How Companies Profit When We Don't Know the Difference

Last year, my neighbor went to see Foreigner and Journey in a co-headline bill here in the Bay Area.  I thought it was funny she was so excited to see what are essentially two cover bands masquerading as the original act (and charging a fee as if they were the original act, to boot).  Not wanting to ruin her buzz, I kept my mouth shut and said it sounded like a good time.  She came back the next day talking about how much fun she had, how she and her friends had danced to all the hits, and how it took her back to high school hearing those two familiar voices.  I couldn’t take it at that point, so I said, “You know that those weren’t the two original singers, right?”  She stared at me with a blank expression.  “Lou Graham.  Steve Perry.  They’re not in the band anymore.  These bands have a couple of the original guys with some studio players filling out the gaps.”  All of a sudden, my neighbor wasn’t as excited about her experience.  “Well who the hell did I just pay to see then?” she cried.

There’s a reason why whisk(e)y companies pay millions of dollars for brand names. Most people don’t pay attention to what’s in their glass the way you and I do, but they do have brand recognition. “I’ve heard of Michter’s,” they say and they buy the Bourbon despite the fact that it’s no longer made in Pennsylvania.  In fact, they couldn’t care less about where it was made.  It’s not important to them nor has it ever crossed their mind.  That is, it’s not important until you tell them they may have bought the lesser version of the original thing.  No one likes to feel like they’ve spent money on something that wasn’t the real deal.  No one wants to be the person who didn’t know the difference.  “Oh, you didn’t know?  Jeez, I stopped drinking Michter’s years ago after they closed the distillery in 1989.”  That’s a line nobody ever wants to hear ­– even if they couldn’t tell the difference!  It’s not about flavor at that point, it’s about personal pride.  My neighbor couldn’t tell the difference between the old bands and the new ones. She had a blast at the concert. However, once she found out she paid big money for a karaoke jam session, she didn’t like it.

When big whisky companies start removing age statements from their whiskies and replace them with younger whiskies for the same price, it angers many of those who pay attention to booze. Nevertheless, most of the public won’t even flinch. For a majority of the population, there are more important things to do in life than follow the provenance of single malt whisky.  Kids, soccer practice, what’s for dinner, paying the bills – this is what we focus on.  "Foreigner got a new lead singer?  Sorry, I missed that. I figured if they were calling themselves Foreigner then it was probably the original band."  That’s where they get you.  You “figured” it was the same because it was called the same thing. Eddie Murphy made an entire movie about this idea years ago called the Distinguished Gentleman, where his character wins a seat in congress because he has the same name as the dead senator who once filled it ("No one actually knows their congressman is dead!"). 

As SKU pointed out yesterday, the “Golden Age” of booze probably ended about three years ago.  At K&L in 2009, you could walk into the store and get any whiskey you wanted for a reasonable price.  Now we have to keep things in the back, start a waitlist, and email people if they’re lucky enough to give us their money.  In 2009, there was enough whisk(e)y for everyone.  Now supply is running short, driving up prices, and sending enthusiasts into a frenzy while trying to source their favorite juice.  When shortages occur, companies take liberties with their brands. They drop age statements, use younger whisky to fill the bottles, replace one distillery with another, and charge us the same price.  We pay it because we don’t know the difference.  It has the same name on it, right?  What more do you need to know?

-David Driscoll


Two Whiskies No One Will Buy (but we carry, nevertheless)

Highland Chief Blended Scotch Whisky $12.99 - Anyone who is finding their bottle of Great King Street being emptied on too regular a basis should look here.  This is a little blend put together by the Hart Brothers independent bottler and I think it's just what we needed for our inexpensive blend category.  This easily drinks better than Dewar's or Famous Grouse and it's cheeeeeeeap! If you're outside on a warm day with some ice and soda, don't waste your good single malts.  This is fantastic alternative that has just enough vanilla and malty flavor.  I have gone through a bottle on my own (although, in honesty, I don't remember doing it).

