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Saturday
Nov262016

Too Much of a Good Thing

It's tragic that the things we love most in life can ultimately harm us if not kept in balance. That's an obvious allusion to drinking (especially on a blog about drinking), but I mean it in a different way. The thing about drinking too much is that there's usually no delay between the actions and the consequences. You'll know within a matter of hours whether you've had too much or not. But what about having too much to drink in terms of options? Is that possible? Is there such a thing as too many movies, too much music, or too many funny cat videos to watch online? There's a point when the phrase "too much of a good thing" becomes less about eating two whole pizzas in one evening, and more about the delayed impact of over-saturation when, to use another aphorism, too many cooks spoil the broth. I believe there is such a thing as too many good television shows, too many new whiskies, and too many quality sushi options on my local Doordash because ultimately we can't sustain that many choices. But what happens when a societal shift occurs and a new generation decides it wants to do the same thing, no matter how saturated and overcrowded the field? How many new distilleries, wineries, restaurants, and sommeliers can the modern market tolerate? More importantly, how many critics, reviewers, experts, and personalities do we need to tell us what's good and what isn't? The internet's wide reach is at the forefront of this desire and its amateur connoisseurship has fundamentally changed our values about what's worth doing and what isn't.

At some point within the last fifteen years or so, the dreams and aspirations of our younger generations began to change. Not their desires, mind you, but more so how those desires were met or satiated. When I was in high school and college most of my friends talked about being doctors, lawyers, and corporate executives. Those were still the traditional paths to money, security, and societal worth back in the nineties. I can't say for sure whether any of those people actually wanted to be doctors, lawyers, or corporate execs, but what I know they wanted for sure was the respect, the wealth, and the pride in achievement that performing such a job would bring them. That was my generation's way of satisfying its core desire: to feel like our lives had meaning and worth. Then social media happened and suddenly those conservative and long-standing views about value began to shift. People began creating idealistic versions of their lives online for others to revel in, and that exposure led to new ideas and possibilities that have shaped every subsequent generation since. Last night my wife and I sat in our living room, putting the final touches on our vacation plans to Japan for next year, and we decided to search for a few travel videos about Tokyo and Kyoto—purely for the sake of continuing our excitement with a visual stimulus. That's when the size and scope of this new era really hit me. Simply put: there are thousands and thousands of amateur videos online about traveling in just about any location you can think of. Every twenty-something year old from here to Helsinki has a travel blog, travel YouTube video show, or travel food Pinterest board where they dole out advice to others and offer tips from the road. Instead of one good Anthony Bourdain we now have eight million less-interesting ones to sort through. These kids don't want to be lawyers or doctors. They want to be professional guys who get paid to travel, eat, and...you know...do stuff. Being a respected travel blogger represents the same desires we felt as teenagers, to be seen as important and cultured, only now they're manifested in an entirely new ideal. 

What instantly strikes you about these amateur escapades is how much time has been spent on them. These kids aren't messing around. They have top notch cameras, expensive editing software, and they've obviously spent a lot of time watching the Travel Channel because their montages, cuts, and scenery shots are carbon copies. Then you watch them eat, listen to them talk, and hear their opinions and you just sort of grimace; that's when my wife and I looked at each other with pained and puzzled expressions and just laughed. When exactly did that generational switch happen? I'm not exactly sure, but I think at some point in the last ten years or so it became way cooler in certain metropolitan circles to be a travel blogger than it did a dentist. There's one very important distinction, however: you actually get paid to be a dentist. You also have to have professional training and experience, which is what really separates the zillions of hours of shitty travel media out there from the more mainstream players. I get it though. Traveling is exciting. Traveling is eye-opening. Learning more about the people and the cultures of our world is one of the most amazing experiences a human can have. I wholeheartedly believe that. But when you spend every minute of your precious travel time trying to showboat for the camera and present those "unique" experiences to others (the same experiences that 500,000 other people have already documented), are you really reaping the benefits? When I'm at a concert and I see 5,000 smart phones in the air taking a video of the performance, I have to ask myself: why are we even here? Are we making any sort of deeper connection with the world anymore, or is that type of experience irrelevant now?

