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Saturday
Jan072017

Something Better Down the Road

I had dinner with a close friend this past week who I hadn't seen in almost two years. We drank and talked until late into the night and she gave me the lowdown on some other old faces I hadn't thought about in some time. In the case of one of our historically-depressed acquaintances, I was both curious and concerned to know what he had been up to for the past decade. 

"He finally moved home," my friend told me. "I think that was always his goal in life: to get back home somehow and be closer to friends and family."

"So is he happy, do you think?" I asked.

"To be honest, I don't think so," she answered. "I think he's just an unhappy person by nature and, no matter where he goes, he's going to think there's something better just down the road. It's his way of coping and deflecting blame from his own behavior." 

I know people who have moved out of the Bay Area over the past few years due to increased traffic, higher rents, and a general loss of artistic culture. Some of them went to Portland, some to Seattle, and others to Austin. For many, if not most of them, that move brought them an incredible amount of happiness. Their rents are now lower and their commutes are a lot shorter, which was ultimately the source of their displeasure. For a few of these folks, however, the move to a new location only relocated the same emotional baggage. They quickly identified new problems in their new environments and went right back to being unhappy. 

I remember a few years back when Rittenhouse Rye was out of stock just about year round, there was a customer who would come by the store every few weeks and ask if we had any. The answer was always no. Then, when it finally came back into stock, I remember being excited to tell him it was available again. He came in a few days later and asked about it. 

"Yes! I've got tons!" I told him.

"What do you mean tons?" he replied with a surprising lack of excitement.

"I mean like 600 bottles," I responded. 

He seemed defeated and he left without buying a bottle. I was rather shocked at first to tell you the truth, but then it dawned on me: he only wanted the whiskey in the first place because he couldn't have it. Once he could easily find it again, the idea of owning a bottle was less thrilling. 

I think a lot of whiskey companies have already found out the hard way that placating that type of personality is impossible. I think a lot more are going find out the same hard lesson in 2017. I have another friend who's planning to build a distillery in Kentucky this year. He told me about it a few months back while we were having lunch.

"There's a Bourbon shortage," he told me. "We're going to help satisfy that demand."

I sat there for a few minutes wondering if I should burst his bubble or not. Then I finally said to him:

"My friend, there's a ton of Bourbon available. I've got Bourbon coming out of my ears at K&L. There's no shortage of Bourbon in general. There's only a shortage of special Bourbon, which is only now special because you can't get it. Once it becomes available, it becomes unspecial; which means no one's going to want it anymore."

"You're shitting me," he said. 

-David Driscoll

Friday
Jan062017

Ancient Armagnac Arrivals

As the K&L spirits department continues to grow, David OG and I have found traveling in tandem to be difficult. With so many producers out there and so little time to visit them all, we've had to divide up the world and use our journeys abroad more effectively. It's hard enough for us to cover all this ground individually, let alone as a duo! While I was holding down the fort this past Fall, David managed to sneak off to France for a week and put together some new Armagnac deals. We've got a reload from Jean-Bon and some incredibly affordable relics from a new producer called Cardinat. David OG will have a longer piece about these guys at the On the Trail blog in the near future, but for now his general notes are below:

Domaine du Cardinat has been in the Lalanne family for over a century. Farmer and grandfather of the current proprietor, Patricia Singh, built the family home at the domaine 100 years ago and cultivated the land long before that. In 1935, Joseph's sudden death thrust Patricia's father, Camille into the fields forcing him to leave school and devote his life to the family domaine. Just four years later, Camille planted the first vines at the domaine and devoted his life to this patient passion. There he worked tirelessly to produce great brandy, but his marketing was almost entirely word of mouth, relying almost exclusively on customers stumbling upon the domaine tasting and return each year to place their orders. Camille's daughter, a certified viticulture and oenology specialist, left the domaine to pursue a career in marketing. She returned to work alongside her father a year before his death in 2010. Patricia made the bold decision to continue Camille's legacy accompanied by her husband Mr. Singh. We're lucky she did because their stocks are exceptional. Cardinat is in the tiny village Sarragachies in the western edge of the Gers directly in between the great Armagnac villages of Lannemaignan and Castex. This tiny enclave of Bas-Armagnac represents some of the finest the Gers has to offer, producing brandies of exceptional grace and complexity.

