Too Many Channels (or the Return of Brand Loyalty?)

When I was a kid, if you were on TV you were famous.  There were only about five channels when I was growing up, so I could keep up with every show that was on and every actor on each of those shows.  I still hear older generations talk about the stars from the past ("Now she was a star"), contrasting their memories of Hollywood royalty with the ever-expanding list of B, C, and D-list celebrities fighting for space in today's public consciousness.  There's a reason those stars were larger than life, just like there's a reason no band will ever again be as big as the Beatles.  Access to the audience was limited and controlled by a few companies.  Movie studios, broadcasting companies, and record labels decided who made it and who didn't.  If you made it, you were huge.  There were no side options, no independent channels to get your name out there.  Money, power, and fame were concentrated into NBC, ABC, and CBS and they only operated between certain hours ("off the air" is a forgotten term these days), which meant that everyone was watching at primetime.  It was the complete opposite of the endless selection of programming we know today.

As an adult, I barely have enough time to watch the shows I want to watch, let alone peruse the 800 channels on my digital cable box.  There are so many programs playing on so many networks that there's absolutely no standard of quality anymore.  MTV used to play music, but there's no more ad money in the music business, so now it's a 24-hour reality show network.  CMT, the country music equivalent, is following the same model, pumping out episodes of original programming like Redneck Island in between repeats of Smokey and the Bandit II.  There's no time to get hooked on a new show, or even record it on your DVR, because another new one is always popping up, then getting cancelled after a few episodes.  Almost anyone can be on TV these days, and anyone can make a movie if you can get the money together.  If you've recorded an album in your free time, Apple lets you up upload it to iTunes and if you've written the next great novel, you can sell it on Amazon in e-form.  Unlike the media world of decades past, there are no more gatekeepers.  The market is open, awaiting anyone (literally anyone) with an idea.  If you can make it, you can access the entire world rather quickly.

While it's great to offer opportunity and hope to those who might not have had a chance fifty years ago, the downside is market saturation.  There are too many channels on TV right now.  There are too many new bands in the music industry.  There are too many clips on YouTube.  There are too many webpages with useless information.  There's so much crap out there that we need someone to sift through it all and tell us what isn't crap.  My hands have been covered in crap for years, digging and digging for the great products buried under that crap. The other problem is the decline of our attention spans.  We're so used to getting new input every minute via our iPhones, that we've all become data junkies, waking up in the morning to our laptops and iPads, longing for the next fix.  New Laphroaig, new Ardbeg, new this, new that.  Every day, every hour, every minute - something new and exciting to grab your attention.  If it isn't the "best thing you've ever tasted," then it's not worth our time. You can see why people like myself have to use hyperbole with everything (although, in all honesty I've always been that way since I was little).

About a year and a half ago, I wrote an entry on this blog called The Death of Brand Loyalty, briefly noting that the days of Marlboro Men and Crown Royal drinkers were over.  There were too many exciting new spirits being released to limit oneself to a single brand.  We were entering a time when people wouldn't even purchase the same bottle twice, choosing to constantly experiment with fresh faces and new experiences.  A new gin from Siberia, why not?  Whiskey made fifty feet under the earth's crust?  Sure!  However, once the market got wind that a new craft explosion was underway, there was liquid gold rush fever, and now we're beginning to saturate the accomplishments of true artisan production in a giant sea of incompetence.  A giant sea of crap, asking you to sample its wares, taste its new pomegranate and chocolate-infused tequila, begging for a spot at K&L, "just for a month to get things going."  You'll see!  People are going to love this!  We're already big in Fresno!  Here's a big bag of shelf talkers and information sheets.

