Assess the Risk

We had an interesting lunch conversation today with friends about the fear of taking a risk in today's generation.  However, while gambling can certainly lead to disappointment, the greatest rewards are usually given to those who take a chance.  So many people want certainty these days - they need to know that whatever they're investing in is going to work out as planned.  They want clear instructions about what is needed from them and what exactly is necessary to achieve happiness and success.  It's the fear of the unknown that prevents people from branching out sometimes - "why take a chance on that bottle of French chardonnay when we already know that we like the California one?"

I could go on forever about this, but the subject is worth thinking about.  Part of the reason why I feel wine ratings carry so much weight stems from the fact that people are afraid of drinking a bad bottle.  Worse than that - drinking a bad bottle of wine and thinking it's good!  We need certainty even if certainty is a matter of opinion.  Life is one giant uncertainty which is why we constantly look for something to latch on to.

Look at it this way: you'll never know if little Suzie will go to the prom with you unless you ask.  The boy who never asks for fear of rejection will never know what could have happened.  The one who takes the risk may end up having the time of his life (or might end up crying in his room, but so be it).

It's ok to end up with a bad bottle now and again.  It's the understanding of the bad ones that makes the good ones so good.

-David Driscoll


Still More Gin

They're a funny thing, my booze buying habits.  I'll absolutely never (with the exception of Springbank 10) buy a bottle of Scotch more than once because there's simply too much of a selection out there to waste time drinking the same one.  Same goes for Bourbon, Tequila, and rum.  Gin, however, is where my philosophy seems to contradict itself.  Despite my avid love of cocktails, I don't love experimenting with them at home.  Rather than spend 30 minutes trying to craft a new drink that I may or may not enjoy, I'd rather just whip up a Negroni or a martini and get right to the drinking.  I wasn't always this way, but I definitely am now; call it a time issue, perhaps (which also might explain my current refrain from cask-strength whisky in the home).  For this reason, I tend to only use the same two gins over and over again - BBR's No. 3 London Gin for martinis and the Ransom Old Tom Gin for everything else.

Honestly, I had never put much thought into this phenomenon until Christophe Bakunas walked into the store this week with Ransom Wine Company's second gin - the Small's American Dry.  Tad Seestedt, who is the distiller for Ransom, seems to have my number when it comes to flavor profiles because I took one sip of the Small's and absolutely loved it.  Think of it as a really good version of Citadelle - focused on the juniper, with clean and racy herbal notes.  It's nothing bizarre or new, it's just a really good version of a classic gin.  Tad distills it in batches on his old-school pot still and flavors it with a combination of "naturally-farmed and wild-grown botanicals:" juniper, orange, lemon, coriander, cardamom, angelica, caraway, star anise, and raspberry.  Ransom is heavy into the historical side of spirits production and these guys seem to know everything about the history of gin, using recipes from the 19th century to help them craft both spirits. Whatever they're channeling is working. 

I love this Small's American Dry and can't wait for it to hit California in a few weeks.  It's such a pure and concentrated manifestation of what I consider to be gin's true flavor.  It might actually turn my current two-man rotation into a three-way.  Those searching for gin's next guise might find it a bit simple, but I'm willing to bet a life-long Tanqueray drinker can be converted to a Ransom fan with the Small's.

Look for it at the beginning of October. $30 estimated retail.

-David Driscoll


A Look at the K&L Tequila Department 

Tequila is the new Wild West both for spirits producers and for passionate spirit drinkers.  Every week I learn about another new brand, distillery, or distributor that is throwing a party in Las Vegas or having a tasting at my nearest Porsche dealer.  There are tons of distilleries making agave spirit for multiple labels and, most of the time, the person whose name is on the bottle knows nothing about how “his” tequila was actually produced.   If there was ever a spirit that was in desperate need of a quality guidebook, tequila is it. Single malts made at Talisker usually say Talisker on the bottle, but what does it mean when you find out that a certain tequila was made at Destileria Morales or Casa Tequilera de Arandas?  I can look up any Scottish or American distillery on Google and find loads of information about what they make and the style of their spirits.  Besides the NOM database on however, the average consumer looking for tequila help is pretty much on their own.  This is partly because many distilleries in tequila function as co-ops, where farmers can bring their own agave and use the facility’s crusher and still, or where anyone with money can pay a producer to make it for them.  Few companies own their own distillery and for this reason, tequila is still a category dominated by brand names – Sauza, Don Julio, Cazadores, and Patron. 