1992 Domaine du Cardinat 24 Year Old "K&L Exclusive" Bas Armagnac $59.99 - Their '92 vintage produced exceptional eau-de-vie, just now reaching maturity. Expect wonderful intensity at a stupendous price.

1987 Domaine du Cardinat 28 Year Old "K&L Exclusive" Bas Armagnac $69.99 - The '87 is a famously productive vintage and the best we tasted from Cardinat. This could easily sell for twice the price without much trouble.

1981 Domaine du Cardinat 34 Year Old "K&L Exclusive" Bas Armagnac $89.99 - Of all the old vintages at Cardinat, this one was the most interesting. The Domaine in the chalky soils of the western Gers is one of the unsung gems of the region. Farmed by the Lalanne Family for three generations, the property sits on a choice ridge sloping slight down to the south toward the river Adour which meanders toward north eastern border of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department. The tiny five hectare estate is planted to 40% Baco 22a and 40% Folle Blanche, with a tiny portion of the southernmost vineyards devoted to equal parts Ugni Blanc and Colombard. Most vintages are a blend of all four varietals, but certain ones are heavier on the Folle Blanche. 1981 was a tough year in Bordeaux, but a banner year at Cardinat and the resulting brandies are heavy on tertiary components with all the soft elegance that Folle Blanche provides. The magnificent balance between savory earthy flavors, soft richness, and stupendous texture is exactly why we love Armagnac. For 35 year old brandy, this little guy is a real steal, but the limited quantities meant they'd only part with a tiny bit.

And if you don't remember Jean-Bon, check out the original post from 2015 here.

1987 Domaine de Jean-Bon 28 Year Old "K&L Exclusive" Bas Armagnac $99.99 - Domaine Jean-Bon was started by a family with three brothers, all of whom were named Jean, crazily enough. It turns out, however, that one of the Jeans was liked more than the other two, so they named the estate after him: Jean-Bon, or the "good" Jean. Jean-Bon produces about four to six barrels of Armagnac per year, all distilled from Baco (although they’ve started now with a bit of Ugni Blanc). The spirits are absolutely incredible values, almost like Baraillon in their richness, but with more sweetness from the new oak. The 1987 is the slam-dunk winner of the Jean-Bon portfolio, an expression that showcases exactly what these Armagnacs bring to the table. It's a mouth-coating whirlwind of caramel, oak, spice and fruit, all meandering in and out of focus, harmonizing in complete synchronicity on the finish.

1974 Domaine de Jean-Bon 41 Year Old "K&L Exclusive" Bas Armagnac $139.99 - The 1974 is loaded with rancio and savory herbaceous notes that flicker in and out before the richness from the barrel aging comes through. It shows its age with intensely woody flavors that should send fans of ultra-mature whiskey into a frenzy.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Jan022017

The Enemy of Good

It's crazy to think I'm going into year three of intensive French study, but as I sat back and continued reading another novel last night, the words made more sense than ever. Especially when I came upon the sentence: "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien." I think it's a quote from Voltaire, meaning: "Perfect is the enemy of good." In a world where everyone seems to be searching for the penultimate experience in life, sometimes we should just be happy with a high level of quality. Because if you're only satisfied when everything is absolutely perfect, then you'll probably never be happy (nor will you likely ever find a truly perfect moment).

I know people who obsess about whisky that way (and it's unhealthy because it completely takes away from the fun of drinking itself), but I'd say that mindset is far more prevalent in the wine world simply because of the timing issue. The thing about whisky is that once it's taken out of the cask, blended, and put into the bottle, you can drink it whenever you want and it's going to taste the same no matter what. Wine, on the other hand, will taste completely different depending on when you drink it during its lifespan. As a result, I usually deal with a few daily neurotics at K&L; people who worry that they're not drinking their wine selections at the absolute perfect moment. They take detailed inventories, have spreadsheets with dates and notations, and are constantly comparing and contrasting their experiences; hoping to tweak something next time to make the experience just a little bit better. I understand trial and error, and I also get why someone would want to get the most out of their investment, but there's a point where the quest for perfection begins to take away from the everyday quality of life. 

