Kentucky: Day 1 – Louisville Nights

We're here. Four guys just hittin' the town. We got dinner and drinks at Proof on Main Street.

There are bars everywhere brimming with Bourbon. It's in the air tonight. Oh Lord.

-David Driscoll


Bluegrass Bound

I’ve been selling Bourbon for almost a decade. While my love for various types of spirits is vast, none has quite a place in my heart like Kentucky Bourbon. Not only was Bourbon the first spirit that I truly geeked out on, it also holds an important place in my family history. I credit my larger than life Great Grandfather, Abram Ali Lyon, for my decision pursue a career in this industry. Transforming my passion for gustatory adventure into a profession would have never been realistic to me had it not been for this man.

Abram Lyon, or as we affectionately called him Popoo was born in a poor village in Russia. He lived there until just before the start of WWI when an Uncle stateside sent word that he needed help manning his "Service Pharmacy," in Los Angeles. In 1975, Popoo wrote an autobriography, consisting of three volumes detailing is entire journey from his village outside Vilnius to the pharmacy to his rise as a prominent importer and distributor of alcohol and his eventual purchase of a distillery in Bardstown. Meeting my grandmother, Susie Lyon, during his military service in San Francisco, they eventually moved back to Los Angeles where he bought a beer distributor in the weeks before the repeal of prohibition. He built his distribution company by traveling the world buying whisky, cognac, developing brands and remembering nearly every meal he ever had. 85% of everything he talks about in the book is food.

Having only started the first volume, I can say that what I’m doing today is not at all out of stride with what Popoo was doing nearly 80 years ago. Beyond his near picture perfect recollection of every single meal, he also describes his business dealings in depth. His first foray into the booze business seems to be a botched deal to buy Woodbridge Winery during prohibition, which was a coop at the time. It all sounds made up, but apparently, my grandfather was approached by Mike Gallo to be come partners in the Lodi winery. The idea was to sell sweet grapes to Sebastiani as well as Italian families back east who had special permission to produce wine for home consumption. Popoo was skeptical that the winery would be used exclusively for above board production, but invested some $10K nonetheless. His suspicions were apparently correct at one point confronting Gallo accusing him of being a con-man. They ultimately part on good terms when Gallo returns his entire investment of $10,000 during a quick trip to the bank, Popoo was grateful that Gallo's flashy and expensive style was not a total farce.

He details his adventures from his first spirits brand, Hollywood Gin to his partnership with the great Al Hart, the development of Kahlua, his conversations with "old man Sauza," telling encounters with various prominent distillers across the country, he was a true liquor industry veteran. He was Vice President of the WSWA for many years and ran distribution for Schenley brands throughout Arizona. All this leading up to his eventual purchase of the Glencoe Distillery in Bardstown. The incredible thing about his autobiography is just how relevant everything he talks about to what I’m currently doing in my life. He talks constantly about designing labels, finding deals, new brands and how Scottish coffee is terrible. I’m going to wade my way through the rest of this tome and hopefully find some cool Kentucky stories to relay throughout the week.

-David Othenin-Girard


Kentucky: Day 1 - Headed for Ken-tuck-ee

There was always some part of me that wanted to be in charge. Pretty much insisted on it. Wanted people to listen to what I had to say. But there was a part of me too that just wanted to pull everyone back in the boat. If I've tried to cultivate anything it's been that. I think we are all of us ill prepared for what is to come and I don't care what shape it takes. These old people I talk to, if you could have told them that there would be people on the streets of our Texas towns with green hair and bones in their noses speaking a language they couldn't even understand, well, they just flat out wouldn't have believed you. But what if you'd of told them it was their own grandchildren? Well, all of that is signs and wonders but it don't tell you how it got that way. And it don't tell you nothin' about how it's fixin' to get neither. 

If you've ever seen the movie No Country For Old Men, you don't really need to read the book. I just finished reading it on the plane for the fun of it, because I like Cormac McCarthy as a writer, but the book and the movie are pretty much identical to one another. That quote above is from Sheriff Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones in the film, and it's in both versions of the story. I identify with those words greatly -- not just the self-description given, but also with the idea that as we age we're often unprepared for the changes ahead of us. Not only do we not anticipate them, but we're not happy about them either. In essence, that's the gist of the story. You think you've seen it all, but there's always the potential for more. And Anton Chigurh is the face of it (Javier Bardem's Oscar-winning role in the movie).

