The Salon is Burning up!

Our new whisk(e)y party group, The Salon, is burning through tickets like wildfire! We've already sold more than 70 spots for our Bourbon fiesta next Saturday in San Mateo. I've added ten more tickets to the inventory because we're selling fewer guest seats, which gives us a little more wiggle room. Last time I looked we had room for fifteen more people. Party on!

Ticket sales have been so strong that we've already booked our second event with the Vault 164. The Salon will once again take over the private events dining room on Friday March 15th for a St. Patrick's Day extravaganza, so mark your calenders. Expect a showdown between Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley, as well as some corned beef and cabbage sliders. Tickets for the next event will go on sale immediately after next week's party is over.

Thanks so much for all of your support. I know we're going to make you proud!

-David Driscoll


The Romance of Big Brands

I've been reading The Sun Also Rises this week as I lay in bed, dying from fever, ravaged by this wretched flu bug. Someone recommended I take another look at Hemingway's masterpiece since my high school experience left little to be desired. It's amazing how reading a great book at the wrong time can really tarnish one's penchant for literature. At 33, I'm about the same age as most of the characters in the story which makes all the difference. Reading it this time around, it's hard for me to believe this isn't a modern day novel. The problems are the same. The men have all the same romantic delusions. The drinks are the same: Pernod and water, Jack Rose cocktails, brandy and soda, and tons of Champagne. I should make The Sun Also Rises required reading for K&L customers (I'd sell a ton of booze after the first night alone).

There's something about reading a novel where people are drinking that makes one want to drink along with them. In fact, that's one of the points Hemingway makes in the story itself (the fact that many people imitate the behavior of fashionable novels). Jake and the boys of The Sun Also Rises are constantly dropping the Pernod name, which definitely sticks in the back of my mind as something fun and desirable. Casablanca was on TV the other night and I'll be damned if Victor Lazlo didn't walk up to the bar and order two Cointreaus. Big stars, big brands, bright lights, tons of romance. I'd never wanted a glass of Cointreau so badly, if just to share the moment with Ingrid Bergman. You can see where I'm going with this.

Exactly two years ago, I declared the death of brand loyalty on this blog. Last August, I thought we might be seeing a ressurection. What I've realized now, however, is that the return of big brands isn't a possibilty, it's a certainty. They've got the romance, they've got the history, they've got the marketing and they've got the image. No matter how big or mass-produced the brand, there is someone out there who doesn't care about drinking something more interesting or outside the norm. That's not to say the customer doesn't care about quality, it's to say that there are other factors at play.

My grandmother loves Champagne. She's 92 years old and still drinks a gin martini (or two) every single evening. When I told her I would send her some Champagne for Christmas one year, she was very excited. She talked about Dom Perignon and how she always had wanted to visit the vineyards. She imagined the monks picking the grapes, making the wine, and how romantic it all seemed to her. I told her I would send her a bottle of Champagne that was three times as good as the best Dom Perignon money could buy, which I did. Our in-store secret, the Franck Bonville Belles Voye, found its way to her doorstep one day and she opened the bottle to share with a friend. She said she really enjoyed it, however, I could tell that she wasn't super impressed. If I had just sent a bottle of Dom Perignon, she would have been ecstatic - not because of the price, or the bling-bling image. It's simply the romance of the brand at play and there's nothing that can be done after its been engrained into us.

There's another customer like this who shops at the Redwood City store. He's a nice guy and he loves Champagne, but you can tell he doesn't know a lot about it. We always try and get him to buy bottles that are less expensive than the ones he's buying, but he's not interested. He only wants Dom Perignon or Cristal. He's willing to go big, spend $200 to $300, but he's definitely not flush and really has to save up for each bottle. Nevertheless, he loves his Dom Perignon. He loves it like other people love classic MGM cinema or like Jerry Seinfeld loves Porsche. There's a sense of awe, a feeling of "Wow," and an aspiration towards something grand (regardless of whether we think these things deserve it). Why even try to mess with that?

If the past few years have brought us Brand Wars, then you can definitely count on 2013 being The Empire Strikes Back. Even with the price increases we're all facing (Balvenie 12 Doublewood just went up $7 a bottle today, by the way), they pale in comparison to what the little guys are facing. It used to be the case that independent bottlings were a source for value in the single malt realm. However, Duncan Taylor's recent Macallan 15 year offering runs $140 a bottle. The standard Macallan 15 Fine Oak, in comparison, is $80. Even though the DT bottle is a single barrel, cask strength expression, is that really a $60 difference maker? As single malt producers face their own shortages currently, they're continuing to suffocate the supplies of the independents, forcing them to drastically raise their prices as a result. Then there's the whole sliding scale economic aspect.