So what is a bonafide spirits geek to do when looking to discover exciting new tequilas?  Part of our enjoyment as aficionados comes from the information we learn about the harvesting of materials, the methods of distillation, and the cooperage used for the maturation process.  I have to admit that, as much as I love tequila and desire to learn more about it, I’m not always sure of the facts, which makes purchasing new brands an uncomfortable practice.  Buying wines and whiskies direct from the producer has always been the K&L business model because we could go straight to the source.  There are never any vagaries or advertising campaigns to consider when buying from smaller producers, just good booze made by good people.  When looking to shape the direction of our tequila department, we tried to utilize this same philosophy because at least we would know something about the products we were selling and why they were special!  For this reason tequila shopping at K&L can be a bit confusing with its many unfamiliar faces.  However, the same used to be the case with our Champagne selection until our customers discovered the big secret.  Like many agave farmers, the vintners of Champagne sell most of their fruit to big houses like Roederer and Moet.  A very select few attempt to make a living by producing wine from their own crops, but those that do can make exquisite stuff - wines of character that would never be possible on a large-production scale.  I’m finding that the same phenomenon is true with tequila, so let me tell you a bit more about some of our more interesting selections and why we carry them.

Los Osuna

Notice that I didn’t type tequila after the name above?  That’s because Los Osuna is produced in Sinaloa, just north of the tequila producing state Jalisco.  Because it’s not grown or produced within the legal confines, Los Osuna must call itself Agave Azul much like a sparkling wine made in California cannot label itself as champagne.  Besides the fact that Los Osuna’s spirits are absolutely delicious, there’s the wonderful fact that they actually harvest their own blue agave at their La Vinata field and distill it themselves at Vinata Santa Clara, their family-owned distillery at the Los Osuna hacienda in La Noria.  The Osuna family began planting agave there in the mid-19th century and distilling it by 1876.  The distillery had been dormant for much of the late 20th century until the family decided to re-establish its longstanding tradition.  Today it might be my favorite tequila we carry. 

Los Osuna Blanco Tequila $39.99 – Beautiful, vibrant, peppery, and zesty.  Classic blanco for people who like bold flavors with balance.

Los Osuna Reposado Tequila $49.99 – Simply an aged version of their terrific blanco.  More vanilla and oak character, but the guts of the original formula are still present.  Outstanding.

Gran Dovejo Tequila

Distilled at the Feliciano Vivanco y Asociados facility, which also produces Muchote and Mañana, Gran Dovejo is the brainchild of the Mendez family who took a very special approach to their project.  While not farmers or distillers in their own right, the Mendezes wanted to make a tequila of quality that also spoke to a very specific place.  They contacted the Vivanco family about purchasing some top quality agave from their Los Altos Highland farm to make a single estate tequila and the rest is history.  Rather than have the Vivancos distill it for them, they brought in a family friend to help them do it themselves – master distiller Leopold Solis Tinoco of Siembra Azul and Don Pilar fame.  The result is Gran Dovejo – a wonderful, top-shelf selection of tequilas that, rather than hide the source and production methods of their spirits, showcases the quality of hand-harvested agave distilled by a true expert.  While it’s true that the Mendez family did not grow the agave itself, they still worked carefully to source it from a small estate that did, so it’s not as if they’re a large scale operation.  Their tequilas still have little publicity and are currently treasured by those who have taken a chance via our recommendation.

Gran Dovejo Blanco Tequila $44.99 – clean as a whistle, pure flavors of citrus and baking spices, zippy on the finish, but still the essence of elegance.

