Whisky Season 2012 Update: A New Independent Label

NOTE: I totally goofed and posted the wrong Bunnahabhain earlier.  I retasted the wrong sample as we had a 1989 and a 1991.  I was kind of bewildered because it didn't taste nearly as good as I remembered.  Now I know why.  It was the wrong whisky!  New notes, new review, same price.  Sorry!

It took us a few trips around the parking lot, a couple of phone calls, and a combination of printed Google maps and GPS to find the Creative Whisky warehouse and its founder David Sirk.  David's label, The Exclusive Malts, has been available so far in the UK, Europe, and parts of Asia, but none of the whiskies have ever made their way over to the states.  This was exactly the type of bottler we wanted to meet.  While the selection of casks at the tiny storage center wasn't profound, the quality and price were right on target with our goals and expectations.  We needed value and value hadn't been making itself too apparent on this trip.  While perusing the barrel supply, two great names jumped out at us immediately: Longmorn and Bunnahabhain.  Both whiskies, at twenty years of age, were malts we wanted to taste and it turned out that both were quite tasty.  When David told us what we could expect to pay, we rejoiced in both song and dance. We've got a new friend in the independent whisky game and hopefully there will be more where these came from:

1992 Longmorn 20 Year Old K&L Exclusive "Exclusive Malts" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $89.99 (Pre-Order) - Introducing our newest source for top-quality whisky at wonderfully reasonable price points - the Exclusive Malts!  Our partnership with this independent bottler will bring EM expressions for the first time ever to the United States, available only at K&L.  David and I had a field day working through the various casks available in the tiny warehouse outside of Glasgow.  Although we had already selected a younger Longmorn expression from Signatory, the distillery has such a great reputation amongst enthusiasts for quality and we were open to bringing in a more mature cask if it tasted great.  The nose of this whisky is classic Speyside - that heady mix of vanilla, malted grains, and rich stonefruit.  The palate is more of the same: sweet grains, lots of wonderful vanilla and caramel, a finish of soft fruits with a hint of banana.  Great Longmorn often doesn't do a whole lot, but it does what it does very well.  There's not supreme depth or insane complexity going on with this whisky, but there's a whole lotta deliciousness.  Longmorn just simply hits the spot and sometimes that more than enough.  Considering the 16 year old distillery bottle sells for well over $100 here in the states, getting this 20 year old single cask at full proof is quite the deal indeed.

1989 Bunnahabhain 22 Year Old K&L Exclusive "Exclusive Malts" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $89.99 (Pre-Order) - Introducing our newest source for top-quality whisky at wonderfully reasonable price points - the Exclusive Malts!  Our partnership with this independent bottler will bring EM expressions for the first time ever to the United States, available only at K&L.  Seeing that last year's trip resulted in almost zero Islay expressions, David and I were eager to make amends this time around.  We had already committed to peated whiskies from Kilchoman, Bruichladdich, Laphroaig, and Caol Ila, so when we found a relatively mellow, laid-back, mature malt from Bunnahabhain for a bargain basement price, we figured why not just add it in with the others?  The whisky is lithe and lean on the entry with lots of earthy, oily notes and hints of resin with light peat.  The low proof makes the whisky entirely drinkable right out of the bottle and the intensity of the vanilla and oil goes all the way to the finish, lingering long on the back end. Complex, mysterious, and understated, much like Bunnahabhain distillery itself.  A wonderful whisky at a knockout price. We expect this one to move fast.

-David Driscoll


The NAS Dilemma

My entire motivation for starting this blog was to help bridge the gap between what's happening with the online whisk(e)y community and what's actually happening in the business.  There is no bigger divide between these two very different worlds than how each perceives "Non-Age Statement" whiskies, i.e. brands that don't provide a maturity statement. Without any information about the age of the whisk(e)y, companies are sometimes free to sell younger spirit at a higher price.  I think one of the biggest misperceptions from whisk(e)y enthusiasts is that their personal distrust for these bottles resonates with a larger audience. My recent post about Black Maple Hill, for example, resulted in a few emails and some public discourse about my possible exaggeration of certain details – namely, was BMH really as hot of an item as I was making it out to be?  Maybe I just wanted to push sales, despite the fact that I didn't have any to sell.  There couldn't possibly be so much love for a whiskey that doesn't provide an age statement, nor a distillery of origin.  That wouldn't make sense. When the internet whisk(e)y community has deemed it totally uncool to enjoy certain NAS bottles, how could the public possibly go against such strong sentiment?

NAS whiskies are not going away, however. While they anger those in search of complete transparency, they make complete business sense from the company's perspective.  They can sell younger whisk(e)y for the exact same price as older whisk(e)y and people will happily pay it because they don't know the difference!  If it didn't make complete business sense, Macallan single malt whisky wouldn't be transitioning their packaging to NAS color-coded selections.  They are a gigantic brand and it would be the worse possible decision they could make if it really mattered. I know that sounds crazy to certain people, but you have to remember that, if this idea upsets you, you're very different from the large majority of the purchasing public – you actually care about this.  I'm not saying this to upset anyone.  I'm saying it because I work in a big liquor store and it's just part of my daily routine.  I care about whisk(e)y, too.  If I didn't, I wouldn't spend so much time writing this blog.