Even with a recent increase in pricing, Kentucky Bourbon producers like Buffalo Trace continue to provide plenty of bang for the buck, simply because they're making so much product. The larger the production numbers, the lower the price paid per unit. We just have to hope that the increase in goods produced doesn't lower the overall quality. Let's put whisk(e)y aside however, only because we've beaten this subject like a dead horse. What about gin? Most "craft" or small production gins come in at the $30 to $40 price point. If they're really good, then they're worth it. Yet, look at Citadelle for $20. Look at the Royal Dock at a whopping Navy Strength for $28. Plymouth's Navy Strength for $33 is perhaps the best gin I've had in months and that takes me twice as long to drink because it's 57%. That's like an extra half bottle!

Brands understand that to stand victorious over the new craft spirit movement, they will have to work smarter and cheaper. And they can do it. Small producers cannot afford to take risks or take the hit. $5000 on discounts or rebates to key retailers is nothing to a big brand. It can make or break a new distillery, however. I'm getting phone calls from labels we haven't carried in years and their ideas are finally starting to make sense. "You've revamped your juice, changed your label, and lowered your prices? I'm listening!" The price discrepancy between large brands and craft distillers has been so large that many producers have been able to raise their prices, yet still offer value in comparison to their smaller competitors. Now is where the romance angle comes back into play.

Cointreau and Grand Marnier continue to dominate the orange liqueur market because no one has been able to come up with a better product for less money. The closest I've seen so far has been the new Ferrand Dry Curacao, but I wouldn't consider that a sipping liqueur like the other two. There are some fantastic other brands out there: Cartron, Combier, Leopold, and Santa Theresa, but they all suffer from either poor packaging or poor marketing. Grand Marnier's legendary status and iconic packaging will always carry the day. Cointreau's French roots and Hemingway references give it a huge advantage as well. These are the products we already want to buy. The burden is on the smaller producers to give us a reason to do otherwise. An ugly bottle with a high price tag will never succeed in this scenario, no matter how good the juice inside of it is.

As single barrel prices continue to rise, what independent can compete with Balvenie at $42 a bottle? With Laphroaig and Ardbeg 10 at $40? With Lagavulin 16 at $65? With Old Weller Antique, Buffalo Trace, and Four Roses Yellow at $20? With Ferrand Ambre Cognac for $35? With Belvedere Vodka for $25? With Paddy's Irish for $32 a liter? More importantly, what small company can compete with decades of advertisements, product placements, and built-in brand loyalty? It's always been an uphill battle, but 2013 is the year that smaller producers will face their fiercest challenge. The machine has adapted. The Matrix has updated. Agent Smith is smarter than ever. In George Lucas's trilogy, the Jedi doesn't return until three years after Empire. Hopefully, he's going to return with some reasonably-priced, mature, great-tasting products, otherwise this is likely to be a double feature.

-David Driscoll


Adventures on El Camino: Fernando's

El Camino Real. The Royal Road. The King's Highway. The 600 mile trail connecting the historic Spanish mission of California, from San Diego to Sonoma. Legend has it that the padres used to sprinkle mustard seeds along the path as they walked in order to mark it with bright yellow flowers. In 1912, San Mateo County decided to pave part of the road, beginning in San Bruno, and the rest is history. Route 82 was born, connecting the cities of the peninsula with a busy street full of major business along with some serious dives. Our Redwood City store is located at 3005 El Camino in Redwood City. I live just off of El Camino in downtown San Mateo. I used to live just off El Camino in Burlingame. Before that, I lived just off El Camino in Millbrae. Before that, I lived just off Mission St. in San Francisco, which is what El Camino turns into when you get into the city.

In other words, this road has played a huge role in the making of modern California and it continues to play a huge role in my life. I love living along this long, undivided highway. It brings a certain sense of community to the Peninsula, a community I've learned to embrace in my seven years living here. You go from town to town across borders without any space in between. I live on El Camino. I work on El Camino. I shop on El Camino. I drive to work down El Camino. I drive home down El Camino.

Anyone who does the same is aware of the diversity that exists along the Royal Road. You'll find major stores like Whole Foods and Target, but also places like Mercado Latino and Nijiya Market. There's a Cheesecake Factory on El Camino in San Mateo, but there's also thousands of hole-in-the-wall knick-knacks that you know like the back of your hand, yet have never taken the time to visit. I'm done simply driving by.

