Blending Exercise

There's a great book about single malt whisky called The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom published in 1887 by a man named Alfred Barnard. I turn to this book every now and again when I'm looking for information or inspiration about my drinking habits. The tome is a giant travelogue that documents Barnard's visits to active distilleries in England, Scotland, and Ireland towards the end of the 19th century and there are even blending tips and advertisements in today's reprinted editions. One chapter I had never paid much attention to was the section called "The Art of Blending Scotch Whisky." I probably wouldn't have ever paid it much attention had John Glaser not pointed it out as a source of inspiration when we visited him recently.

Having read through the section today, during the commercials between Mad Men, I managed to pull out a few interesting passages that I thought I would share with you here on the blog.

It is a fact well known that the old-established Scotch houses, above all others, are enabled to give a higher class of whisky, by reason of their careful study of the science of blending, which they have now reduced to a fine art....The idea is, to produce a blend so perfect that it strikes the consumer as being one liquid, not many – i.e., having absolute unity, tasting as one whole.

To anyone who's recently found an affinity for single malt whisky (me included), it's important to remember that the idea of drinking the whisky of one single distillery is a relatively modern phenomenon – as in within the last few decades. It's not that single malts didn't exist before then (Laphroaig was one of the first to pioneer the idea back in the early 1900s) it's just that blends were considered superior. Barnard's view is among the majority of opinion during his time. Creating truly top-level whisky required a knowledge of blending.

It should be remembered that a high-class blend cannot be made out of inferior whiskies, and that the first brands of Highland whisky are not procurable at a low price, or at least the same price as second and third-class brands, while experience will teach that it will be cheaper in the long run to use only the finest product of the finest pot stills.

As you can see from the above passage, there was no prevailing mindset among Barnard's group that the finest whiskies should be enjoyed on their own – unadulterated, from a single barrel, at cask strength. In his mind, the finest whiskies should be married together to create the highest-quality of blends – the highest echelon of whisky available.

Age is the first essential in Scotch whisky: common experience has always shown that new spirit is less wholesome and more intoxicating than old....For an ideal blend the age should range from seven to ten years, and for a high-class whisky for ordinary private trade the age should run from five to seven years, while for a public-house trade it should never be less than two and up to four years old.

Isn't that funny? Seven to ten years old for the ideal blend! My how times have changed. What's interesting is how surpluses and shortages affect the "ideal" age for Scotch whisky. I'm not going to deny that thirty year old Port Ellen tastes like pure heaven, but there is a good deal to be said for marketing. There was a glut of Scotch whisky in the early 1980s. Since that time we've been told that the older a whisky is, the better. Maybe that's because companies were sitting on vast supplies of old booze (Stewart Laing told us how they once blended old Brora into their basic label expression because they didn't know what else to do with it). Now we're in the middle of a global shortage. All of a sudden we're being told that age isn't important. In fact, many whiskies no longer carry an age statement. We're back to flavor again. The ultimate marriage is more important than the age of maturity. It could be said that the importance of age to a whisky depends entirely on what the industry needs to sell. I'm not saying that. I'm just saying that you could say that. :)

Speaking of flavor...

Flavour is the next essential in a good blend. All Highland whisky must have flavor, and it is the quality and degree of this flavour that denotes the value of the various Highland stills, just as it is in wine....A first-class blend must contain a careful selection of the choicest products of the Highland stills mellowed by age, and judiciously amalgamated by a practised hand; not like a mixture we heard of lately in the Midland Counties, in which a merchant had put together a second-rate Campbeltown, a cheap Lowland malt, and a deal of low-class grain spirit, and then called it a Highland malt.

How awesome is that paragraph?! Barnard is the outspoken whisky blogger before there was such a thing. Look at him, exposing companies that attempt to market their whisky as something it isn't. Fuck that shit!

Mountain air, peat moss of the richest quality, pure water from the hills, and the best Scotch malt, are absolute requirements for the manufacture of Highland whisky, in order to ensure the pronounced characteristics so highly valued by the experienced blender; and it is the development of these by age, which gives bouquet and relish to a fine blend. In order to appreciate good whisky we must fully realise the distinction that exists in the composition and properties of the blend....For the purposes of our argument we shall divide the distilleries of Scotland into six classes: Islay, Glenlivet, North Country, Campbeltown, Lowland Malt, and Grain.

Glenlivet is what we know today as Speyside (confusion between the actual distillery and the region). North Country we now refer to as Highland. Barnard goes on to describe the properties of each style and its particular use for blending together the perfect whisky. He even gives a recipe for one of the most popular blends he knows of, which you can see in the photo at the top.

Looking at Barnard's recipe for inspiration I took to my whisky cabinet and began mixing. Are you like me? Do you have fifty open bottles that have been quietly sitting there in your living room, taking up space and needing an excuse to finally empty their content? Maybe it's time we all tried our hand at blending. I want to see who can make the best vatted malt from their home collection. I know a few customers who already do this regularly, but I think learning how flavors work together is part of a sound whisky education.