Islay Mist 8 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky $24.99 - Worst name ever.  Terrible label.  Ugly combination of colors.  Great whisky.  Fabulous price.  With the amount of sherry and smoke going on in this bottle, I could probably be convinced this was Bowmore if I tasted it blind on the rocks.  I've tasted it about ten times now and each time I think it's going to expose its lesser qualities, but it never does.  Solid stuff.  Far better than Johnnie Walker Double Black and much less expensive.

Not excited about these?  That's OK.  These are for parties, when you need some Scotch and you don't want to break out the good stuff.  The best part is that no one even knows what these bottles are, so they also won't know how little you paid for quality sauce.

With all of the price increases coming, we should be happy to see fun little values like these.  Check out my man SKU's latest post today for another great synopsis of the current dilemma.  I've been posting in the comments this afternoon.

-David Driscoll


Whisky Season 2012 Continues: Two New K&L Casks

The above picture is the tiny little malting floor at Kilchoman where they do their own in-house 100% Islay single malt, made from barley grown right there at the farm.  When we went to Kilchoman last May to pick out a cask, we never thought any of these precious local barley barrels would be on the table.  There is so little of this whisky available and why would the distillery want to sell of their precious commodity to a little store like K&L? Sometimes certain people just get along, however, and deals can be struck through common interest and friendship.  David and I really love John MacLellan, so we bullied, I mean charmed, him into releasing us two casks instead of one.  Each is totally unique from the other, throwing completely different spices into the mix.  If they hadn't been so unique we never would have taken them both - we simply had to have them!  Much like Meryl Streep in Sofie's Choice, we said, "Please don't make us choose!"  Therefore, we have returned with both barrels under contract: a stunning five year old sherry cask of Kilchoman, full of earth, peat, rich sherry, and smoke, along side an ultra-rare sherry cask of 100% Islay, originally planned only for the 2012 Feis Ile Festival visitors.  Both are available for pre-order now at a discount.

Kilchoman K&L Exclusive Single Sherry Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - Getting to taste fresh Kilchoman, right of the still, was one of the highlights of the trip this year for David and me. Something magical is going on inside this tiny farm distillery. Their formula is so delicious, even as a white dog, that it hardly needs much aging at all. However, we were very curious to see what five years in a first-fill sherry cask would do to soften up some of the spice. Sitting in the warehouse with manager John MacLellan, we tapped into one of the fresh butts and poured ourselves a sample. This malt is loaded with fresh earth, chewy oils, petrol and peat smoke, mossy, dried grass, and a maritime sea air note that really hangs on the finish. It's a beast of a whisky, showcasing everything we love about both Kilchoman and sherry-aged Islay whisky. Of all the Kilchoman whiskies we've tasted, this one by far had the most maturity and was precocious beyond its years. It was only a matter of seconds before David and I looked at each other, nodded, and added another distillery-direct cask to the list. Years from now, when Kilchoman is one of the most sought-after malts in the world, no longer bottling private casks, we'll look back and say, "We used to buy them right out the warehouse."  These are heady days for Islay fans.

Kilchoman K&L Exclusive 100% Islay Single Sherry Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - Our single sherry cask of standard Kilchoman was an easy choice. The malt was simply brilliant, so good that any Islay fan could easily fall in love with its power and complexity. It was the other barrel, however, sitting in the corner of the warehouse that brought out the whisky geeks in David and me. We had heard rumors that Kilchoman was sitting on a small batch of sherry-aged 100% Islay single malt, their ultra-delicious and incredibly-limited whisky made from a small crop of barley grown and malted entirely at the distillery. It's no secret that the rest of Islay buys their barley from Diageo's Port Ellen malting facility, but circumventing that route is difficult, not to mention costly. Is it worth it however?  The answer to that question is a resounding "YES!"  The spice on Kilchoman's all-Islay whisky is totally different from the standard make - think blanco tequila meets smoky mezcal, with lots of citrus. When you add a sherry barrel to that equation the spice turns to cinnamon red hots, the fruit tropical and hedonistic, the peat to a sweet and vibrant tang.  At cask strength, the malt overwhelms the palate, almost like a giant party in your mouth. We had to push hard for this cask, but when you see two young buyers jumping up and down and hugging each other in your warehouse after tasting it, it's probably hard to say "no."

