Precocious Whisky From Islay

Floor malting of local barley at Kilchoman distilleryOver the course of history, human beings have shown time and again that they like to dismiss things that don't adhere to the standard public perception.  There is too much security in the stability of ideas to allow for something to just come along and move years of tradition aside!  Nevertheless, the long-standing belief that older malt whisky was better malt whisky has taken blow after blow since the new millenium.  While many of the new craft American distillers attempted to showcase the benefits of young American whiskies, most were less than persuasive.  A group of Islay distilleries, however, has proven over the last decade that malt whisky need not be a minimum of ten years old to have merit.  If made well, with attention, care, and precision, young whisky could actually be quite exciting; not in a new and curious manner, but actually standing toe to toe with other mature examples.  In fact, I would dare say that most of the youthful whiskies from Bruichladdich, Ardbeg, and Kilchoman are simply better than the 12+ year old standard releases from established producers.

Kilchoman's newest release, the 100% Islay Barley Single Malt, is both a great idea and a great whisky.  In trying to present the world with a single malt that actually begins and ends on Islay (all other producers source their malted barley off the island), Kilchoman worked with their Rockside Farm neighbor and harvested their own grain right next to their facility.  They continued with their own floor malting (as seen above), which as far as I know only Bowmore and Springbank still do, and fermented their own mash for distillation of a pure Islay malt.  The first release is a three year old sparkplug that drinks amazingly well now with flashes of lemon oil, peat moss, campfire smoke and the bright zestiness of a blanco tequila.  Part of the enjoyment of the whisky is knowing the story behind it, but the malt is still irresistable and charming.  I would much rather drink this, or even Kilchoman's wonderful sherry-aged 2011 Spring Release than a 12 year old Macallan or 18 year Glenlivet.  Some consumers complain about the cost, seeing that using quality ingredients is a more expensive procedure, but it's obviously not for everyone. There's always room for non-organic Safeway produce while others enjoy the farmer's market.

The newest rendition of Bruichladdich's ultra-peated Octomore series is set to make its U.S. appearance this Fall.  The five year old, over-achieving malt is smoked to a ridiculous 152 ppm and bottled at cask strength, yet the purity and delicacy of the spirit make it palatable straight from the bottle.  Bruichladdich's attention to their stills and therefore their new make spirit has allowed them to market younger whiskies with confidence.  While clocking in well over $100, there is still a passionate following for the Octomore series amongst those who appreciate peated malts, namely because the vivaciousness of the whisky is simply unmatched. 

After only appearing in annual batch releases, Bruichladdich is ready to make Port Charlotte a full time product.  While none of the whisky in their peated malt has made it to ten years old, the Port Charlotte is so good that the lack of an age statement is unimportant.  The richness is more than convincing, the textures are soft, and the balance of smoke is fantastic.  At around the $60 price point, it will immediately compete with it's other NAS cohort - the Ardbeg Uigeadail - for control over the hearts and minds of value-searching Islay lovers.  I personally find it much more satisfying than other more established and mature Islay malts like Lagavulin 16 or Caol Ila 12.  While I find both of those whiskies more than satisfactory, there's simply something more going on in the Port Charlotte whisky - a brightness or high note that stands out above the others. 

Literally every single day there's a customer at K&L who discovers that single malts are not actually single whiskies, but rather blends of numerous malts that just happen to be made at the same distillery.  I think that understanding this fact goes a long way in breaking down the walls of ageism.  Once you realize that single malts are more about mixing for flavor and less about a single qualitative age statement (unless you're buying single barrels, of course), the idea of drinking something younger seems less risky.  NAS whiskies like Ardbeg's Uigeadail, Corryvreckan, Alligator, and Supernova have helped immensely in this transition where more drinkers today have begun to open their minds.  While older and more established distilleries are playing it safe with their mild-mannered classics, younger and hipper producers are showing us that passion, skill, and dedication can sometimes trump experience.  The classic distilleries of Islay have never been more popular, but it's the younger, hungrier distilleries who are keeping it relevant.

-David Driscoll


K&L Spirits Podcast #19 - Tequila Importer Jacob Lustig

Jacob Lustig and I have been working together for the last year with the Cyrus Noble Bourbon label, but never did I suspect that he was the biggest tequila expert I knew.  For a gringo, Jacob's Español es perfecto and his experience in Mexico dates back to his childhood when he and his mother would travel back and forth between SF and Oaxaca.  He has worked as the head of Southern Wine and Spirits Latin department and has more than 20 years of experience working with producers in Mexico.  Listen to Jacob talk about his new Selección ArteNOM tequila label, the farming of agave, regional distinction between distillers in Jalisco, and everything else you never knew about agave spirits.  This is one of the most informative interviews I've ever done!  I learned a ton.

This episode can be downloaded here or from our podcast page at Apple iTunes.  Previous episodes can be viewed by clicking the Podcast Archive link located in the margin on the right hand side of this page.  You can also listen via our embedded Flash player above.