While the term "blend" today has become synonymous with lower quality with newer whisky drinkers looking for "pure" authenticity, mixing up what's available is a great way to find value in an exploitative market. We're doing some mixing of our own right now with casks that have potential, but don't quite sing that solo the way we wish they could. Barnard's book is a great source of information for anyone interested in learning more about the process. I've already had a bit of fun with this recipe.

-David Driscoll


The Burnout Antidote (Part IV)

Why spend a whole week talking about whisk(e)y burnout?

First off, because I can sense it in the air. There's a glitch in the Matrix. A disturbance in the force. We're selling more whisk(e)y than ever, so it's got nothing to do with sales. People aren't buying less whisky, but I do feel like they're enjoying it less. I also get the feeling that many devout drinkers are getting less overall satisfaction from what it is they're spending. I had lunch with my friend Brian the other day who is in real estate and he confirmed the same pattern in the Bay Area housing market. Everyone thought the bubble was going to burst, but it bounced right back and now there's no inventory. You can still buy a house. As long as you've got a million dollars. Oh, and you'll need to pay in cash. Up front.

Let's say you've got a million in cash, up front. Is that what you want to spend it on? My friend Brian is reporting the same type of burnout with some of his clients. They're tired of waking up every morning, going to open houses, getting their hopes up with an offer, only to find out they've been outbid by someone else. Another friend of mine is in the same situation. He's been trying to buy a place for the last year and he's finally given up. All of the promotion about low interest rates, loans coming easier, and a strong market got him all excited. Then, when he went out to actually get a place, he found there weren't any places to get. There were plenty of places he wanted to buy, but the prices kept going up, up, up. When you finally close on a deal you might find you've overspent and that doesn't make for a satisfied consumer.

When we walked into some of our favorite Scottish warehouses last month, we could feel that something was wrong. Again, there was just that feeling in the air. It was confirmed when we looked at the price sheets after tasting through samples. $140 a bottle for 14 year old Laphroaig? $60 a bottle for a 6 year old Caol Ila? We purposely tasted through less-mature whisky, thinking some of these younger malts might offer value, much like someone going after a condo instead of a house. But then you're hit with the HOA fees and other hidden costs that take away from any possible savings, so you really didn't save much in the end. That's part of the reason that last year's casks were mostly in the $100+ range. It was simply worth spending the extra money to get something better.

What did we do differently this year as a result? We really put in the research. We found guys who sell casks, but don't bottle. We found ex-distillery employees who kept a few casks after retirement, but now want to part with them. We dug up every barrel we could find, no matter what the name, provenance, or age and we tasted them. All of them. Close to 250 casks in all. Many of these brokers are not as connected as brands like Signatory or Gordon & MacPhail. They don't have the customer base or the reputation for quality, so they're not charging the same premium. We found young peated whiskies. We found fifteen year old casks from places like Fettercairn or Blair Athol. We tasted blended whiskies as well. If we could find value we could possibly help relieve our market from sticker shock and further whisky burnout.

I can't imagine buying a house with a mortgage that took up every dollar I earned each month. Not being able to go out, living off of tuna fish, just so I could own my own place. It's not worth it to me and I know I would burnout fast with that type of lifestyle. Similarly, I don't want K&L customers to look at quality whisky as something they have to scrimp and save for. Maybe for a bottle of Port Ellen, but certainly not for a bottle of Laphroaig 14. There are plenty of value-priced whiskies on the market still, but die-hard whisky customers want new things. What's next? What's new? "I want something that I can't just get anywhere else," is the number one request in the K&L liquor department. I get asked for something new and unique fifty times a day. These guys have had Clynelish 14, Aberlour 12, and Highland Park a jillion times. They're beyond those bottles now. After nurturing a passion for single casks over the last couple of years, it seems like such a shame to call $100 the new $50 for this type of product.

What can we do about it as retailers? Work harder. Find deals. Do your job. I think we've done it this year. Royal Lochnagar. Bowmore. Fettercairn. Aberlour. Longmorn. Blended whiskies. Blended malts. Whatever we could find that had a great taste and a great price. That's the antidote for whisky burnout. Value. Finding a new, exciting, interesting whisky that you can afford to drink and still have money left over. Many of the K&L bottles this season will be geared towards consumption. You won't have to dollup out a thimble-full here and there. If things go as planned (fingers crossed) we could have as many as fifteen single barrel, high-proof whiskies that should sell for far less than $100. Less than $70 in many cases. Maybe even less than $60. I don't know yet because we haven't done all the math.

I'm hoping that this stimulus package puts a jolt back into the industry. We can't win by purchasing Diageo whisky and selling it for cost anymore (although that was fun, wasn't it?). I'm hoping that fun, drinkable, and affordable whiskies can make drinking single malt whisky something we do every night, rather than only for special occasions.

We'll see.

