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Monday
Dec042017

Meet "Little Book" In SF This Wednesday

This Wednesday at 3 PM in our San Francisco store we'll have the newest generation of Beam distillers in the house when Freddie "Little Book" Noe comes to the tasting bar to sample you all on his latest creation: the Little Book Blended Straight Whiskey, one of the best new American products I've had the chance to sample this year. Freddie will be there to pour free samples of the Little Book Batch 1 (already sold out from distribution) and there will be free glassware, pictures, and other informational materials on hand. No RSVPs are necessary, just show up between 3 PM and 4 PM, flash your ID at the front counter, and head on back to the tasting bar for the experience. 

Hopefully some of you can ditch work for an hour or so to come take part! I'll see you there.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Dec022017

Opening Old Wine

On Friday after work, I decided to treat myself with a pre-birthday solo bash since my wife was working late and I was going to be home alone for most of the night. There are two things I instantly flock to when I know I'm going to be a bachelor for the evening (because they're two things my wife does not enjoy): beef and Bordeaux. I went right to the butcher and bought a nice cut of meat, then hit up the K&L old and rare department for a bottle of 1986 Château La Conseillante, Pomerol as I wanted something super fancy. I was stoked.

I've been teaching wine classes after work for the past two weeks as part of a promotional series I'm doing with a local business, so I've been answering loads of questions from participants who want to know simple things (like what does Cabernet mean?) to advanced technical issues concerning storage and cellar maintenance. However, the lesson I think that any and all budding enthusiasts need to know first and foremost is what happens to wine when it ages, as many people seem to be afraid of a little dust and dirt when they're stepping up the pricepoint for a bottle. A bottle of 1986 La Conseillante, for example, won't look the same way it originally did after thirty-plus years in the cellar. Neither will the cork. Nevertheless, I see people bring bottles back into the store like this all the time because there's mold underneath the foil, there's leakage, or the cork looks dirty and worn. 

That's supposed to happen. Don't let it scare you. The wine is most likely just fine!

However, in these situations a standard wine opener won't always do the trick because of just how old the cork itself is. If the bottle has been laying on its side like it's supposed to have been, then the cork will be wet, moist, and likely to dissolve as you turn your corkscrew into it. 

One of the best wine inventions I've ever come across in my career is the Durand, a super high-end opener that combines the Ah-So prong style puller with the standard corkscrew worm into one 100% failsafe device. It's not cheap, but it's a must-have in my opinion for anyone who wants to open older bottles of wine without making a mess or getting tons of old cork bits into your expensive claret (it's also a great Xmas present if you need a gift for the guy who has everything). All you have to do is screw in the worm piece like you would any other opener, then slide the Ah-So prongs into the guide on top of the corkscrew, wiggling them down into the bottle neck on either side of the cork itself.

The worm gives you the grip to pull the cork out and the Ah-So prongs keep the integrity of the cork inline so that it doesn't crumble apart as you're pulling it out. 

This cork certainly would have gone to bits had I simply used just the standard corkscrew to pull it out of the bottle. I was happy to say that I didn't need to use a fine mesh filter or anything else to get little chunks of cork out of my delicious wine because it came out with ease, intact and clean. Drinking older bottles of wine is a much more complicated process because they typically have weaker corks, lots of sediment (that's why you keep them standing up before you drink them so it all settles at the bottom), and a whole slew of other potential pitfalls that you have to watch out for. Just keep that in the back of your mind if you decide to splurge for something nice one day from our library or auction department. You can't necessarily just pop and pour like you can with younger, everyday bottles.

In the end, it's worth the extra attention though. I sat on the couch that night eating bite after bite of delicious beef with the silky texture of the Conseillante gliding over my tongue (I dusted that entire thing myself in under forty minutes because it was that damn good). We've still got another ten bottles of that wine as well if you want to see what old Merlot tastes like. Lots of iron and savory notes meandering with a refined mouthfeel. That was my present to myself. Like the Durand opener: not cheap, but worth every penny.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Nov302017