Gran Dovejo Reposado Tequila $49.99 - mild mannered, hinting at greatness, but never unleashing its full fury.

Gran Dovejo Añejo Tequila $54.99 – big, woody flavors of new oak mingling with the baking spices inherent in the spirit.  I've never tasted a tequila more suited for bourbon drinkers.  It has all the texture, the new wood, the spice, and the mouthfeel.  I love that they didn't let this thing get all supple, soft, and smooth because there's enough of that in the market.

Tequila Piramide

I love this tequila because to look at the bottle you’d automatically assume that it just couldn’t be good.  It’s so fun to recommend it because the customers make a funny face and say, “Really?  This one?”  Tequila Piramide is the classic example of “don’t judge a book by its cover.”  The tequila is made from 100% certified organic agave at Destileria Refugio in Arenal, Jalisco.  Everything is done by Oscar Rodriguez and his family – the growing of the agave, the harvesting of the plants, the roasting of the piñas, and the distillation of the spirit.  The tequila that comes as a result is brimming with character and full of life.  I love working with Oscar and his importer Karolina because both are charming people who only want to bring their humble tequila to those who love it.  When I ask a question about the fermentation process, they know it.  They can talk about the mineral content of the soil where the agave plants are grown.  They understand tequila.  That’s why it’s so freaking good.

Piramide 100% Organic Blanco Tequila $25.99 - zesty, full of citrus, cinnamon, and pepper.  Clean on the finish.  Lovely.

Piramide 100% Organic Reposado Tequila $31.99 – cinnamon, cloves, and baking spices galore without ever losing its gusto.  I love this stuff.

Mi Casa Tequila

The Rodriguez family planted agave in their Michoacan estate over a decade ago because the tequila industry was facing at a shortage and they felt it could prove to be a wise investment.  Little did they know that many other farmers did the exact same thing!  The resulting agave boom left them little option other than selling it off to large producers, or transporting their hand-harvested agave over to Jalisco to have it distilled into something profitable.  Unlike most producers however they were committed to making a quality spirit even if it meant taking more time and money to do so.  The fact that they're based here on the SF Peninsula is exciting because we're always dedicated to doing business with local producers.  Distilled at Casa Tequileria de Arandas in the Los Altos Highlands, where Mejor is also made, the tequilas they produce are richer and more supple due to the high sugar content of their outstanding agave plants.  These are true sipping tequilas and are smoother in texture than any of the above, making them easy crossover spirits for the uninitiated. 

Mi Casa Blanco Tequila $38.99 – remarkably pure, soft, and clean with subtle spices and delicate citrus notes.  A fantastic balance of both old and new world.

Mi Casa Reposado Tequila $42.99 - soft and slightly creamy, hinting at butterscotch and caramel, but without being rich or cloying.

Mi Casa Añejo Tequila $46.99 – lovely baking spices dance with pepper and citrus.  Well made with rarely-seen grace and lovely balance.

So now you understand why we carry these unknown, “weird,” not-Patron tequilas.  They’re real spirits made by real people who work closely with the production team and the farmers who grow the agave.  Beginning on October 26th we will be inviting these four producers into both the K&L Redwood City and San Francisco locations to meet with customers and pour their amazing products.  Stay tuned!

 -David Driscoll


Nostalgic Motivation

Jesus!  Last April I went to Scotland with David OG and it was one of the best times in my life.  Yet, here I sit, alone with a bottle of whisky in my living room, feeling totally burnt out and a bit askew.  Perhaps I need to look back on the memories from our wonderful journey to find the inspiration necessary to continue this quest.

Christ! Did we really drink these whiskies?  It all seems a bit hazy at this point, but I think we must have because I took this picture.  If you've ever needed a reason to travel to Islay, I think this should provide proper motivation.

Holy Cow!  I remember drinking this with Jamie MacKenzie on the shores of the Bowmore distillery at around one in the morning.  What a fantastic experience!  Single malt whisky is awesome!  What am I doing wasting my time with wine blogging?  It's time to get back to what I know!  Let's do this.  I'm now sufficiantly motivated to get back down in the trenches.  Let's see what comes of it.

