Beer and Clothing in Las Vegas

I looked up "vega" in the online Spanish dictionary and it means "a flat and fertile plain or valley." That should mean that the name Las Vegas refers to several flat and fertile plains or valleys, yet all I see from my window at the Trump Hotel is desert. Mountains to the right, the strip at dead center, with more mountains to the left. I'm definitely positioned within a valley, but I'm not sure how fertile it is, or ever was, for agriculture and wildlife. One thing that does grow in Las Vegas, however, is money and I'm not even referring to the gambling. My wife and I usually fly to New York once a year for vacation and end up doing a bit of shopping while we're there. It's New York, so there are boutiques and small shops literally everywhere. Lately, however, we've mainly used Manhattan for walking, eating, and catching a few shows. Ever since we started coming to Vegas, we've been doing the bulk of our purchasing at the carnival of outlets mainlining through the strip. Nowhere else are there so many stores, with so much merchandise, in so concentrated of an area.

Today is my third day in Sin City and I awoke with a great excitement when I learned that All Saints would be having a huge sale this morning. I'm very particular about my denim, mainly because I have a thin waist with large legs, making my search for the perfect fit a bit more difficult. My jeans have to be cut just right and when I find some that are tailored perfectly, I'm willing to pay - a lot. It's not so different from how many of my customers feel about whiskey - they know exactly what they're looking for and how difficult it can sometimes be to find it. As with spirits, there are designer brands that will deliver both the style and the quality for the money. Some deliver only one of the two. Many offer neither, yet charge you as if they did. It takes time, experience, and a few failures to ultimately understand what you're paying for when it comes to good denim, as it does with good whiskey. In many ways, shopping for designer jeans is not unlike shopping for a nice bottle of booze.

I decided to take a cab over to the Cosmopolitan Hotel, where the huge All Saints store is located, and hike the couple miles back for some exercise. I hailed a taxi in front of the lobby and slid into the back seat. My driver's name was Mimiko and she had beautifully vibrant skin with an African accent.

"Where are you from originally?" she asked after I told her my destination.

"San Francisco," I replied. "Where are you from originally?"

"Kenya," she answered, but I had already guessed Kenya. East Africans have absolutely the most beautiful cheek bones in the entire world. Mimiko's face gave her away.

"How often do you get home to visit?" I asked.

"Once a year. It's a long flight."

"Where do you connect through?" I inquired.

"London," she said. "Only one stop to Nairobi with British Airways."

Another thing that flourishes in Las Vegas is hospitality. I've never had so many friendly conversations with complete strangers than I have in my last few days here. Spending the bulk of my time alone while my wife attends a conference, I've managed to make a few new friends. Mimiko and I talked about the food on the BA Heathrow route and how global warming is making the transatlantic flight more turbulent.

"I almost flew out of my seat last time over," Mimiko shared, "and I went home during the dry season to nothing but rain."

"It's not good for our commute, but maybe Kenya will become the new Napa Valley. We can go in on some land together and plant Cabernet vines. What do you think?"

She laughed in what sounded like musical spasms and told me she already knew of the perfect site. As we pulled into the Cosmo lobby we agreed to 50/50 terms for ownership. A handshake sealed the deal.

The open container policy in Las Vegas isn't good for containing public drunkenness, but it is handy when you've got a can of beer in your back pocket and a budding thirst under the desert sun. I popped the lid, took a sip, and made my way upstairs to do some shopping. After escaping with two pairs of Iggy fit acid wash and some navy blue shorts, I began my trek back to the North end of the strip. In typical Vegas style, the most convenient (and comfortably shaded) path cuts through some of the most affluent shopping districts: the Forum at Caesar's and Canal Street inside the Venetian. Seeking a break from the overhead heat I decided to seek refuge inside the air-conditioned hallways.