If life is a test, then you need to approach it like one. You need to do the best you can in the allotted time given. You don't get to go past the time limit, just like when you take the SATs. You have to work effectively and carefully, but also efficiently. Letting yourself get bogged down on the details isn't an option. Part of the test itself is to see if you can let the little things go and move on for the sake of the bigger picture. I also know a few wine drinkers who will only open nice wine with the "perfect" food pairing; because to drink Bordeaux with anything other than steak would be less than. Chablis must be paired with crab. Burgundy must go with lamb or chicken. If there's one small piece of advice I can offer you going into my tenth year in the wine business, it's to let all that food pairing bullshit go. That's not to say that food pairings are bullshit. They're not. Steak and claret is a magical combination, as is crab and Chablis. It's just to say that you can't spend your life waiting for the perfect moment to strike. There is no perfect moment. You need to seize the moment, and make the moment your own. 

I didn't have steak on New Year's Eve, but that didn't stop me from drinking a bottle of 2000 Petit Cheval, the second wine of Cheval Blanc (I like second wines, if you didn't know; and that in itself is my way of settling for good). I had pizza, and let me tell you: it was still one of the best wines I've ever had despite the less than perfect pairing.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Dec312016

A Fond Farewell

What a year it's been! We've done a lot together, haven't we? Loads of single barrels, new rum casks, plenty of Faultline projects, and we even printed a few punk rock records! As we head into the final night of 2016, a year that's given us plenty of reasons to drink, what are you going to raise in your glass to honor those departed? What drink will fill you with hope, inspiration, and a desire to be better in the year ahead? I know what I'll be doing tonight. I'm going to order a pizza, drink a few Great King Street Highballs, pound a bottle of Champagne with my wife as we watch the rest of OA on Netflix, and finish the evening off with the most elegant of whiskies: Compass Box's "Three Year Old Deluxe"; a whisky that mocks the minimum age statement requirement by showcasing the maturity of the blend's youngest component. 

While John Glaser and the rest of the London gang are having a bit of fun with the law here (because 99% of the components in this heavenly elixir are much, much older than three years), it only takes one sip to understand what's going on inside this bottle. This is another Compass Box homage to Brora, that elusive and haunting bucket list dram that continues to inspire whisky drinkers today. If you're new to the single malt game, Brora is the original Clynelish distillery that was eventually closed in the early eighties once the new Clynelish facility made its operation irrelevant. While I was lucky enough to get into the whisky industry during a time when Brora was expensive, but not outrageous or unattainable; today a bottle will cost you four-figures. The recent Diageo 38 year release is now a whopping $2200, and while Brora is definitely delicious, there's no way I would ever pay that much personally to drink more of it. 

But having tasted a reasonable amount of Brora in my life, I can tell you that the new Compass Box "Three Year Deluxe" tastes more like Brora than some of the actual Broras I've been fortunate to sample and acquire in my career. It's like going to see a Led Zeppelin cover band that can at this point actually sing and play better than the real deal. There's a group called Heartbreaker that comes through the Bay Area and is absolutely unreal. They sound, look, and play exactly like Page and Plant, but I only have to pay twenty bucks to see them at the Fox in Redwood City. To me, that's what this Compass Box release achieves. It's a whisky (composed mostly of Clynelish, of course) that replicates an experience that's no longer within reach to most consumers. It's clear from the first whiff on the nose: wax, wax, wax, and more wax. The palate is richer and rounder than what you expect from Clynelish, however. There's lemon rind and sweet vanilla, but there's a heavier undertone. Perhaps a bit of sherry-like sweetness and dried fruits, then a whisper of smoke on the finish with more of that wax and lanolin character. It's a fucking home run from front to back, and it's what I plan on drinking later tonight as I contemplate what it is I like about whisky in the first place: nuance, depth, and romance with character and grace. There's an oily note that goes on for five minutes with traces of subtle peat from the Talisker. Wow. Just wow.

If you want to join me, come on down to Redwood City. I just snagged another few cases of this delight. It's one of the best whiskies I've tasted in 2016, and it should make for a fond experience this evening, alongside pizza, Champagne, and plenty of Scotch. It's not cheap, but it's a hell of a lot cheaper than this.