-David Driscoll


Our Whisk(e)y Could Be Your Life

There's a famous book by Michael Azerrad called Our Band Could Be Your Life that documents the influence of punk rock during the 1980s. I've always loved the title of that work because I think it succinctly summarizes how seriously some people take their music. Imagine if you started a band and you had people following you from city to city, getting tattoos of your name across their chest, reciting your lyrics at every show, even arguing over what they think you mean by them. I remember going to watch Stephen Malkmus at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco about five years ago and it was nuts. The whole room was full of people who were cat-calling songs they wanted him to play. He already had a setlist he was working through, but people were really clamoring for old Pavement tracks. At one point he forgot the lyrics to a song he was playing by request, "Vanessa From Queens." We all shouted the words out to him so he could keep going. I remember thinking, "I know all the words to every Stephen Malkmus song by heart, but Stephen Malkmus doesn't?" When it comes to music I think we, as fans, have a tendency to over-inflate the importance of these songs to the artists themselves. What may mean the world to you could be just another jingle to them, one of hundreds that they're forgotten about over time. I think similar analogies could be made about whisky.

We've all been to a concert where an older artist is supporting new material. The artist wants to play the new stuff, but we want to hear the old stuff. We politely tolerate a few Bridges to Babylon tracks because we know Mick is going to pump out "Brown Sugar" and "Gimme Shelter" if we're patient enough. As it pertains to whisky, I've watched grown men practically grill brand ambassadors or master distillers over releasing more Supernova or making another batch of Parker's Heritage #1. I've sponsored customer events where people show up for free food and free booze with the whiskymaker, but sit there and argue with the guest over changing the specs to fit their particular desire. "Can't you make a peated Aberlour? Why not? I'd buy one! Isn't that reason enough?"

In all of my time playing the middleman between customers and producers, I've learned one very important lesson: the companies making the spirits usually don't care nearly as much as the customers do about their alcohol. They're trying to make money, not friends. If their particular product resonates with you, that's great. They're happy to hear it. However, when a customer starts showing up at company meetings, emailing regularly, and exhibiting groupie-esque behavior, it can start to get a little weird for the guys making the whisky. On the other side of that coin, the producers often times do not understand that creating a spirit automatically enters them into a passionate community of liquor fans. Whether they like it or not, they now have websites dedicated to their cause, message board threads documenting their every move, and an HR employee whose inbox is likely overloaded with detailed questions about production. Some spirits will achieve rock star status. Some will simply enjoy a few years of moderate fame. Some will resent success, others will embrace it.

If you asked me to list off every Ardbeg release since 2005 in chronological order, I could do it. If you asked Bill Lumsden the same question on the spot, he could probably answer it as well. However, if he forgot a few names or misplaced the order of a few, I wouldn't be surprised. Nor would I read anything into it. The guys making the whisky are busy doing that - actually making the whisky. They're not categorically managing the entirety of whisky culture in their minds at all times. A lot of whiskymakers have no idea what's going on outside of their own company. Kilchoman? What's that? Whereas someone like me thinks about booze all day and all night, it doesn't necessarily follow that the people making it do as well.

Like the time I had to help Stephen Malkmus remember the lines to one of his more obscure songs. What was more embarrassing? The fact that he had forgotten them? Or the fact that I knew them and had the nerve to shout them out?

-David Driscoll


ArteNom Developments

I had lunch with Jacob Lustig today, tequila afficionado and K&L hero. We're Jake's top account for tequila in the world, mainly because everyone who works here is in love with his booze. It's practically the only tequila we recommend anymore. When your stuff is that good and this well-priced, it's hard to put another bottle in someone's hand. In any case, Jake was stopping by to tell me that the distillery in Santa Maria, which makes the 1079 Blanco tequila, has changed ownership and filed for a new NOM number. The next batch of Blanco will therefore carry the new 1580 number. Jake was worried that this change would confuse people, but since the tequila is from a new batch anyway (with a distinctly different flavor) it might be better to change the number along with it. I got the chance to open the new 1580 and I almost like it better. There's a distinct vegetal note that really pops along with the spice.

Jake also runs a distillery in Oaxaca where he's making some fantastic everyday mixing mezcal. Like myself, Jake is not interested in collecting or amassing, he's interested in consumption. His goal was to make a clean, tasty mezcal that you wouldn't feel guilty about when you emptied the bottle in a single evening with friends. A mezcal that you could pour out generously and celebrate with, alongside a 24 pack of beer. He's definitely achieved that goal.

We'll have these in stock next week!

-David Driscoll


Time to Relax (Part III)

Do you remember that scene in Amelie when Audrey Tautou gives the man the video of the horse running through the bicycle race? It's a touching moment when a shut-in who hasn't been able to leave his house realizes that life is beautiful and he needs to get back out into the world.

A friend sent me this video this morning via email and I just sat spellbound for the entire duration watching this guy shred the keyboard. I completely forgot the order I was working on, the whisky notes I needed to type up, and I just sat there smiling. Remember to keep up with the world as a whole, not just the internet whisky scene. It's a great big planet and there are many wonderful things happening as we speak. Now can someone please get married and invite this guy to play at their wedding?

-David Driscoll