From Farm to Barrel

I'm having a pretty great Sunday so far.  I've got the New York Times, some homemade Japanese cuisine, and a bottle of Almanac's newest Autumn release - the Farmhouse Pale Ale brewed with San Joaquin Valley plums.  While David and I have been making waves with our spirits department renovation, Bryan Brick has been quietly gaining some serious headway with the K&L beer selection.  It's now just as common to find a store full of plaid-flannel and bushy beards as it is fine-tailored suits and manicured fingernails.  Bryan's not really the blogging type of guy, however, so I feel compelled to help get his message out, as well as showcase some of the fantastic new bottles to grace our Redwood City refridgerator. 

San Francisco residents Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan started Almanac Beer Co. by brewing five gallon, stove-top batches in their city apartments, using the local farmers markets to find seasonal produce and add additional flavor.  Their passion for good brew lead them to a more serious partnership with local farmers in an attempt to create a seasonal portfolio of unique and high-quality beers.  They've only unleashed two batches so far and both have been legendary.  Their first, a 2010 summer release, brewed with fresh California blackberries and aged eleven months in red wine barrels, caught us completely off guard and was instantly a huge hit with beer geeks everywhere.  The 2011 Autumn release is also quite stellar.  The ingredients are all meticulously selected and the guys from Almanac think it's important you know where they sourced them from.

1,000 pounds of organic plums were purchased from Twin Girls Farm in Yettem, California.  The organic wheat was grown by Massa Organics in Glenn County.  They then blended in pilconcillo - an unrefined brown sugar usually found in Mexican desserts - to create a beer that celebrates the Indian summer and Fall flavors of California's 2011 growing season.  More details are available from their outstanding website with pictures of the growers and their beautiful farms.  The beer itself isn't nearly as gimmicky as you might expect - it's still very much a beer at heart.  Golden grains blend with subtle fruits as hints of hops and forest aromas evoke true seasonal aromatics.  The beer is simply wonderful and incredibly satisfying.  It's meant to pair with a meal, like a fine wine would and should find a place at your Thanksgiving table.  For $15.99 per 750ml - it's a true bargain. 

My Sunday is still going well.  The 49ers are up 23-0 and I've still got a full glass of this Almanac in my hand.  I might call the store, however, and have someone stash a few more bottles away.  They don't make a lot of this stuff.

-David Driscoll


Getting to Know the Hakushu

The newest Japanese whisky to hit the U.S. market is Suntory's Hakushu - known as the "Forest Distillery."  Built in 1973 as a sister distillery to Suntory's Yamazaki distillery (previously the only Japanese single malt available in the U.S.), the facility is located at a high-elevation site next to the "pristine waters" of the Ojira River, which are used to dillute the whisky itself.  Hakushu distillery uses different styles of oak barrel to age their single malt, but mainly Hogshead, which according to the distillery is "suitable to the clear air and cool humid climate."

The 12 year old from Hakushu is lightly peated and very delicate in its flavor profile.  The light and fruity style of the whisky is quite similar to the Yamazaki 12, but the smoke really makes up for the lack of richness.  Because most of Japan drinks their younger malts with ice and water, the Hakushu is definitely another whisky designed for that purpose, which may turn off some of the single malt sippers stateside.  However, even straight at room temperature, the Hakushu really delivers quality flavors for the price point.  Think Talisker, but distinctly less round or supple.  So far I've really enjoyed tinkering with it in different forms - as a Highball, with an ice cube, and just plain neat. This is one of the most enjoyable bottles I've purchased in some time.  We only have about 18 left of the initial 60 and that will be all until 2012!

-David Driscoll


Last Cask In (not a Rotten Egg)

Just in time for Thanksgiving, our last direct import of 2011 has arrived: the completely disregarded, totally overlooked, 11 year old Blair Athol single malt.  It's not even a 12 year, it's from a weird distillery, it's not peated, it's not sherried, it's not cask enhanced, and it's $75.  Who in the heck would buy this?  While we sourced this cask from a Glasgow warehouse, we happened to pass the distillery on our way back to the airport after visiting Edradour.  As we were gassing up the car, David OG turned and said, "Hey! Isn't that Blair Athol?"  Gathered around the front entrance, next to a giant sign that read "Home of Bell's Blended," stood over a dozen grey-haired gentlemen with cameras, fanny packs, and khaki pants.  It turned out to be a tour group of British men who had made the trek up from England to visit their favorite distillery.  Really?  Blair Athol? 

As fellow co-worker, and self-described "32 going on 90" resident old man Joe Manekin told me yesterday, "I feel totally appropriate drinking this!"  And that was without me telling him the above story!  There is a rustic, old-school charm to this malt.  It's very basic, but at the same time stylish - think Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground (all in black, but very well tailored).  Powerful vanilla, sweet barley and grains, and flurries of fruit that combine to create one basic flavor: Scotch.  This whisky is like the single malt version of the Rattray Blend that we received earlier this year, but a bit more interesting.  While the Littlemill bottle got the 60's, art-deco era style label, it would better suit this whisky. It's a throwback, pure and simple.  And a good one at that.  They don't make 'em like this anymore, save maybe for the rare Glent Grant or Old Pulteney bottle.

-David Driscoll


K&L Spirits Podcast #21 - J. Preston Van Winkle


Seeing that we're getting towards the end of Fall when the bi-annual release of Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon hits the marketplace, I thought it would be fun to discuss the whole extravaganza with one of the actual Van Winkles.  There has never been a greater demand for these whiskies, and the short supply has only sent enthusiasts into an absolute frenzy.  Preston, son of Julian, and great-grandson of "Pappy," sits down with me to discuss the history of the Stitzel-Weller distillery, the extent of Buffalo Trace in the newer releases, and how to keep scrambling customers as happy as possible. 

This podcast episode can be downloaded here or on our Apple iTunes page.  Previous episodes can be found in our podcast archive located on the right hand margin of the page.  You can also listen via our embedded Flash player above.

-David Driscoll


Judging Out of Context

"I don't add ice to my whisky and I don't water it down."  Fair enough.  These are words that I hear often on the sales floor when I recommend proofing down certain whiskies.  If you like the George T. Stagg at full strength, then you are a braver man than I am.  There's no harm in sipping full throttle Bourbon or even single malts for that matter, in my opinion, because most of the time it's done by guys who appreciate the whiskies anyway.  What worries me, however, is when I hear that same remark after someone decides to buy the Hibiki 12, the new Compass Box Great King Street, or any other blended whisky that was made to drink on the rocks. 

I remember hearing someone from the industry trash the Isle of Skye blended whiskies at a trade tasting, saying that it didn't sip as neatly as a standard Talisker.  Since when did any one say that we're supposed to "sip" the Isle of Skye?  That's a whisky meant to throw down with a handful of ice and a highball glass and it's a darn good one at that.  I understand the idea of not enjoying water with one's whisky, but why judge one of these products on the same standard as a single malt meant to be taken neat?  If I have people over for some spicy Szechuan cuisine and I open a bottle of German riesling and a bottle of young, tannic Bordeaux, the riesling is going to taste great.  The Bordeaux on the other hand might taste terrible with all that spicy chili - a flavor profile it isn't meant to pair with.  That wouldn't be the Bordeaux's fault, however, that's my own ignorance at play.

From everything I've learned and experienced about Japanese whisky, it's specifically designed to be watered down - sometimes heavily so.  John Glaser specifically crafted the Great King Street for highball cocktails.  That doesn't mean that you can't enjoy these whiskies without water, but it does mean that you shouldn't be holding them to the same standards as your after dinner night cap if you choose to drink them out of context.

-David Driscoll