Twentysomething

Here's what I will tell you about the new Ardbeg 23 year old committee release that just landed in our warehouse today: I was lucky enough to try it a few months back when Ardbeg's distiller Dr. Bill Lumsden was in town for a promotional tour and we got the chance to eat lunch together. He pulled out a small flask and poured me a glass, asking me what I thought about the whisky without telling me what it was. I was utterly entranced by it. It was so soft and silky compared to the powerful and high proof Ardbegs like the Uigeadail and Corryvreckan. The smoke was heavy, but it was muted by rounded vanilla and creamy malt flavors. I knew it had to be old. The finish went on forever and I just sat there grinning as I licked my lips and asked him what I had just experienced. Bill smiled and said it was the upcoming Ardbeg "Twentysomething," a new committee bottling from the distillery planned for a winter release in the states. It's by the far the most luxurious Ardbeg I've tasted since the 1977 and Lord of the Isles releases of long ago and it's a legit, top shelf single malt.

I'm long past the point of being able to justify what's worth it to whisky drinkers when they're throwing down money like this for a luxury bottle, but if you're worried about the quality here I can squash those concerns. It's really good.

Ardbeg "Twentysomething" 23 Year Old Committee Release Single Malt Whisky $549.99 

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Nov302017

The Mother of Modern Consumption

One of K&L's owners came by my desk the other day to give me a pat on the back and let me know we were shattering our previous sales records in the booze department, despite our fears that we might be down this year. He was surprised, to say the least, as he expected the crackdown on interstate shipping to put a serious dent in our numbers. He asked me what I thought might be responsible for the extra boost. Was it a bevy of new products? Was it better marketing? Was it something that I was doing specifically, or maybe my colleague David Othenin-Girard? 

I asked him if he listened to any of the new true crime podcasts that have been so popular lately, like Dirty John or S-Town. He said no. I told him that I had never been interested in podcasts before either, but that had changed over the last year as the traffic in the Bay Area has become worse and worse. I was desperately looking for something to entertain me in the car while commuting and these non-fictional podcasts (at the recommendation of my wife) were doing the trick. I was actually looking forward to getting back in the car to finish the most recent episode of Up and Vanished. 

"What's your point?" he asked with a smirk.

My point was that modern life dictates modern consumption. Necessity is the mother of both invention and popularity. Podcasts are basically on demand radio stories. The rise of TV and internet video streaming has all but destroyed serial radio drama, but it's making a comeback now because of how much time we spend in our cars these days (and at the gym on the treadmill). You can't binge watch Making a Murderer while you drive, so why not listen to something similar instead—one that's perfect for those of us who spend hours in the car each day. That necessity has sparked a resurgence in a medium once considered obsolete and today I know dozens of other people like myself who are binging podcasts each day on the way to and from the office.

What do traffic and podcasts have to do with a rise in spirits consumption around the Bay Area and Los Angeles? Everything, actually. 

I had a similar conversation with David OG last night and we discussed the same phenomenon. The local California economy is booming, but at the same time the amount of hours that we spend working has cut into our social lifestyle and our motivation to participate. We're more tired at the end of the day and as a result we're less inclined to fight the inconveniences of our crowded urban environments ("I'd love to go out to eat, honey, but we've got to fight traffic, look for a parking spot, find a sitter for the kids..."). Let's say you've been at the office for ten hours and now it's time to unwind. Would you rather fight the hustle and bustle of getting a reservation at the latest metro hotspot, or instead change into some leisureware, put your feet up, pour yourself a big glass of whiskey, and check in on the latest season of Stranger Things?

Since we're likely going to Netflix and chill anyway, a fairly cost-effective way to pass the evening, why not at least throw down for a nice bottle of something to enjoy while we do so? Not a regular old bottle of Scotch, mind you, but something really interesting and unique. You might as well put the extra effort into the booze, right?

