New Product Round-Up

I've been loving the developments over the past week on the blog.  Driscoll has been really delving deep into some real existential issues about how and why we do what we do.  Of course, our great motivator is the love we have for the products we sell and with that in mind I'd like to introduce a whole onslaught of new and future products.  Some we will be stocking, others will be available special order, but all are worthy of a mention here.  First, from the inventive and intrepid Tempus Fugit Spirits a new line of incredible liqueurs that will definitely be as talked about as the last ones.  Known for their Absinthe, Tempus Fugit has made waves over last year releasing the exceptional (albeit controversial) Gran Classico and the lovely Tempus Fugit Liqueur de Violette.  Production for these new products is not in full swing yet, but I was so excited I just couldn't wait to share.

This is the fabulous Kina l'Avion d'Or.  Watch out Lillet and Cocchi Americano, this is a traditional Kina Aperitif recipe coming from a hundred year old recipe from a distillery in Switzerland.  Richer than expected, it doesn't have the light heartedness of the Americano, but it certainly makes up for it in term of depth.  This label is not approved yet, but hopefully something like it will be.  The nose is deeply perfumed and wild!  The palate has the perfect interplay between bitter and sweet.  This is sure to be a classic.

Here is another stunner from Tempus Fugit.  One problem we've had in mixology is the lack of proper Creme de Menthe.  Our prayers are answered by this fabulous offering.  Even the great liqueur producers from France cannot match this stuff.  Incredibly fleshy and fresh, the flavor is strong Spearmint rather than the typical pepperminty thing we're used to.  Should change the way most people feel about The Stinger.

Few things have bothered me more than the Creme de Cacao I've tasted in the past.  This is a whole new world.  The stuff is SOOO rich.  Basically the texture of maple syrup.  The nose is pure cacao beans and vanilla.  More complexity than any chocolate flavored liqueur I've ever tasted, they've managed to capture the true depth of the Cacao bean in a way that is both satisfyingly familiar and totally unprecedented.  Think of mixing these two with some cream for the best Grasshopper that anybody has had in a hundred years.

The history of Fernet is a controversial one.  Fernet Branca is unquestionably the King of Amaro, but its history is one that's shrouded in secrecy.  The official line is that it's creator Bernardino Branca, initially created the recipe with the help of a "Doctor Fernet" to lay credence to his claims that the drink had medicinal purposes.  Future generations of Fernet-Branca marketing departments have spent a lot of energy dismissing this story as fiction, claiming instead that no other person besides Bernardino was responsible for the recipe.  According to the records of the small Matter distillery they purchased this original Fernet recipe from a widow of Luigi Branca in the 1930s for an astounding sum of money.  Supposedly, this original recipe came from Friar Angelico and was bequithed to the widow Branca after Luigi's death.  The image and name Angelico Fernet appears on the original documents from the sale of the recipe.  While Fernet-Branca claims to have not changed their recipe since its release in 1845, this alternate history seems to contradict those claims.  I'm certainly not in a place to tell you who's history is the truth, but I will tell you that this stuff is delicious!  Totally different from what you'd expect.  Less bitter, less menthol, more herbal and much more Saffron.  Absolutely delicious.  Cremes should be here by the end of November, expect the fabulous swiss spirits early next year.  Another new product round up coming at the end of this week. 


Completely Unique

I spent some time over the last five days sampling the most recent of our new casks with friends, fellow whisky enthusiasts, and a few familiar customers.  The arrival of five new K&L whiskies (with another due tomorrow) has been very exciting for us, especially seeing that neither David OG nor I have tasted these whiskies since last April.  What I realized for certain after drinking these special malts again was that we truly have gathered together a collection of whiskies linked by the common thread of individuality. 

Here's what I mean: if five months from now, after most of these whiskies have probably sold out, you were to come into the store and say, "Hey David, remember that Bruichladdich Chenin Blanc cask you guys had? What else do you have that tastes like that?" I would likely stand there, stare blankly at you, turn and stare blankly at the liquor shelf, and then say, "Nothing."  There is literally nothing that tastes like this new Bruichladdich Chenin Blanc single malt.  There's nothing this salty, this savory, or even with this type of fruit.  Some of the people who tried it looked at me dumbfounded afterward.  Others immediately put in an order for multiple bottles.  Regardless of their personal opinion regarding taste or quality, everyone agreed that they had never experienced a whisky like that before.