There are numerous reasons for brand loyalty.  Image would be a big one, as Mad Men has taught us.  However, most of the impulse for buying the same product over and over derives from the dependability of its quality.  The consistency of taste.  A history of doing right by the consumer.  With booze, a product that offers so many unique and intriguing flavors, the only reason to limit one's experiences would be if the majority of them ended up being negative.  Therefore, if a customer continued to try new whiskies, yet found them consistently underwhelming, they're going to eventually get tired of wasting their time, flipping around all these channels, and finding nothing but crap on TV.  Like me, they'll record Breaking Bad every Sunday, while they wait for The Walking Dead to start in a few weeks.  There comes a breaking point where too many options and too many disappointing choices take their toll on the consumer.  That's where affordable brands with consistent flavor thrive.  They may not be the most interesting, but at least you know they're not a waste of time.

It's not easy convincing an adult to try something new.  We're fixed in our ways.  Getting me to watch something new on Netflix rather than a rerun of Revenge of the Nerds is hard enough ("You've already seen that a hundred times!"  "I know, but I love it!"), let alone getting me to spend money on an untested liquor brand.  Nevertheless, we've got people hooked on North Shore, Leopold's, St. George, and Blade instead of Bombay, Tanqueray, and Gordon's.  Older men come looking for Ballentine's and Famous Grouse and I give them Bank Note or Isle of Skye.  They love it and they've been coming back for more ever since.  Getting people at K&L to try new brands of liquor isn't so hard, as long as the products they're getting are truly superior and worth the extra few bucks.  However, I'm worried that the next wave of inferior distillation is going to undo some of that growing enthusiasm. 

There's already a small backlash growing against craft whiskey because it's young, expensive, and often not nearly as good as what the larger distilleries offer.  It needs time to prove itself, but these guys don't have time to sit around and wait.  They need to recoup expenses.  Releasing white whiskey for $50 and flooding the market with more products it doesn't need isn't helping their cause, however.  It's only re-enforcing the idea in the mind of many consumers that they should stick with their tried and tested brands.  Over the last two months, I've tasted many new whiskies that simply didn't need to be made.  They're not offering anything new, they're not cheap, and they're not all that good.  It's like a new version of the Jersey Shore, except this time they're in Nebraska and they're all teenagers hooked on meth.  I don't need another inferior reality show.  I don't want more channels on TV.  Too much bad programming makes me long for the good old days, when stars were larger than life ("Now Van Damme, that guy knew how to make an action film!) and life itself was more simple. 

Too much selection can be overwhelming.  There's a limit to how much input we can take as human beings.  Right now, the spirits industry is testing that limit and I'm beginning to see where it ends.  If we overdo it, I hope the damage isn't irreparable.  The smaller companies struggling for the attention of the modern whiskey drinker might be pitching their show before it's ready.  With so many new options coming out every week, you could only have one chance in front of that audience, so you'd better have your best stuff to show.  If it isn't something bold, daring, and better than the average whiskey, they'll just change the channel and watch a rerun of The Simpsons instead.

-David Driscoll


Following Up On The Lesson: Daiquiri Part 3

After playing around with a few different concoctions, I went with Thad and Eric's suggestion of the El Dorado 3 year, but with Erik A's stir-in-cold, simple syrup recipe and ratio.  I think it's the best drink I've ever made at home.  I can't believe how balanced it is - the cane flavor of the rum with the sweet and sour.  Amazing.  My wife was blown away.  This is a Daiquiri?  I'll be making these all weekend, rest assured.

I've learned about how citrus and sugar work together, about different types of rum, and how to make a Daiquiri that works for my household.  I'm pumped.  Sticking to one drink really works.

-David Driscoll



It's here.  It's really, really good.  I finally tasted it about five minutes ago.  That quarter cask richness kicks in on the finish and this thing just goes on forever.  We've sold about 60 so far, so there's another hundred until we're done for this year.  Love the Cairdeas.

Laphroaig "Càirdeas" Islay Single Malt Whisky $64.99 - Here is the 2012 release of Laphroaig's ever popular "friendship" malt. It takes the vatting from last year, an array of casks ranging from 11 to 19 years old, and adds in some cask strength quarter cask material. Powerful, heady, lovely, Laphroaig, it is indeed. Jump on it, we got a big allocation, but it's still basically non-existent.

