Having Your Cake and Eating it Too

We recently did a K&L staff Champagne dinner with the one of the bigger (yet not one of the biggest) Champagne houses in the industry. For those of you who don't drink Champagne, this would be the equivalent of doing a dinner with Johnnie Walker or Chivas. Big Champagne houses, like big Cognac houses, take wines from other small growers and marry them together to create their own brands. However, much like the single malt industry, customers are becoming more educated and are learning more about grower-producer Champagne: the guys who actually make the wine and are now selling it directly. It's very much like a single malt distillery selling directly under their name, rather than selling the whisky off to a blender. Customers are now showing a desire to taste these wines before they are blended into something massive and rather diluted. They're learning about wines like Franck Bonville, Ariston Aspasie, and Bruno Michel, rather than the ubiquitous Dom Perignon, Billecart-Salmon, and Roederer. For a single malt drinker, it's the same as switching from Walker Black to Kilchoman. One of them tells you exactly how they make it and what goes into it, while the other speaks in vagaries.

Going back to the dinner, we were very impressed with the effort this larger producer had taken to increase the quality of their wine and were excited to taste the improved quality. Rather than buy from over one hundred different farmers in Champagne, they began focusing on a smaller number of quality growers, making sure their grapes were of the highest quality. They had also increased the percentage of reserve wine in their standard cuvee, using older stocks to add extra richness. This was obviously a reaction to the grower-producer revolution that guys like K&L buyer Gary Westby have helped to bring about. They wanted to attract this new consumer base that was learning more about where their Champagne came from, right down to the family that harvested the actual grapes. They knew they couldn't continue to survive in a world where enthusiasts are posting Facebook pictures with growers in the Cote des Blanc. They surely said to themselves, "The public is getting educated about wine. They want more specifics. We need to make sure we're a part of this new movement." In the end, this producer took the necessary measures and made a better wine by using the same standards that a smaller producer would.  They were so excited about their revamped version of the wine that they wanted to throw us a big dinner to unveil it. We were all very impressed with this new dedication to quality and an openness about the production, until one of our staff members asked, "So where are the actual vineyards? Which farmers are you buying from now?"

"We can't actually reveal that information, but the fruit is from serious growers only."

Really? After all that you're going to hold back now?

Coincidentally enough, I happened to have lunch that very same day with another one of the bigger (yet not one of the biggest) single malt whisky producers in Scotland. This was merely a friendly meeting with no real business goal or agenda, but I did glean some very interesting information from our time together. It was clear that this whisky producer was interested in this new, educated consumer as well. They were excited to tell me about their stills, their methods of production, and about their long-standing history as an industry innovator and quality producer. We had discussed doing an interview for the blog where I could ask questions about specifics and use the encounter as a way to provide my customers with more information about the brand. However, the questions that I wanted answers to were not really open for discussion, it soon appeared. What's going on with supply? When are prices going to stabilize? What justifies the price tag for these new, "higher-end" expressions we're beginning to see?

"We can't talk about those things, unfortunately."

Really? I've talked with plenty of other distilleries about those subjects and they were happy to comply.

That's when I had to get something off my chest. "You can't talk about educating the consumer, paint yourself as a producer committed to educating the consumer, but then dictate the level of education you want the consumer to have. That's like living on Animal Farm," I told the gentlemen. You don't get to say, "we want you to have all the information to make an informed decision when purchasing our product," but then hold back when you feel like it. Transparency doesn't work that way. These weren't ridiculous questions from some whisky fringe lunatic. These were legitimate concerns.  Consumers want to have more information because it helps them to justify their purchase. We're not looking to steal your secrets. We're looking to enhance our drinking experience! If a company wants to cater to the new, educated enthusiast, then they're going to have to level with them – completely – otherwise just keep on doing what you're doing and stop with the pandering. There is a new breed of whisky/wine drinker out there who is just as much excited by information as they are by the product itself. They want specs. They want data. They want answers! You either say, "We're not going to give away our secrets," and move on, or you tell them what they want to know. It's as easy as that. I'm fine with it either way!