One thing that blows my mind about Vegas is the amount of people out and about, spending freely and extravagantly. We happened to come during an especially crowded time of the year with the Electric Daisy Carnival descending on the city this weekend. The EDC is like a city of its own walled inside the local racecar speedway - 300,000+ people dressed in 1990's rave culture garb, dancing with Molly (the new name for MDMA instead of Ecstasy), and swinging neon-colored glow sticks with flashing lights. However, being that I was out at 10:30 AM, only a few hours after last night's festivities had finally ended, I only had the usual gang of tourists and thrill-seekers to contend with.

I couldn't help but stop at the Chanel store as I walked by, just because someday I would like to have the means to buy my wife a purse there without taking out a mortgage. As I perused the selection, I was secretly eavesdropping on a group of women at the main counter, harping over which two purses they were going to end up with.

"No, no! You need a classic look!" the mother, I'm assuming, said to one of her daughters.

"But you can't see the CC logo!" she whined back.

I sighed and thought to myself how much the wine and spirits world has become like the fashion one. We've gotten farther and farther way from actually enjoying the quality of our wine and clothing, and more concerned with others knowing how much we spent on them. I examined what I thought was the most elegant of the larger handbags and checked the card inside for the price: $3600. That's a lot of money, I thought. However, it's not more than I see bottles of Bordeaux go for daily on our auction site. At least you can wear this for the rest of your life, I reasoned, rather than drink it down during a single meal. There's something about shopping while you're intoxicated that fills you with courage, a bravado that replaces your usually rational common sense. The fact that I was in Vegas only made it more intense. Isn't that what this city is about? Making bold decisions, doing what's normally impossible, and feeling great about it?

In the end, I balked because I knew my wife, while probably sleeping with the bag by her side and marvelling over it like her first born, would never be able to wear a Chanel purse without feeling guilty about what she could've done with that amount of money. Seven years at K&L has also shaped my wine connoisseurship in a similar fashion. I'm more than able to appreciate why first-growth Bordeaux is revered so highly. I'm definitely a sucker for mature, Grand Cru Burgundy. However, I'm not willing to trade cases of great bottles, two months worth of fantastic drinking experiences, for the one lone bottle of Chateau Latour. At least not at this point in my life. I'd never be able to rid that thought from my brain while uncorking two grand's worth of grape juice. There's just no way.

When you're actually considering a purchase of that magnitude, everything else seems like an absolute bargain afterward. What's $300 when you were just about to drop four grand? I was searching for a nice gift for my wife, seeing that we were celebrating later that evening, so I stopped by another high-end store in search of the perfect shoes. I spotted them instantly. They had her size. I threw down the credit card. Deal done, with thousands of dollars saved, instead of hundreds spent. I was giddy and electric the rest of the way back.

When my wife came by later that evening and I surprised her with the gift, she was stunned. She instantly removed her ballet flats and slid into the elegant fit of the new pair."Oh my God," she said, "They're sooooo comfortable! I can't believe how they feel!" I was relieved. Not only were the shoes incredbily beautiful, they were "hand-crafted" (another great booze-related term) with the finest leather inside as well. For the money, I had hoped there would be a big difference in the quality and fit, as well as the exterior, and there definitely was.

Ultimately, that's what we're all shopping for. We want something special. We want something of quality. But we also don't want to feel like we overpaid for something that wasn't worth it. There's plenty of amazing shopping to be done in Las Vegas, the land of fertile valleys and plains. It can be an oasis in the middle of a desert if you know what you're looking for, but endlessly barren and empty if you don't.

-David Driscoll


Darroze Tasting in SF this Wednesday


Come and taste three Armagnacs from Darroze this Wednesday evening in our San Francisco store. We'll have Susan Thornett behind the bar from Vintage 59 to walk you through the selections. The tasting runs from 5 PM until 6:30. Free of charge, as always.