-David Driscoll


The Rebirth of Pennsylvania Rye

I've often heard the term "Monongahela rye" or Pennsylvania rye referred to in whiskey conversation, but I'd never actually researched the term to figure out what it meant specifically.  As far as I knew, it meant rye distilled in Pennsylvania and I knew there was a history of production within the state.  I'd also heard of distinct styles made in Maryland and Cinncinati, but again I was at a loss when asked to describe their differences.  These were all pre-Prohibition styles that get name-dropped by whiskey historians, but I've never been one to seek out the past.  I knew that Old Overholt, before it was made by Jim Beam, was one of the most famous brands of Monongahela rye, along with Schenley and Old Jupiter.  A recent article on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote:

"Old Overholt was born in Westmoreland County. The old Israel Shreve distillery still stands in Perryopolis, on a property once owned by George Washington; the original Michter's distillery was built in Pennsylvania Amish country and operated until 20 years ago. It all would make for a nice little history trail, wouldn't it?"

Pennsylvania's history with rye whiskey seems to be like Campbeltown's history with single malt.  Both were once big players in the industry, but today little remains from their glorious pasts.  However, whereas bad speculation and investments bankrupted Campbeltown, it was the government-imposed American Prohibition that ruined Pennsylvania, and it's only now coming back to life.

As far as what constituted Monongahela rye, I've read numerous reports that are difficult to summarize.  Maybe they all sourced their water from the Monongahela river than runs through Pittsburgh?  Not being completely sure, I searched for an article written earlier this year by my friend Steve Ury over at SKU's Recent Eats:

Back then, American whiskey usually meant rye whiskey, and Old Monongahela Pennsylvania style rye was one of the major categories of rye. It's hard to find information about the rye of that era, but from what I gather, it contained a much higher percentage of rye than today's Kentucky rye whiskeys, which tend to have close to the minimum of 51% rye. Monongahela rye also usually combined malted and unmalted rye. [EDIT: See the comments by Pennsylvania whiskey expert Sam Komlenic which indicate that by the twentieth century, Pennsylvania rye was no longer using rye malt but barley malt in combination with the unmalted rye].

Today I visited a local distributor to taste some new products and one of them was called Dad's Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey $49.99.  What I liked about it immediately was its pure rye flavor, the way the wood and spice tempered the alcohol without overpowering the inherent grain, and the fact that it came in a standard 750ml bottle, rather than half that size.  At about six to eight months in charred quarter cask, the whiskey had legs.  I needed to know a bit more about the brand, so I called the distillery and talked to co-founder Herman Mihalich, who was more than happy to share some info about his new product.  According to Herman, Monongahela referred to rye made primarily in Western Pennsylvania and became a moniker for the style produced therein.  Dad's Hat is looking to remain faithful to that heritage, but isn't striving for authenticity over flavor (located in Eastern Pennsylvania, I'm sure there's less pressure!).  They use a 500 gallon still to make 1000 gallon batches and Herman likes to use long fermentation times to bring out interesting flavors in the mash of 80% rye, 15% malted barley, and 5% malted rye. 

I'm pretty impressed with it so far.  I've got the bottle open in front of me and I'm enjoying just giving it a whiff every few minutes.  Herman made it clear that they plan on releasing older, more mature whiskey down the line and that this is just the beginning of their operation.  I'm very excited to see how it progresses.  They're making enough whiskey efficiently to keep the price reasonable, but they're still very much a craft operation.  Like Thad from Bar Agricole told me the other day, he likes authenticity in a cocktail because he considers himself a conservationist.  While Herman said that authenticity isn't their primary goal, they're still making a Pennsylvania rye, sourcing the rye locally, and using the traditional combination of malted and unmalted rye with malted barley that characterized the Monongahela ryes of Pennsylvania's past.  They understand the heritage.

