Thanksgiving Thoughts

I'm sitting at the counter in my parent's kitchen reading some articles about whisky in a new book I just ordered from the UK.  So far, most of them have been absolutely bland, boring, and poorly written - focusing on the growth of the industry, the geographical location of the next big boom, and corporate executives who want to make more money off of whisky.  However, this quote from one of Diageo's head honchos really stuck with me.  He says:

"Diageo is a blended whisky company.  Diageo does not make single malts for me to enjoy.  We do not make single malts for the afficionado to enjoy.  We make single malts for our blending team."

You can obviously read that quotation a number of different ways, but it's kind of a chilling statement.  I say "chilling" because Diageo owns 28 of the best distilleries in Scotland including Lagavulin, Oban, Talisker, Caol Ila, Clynelish, Dalwhinnie, Cragganmore, as well as the remaining stocks from the no-longer-existant Port Ellen, Brora, Rosebank, and Banff.  While I understand completely that Diageo's big bucks come from the Walker blends, it's still a bit frightening to hear them admit something like that.  If you haven't kept up with the current trends in the whisky economy, single malt whiskies account for only 7% of world sales.  That means they're an afterthought.  Johnnie Walker comes first and everything else gets made if there's a bit of whisky left over. 

Demand, however, for collectable whiskies has only gone up over the last few years.  You can't get Pappy anywhere anymore and the newest Port Ellen release didn't even make it to California (we got one whole bottle, whereas last year we could buy as much as we wanted).  Diageo is also known for demolishing their "less profitable" distilleries, rather than selling them off.  Letting another entity have a go with something like Rosebank would only lead to more competition.  One of the rare exceptions came in 1993 when they sold off Bladnoch, however they still put a contractual cap on how much the distillery can produce on a yearly basis.

As I sit here with a bit of Ladyburn by my side (a lost distillery which Diageo doesn't own the rights to), I'm more thankful than ever for independent bottlers like Signatory who made this bottle possible.  I'm thankful to work with people who live to drink single malt whisky, rather than analyze its market potential.  If you think about single malts with your mouth and your heart, rather than with charts and graphs, it's a much more human experience.  There are so many wonderful distilleries in Scotland that make fantastic, unique, and compelling single malt whisky.  Many deserve to be drunk on their own.

Happy Thanksgiving. Drink some whisky. Share the bottles you love. Tell people the story behind those distilleries and make sure they know why individual single malts are so interesting.

-David Driscoll


Top Ten Single Malt Holiday Picks

This is going to go out to the gigantic K&L email list very soon, but I thought I'd give you all a sneak preview here first. 

Now that K&L has become the nation’s premier destination for unique spirits, we’re receiving more inquiries from single malt fanatics in search of something new and interesting for their whisky-drinking loved ones.  To help ease the process of gift-giving this year, we’ve asked our two energetic spirits buyers to rank their top ten single malt picks for the holiday season: in order – factoring in quality, price, exclusivity, and general drinkability.  The following list comes straight from our in-house experts with updated notes and commentary!

10.  Blair Athol K&L Exclusive 11 Year Old Provenance Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $74.99With all the cask enhancement flavors and super-smoky aromas coming out of the single malt world these days, it’s nice to find an old-fashioned, “they-don’t-make-em-like-this-anymore” type of whisky.  Blair Athol is not known as a single malt distillery, but rather for its role in Bell’s Blended – one of the most widely-appreciated blends in the UK.  It has wonderful fruit, classic malted barley flavors, and lovely whisps of vanilla and syrup. We found this cask in a Glasgow warehouse and immediately fell in love.  At cask strength, a dollop of water works wonders – bringing out new flavors in the malt and adding complexity with every drop.  This is a rarely seen whisky that should make plenty of new friends while it lasts. -DD