"What do you mean by referencing Animal Farm, David?" The men were genuinely concerned and interested.

In George Orwell's classic allegory, the pigs talk the other farm animals into revolting against the farmers who exploit their labor, but then end up as evil and manipulative as the farmers themselves – a scathing criticism of fascist dictatorship and propaganda-driven government. If you're going to tell whisky consumers that, unlike other companies, we're willing to provide you with the information that other companies won't, but then hold back on the most crucial questions, then we're really not getting anything different than before. While it may sound friendlier and more sympathetic, it's really the same old thing.

To be fair, I'm not criticizing either company for their policies about disclosure. I completely understand why businesses choose to keep certain information to themselves. I honestly love both of these brands because they make outstanding products at fair prices that, in my opinion, offer both value and quality. What I do have a problem with is when a company attempts to capitalize on a growing industry trend without fully committing to the movement. It doesn't work. We can sniff you out immediately. Johnnie Walker doesn't tell anyone the cepage of its blended whiskies. They reveal a few of the distilleries, but they never tell you exactly what's in their bottles. At the same time, they're fine with the consumer base they command. There's no marketing attempt catering to guys like myself who want more details.

-David Driscoll


More Hot Deals

Now that Rittenhouse and Sazerac are creeping back into the market place, the more expensive brands are going to need to come back down to earth. First off - Templeton Rye. Normally $36.99, now $29.99. Save yourself $7 on a very delicious bottle of rye whiskey. Reading the old tasting note we had was quite funny "One bottle limit! Now available online after months of in-store only." I had forgotten about that. This used to be impossible to get!

Templeton Rye (Previously $37) Now $29.99 - The most talked about little rye is finally available to the general public. This is a spice monster! It almost feels like they've steeped it in spices after distillation. Big, rich, clove, cinnamon, very intense, very delicious. One bottle limit, now available online after months of in-store only!

-David Driscoll


California is Stiff Competition

I just finished having lunch with my local LVMH rep and one of the main topics of discussion was about how the California market is cutthroat when it comes to small batches of booze. California is the biggest state in the nation and, from everything I've been told by brand managers and sales people, we drink a lot of hard stuff out west. There are many, many key accounts - as in stores who get the good stuff for being solid supporters. When Sazerac has to divvy up their Pappy Van Winkle they have to divide the booty between us, Beltramo's, D&M, BevMo, HiTimes, Wally's, Cask, Ledger's, SFWTC, and a ton of other retailers that are just as serious about selling their hooch as K&L. Then you've got to include all the trendy bars and cocktail lounges. On top of that, the Bay Area is one of the geekiest places in the world about wine and food, if not the geekiest, so there's an educated and passionate base of spirits fans who keep up with all the latest news and release dates.  People live to drink hard-to-find, special, in-the-know liquor around here. You've got a large number of top liquor stores all competing with each other to get the booze and then an even larger number of customers competing with each other to buy it.

I read a lot of whisky blogs. I peruse the message boards and the comment fields. Take the Whisky Advocate Blog from yesterday, for example, or even SKU's post about the Four Rose's Small Batch 2012.  You've got people chiming in from all over the country, mentioning availability about this bottle in their neck of the woods. I get emails from customers who don't even shop with K&L, but read the blog and are looking for guidance regarding their own local selection. According to them, there seems to be a good amount of the Four Roses left in other parts of the country. I can tell you right now that this is not the case in California. Our local distributor, Wine Warehouse, got their supply of Four Roses about three weeks ago and we blew through our allocation in less than two days - and we never even put it on the shelf! That was merely through a mention on this blog and our insider email list - it all sold online in a flurry. When we sold out, I checked the stocks at other local stores and directed customers to various other locations that still had a bottle or two. Now it's gone forever and still there are plenty of people who want one, but couldn't get one (although I think Wally's still has a bottle left for $100 if you want to pay a little extra).

