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


Youth & Beauty Trumping Experience & Maturity

I have to admit that I wasn't on the Kilchoman bandwagon when they first started releasing their feisty, smoky, precocious Islay single malts.  Being that they were the hot new distillery in Scotland, breaking ground on Islay for the first time in almost a century, I was bit unnerved by the fact that they were selling young whiskies at old whisky prices.  The craft whiskey movement in the U.S. had already been rubbing some customers the wrong way, namely because they weren’t as cost efficient as the big boys.  A two year old, “hand-crafted” bourbon might sell for more than three times the price of something like Buffalo Trace 10 year.  Because we’re a society that has constantly been told “older is better,” we automatically assume that we’re being ripped off. 

What we don’t always know is if the extra money it costs the little guys to make the whisky is ever worth actually spending.  Sure, they can make a $100 white whiskey with local, organic barley and bio-dynamic farming, all with single pot still batch distillation – the question is: should they?  With Kilchoman, the jury was still out.  The first release showed potential, but the price still seemed a bit high.  Their second release I tasted, however, really spoke to me – the sherry aging of the Spring 2011 was something quite needed and it made the malt taste much more mature.  Their next release, a 100% Islay local barley malt, absolutely blew me away, even though it clocked in at $100.  I'd always known that age was nothing but a number in terms of quality, but sometimes one needs to be convinced of that with physical evidence.  There's simply a stigma against young malts because people think they can’t taste as good as the older ones.  However, if a young whisky does exceed the quality of an older malt, shouldn’t it be just as expensive if not more so? 

Our new Kilchoman K&L Exclusive Single Bourbon Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $92.99 is perhaps the finest young Scottish single malt I’ve ever had. I've tasted young Ardbeg, young Lagavulin, and young Caol Ila, but they've never been as good or as exciting as this single malt is (some of the older ones haven't been either). The nose is a sparkplug of phenolic energy - peat, smoke, salt, oil, vanilla, sand, sweet barley, with accents of white peach and dried fruit.  Smelling it must be similar to sitting by a beach campfire while eating a Charleston Chew.  The complexity continues onto the palate where black pepper and rich Bourbon wood enter into the equation.  It's so enjoyable I smile just thinking about it.  It's not going to please everyone, but I've learned with experience that we can't worry about that all the time.  Those who prefer the relatively dainty Lagavulin 16 won't want to fool with this. This whisky is like a laser, or a freakishly loud alarm clock.  It's like going to the eye doctor and seeing a clear image through the examination machine - you didn't realize how blurry everything else was until that moment.  I didn't realize how bored I had become with peated whisky until drinking this.

When we talked with Kilchoman about purchasing a cask, I was really hesistant.  "What are we going to do with that much young whisky?" I thought.  Now I know.  We're going to sell the hell out of it. 

-David Driscoll


Tastings Tonight!

St. George finally makes it over to Redwood City to pour some bourbon and other knick-knacks.  In the San Francisco store we've got the lovely Amy Schwartz pouring Bunnahabhain single malts, including the fantastic 25 year old.  Both tastings start at 5 PM and run until 6:30.  Free of charge, as always.  See you there!

-David Driscoll


Independent Ownership

I figured that as long as we're talking about which giant corporations own which distilleries, it might also be useful to bring up independent bottlers and their distilleries.  I don't know this for a fact, but the vibe I've been getting from the indies lately suggests to me that sourcing casks is harder than ever.  The practice of sending one's own barrel to the distillery, having them fill it, and leaving it there to age is coming to an end.  The independent bottlers of Scotland have therefore a need to create their own whisky if the big boys won't sell them any.  At the same time, independent distilleries who have also been able to source aged stocks have created their own independent labels to sell off these barrels.  Here's a quick list:

Springbank/Duthies/Cadenhead - J & A Mitchell, who also own the Glengyle distillery next door to Springbank, release the Duthies and Cadenhead products as well.  While neither is available in the U.S. at the moment, we carried the Duthies selections briefly in 2009.  We do have the saffron-infused Cadenhead gin as a full-time item.  If you visit the distillery, there's a giant Cadenhead's shop where you can find the whiskies pictured above.

Bruichladdich/Murray McDavid - Independently owned Bruichladdich also releases a series of cask-enhanced malts under the Murray McDavid label.

Glengoyne/Chieftain's - Ian MacLeod Distillers has been a family-owned business since 1933.  As you can see by all the Chieftain's products we carry (and have on order for 2012) we love working with these guys.  However, realizing that independent bottling couldn't sustain them forever, they purchased Glengoyne from the Edrington Group in 2003 as well as Tamdhu in 2011.  Luckily for them, Glengoyne is a key ingredient in some high-profile blends owned by big companies, which makes getting interesting casks easier to negotiate.

Edradour/Signatory - Signatory, who bottled our lovely Ladyburn, purchased Edradour Distillery from Pernod-Ricard in 2002.

Benromach/Gordon & MacPhail - Benromach was originally moth-balled by UD (pre-Diageo) in 1983, but then sold to Gordon & MacPhail in 1993 after ten years of inactivity.  It didn't begin operating again until 1998.  Gordon & MacPhail is perhaps the most widely known and distributed of all independent bottlers.

Who's next in the game of "We need to control our own whisky supplies?"  Rumor on the street is that Weymss Blended Malts tried to buy Bladnoch recently, but the entire thing blew up in their face!  Bladnoch is owned by two feuding brothers and apparently one of them agreed to sell behind the back of the other.  When the other brother found out about the promised deal, he immediately refused both to sell the distillery and to ever speak to his brother again.  I wonder which distilleries are even on the market.  I'm sure that A.D. Rattray would also love to own something again.

-David Driscoll