A Skeptic's Interview

Have you ever Googled yourself? It's not something I recommend doing if you're even close to any sort of public figure. I'm a drop of water in a gigantic pool of industry professionals, but my outspoken demeanor can lead to a bit of controversy from time to time. Message board posts, blog retorts, Yelp reviews, etc, can all pop up when it comes to the subject of the K&L spirits department. Every now and again I have the itch to see what the internet has to say about the job we're doing. Sometimes reading the responses makes my gut turn and I feel sick. Sometimes they make my day. Sometimes they make me laugh. Sometimes they make me sigh. There's a lot of talk going on.

Rather than email me with these responses, however, or even the store, most critics will usually operate behind the veil of anonymity. They'll pose questions they know I won't answer. If there's a misperception at work I'll usually try to jump in and help clear up the confusion. However, that's not normally the issue. There's nothing to hide here in the K&L spirits department. We're not trying to fool anyone or move some private agenda. I'm pretty open with how I feel, so why not simply ask me if you've got an issue?

I've got an idea. I'll ask myself.

David - You turned off all comments on the blog a while back. Some people feel that this frees you from any sort of rebuttal or retribution for your own views. What do you have to say about this?

Great question, David! There are many reasons why I did this. Number one - no one was really commenting anyway. It was mostly robots posting information about where people could find a luxury purse or the latest designer shoes. However, because the K&L Spirits Blog is a place where K&L customers can go to find out more information about what they're purchasing, I didn't feel it was appropriate to allow outsiders a voice. We're operating a business, not a forum. On top of that, while I feel comments can lead to great conversation and insight, I see a lot of hijacking going on around the internet. What I mean is that people with an ax to grind use the opportunity to advance their own issues on someone else's space. They might have a blog, but no one is reading it, so they use the comment field as a way to bring outside attention to their website or their own opinion. That really bothers me. I am also quite sensitive to feedback, so allowing detractors to have their say would definitely alter the way that I write. With the comments turned off I can write for myself, rather than cater to the opinions of commenters. If people feel that I'm taking the easy way out, that's fine. If you've got something to say you can always email me, but that would mean providing me with your contact info. It's a lot easier for most people to say what's on their mind if they can do it anonymously. Plus, some people want their retort to be public, so that they can say, "Gotcha!"

Some people feel that you exaggerate or are perhaps too enthusiastic about your opinions. Do you feel like this will eventually lead to customers growing tired of your consistent praise or "gotta-have-it" emails?

One thing I hate about the wine world is the point system. Me sharing my genuine excitement is annoying to people, but buying something based on a stupid number is tolerated? That's crazy to me. The booze world is full of people who take themselves way too seriously as it is. Excitement is seen as naivete, but treating booze like a finals exam is seen as professional? When you sell on points you can always say, "that wasn't my opinion," but selling based on your enthusiasm requires you to put yourself out there and deal with the response. When it comes to "customers growing tired," this is something I feel can only happen if you deliver a bad product. I don't think people will ever get tired of having a fantastic selection of great booze. I think customers will respond, however, when you sell them a lemon. I remember reading a forum post about our Port Ellen when we bought that cask last Fall. People were shitting all over it before they had even tasted it because of the price. Then the LA Whisky Society tasted it and gave it a solid "A" review and suddenly everyone got quiet. They put it up against the standard release Port Ellen and some members liked ours better than the official version (as did David and I, but who's going to believe us?). Part of the problem is that we're hyping whiskies no one has tasted but us. We don't send out samples to other reviewers because we don't rely on anyone but ourselves to sell this stuff. That makes people suspicious, however, because they think we're just trying to make money. And we are trying to make money! But I don't think we ever do it at the customer's expense. Money is never our primary concern. We like to buy whisky. It's fun. We can't buy more whisky, however, until we sell what we've got. The more whisky we sell, the more we can get. It's not like we're lining our pockets with profits. It's all going right back into the program, so if you support K&L we try to keep bringing you more stuff with that support.

By purchasing the cask of Port Ellen wasn't K&L feeding right into the ever-increasing price of whisky right now? Isn't that something that you yourself have spoken out about? Some people might find that hypocritical.

