I'm now sick, fighting a sore throat and cold, and dragging myself out of the house to go process more orders before we open. Yet, I'm still in a rather ponderous mode.

We did two staff training events last night. One with Steve Beal and Johnnie Walker (after the public tasting ended) and one after work with Spanish Rioja. In both cases, we were looking for commonality between the booze that may or may not exist. We were looking for patterns – characteristics that would help us understand what makes blended whisky what it is, or a way of describing why these particular wines taste the way they do.

What is Highland whisky? Is Highland whisky light and heathery? Some of it is. But Glendronach isn't. Glenfarclas isn't. Ardmore Peated isn't. Old Pulteney 21 isn't. Glenmorangie Artein isn't. I could obviously keep going.

What is Islay whisky? Is it peaty, smoky, briny, and full of the sea? Bruichladdich 10 isn't. Bunnahabhain 12 isn't. Bruichladdich Organic isn't. I could keep going here as well.

People look for patterns to make generalizations. Generalizations help us to grasp certain concepts and make us feel more secure with how the world works. However, in the case of booze, they may be holding us back. Categorizing certain wines or whiskies by saying, "Lowlands are this, and Islands are this" just isn't really all that true. Maybe it was at one point, but it certainly isn't now. The same goes for Rioja. We were trying wines from different villages and, while there were some similarities, most of the wines were their own individual thing based on whatever that particular winemaker did in the vineyard and the cellar.

Stereotyping and racial prejudice work the same way. A racist will say that all white people do this. Asians are always doing this. Black people are prone to this, but we level-headed people know this isn't true. The truth is that each person in the world is a product of whereever they are from and the environment in which they were raised. It has nothing to do with race or ethnicity. Booze is pretty much the same - each household is entirely different. You can't make generalizations. You can't lump Speyside or Lowland whiskies into one type of group.

I think that people who are learning about wine and whisky do that because it takes a compliated subject and somehow makes it more managable. To think that you would have to judge, evaluate, and learn about each individual distillery on its own, every wine and winemaker on a singular basis, is simply too overwelming. It's frightening. Therefore, we look for commonalities. Bordeaux is this. Burgundy is this. Single malts are this. And so on.

I'm not so sure that's the way it works anymore, however.

-David Driscoll


Why Don't You Have This Whisky? Why Can't I Get It?

Hi David, I saw that there's a new whisky from Japanese distiller Nikka available in Japan. Can you order this for me?


David, can you guys get the Port Askaig whiskies? I saw them in the UK and was hoping to get a couple of bottles.


David, I live in Michigan. Can you guys ship spirits here?


What? Why not?

Ahhhhhh....the wonderful world of import and shipping laws. I've said repeatedly that any lawyer could make a fine career out of just dealing with interstate liquor commerce. There's so much room for interpretation and error. So nebulous, at times.

Here's the deal.

First off – the United States drinks its whiskey from 750ml bottles. The entire rest of the world (except for South Africa, I believe) does not. 700ml or 70cl is the global standard. The United States does not want its citizens to be confused between two different measurements, so they do not allow for 700ml bottles of booze to be sold domestically. That means that any liquor company that wants to sell its booze in the U.S. needs to put it in an entirely different bottle with a new label as well. All of their other booze can be shipped with ease to every other nation (except South Africa, I believe) around the world. Then a separate, special, time-consuming batch has to be made just for the Americans. That sounds annoying and it probably is annoying to many small companies in the whisky trade, so they say forget the Americans. It's too much extra trouble.

David, let's say they're willing to do it. Let's say they're willing to bottle in 750ml. Can you order it then?


What?! You still can't get it?

Nope. We are a retailer not an importer and it's illegal to hold both licenses (good ol' "tied house" laws). It first needs to be imported and someone else has to do that.

OK – let's say that it's imported. You can order it then right?

No, I can't. It then has to be distributed. If the importer is located in California they'll usually have the right to distribute here as well, but if they're on the East Coast they'll have to hire a CA distribution company. In order to sell in any U.S. state a company must use an in-state distributor. You want to be in all 50 states? You're going to need to pay 50 distributors (or be a part of one big one that has representation nationwide).

Let's take Bruichladdich as an example. It can take a while to get their stuff out west. Their importer is WineBow, which is located on the East Coast. Their distributor in California is Young's Market.