I can't even imagine putting something like Pappy or Stagg on the shelf. It would be absolute mayhem if that happened. There are literally fifteen to twenty people who call here every day to ask about these bottles, and another five to ten who send emails. Yet, I'm hearing from customers on the East Coast or in the South who can apparently just walk in to their local store and get these bottles off the shelf. Some stores even have last year's special editions as well! Even if I never mentioned the Pappy to our insider customers, or took it off the website for in-store-only sales, we would still sell through it in a day or two simply because of the amount of calls we get from people simply inquiring. They would be texting their friends if we said "yes," telling them to call the store immediately and we would be buried under a sea of requests (like when our website got overloaded during last year's Pappy sale).

I don't know if there are simply too many retailers, bars, and restaurants that are eating up our allocations or if it's just a greater public demand, but I can tell you right now that the demand in California for Bourbon seems to be crazier than any other region I know of. I don't know this for a fact, but it's what I've surmised by reading the accounts of other websites.  When it comes to the BTAC or Pappy releases, as well as the Parker's Heritage stuff, our demand is so great  that we have to raffle off the right to buy one.  That's right - you have to actually be granted permission to give us your money. It's nuts! However, I heard from a customer last week who can get a bottle of Jefferson's Ocean at his local shop in Virginia whenever he wants. It's just sitting there he told me. As we all know, that bottle sold for $1000 on our auction site because no one had any in California.

If you live in California, you definitely have access to some of the greatest booze in the world, especially with so many quality retailers working hard on your behalf. It appears, however, that you need to be a bit more diligent to actually get it. There's some stiff competition out here. The demand has been so hairy with the Four Roses 2012 that I'm actually relieved it's over.  When customers ask me if I can get get them a bottle of Pappy 15, the answer isn't technically "no." It's just that the odds are very, very low. As long as there's a chance, I'm willing to offer it to every loyal customer and they're more than happy to take it. Sometimes, however, it's simply easier to just say, "we're sold out," than to manage a wait list that will inevitably leave some customers out of the picture.

Now that John Hansell has given the Four Roses his personal seal of approval (ranked higher than anything in the BTAC), I'm sure there will be even more demand for the whiskey all over the U.S. It won't do anything to affect our sales out here, however, because we're already sold out for the year.  We may have a reputation for being laid back in California, but we're anything but relaxed when it comes to Bourbon. We're rabid. We're insatiable. We're very competitive and we're always on the hunt for more.

-David Driscoll


Holiday Buying Guide - Part I

It's that time of the year - awards and buying guides time (speaking of which, our printed 2012 K&L Exclusive Single Malt guide just hit the store so come and pick one up). I'm going to try and make this a bit more interesting, however, and give you an actual list of bottles you would normally never buy. We all know about the hot new whiskies out there. Heck, the distilleries are probably emailing you directly! We know Lagavulin 16 is a classic malt. We know the Handy Rye is now the best whiskey in the world (factually and literally). But what about some of these guys below? With so much booze landing everyday, it's easy for a really good bottle of whisky to get lost in all the shuffle. We're a drinking culture that's fascinated with the latest releases, so we continue to look towards the new and exciting, rather than last month's calendar girl. So, without further ado, let's get going.

Part I - The Really Good Shit That People Either Forgot About, or Never Knew About to Begin With that Costs Less than $100

Rattray's Selection 19 Year Old Batch No. 01 Cask Strength Blended Single Malt Scotch Whisky $89.99 - In order to make a serious splash in the independent market, the Morrison family started offering some serious older whiskies at ridiculously low prices. Do you all remember that 20 year Auchroisk we had at cask strength for like sixty bucks? Then there was the 21 year old Auchentoshan for around $70. I'm always calling up Stan Morrison and telling him, "You're giving this stuff away!" Not that I'm really complaining, but I want to see this family succeed. As the former owners of Bowmore, Auchentoshan, and Glen Garioch, they've got some serious stocks and, while they specialize in the single barrel releases, their best product is probably the 19 year vatting of four different malts: '91 Auchentoshan, '90 Balblair, '89 Benriach, and '91 Bowmore.