That's a tricky question. If you're talking about the Port Ellen cask it was either going to us or back to Diageo. We thought, "well, it might as well be us." At least that way the money made was going to support a smaller retailer like K&L who would use the profit to send us back to Scotland in search of more whiskies that more people could enjoy. Plus, the whisky is delicious. Find me someone who doesn't like it! I've had nothing but rave reviews from the people who purchased a bottle. I think the biggest misconception here is that we're in any sort of control when it comes to price. We didn't set the price of the Port Ellen. Douglas Laing did. It wasn't negotiable. It was a "do you want it or not" type of decision. We're a whisk(e)y shop and it's the job of a whisk(e)y shop to buy whisk(e)y. If you buy everything the market offers, then you're a pawn for the industry and people think you're just another profit-hungry merchant. If you say "no" to everything based on the expense, then you've got no whisky to sell. Again, going back to the lemon comment, I don't think we've ever offered anything that's out of whack with what most specialty stores are offering. At least I hope not. We're not marking these whiskies up any more than we usually do. When David and I go to Scotland we look at what we think we can sell and there's not one producer who isn't marking up their booze right now. Not one. To take a stand against egregious, profiteering price increases is one thing. That's what I've done from time to time when the moment warrants it. But that just means that I'll help people to find products that do provide value. It means that if you want my opinion, this is it. It doesn't mean that we as a store are going to stop selling Diageo products because they're more expensive - unless we don't think they'll move, like when Talisker 18 came in at $150. That was simply us saying, "We can't sell it at that price, nor will we try to." That goes back to selling people a lemon for what they're paying. However, we're not going to prevent people from buying any product we think offers quality. The Spirits Journal is just ammunition for consumers to make their own decisions based upon what we personally think. We might suggest something else, but we still have Johnnie Black on the shelf, you know what I mean?

You tend to put pressure on people to buy quickly with some of your promotions. Again, don't you feel like this is only adding to the hysteria surrounding things like Pappy Van Winkle?

This is where outside readers can misunderstand what's happening locally around K&L in California. The Spirits Journal has turned into a defacto booze news site simply because we update so often. I'll post a notice that Black Maple Hill is back in stock and say, "Hurry up! BUY BUY BUY!" because that's literally what you have to do if you want to get a bottle. I really don't give a shit about making it happen faster, so there's no inside need to move things quickly. It's not like if I didn't say "BUY! BUY! BUY!" the Black Maple Hill wouldn't sell just as fast. It's still going to sell out within 48 hours, even with a one bottle limit. I'm just trying to stress to customers the urgency with which they need to act because they've asked me to let them know when it's back in stock. Outside readers assume we're exaggerating because maybe they can go down to their local shop and get the BMH whenever they want. It doesn't work that way here, however. Remember that the K&L Spirits Journal is only referring to what happens at K&L. The hysteria is already there and you should see what happens when I don't do it. My inbox will fill up with, "YOU SAID YOU WOULD POST WHEN THE BLACK MAPLE HILL CAME BACK AND YOU DIDN'T!!!! NOW IT'S SOLD OUT!!!" People depend on those posts for information about their shopping. That's literally what the blog is for. People ask me every single day, "How will I know when it's back in stock?" "Read the blog," I say. If the situation at K&L doesn't gel with what's going on elsewhere then so be it - this isn't the Texas, Pennsylvania, or Kentucky Spirits Journal. Again, I do my best - my very, very best - to get people to try new things, give up on the same old options, and maybe branch out. Try some sherry! Try some rum! Try something inexpensive and of value. But it doesn't mean I'm going to turn down my allocations of Pappy, BMH, or any other whiskey simply because they've become ridiculously overvalued. It means I'm going to do my best to help people who want one get one. That means, "BUY! BUY! BUY!!"

You seem to have an answer for everything. Don't you feel like some of the criticism here might be vaild?

I'm a loud, talkative, dramatic person. The blog is a mirror-reflection of my own personality. It's an honest one, as well. There is and has never been any attempt to profit by misleading, or misrepresenting any product at K&L on my behalf, or on the behalf of David OG (as far as I know), while writing on this blog. I think that people have a natural tendency to assume others are out to get them. I also believe that, since the creation of the comment field, people have a general inclination to shit all over each other just for the sake of it. I fight that battle everyday. If I sell you a crap whisky, then you can shit all over me all you want. When that happens, I'm ready for it. I've got my rainjacket and galoshes. At least you're dealing with a real person here.

