Rules & Tips

I had a customer ask me a few days back if I would write something about glassware when it comes to tasting spirits.  She was wondering why the whiskies she sampled at K&L always tasted better in the store than at her house.  At home, she had been drinking from smaller, Glencairn-shaped glasses, but in the store we sometimes use wine glasses.  She asked if it could be the glass and I said "Definitely!"  Personally, I don't drink out of small glasses because I can't seem to capture the aroma as well.  I always use a wine glass when writing tasting notes or sampling with an appointment.  They just work better for me. 

Over the few years that I've done this, I've listened to experts explain to me numerous reasons to drink or taste alcohol in a specific way.  Sometimes what they tell me works and sometimes it doesn't.  When it comes to drinking whisky or any other spirit, listen to what others have to say (because you might just learn something new), but don't feel any pressure to conform or adapt.  There's no rule that says you have to drink single malt from Glencairn glasses.  I certainly don't. 

There are guidelines in the booze world to help us along and achieve the maximum amount of pleasure from our drinking, but it can be problematic when people think of them as rules that must be followed at all cost.  You don't have to add water.  You don't have to nose it first.  You don't have to do anything you don't want to do.  There are no rules with drinking, only suggestions.  It would be a pity, however, if you drank a whole bottle of cask strength Port Ellen and had no idea the high proof was burning off your ability to actually taste it.

Another topic I was asked about recently concerned the wax seals on our French import bottles.  Some of our best Calvados and Cognac bottles are protected by a dense layer of wax that most people attempt to open by cutting or carving.  This is the worse way to open these bottles.  The best way I have seen was shown to me by the Camut brothers in Normandy.  I had no idea how brittle that wax was.  It can be easily cleared away by tapping it firmly with the dull side of a butter knife.  It's best to do this next to a garbage can or somewhere that can be easily cleaned afterward.  It will make a giant mess, but at least it won't damage your precious booze.

-David Driscoll


The Co-Option of Artisanal & Cool

I was actually just doing a simple Google search of "artisanal," so I had a working dictionary definition to go off of when writing this piece, when I found this fantastic article by food writer Josh Ozersky: the word "artisanal" is now offically meaningless.

It appears that someone already beat me to the punch with this idea.  Oh well.  It was obvious anyway.

According to the dictionary, an artisan is a person or company that makes a high-quality, distinctive product in small quantities, usually by hand and using traditional methods.  Therefore, "artisanal" would be the adjective describing something made by an artisan. Over the last few years, the spirits industry has experienced a major shot in the arm, partially boosted by the current interest in "hand-crafted" or "artisanal" spirits from small distilleries.  While the initial releases were very interesting, the movement in my opinion is now beginning to lose steam.  Looking up at the definition, I'm realizing that most new products I taste in the store definitely have the "distinctive," "small quantities," and "by hand" qualities on their checklist, but they seem to have forgotten the "high-quality" part.  For that reason, when it comes to most new spirits Ozersky is quite correct.  The word "artisanal" is officially meaningless because it's being applied to every small batch product regardless of whether it's of a "high quality.

In his article about food, Ozersky writes:

It's obvious to everyone, of course, that “artisan,” when applied to Dunkin’ Donuts bagels or Tostitos chips or Domino’s pizzas, is a laughably transparent ploy — a shameless buzzword used by marketers in their endless, desperate lather to sell more bad products..... But the truth is that artisanality has almost nothing to do with quality and everything to do with delivery. It’s the transaction that matters. Did you ever have an artisanal cola? Was it as good as a Mexican Coke? I bet it wasn’t.

One could easily apply the same analogy to Bourbon.  How many "artisanal," "hand-crafted" Bourbons are as good as Old Weller Antique?  More importantly, how many can come anywhere close to matching its price?  It's obvious that "artisanal" is now just a marketing tool for companies looking to capitalize on the current food fad, but is that also the case with spirits?  I don't think it's quite the same.  That's not to say there's no sales advantage to presenting a company as an "artisan" spirits producer, it's just that these producers usually have to be sought out. They're not participating in marketing campaigns like Domino's or Tostitos, they're simply seen as cooler than other "mass-produced" products because you have to know about them.