Tequila From a Distillery

You may remember my article from a few weeks back about our attempt to bring in tequila made by the same people who market it.  Much like we do with our Champagne selection, we have chosen to seek out smaller grower/producers who are interested in tequila and the process of making it, rather than just the money from selling it.  Today, I met with Jacob Lustig who works for Haas Brothers in San Francisco.  He's the guy who brought us Cyrus Noble Bourbon and a few other interesting mezcals.  What I didn't know about Jacob was that his principle position at Southern Wine & Spirits for more than a decade was as manager of the "Latino/Hispanic" products i.e. tequila and mezcal.  Jacob was actually born in San Francisco, but moved back and forth between Oaxaca and the Bay Area beginning as a 6 year old.  He and his mother would plant agave for fun while there and Jacob took a serious interest in the plant.  When he attended UCSC as a college student, he specifically studied the history of the Mexican liquor business.  While working at Southern, Jacob noticed that all of the relationships between U.S. conglomerate companies and Mexican distillers ended with all the boutique producers left in the dust.  Everything was about bulk, rather than quality.  After 11+ years at SWS, Jacob finally decided to use his long-standing relationships and his encyclopedic knowledge to help bring his favorite producers into the country.  He quit his job and started working as an importer. 

With his new Tequila ArteNOM Seleccion line up of artisan spirits, Jacob has created a series of bottles that lets the consumer know exactly where the tequila is from, who distilled it, and where the dstillery is located.  In fact, each tequila is named after the actual NOM of the distillery that produced it (Norma Oficial Mexicana - given to each distillery and printed on every bottle of tequila and mezcal).  This is exactly the kind of transparency I've been begging for!  Consumers (at least our consumers) want to know where there booze is made!  They want to know the differences between the facilities and the type of agave they are using.  Jacob is well aware of this and, more importantly, he is able to articulate them.  I was so blown away with his presentation today that I will once again be resurrecting the K&L Spirits Podcast for a one hour conversation about tequila this evening.  All of the following tequilas were made especially for Jacob and his label.  Here's what we tasted and what will be arriving this week:

Seleccion ArteNOM 1079 - Jesus-Maria, Jalisco (Mountain Agave 6,200 ft. Alt.) $TBA ($40-ish) - Rancho El Olvido is tequila's highest altitude distillery.  The agave grown at this level hits a higher BRIX sugar level owing to a porous soil and a climate that stresses the agave more.  The nose is packed with lime, pepper, and other citrus fruits, but it isn't overly zesty.  It's there, but it's subdued and concentrated.  Amazingly flavorful considering it's so mild!  A delicate dance of black pepper and baking spices.  Part of the elegance is due to the fact that these guys do not add agave nectar to re-ferment the mash (a practice that is currently legal and results in big, smooth, candied tequilas).  Because agave nectar is 100% agave, the bottle can still claim to be 100% agave even though it's the same as chapitalizing a wine.  This tequila offers purity, authenticity, and quality for a very affordable price.  Highly recommended.

Seleccion ArteNOM 1414 - Arandas, Jalisco (Mountain Agave 5,400 ft. Alt.) $TBA ($45-ish) - Destileria El Ranchito has been owned by Feliciano Vivanco since the post-revolutionary period of 1919-1929.  They hold 2,000 acres of estate grown agave and distill everything on traditional pot stills.  Their fermentation process is what makes them very unique - something about the yeast and their climate creates a bready, yeasty, banana nut aroma and flavor.  This is an incredibly understated reposado that absolutely blew me away with its uniqueness and mild-mannered profile.  Nutty, bready, with cinnamon bursts and spicy cloves on the palate.  Very unique and very, very good.

Selecction ArteNOM 1146 - Atotonilco El Alto, Jalisco (Mountain Agave 4,620 ft. Alt.) $TBA ($55-ish) - Casa Tequileña is owned and operated by Enrique Fonesca, known as El Arquitecto.  A fifth-generation grower and master distiller who holds one of the largest plots of agave in the industry, this añejo is made to showcase the oak without overshadowing the agave.  The nose is amazing!  Again, subdued and needing to be coaxed, but incredible when it finally arrives.  Nutty aromas with toasted vanilla, but neither rich nor oaky.  Warm baking spices on the palate, which is incredibly lean for an añejo!  Black pepper and fruit on the finish with more roasted nuts.  Divine!

-David Driscoll


Self Conscious & Defensive Drinkers

In life there are certain subjects of knowledge that society seems to value above others.  While we may believe that the study of medicine, the law, or business will ultimately bring us respect, no one wants to talk about those themes while letting loose at a cocktail party (unless everyone in the room happens to be a lawyer or a doctor).  Meanwhile, the people who have not chosen the path of mainstream education, like the guy who dropped out of high school and now plays in a band on the weekends, are the ones holding the attention of your dinner guests.  The uniqueness of personal experience will always trump education in a coolness competition. I know this because I've been on both sides of this divide.  At one point in my life, I was a scholar.  I studied for my masters in German literature and totally thought about the ideas of Kant, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein. I totally thought this was cool and interesting.  I was totally alone in that assumption. 