Any other questions? If we're gonna do this, let's do it. Make sure you've got your full name and contact info on the email.

-David Driscoll


Pre-Hype: What the F is Karuizawa?

Do you remember where you were when you first heard about Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon? I do. It was at K&L in 2007 while wandering through the store after we had closed. I wasn't too big into whiskey at that point in time, having applied to work at the store due to my interest in wine. The spirits shelf always intrigued me, however, simply because K&L had all of these bottles I had never even heard of, let alone seen. I remember looking at the bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 20 year (at that time right on the shelf for anyone to purchase) and thinking, "What makes this bottle so much more expensive than the others?" Something about the label intrigued me - the romantic image of a Southern gentleman lighting his cigar. It was all so new, so exciting, but I really knew nothing about it. Only a few years later the whiskey would become a cultural phenomenon due to a completely grassroots, word-of-mouth following. This is pretty much what has happened with Karuizawa single malt from Japan: currently the hottest product on the global whisky market (from what I hear from foreign retailers).

I had never heard the name Karuizawa until 2010 when David OG and I began discussing possible ventures in Japan. Neyah White, now the brand ambassador for Suntory in the U.S., had also mentioned the distillery in our conversations. It appeared that an international beverage company called Number One Drinks was attempting to purchase the remaining stocks of the distillery, which could mean good news for us in our quest to purchase a few barrels. Discussions with Kirin had gone absolutely nowhere and other attempts to reach out to Japan were met with silence. We were watching the news, crossing our fingers that the deal would happen so that we could possibly negotiate with the new ownership. It was at that time that I began doing a bit more research into the whiskey. While the American market was only beginning to pick up on the Yamazaki expressions, there seemed to be a passionate following for Japanese whiskey around the globe. Karuizawa and Hanyu were two of the most coveted. It was the same type of hysteria we were experiencing for the Pappy products, it just wasn't happening domestically.

By the end of 2012, Japanese whiskey had hit the mainstream here in the States. The Yamazaki 18 year old was facing shortages, we were constantly running out of the 12 year, and anything rare like the 1984 vintage was getting snapped up faster than you could blink an eye. With the arrival of Nikka and Chichibu on the horizon, the future was looking extremely bright for Japanese single malt in the American market, but the selection would still be limited to younger releases. The Yamazaki 12 year, Hakushu 12 year, Nikka 12 Year, Hibiki 10 year, and Nikka 15 year are the basis of the American selection currently. While all of these whiskies are outstanding in my opinion, there is a huge thirst for the more mature expressions. "Can you order the Hibiki 17?" is still a query that winds up in my inbox on a weekly basis. Customers are ready to swarm on even the once-ubiquitous Yamazaki 18, let alone something unique, rare, collectable, and delicious. What would happen if a retailer ever got a hold of the Karuizawa or Hanyu whiskies? Would the rabid appetite for these single malts translate over to the American market, or would they go largely unnoticed, like Wayne Rooney walking though a shopping mall?

Founded in 1956, the Karuizawa distillery was built on a former vineyard site high in the Japanese Alps, on the slope of Mount Asama - one of Japan's still-active volcanoes. It was one of three distilleries owned by Mercian, who blended the three together to form its different expressions. What made Karuizawa special, however, was the usage of only Golden Promise barley shipped in from Simpsons in the UK. They utilized four stills, bottled with local water from Mount Asama, and matured mostly in sherry butts. While Mercian began producing single malts from their three distilleries in 1987, it would still be a while before Karuizawa's reputation grew into something special. (For more historical info, view Stefan's many posts at Nonjatta - the great website for Japanese whiskey information).

Mercian ceased all production at Karuizawa in 2001 and the distillery was then "mothballed" until further notice. It sat dormant for more than five years until Kirin purchased Mercian at the end of 2006 and a glimmer of hope was sparked that the beer giant might reopen the legendary distillery. It was not to be, however. In 2011, Number One Drinks, a UK-based beverage company that was already involved in many independent bottlings of Karuizawa, made Kirin an offer on the remaining stocks at Karuizawa and took control of the inventory. It was clear that Kirin had no interest in reopening the distillery and the final curtain came down on one of Japan's most revered single malt institutions.

