Sunday
Jan242016

Pre/Post Internet Retail

My generation is one of the last to truly understand what retail life was like before the internet—back before Doordash and Curbside when you had to actually go into the store, purchase your own products, and talk to the people who worked there. While you youngsters might think that all of us 35+ year olds enjoy all the perks of modern living (instant downloads, live customer service chat, free shipping and returns on Amazon), you'd be mistaken. While I use the many dynamic and inventive tools the internet provides me on a daily basis (and I'm thankful for them), there's a growing discontent among people my age and older about the effects that our cyber-purchasing habits are having on the physical brick and mortar reality; namely, that we're erasing the in-store experience from existence. While I know that there's an entire culture of people out there who think this is simply the evolution of business (and I wouldn't necessarily argue with them either), there's an even larger culture of people out there who find that idea very depressing. How do I know this? Because I've talked to thousands of these people over the last year. 

We finished up the temperature-controlled locker room at our new San Francisco store last week. Adjacent to the sales floor, there's a side room where you as a customer can rent out a space to keep your wine safe and sound, in an environment conducive to slow and steady maturation no less. We know that living conditions in the city are more cramped than ever and not everyone has room for a wine cellar when they're cramming themselves into fifty square feet of space (let alone paying through the nose for that privilege). But as one customer asked me the other day, "So I just call you up, order the wine, and you guys put it in the locker for me?" 

Unfortunately, no. 

All of our lockers are self-serve. You've got your own lock, your own key, your own organizational strategies, etc. We're just there to check your ID, let you in, and let you out when you're all done. Why? Because we want you to actually come into the store and see us. You see, we still believe in the in-store experience despite the direction retail business in 2016 seems to be trending. That's not to say we don't believe in e-commerce, of course. K&L didn't get awarded "Best Wine Website" by the Wall Street Journal because we got lucky. We want our customers to purchase by any means necessary! But we also want to get to know you in person. We want you to peruse the aisles, touch the bottles with your own hands, and attend the weekend tastings when you can. Do you remember Tower Records? I do because I worked there from 2001 to 2003 on the corner of Castro and Market. Working there was like retail therapy. It felt exactly how Audrey Hepburn described Tiffany's in the eponymous film: "Nothing very bad could happen to you there." Being surrounded by thousands of albums, constantly unloading crates of new ones, organizing and alphabetizing jewel cases all afternoon—it was heaven. That's what we want K&L to feel like for wine and spirits geeks.

But Tower is gone now. Amoeba is all we have left. They're the last stalwart of that fading era. 

We're somewhat fortunate in the wine business. Booze cannot be digitized, downloaded, or shipped freely throughout the country due to still-existent Prohibition-era interstate laws. That means you can still make money operating a wine store, unlike the other brick and mortar institutions that continue to crumble before our very eyes. I was talking to another customer in the store last week: "Do you remember bookstores? Do you remember when you could go to Macy's and they had everything you needed? Do you remember how happy that made you feel, to be able to hold the products in your hand and see them before you actually purchased them? You could still ask someone for help!"

"I just got chills," she said to me. "I really miss that."

"That's us!" I said to her. "We're still that place, and we just opened up this gigantic new store to make sure there will always be a place like that in San Francisco. You're not alone in that nostalgia."

And that's the long answer as to why our wine lockers will continue to remain self-serve only. For both practical and nostalgic reasons.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Jan222016

Some Fun New Things

For years Chieftain's was one of our most trusted and sought-after independent single malt labels, owned by the Ian MacLeod Company. We purchased casks directly from their warehouse outside of Edinburgh and some of our most legendary bottlings (Port Ellen, Brora, old Mortlach) have been from their incredible stocks. But a few years back the supply chain began to get a bit tight and the company decided to invest in production, purchasing the Tamdhu and Glengoyne distilleries respectively. We saw few Chieftain's selections after that point and had all but given up on the brand. Now, however, we're happy to announce the return of new single cask Chieftain's expressions, in dashing form no less.