9.  Ardbeg Uigeadail Islay Single Malt Whisky $58.99Our continuous work with what has become Islay’s most beloved distillery has been incredibly successful.  We’ve managed to turn hundreds of new whisky drinkers on to the high-octane flavors of Ardbeg at an incredible rate, while continuing to deliver great new pricing at the same time.  The Uigeadail was voted the world’s best whisky in 2009 and has never looked back since.  Loads of peat moss, iodine, smoke, salt, and brine make this a “love-it-or-hate-it” type of malt, but judging by amount we’ve been moving this year, it seems that most people are loving it.  While many people consider Lagavulin 16 to be the standard of peated Islay malts, the Uigeadail just seems more alive – zippier, zestier, and always enjoyable. -DD

8.  Lagavulin 16 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $64.99 - Okay, so not every top ten single malt can be from the casks we brought back from Scotland.  Lagavulin is a pillar of quality in a single malt market filled with excellent brands.  I would call Lagavulin the consummate classic. While some critics swear it was better twenty years ago, most honest observers have to admit that this is still one of the finest malts available.  While Lagavulin is not known for their exciting or avant-garde bottlings, they are noted for being incredibly consistent over the last 50 years of whisky production.  The small distillery outside of Port Ellen is a living legend.  The 16 year exemplifies everything that is great about single malt whisky.  It’s familiar and inviting.  It’s unusual and nuanced.  This is the perfect whisky to cut your teeth on, but is just as good every time you come back to it.  It just NEVER gets boring. -DOG

7.  Compass Box Great King Street Blended Whisky $39.99With single malts dominating the boutique market for the past few years, it was time for someone to create a hand-crafted blend that really highlighted the strength of what grain whisky could bring to the picture.  Dubbed by Compass Box guru John Glaser as the “Johnnie Walker killer,” this whisky was created to drink on the rocks with a splash of soda.  The fruit really opens up with the addition of ice and the sweet grains mingle beautifully with the vanilla.  If you’re an “on the rocks” person who has been scolded for ruining fine quality whisky, this is your bottle.  Straight sippers might be a bit underwhelmed, but those of us who love a good Highball will be in whisky heaven. -DD

6.  Glenfarclas 17 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $89.99 - What can I say about this whisky that every critic hasn’t already?  Glenfarclas is one of the Highlands’s finest distilleries.  Nestled behind a beautifully lush outcrop of pines on the road between Keith and Inverness, this historic family owned distillery is in the top tier.  The boys at Glenfarlcas pride themselves on delivering incredible value for the money.  The house style is richly sherried.  Their 17 year is the flag ship and represents one of the finest values anywhere in single malt.  Here you’ll get plenty of that sherry character, but with a lot more depth than one would expect for the price.  Freshly roasted coffee beans, orange marmalade, cacao, and honey, the complexity is near infinite.  With a bit of air, a different set of aromas express themselves, sandlewood/cedar, dried fruits galore, the sweet caramel intensity nearly completely masking the tiniest hint of fresh mint.  Truly a gem, please don’t tell anyone how good this is! -DOG

5.  Kilchoman 100% Islay Barley Single Malt Whisky $99.99I know a lot of people have looked at the $100 price tag and wondered why what is essentially a three year old whisky should merit such a high price.  What most folks don’t know is that almost every distillery in Scotland uses pre-malted barley from the exact same source.  It’s almost the same as every winery beginning with the exact same grapes – the difference in flavor comes from technique rather than raw material.  What Kilchoman decided to do was grow their own barley next door to their Island distillery, harvest it, malt it at their facility in the old-fashioned floor method, and then distill it into a single malt that is 100% from Islay – the most beloved of all Scottish locales.  Brimming with zesty lemon, sweet barley, smoky peat, maritime saline flavors, and almost a blanco tequila-like aroma, the difference between their usual malt and the 100% couldn’t be more obvious.  For those interested in terroir, this whisky delivers it in droves.  It’s very unique, expensive to make, and all too rare. -DD

4.  Longmorn 18 Year Old Signatory Single Malt Whisky $79.99 - We don’t see a lot from Longmorn stateside because it’s generally not imported.  The Longmorn 16 year bottled at the distillery is good, but expensive!  This independent bottle from Signatory trounces the distillery bottling at a fraction of the price.  Powerful and classically Speyside, the balance here is incredible.  The nose is incredibly rich and brings the smell of fresh cereal grains with hints of sweet vanilla.  The slight sherry character (It's a Hogshead) is a forethought and not noticeable unless you look for it.  This is the perfect whisky to get for someone who you know loves single malt, but you don’t know which kind.  Even if they are a peat head they’ll have to appreciate this malts awesome viscosity and fabulous depth. -DOG