David, can you get me the new Bruichladdich Octomore 5?


Why not? Can't you call the distillery and order one?

No, first Bruichladdich has to decide that they want to go out of their way to make an entirely different batch for the U.S. market only. Then WineBow has to commit to importing it. Once it's imported to the U.S., WineBow has to decide who they're going to sell it to. They might have enough orders in New York alone to sell through their entire inventory and, believe me, they're going to take the easy money. Now they're sold out. We're still stuck. Bruichladdich now needs to make another batch for the U.S. only. WineBow still needs to get it. Once it's here, they still need to find a market for it. There's literally nothing I can do until Young's in California gets its allocation. Once Young's gets its share, then I can buy what I need from them, which might be as little as two cases by that point.

So you see, us retailers are simply the final link in a chain of many different businesses that must make proactive decisions before we're able to act. Unfortunately, I will not be able to order that bottle of Nikka or Port Askaig until those parties take the necessary actions (which will likely never happen).

Can't you just have them ship you some over in the mail? I did it once from the UK.

Shipping laws. What's legal and what isn't? In all honesty, it's really hard to know these days. First off, if a retailer sells a bottle that they didn't buy from an in-state distributor or certified auction house, they're in big, big trouble. If I paid cash to a customer and then sold that customer's Pappy Van Winkle at K&L we would be slapped with a big, fat fine and possibly have our license suspended. So we can't order anything directly from overseas.

Second of all, they can't ship it here either. Just because it gets done doesn't mean that it's legal. Every liquor shipment from outside the country is supposed to be declared and go through customs first. Again, we all know that doesn't always happen, but that doesn't mean it's OK.

David, I'm in Utah. I need booze. Why can't you ship to me?

Why? Because shipping liquor to Utah is a felony. No joke. A felony. Shipping liquor to Michigan is also a big no-no. They're the only state that actually tried to sting us, as in order booze from us in an attempt to document the process and prove we were transpiring in illegal business. I don't want to go into a big discussion about what is exactly legal and what isn't, but pretty much anything to do with putting booze in a box and taking it to your common carrier is a big grey area. As a private citizen, you cannot ship anything. Putting wine in the mail to send to your friends is not allowed, that's why you need us, but we can't ship everywhere. Some stores are willing to do it because they're small and no one is paying attention to them. Other stores move high volumes and do not want to jeopardize their business by drawing the wrath of any government agency. We have a lawsuit going with Texas. We've got all kinds of action going on. If K&L doesn't ship to your state, believe me, it's not because we don't want to.

Again, just because other people do it doesn't mean that it's legal. It just means they haven't been caught or a certain law isn't being enforced.

That's it, in a nutshell. That's why we don't have certain bottles that you see online elsewhere. That's why we can't get those bottles, and if we can, that's why we can't ship those bottles to you specifically.

It's a crazy business. Rooted in mafia protectionism with different groups trying to protect their territory after Prohibition. We don't need some out-of-state retailer ruining our little monopoly here! That history would make a good blog post.  That's a Chuck Cowdery topic if I've ever seen one.

-David Driscoll


The Party Has Started

You've got another hour and fifteen minutes to get yourself over to Redwood City. The party has started and David Stirk is letting loose with his three new K&L exclusive whiskies. People can't believe how good they are for the price.

In stock now! Use the links on the margin to reserve yours if you haven't done so already. Only a wee bit left of the Aberlour after pre-order sales started to surge.

-David Driscoll


Exclusive Malts Tasting Tonight

We're knee-deep in pre-arrivals right now, but we'll have them ready by the PM. Don't forget to make your way over to Redwood City tonight. We've got David Stirk, one of our newest bottlers, in town to pour our three new K&L exclusives: Aberlour 21, Longmorn 20, and Bunnahabhain 22. It's totally free!

5:00 PM to 6:30. Redwood City.

See you there.