Everyone I know who's tasted this whisky has absolutely loved it. Not just liked it, but loved it. For the price, it's a no brainer. Bottled at 55.8% cask strength, the malty flavors are powerful and intense, with a splash of water really opening up the fruit aromas. There's a pinch of smoke from the Bowmore, but this whisky is really about the layers of richness and the concentrated core of malty goodness. When we did an in-store tasting some time ago with Stan, we were selling cases of this every week. Since then, however, people have moved on to newer, flashier releases that have big hype or glowing reviews.

This whisky is still sitting here, however. The Morrison's are working on Batch 2 right now because they're getting to the end of this inaugural release. This is an easy choice for your single malt lover because it's very traditional in flavor, it's interesting and unique, and I guarantee you they've probably no idea as to what it is. An easy choice for the sub-$100 shopper.

Arran 14 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $69.99 - This whisky is so under-the-radar that I just realized we don't even offer any notes about it on our website, other than a printed review from the Whisky Advocate. Arran has really been stepping it up as of late, offering single cask barrels of impeccable quality, a light and mellow peated expression, and a solid core built around the 10 and 14 year expressions. The richness of the 14 year is quite delightful, full of dried stonefruit with waves of vanilla and salt. I'm a big fan of this whisky. It tastes good and it comes from a good place.

Benrinnes 12 Year Old K&L Exclusive Signatory Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $75.99 - We're never going to get through this barrel, I fear. It doesn't matter how good it is (and it's really good) because no one is excited about 12 year old Benrinnes. We weren't either.  While we were stumbling around the Signatory warehouse we asked Des, our very own Liam Neeson lookalike, if there was anything exciting we should know about. He mentioned this 12 year cask of Benrinnes that was particularly stunning. Whoopie. We were not really too blown away by this suggestion, but we tasted it out of politeness. What lovely richness, concentration of fruit, and subtle sweetness. This whisky is delicious! Hopefully our word is enough. We called Des later and said the Benrinnes was "about to get taken." He didn't get the joke.

Macallan 13 Year Old Hart Brothers Single Malt Whisky $75.99 - It's probably not worth an entire entry because I only have a few left, but this whisky is freakin' delicious. Really, really classic Macallan.  Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay better than the standard 12 year, hence the higher price. One of my best customers has pretty much bought all of it himself. He'll be mad I'm letting you in on the secret. Lots of supple toffee and chewy caramel going on here. Yum.

Suntory Hakushu 12 Year Old Japanese Peated Single Malt Whisky $54.99 - How are we not selling cases of this stuff everyday?! It's delicious, smoky, elegant, and dangerously drinkable whisky from Japan - the hottest epicenter of single malt in the business right now. I'm really shell-shocked that this whisky doesn't move faster. I've polished off at least three bottles of Hakushu myself and I almost never drink whisky at home anymore. Nor do I buy the same bottle twice. This whisky is a double exception!

That's it for today. Just a few things to think about here.

-David Driscoll


Living in Denial Part II

Sometimes you have so many ideas going in your head that you can't figure out how to weave them together. That's what happened to me yesterday while writing that article about addiction problems. I wanted to talk about denial with life and alcohol, doing things that aren't healthy while trying to justify a reason to continue doing so. At the same time I began thinking about a less serious form of denial that I see in the wine and spirits world every single day. It's the denial that we don't like or enjoy certain things we wish we really did. I suffered from George T. Stagg denial for over a year, trying to convince myself I liked the high proof because I knew other people loved it. I found it difficult however to transition from something more serious into something rather naive and childish, so I decided to break it up into two pieces about denial.