3.  1975 Banff K&L Exclusive 35 Year Old Duncan Taylor Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky 224.99 - Banff is one of my favorite distilleries.  Before its demolition, it was located in the most extreme north east of Scotland and this fully mature Hogshead barrel was a treasure for us.  This whisky might not be for everyone.  It’s not for those looking for a cheap substitute for Macallan 30 year.  It is, however, an exceptionally introspective whisky, which needs to be examined thoroughly to full understand.  Coming in at a rather low 90.4 proof, this Banff doesn’t feel tired or expired despite its age.   The nose has a powerful fresh woodsy feel that remind me of going off trail in the forest, cracking dried twigs under your feet, the smell of moss on bark.  Leafy green and apple tart on the palate.  The finish is puckering and dry, but not austere.  So many of the people who pre-ordered a bottle have come back for second and even thirds.  Don’t miss out. -DOG

2.  1997 Springbank K&L Exclusive 14 Year Single Madeira Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - I don’t know what to say about this whisky except that it makes me cry a bit every time I sip it.  I have to admit that I am not only a HUGE Springbank fan, but also a sucker for Madeira.  From the moment it pours out of the bottle you can tell you’re about to get the best flavors of both.  The shimmering golden color is matched by the utter viscous nature of the spirit as it pours from the bottle.  The nose is a complex mix up of sweet creamy icing, rich winter produce (persimmons and butternut), the richness of the Madeira influence totally covers the unique smokiness of Springbank.  Instead you get saline, fresh earth and a bit of warehouse floor.  On the palate, the smoke definitely takes the forefront.  The fruit is still there but plays a back seat to Springbank’s exceptional rich smoky malty core.  This is sure to go down as a classic.  -DOG

1.  Glendronach K&L Exclusive 16 Year Old Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $115.99Number one with a bullet! This is old-fashioned, old-school Scotch for people who love whisky. If you know someone who likes Macallan 18 or any other smooth-drinking, Sherry-aged single malt, then this is the ultimate alternative that will have their taste-buds singing. Imagine taking one single Sherry barrel out of the Macallan 18 blend recipe and isolating its concentrated flavor – big, chewy, raisined fruit with rich molasses and a hint of earth.  Add in a fuller-bodied, unctuous mouthfeel and a powerful backbone with a kiss of sweetness on the finish.  That’s this whisky in a nutshell.  We had them bottle it straight from the cask, so you’ll need to add some water to proof it down!  After that it’s smooth sailing into the New Year.  Very limited and sourced directly from the distillery warehouse.  -DD

-David Driscoll & David Othenin-Girard


From Farm to Barrel

I'm having a pretty great Sunday so far.  I've got the New York Times, some homemade Japanese cuisine, and a bottle of Almanac's newest Autumn release - the Farmhouse Pale Ale brewed with San Joaquin Valley plums.  While David and I have been making waves with our spirits department renovation, Bryan Brick has been quietly gaining some serious headway with the K&L beer selection.  It's now just as common to find a store full of plaid-flannel and bushy beards as it is fine-tailored suits and manicured fingernails.  Bryan's not really the blogging type of guy, however, so I feel compelled to help get his message out, as well as showcase some of the fantastic new bottles to grace our Redwood City refridgerator. 

San Francisco residents Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan started Almanac Beer Co. by brewing five gallon, stove-top batches in their city apartments, using the local farmers markets to find seasonal produce and add additional flavor.  Their passion for good brew lead them to a more serious partnership with local farmers in an attempt to create a seasonal portfolio of unique and high-quality beers.  They've only unleashed two batches so far and both have been legendary.  Their first, a 2010 summer release, brewed with fresh California blackberries and aged eleven months in red wine barrels, caught us completely off guard and was instantly a huge hit with beer geeks everywhere.  The 2011 Autumn release is also quite stellar.  The ingredients are all meticulously selected and the guys from Almanac think it's important you know where they sourced them from.

