Classic Laphroaig

Have you ever thought about what your favorite Scotch whisky distillery is? I have to be honest: I don't spend a lot of time tackling that subject in my mind these days. It's funny though because when I was a kid and a teenager I was constantly updating and re-ranking my favorite things: my favorite bands, my favorite movies, my favorite baseball player, etc. When it comes to distilleries, I don't really have a favorite. I have soft spots in my heart based on experiences and memories, but when it comes to whisky there's not one I generally prefer over another. At least, not one that comes to mind easily.

However....when I go back and check my purchase history at K&L, and then look at my bar to see which whiskies I've consumed the most of, there's a clear winner: Laphroaig. I've never thought about it until now, nor have I really looked into it before, but apparently I drink more Laphroaig than any other Scottish single malt. Does that make it my favorite? Maybe. I really, really like Laphroaig. I like the 15 year immensly (that one's almost gone...sigh). I drink the standard 10 year on the rocks at least once a week. I have a few old Signatory bottles I'm saving for my birthday in my wine locker that we bought a few years back. I've bought every limited or Cairdeas edition they've released since 2011. I've not done that for any other distillery. Does that make Laphroaig my favorite? Or better yet...does it merely mean that Laphroaig has consistently released the best bang for your buck whiskies since I started drinking single malt?

I'll bet you it's the latter. Since I don't play favorites, I've probably continually bought Laphroaig whiskies over the years because I've felt the price to quality ratio was in balance. Seeing that's been the status quo from the distillery, I feel obligated to continue that tradition with this single cask 16 year old edition I found in Glasgow last year. It's a textbook Laphroaig speciman, aged in a refill hogshead with light vanilla and sweet fruit on the entry, loads of peat and Islay smoke on the mid, and a breathy note of iodine and soot on the finish. At 53% cask strength, it's also dialed up a bit. But not so much as to overwhelm your taste buds without water. I feel keeping this sub-$100 is the move, despite the fact I know we could sell the whole cask in a day at $120.

But where's the fun in that? That's not what Laphroaig would do. At least, it's not what they've done thus far.

2000 Laphroaig 16 Year Old "Old Particular" K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $89.99 - This 16 year old single barrel, cask strength version of Laphroaig is simply classic across the board and having spent that time in a refill hogshead the wood influence is mellow and just enough to round out the edges. At 53.2% ABV, the proof is punchy enough to lift the peat smoke and elevate the phenolic notes, but this is still a whisky you can drink neat. It's full of everything you love about Laphroaig without any of the gimmicky or marketing-related spins we see so often on the mass market today. There's no cask finishing or special lost recipe here, just vintage medicinal Islay goodness. Sweet vanilla gives way to chimney soot, bonfire ash, and that quintessential Laphroaig smoke. The finish goes on for minutes, the potent distillery character sticking to the palate for as long as it can hang on. Considering the price we're currently offering this for, you may want to buy two. This is a whisky you'll want to come back to time and time again, and unfortunately older, reasonably-priced Islay whiskies at full proof aren't so easy to come by these days. You can thank our direct relationship with Old Particular for this hot deal! 

-David Driscoll


Outside Perspective

The nice part about traveling with other booze industry professionals is that it gives you the chance to hear about what’s happening in other markets, to share ideas, and cross reference your observations. Last night at Wright & Co. in downtown Detroit I had dinner with a number of other reps and suppliers who work in large markets and we chatted about everything from whisky to cocktail culture to bar experiences and beyond. I wasn’t alone in my earlier prediction; there are other people out there who feel the end of alcohol’s cultivated and over-complicated connoisseurship is near. We've gone a bit too far towards one side of the spectrum. “It’s going to swing back over to dive bars again,” one guy told me, “but this time around you’ll be able to get more than shitty draft beer or a vodka tonic.” That made total sense to me. The only reason I ever left the dive bar in the first place was because I discovered more interesting and flavorful drinks outside its comfortable confines. If you told me I could get a Four Pillars gin and tonic, a Lot 40 Sazerac, or a pint of Stiegl all while keeping my rock and roll jukebox, pool table, and diverse group of drinkers, I’d be there in a heartbeat. The problem is that you usually have to trade quality for comfort, or vice versa.