Happy new year, everyone. I'll see you on the other side of the calendar.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Dec302016

They

If you listen to cheesy, melodramatic pop music like I do, you'll notice there's a lot of talk about "they." Who are they, you ask? Well, you know. Them. Those guys. "They're" trying to hold us down. "They're" trying to keep us apart. "They" think we can't do it. "They" don't believe in us. In the realm of youth culture (and now even in the adult contemporary genre) there's always a mystical, oppressive, and vindictive force at work, lurking in the background, doing its all to suppress our iconic singers. But these courageous and creative voices won't go down without a fight! They're going to push forward anyway, in spite of what "they" say. "They" aren't going to win. "They" will ultimately fall to the all-encompassing power of art and love. Hearing those words tends to invigorate us in turn. It reminds us of our own struggles and our own hurdles in life, when people tended to doubt our abilities or our desire. Pop music is often just one big Horatio Alger story. It's Rocky. It's Hoosiers. It's selling people the fantasy they crave. It's marketing.

Today when I listen to modern hip-hop, "they" is a less vague concept. There's little allusion or metaphor at work in pop music at the moment. Everything's pretty straightforward, but the idea hasn't changed. "Haters" gonna hate. "Bitches" ain't loyal. There's still a malicious bully out there standing in our hero's way, it's just that now we know a little bit more about who "they" are. Trolls on Instagram. A rival pop star. The ex-girlfriend of her man. Becky with the good hair. Someone. In the whiskey world, deep in the heart of the geekiest part of drinking culture, there's a similar concept at play. There's always an evil empire to fight against in the name of fine drinking. Ironically enough, it's usually the whiskey companies themselves. How can whiskey drinkers simultaneously love whiskey, yet hate the people who make it? It's easy. It happens whenever a whiskey company chooses to make a decision based on business rather than continue the myth of pure craftsmanship. What are "they" doing?! "They" want to ruin whiskey! "They're" just a bunch of greedy fatcats. But isn't that why these companies make whiskey? To make money? That depends on who you ask. If you ask the people who own the business, the answer is yes. If you ask the people who support the business by handing over their money in an exchange of goods and services, the answer can often be nebulous.

In short, no one likes feeling like they're a piece of capitalistic meat. That's why when a decision is made to raise the price of a popular product or change a treasured formula due to economics, there's often an outcry in response. Whiskey drinkers, much like professional wrestling fans, tend to feel like they're in on the game. They pride themselves on understanding the business—how whiskey is made, who made it, where it comes from—but when you get down to the actual business of making money, things can get contentious. You'd be surprised by the number of people out there who think spirits is a non-profit sport. I had a conversation with a guy in the store a few weeks back about our lack of available shochu. He asked me quite aggressively why we didn't carry more selections and I said to him: "It doesn't sell, unfortunately. I can't carry a bunch of products that no one here wants to buy. I'd be out of a job!" He scoffed, shook his head, and said to me: "Not everything is about money," and then walked out of the store. I stood there for a minute in a daze, thinking to myself: "Did I just get told?" Then I thought about it some more and I realized my faux pas: I had spoken about spirits in economic terms. I had revealed a decision about our purchasing that had been based on economics rather a commitment to fine curation. That's a big no-no today. You need to be all about the integrity of booze itself, or you're just another "them."

The continued death of big brand name spirits is rooted in this concept. Brands are seen by many as capitalistic forces dedicated to profit and corporate takeover rather than purveyors of inexpensive and drinkable alcohol. "They" are the oppressive force looking to ruin the experience of everyday whiskey drinkers who just want to drink something good. It's an odd situation to be in because, at the same time, "they" are the same people making all the "hand-crafted" spirits these whiskey-loving people adore. What's the difference, you ask? How can some for-profit whiskey companies be seen as righteous, while others are demonized for their avariciousness? It comes down to how you talk about what you do. We won't let "them" ruin whiskey! "They" want to raise their prices, but we're going fight on in the name of the everyday drinker! Ultimately, it's about separating yourself between "we" and "them". In reality, however?

-David Driscoll