Some people care so much about whisk(e)y that the idea of actually enjoying a NAS bottle is forbidden. In some circles you can completely lose your credibility if you come out in favor of one.  Personally, I think that's silly.  There are many terrific whiskies that don't post an age statement and we'll just have to accept the fact that some people enjoy them.  I really don't care either way – I'm not totally in favor of them and I'm not completely against them (I am against price gouging, however, which can happen with these).  It's a case by case basis.  I care about flavor and value, which I can assess from tasting a whisk(e)y and deciding if I think it's worth paying the price. Everyone has one simple tool they can employ if they don't like something: don't buy it.  That's all you need to do.  The problem for some, however, is that most people do buy these whiskies – in droves.  Black Maple Hill is so hot right now that I'll sell out my monthly allocation in a day sometimes.  Sixty bottles in twenty four hours.  Granted, this trend isn't happening everywhere as some customers in other states have no trouble finding it, but it is happening at K&L and I'm just reporting what I'm experiencing.

People buy Black Maple Hill because they like it.  They buy it because it's now hard to get.  They buy it because some bar in downtown San Francisco uses it for their house cocktails.  They buy it because it's cool.  Whatever the reason, most people absolutely do not care that it's completely without an age statement.  In fact, the idea that an age statement would change anything about this whiskey is completely beyond their ability to care.  If I were to ask every customer whether they cared about that fact, they would likely say, "Does it still taste the same?"  While we, the passionate, blog-following whisk(e)y faithful share our opinions about booze daily, the rest of the public continues to drink without doing much internet research.  Word of mouth, trends, sales, and brand loyalty guide spirits sales at K&L, not blogs or message boards.  As much as I wish the internet community could help push customers towards more esoteric and interesting products, it can only preach to those interested in listening.  From my personal experience, most people aren't all that interested in listening – at least not to speeches about age statements and transparency.

That's not to say that they should listen either.  Who are we to tell people what they should or shouldn't drink?  However, when you're passionate about something it can be disappointing to find that other people don't care.  I find it disappointing when people care too much about what I say concerning booze, just like I find it disappointing when people don't care enough.  That's life, however.  We're constantly bitching about what other people are doing.  Here's one thing people are definitely doing: they're buying NAS whiskies.  Whether you're alright with that or not, it's happening.  Until that stops happening, companies are going to have a field day with it.  If you don't like that, you know what you can do: get people to care (which I can tell you is extremely difficult) or don't buy them.

-David Driscoll


My Head is Pounding

My head is going to explode.  I need a break.  I've had four glasses of Ricard in honor of Bastille Day and I'm ready to hit the floor.  See you all next week.

-David Driscoll


The Story of Black Maple Hill

It seems that people generally covet what they know they can't get. Rittenhouse Rye, for example – a standard grade mixer that people now hoard like winter food rations. The great whiskey shortage we're currently experiencing has devastated brands and customers alike.  Unable to secure their favorite bottle of brown water, people are no longer buying single bottles when they see their brand on the shelf – they buy cases! When people buy cases, the whiskey sells faster.  When the whiskey sells faster, other people think they're missing out on something.  When people who think they're missing out suddenly find themselves getting in, they tend to tell other people about it and cult consumerism explodes.  That's what happened with Pappy Van Winkle and look where that got us. Now we've got raffle systems and insane Ebay prices to deal with.

While not nearly as romantic as the Van Winkle legend, Black Maple Hill is slowly becoming the next "must have" Bourbon, mostly for the reasons I mentioned above.  I'll get customers in the store asking about it, I'll tell them they should grab what they need now, other customers overhear the conversation (mostly because I have a loud voice), and all of a sudden I'm selling Black Maple Hill to people who didn't intend on buying any.  It's exciting to feel like you're getting in on something special, but there's nothing really special about Black Maple Hill. It's a quality, everyday Bourbon that currently has trouble sourcing enough supply.  What it does have, however, is the makings of a cult whiskey, and that's exactly what's happening.  Here's the magic formula:

1) It has a wonderfully romantic label, much like the Van Winkle's with Pappy smoking the cigar.  The sketch of the Kentucky forest, the script writing, the rustic look, etc.

2) It has a fantastic name. Most people think Black Maple Hill is a place or a distillery. What a magical place that must be!  It makes you want to go there and drink Bourbon, surrounded by the eponymous maple trees.

3) It's contents are unknown. No one but the blenders know how old it is or what it's made from. All we know is that it tastes good.

4) It's now becoming difficult to get due to supply shortages and that makes people want it even more!