For spirits drinkers, it seems like choosing to drink "artisanal" signifies something about us as people.  I fully understand it if a customer doesn't want to support a giant, corporate-owned brand.  I fully understand it when a customer wants to support local businesses.  These are two good reasons to support the many artisanal products we carry in our our stores.  However, the craft spirits movement has violently shifted from a group of independent producers, outside the fold of major distribution, to any Joe Schmoe who thinks it would be cool to have his own distillery.  The popularity, or cool factor, in making one's own "hand-crafted" spirit seems to be more important than the product actually tasting good.

Taste, however, became less important than "organic" in the Bay Area many moons ago.  I can't tell you how many times I've eaten "all organic" food from a restaurant that didn't know how to cook it.  When it comes to the booze and restaurant world, it's not large companies who are co-opting the "artisanal" banner - it's people who don't know what the heck they are doing.  I'm all for organic food if it tastes better (which it often does).  I'm all for "artisanal" booze if it tastes better (see Steve McCarthy, Todd Leopold, Lance Winter, Dave Smith, or Davorin Kuchan if you need help).  The point is - it needs to taste better!  Remember, the definition of an artisan states that the product must be both distinctive and of a high quality.

Some people will do anything if it's cool and, right now, it's definitely cool to drink and/or make "artisanal" spirits. One thing about "cool" that has always been the case is that it's never been cool to try so hard.  The people trying the hardest to fit in are always seen as the least cool.  Using every inch of Facebook and Twitter to tell everyone how "artisanal" your product is probably isn't making your product cooler. It's never been cool to talk about how cool you are.  It's definitely not cool to talk about how "artisanal" your booze is.  Just like cool people, the true artisans don't talk about being one - they just are.

-David Driscoll


The Scotland Itinerary

This year our trip to Scotland should be quite interesting.  I mean, sure, rummaging through warehouses in Scotland is always interesting, but this year's economic issues are going to make things more difficult than ever.  Due to the current whisky boom (really just a brown spirits boom) the supplies are tighter than ever.  Bottlers who normally welcome us with open arms now seem to be just a bit hesitant.  How can they be expected to supply us with booze if they can't even get it for themselves?  The real question is: do they sell it to us in one fell swoop, or do they hold on to it and try to drag out sales over an extended period of time, hopefully waiting out the current drought in the process?  There are plenty of business decisions to think about and plenty of politics to be played.  I'm sure we could make a reality show out of it, but for now you'll have to make due with the blog updates.  We'll be flying out next Thursday and here's our itinerary if you feel like following along.

May 11th - Land in Edinburgh, visit Chieftain's

May 12th - Drive to Glendronach and taste

May 13th - Taste with Duncan Taylor and another mystery distillery :)

May 14th - Taste with Glenfarclas

May 15th - Taste with Edradour/Signatory

May 16th - Visit Oban, drive to Campbeltown, taste with Springbank

May 17th - take the ferry to Islay, cut peat with Lagavulin, meet with Laphroaig

May 18th - Morning tasting with Bruichladdich, PM tasting with Kilchoman

May 19th - Meet with Caol Ila

May 20th - Travel day

May 21st - Meet with Bowmore at the mainland warehouse w/ Rachel Barrie in the AM, drive to meet with another new mystery bottler :)

May 22nd - two meetings with two other mystery bottlers (sorry, can't ruin the surprise!)

May 23rd - Fly home

-David Driscoll


A Pair of Alchemists

Ever since the great Alchemist summer deal of 2011 we haven't seen much in terms of value from this once-great independent bottler.  Today, however, I tasted a few new arrivals at the distributor's office and these two jumped out at me.  While they're not offered at the closeout price that I was "pimping" last year, both represent outstanding value for the money.  We have a few bottles of each in stock at the moment for those looking to branch out a bit.