1997 Mortlach 18 Year Old Chieftain's Single Barrel "PX Finish" Single Malt Whisky $99.99- Glengoyne distilleries respectively. We saw few Chieftain's selections after that point and had all but given up on the brand. Now, however, we're happy to announce the return of new single cask Chieftain's expressions, in dashing form no less. This PX sherry-finished wonder of a whisky should be a HUGE hit among fans of our legendary 22 year old cask of Mortlach we bought from Chieftain's years ago. This time around we have a standard 46% ABV and a sherry-finish rather than a full-termer, but don't let that hold you back. This malt has everything you love about Mortlach on full display. Rich layers of cakebread and toffee coat the palate, subtle sweetness and spice coat the finish, and the essence of all that goodness lingers long on the tongue after the whisky goes down. If we had been offered exclusivity on this cask, we would have taken it. Unfortunately, we'll have to share this one with the general American market. Grab it while it's here.

Kilchoman Madeira Cask Single Malt Whisky $119.99- Not only is the quantity available of the Kilchoman Madeira cask expression quite limited, the nature of the bottling itself is an absolute rarity. We hardly ever see Madeira-aged whiskies anymore, especially full-term matured! This combination of sweet and peat is one of the most exciting Islay releases we've tasted in some time and should reward any serious fan of the distillery. Imagine all the smoky, peaty, phenolic goodness of the Islay style with candied apricot, brandied raisins, and hints of butterscotch with creme brulee. At 100 proof it has plenty of punch to contrast all that decadence. Don't snooze on this one. It's worth every penny. 50% ABV

Whistle Pig 10 Year Old K&L Exclusive Single Barrel #15-59 Cask Strength Straight Rye Whiskey $84.99 - Since the great American rye whiskey shortage began back in 2008 much of the market has gravitated over to "North American" rye whiskey, i.e. Canadian-distilled rye from above the border. Since that transition no brand has become more beloved than perhaps Whistle Pig, the Vermont-based company that sources ten year old stocks of Alberta rye whiskey and blends them into a lovely expression both rich and robust. Earlier this year the company announced a single barrel program allowing select retailers to choose single barrel, cask strength versions of the Whistle Pig to be bottled exclusively for top accounts. You can bet we were jumping up and down at the news. This third cask in our series of Whistle Pig exclusives tastes expensive. It has all the richness, intensity, and depth of flavor that you miss from old limited edition expressions of great American whiskies. The sweetness of the oak explodes on the initial sip, the pepperiness of the rye immediately contrasts all that richness, and the finish is a harmony of both elements swirling together towards a fantastic finale. At 113.2 proof there's plenty of room for ice, water, vermouth, or just plain high-intensity sipping. This is a must-have bottle of whiskey for fans of the genre. It's a rye that will please Bourbon drinkers with its big oak flavor, but it's still very much rye. 56.6% ABV

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Jan212016

What's Cool?

Little known fact: Marlon Brando first checked all his whisky bottles to make sure they were non-chill-filtered and at cask strength. He also wouldn't touch anything that had artificial coloring because he wanted only natural and organic products.

Little known fact: Bono only drinks limited edition stouts or sour lambics aged in former whiskey casks for at least a year. He also obsessively uploads all his notes and photos to his beer blog Bono's Best Brews.

Little known fact: Audrey Hepburn only drank single-vineyard Champagne made from bio-dynamically-farmed grapes. She once drank a glass of Veuve Clicquot and famously spit it out because it wasn't "dry", demanding a substitute with zero dosage.

Little known fact: Jimmy Page and numerous other rock and roll legends stopped drinking Jack Daniels when they learned it wasn't grain-to-glass. Most began searching for the non-GMO sticker soon after. There's even a story about Zeppelin halting a show back in 1979 when Page learned the whiskey he was drinking that night was distilled in Indiana rather than the specified state of origin.

These are all true stories, of course. It's actually what made these people the icons they are—not their style, carefree manner, or individuality, but rather their incredible product knowledge and discerning palates. I wish I could be as cool as these folks. 