I think David OG's prayer to the Celtic Cross of Islay should come in handy about now.  We need a boost and there's nothing like the memory of Scotland to keep us going!

-David Driscoll


Turf Wars

If you get paid to do something you love - be happy.  If there are people out there who are so inspired by what you do that they seek to emulate it, then be flattered.  If if turns out that the people who emulate you (and do what you do for zero pay) end up doing a better job than you, then learn from their example.  However, if your ego prevents you from recognizing that someone out there, who is not a professional, can not only do your job better than you can, but can also do it in their free time, it might make things a little uncomfortable. 

There are plenty of political blogs that offer more in-depth articles than CNN or MSNBC and that are run by teachers or waiters in their free time.  There are a slew of music blogs on the web that showcase new artists in a far more effective way than Rolling Stone or MTV.  It would only seem logical then that blogging would make its way into the booze world where there is never a shortage of personal opinion.  While it's true that some bloggers may not have the same professional standards that a journalist might have, it doesn't mean that what they're saying isn't important.  Again, these are amateur writers who are probably hurrying to whip out a post while sitting on the toilet before work.  They aren't getting paid and they have plenty of other things to do.  It's their passion alone that drives them to do it.

It's natural, though, for a bit of animosity to form whenever one side feels that its turf is being infringed upon.  Older actresses resent the younger, less-wrinkled starlets who get all the roles they used to get.  Drug dealers are constantly murdering one another for the use of city block.  Heck, we've even seen examples of other whisky merchants getting a bit uncomfortable when a certain wine store began importing their own exclusive whiskies too.  There is a competition going on for the ever-shrinking attention span of our world and the room of voices is only getting more crowded. 

While I kind of relish my pressure-free role as a blogger/retailer, other whisky writers do this for a living.  There's bound to be a bit of tension between them and the guys who do it for fun if the latter begins to take readership away from the former.  I've been monitoring this phenomenon for sometime now with utter fascination and recently the action has been a bit heated!  A group of whisky bloggers known to me recently tackled this issue here in an interesting online discussion.  The Whisky Advocate (formerly known as the Malt Advocate) has also written a few articles concerning this subject recently and has received several interesting letters to the editor from some not-so-flattered bloggers (see the new issue of the Whisky Advocate upon release).  It's a hot button issue among the online whisky community and I'm really not sure where it's headed.

I'm kind of in the middle on this one, so I'm going to mostly stay back and watch how it unfolds.  I'm not really a blogger as much as I am a promoter.  I won't write about any product unless K&L plans on carrying it, so I'm not a great source of booze news unless it has to do with our store.  However, I like doing it because it's simply a fun outlet for my internal feelings.  The fact that other people read it is still shocking to me, but I'm grateful nonetheless.  Having read an advance copy of the new Whisky Advocate issue, I must say that there is a big difference between the quality of their writing and most of the pieces I read on hobbiest blogs.  The new articles are in depth, the photography is beautiful, and the information is fresh.  On the flip side, however, they have access to distilleries that bloggers do not.  They get access to samples that bloggers do not.  Who's to say that the right group of bloggers couldn't do as good of a job if they had the same resources? 

The reason why the Whisky Advocate has the access they do, however, is because they've shown a dedication to whisky writing at the highest possible level.  Anyone who wants the same type of treatment needs to hold themselves to the same high standard before they start complaining about a lack of resources.  When a writer has shown that they can provide a new and interesting take on whisky, the industry will respond - either positively or negatively, but it will respond.  In my mind, it's all about passion, effort, and time.  I'll admit that there's something humorous about reading blogs that only repeat information that has been written a million times already, but that's the age we live in - everyone gets a voice.  What's important, however, is that the people with the loudest voice don't try to talk over the people with the quieter ones.  Nobody likes the blowhard in the room, even if they're the expert.  Take it from me - I would know.

-David Driscoll