We're headed for Dallas at the moment, where we'll have an hour to kill before we board the flight to Louisville. Having just finished the novel, I'm pondering the parallel in the current narrative to Kentucky's thriving Bourbon industry. If you would have told Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle fifty years ago that his name would become synonymous with a whiskey so coveted that thieves were willing to risk breaking into the distillery, stealing a huge portion of what was bottled, and attempting to sell that whiskey for three times the retail value on the black market, do you think he would have believed it? Do you think Four Roses distiller Jim Rutledge ever imagined retailers having to raffle off his special selections and that accounts would call him, bitching and screaming about not getting their fair share of the allocation? Do you think anyone in Kentucky would have believed you if you had told them by the year 2010 people around the world would be taking pictures of their products, portraying them like trophies, creating cellars full of the choicest collections, and yearning for Bourbon whiskey at such a level that their own distilleries would be unable to supply the insatiable demand?

I don't think so. As Sheriff Bell said, "they just flat out wouldn't have believed you."

The revival of enthusiasm concerning Kentucky whiskey has created a fanaticism for the liquid that I have to believe outshines any other period in history. I've read about previous spells of Bourbon hysteria, about speakeasies and bootleggers, and the trade of barrels down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. But unlike today those periods were mainly focused on providing consumers with something tasty to drink. In the past, I have to think that if the barrel made it down to Louisiana safely the mission would have been considered successful. Today's needs are not necessarily based on consumption, however. There's plenty of Bourbon to be drunk. Hell, I think Jim Beam alone can make enough whiskey for most communities to fortify their needs. Today's desires are about connoisseurship, but also about self-indulgence. There's an excitement created when someone lets you in on the inner secrets of the whiskey world -- the idea that there are richer, rarer, more pleasurable experiences possible for consuming a glass of Bourbon. As soon as that door is opened it's difficult to go back through.

When I started working with the spirits at K&L (a job no one wanted back then), I was totally captivated with the Bourbon selection. Not because the bottles were famous, collectable, or highly-desired (because they weren't at that time), but because they seemed so romantic -- so quintessentially Kentuckian. The forest stenograph depicted on the Black Maple Hill bottle looked so quaint and peaceful. The cigar nestled in the mouth of the Pappy reminded me of a real-life Colonel Sanders. Back then these whiskies were just sitting on our shelves and I would look at them for hours each day as I walked the liquor aisle. What were these whiskies? Why were they more expensive than the others? What did age do to the flavor of Bourbon whiskey? I remember shelling out for a bottle of Vintage 17 and loving it. I remember getting my first bottle of Willett 20 and closing my eyes as I took in the richness and spice. Man, was that exciting to me. I remember trying to convey that passion to other customers as they pondered which selection to purchase. I didn't really know anything about whiskey as a whole, but I knew how excited I was about Bourbon.

Today there's little semblance of that time left within me. 

Part of it was I always thought I could at least someway put things right and I guess I just don't feel that way no more. I don't know what I do feel like. I feel like them old people I was talking about. Which ain't going to get better neither. I'm bein asked to stand for somethin that I don't have the same belief in it I once did. Asked to believe in somethin I might not hold with the way I once did. Now I've seen it held to the light. Seen any number of believers fall away. I've been forced to look at it again and I've been forced to look at myself. For better or for worse I do not know. I don't know that I would even advise you to throw in with me, and I never had them sorts of doubts before.

Back in the day I used to get the question from customers, "What's a special Bourbon that I could give my father as a gift this Christmas?" and I would light up. "I've got all kinds of options!"  I would say, half-running over to the Bourbon shelf, brimming with the light of the newly initiated. These days I've got plenty of tasty Bourbon, but the special ones are more trouble than they're worth. These days I spend most of my time explaining to people why they can't get a bottle of Stagg, or Weller Larue, or the 2013 Limited Small Batch from Four Roses. And I just mostly ignore the requests for Pappy anymore. I'm disappointed in what the Bourbon experience has developed into for me personally, not because of the rabid demand (I love talking to people about booze), but because of the anger, the anxiety, and the dissatisfaction I see in people's faces and hear in their voices. It's Pappy or nothing for many consumers because they don't really care about whiskey, or Kentucky, or understanding what makes a bottle of Bourbon so enjoyable and exhilarating. It's mostly about the hunt and what they're willing to do to win. When you legitimately care about booze, when it's of the utmost importance to your daily life, that mentality is so off-putting that it's hard to keep putting on a smile on the sales floor. I'm losing my smile, as Shawn Michaels once said.