Meanwhile, the single malt market for "lost" distilleries like Port Ellen, Brora, and Rosebank was hotter than ever. Whisky fans were more educated than ever. They were doing their homework. They were collecting bottles like wine enthusiasts, piecing together collections of everyday drinkers alongside a few serious collectables. Everyone wanted at least a bottle or two of something rare or special - a whisky with a story and a history that stood out from the pack. There was nothing cooler to serious whisky fans than a whisk(e)y that was already extinct. It was like drinking a dinosaur. "You mean to tell me they'll never make this whisky again?" It was infectious. Prices shot up as a result.

Which brings us to 2013. Japanese whiskey couldn't be hotter. Closed distilleries couldn't be more collectable. A combination of both would be enough to explode the heads of most whisky geeks. David OG had the foresight to go after Number One Drinks back in 2011 when the deal with Kirin first went down and attempt to get in early. It turned out to be one of the best moves ever. Number One Drinks was extremely personable and sent out cask samples immediately. We tasted through barrel selections nearly two years ago and made our choices at that time - we were only allowed to pick two. As long as we could get an importer, they were willing to do business (today I'm not sure about further availability, but I don't think they're currently offering any other American retailer access). After the earthquake rocked Japan later that year, however, the U.S. government became super paranoid about forthcoming imports and our attempts to get label approval were subjected to all kinds of scrutiny. It's been nearly two years since we first agreed to terms for two barrels of Karuizawa single malt whisky - one sherry butt from 1999 and another from 1981. We still don't have an ETA for arrival, but we've finally been cleared for label approval. That means we can start the process as of right now.

Pricing for the Karuizawa is almost locked down and, luckily for us (and you!), it's based on the original deal from 2011. You can bet your bottom dollar that Karuizawa whiskey is worth a lot more today than it was back then. We'll be working off of the original quotes so the retail prices will actually be much lower than I have been telling most customers they would be. If everything holds as is, we should be ready to start preorders at around $140 for the 1999 and around $380 for the 1981. I had feared much worse only a few months back (thinking it would be more like $200 and $500 respectively). We're almost ready to release these to the public. David and I are hoping to get everything wrapped up today and put these into the system tomorrow (Friday).

So there you go. If you were wondering what the fuss was all about, this is as best as I can explain it.

-David Driscoll


Karuizawa Labels Approved - Presales Imminent

What a day! We've got a new Pope and we've got TTB label approval for our Karuizawa casks. After more than a year of back-and-forth, up-and-down, yes-and-no, in-and-out emails between Japan, us, the UK, and our friends at JVS, this deal for two barrels of Karuizawa has finally come to a conclusion.

We're approved for U.S. importation!!!!!!!

I'm a fan of Pope Francis already. I believe he must have prayed for us.

Now that we know these are coming we can begin pre-arrival ordering shortly. We're waiting for our final pricing from JVS and Number One Drinks, but we should have that wrapped up within the next few hours. After that, these babies will be live.

We're talking about two separate casks: a 1999 vintage and 1981 vintage that are both sherry butts. Pricing will be released shortly along with quantities. THESE WILL GO FAST.

Without a doubt these are the most sought-after, most requested, hottest whiskies on the planet (outside of Pappy Van Winkle). Getting them was a big deal. Owning a bottle will be a bigger one. No other American retailer has ever sold Karuizawa. The distillery is closed. The whisky is drying up.

These casks are simply amazing. Get ready. Coming soon.

-David Driscoll


Keeping Up With it All

Everyone needs a break now and again, but since booze is my full-time job there's no time to slack off when it comes to the latest trends and products. It's not easy staying well-informed with all genres of distilled spirits. It's a serious commitment. In my three years as spirits buyer I've watched some of my most passionate customers disappear without a trace. One day they were huge booze fans, the next they're completely out of the game.