-David Driscoll


Añejos Ridiculosos

Since we've been talking about tequila all week, I thought I'd update everyone on a project that's almost two years in the making now. Since 2011 I've been dropping hints about a ridiculously old tequila we've been planning to release here at K&L, made by Enrique Fonseca in Atotonilco (right next to El Viejito actually). Enrique has insanely old tequila in cask that he carefully monitors using refill barrels that are moved around the warehouse to make sure they don't age too quickly. The initial plan was to release a single vintage or single age statement tequila, i.e. a 1999 13 year old expression. However, there was one small issue: the oldest ones weren't good enough on their own to justify the cost, and the young ones weren't complex enough on their own to offer anything new to the extra añejo genre. What to do?

I know what John Glaser would do. I know what just about any whisky distillery would do. They would attempt to blend the young with the old, hoping to make something better than the sum of the parts. After some serious work I think we may have done it. I'm not a master blender. Heck, I'm not even a novice blender, but either by osmosis or dumb luck I think we may have created the perfect balance of young and old. It's not going to be inexpensive because there's 21 year, 18 year, 14 year, and 11 year tequila in this marriage. No producer in the history of the tequila industry has released anything that old as far as I know (please let me know if you've heard of anything older). However, it will be far under $200.

And it will be the most interesting, most aged, and most incredible añejo tequila ever released.

And it will only be at K&L.

More on this later!

-David Driscoll


Campeón (or Why I Went to Mexico)

No product group has frustrated me more lately than tequila. I'm just so disappointed with the category as a whole right now. There has been absolutely zero effort, other than by my friend Jake Lustig with his ArteNOM selections and a handful of other producers, to actually deliver a serious product for a reasonable price to consumers. Moreso than any other spirit, even vodka, most tequila is simply the result of brands contracting product from distilleries that have nothing to do with the brand itself. Everything is about image and flavor with absolutely no focus on how the tequila itself is made or why it's special.

Now and again you'll hear people say: the best tequila (or any spirit, really) is the one that tastes best to you. That's such a load of crap.

The best tequila for you might be the one that tastes best to you, but not all tequilas are created equally. Not all tequilas use the same quality of agave. Not all tequilas use the same type of cooking process. Not all tequilas use the same type of shredding technique. Not all tequilas are distilled on the same type of still. Not all tequilas are kept clean, free of additives or coloring. Many tequilas add glycerol to create texture and weight. Not all tequilas monitor maturation the same way. It's how a tequilera chooses to do all of these important steps in the tequila-making process that decide whether a tequila is worth your money or not. The tastiest tequila may not be the most expensive to make. In my opinion, if it isn't expensive to make, then it shouldn't be expensive to buy.

That's not to say that the inverse is true, either. It's simply to say that one should know what they're paying for and then decide if the extra money makes a difference. Since so little is known about how any particular tequila is made, it seemed fitting to head down and take a closer look. Lou Palatella, the owner of Campeon tequila, isn't a new type of tequila owner. He's another guy who put some money together and bought his own brand, hoping his background in the industry would carry him through the process. Like many owners before him, he learned that moving cases wasn't going to be as easy as it was for Patron.

There are many things, however, that separate Lou Palatella from the rest of his predecessors. There's the fact that he's one of the most dynamic and spellbinding personalities in this world. There's the fact that the man knows how to make a deal and how to make you feel good about it. Yet, neither of these venerable traits make his tequila any tastier or higher in quality. The fact that Lou decided to go with a family distillery that makes quality, vibrant, unadulterated tequila wasn't his idea. It wasn't even on his radar. Lou and El Viejito ended up together because of Lou's relationship with Patron, who El Viejito once distilled for. Yet, were Campeon tequila not such a fine and traditional agave spirit, this trip never would have happened because I wouldn't have been interested in observing the production of coloring agents and mass-produced slop. So call it dumb luck. Or call it fate.