Part of the reason I stopped reading almost all writing about wine and whiskey online came from that very same lack of a connection. 99.9% of the blogs, boards, or articles I see about drinking today are more about sizing each other up than creating an understanding of the substance. It's not just wine or whiskey, however; it's everything. It's what happens to any hobby when the primal enjoyment of it becomes buried under the need to rank and categorize each experience (and now document it on social media as well). It's what happened to pro-wrestling when bloggers began ranking matchs between one and five stars. It's what happened to indie music when Pitchfork began using a 10-point rating system for new albums and releases. It's what happened to movies when movie studios began using Rotten Tomatoes community scores as advertising. It's what happened to wine when Robert Parker began his 100 point onslaught. The desire is still the same as before—we want to drink something good—it's just that the way we go about it has changed. The manifestation of our ideal has moved. We used to choose what we drank, ate, listened to, or watched because something caught our attention. Something about the product moved us in a very personal way and we reacted. Maybe the ultimate experience wasn't "the best," and maybe we regretted the result, but at least it was a real experience and an actual lesson. Today we're not interested in learning. We want the internet to filter everything out that isn't "the best," so we can get right down to what's good and ignore what isn't. Ironically, what we really need is a filter from people trying to provide that filter. There is no way to guarantee a personal connection by narrowing down your Yelp selections to four stars or higher. You have to take a chance in life.

Every now and again when I come down on blogging or social media, I get a few emails from people who ask: isn't that hypocritical? Aren't you a blogger? Technically, I am. In reality, however, I'm a salesman who understands that real growth, real expansion, and real development isn't created by filtering out the best from the worst. It's about removing those basic and boring criteria and getting back to the fundamental reasons of why we drink—about why we do anything! It's about creating a community for people who share a similar passion and are interested in culture. If you can better explain the stories, the people, and the meaning behind these beverages, you can create a connection that goes beyond: "hey, is this good or not?" My purpose for writing has always been that personal connection. I love interacting with people and exchanging ideas. The reason people come back to this blog and continue to shop at K&L is because our work goes beyond filtration. We have an idea of drinking that includes more than just the 90+ point wines of the world. In an era where everyone wants to be the one telling you what's good, what you should be drinking, and what you should drink next, we want to also tell you who made it, where it was made, and why those intimate details might excite you. Any time I see myself slipping from that mindset, I have to check myself and get back to those basic tenements.

The things we love most in life can be ruined by saturation. I don't ever want the things I enjoy to be my ultimate undoing because I lost track of their meaning.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Nov232016

The Busiest Day of the Year

Whereas in the past I might have stayed up late, drunk a bottle of Champagne, and eaten an entire pizza to kill the anxiety heading into the Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving madness, last night I did the opposite. I had one beer and a healthy dinner. I snuggled with my cat. I went to bed early. Then I woke up at 5:30, fed the cat, and headed over to the gym for a pre-dawn workout. I walked into the store this morning energized, confident, and ready. I feel great.

There's an ongoing debate about what the busiest day of the year is at K&L. Is it the day before Thanksgiving? Is it the weekend before Christmas? Or a random Saturday in December that we never saw coming? For me, there's no question. It's not about sales or the total volume of orders ultimately when assessing anarchy. It's about which day sees never-ending hoards of customers lining up in groups of fifteen or more, snaking around the import shelf all the way to the front door, waiting to ring up their Thanksgiving reserves for hours and hours and hours. There's no question about which day is the busiest at K&L, in my opinion. It's today. Today there will be chaos. Controlled chaos, but chaos nonetheless. Whereas I may have dreaded that firestorm of holiday angst in years past, today I'm really looking forward to it. We have so much good stuff right now and I got here early to make sure the shelves were fully stocked. I'm ready for any question and any request. I've got ammunition.

Last minute deals are still popping up on the radar. As vendors look to make their holiday numbers, offers continue to fly into my inbox. I just snagged some of Hirsch Small Batch Reserve Bourbon for $24.99. That's an LDI-based blend that we normally sell for forty bucks. If you're looking for an alternative to our sold out Faultline edition, this is pretty much the same thing albeit at a lower proof. Another reduction was the Lot 40 rye whiskey, currently my favorite rye we carry. That came down to $29.99, a huge discount from where it was last at. I've also got my jewel rack stacked and ready to go; new editions of Lagavulin 25, Brora 38, and Talisker 25 are armed and loaded. The liqueur shelf is flossed out. The vermouth section is full and stocks are ample. We're ready. 