Whereas people who have addiction problems with alcohol might deny the severity of the disease, people with self-esteem issues deny themselves true pleasure because they want to fit in. What I mean by this is that they're too afraid to do the things they really enjoy because they're worried about how others may view it. They simply do what's socially accepted to avoid this conflict. I touched on this briefly via my own issues a few posts back, but I think it's important to elaborate on this subject a bit. There's a certain amount of the population out there that thinks wine, cocktails and food are pretty cool. Not "cool" as in they're merely things to be enjoyed, but rather they're things to define oneself by – the same way a teenager might wear ripped jeans and a Ramones shirt and identify as a rocker. Food and drink have become full-time hobbies, travel industries, and media-oriented pastimes. Over the past five years or so we've seen the rise of celebrity chefs, food travel shows, celebrity bartenders, and booze travel shows. It's now seen as cool to know something about wine, about whisky, and about general drinking culture. Having this knowledge seems to elevate one's status in certain social circles, where knowledge is valued and respected. There is something pretty cool about Anthony Bourdain, I must admit. However, what makes him cool is not the fact that he's a chef or a food blogger or an famous traveling critic – it's that he doesn't care about what other people think so he eats and drinks whatever he wants.  

My friend Steve and I have written a decent amount about what we think is a growing whisky bubble. However, while most whisky enthusiasts await the impending crash with anticipation of lower prices and less competition for bottles, I'm hoping that spirits (along with food and wine in general) become less cool as a result. There is so much denial in the booze world that stems from trying to impress others and it's embarrassing, so I want it to end as quickly as possible. There are too many rules for what you can and can't drink, what you can and can't like, that it's almost like a fraternity initiation ceremony. The rules, however, extend completely beyond the beverage and into the overall lifestyle. If I thought most people were actually enjoying themselves within these guidelines, I wouldn't care so much. However, I hear it in bars, on the sales floor, and I read it on blogs, message boards, and in advertisements - the fear of not following the rules of cool drinking.  There are no rules to drinking, however. They're simply a way for people to feel superior to others. They allow us to think we understand when other people don't. They help us to feel special, intelligent, and educated. We use them to point out the folly of others. Rules have never been cool, however. Breaking them is.

The biggest problem with rules is that they stand to prevent fun, rather than promote it. This drinking dogma is often used to intimidate and condescend rather than foster an educated enjoyment ("You can't drink white wine with that! You can't drink a vodka martini, it has to be gin!"). Have you ever heard someone tell you they don't own a TV? That they don't eat fast food? That they only read books, work on learning foreign languages, and go for hikes up in the mountains? That's the sure sign of someone who has work and fun completely backwards. The people who honestly don't enjoy watching TV aren't telling you about it. They're too busy doing what they really enjoy. It's this odd, fun-depriving portion of society that feels like enjoying themselves is off limits. You're supposed to be exercising or studying at all times, except for when you are mixing a cocktail or having a glass of wine. These people are so serious about it that they wear exercise clothes everywhere because they need you to know that they're either on their way to work out, or they just finished at the gym. Once the exercise is done, it's on to more education. We're at the point where even people who don't exercise are wearing the uniform just because they think they're supposed to!  It's totally crazy!

Guess what? Smart people watch TV. So do physically fit and healthy people. So do cultured, multilinguists. They play video games. They eat McDonald's. They relax every now and then with a bottle of Budweiser or a vodka tonic, despite the fact that it isn't something hip, healthy, or holistic (this was supposed to tie in with Robert DeNiro enjoying his chicken yesterday). Going back to Anthony Bourdain, one of key celebrities of this culture, he completely gets off on bucking the foodie trend despite the fact that he is worshipped by this same sect. Have you ever watched his show (to those of you with TVs)? He loves shooting vodka, eating fried dough, and drinking cheap, cold beer until 3 AM, breaking every rule that serious wine and food people hold dearly. True, he also enjoys fine Burgundy and haute cuisine, but there's always a balance. It's OK to like vodka. It's OK to drink Jack Daniels. It's OK to go against what foodie culture says you're supposed to do. That's what makes Bourdain so enjoyable. Every religion has their own set of rules about what you can and can't do and the food and wine scripture is really no different. It's a form of living in denial that seems utterly ridiculous. Why not just eat and drink whatever you feel like, whenever you feel like it? Bourdain isn't doing it to be ironic, either.  The flipside of this is obviously the ironic backlash - the contingent that does what isn't cool just because it's the opposite of what people expect. To me, that's just as bad. You're drinking PBR because it's the opposite of a glass of Bordeaux, but do you really like PBR? Are you drinking Pabst because it tastes good to you or are you still trying to pad your ironic public perception?

