2011 K&L Awards - Best Vodka of the Year

I guess it might be a bit helpful to discuss what goes into the criteria for selecting the best spirits of 2011.  We think about quality, sales reports, customer feedback, our own personal taste, and general drinkability when determining these picks.  It's not an exact science, but we know better than to just choose the esoteric thing that no one bought, but we absolutely adored.  There needed to be a substantial consumer response in addition to our own positive feedback.

David Othenin-Girard chooses: Boyd & Blair Vodka - Potato vodka from Pennsylvania.  This bottle took our store by storm this year.  We sell a case a week just out of Redwood City alone and the word seems to be spreading.  Creamy, soft, easy going and textural - all things we want from vodka.  Great stuff.

David Driscoll choses: Potocki Polish Rye Vodka - Not only my vodka of the year, but maybe the absolute best vodka I've ever had.  If the goal of a vodka is to be pure, clean, smooth, soft, and textural, then this is the jackpot of all vodkas.  I could sip this stuff out of the bottle - no problem.  A milestone for spirits.  Purists - rejoice!

-David Driscoll


Free Spirits Tastings Tonight!

San Francisco will once again host David Nava pouring the Springbank 10 (possibly my all time favorite whisky) as well as some Berry Bros and Rudd stuff like the No 3 gin!

Redwood City will have Todd Smith pouring some of the new Willett Cask Strength Bourbons. 

Tastings start at 5 PM and finish at 6:30 PM.  They are free!

-David Driscoll


2011 K&L Awards - Best Rum of the Year

You can tell that my generation has taken over the news media because sources of information that once contained legitimate news are now nothing but top ten lists.  The children of the late 70's/early 80's would rather talk about their all-time favorite screwball movies, or the top ten places to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon than spend their time actually digging up a story.  Seeing that both Mr. Girard and I are firmly from this generation, it only seems fitting that we would also engage in such behavior.  Therefore, since it's December and the new year is almost upon us, we will begin what is now a yearly tradition for us (and a daily tradition for the San Francisco Chronicle) - we will list our favorite products of 2011.  Let's start with rum:

David Driscoll picks: Berry Bros & Rudd St Lucia 11 Year Old Rum - Best rum of the year and a leading contender for my overall spirit of the year.  Honey, cherries, menthol, fruit tea, and bitter spice.  It's pretty freaking odd.  It's also pretty freaking delicious.  I don't know what makes it taste this way, but I wish I could find more rums like it.

David Othenin-Girard picks: El Dorado 12 Year Old Demerara Rum - David OG told me today that lately he's been putting this stuff away like water.  That doesn't surprise me.  The last time I was in LA we spent an hour emptying his rum collection into our bellies.  The El Dorado 12 is a staple of fine sipping rum.  Better balanced than Ron Zacapa, better richness than Zaya, more sweetness than Zafra, and $10 less per bottle than all of them.

-David Driscoll


Calvados - By Charles Neal

I remember first meeting Charles Neal about two years ago and at that time he told me he was almost finished with his Calvados book.  Seeing that the project took him over a decade, I guess two years counts as "almost."  What I now finally have in my hands is one of the most end-all, be-all books about any subject ever.  While there are many whisk(e)y books in my collection, I really can't justify owning more than one book about Calvados - and that's not just because it's a small percentage of the spirits industry.  I'll never need another book about Calvados because Charles has packed everything one has ever needed to know about that subject into this 768 page monster of a tome. 


What do you want to know about Normandie?  Perhaps a bit about the food and culture of the people?  It's in here.  Maybe a briefing on the D-Day invasion from WWII and its impact upon the region as a whole?  It's in the book.  Maps, charts, fun stories, distillation techniques, a break down on the different types of apple - everything you've ever even considered, that might be in some way related to Calvados, is in this book.  After you wade through oceans of data, you then come to the producer biographies - over 200 different distillers, each visited by Charles himself, with photos, tasting notes, and histories.  If you thought perhaps you weren't that interested in apple brandy, you will be after two minutes of browsing through these pages.