That's my theory, at least. I don't think it's anything we're doing as much as it is a societal shift in values. It's based on my own experience. My wife has been asking me all week what I want to do for my upcoming birthday. I told her: "I'm exhausted right now, so maybe I'll just order a pizza and watch 80's horror movies all night. With a bottle of 1990 Haut Brion, of course." All that money I didn't spend on dinner and a taxi gets processed by my liver and kidneys instead.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Nov292017

Primed for Success: Luxco & Pernod-Ricard

If you would have asked me five years ago which booze companies would be primed to rule the future spirits market, I would have said Diageo, Suntory, and Sazerac without batting an eye. Pappy and Stagg were dominating our imaginations, Japanese whisky was breaking boldly, and it didn't seem like there was a ceiling for what customers were willing to pay to satiate their luxurious thirsts with Brora and Port Ellen. Today, while all three of these companies are still enjoying tremendous success, shortages and supply issues have provided new opportunities for hungry competitors who have used comparative value to their advantage, taking the spotlight off of the big three and casting it onto some unexpected understudies. In my opinion, those gaps in availability (as well as the increased prices as a result) have had a huge impact on that once unstoppable momentum. While I'm sure there will always be a strong market for the Buffalo Trace whiskies, Yamazaki single malts, and stalwarts like Lagavulin and Caol Ila, I've been highly impressed by the moves of two other major industry players in 2017: Luxco & Pernod-Ricard, companies that had previously yet to live up to the full potential of their portfolios. As I look at the supply and pricing issues facing the spirits industry moving into 2018, I'm betting on both companies to grow exponentially in the coming year. They have set themselves up with some of the best bang-for-your-buck brands on the current market and the only thing holding them back at this point is consumer awareness. In today's modern age, the customers will come to you once they sniff out the next great deal. In my opinion, both Luxco and Pernod-Ricard are in possession of some of the most underrated spirits in the business and are working hard to change that perception.

Let's start with Luxco, a company that has long been more of a bottom-bin bulk bottler than a serious player in the whiskey game. The St. Louis-based organization was always more of a specialist in cream liqueurs and Everclear than fine Kentucky Bourbon. However, that all changed over the last few years as the company revamped its Rebel Yell line-up, creating new labels and new packaging, while maintaining the brand's two most important qualities: quality and price. It's amazing the difference a little cosmetic surgery can make. We went from selling almost no Rebel Yell to selling cases and cases on a weekly basis once the new bottles hit the shelves. Rebel Yell's entry level wheated Bourbon is still $12.99, an almost shocking discovery for a whiskey so creamy and delicious. It's actually so inexpensive that I actually have a sign up on the shelf telling customers not to be scared off by the low price! In a market where people are practically looking for excuses to raise their prices, Luxco has held fast to its low-cost roots and that mindset has endeared both me and my honest, whiskey-drinking customers to the cause. However, it wasn't until the two David Nicholson whiskies came along that I really understood Luxco's power potential.

I'll say it here now as it's as good of a time as any: if I had to pick a Whisky of the Year for 2017, it would be the David Nicholson 1843 Kentucky Straight Bourbon with a bullet. I'm not sure how many people care about what I think in the realm of titles and declarative statements, but I know that numbers don't lie. Since I brought in the David Nicholson and began offering it to K&L customers as a Weller 107 substitute, I've been hard-pressed to keep the whiskey in stock. We've sold hundreds and hundreds of bottles in a matter of months and it's forced me to look at a whiskey's value in terms of its practicality and utilitarianism. Can you easily find it? Is it worth the price? Does it taste good? Does it represent value? In answering those four important questions, the David Nicholson 1843 provided the year's best responses. There's plenty of it (for now), it's well under $30, it's a classic wheater in the vein of Weller 107, and in a Pappy-crazed Bourbon market there are few high-proof wheated alternatives that taste this good for this price. Granted the Nicholson isn't necessarily a new whiskey, but we didn't get it out west until earlier this year; hence my excitement. Also, while not wheated, I wouldn't snooze on the Nicholson 100 proof Reserve for $32.99, especially if you're a fan of the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof or Blanton's. It has richness and punch for a pretty great price. 

If Luxco can continue to rebrand and rebuild brands like Ezra Brooks, while continuing to develop its new Lux Row Bardstown distillery and Limestone Branch facility, there's definitely a chance for them make serious headway in 2018. They can grab serious market share if other distillers continue to face shortages for their most popular expressions, providing quality, no-frills whiskies for everyday drinkers in search of something off the beaten path. 