Let's open the doors and get started.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Nov222016

Our Best Armagnac Deal of the Year

Almost exactly a year ago, I travelled to Château de Briat with my friend Charles Neal to put together a few K&L exclusive Armagnac selections. Unlike some of the other producers we've introduced to the American market recently, Briat has long been available in Charles's main portfolio as a standard NAS expression. We originally started our direct import brandy program by operating outside of his main selections, finding new names like Baraillon, Ladeveze, and Maouhum, not wanting to cannibalize the standard business. After a while, however, it became difficult to avoid digging into some of these storied cellars, especially those with a history as rich as Château de Briat. I've long compared Armagnac to Bourbon, because of its woodier flavor profile and backwoods origins, but here there's an even deeper connection. Regardless of whether you believe Bourbon got its name from Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where many a glass of American whiskey has been consumed over the years, or from Bourbon Country in Kentucky, there’s no denying that the county, the street, and the beverage were all named after the French royal family—the House of Bourbon—which began its reign on the French throne with King Henry IV in 1589. Henry IV was born in the town of Pau, formerly part of the kingdom of Navarre and currently part of southwest France near Armagnac country. His mother Jeanne d’Albret, Queen of Navarre, commissioned a hunting lodge in 1540 to be built in nearby Mauvezin on behalf of her future child. The property was called Château de Briat and Henry inherited the manor when he took the throne of Navarre in 1572. 

Twelve years later Henry of Navarre found himself in a bit of a pickle. You see, the son of Jeanne d’Aubret was baptized as a Catholic, but raised as a Huguenot by his mother. Henry III was a Catholic monarch sitting on the French throne, but upon the death of his brother, the Duke of Anjou, the next in line was the now-Protestant Henry of Navarre. This little quandary caused all kinds of crowning chaos culminating in numerous wars of religion, perhaps the most significant of which was the Battle of Coutras in 1587. Henry emerged victorious from the fight thanks to the help of a man named Arnaud de Mâtines, a fellow officer in the Huguenot army who saved Henry’s life during the clash. Henry of Navarre would succeed to the French throne as Henry IV two years later upon the death of Henry III. As a thank you gift for his efforts, Henry IV gifted the hunting lodge of Château de Briat to Arnaud de Mâtines. Almost three hundred years later, it was purchased by another famous name in the booze business: the Baron de Pichon-Longueville. Known for his world-famous wine château in the Pauillac region of Bordeaux, Baron Raoul added the Armagnac-producing estate to his portfolio, eventually passing the property down to his daughter Jeanne, who would pass it down to her children thereafter.

Today Château de Briat is operated by Jeanne’s great-grandson, Stêphane de Luze, who represents the fifth generation of the family to make Armagnac at the former hunting lodge of Henry IV. While he may look aristocratic with his tall, thin frame, his flowing hair, and his perfectly-tailored country couture, Stéphane is truly a dude's dude. We had an absolute blast drinking Armagnac in his historic estate, cracking jokes as boys do, wandering the property as we talked history and drank brandy. I ended up buying two single vintage selections that day, one distilled in 2001 and another distilled in 2005, and we've been selling both expressions for months now. It wasn't until last month, however, when I got the opportunity to do an even deeper deal: one that would allow us to sell a 1995 Briat 20 year old Armagnac for the exact same price. I won't go into the details of how it happened or why. I'd rather just tell you that it's here! An exquisite, layered, rich, dark, and mouthcoating brandy from a storied producer for about half of what it should cost. Since this edition is not exclusive to K&L, you can do some comparisons online where it sells for between $95 and $115. But our price to you will be....