1,000 pounds of organic plums were purchased from Twin Girls Farm in Yettem, California.  The organic wheat was grown by Massa Organics in Glenn County.  They then blended in pilconcillo - an unrefined brown sugar usually found in Mexican desserts - to create a beer that celebrates the Indian summer and Fall flavors of California's 2011 growing season.  More details are available from their outstanding website with pictures of the growers and their beautiful farms.  The beer itself isn't nearly as gimmicky as you might expect - it's still very much a beer at heart.  Golden grains blend with subtle fruits as hints of hops and forest aromas evoke true seasonal aromatics.  The beer is simply wonderful and incredibly satisfying.  It's meant to pair with a meal, like a fine wine would and should find a place at your Thanksgiving table.  For $15.99 per 750ml - it's a true bargain. 

My Sunday is still going well.  The 49ers are up 23-0 and I've still got a full glass of this Almanac in my hand.  I might call the store, however, and have someone stash a few more bottles away.  They don't make a lot of this stuff.

-David Driscoll


Getting to Know the Hakushu

The newest Japanese whisky to hit the U.S. market is Suntory's Hakushu - known as the "Forest Distillery."  Built in 1973 as a sister distillery to Suntory's Yamazaki distillery (previously the only Japanese single malt available in the U.S.), the facility is located at a high-elevation site next to the "pristine waters" of the Ojira River, which are used to dillute the whisky itself.  Hakushu distillery uses different styles of oak barrel to age their single malt, but mainly Hogshead, which according to the distillery is "suitable to the clear air and cool humid climate."

The 12 year old from Hakushu is lightly peated and very delicate in its flavor profile.  The light and fruity style of the whisky is quite similar to the Yamazaki 12, but the smoke really makes up for the lack of richness.  Because most of Japan drinks their younger malts with ice and water, the Hakushu is definitely another whisky designed for that purpose, which may turn off some of the single malt sippers stateside.  However, even straight at room temperature, the Hakushu really delivers quality flavors for the price point.  Think Talisker, but distinctly less round or supple.  So far I've really enjoyed tinkering with it in different forms - as a Highball, with an ice cube, and just plain neat. This is one of the most enjoyable bottles I've purchased in some time.  We only have about 18 left of the initial 60 and that will be all until 2012!

-David Driscoll


Last Cask In (not a Rotten Egg)

Just in time for Thanksgiving, our last direct import of 2011 has arrived: the completely disregarded, totally overlooked, 11 year old Blair Athol single malt.  It's not even a 12 year, it's from a weird distillery, it's not peated, it's not sherried, it's not cask enhanced, and it's $75.  Who in the heck would buy this?  While we sourced this cask from a Glasgow warehouse, we happened to pass the distillery on our way back to the airport after visiting Edradour.  As we were gassing up the car, David OG turned and said, "Hey! Isn't that Blair Athol?"  Gathered around the front entrance, next to a giant sign that read "Home of Bell's Blended," stood over a dozen grey-haired gentlemen with cameras, fanny packs, and khaki pants.  It turned out to be a tour group of British men who had made the trek up from England to visit their favorite distillery.  Really?  Blair Athol? 

As fellow co-worker, and self-described "32 going on 90" resident old man Joe Manekin told me yesterday, "I feel totally appropriate drinking this!"  And that was without me telling him the above story!  There is a rustic, old-school charm to this malt.  It's very basic, but at the same time stylish - think Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground (all in black, but very well tailored).  Powerful vanilla, sweet barley and grains, and flurries of fruit that combine to create one basic flavor: Scotch.  This whisky is like the single malt version of the Rattray Blend that we received earlier this year, but a bit more interesting.  While the Littlemill bottle got the 60's, art-deco era style label, it would better suit this whisky. It's a throwback, pure and simple.  And a good one at that.  They don't make 'em like this anymore, save maybe for the rare Glent Grant or Old Pulteney bottle.

-David Driscoll