The new Faultline Littlemill 21 year release was no different.  "What's that flavor I'm getting?" was the response from about five different test subjects.  Lowland whiskies seem to soak up Bourbon casks almost like Cognac does, so there's a little bit of that caramel thing going on, but then there's this fruity and savory note that comes out of nowhere with a hint of peat that ruins any brandy comparisons.  Same thing goes for the Littlemill as for the Bruichladdich - there's nothing else we have or have ever had that tastes similar to this whisky.  The closest I could come would be the 37 year Ladyburn cask we imported earlier this year, but that wouldn't be really the same.

Even the Glendronach 16 year PX cask we just received is truly without peers.  An atavistic malt that definitely harkens back to the old school of Speyside, but never really fits in with the crowd.  There's too much earth and rancio flavor happening on the palate to compare with the likes of Macallan or even Glenfarclas.  There's too much power to compare it with something even as strong as A'Bunadh from Aberlour.  Again the question - if you were to ask me what else tastes like this cask I would probably say: "Imagine Glendronach 12, but older, more leathery, with tons of pop and way more going on."  There are too many "buts" in that sentence to make a solid link to another malt.

Is it normally easy to compare one malt to another?  Yes and no.  When I'm talking about comparisons, I'm speaking from a sales point of view - my job is to help someone who likes one particular malt find another that he or she likes.  For example, when a guy came in last week and said he loved the Springbank 9 year Sauternes cask we had a while back, I recommended the new Springbank 14 year Madeira cask we have and the Glenmorangie Nectar d' Or.  Both were solid choices and he wrote me an email to let me know how much he was enjoying them.  If someone likes Macallan 12, I'll give them Glendronach 12.  If someone likes Lagavulin 16, I'll give them Ardbeg Corryvreckan.  None of those recommendations are identical, but they're along the same lines.

However, if someone comes back and says, "David, what do you have that tastes like the Ben Nevis Octave cask you imported earlier this year?" then I'm stuck.  The whole reason we selected these casks in the first place is because they stand out from the rest of the whisky shelf.  They're synonymous with nothing.  They're completely unique. 

-David Driscoll


The Story of Pliny the Elder and K&L (an Analogy)

The third and final installment on the Pappy Van Winkle issue we're currently facing:

For those of you who don't drink beer, let me enlighten you a bit into the brief history of Russian River Brewery, its wonderfully delicious Pliny the Elder beer, and the policy changes it has created here at K&L.  One day, a few friends in Santa Rosa decided to get together and start a brewery.  They focused on IPAs, sour beers, and eventually some interesting barrel-aged specimen as well.  Once the word got out on the Beer Advocate website about how amazing their Pliny the Elder IPA tasted, people all over the country began searching for it.  Because these beers are only available in California, almost exclusively in the San Francisco area, beer enthusiasts began swarming the area in search of this mega-hyped elixer. 

Because Russian River Brewery is a small production facility, there wasn't much of this Pliny the Elder to be found.  While the insatiable demand definitely opened the doors for a possible expansion, money wasn't driving the motives at this little brewery.  These friends enjoyed making beer together and increasing production would require all kinds of new staff, new equipment, and new infrastructure, turning this quaint beer-making process into a large-scale operation - exactly the opposite of what these guys originally wanted to do.  Despite the now frenzied demand for Pliny the Elder that beer drinkers were exhibiting, the Russian River guys decided to continue as planned and let the beer drinkers fight it out at their local beer retailer.  It was completely out of their hands at this point.  However, the harder it became to find it, the more people absolutely had to have it.

Enter K&L - from what I understand, recipients of perhaps the largest weekly allocation of Pliny the Elder.  Every Wednesday (or sometimes Thursday), K&L receives 300 bottles of the hottest beer in the U.S. and within one hour all of that beer sells out completely.  Because K&L sells its products online, customers can add something called the "waitlist feature" to their account.  By adding an item to their waitlist, the K&L system automatically sends the customer an email when the item they're seeking comes back into stock.  By clicking on a link directly in that email, the customer can reserve up to six bottles for pick up by purchasing them and selecting "Will Call" for in store pick-up.  With almost every customer choosing the maximum six bottle allocation, that allowed about fifty people per week to get their hands on Pliny the Elder - many times the same fifty from the previous week.  Some people had their roommate, mother, or girlfriend buy an additional six to find away around the bottle limit.  The Pliny sweepstakes had become too big to miss.