Mortlach 22 Year Old Alchemist Single Malt Whisky $129.99 - We never see enough Mortlach stateside, and the few bottles we do get aren't always great. One of the great sherried stalwarts of the Speyside, this 22 year old from the Alchemist bottlers is completely without sherry aging. Lean in mouthfeel, the entry starts off rather oily and herbal, but the vanilla richness really kicks in on the finish. Straw colored despite its age, this Mortlach has obviously been aging in refill hogshead quite gracefully. A wonderful peek at what the whisky itself tastes like without all the sherry.

Highland Park 19 Year Old Alchemist Single Malt Whisky $115.99 - While the Alchemist label does not specify, this 19 year old independently-bottled Highland Park seems to have been aged in a refill sherry barrel. Light amber in color, the entry is slightly rich with cakebread and fruit, before leading into some mellow phenolic notes. The smoke is just a whisper before the toffee comes hard on the finish, ending with a rich and warming flurry of flavor. This is one of the better indie HPs I've seen in some time, especially for the price.

-David Driscoll


The Next Big Thing For Booze

What could will be the next big thing for the booze industry? People ask me this question on a weekly basis.  In fact, I get asked this question so much that I've been thinking about starting a booze consulting business on the side.  $500 dollars for 15 minutes, Diageo!  I'm ready.  In all seriousness, the next big thing for booze is already in the works.  It's already waiting in the wings.  You don't need to ask me.  Every distillery in the U.S. knows what it is and I'll bet my bottom dollar there's a secret room at every one of them loaded with experiments containing it.  I've heard talk about it for years - in side conversations and jokes that aren't really jokes.  It's not a matter of making it, it's a matter of being allowed to make it.  The process just needs to be legalized and then....God help us.

The ban on absinthe in the United States had lasted for decades until 2007 when the moratorium came and the law on wormwood was finally changed.  St. George distillery in Alameda was ready for that one.  As soon as that ban was lifted, they became the first distillery in the U.S. to release a legal absinthe since God knows when.  Being first to release an alcoholic product that the country is excited for is a very big deal.  People will buy it whether it's good or bad because it's the first.  Luckily for St. George, their absinthe was and continues to be among the best, so they were able to lockdown some brand loyalty right from the get go.  To this day, we sell three times as much St. George absinthe than any other absinthe on the shelf.

The ban on marijuana in the United States continues, however.  We were very close to a possible legalization in California recently, but that movement seems to have stalled.  While there continues to be a general leniency towards medical usage, we're still a ways from full-blown legalization.  Nonetheless, I can promise you that the next big trend for booze will be marijuana-infused products.  Once that day comes, the day when the government finally decides that marijuana can be more profitable as a taxable commodity, the day that D.C. lobbyists line up to get the jump on a new billion-dollar industry, we're going to be seeing marijuana-infused everything, and I can guarantee you that there are a ton of producers out there who want to be ready when that happens.

I can already see it now. Absinthe and gin with weed finally listed as one of the botanicals!  Herbal liqueurs with actual herb in it!  And the cocktails!  The Stony Negroni!  The Lazy Manhattan!  If you think this isn't already being done privately all over the continent then you're fooling yourself.  I can promise you that there are plenty of projects in the works right now by companies who want to be the first to release. You can even cater to the geeks by indicating who grew the marijuana, whether it was organic or not, and you can make different gins with different types of weed for those looking to learn about different varietals!  The possibilities are freaking endless and the money will be there in droves.  People of the booze industry looking to get rich, hear me now: you had better be ready for the legalization of marijuana, whether it's in five years or twenty five years.  It will change the liquor industry the way caffeine changed the energy drink industry.  We may not talk about it on this blog, but people are still drinking Red Bull and vodka every day in every city across the country.  Caffeine and booze continues to be very profitable for a number of companies.  I can only imagine the possible profits when marijuana finally comes into play.

Just a few thoughts for your morning.  Diageo, this one's on the house.

-David Driscoll