The NDP Dilemma

NDP = Non-Distiller Producer: whiskey that's bottled by someone who didn't actually distill the whiskey.  While non-descript barrels, vattings, and blends have dominated the Scotch whisky market for years, the idea of NDP Bourbon really rubs some people the wrong way here in the states. As my buddy Chuck Cowdery said to me the other day, "Personally, I don't want to play the guessing game of who made the whiskey." It's a perfectly understandable point of view. Many Bourbon enthusiasts want to know what they're paying for and, unless you know what's in it, it's quite difficult to make that assessment.  Maker's Mark we know is made by Maker's Mark.  Buffalo Trace is made by Buffalo Trace.  Four Roses is made by Four Roses.  But which distillery made the Bourbon in the Hirsch Selection Small Batch Reserve? Which whiskies comprise the St. George Breaking & Entering? The fact is we don't know and, for some drinkers, not knowing can be a complete turnoff.

The biggest assumption made by consumers about NDP Bourbon is that they're overpaying for whiskey that could just be purchased straight from the source.  Why pay another company more money to essentially take whiskey from another distillery and put it inside a different bottle?  Because there's no disclosure, no age statement, and no information regarding the contents on each label, consumers are forced to speculate as to why this might be.  Maybe they don't want us to know.  Maybe if we knew, we wouldn't buy it!  Capitalism has taught us not to trust anyone, but sometimes the answer is out there if you ask.  I spent some time on the phone today with a few key figures in the NDP Bourbon world to ask why consumers might want to give their products the benefit of the doubt.

First on the list was Drew Kulsveen from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers.  Perhaps the biggest of the NDP Bourbon companies, KBD has been working with other distilleries for years to secure barrels for their own private labels.  Willett, Pure Kentucky, Vintage, Noah's Mill, Rowan's Creek, Johnny Drum, Black Maple Hill, are all KBD expressions and the list keeps going.  More than any other company, KBD seems to draw the wrath of certain customers who assume that, because of their close proximity to Heaven Hill, their whiskies are likely just more expensive versions of Elijah Craig or Evan Williams.  "The truth is we buy from every distillery in Kentucky except for Maker's Mark," Drew said when presented with this assumption.  "We've had relationships with these companies for quite a long time and many of our whiskies are made from three or four different distillates."

With regard to KBD's lack of an age statement on most bottles, Drew replied that, "age is about expectation - namely, about what a whiskey should taste like. We use whiskies of all different ages in our recipes, so sometimes the number can be deceiving." I couldn't agree more.  As a retailer, I taste whisk(e)y every single day, sometimes for hours upon end.  More often than not, the older, more expensive whiskies under-perform while the younger releases tend to offer more value.  Basically, age is never a guarantee that a whisk(e)y is of quality.  It's not really an indicator of anything other than what you can expect to pay.  Customers do tend to assume that the oldest expression must be the best, simply because it's the oldest.  "Noah's Mill, for example," Drew continued, "is made with three different whiskies, from three different mashbills, from four to eighteen years of age."  His point being that, were Noah's Mill to include an age statement, KBD would have to write a big "4" on the label.  Because many customers do not understand that age statements signify only the age of the youngest whisk(e)y in the marriage, he would be doing a disservice to the expectations for Noah's Mill.  As someone who watches the buying patterns of most customers, I can't blame him one bit.

Consumers also assume that buying from an independent label means you're buying another distillery's leftovers. The sloppy seconds.  The dregs.  Drew was quick to correct me on that point.  "No one from these larger distilleries has time to taste every barrel.  There are simply too many.  Even still, most places will let us come and do our own tasting before we purchase, so we don't feel we're buying second-rate stuff."  I believe Drew when he says this because of my own experience with barrels from Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, and Four Roses.  When I taste through available barrels for K&L, some of them are fantastic and some are terrible.  Either way, which ever barrel I choose will be bottled by the distillery with their logo on it.  If I were to choose one of the lesser quality selections, it would reflect poorly on me and my ability to select good booze, but it would also reflect poorly on the distillery's reputation.  If they had someone checking the quality of each barrel before they sent it out, this wouldn't happen.  But it does, so in my mind that affirms Drew's assessment.

As far as cost is concerned, the reasons behind the higher price tags on KBD bottlings are no different from any other small producer.  There's the obvious upcharge on the whiskey because they have to purchase it first.  They bottle it by hand, rather than with a high-volume bottling line.  They're working with smaller quantities, so they're not getting the bulk discount.  It's really not too different from the realities faced by Kilchoman or other small single malt producers.  When you're a little guy in a sea of big fish, you simply can't be as cost effective.  You have to make up for the high production costs with better whiskey and this is where I think blending comes into play.  In my opinion, the real value in a company like KBD is that they're blending whiskies from different distilleries together.  Buffalo Trace, mixed with Heaven Hill, with a splash of Wild Turkey.  Obviously, I don't know the various formulae, but in Drew's words, "I like to think of these whiskies like a spice rack. Having a large selection allows us to be more creative with our recipes."

Dave Smith from St. George agrees.  The man behind the recent Breaking & Entering Bourbon said, "What's valuable as a blender is that you get to take single barrels and use them to their fullest potential. Large distillery Bourbons can be mass-blended on a gigantic scale and sometimes there's not much nuance, there's no time to go barrel by barrel because you've got to get so much done each day.  You go by lots, not by cask."  Like Drew, Dave points out that smaller non-distiller producers don't face the time contraints that larger distilleries do and might catch something the bigger guys don't.  "Sometimes a barrel can be like a piece of art, perfect on its own, but sometimes they need a little help.  Blending on a small scale gives you the chance to focus on these details and make a whiskey greater than the sum of its parts, something better than you could have ever expected."