I was flipping between the Giants vs. San Diego in a spring training game and the U.S. vs. Puerto Rico in the WBC last night when I realized I didn't know half of these players anymore. I used to watch baseball religiously as a kid (and play it, too!). I knew every player, their batting averages, which teams they had played for, and whether they were right or left-handed. Now I'm lucky if I can name just the San Francisco roster. The same goes for music. I used to know the names of every member of every band out there. Now I'm lucky if I even know a song from a handful of modern groups. I had thousands of CDs at one point and all of my money went to new music. Today, I still enjoy listening to music and going to concerts, but I'm far more choosey with my time and efforts. In both cases, I used to identify myself as a baseball fan or music supergeek. I felt like losing either one would completely obliterate my persona. I worked hard, spending all of my free time to keep up with the pack in both of these worlds.

In any topic of interest (including the two mentioned above) there will always be people who work harder than you. There will always be people who are incredibly nice, with whom you can bond over your mutual passion for your shared interests. There will always be people who obsess over knowing more than you so that they can hold it over your head ("Oh, you haven't tasted the new Yamazaki? I had it in Japan last week, but it's no big deal"). There will always be times when you don't know something you should (I told a customer yesterday that I didn't think Powers 12 Year Old Irish was being imported to the States, but David OG had it in stock in LA). There will always be people who disagree with you or feel differently (I saw that Serge from WhiskyFun wasn't a big fan of the new Ealanta whereas I think it's the best whisky I've tasted so far this year). Within the world of booze there are tons of people spending tons of their energy to get you to pay attention. You have to really care about booze in order to keep up with the latest events and sometimes it can seem like a huge waste of time.

Baseball seemed like a waste of time after I got cut from the varsity team in high school (being a chain smoker wasn't helping my first base sprint). Music seemed like a waste of time when I realized I was spending so much money on staying home and listening to music that I couldn't afford going out to actually meet people. At the first period in my life I felt quite depressed – if I wasn't a baseball player then I wasn't me and people would feel differently about who I was. However, when I sold all my CDs to Amoeba back in 2005 (after backing them up on a harddrive, of course), I felt a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders because I was free from having to be me, this music person who knew more than the average Joe. Identifying with a hobby or genre is fun. Passion is exciting, but if you lose yourself in the process it can be suffocating.

I get dangerously close to falling back into that hole every now and again with liquor, but my former experiences help to keep me balanced. There are times when I just want to come home and drink everything – by myself! – simply because I'm interested in learning more. However, no one wants to be that person who spends all their money on booze and never has enough cash to go out to eat with friends (Sideways actually touches on that element a bit when Miles steals money from his mother to pay for his fancy wine habit). You can be passionate about whisky and wine, but remain grounded to your regular life. It's not an all or nothing game, no matter how badly you feel like you should know this stuff.

I still know grown men today who can tell you the batting average of any player in the MLB. I still know people who catch every show at the Independent on Divisadero, hoping to say, "Yeah, I saw that band back before they made it." I still get at least one email every day from someone who knows more than me about booze and wants me to know it. Ten years ago these things might have driven me into a frenzy – a flurry of self-doubt, inferiority, and insecurity. Today, I let it pass. You don't have to know everything about whisky. You just have to enjoy drinking it.

-David Driscoll


T-Minus One Week

That's right! It's that time of year again. It's time to get back on that plane, head thousands of miles across the world to the UK, and pile into a car with David OG for some old-fashioned barrel hunting. A week from tomorrow we'll be leaving for Scotland to check out this year's crop of single cask selections. But it doesn't end there! We've been forced to pile two trips into one this season, so after rummaging through the Highlands we'll be boarding a place to Bordeaux and meeting up with our friend Charles Neal for another round of brandy tasting. After meandering our way through Armagnac, Cognac, and finally Normandy, we'll be headed to Paris where we'll catch a train to London. This year jolly old England is also in play! Three countries. Two and a half weeks. Constant updates with photos, info, and new discoveries. Unlike Barbados, however, Scotland is currently covered in a foot of snow. We're going from tropical to freezing in one week's time. Do we have what it takes?

Stay tuned for what will be our third trip over the water on behalf of K&L. This year's leg will be the longest, hardest, most-packed, and most-challenging. You might even see a picture of David OG and I strangling one another. There is no margin for error. Every single day is packed full of appointments and traveling as we dig even deeper on behalf of whisky fans everywhere. Will we make it out alive?

Stay tuned.

-David Driscoll