The truth is that Black Maple Hill is neither a distillery nor a place of origin. It's an independent label owned by my friend Paul Joseph in San Carlos, down the road from our store.  He's got a garage full of other booze too (Murray McDavid, Alchemist, etc.) and every month or so I'll stop by to see what's new.  Paul pays Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (Willett, Vintage 17, Pure Kentucky, Noah's Mill, Rowan's Creek, etc.) to make this blend for him and then he slaps the label on it.  So, in reality, Black Maple Hill is a Bourbon that's blended in Kentucky, but owned by a nice man on the San Francisco peninsula.

There have been some other BMH bottles besides the standard Bourbon formula.  Older ryes and older Bourbons were once available, but lately it's been tough just getting the regular expression – which is all that exists at the moment.  Because Paul gets his Bourbon from KBD, he has no control over his own supply.  Worse yet, KBD doesn't control their own supply either because they don't make any whiskey (although they did just recently begin production).  The reason the Black Maple Hill is in short supply right now is because Bourbon is in short supply, and when you're third on the totem pole, you just have to wait your turn.  It's an independent label purchased from another independent label.

Despite that fact that I'm ruining the mystique of BMH by telling you all this, I still really love the Bourbon. Paul is a super nice guy and I'm happy doing business with him.  What I'm finding, however, is that people are dying for more information about where this Bourbon comes from and how they can get more.  So here it is – the story of Black Maple Hill.  A Bourbon made somewhere in Kentucky, sold to KBD, blended at their facility, sold to Paul Joseph, slapped with a romantic label, and distributed down the street from K&L in Redwood City.

We're currently out of stock, but we usually get about five cases every month or so.  Make sure you load up when it's here because it never lasts long.  Doesn't that just make you want it more?

-David Driscoll


Whisky Season 2012 Update: Two New Signatory Casks

Signatory's warehouse at the Edradour distillery is one of our favorite playgrounds in Scotland.  Last year we snagged what was perhaps the best whisky we've ever imported: the 1974 Ladyburn that left both us and our customers speechless.  While we did discover some mind-blowing casks this time as well, the inflation of the whisky market prevented us from going deeper than we had hoped. Prices on big names were incredibly high, which sent David and me into bargain-hunting mode - scouring the corners, dusting off old names, and opening casks from distilleries we might normally pass over.  In the end, we emerged victorious with two tasty whiskies at even tastier prices.  While they won't send malt geeks into a frenzy like some of our future releases are bound to, they will eventually represent the core of what we consider our mission to be: find great whisky, buy it, bring it home, drink it.  If the malt is good and the price is right, we're all going to be very happy.  Mission accomplished.

2002 Longmorn 10 Year Old K&L Exclusive Signatory Single Barrel Single Malt Whisky (Pre-Order) $49.99 - The Signatory warehouse in Pitlochry is bursting with hidden treasures, many of them at a tremendous price point.  While the big names draw even bigger prices, we found ourselves more inspired by some of the lesser-known distilleries - the ones with reputations for great booze without the designer label.  Pernod-Ricard's Longmorn distillery, ensconced deep within the Speyside region, produces one of the most respected single malts in the business, known for its balance and elegant richness. Stateside, we only get the lovely 16 year old, but at a price most people aren't willing to pay. That makes independent bottles of Longmorn quite the coveted item amongst American collectors who want serious whisky at a bargain price.  Our ten year old barrel, from a Bourbon hogshead fitted with new toasted ends, is wonderfully fruity and expressive.  The palate is light, fresh, and full of supple vanilla across the backend.  The finish is malty with sweet grains dancing long after the whisky has vanished.  We strongly felt that whisky tasted better at 46%, which is why we decided not to bottle at full proof.  That brought the price down even lower, making this whisky one of the best values from our entire trip - period!

1999 Benrinnes 12 Year Old K&L Exclusive Signatory Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky (Pre-Order) $69.99 - One of our favorite experiences when visiting Scotland is the chance to taste whisky from distilleries that don't bottle their whisky as a single malt. Diageo owns the whisky from more than forty distilleries, many of which are used only for the company's blended Scotch labels like Johnnie Walker.  Benrinnes is one such distillery.  Named after the famous Speyside mountain, it is known for its lively character and fruity essence, providing the backbone of expression to many successful blends.  Our cask is very much reminiscent of this reputation, beginning with plenty of fresh fruit with barrel spice and a playful palate that reminded us of our Bladnoch selection from last year.  With a few drops of water the oils come out, bringing more texture, soft flavors of oak, and plenty of vanilla to balance out all the fruit. The result is a wonderful bottle of Scotch, offering depth, variety, and drinkability.  Benrinnes isn't as widely-known as many of other distilleries whose whisky we'll be importing and it is precisely for that reason we're excited to bring it to our customers.  In the great hunt for value in single malt whisky, we must continue to search outside the box. In this case, we've found a real winner from a distillery we'd like to see more of.

-David Driscoll