The other thing that separates Lou Palatella from every other tequila brand owner I've met in the past is the fact that Lou doesn't act like he knows everything. He's open to learning more. He wants to learn. Much of the time, the defensiveness that brand owners exhibit about their darling products is enough to halt any future business on the spot. There's a fear of criticism or that there might be room for improvement. Not with Lou, however. He's learning that the new era of liquor sales is based on information and transparency, not glitz and glamour. When I told him that his tequila was one of the cleanest I'd ever tasted, he was overjoyed. However, when I told him that his tequila needed a new image, he was all ears. "Tell me what you think we can do better," he said. You've gotta respect that.

So that's how I ended up on a plane down to Guadalajara this past Monday: to check out the El Viejito distillery and see if there was actually substance behind the brand. As you can tell from the last few days of posts, there are some wonderful things happening with El Viejito and Campeon - so much so, that I think we'll be bringing in our own batch of Campeon blanco quite soon. Juan was more than open to creating a run of Campeon that was more like El Viejito and bottling it just for us under Lou's label. I think our customers will be pleased.

More importantly, Campeon is no longer just a faceless, imageless brand to me. It's a traditional, minimalist tequila made by a family who cares about what they do. They've been making tequila for 75 years, from generation to generation. I'm not telling you that because it's romantic or endearing, I'm telling you that because it's nice to drink tequila from someone who actually knows what they're doing.

While Campeon is another in a long line of American-owned, contracted tequila brands, it's one that actually does that job well, along side a producer that upholds principles and philosophies that are important to me and to K&L. When I think of Campeon now, I don't see a perfume bottle with a green label, I see a country distillery with green agave fields. I see a plate of cheese and potato chips with hot sauce, on a table with a bucket of ice and a few bottles of El Viejito, covered by an umbrella with folding chairs around it. That's where the three of us sat, ate snacks, and made some tequila drinks while taking in the countryside last Tuesday. That's a great image to have in my mind. For that reason, I can happily say that we've got Campeon tequila again at K&L for a very nice price. And I can proudly tell you everything about why it tastes the way it does.

I couldn't be more happy to sell it this time around.

Campeòn Silver Tequila $33.99 - Campeon tequila is made at El Viejito distillery in Atotonilco, Jalisco. For more than 75 years, the Nunez family has been making unadulterated, additive-free tequila with a clean-tasting purity and a trademark note of white pepper and spice. In Mexico, they release an eponymous tequila called El Viejito, but in the U.S. they're brought in by the Bay Area's own Lou Palatella, who contracts the juice under his Campeon label. The blanco is a tequila drinker's blanco. Light, clean, easy to sip, but utterly mixable. With new pricing, this is easily one of the best tequilas at K&L for the price.

Campeòn Reposado Tequila $35.99 - Juan Nunez is a big believer in minimal oak influence and his reposado is one of the lightest and most graceful around. The soft fruit and oak just gently brushes against the spice and pepper of the spirit, making for a mellower experience and flavor. Top notch tequila, especially with the new pricing.

Campeòn Añejo Tequila $39.99 - Juan Nunez is a big believer in minimal oak influence, so the anejo isn't as rich or dark as most tequilas in this category. Nevertheless, this is what true anejo drinkers are searching for - that transformation of pepper into baking spice, and of fruit into vanilla. It's a seamless tequila that never loses itself after a year in the barrel.

-David Driscoll



The more I've written for the K&L website over the past few years, the more I realize the importance of storytelling. I understand the pressure that professional journalists face more than ever, especially when they've got nothing to write about and have to make something out of nothing. Although I try to avoid doing this (mainly because I don't have to write anything), I get why they do it. These people get paid to make sure you read their work, even if it means bending the truth to make the story more compelling.

That doesn't mean it isn't annoying, however. Because of this tendency, you have to make sure you can filter out the news to avoid embarrassing yourself later. What I mean by that is: don't go around telling people about something interesting you've read unless you know it's absolutely true. Otherwise you look like the idiot, not the reporter.