With the recent renaissance of spirits here in the U.S. we've seen the revival of numerous pre-Prohibition brands in cocktail bars throughout the country, but the regional styles of American whiskey past haven't quite yet hit their stride. There's a legacy of rye whiskey production from America's Eastern Coast and now we're finally witnessing the rebirth of Pennsylvania rye.  As a whiskey geek, I'm pretty excited about that.

-David Driscoll


Are You Ready?

September is almost upon us.  Whisky Season 2012 is almost ready to officially begin, and I don't just mean the K&L exclusive stuff.  The big guns of whisk(e)ydom are about to be unleashed, emails will be sent, bottles will fly, customers will revel (some will miss out and becoming filled with rage), and money will be spent - all in the name of great booze.  Speaking of "big guns," our Glenfarclas and Glenlochy casks are going out on an email today to the gigantic, general K&L mailing list, so if you were on the fence about one of those you may have to decide today.  As for the non-K&L bottles I mentioned, here's what we have confirmed so far:

(NOTE: if you're not on the insider email list we do here the odds of getting a bottle at K&L are slim to none. Make sure you email us at to get yourself added)

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2012 Release $64.99 - Here is the 2012 release of Laphroaig's ever popular "friendship" malt. It takes the vatting from last year, an array of casks ranging from 11 to 19 years old, and adds in some cask strength quarter cask material. Powerful, heady, lovely, Laphroaig, it is indeed. Jump on it, we got a big allocation, but it's still basically non existent.

Smooth Ambler Very Old Scout 14 Year Bourbon $65.99 - The Very Old Scout is likely to be the best mature Bourbon you'll taste this year. It might not be the best Bourbon of 2012, but unlike other limited edition items that sellout in seconds, you'll actually be able to get one. The days of seeing Pappy Van Winkle on the shelf are over. We get hundreds of requests every week for bottles we don't have and cannot get. Bourbon is the hottest ticket in town and sadly the mature stocks were gobbled up faster than producers could replenish them. We're stuck in a drought and there's no end in sight because it takes time to age new whiskey. That's where John Little comes in. His West Virginia distillery purchased the last mature stocks of Bourbon from LDI distillery some time back and he's been secretly crafting them into a special cuvee - 40% 14 year, 40% 15 year, 15% 17 year, and 5% 19 year, bottled at 100 proof for a bold and spicy flavor. The result is a knockout. The sweetness from the charred oak permeates deep into the whiskey, baking spices dance on the palate, cinnamon and vanilla come big on the finish. While there isn't much of this whiskey (about 3000 bottles total), we jumped on it fast and secured a fifth of it. If you know someone who loves Bourbon, you need to act now. We're not expecting more, not for the holidays, not for Xmas - nothing on the horizon. Again, this is the best deal we're going to see for Bourbon this year, or perhaps next year as well. A fantastic deal while it lasts.

Four Roses Limited Edition 2012 Small Batch Bourbon $85-ish - If you go back a few weeks and read my piece about Jim Rutledge's visit, you'll see he calls the forthcoming release his favorite of all time.  He also mentions some older 17 year old casks that found their way into this batch.  Yum.  Can't wait.

Ardbeg Galileo Single Malt Whisky $95-ish - The new 12 year old, cask strength release finished in Marsala wine casks is due to arrive shortly.  Keep your eyes peeled!

Compass Box Flaming Heart Blended Single Malt Whisky $115-ish - John Glaser's mix of Caol Ila, Tobermorey, and Clynelish is not to be missed.  The last release is still my favorite whisky I have at home, and one that I doll out sparingly.  I can now rest easy knowing that there will be another to replace it!

Jefferson's Ocean Aged Bourbon $TBA - I heard other larger retailers got about six to nine bottles total. I'm expecting we'll get two.  Which should make the 1,000 people that have asked me about it over the last three weeks very happy.  I mean, extremely disappointed.  The best part is it will be all my fault.  Can't wait!!

That's what I know for now!  Make sure you get on the email list if you're interested in these whiskies.

-David Driscoll