-David Driscoll


Hot 4th of July Deals

Hot whiskies.  Hot Prices.  Hot Deals.

Glenmorangie 18 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $83.99 (elsewhere $99) - If I had to pick my favorite whisky from the LVMH line up, including all the Ardbeg expressions, I'd easily choose the 18 year old from Glenmorangie.  It's the best whisky they make for the price and everybody likes it – beginners, casual sippers, experts, whisky geeks.  It's so gentle, supple, rich, and full of flavor.  The problem for me at K&L was getting a competitive price.  I've got plenty of $100 options that are more exciting to many of our serious whisky fans, but at $83.99, now we're talking! Removing $16 from the price tag makes a world of difference.  All of a sudden we're talking serious deal!  It's not that the Glenmorangie isn't worth $100, because it is.  It's just that it's really worth $83.99.  Kyle and I both agree that this is the hottest deal in the store.  Soft stone fruit, caramel, creme brulee, vanilla, all the way to the finish.  We won't be able to sustain this pricing past this order, so when we sell through we have to raise it back up.

Old Pulteney 17 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $79.99 - If you thought that the "Best Whisky of the Year" Pulteney 21 was great, then you'll really like the 17.  David OG, Kyle, and I all scratched our heads when Jim Murray came out with that award because, much like John Lennon famously said about Ringo ("He's not even the best drummer in the Beatles!"), the 21 isn't even the best Old Pulteney whisky, let alone the best in the world.  The 17 year is the better option, brimming with dried apricots, sweet cereal grains, and plenty of mouth-smacking goodness.  It's simply good, ole' fashioned Scotch for people who like Scotch.  It's the clear winner of the bunch and it also happens to be riding its older brother's coattails to higher pricing.  We cleaned out every bottle in the state to sustain this fantasic deal as long as possible. Once we sell through the price will take a $15 increase up to around $100 a bottle.  I love the OP17 for $80.  Will I still love it at $100? Hot whisky can command a hot price.  None hotter than ours at the moment!

-David Driscoll


History’s Pantheon and the Importance of the Past

When Matt Cain pitched a perfect game for the Giants a few weeks ago, I watched grown men revert back into excited boys, tears welling in their eyes as the excitement of one of baseball’s rarest feats took hold within their own backyard.  Announcers on ESPN shared their own opinions about how Cain’s performance held up in the annals of great pitching performances, while internet users voted in polls asking where this game stood amongst those of history’s finest hurlers.  People love to discuss the athletic achievements of others. Part of our own idealized desire lives on every night when we watch our heroes take the field.  As a kid, I used to practice catching a ball just at the edge of our backyard fence, robbing an imaginary batter of his chance at greatness, making my own Sportscenter moment that would become immortalized on highlight reels to come.  Even at that age, I was aware of society’s reverence for excellence and how we love to recreate it, discuss it, and categorize its importance.

In college, my friends and I would make our own lists of top albums, argue over the AFI’s 100 Greatest American Films, lecture each other on the importance of Henry Miller to modern literature movements.  In my lifetime, it has always been of great interest to consider where we stand in comparison to the past.  Are we living in the greatest time in history?  Is Justin Bieber as big a heartthrob as Paul McCartney?  Is Eddie Van Halen the greatest guitar player ever?  To many, these are serious issues that require honest deliberation and thought.  If we can’t be a part of creating greatness ourselves, then maybe we can have our say in its recognition.  Perhaps voicing our own knowledge about each subject will somehow make up for the fact that we were only spectators, witnessing something special before our eyes without the ability to participate.