Here's an incredibly embarrassing story about myself that gives a better example: Berlin, June, 2006. I'm studying at the Freie Universität for the summer and after class one day I'm hanging out with a colleague from France and one of her friends. We decide to meet back at the dorms and open a bottle of wine. Naturally, me being an American from California and the two girls being French, we get into the topic of California wine versus French wine. I was one of these new, chip-on-the-shoulder wine guys who thought he knew everything because he attended a few tastings and read the Wine Spectator each month. I was quick to talk and even quicker to keep talking. I'm already cringing just telling you this much.

After talking for a bit, the friend of my colleague says something like, "If you like wine so much, you simply must try more French wines. Let me make you a list of some bottles I think you will like." And what do I say? I say something like, "Didn't California just beat France again in the Judgement of Paris though?" This was right after Stephen Spurrier had organized a rematch of the original California Cabernet vs. Bordeaux blind tasting and the California wines had won in a landslide. "What do you mean?" the friend replied. "I mean a panel of experts just put the best French wines up against the best California wines and, once again, the California wines were considered better," I said, as if I had actually tasted the wines and agreed wholeheartedly with the result. I won't get into any more embarrassing details because this is already painful enough, but let's just say that the only reason I even brought that story up was because I had read it in a magazine. I felt the need to prove not only how much I knew about wine, but also how superior my wine was to theirs. It wasn't even my own opinion! It was some stupid headline that read, "California Once Again Best in the World." Today, I still enjoy drinking some California wines, but under no circumstances whatsoever should they be considered better than French wines. Not necessarily worse, but definitely not better or the best in the world. Anyone who wants to make that type of blanket statement is just looking to pick a fight.

Why am I bringing that story up? Because on the way back from Mexico yesterday Lou bought a copy of Reader's Digest. We were halfway through the flight when Lou tapped me and said, "Hey, what do you think about this?" It was an article called "50 Reasons to Love America." This was number 45:

Guess what America? The world's best single malt whisky is no longer from Scotland! That's right! Because a small panel of British experts, mind you, chose Balcones Single Malt over some unnamed Scotch whiskies in a blind tasting, that means that the BEST single malt whisky in the world is now Balcones!! HOORAY! Even the Brits agree that we're number one! Go suck on that, Scotland! U-S-A! U-S-A!

This is the type of fluff that sends me into the stratosphere because people will now cling to this story like it's God's honest truth. Guys love to pull out little trump cards like this at parties or at dinner. 

Friend #1: Should we order a drink?

Friend #2: Certainly, how about some whiskey?

Friend #1: Let's see if they have Balcones from Texas.

Friend #2: What's that?

Friend #1: Oh, just this little distillery in Waco that just got voted the best whiskey in the world. It beat out all the best Scotch whiskies available.

Friend #2: Really? I didn't hear about that.

Friend #1: Well, it's more the people who really know about whisky that are talking about it. (smirks)

How do I know this type of conversation is going to happen? Because I did the exact same thing when I read something similar back in 2006. It's what insecure guys do when they want to impress other people. I just watched some idiot professor on Real Time with Bill Maher do the same thing last week. They were talking to a guy who had spent five years researching the fracking industry and the possible damages it's doing, but some Harvard hotshot felt the need to contradict him because, get this, he had read an article in the Scientific American last week! I can see not agreeing with someone, but getting into a debate with an bonafide expert on a subject because you've read a magazine article and you feel like you're now qualified to enter into a serious discussion? Seriously? The nerve! The embarassment! The guy ended up getting booed off the program.

Not to take anything away from Balcones, but this blurb is ridiculous and I truly hope that no one goes out and embarrasses themselves by repeating it in public. Balcones makes a lot of whiskey that people enjoy, but I've yet to try one great American single malt from any distillery that even comes close to what Scottish distilleries have achieved.

But then what do I know? If you've read the most recent issue of Reader's Digest, you already know what the best whisky is.

-David Driscoll