1995 Château de Briat 20 Year Old Vintage Armagnac $69.99 - It only takes one small whiff of this luscious twenty year old Armagnac to get your taste buds salivating. The nose is brimming with caramel, toasted oak, sweet fruit, and a bit of earth. The sweetness is what first lights up the palate, as this 1995 is not nearly as dry or tannic as some of the most rustic editions we've carried over the years. Much like a Bourbon, the oak provides ample vanilla and richness right off the bat, followed by more nunaced notes of brandied fruit and wood. What stands out on the finish is how long that pronounced sweetness continues to persist. Whereas many of our best Armagnacs dry out towards the back, the 1995 Briat somehow prolongs that intense richness into a lasting presence of baking spices, oak, and soft caramel. For $100, we'd be touting this as a great deal. But for $69.99, it's a no-brainer. Buy two of these if you can.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Nov212016

The Most Anticipated Tequila of our Lifetime

Trying to explain what constitutes “great” Tequila in the new age of whiskey connoisseurship isn’t easy, especially when a large portion of the population is looking for “smooth” rather than purity. The dirty little secrets about Jalisco’s most treasured spirit are still well kept from a public unconcerned about the makings of their Margarita. The fact that many producers are adding artificial agents like glycerol to create texture and body, or that many distillers use a diffuser during production to increase volume and mask imperfections is not widely known; nor are there many interested parties. Still, the nebulous origins of today’s mass market Tequila have sent a number of true aficionados further South towards Oaxaca where the agave distillates are more rugged and less refined—mezcal remains relatively untouched and unsoiled by the demands of corporate booze. But that’s not to say there isn’t a resistance against this challenge to Tequila’s integrity. There are still those who believe in the beauty of Blue Agave and everything it offers to a spirit’s final flavor. Standing tall among those looking to defend Jalisco’s heritage is David Suro, the mind behind the Siembra Tequilas and some of the most elegant, haunting, and richly-flavored agave spirits we carry. I’ve come to know David well over the last five years and the only thing I respect more than the quality of his Tequilas is the sincerity of his principles. Mr. Suro isn’t just a purist for the sake of today’s hipster credibility; he’s a true believer in better production as a means to better flavor.

While we’ve long placed his Siembra Azul and Valles Tequilas into the hands of our most discerning customers, the rumors of David’s “Ancestral” project have been circulating for more than a year. Always the student, his goal was apparently to create a Tequila reminiscent of what the spirit may have tasted like hundreds of years ago, using long-forgotten and more rudimentary practices. What were those methods exactly? Let’s spell them out here:

-Rather than roast or steam the agave pinas in a large industrial oven, David’s team dug a ten foot earthen pit, filled it with wood and lava rocks, ignited it, then covered the bottom with bagasse to protect the agave from direct contact with the stones during the roasting process. Five tons of agave pinas were cooked for the Ancestral for 113 hours with a process that seeks to concentrate and addcomplexity to the ultimate flavor, rather than simply create as much potential alcohol as possible.

-Whereas many industrial Tequila distilleries use a commercial shredder to break down the cooked agave, the most traditional use a stone wheel pulled by a horse or donkey. Even that process was too “modern” for David Suro, however. After researching the topic, David’s team discovered that early agave mashing was done by hand with wooden mallets—a process unutilized for at least 300 years. The result was a meatier fermentation with agave fibers that were far less broken down.

-Finally, the Ancestral was distilled using two different types of still: the first being a traditional 300L Tequila pot still, but the second being a wooden Filipino-style alembic made from pine—a traditional vessel that was used three centuries ago during early distillation periods.

The result is not only a Tequila that bridges the gap between the ancient and modern eras of distillation, and brings “purity” and “transparency” in the production process to the next level, it’s one of the finest blanco Tequilas I’ve ever tasted in my nine year career at K&L. The nose is a flurry of sweet roasted agave aromas, candied citrus, white pepper, and subtle smoke. Bottled at 50.2% ABV, the spirit is tangier, bolder, and rounder on the palate. The Tequila expands over your tongue with brilliant waves of sweet, earthy, herbal, and savory tones—orange blossoms, roasted earth, sweet agave nectar and honey, salty citrus. The finish is a long and meandering road scattered with the remnants of that incredible ride. Smelling the glass afterward, you’ll be overcome with the potency of those elements, but ultimately that’s what traditional production brings to serious Tequila fans: concentration of flavor.