I'm personally a big fan of Calvados, but I tend to rely almost completely on Charles's selections - namely because he has all the best stuff.  He's the only person who can rival Nicolas Palazzi for French brandy as well.  Did I say we were going to Kentucky in January?  Because I meant Mexico.  Did I say we were going to Mexico?  I may have meant France.  If things work out schedule-wise we may have some interesting new selections by the summer.  Calvados included.

-David Driscoll


The Business of Booze

I had a customer ask me the other day what I thought about a particular California cabernet.  I said it was a bit too "business-oriented" for me, but that it was a good example of what many people like these days.  Granted, that was quite a loaded answer, but nevertheless he was compelled by the vague undertone of that statement to ask further questions.  I explained to this man the difference between wine made by people who like making wine, versus wine made by people who want to make as much money as possible.  Using more new oak to age a wine makes the wine richer and silkier, which then garners higher ratings from popular magazine critics, which then creates higher sales, etc.  At the same time, it takes away from the true flavors of the grape itself. The cabernet we were speaking about was an example of business getting in the way of beauty.  I told the customer I preferred to drink wines that were “wine-oriented.”

Again, as I've written before, this is really no different than any other business where artistry or talent is being sold.  Musicians once revered for their individuality often sell out to corporations looking for a catchy jingle to promote their ad campaigns.  Many talented people are willing to change the way they create if it means earning more money. Whether it's the Rolling Stones changing their lyrics to play on Ed Sullivan, or a wine maker adding more oak to his wine, if there's a way to make your product safer and more palatable to the general public then why not do it?  Sure, it's great to be adored by those who truly appreciate your talent, but can you make a living from them?  It's a decision that some wine makers are forced to confront.  That, or selling their venture off to a larger company who'll just do the same anyway.  That's the business of booze production.  We know that most people just want "smooth" in the end.  Are you willing to give it to them?

The business aspects that we at K&L deal with aren't too different.  As a company, we have to decide which products to carry and what those products say about us as a retailer.  A wine selection is almost like a record collection.  You can go over to someone's house and tell a lot about who they are as a person by what they're listening to.  If a store only chooses to stock big label brands and mass produced products then you know where they stand as a retailer: $$$.  Some smaller stores only carry products from independent producers, which probably means they're passionate about handcrafted quality.  I say "probably" because no one I know of is getting rich off of retailing biodynamic-only wines.  K&L is somewhat unique in the sense that we cater to both sides.  We've been doing business with some of the larger corporations for decades, but still take pride in discovering smaller producers and supporting them directly.  Every day I wake up thankful that there is such a store that allows me to make a decent living and still focus on the promotion of niche spirits.  The business of booze retail is definitely a balancing act.  Is it all about matching margins and swift sales, or is there some thought put into what you sell?

Finally there's the customer's business to discuss.  As consumers, we all have the ability to choose where we spend our money.  What interests us as booze consumers?  Are we just looking for something to get us drunk?  Do we want something to get us drunk that actually tastes good?  Are we possibly searching for an experience, something with actual heart?  There are a myriad of liquor stores that can satisfy the first two desires, but it may take a little effort to find a place willing to sacrifice sales for integrity and credibility.  How far we're willing to go to support what we believe in is completely up to us.  Not only with where we shop, but with what we buy.  Is it worth our money to buy that $100 bottle of locally-made, small-production whiskey, or are we fine with supporting the larger corporations who can mass-produce it for less?  Should we even care about alcohol enough to ask ourselves these questions?  That's the business of consumerism and it's something that every entity involved with booze studies with great ferocity.

There's a lot of crazy stuff that goes on in between these three estates as well.  Distribution, importing, wholesaling, and grey-marketing.  There are backroom deals between companies, driven salesmen who'll sacrifice the brand for a quick buck, mergers that eliminate competition, and producers jockeying for more exposure.  It's really quite fascinating.  I never had any intention of being a businessman and I still don't know if I consider myself one.  However, that being said, the business of booze is constantly interfering with my love of booze.  There are both wines and spirits I used to enjoy that have been forever ruined by what I learned of their business practices.  There are both companies and customers who want us to carry products we don't want to support and they want answers as to why we choose not to do so.  In the end, I just want to drink good booze made by good people and help other people to do the same.  The business of booze, however, is always lingering in the background, waiting to interfere with this ideal and plotting to do otherwise.

-David Driscoll