“We’ve seen the same thing with food trucks, haven’t we?” I responded in agreement. “I think the best restaurant on the SF peninsula right now is a Mexican food truck called Los Carnalitos, and other people obviously agree because there’s a line every single day.” In the case of food, the market is already proving there's a trend back toward simplicity, but with an elevated quality and a sense of what’s trending elsewhere. This isn’t the same as the ironic or contrarian culture we’ve seen over the last decade, mind you, where hipsters drink PBR or wear ridiculous trucker hats simply because it's so ridiculous. The examples I’m seeing constitute a serious quality and a genuine enthusiasm, just via a medium that used to be a sign of bulk or mass-market mediocrity. More examples? How about good, affordable, and clean white wine in a box? How about really good IPAs in a can? How about wine in a can? How about fresh sushi at the Giants game? Aren’t beer cans and ballgames typically reserved for Budweiser and hot dogs? Not anymore. Times are changing again and we’re evolving out of those old stereotypes. Hotel bars went from the epicenters of fine drinking, to shitty corporate lounges, to cool curators of local cocktail culture once again. Airports? The same thing. The more I travel, the less I mind getting to my terminal early. San Francisco’s Virgin America terminal has a better breakfast spot than my own neighborhood and the bread is fresher in the early mornings. For the last few decades we’ve been stuck between two worlds—one of necessity and one of quality—but now those two worlds are fusing. We’re seeing the market respond to a new consumer demand, one that better accommodates convenience.

Since we’re now able to find good espresso at the mall and a well-balanced cocktail at the chain steakhouse, you know what people are no longer going to settle for? Attitude. The only reason anyone puts up with condescending bartenders or sommeliers in the first place is because we want to eat and drink at their establishments. Kind of like putting up with your asshole friend because he has a good wine collection, or marrying a jerk because he’s rich and at least you’ll be comfortable. Those of us in search of quality will typically put up with a certain amount of inconvenience in order to experience new and exciting taste sensations. When you have a monopoly on anything—quality, knowledge, ability—you can usually get away with being a dick, but not when there are other options. Especially not when those options are both cheaper and nicer! “You can’t get away with being an asshole anymore as a bartender,” one of the guys at the table last night said; “Especially now that there’s a push towards hospitality and customer service in the better places.” I’ve seen and heard the same from my friends who are bar managers or restaurant owners. Even at K&L we’d rather hire people today with less experience, but better attitudes and a desire to actually help customers. Like I wrote in my article from a few days ago, we’re still learning from the by-products of cultural evolution. We’ve created a more serious drinking culture over the last decade, but we also ended up with a serious set of douchebags that we didn’t necessarily plan upon. Now as an industry we’re going back and trying to eliminate those side effects. To paraphrase Office Space: we’re fixing the glitch. 

-David Driscoll


North America's Largest Distillery

I'm not sure anything can prepare you for the sheer size and scale of the Hiram Walker distillery in Windsor, a historic whisky center that's been operating in Canada longer than Canada has even been a country. The campus is absolutely gigantic and the volume at this point amounts to more than fifty million liters a year of proof spirit, a decent amount of which is contract work. There's not a major booze player in the U.S. that isn't contracting some amount of whisky from Hiram Walker, as the facility runs the full gambit of grains from barley, to corn, to wheat, to rye, each of which can be distilled individually or as a mash. Canadian whisky, however, is obviously the specialty. It's what built the Hiram Walker distillery into what it is today. According to Don Livermore, the master blender at the site, it was Canadian whisky as a whole that built the infrastructure for the former British colony early on. In 1867, when the provinces were aligned under one self-governing body, there was no income tax levied upon the newly-anointed Canadian citizens. The money needed to build the country's future roads, railways, and government enterprises came from taxes levied on the young nation's largest businesses; companies called Corby, Wiser, and, of course, Hiram Walker—the leading whisky producers of the time.