-David Driscoll


Bourbon Awesomeness

While David is knee deep in pre-arrivals (the biggest perk of being in SoCal is that our brothers and sisters to the north get stuck with all the pre-arrival duties) I thought I'd bust this out to make everyone a bit jealous. Sometimes it may seem that we have a dream job, hobnobbing around the world and tasting booze all day, but it's not all fun and games for David & I. There are, of course, some wonderful incentives, but the long hours and a hectic pace take an extreme amount of energy. We also deal with our fair share of nut jobs and wackos. I can't count the number of people who are personally offended when I tell them there's about a 1 in 1000 chance that they actually get a bottle of Pappy from us.  "But, I'm a great customer. I shop here all the time." Sir, you seem like a great person, but I have a record of your order history, so who are we fooling here?" Not that that would affect your chances whatsoever (at least this time), but I think you underestimate the commitment of the people I'd consider my "great" customers. "Sir, why don't you carry Leopold Gourmel Cognac? It is the absolute best cognac made anywhere in the world and if this store were legitimate it would certainly be stocked." Well, dear friend, it has been closed out fifteen times in the last 5 years, so I'm probably not going to waste my shelf space on something that will be available at a big box store in a few months for a fraction of the price. 

But, we LOVE what we do. It’s exciting and we’re passionate about it. Occasionally, because of what I do professionally, I benefit personally. Here is one of those moments captured in low light at the LA Whisky Society bar. We’ve been planning this meeting for a long time. While the LAWS crew is really good at finding great whisk(e)y, sourcing this type of stuff is hard for even the most experienced dusty hunter. We're pretty Single Malt focused, so it was a nice change to taste some special bourbons. It takes an insane amount of commitment to come up with finds like these. I was proud I was able to contribute something to the line up as well. Enjoy!

One thing about these old bourbons, if you're lucky enough to partake, is that first impressions tend to be way off the mark. Something about spending 50 years in the bottle leaves theses all tied up and I regularly hear anecdotes about some crazy old bottle tasting terrible on day one, but phenomenal a few weeks later. Anyway, in general I found that every one of these improved significantly as the night wore on.  Just a heads up if happen to open something like this and don’t find it quite up to snuff on first nosing.

Old Grand-Dad Bottled in Bond 1945-1949

This legendary brand was created by R. B. Hayden, whose grandfather was the eponymous Basil Hayden. This brand, also named for that man is still going strong as Jim Beam’s high rye bourbon.  Back in 1945 when this was distilled, it was owned by National Distillers and produced at DSP-KY-14, which currently a bottling line for Jim Beam.  This was bottled in bond in 1949 at 100 proof.

Man oh man; do you get that cinnamon spice on the nose?  As it opens up, you start to see more of this sweet tart, crushed candy aroma. This kind of OBE type aroma, a bit tinny in the background, it isn’t unappealing.  As it breathes I get more of that gorgeous oak, really old growth and exotic. On the palate, less spice comes through, but still some cinnamon. Now onto the pepper and a touch of heat. It’s pretty nice stuff, but it’s not a monster by any means. It’s medium weight on palate and the length is good, but not extremely persistent.  I found it quite drying and savory on the end. Fun stuff!

A. Smith Bowman Fairfax County Bourbon 1950-55

One of my absolute favorite labels of the night, why don’t they bottle bourbon so regally any longer?  A. Smith Bowman is part of the Sazerac portfolio today and they continue to make some interesting whiskey. Located in Fairfax County Virginia, close to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Estate. This is my first Virginia whisky and what a whisky! This was quite acrylic at first, exotic chemicals and corrugated steel. Clear OBE in my opinion. As you can see the label reads “Heavy Bodied Bourbon”. Indeed!  As it aerates the chemistry set turns more into exotic herbs and oolong tea. Fabulously awkward. Pine resin and underbrush, perhaps some baking spice. This is a weird one, but definitely unique in a good way.  Kind of love it.

Very Old Fitzgerald 8 Year Old 1948-1956

Alright, here we go. This is the Stitzel-Weller that we retailed for $1000. Its rarity is notable as well as its price.   Apparently, this is very different from the Stitzel VOF from the subsequent decades, but I’ve only been lucky enough to mess with the Pappy’s and it is truly a different style from that. This was distilled while Pappy was still running the distillery, so I’d like to think that this is the way he liked his bourbon. That said it should be noted that PVW brand is relatively new and his importance beyond founding the SW distillery was not particularly notable before his progeny began to market what has become the world’s most sought-after bourbon. I get tons of candied fruit on the nose. Orange peels, licorice, cedar, varnish and cocoa. Dark cherry and hibiscus power through with some air. Very dry oak tannins run through the entire palate. It’s austere and rather pointed. On the palate I get candies (orange, cherry?) and fresh wood, some varnish, and more flower type flavors. Definitely not what I was expecting. Not sure it’s worth $1000 beyond its rarity, but it is an absolutely unique expression from a legendary distillery.