Once the word got out that K&L carried Pliny the Elder beer, people began coming into the store on a daily basis, scouring the beer section before finally coming to the counter and asking, "Don't you guys sell Pliny the Elder?"  The answer was yes, but unfortunately not at the moment.  "Can I reserve some right now from the next shipment?" No, but we can add you to the waitlist so that the next time it comes in, you'll receive an email that will allow you to do so.  Eventually more than 1000+ were added to that waitlist and the competition for Pliny became fierce - so intense that many customers became entirely frustrated with the process and swore to never drink the beer again.  Those who couldn't check their email frequently enough were upset that they were always late to the party.  Those who didn't use computers were outraged that they couldn't simply walk in and buy it.  "Do I have to always completely put my work aside in the middle of the day, wait by the computer, and hope that I'm fast enough just to get a bottle of stupid beer?!" No one was happy about the lack of supply.  Everyone was upset.  All over little Pliny the Elder.

In the end, however, no one received special treatment at K&L.  There were no insider beer customers getting bottles held back for them.  There were no secret ways to find access to Pliny the Elder.  Getting a bottle came down to the adoption of modern technology.  The demand for this beer had grown beyond the human customer service limit that K&L was able to offer.  Those who were used to asking for help from trusted staff members had to be turned away to the waitlist option.  The wonderful experience of coming into K&L and getting great booze and great service had become akin to shopping for Rolling Stones tickets on the release date at www.ticketmaster.com.  First come, first served - no preference for any particular customer.  The fastest fingers win.

Today, we still sell Pliny the Elder in the same way.  Most have become used to the system in place.  Some still have nothing but contempt for it because it isn't convenient for them.  Now, imagine that same level of demand, that same situation, and even more of a frenzied desire for only six total bottles of whiskey that land twice a year, rather than once a week.  What is the best way to handle that situation?  Put them on the website and let them fly?  What happens when frequent customers who are used to excellent customer service and personal attention get turned over to an automated system that puts their fate in their own hands?

-David Driscoll


Consumer Response

Since I decided that I hate comment fields on webpages, I've deactivated that feature on ours.  However, like those old-fashioned things we used to call newspapers, I still get "letters to the editor" every now and again.  I'd like to post part of a recent response here for you to read from K&L customer Ben:

I'm young compared to the stereotypical malt enthusiast.  I'm learning quite a bit from specialty bars and blogs like yours and becoming quite a rabid malt maniac.  In fact, ever since I discovered your blog and K&L I have shopped exclusively at your Hollywood store.  I used to go to BevMo, but K&L really struck me and I don't want to go back.  I've found better deals, better service and better, more interesting products (I'm sipping on my Bladnoch 18 now!).  I've gotten my girlfriend to shop for wine at K&L and steer my friends toward you too for any and all booze.  Is that not loyalty?  If I tried to buy a special release online you wouldn't see much history from me.  That's because I still like to shop the old fashioned way.  I like seeing bottles on shelves and talking to knowledgeable staff.  And I simply can't afford to buy $100 bottles of Scotch every week, like the best K&L customers.  You have no idea how many times I've stood in a K&L daydreaming of a shopping spree, but the cold hard reality is I have to think before I buy.  Yet, it's kind of sad to think my pay and online record translates to whether or not I deserve to be allowed to buy a special release.  If you're going to assume I'm not loyal, who is the other guy online shopping? 

If I want to buy a special bottle, I'll know not to go to K&L since there's no way I'll have a chance.  I can't afford the chance.  I'll go elsewhere.

You simply don't know who you're dealing with online and for that reason, better or worse, the lottery is still the fairest way.  For every cherry picker who wins the lottery, just think there might be someone like me, who saves up for 6 months and enters a lotto praying he'll get a bottle of Brora - and one day finally does - just imagine that joy.  Imagine that loyalty from then on.

These are all fantastic points for keeping the bottle lottery going, and yet simultaneously are reasons NOT to do the lottery.  While there have definitely been times in the past where I have helped great K&L customers get that bottle of Pappy they want so much, there have been just as many times where I've helped guys like Ben get one as well.  The great part about holding back bottles of special release booze is that it allows us to actually use them in exactly the fashion that Ben is describing.  I remember recently when a new customer came in looking for a bottle of Old Potrero and I happened to have an extra on my desk.  That guy was so happy and thankful for that bottle and I've seen him in the store on a regular basis ever since.  Knowing that you don't necessarily have to "earn" your way into the special release pool is definitely a reason to shop at K&L.

However, concerning the whole point about:

"If I want to buy a special bottle, I'll know not to go to K&L since there's no way I'll have a chance.  I can't afford the chance.  I'll go elsewhere."