Hiram Walker today is owned by Pernod-Ricard who still allows Beam-Suntory, the owner of the Canadian Club brand, to produce the widely-known whisky onsite. While we were mainly there in support of HW's fantastic Lot 40 rye whisky, a brand that along with Whistle Pig and Masterson's has helped to change the reputation of Canadian whisky in the states, most of us were definitely interested in understanding the distillery's production methods entirely for a better understanding of the Canadian whisky category. The first observation that just blew my mind was how much grain Hiram Walker is going through on a daily basis. They have a number of gigantic grain silos near the entrance that only hold enough grain to get through a mere three days of operation. Standing next to the mountains of freshly-milled corn, the sight was truly jawdropping. The other facet of the HW production I find interesting is that all the grains are stored, milled, fermented, and distilled individually using various methods. You've got single column-distilled spirits (like American Bourbon and rye) and double-column-distilled spirits (distilled to about 94% near-neutral, just a step below vodka, like Scottish grain whisky). Considering the four grains being used, that's eight different whiskies right there. Then add a pot-distilled version of each grain, which bumps up the number of whiskies to twelve. Then add the sour mash formula and various other custom recipes and you begin to understand the flexibility of their operation.

If you're going to mill that much grain, you have to be able to ferment it, right? Where as most major whisky distilleries have maybe two large fermentation tanks, Hiram Walker has a whopping thirty-nine and they're monstrous! They're all stored in the largest fermentation room I've ever laid eyes on where there are a dozen of different beers being made for future distillations. The photo above only captures about a third of the room. 

If you need a refresher on what exactly constitutes Canadian whisky, I'll give you the quick version. Take pretty much everything you know about Scotch and combine it with some facets of American whiskey. Canadian whisky by law is a whisky made from grain in Canada that is at least three years old. It's a pretty loose and basic interpretation of whisky, which is why there's so much potential for variation. Canadian whisky in theory is very much like Scotch whisky, which also has its column-distilled grains and pot-distilled whiskies that can be blended or bottled individually. In the case of Canadian whisky, however, there are simply more blending components to choose from. Unlike Scotch, which uses 100% barley single malt as its blending base (or its entirety), Canadian whisky relies on rye as the flavor foundation. You might see a blend that has 70% column still grain whisky and 30% pot still rye, for example. The kicker is the 1/11th or 9.09% rule that allows producers to add a portion of just about any alcohol that isn't Canadian whisky as a flavor enhancer. Whereas Scotch producers have to age their whiskies in sherry barrels to get that sweet influence, a Canadian whisky producer can literally add sherry right into the vat—up to 9.09%. Or they can add port. Or wine. Or rum. In that case, Canadian whisky offers producers a large amount of freedom. A purist might call that cheating, but I know for a fact that every Scotch and Irish distiller would jump at the chance to pour Oloroso sherry right into their blends were they allowed to!

Remember the thirteen-plus possible whisky types I mentioned above? Get ready to add a few dozen more possible permutations. Much like Scotland, Canadian producers do not have to use new oak barrels like Bourbon distillers do. There is a volume limit, but no standardization as to type (they can't use giant foudres or huge oak vats, for example). So now take your thirteen-plus Hiram Walker recipes and put them in new charred oak, refill oak, and refill Bourbon casks. That's basically three types of potential aging vessel for each style of whisky, not counting sherry-finishing, rum-finishing, virgin oak, etc. You can see where I'm going here. I'd advise you to drive out to Pike's Creek if you visit, the warehousing facility for Hiram-Walker about twenty minutes from the distillery. There you'll find more than 160 football fields...excuse hockey arenas worth of whisky warehouses, piled to the ceiling with upright, palletized barrels. They drill new bung holes right in the top in Canada and you can forget about dipping in the whisky thief. They have a tap that gets inserted right in the hole to pump out all that amazing juice! We tasted Lot 40 straight out of the barrel at full proof today and it was incredible. I hear there's a limited edition version of this coming out later this Fall. Get your wallets ready.