The President’s Choice For A Distinguished Gentleman

Man this is getting good.  The Presidential Choice brand became commercially available in 1968, this was bottled in 1963. "This whisky was selected by the President of Brown-Forman Distillers Corporation for its perfect balance and true Kentucky Bourbon flavor, and set aside for his private stock. This rare Bourbon was custom distilled and specially bottled at the direction of the president at the proof of 90.3 selected for barrel #989843 through barrel #989867.” Clearly, it’s very rare and for the distillery only. This is from 24 consecutive casks distilled Brown-Forman’s Louisville plant, which produces Old Forester. I believe it was quite a bit older than the rest, maybe something like 15 years old. At first I was very disappointed, but I soon changed my tune. This is some really special stuff and just needed a little air. The nose began to show deep dark wood, dusty spices and freshly cut wood.  Polished mahogany, wood cleaner and a touch of tea tree. Intense berry fruit and old growth forest on the palate moves from cherry fruit to darker flavors, coffee and savory spice.  Man I just love this stuff. If you see it, buy it.

Eagle Rare 10 Year 101 Proof

This is one of these legendary foafs that you might actually still find in some dusty corner of your local bottle shop.  The Eagle Rare brand was originally created by Seagram’s to compete with the popular Wild Turkey brand. I can only imagine the meeting that plan was hatched, “Wild Turkey is killing us! We need a bird whiskey stat.” Eagle Rare 101 proof is generally regarded as excellent and it was distilled at the Old Prentice Distillery, which is modern day Four Roses. This is much more familiar than the others. On the nose some sweet citrus fruit, pepper, it kind of reminds me of Four Roses. Go figure. On the palate, a nice caramel richness, with soft spice and some cinnamon bite. A lot of the guys really liked this whisky and maybe it was just because everything else was so different, but this fell a bit flat for me. Not that it’s not a great bourbon, because it is, but it’s just not quite as special as some of these others

I.W.Harper BIB 1944-1948

Here’s one that was a bit of a dud.  Cool old bottle a customer gave me (thanks Kamal!), but with a terrible fill. I.W. Harper is from Bernheim Distillery in Louisville and this is some special decanter version. Basically, it was fun and weird lavender and old rusty metal, but it fell apart. I pretended to like it because I brought it.  I didn’t. This is what happens when you get a vaped bottle. Beware.

1974, Kentucky Vintage 25 year Bourbon
I actually liked the last one better than this disaster.  This bottling of Kentucky Vintage created exclusively for the Japanese market is presumably made by KBD. Apparently, this style is typical for the Japan, which is a shame as I couldn't like it less. Weird sulfur and rotten flowers, hot trash and stinky wood. On the palate it tastes like lavender extract, with a hot dusty spice that makes you want to cry. It finishes Burny and mean. Reminds me a bit of mid 80s Bowmore. Some guys really dug this, but I was not one of them. This is a big fat fail for me.  

Jefferson's Ocean Aged Bourbon

Okay, here it is. Perhaps the year’s most controversial whisky, Jefferson's Ocean continues to make waves. Sorry... We received one bottle and auctioned it for charity. It went for $1000. It retails for $200 typically and I lucked out because one of our members has the hook up. Apparently, some accounts got significantly more than we did, so if you want to spend $200 on a bottle of this stuff apparently you still can. I wouldn’t. It’s kind of a fun idea, but honestly there’s not a whole lot of there there. I was hoping for some sort of salty Islay bourbon, but instead we just get a fine young bourbon. It tastes a lot like some of Jefferson's other whiskey. I would be happy to spend $30 or so, but much more is too much. At least the proceeds went to charity. The nose has a soft spice, grainy sweet corn and a light fruitiness. This subtle nuttiness is followed by vanilla and some sweet oak on the palate. The finish is predictable, but not unappealing. I really like the concept and I feel like there is a way to make something like this even more "oceany." Hopefully they will experiment more with this style, as the cost is prohibitive, more production would presumably alleviate that issue.

So there you have it. Some legends, some surpises, some mehs, and some real stinkers. All in all an incredible tasting. Thanks to all the guys who made this possible.

-David Othenin-Girard