We already have people going elsewhere because they know we simply can't get enough.  A lot of my best customers know to head over to BevMo right now to grab the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection bottles because there are simply more to get.  Part of what separates us from other stores in my opinion is the fact that customers can email myself or David OG at any time and we'll always do our best to help out.  However, as we continue to expand our customer base, our ability to provide that kind of "local retailer" service will diminish because we simply don't have the time or the resources to help every single person with limited edition products.

The point there is: if you you're a resourceful shopper, you can definitely get a bottle of BTAC or Pappy from a larger retailer right off the shelf.  I literally get ten phone calls from guys like this everyday.  They're going down a list of retail stores and hitting every single one to check on the availability of these bottles.  My point about checking order histories to determine allocation of these bottles wasn't necessarily focused on handing out Pappy to the guys who purchase the most.  It was more about making sure those weren't the ONLY bottles these customers ever purchased.  I don't see the benefit from our end, nor from the perspective of loyal customers like Ben, in letting our hard-earned Pappy bottles go out to customers who use us only for that specific purpose. 

Ben also brings up this issue: If you're going to assume I'm not loyal, who is the other guy online shopping? You simply don't know who you're dealing with online and for that reason, better or worse, the lottery is still the fairest way.

The problem with the lottery is that it definitely does not take into account people who just walk in.  If they're not connected via email to David OG or myself, then there's no chance.  The lottery is done via email, so I really don't know who any of the entrants are unless I know them from the store.  The whole process is already an insider thing, so to try and make it something more tangible for walk-in shoppers is almost impossible.  The point that definitely needs to be made clear, however, is that an "online" profile is no different from an "in-store" profile.  You can have any purchase you make in the store added to that list automatically just by using the same credit card, so there's definitely no discriminating between online and in-store.

For now, we're definitely not straying from the lottery.  However, you can see that it's a touchy subject - from our side and from the side of our customers.  What I hope you all know is that we're definitely committed to keeping all of you happy.  If we were to just put these on the shelf and have a free-for-all, we would make the exact same amount of profit as if we were to raffle them.  There's no monetary advantage in doing the lottery.  It's about being fair and allowing everyone to have a chance. 

Maybe people who have won before should be excluded?  I don't know.  I continue to be haunted by this issue and express these feelings here on this blog.

-David Driscoll


What's The Fairest Way?

Fall is when many of the top whisk(e)y producers release their limited, special release items that send whisk(e)y fanatics into a frenzy, scurrying all over the country to track down their favorite bottles.  The Sazerac company has two of the most sought-after collections - both the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and the Pappy Van Winkle Bourbons.  On top of those American classics, Diageo is planning on shipping their 2011 Rare Malts series across the pond, also in minute quantities for select retail outlets.  With more and more people discovering these whiskies every day, there is nowhere near enough booze to supply demand.  I mean it's not even close.  While these companies look at numbers to decide who gets how much of what, should retail stores be using the same standards to decide how to distribute these bottles fairly?

My allocation of Pappy Van Winkle is entirely based on how much Rain Vodka, Sazerac Rye, and Buffalo Trace Bourbon I purchased over the past year.  The bigger stores like BevMo burn through more product so it's only fair that they get more Pappy.  Unfortunately, the collectors and the serious geeks who want this stuff don't shop there.  They shop at places like K&L.  I've had the pleasure of meeting many wonderful people over my last 2 years as spirits buyer and, because I want to please all of these folks, I'm put in the position of trying to satisfy them all.  If I get 6 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle 15 year and 6 bottles of the 20 (which is about what I get), then how can I possibly satiate the appetites of more than 500+ special customers? 

Right now our strategy is simple.  We have a special insider email list and we send out an email asking people which bottles they would like.  We throw the names into a hat and choose winners out of the lottery.  It takes hours of extra work, but at least it's fair.  However, is that really the fairest way?  If my allocation is determined by how much I buy, should the most voracious K&L spirits customers therefore also be given first dibs?  Should the guy that shops here once a year have the same chance as the guy who comes to all the tastings and buys all the special K&L bottles?  I'm conflicted about these issues as you can see.  I don't like being in the position of having to play favorites, but I also don't like checking customer profiles to see that the only thing they've ever bought from us is Pappy Van Winkle every November.  There's a certain responsibility to take care of the people who take care of you. 

In a sense, that's what the Sazerac company does. We support their business by patronizing their brands.  As a "thank you," they send us their most special whiskies.  Maybe we should be taking a look at some of our most dedicated customers and simply say "thank you" to them as well by giving them the cherished bottles they're after. 

-David Driscoll