While Pernod-Ricard has made incredible strides with Aberlour, Glenlivet, and Chivas over the past few years, it's their relatively new-found commitment to real Tequila that has me buzzing. I'll be honest about my bias and sometimes harmful prejudices when it comes to agave spirits: the more I've learned about diffusers over my career, the less interested I am in supporting the distilleries who use them. If anyone wants to muckrake and dig up a story about a harmful and shoddy practice in the booze game, the Tequila industry's use of this dreadful machine would make a powerful dossier. It's because I've always linked Avion to a distillery known for its sweet-tasting, caramel-laden, glycerol-riddled spirits that I've generally brushed it aside in the realm of fine Tequilas. However, in a recent sitdown with Pernod-Ricard I learned a very important distinction: while Avion is indeed distilled at NOM 1416 Productos Finos, the label has its own independent production center within the distillery and is made separately from the rest of the brands—separate stills, separate fermentation tanks, the whole shebang. I thought Pernod-Ricard was batshit crazy when they paid $100 million to buy Avion back in 2014, but tasting the Silver again this week it was I who was definitely the crazy one. I not only did a double-take upon savoring that Tequila, I did a triple-take and a quadruple-take as well. This wasn't the Avion I remembered or was expecting. This was bright, fresh, fruity, expressive, and nuanced blanco Tequila in the vein of my favorite ArteNOM 1079 expressions from Jesus-Maria.

It turns out there was a good reason for that comparison: Avion sources its agave from the same high elevation Jesus-Maria mountains. This wasn't manipulated, sweetened, and airbrushed agave caramel water by any means. Instead, it was the best blanco Tequila I'd tasted all year and it clocked in at $35. As I mentioned earlier with Luxco, Pernod-Ricard is going against the luxury market game plan here: they've locked down a great tasting Tequila, made from flavorful and ripe Highland agave, and they've got it in the bottle for a great price—actually less expensive than our previous costs. They've also recently updated the Avion package, added new tins that made it look a bit more high end on the shelf, and modified the message. Now it's just a matter of letting people know. If they're adding anything to Avion at this point or using a diffuser, they've got me fooled. I've gone back and tasted this thing ten times now and I'm still downright impressed. If Pernod-Ricard can get the right marketing in place and place itself against the chemically-enhanced competitors on the market right now, Avion could be primed to pop. 

It's a come a long, long way since Entourage.

The reason I'm talking about Pernod-Ricard's Tequila and not their outstanding whisky updates like the Chivas Ultis, a blended malt expression that beats the pants off of Johnnie Blue and other name brand marks, is because the company has done a fantastic job of diversifying its assets. You put all your eggs in one whisky basket and you risk everything, in my opinion. Much like we did here in the K&L spirits department years ago, once we locked down the single malt and Bourbon sources we didn't let up there. It was then time to start working on bringing other categories like Cognac and Armagnac up to speed. Pernod-Ricard is sitting on a sleeping giant with Martell Cognac and just a few slight tweaks could change everything for this old man brand. While I've talked myself silly in meetings with Hennessy and Remy, stressing a need to adapt to the modern consumer, Martell is the one Cognac giant that seems to be actually headed down that path. I tasted the new rebranded VS this week, along with a new Bourbon barrel-aged VSOP called "Blue Swift." Both expressions cut way back on the caramel and boisé, while accentuating the fruit and the supple character inherent in the brandy itself. At $29.99, the Martell VS Fine is instantly the best bang for your buck on the K&L Cognac shelf, aromatic on the nose, smooth on the palate, and pure in its richness on the finish. Much like with the Avion, I was forced to rethink my previous prejudice and entertain the fact that Pernod-Ricard might be the one big brand booze company that's really getting its shit together!

In my opinion, it's not going to be some new distillery that blows us spirit drinkers away in 2018. It's going to be the company that can best provide value while maintaining modern standards of quality at a level that satisfies expectations for today's internet savvy consumer. For Bourbon drinkers, I don't think any company has provided a better example of that duality in the whiskey category as of late than Luxco. As for everything else, you'd better watch out for Pernod-Ricard. They've retooled Midleton, Aberlour, Chivas, Hiram Walker, and Plymouth while obtaining Avion, Monkey 47, and Smooth Ambler in the process. If they can get Martell functioning on the same level and tap into the real potential of Longmorn, there's no stopping them.

-David Driscoll