I recently started a column on the K&L Wine Blog called "What the F is this?" where I buy the most random, non-descript bottles in the store and review them, while shedding some light on what they are. The goal is to focus on bottles most customers would never buy and therefore never learn anything about. I'm going to begin doing the same thing on El Camino. In the name of strengthening community ties, spicing up my everyday existance, and serving the local readership, I am going to eat, drink, and hang out at those places along El Camino where no one else does. I shouldn't say "no one," I guess. If they're still in business, that means people are frequenting these establishments.

First off: Fernando's Mexican Restaurant on 37th Ave in San Mateo.

I usually get on to Highway 101 before ever getting that far south on El Camino – either via 92 or Hillsdale Blvd. However, just off the road on 37th Ave is a long-standing Mexican restaurant called Fernando's. This place is ooooooooold school and in a state full of latino standouts, this one doesn't stand out at all - aesthetically speaking. Most of 37th looks like it hasn't changed a lick since 1972 and Fernando's is no exception. The speakers out front still blast mariachi music into the street, the doors still look like an art-deco rancho, and the interior is dark in the way that early 80s cinema is dim and grainy. Walking in is like a time warp, but in a very comforting, nostalgic, warming sort of way.

In a world filled with chain stores, chain restaurants, and corporate ubiquity, one of the things that makes El Camino Real so refreshing is its plethora of pre-modern era businesses. Fernando's is where the Goonies would have eaten if they had lived in San Mateo. It's where Serpico would have eaten if he was a cop in San Mateo. It's the type of place you grew up remembering, yet it's still there! You can still go and enjoy it!

Drinks at Fernando's are simple. Pint glasses for everything – for your beer, sangria, or cocktail. They're up with the times, however, because you can get a Flaco (skinny) Margarita with tequila, agave nectar, and fresh lime juice instead of the goopy-goop stuff. My wife was thrilled. I ordered a Negro Modelo and munched on the warm, crispy chips with roasted tomato salsa that tasted like 1985 in a bowl. Yum.

Fernando's speciality seems to be the Arroz con Pollo (chicken and rice), so that made my choice easy. You get a bowl of soup to start, so make sure you save room for the gigantic deluge that follows it. As the photo above shows, the rice is completely smothered, buried deep beneath the mountain of onions, mushrooms, and chicken breast strips that adorn the savory, tomato-based sauce. Spoon it into your corn tortillas and chow down!

There's a full bar at Fernando's along with an ancient counter where you can pull up a stool and watch the game if you're so inclined. They have live mariachi in the evenings, so it might be a good idea to grab a seat when that happens. Check out these drinks, by the way:

Before you make any judgements, the margaritas we ordered were solid. No gripes, whatsoever. But look at the La Bamba cocktail. Are you kidding me? They have crazy, over-the-top drinks at Fernando's, which endears the place to me. The food is rustic, hearty, and filling. The atmosphere makes me want to curl up in a ball and listen to the Thompson Twins. The drinks are cheap, big, and tasty. And you can really get nuts if you're in the mood.

I think we spent $50 for two people with two drinks each and a bag full of leftovers. If you've got an entire Sunday afternoon to kill, you could do worse than a table at Fernando's. Give me a call and I'll drive down El Camino to meet you. First round's on me.

-David Driscoll


Tastings Tonight!

Carolis Deal will be in San Francisco tonight with his estate-produced Francois Peyrot Cognacs. I'd advise anyone remotely interested in brandy to check this out. These are serious Cognacs for reasonable prices. It's a great chance to try before you buy.

Redwood City will feature Campo Encanto Pisco with master distiller Carlos Romero. Pisco Sour Day was this past weekend, but we'll be stretching it out a bit to today. Come taste their wonderful brandies with some single varietal options as well.

Tastings are always free. 5 PM to 6:30!

-David Driscoll


New Balvenie in Stock

The new Balvenie 12 Year Old Single Barrel Single Malt Whisky $69.99 arrived at K&L just as California distributors announced they were sold out of the standard Doublewood 12. They're expecting more of the ubiquitous Doublewood soon, but in the meantime this is hot item. As Balvenie continues its trajectory toward Glenfiddich/Glenlivet/Macallan status, competing with Glenmorangie for a spot in the Final Four, their quality remains steadfast. Any Balvenie fan would eat this single barrel up – big time. It is decadent, mouthwatering stuff. A first-fill sherry barrel malt that oozes fat vanilla, tropical fruit sweetness, and spice on the finish, further emboldened by a 47.8% alcohol content. It's pricier than the Doublewood, but it's single barrel hooch and it's a higher proof. I really quite like it. It's a total sherry slut. But as Michael Showalter famously says in Wet Hot American Summer: "I like sluts. Sluts rock."

-David Driscoll