What’s interesting to me about the best in booze is that it’s finite – it cannot be relived unless it’s physically in the room.  Even though I wasn’t in attendance, I can continue to review Matt Cain’s perfect game online.  I can command a Pink Floyd performance in London circa 1967 at the push of a button.  I can pop the Godfather in on DVD at any moment I fancy.  When we talk about the greatest wines of the year, or the best whiskies of all time, unless we’ve got the bottle in hand, talking is all that we can do.  Taste is an experience that cannot be archived for later.  It’s a here and now phenomenon, yet that hasn’t stopped people from trying.  French Laundry meals are captured in photos, posted on Facebook, and texted to friends, but in the end they can only convey the aesthetics of a moment in time.  We can’t taste the food in the picture, only look at it.

Even though we can’t use the internet to retroactively taste old Brora or jump back to the establishment of Malt Mill, we can use it to discuss and debate.  There are websites that document the great bottles of the past, and there are forums where drinkers lament the draining of their own personal favorites.  The pantheon of great single malts or Bourbons is full of expressions, all of which you had to have tasted to understand.  Recently I had the chance to exercise an old ghost: the 1974 A.H Hirsch Bourbon from the now-defunct Michter’s distillery in Pennsylvania.  After all the hype and everything I had read, I was quite underwhelmed by the experience.  While some people consider this the “greatest Bourbon ever made,” the Hirsch wasn’t even the best Bourbon I had that day. At least I can now speak with some authority about its quality, however. As a professional, I’m expected to understand the great whiskies of the past and guide those in search of a similar experience towards comparable selections.  Customers read online about these legendary bottles and they come to me, hoping I can offer them a chance at understanding what made these whiskies so great.

Because booze is finite, unable to be recreated, we’re in a race to get it before it’s gone, so you’ve got to be quick.  Books about food, whiskies, and wines that you must try before you die are all the rage.  Hurry up!  Don’t get left behind because you only have one chance to sample one of the “greatest” wines ever before it vanishes.  It’s called fear capitalism and it is entirely contingent on our obsession with greatness.  It’s the same reason that the Giant’s offer a Matt Cain “Mr. Perfect” T-shirt to the first 5,000 fans who show up at the stadium – hurry up and get to the ballpark before these “must-have” relics are gone (and spend some money on beer while you’re here). This T-shirt will forever prove you saw something important to the history of humanity. Baseball can legitimately market that experience to everyone because anyone can participate – at the game, live on TV, coast to coast, we all saw what happened.  Great whisky does not offer that same inclusiveness.  It’s about scarcity, limitation, and access.  Only the precious few will have a chance to appreciate it.

That’s exactly what today’s whisky market is exploiting: greatness and our obsession with participating in it.  We want the ability to talk the talk.  We want to discuss where Brora and Port Ellen fit in with history’s greatest single malts.  We want to talk about Pappy, show off our stash, and relive the magical tasting that once wowed our palates.  We document these experiences as badges of proof that we’re no slouch, that we know what’s what.  But, in the end, how can another person ever understand the importance if they can’t taste it for themselves?  There is no one true record of the greatest whisky achievements known to mankind and, if there were one, how would we know what to put in it?  There’s simply not enough shared experience to create it, in my opinion.  There’s not enough consensus.  There’s not enough booze.  There are only reviews written by a handful of experts, while the rest of the whisky fans dream of having this same access.

When we young drinkers long for the ability to taste old stock, it’s not that we’ve actually missed our chance to taste great whisky, but rather just the chance to participate in the overall conversation.  Maybe that’s what makes the historical achievements of booze so different from other genres.  You can’t watch a tape and you can’t analyze data.  You can’t go to the library and check out old Port Ellen to catch up on your tasting experience. However, as much as I’m fascinated by the history of alcohol, the dying days of lost distilleries, I’m becoming more interested in shared experience.  I’ve gone down that list, chasing the great wines of the year, the best whiskies from history, and it always ends with disappointment. Every great spirit I’ve ever tasted is linked to a very specific time and place.  It’s never during an appointment at K&L or at home by myself.  It’s been with David Girard in the French countryside, or at a staff party in Napa with my colleagues. While I love talking about the history of sports, music, literature, and film, I love doing so with a glass of Buffalo Trace or Bruichladdich, which to me are as good as anything could be at that moment .  Greatness in booze isn't limited to the past.  It's among us right now, available for anyone who wants to experience it.

-David Driscoll