Yet, here I am on a plane headed towards Dallas, where I will board a connecting plane to Kentucky. I'm hoping that my first visit to Bourbon country will reinvigorate me as my previous trips to Scotland and France have done for my enjoyment of single malt and brandy. I'm hoping that tonight, somewhere in Louisville, I can find something beautiful about Bourbon that overpowers the status quo of trophy hunting and reminds me that people and places are ultimately what matter. Most importantly, I'm hoping that -- if I do indeed find what I'm looking for -- I can capture it, take a photo of it, and use my keyboard to convey it in words. I know a good number of K&L customers who are rather sad about the current state of Kentucky whiskey. The scarcity of beloved bottles, the buy-now-or-forever-be-doomed-to-wonder state of affairs. Like Sheriff Bell, I've realized that -- as much as I'd like to -- there's nothing I can do to change that. 

Maybe I can explain it, however. And maybe along the way I can learn to appreciate what we have rather than long for what we don't.

-David Driscoll


Making Time for John

Speaking of making time, I made some time to have lunch with John Glaser on my day off today. Luckily, John was willing to make some time for me as well. John is one of the true nice guys in this business and we usually try to make sure we see each other when I'm there (in London) or he's here. We had lunch at The Cavalier near the mall downtown on Market and talked about our current projects.

While sadly there won't be a Flaming Heart release this year, fans of Compass Box peated whisky are still in for a treat. John will be releasing a tenth anniversary release of the Peat Monster featuring older whiskies in the marriage. I had a chance to taste it today and you can really pick out the Laphroaig. John told me there were various Laphroaig whiskies, ranging from 7 to 11 years old if I remember correctly, as well as some older peated Ardmore malts, about 15 and 16 years of age. These are interwoven with smoky Caol Ila, smoky Ledaig, and a bit of Clynelish. There's also a dash of Spice Tree (Clynelish aged in new French oak) tossed in for good measure.

It also has a bitchingly awesome label.

John is expecting the Peat Monster 10th Anniversary to clock in at around $99.99 retail, so make some room in your budget for the upcoming release. He also expressed interest in our 1979 Faultline Blended whisky because it appears John stumbled upon some similar casks, but even older in age. He took a 33 year old cask of blended whisky and married it with a cask of 40 year old blended whisky to create a new expression he's calling The General. Look for that one early next year.

We're off to Kentucky tomorrow. This time, however, we'll have K&L co-owner Brian Zucker along for the ride. He has no idea what's about to hit him.

-David Driscoll


What Do You Make Time For?

To expand on a pet peeve of mine I mentioned recently (people who say, "I don't have time to drink bad whisky"), I'm wondering what people do make time for? Because it seems to me like saying one doesn't have time to do something is usually a pretty silly thing to say (unless you have kids because then you are simply at their beck and call). Not that we should go out of our way to drink terrible whisky, but if one wants to understand spirits appreciation in general you have to take the bad with the good. Plus, I'm not even sure there is such a thing as bad and good, but rather simply what one likes and what one doesn't like (I've had people tell me our Glenlochy cask is one of the best whiskies they've ever tasted. I've also had people tell me it's one of the most boring whiskies they've ever tasted). Not everyone can like everything.

But now I'm getting off track.

Here are some of my favorites:

"I don't have time to exercise." Or maybe you just don't want to go to bed early and then get up early to hit the gym before work.

"I don't have time to dress up and worry about how I look." Or perhaps you're not interested, or you don't know how and you therefore resent people who do.

"I don't have time to watch TV." Say the people who spend an hour browsing the internet, looking at the same five sites over and over again.

"I don't have time to cook." I often get up and cook in the morning so that I don't have to do it later that night. It's about making time, not having it.

But often that's really what "I don't have time..." means. It means the person saying that doesn't personally want to make time and is looking for a way to justify not doing so. It's almost a slight, or a knock on the person who is willing to make time. There's a reason 24 Hour Fitness exists. So that you can literally go exercise whenever you want, or whenever you can make the time to do so. Most things in life that are important to us are about making an effort. A friend comes into town, so you make the effort to free up your evening for dinner. If there's a band playing you want to go see, you might sneak out of work a bit early. We all make time for some things in life. Even the most busy of us.

Of course, there are people who are very busy, busting their behinds, working three jobs to support their families, barely stopping to eat and sleep. But we're not talking about those people. We're talking about childless, single occupation folks who simply are "too busy" to do the things we happen to care about -- the people who make us feel guilty about our passion. In my case, my passion for booze is something other people often roll their eyes at. "I don't have time to waste thinking so carefully about what I drink. I just drink and that's that." But you do have time to be discerning. Anyone does. There's a difference between not having time and not caring. So let's just call it what it is.

You don't care? Great, there's no need to tell me. But I do. So shut up.

-David Driscoll