While Hiram Walker's specialty is still blended Canadian whisky, don't think they're not hip to the accolades being bestowed on the Lot 40 pot-distilled rye. I tasted a number of limited Wiser's editions at the tasting room with higher proofs and higher rye contents. The result was a higher level of excitement from my taste buds. I'm excited to see how their production develops and if it responds to American enthusiasm. There's so much potential for crossover and experimentation here. The sky at Hiram Walker, or in this case Pernod-Ricard's patience, is truly the limit to what they can do. I'm definitely padding my suitcase with a few distillery limited edition bottles later tonight.

-David Driscoll


Building Blocks of Motown

I had heard that Detroit was coming back before I got to Detroit. Now that I'm in Detroit, everything is geared toward continuing that message. It's on magazines, billboards, store fronts, and bumper stickers. It's even in the air. You can feel it. As I walked around downtown yesterday afternoon, the Tigers game just getting out, people were jubilant and—more importantly—outspokenly friendly. 

"I'm feelin' that jacket," a young guy said to me with a swagger as he walked by with a smile.

That's the other thing: the young people are dressed up. They care. It's all part of the rebirth here it seems—to beautify the downtown area in everyway possible, starting with themselves.

You can feel the history in downtown Detroit because many of the original buildings from its glory days are still standing. They have character and integrity, and they're now being reformatted into modern workspaces, albeit with much of the original integrity retained. I was reading about a newer upstart this morning called Detroit Denim and how the owner wanted to bring manufacturing back to the city. "I couldn't have done it if I'd tried in Chicago, New York, LA, or San Francisco," he said of the enterprise; "I'd be dead in the water trying to pay rent." That's the call of Detroit right now. I'm wondering how many people are answering it. 

There was a time in Detroit when these were the only buildings that really mattered. Now, however, they seem out of place. They're removed from the city center both literally and figuratively; banished to the outskirts along the river. Stylistically even, they no longer fit in.

Like I said: Detroit's rebirth is written on its walls everywhere you look. The entire city is on board. As I heard someone say last night: "We all make it, or no one does." I'm rooting for them.

-David Driscoll


I Love Detroit

So it's the last Pistons game ever at the Palace of Auburn Hills and we have a private luxury suite courtesy of the powers-that-be in the booze industry. There are people lining up outside, reflecting in the moment, collecting T-shirts, taking memorial photos, and basking in the last vestiges of a bygone era in Detroit. Me? I'm merely an outsider, having a few Lot 40 cocktails, eating the limited hot plate courses, and taking in the season's final match-up between Detroit and Washington. That is until I met Nakita Hogue who was standing in the hallway next to our suite while her family sat along the row in front of us. Apparently there wasn't enough space for them all to sit together, so she decided to buy a separate ticket, but stand next to the row in order to be near them. After questioning her about her situation and talking casually for a few minutes, I convinced her to join our suite party and sit behind her family comfortably. After completely falling for Niki and her husband Tim, along with their kids, I invited the whole family to come join us in the suite. Free food and free booze for everyone!!!!!

After a few glasses of liquid courage, I convinced Niki's son to bring his commemorative basketball over to the neighboring suite where Isiah Thomas and Chauncey Billups were giving an interview on live TV to commemorate the final game at the Palace. Emboldened by liquor and a sense of foreign impropriety, I stormed the suite, acted like I was part of the entourage, moved past the bodyguards, and got a few autographs for Niki's basketball. From that point on, I could do no wrong. Nor could they. I sincerely enjoyed my time last night in Detroit, surrounded by the city's finest and most loyal NBA fans. I got a real sense of what the city is about and how generous its citizens can be. Thanks to the Hogue family for showing me an authentic night on the town. It was nice to get real in Detroit.

-David Driscoll