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jan202016

Islay to Get New Distillery

This just in from our friends the Hunter Laing Company! Those of you familiar with our Hepburn's Choice, Old Malt Cask, and Sovereign labels might be very interested in this newsflash:

HUNTER LAING & CO. FAMILY TO BUILD NEW DISTILLERY ON ISLAY

Island’s whisky-making prowess to strengthen with £8m investment 

Whisky entrepreneurs Andrew and Scott Laing, along with their father, Stewart, today reveal plans for Islay’s first new distillery in a decade. An application has been submitted with Argyll and Bute Council to build the new malt whisky distillery at Ardnahoe, on the North East coast of the island. Should permission be granted for the £8m project, land currently owned by Islay Estates will be transferred to the whisky company.    

Since Hunter Laing & Co. began operating in May 2013, the highly successful independent bottler and blender has been investigating the opportunities for owning its own distillery. After extensive work, the family pinpointed the four-acre site near Port Askaig as the only viable option to meet the needs for their expanding business. Subject to approvals, the new distillery is expected to see the first drop flow from their stills by the end of 2017.

Commenting on the plans, Andrew Laing, Director, said: “We have shown formidable growth in the last two years and the time is now right for us to invest for the future. While this is our family’s first foray into distilling, my father’s 50 year record of blending quality products of high demand and our three generations of expertise in the whisky industry ensures we enter this venture with strong confidence.”

Adding his thoughts, Scott Laing, Director, said: “Our family has had a long affiliation with Islay and my father spent time in the early part of his career at Bruichladdich Distillery.  The opportunity to bring fresh investment to the island, create jobs and provide a new chapter in Islay’s illustrious whisky-making history is tremendously exciting for all of us.”

The building of the distillery is planned in two phases, with the first seeing the establishment of distilling operations, warehousing and a visitor centre comprising of a café, tasting room and shop.  The second will see an expansion of distilling operations and further warehousing. Contractors for the build have been identified and will begin cutting turf in May 2016, pending approval. The distillery will create several full-time positions on the island, as well as a number of seasonal roles.   

Lord Margadale, Chairman of Islay Estates, said: “We are thrilled to be working with Hunter Laing in the development of a new distillery on Islay. This project will contribute considerably to the island’s economy through the direct provision of jobs, it will also increase the demand for barley from Islay farmers and add to the attraction of Islay as a destination for the increasing number of followers of Scotch whisky around the world. Islay is a beautiful, tranquil and fertile island that is famed for its distinctive whisky; this is an exciting opportunity to build on this reputation and to help secure a strong economic future for the Island.” 

Remarking on the opportunity, Stewart Laing, Managing Director, said: “The surge in demand for single malt Scotch whisky from Islay in recent years has been extraordinary. While the established distilleries on the island have been increasing production, there is obvious room for yet further expansion in output as discerning drinkers the world over are charmed by the rich, smoke-filled flavours that have become such an integral part of the island’s style of whisky. The new facility is being designed to create a particular style of spirit that we know from our experience of selling whisky in 65 countries around the world will appeal to the Islay whisky lover. By building this distillery, we are fulfilling a long held dream. ” 

Now the application has been submitted to the council, a 21-day public consultation period will begin.

More information as I get it!

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jan192016

R.I.P. Glenn Frey

I probably watched this musical masterpiece two hundred times the year it came out on MTV. I absolutely loved videos that told stories or played out like action movies. Glenn Frey dominated my mid-80s television experience. His songs were everywhere: beer commercials, Miami Vice, you name it. What's always been funny to me about both Mr. Frey and his buddy Don Henley is that I grew up loving their music. Yet, put them together and I can't take it. I've never laughed harder in a movie than in The Big Lebowski when the Dude tells the cab driver to turn the radio station because he hates the Eagles. But, man, do I love me some "Boys of Summer". And, man, do I love me some "Heat is On" and "You Belong to the City". 

I feel like my entire childhood is slowly being taken away from me. For all you millennials, watch the above video. This was Narcos before we had Netflix. Goodbye, Glenn

-David Driscoll