If you’re looking up to Tequila’s top shelf this holiday season, thinking $200 or more will buy you the best Jalisco has to offer, I beg you took look down a little further. For $119.99 you’re getting not only a piece of Tequila history, but also one of the most incredible, pure, and remarkably unadulterated Tequilas ever made. The back label includes every detail of the production process, from the date the agave was planted to the final distillation vessels. Only 3.335 bottles of the Ancestral were made and of that lot we were allocated only 90 bottles.

One sip of the Siembra Valles “Ancestral” will leave no doubt as to what truly constitutes “great” Tequila. The only things you’ll come to doubt are all the Tequilas you tasted before it. This is a triumph, pure and simple. 

(for a much more detailed breakdown check out David's seven part YouTube series about the Ancestral)

Siembra Valles "Ancestral" Blanco Tequila $119.99 - Siembra Valles Ancestral is a project conceived of a love of history and a desire to know tequila from its roots, celebrating its true identity and a curiosity of what the past once tasted like. With agave untouched by machine, the Ancestral boasts the complexity of nature's flavors and the skills of tequilero ancestry. It begins its journey through time in the pristine blue agave fields nurtured by the Rosales family’s team of expert cultivators, jimadores, and a lowland terroir. The fruitful plants can credit their rich flavors to a pesticide-free land and rich volcanic soils in the valleys of Arenal in the ranches of Tepezapote and Mesa Del Charco. The geographic terroir provides mineral, peppery, citrus characteristics to this expression. Using an ancient agave-roasting technique that has been lost in the tequila industry for about 100 years, reminiscent of a pit used for mezcal, the piñas are cooked over wood and lava rocks. The agave is then broken down with wooden mallets, an extraction method that has been around for at least 300 years, pre-dating the Tahona method. The first distillation takes place in a traditional copper pot alembic. The second, however, is transferred to a Filipino-style alembic made from pine wood, a completely untouched method in the industry. While copper preserves flavor and transfers heat efficiently in distillation faster and more efficiently, pine preserves flavor and also adds flavors of wood. The result is a blanco unlike any other.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Nov192016

What's Thanksgiving Without Turkey?

This past August, David OG and I went to Kentucky to see if we could pad our Bourbon supply before the holidays drained our struggling stocks. Thanks to Jimmy Russell and the gang over at Wild Turkey who put a mad rush on our first two barrel selections, we've got K&L hand-selected juice on the shelf just in time for Thanksgiving. Because, really, what's Thanksgiving without Turkey? If you're in need of something bold to help ease the pain of dealing with in-laws, or to numb the stress of holiday drama, we've got you covered. These are two beauties and they're not at all shy. They'll easily over power your mother-in-law and any insult she throws in your direction. Check out the specs below:

Russell's Reserve "K&L Exclusive" Single Barrel #246 Kentucky Bourbon $64.99 - Fresh off our late Summer visit to Kentucky, we've got two new K&L single barrel selections ready to go just in time for the holiday season. It's no secret we're big fans of the Kickin' Chicken and getting the chance to go around with the legendary Jimmy Russell and pick barrels out of the Wild Turkey warehouse is an opportunity we'll never pass on. Barrel #246 is one of the more spicy and concentrated whiskies we've ever bottled from the Russells. Whereas most Wild Turkey whiskies have a mellow, toasted corn creaminess in their profile, this particular barrel showcases more of the wood. It's full of pepper on the nose and palate, followed by an intense oakiness and more spice on the finish. Tasting it blind, I would have said this was from Heaven Hill rather than Wild Turkey. It has a rugged power and explosive spice from front the back and that's something I associate more with Elijah Craig cask strength, but this is indeed a 55% ABV barrel of Russell's Reserve. A damn good one, too.

Russell's Reserve "K&L Exclusive" Single Barrel #3181 Kentucky Bourbon $64.99 - Barrel #3181 is a dialed up version of everything you love about the Russell's Reserve whiskies: big Red Hot cinnamon spice, sweet oak up front, leaner on the palate, with a finish that brings more of that clove and baking spice we love so much in the Wild Turkey whiskies. Whereas barrel #246 was almost un-Turkey-like, this is quintessential Russell's Reserve at 55% ABV. The finish is full of bold oaky notes that meld seamlessly with the spice and continue to increase in intensity for a good twenty seconds. For holiday drinking, this is quite the festive whiskey!

-David Driscoll