The whole reason I even sat down to write this piece was because my boss asked me about David Foster Wallace the other day. I guess there was a segment on NPR about his biographer and he wanted to know if I had read Infinite Jest. I told him that reading that book was what ultimately taught me the important lesson about doing what I want in life, rather than slugging my way through something I hate just to impress other people. I've been there. I grew up around these people and they made me feel guilty about my own behavior. I followed the rules, got my master's degree in German literature, and fell right into the wine world with the same sense of idealism. What I found, however, is that the pedantry made my life less fun. I wish I liked Infinite Jest, that way it would have been a more enjoyable use of my time. There are some parts that literally made me laugh out loud, but overall I felt it was too long and too full of itself.  In my opinion, Wallace wrote that book for the same reason I wanted to read it - it's an impressive accomplishment.

However, who really cares about these achievements? I did. I cared if I got the Pappy. I cared if I got the Stagg. I wanted other people to think I was smart. To think I was cultivated. To think I was interesting, different, unique, capable of greatness, better than the average person. I was the guy who always had the great bottle of wine, or the rare bottle of whisky. In my own eyes, these were the things that made me special.  However, they didn't bring me more enjoyment or pleasure. I had forgotten how to simply have a drink and talk about something basic and everyday. Conversation became a way to impress other people rather than connect with them.  It's a form of denial. We want to enjoy the things that other people enjoy, talk about how much we love them, but it turns out they're not really enjoying them either.  It's like pouring a glass of wine and waiting for someone else to say it's good before you add your own comment. No one wants to be first. No one wants to be the one who doesn't get it. Until you realize that no one really gets it because there is nothing to get. It's just a bunch of people sitting around drinking - nothing more.

I spent six months going through Infinite Jest, banging my head against the wall, dozing off, losing my concentration, thinking about other things I actually wanted to be doing. It was such a waste of time. I felt guilty for giving up. "I need to tough this out," I thought to myself. But why in the heck would I use my free time to do something that I wasn't enjoying? It's called denial. Denial that I didn't like something I was supposed to like. Denial that I wasn't cool enough. Denial that perhaps other people saw something I didn't. Denial that maybe I wasn't smart enough to "get it." It's this same sort of denial that's going on inside the wine and spirits world and it's ruining all the fun. Drinking is not supposed to be work. It's not supposed to make you frustrated or feel like a novice. It's supposed to bring you enjoyment, just like reading a book or watching a movie.

Look at vodka. People in the whisky crowd won't touch vodka. Neither will the wine people. It's so uncool to drink vodka right now if you're part of the foodie crowd. Vodka is so dead among hipsters it doesn't even have a pulse. It's worse than Merlot after Sideways. However, I went out to a party with my wife the other night and danced until the early morning hours. Everyone was drinking vodka, opening bottles of Belvedere, doing shots, and having a blast. I hadn't had fun like that in years. There was no denial in this room.  Everyone was doing exactly what they wanted to be doing, drinking whatever they wanted. No rules, no food pairings, no snobbery, no condescension. Just fun.

Living in denial is forcing yourself to eat organ meat because it's rustic and traditional, when you know you'd rather have a burger. Living in denial is saying you only like dry wines, despite the fact that you love to guzzle sweet California chardonnay. Living in denial is using your former Comcast money to buy yoga pants when you know you love watching the Real Housewives.

Living in denial is no fun.

-David Driscoll