling city. You cannot outwork these guys.

That's why not long after the loss of two major independent labels, the guys at Kilchoman decided to get on board with Val and Sam. Smart move. Next came the Isle of Arran, who noticed the work these guys were doing on Kilchoman's behalf. We introduced David Stirk to the dynamic duo as well and now the Exclusive Malts are coming to the U.S. via Impex and JVS. And what has happened to Signatory and G&M stateside since they moved on to greener pastures? Nothing, at least here at K&L. Besides the casks that we go and seek out on our own behalf, we have done very little business with either bottler outside of private affairs. This wasn't by choice or out of any ill will. Business is business. However, I still feel that both labels underestimated how much of their success was coming from the hustle by my Moldovan friends. It takes dedication and hard work to push a brand very few people have heard of. I don't think either company has seen an increase in sales since moving to larger distribution either. If anything, I think their products have been buried in a sea of larger, more important brands.

But that's fine because Val and Sam worked hard to find new products they believe in and their dedication has paid off. In my opinion, no two distilleries are more exciting to watch right now than Kilchoman and Arran. Both are putting out stellar new release after stellar new release, and each sip leaves me more impressed than the previous one. I'm more excited about these two new casks of Kilchoman (pictured above and due in next Spring) than I have been about any whisky this year. They are INSANELY good. So good I almost want to cry.

And I finally got the chance to taste the newest release of Arran's Devil's Punchbowl series -- a marriage of different casks, similar to the Balvenie 1401 Tun series, but on a larger scale. They've included sherry-aged whiskies, peated whiskies, and some Bourbon casks as well and the result is splendid. It's rich and round on the entry, but brings some mild phenolic action on the finish. I've been taking pulls off the bottle in between will call orders all afternoon. We've also got a 16 year old sherry cask in from Arran right now, and the wonderful new edition of the 12 year cask strength. Plus, there's always our 14 year restructured Sherry hogshead that's still hanging around.

I love that two of the last independent distilleries in Scotland (and two of the best as well) are teaming up with two of the best importers in the country. Dedication breeds more dedication. I still think G&M and Signatory made a huge mistake by switching distribution, but that's their business. Val and Sam will find other distillers, bottlers, and producers to represent and they'll be getting the best representation possible. I'm always up to speed on the latest whiskies from Kilchoman and Arran. I'm always getting to taste the recent arrivals from David Stirk. And I always know that I'm getting a fair price.

Relationships are everything in this business. Remember who your friends are and make sure you support them. Val and Sam always have our full support because they're always here to support us. If you already felt good about supporting an independent distillery like Arran and Kilchoman, you can feel even better knowing you're supporting a great importer and distributor as well.

-David Driscoll


Blended Whisky: We're Almost There

There are always trends in the booze industry, products that fall out of fashion then come roaring back in a newer, hipper, updated form. Rye whiskey was considered an old man's drink ten years ago. Now it's simply cool to be an old man and do things that old men did a century ago -- like play Bocce Ball, sport a twirly moustache, and dress like a banker from the 1920s. One of my favorite phenomena is the repackaging of beverages once considered cheap into a fancy, more upscale version. Canned beer used to be the preferred medium for brands like Bud Light and Coors. Now many of the smaller craft brewers are using the can as their container of choice, i.e. Oskar Blues, Maui Brewing, etc. Boxed wine used to be just for Franzia and Gallo, but now we're seeing high-quality vintners use the collapsible bag-in-a-box for everyday drinkers. Our custom-made Blason Italian White Box is one of the most asked about products we carry. We're always running out.

When people discover the difference between "good booze" and "bad booze" they tend to simplify a few rules down into general practice, often falsely stereotyping or pigeonholing products into neat little boxes within which they may not fit. To use the above examples, many people consider bottled beer as an upgrade to canned beer, which it can be, but isn't always. What are other examples? Organic is always better than non-organic. Small production distillation creates tastier products than mass distillation. Pot stills over column stills. I could go on and on. While most of those strongly-held beliefs are easily countered, one of the myths that has managed to remain strong with whisky drinkers is the idea that blended whisky is cheap. They're cutting down your precious single malt with some sloppy grain distillate and cheating you out of your money. Blended whisky can be cheap, just like any stereotype can be true from time to time, but you can't go around generalizing like that. Each case must be evaluated on its own merit.

Would you rather drink Glenkinchie than Johnnie Walker Gold? Not I. Would you rather drink Glenlivet 12 than Bank Note Blended? Not I. Would you rather drink Yamazaki 12 over the Hibiki 12? Once again, I would take the blend over the malt in that instance. Education is very important in the beverage world. Only by reinforcing the message that there are always exceptions to the rule can we begin to change the way people feel about certain products. By continuing to seek out casks like the 1979 Faultline, or the 1991 Cambus, we're changing the way our customers feel about grain whisky and opening them up to new possibilities. It also expands the selection for people who might once have limited themselves to a few specific choices.

That being said, it's still tough for some whisky geeks to get into blended whisky simply because the educational aspect of it is being taken away. Most blends do not tell you the cepage, but whisky geeks are dying to know which whiskies are being used to create the flavor. What are we paying for? This is changing however. Cadenhead's new sherry-aged blend is very clear about which distilleries were included in the recipe. David Stirk is also transparent with his new 21 year Exclusive Malt blend. John Glaser, of course, has always been open about revealing his sources, and the Morrisons have had no problem telling us that the Bank Note is largely Bowmore and Cameronbridge. More importantly, all of the above whiskies are delicious. They offer value, quality, and honesty. We're slowly seeing all the pitfalls of blended whisky being removed, as a new generation of producers updates the genre for the new generation of drinkers.

If single malt prices keep going up, while blended prices remain stagnant, we might see more rejuvenance as well. The price of a quality 18 year old single malt is slowly moving towards the $150 average, while blended whiskies of 20 years or more still hover at the $100 mark. We're keenly aware of this here at the K&L spirits department. There are some secrets we haven't yet revealed concerning next year's long-delayed shipment. We think blended whisky is the way forward and possibly the antidote to ever-increasing prices. The craft whiskey industry is not helping to curb demand and ease the shortage on big-brand whiskey. If anything, it's making it worse as it provides justification for brands to charge more. With careful blending, however, you can create something great from something inexpensive.

How will the public respond? If there's one thing I've learned working here at K&L, it's that people like spirits that taste good and are reasonably priced. They're willing to trust us at least once, no matter how deep their resistance to an idea. There's a strong resistance to blended whisky, but I think we're close to breaking it down. We're almost there. We just need a few more winners.

-David Driscoll