You would think that terminating my future as a literature professor and beginning a career in a liquor store would make for less interesting conversation or even garner me less respect.  However, when people at a party find out that I know something about booze, it's all we talk about for the rest of the night.  Like I mentioned above, booze is simply one of those subjects that everyone feels they should know something about, but don't.  Maybe they know a little, a tidbit that someone told them once as guidance, but ultimately people seem to be fascinated by other people who understand alcohol.  I get pelted with questions about wine, whisky, and drinking in general once the K&L name gets dropped.  While at times the attention I get can be very flattering, there is a serious downside to this.

If you're reading this blog it probably means that you too know something about alcohol, so you may have found yourself in a similar situation when the conversation turns to booze.  This is usually a guy thing because it has mostly to do with ego, but maybe it happens with women too.  Since booze is one of those things that everyone at dinner or a party enjoys, the knowledge of booze becomes more valuable than say something truly worthwhile, like knowing how to save a life or the education of impoverished children.  When other people drinking realize that you actually know something about what you're all imbibing, they get self-conscious and defensive - instantly.  It's completely insane, but it happens 100% percent of the time, which is why I now try and refrain from talking about wine or spirits at any social gathering where I don't know anyone.  Usually it's very methodical and tends to manifest itself in one of the following examples:

1) "I think it's silly to care so much about something like alcohol."  Well, I'm not the one trying to talk about this!  People are asking me.  You asked me what I did for a living, I told you I worked in a liquor store.  Then everyone started asking me questions and that's it!

2) "I lived in France one time, and we drank wine everyday, and I stayed with the guy who made it, and he worked at a very prestigious winery, Chateau something or other, and HE knew everything about wine, and he told me...."  If you know something about booze, someone at that party definitely knows someone who knows more about booze than you.  You think you're so cool?  Well guess what everyone, you're not.  There's a guy in France and he knows way more than me or any of you about booze!  So suck on that.

3) "Have you ever had Macallan 30 year?  Oh, no?  Well let me tell you - it's the best.  Have you ever had Highland Park 40 year?  Yes?  Oh, that's not that good."  The test.  Someone who also knows a little about booze will definitely test your might by peppering you with questions to see exactly where you're at.  He'll most likely give himself away as someone who knows very little in the process.  However, as soon as he knows something you don't.....that's what you'll be talking about for the rest of the conversation.

Either by discrediting, competing with, or testing one's experience, someone in the room will always attempt to take out their anxiety on anyone who understands alcohol.  It happens at wine tastings, social gatherings, bars, dinner parties, family reunions, you name it.  If people are gathering and drinking, then at some point the subject will come up.  I used to chime in when that happened, but now I know better.  Maybe people like us who drink and understand alcohol are a threat because we enjoy our lives?  Maybe we're all to be snuffed out like members of a Bacchus cult?  Maybe it's that we've spent our free time learning about something that others don't make time for?  I'm not sure.  It's not like someone who understands booze is the most interesting person alive.  Besides, that guy only drinks Dos Equis anyway.

-David Driscoll


Germain Robin's Fluid Dynamics

Man, are these little bottles going to be huge!  Germain Robin has done something very, very smart.  They've crafted four signature cocktails using their brandies and their Low Gap white whiskey, barrel aged some of them, and bottled them in 200ml, ready-to-go, squat bottles.  The labels are fantastic and the booze is even better.  The Brandy Manhattan is made with their Craft Method brandy and Vya sweet vermouth, then barrel aged.  The St. Nick uses the Craft Method with Clear Creek's Cranberry Liqueur!  My personal favorite, the Saratoga, is the Brandy Manhattan recipe, but with Low Gap white whiskey added. Who knew?!  It's splendidly delicious.  They didn't have the 1850 with them which uses Sazerac in the mix, but I'm sure it's tasty as well.  They didn't make too many of these, so I don't expect them to last until the Holidays, but for $19.99 they're going to fly.  People who don't normally even drink booze are going to be curious because of the cute bottle and the idea.  You can get about 2-3 cocktails out of each, so when you figure $10 a drink is the norm at your average bar these days, it's completely within reason.

Also on hand were releases #3 and #4 in their Mezcalero series, which if you didn't know, is the most exciting series in all of booze, in my personal opinion.  I absolutely treasure the #2 release and it looks like I'll be adding these others to my collection as well.  The #3 San Andres Huayapam Agave is smoky, tangy, bursting with citrus, and ultra clean on the finish.  The #4 San Juan del Rio Agave Sierra Negra is a pale gold color (despite no barrel aging) likely due to the concentration of "something," for lack of a better word, in the wild agave it was distilled from.  It is super tangy and far more fruity than the #3, with less tart citrus and more of an earthy character.  Both are amazing and both are distilled from different varieties of agave than the previous releases.  Their goal is to bring something new to the table with every batch and I appreciate that.  Both were distilled by different producers in Oaxaca and then bottled especially for Germain Robin with a retail price of $89.99.

These are not in stock at the moment, but should be in early next week! 

-David Driscoll