In the end, if you value your whiskey because of where it's from or how old it is, you might find better deals direct from the distillery.  However, if you're a whiskey enthusiast looking to expand your horizons, many of these NDP selections have merit.  In my weekly appointments with vendors I have tasted some pretty terrible NDP Bourbon, some that were obviously a single cask haphazardly funneled into a different bottle, much like many customers fear might be the case.  However, you can't lump all of these bottles into one category.  Like most barrels of Bourbon, you have to judge them on a case by case basis.  Ultimately, I think that's what scares many enthusiasts about these whiskies - the fact that they have to decide for themselves what the quality level is.  There's no age statement or distillery to rely on.  One can't claim, "but it's made by Buffalo Trace!" to provide them with a security blanket.  We have to taste them and decide for ourselves if they're worth the money.

To add some more personal perspective, I've witnessed first hand how the current demand for brown booze has weakened the quality of certain brands that have been forced to bottle lesser spirit or deal with financial losses.  With so much whiskey going out the door right now, there have been some serious changes to reputable whiskies as of late.  When age statements start dropping like flies, we know to expect a change of flavor.  Therefore,  just because we buy our whisk(e)y straight from the source isn't any guarantee of quality either.  The whole idea that "the best stocks are with the distillery" falls flat if the company is simply dumping whatever they have in a big tank and bottling it up ASAP.  Drew told me at the end of our conversation, "We're not going to change what we do to supply the demand.  We're always running out and there's nothing we can do about it.  We're not trying to take over the world.  We're trying to let our business grow organically."  In finishing, I of course had to ask him about Black Maple Hill and the idea that it might just be leftover Heaven Hill stock.  He replied, "It's made with whiskey from two different distilleries and the formula has never changed.  It's always been the same recipe." 

-David Driscoll


Tasting's Tonight!

San Francisco will be hosting the masterful Willie Tait from the Isle of Jura.  If you've never met him, you owe it to yourself to go drink single malt with Willie.

Redwood City will host Yerlo Rice Spirits with Po Lo who will be flying out from Wisconsin. Yerlo is a rice spirit distillate from the Hmong culture, a South-East Asian ethnic group that lives in the mountainous region along the borders of China, Tibet, Laos, and Thailand.  This should be a very interesting and cultural experience.

Tastings begin at 5 PM and last until 6:30.  They are free of charge!

-David Driscoll


Whisky Season 2012 Update: A New Independent Label

NOTE: I totally goofed and posted the wrong Bunnahabhain earlier.  I retasted the wrong sample as we had a 1989 and a 1991.  I was kind of bewildered because it didn't taste nearly as good as I remembered.  Now I know why.  It was the wrong whisky!  New notes, new review, same price.  Sorry!

It took us a few trips around the parking lot, a couple of phone calls, and a combination of printed Google maps and GPS to find the Creative Whisky warehouse and its founder David Sirk.  David's label, The Exclusive Malts, has been available so far in the UK, Europe, and parts of Asia, but none of the whiskies have ever made their way over to the states.  This was exactly the type of bottler we wanted to meet.  While the selection of casks at the tiny storage center wasn't profound, the quality and price were right on target with our goals and expectations.  We needed value and value hadn't been making itself too apparent on this trip.  While perusing the barrel supply, two great names jumped out at us immediately: Longmorn and Bunnahabhain.  Both whiskies, at twenty years of age, were malts we wanted to taste and it turned out that both were quite tasty.  When David told us what we could expect to pay, we rejoiced in both song and dance. We've got a new friend in the independent whisky game and hopefully there will be more where these came from:

1992 Longmorn 20 Year Old K&L Exclusive "Exclusive Malts" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $89.99 (Pre-Order) - Introducing our newest source for top-quality whisky at wonderfully reasonable price points - the Exclusive Malts!  Our partnership with this independent bottler will bring EM expressions for the first time ever to the United States, available only at K&L.  David and I had a field day working through the various casks available in the tiny warehouse outside of Glasgow.  Although we had already selected a younger Longmorn expression from Signatory, the distillery has such a great reputation amongst enthusiasts for quality and we were open to bringing in a more mature cask if it tasted great.  The nose of this whisky is classic Speyside - that heady mix of vanilla, malted grains, and rich stonefruit.  The palate is more of the same: sweet grains, lots of wonderful vanilla and caramel, a finish of soft fruits with a hint of banana.  Great Longmorn often doesn't do a whole lot, but it does what it does very well.  There's not supreme depth or insane complexity going on with this whisky, but there's a whole lotta deliciousness.  Longmorn just simply hits the spot and sometimes that more than enough.  Considering the 16 year old distillery bottle sells for well over $100 here in the states, getting this 20 year old single cask at full proof is quite the deal indeed.

1989 Bunnahabhain 22 Year Old K&L Exclusive "Exclusive Malts" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $89.99 (Pre-Order) - Introducing our newest source for top-quality whisky at wonderfully reasonable price points - the Exclusive Malts!  Our partnership with this independent bottler will bring EM expressions for the first time ever to the United States, available only at K&L.  Seeing that last year's trip resulted in almost zero Islay expressions, David and I were eager to make amends this time around.  We had already committed to peated whiskies from Kilchoman, Bruichladdich, Laphroaig, and Caol Ila, so when we found a relatively mellow, laid-back, mature malt from Bunnahabhain for a bargain basement price, we figured why not just add it in with the others?  The whisky is lithe and lean on the entry with lots of earthy, oily notes and hints of resin with light peat.  The low proof makes the whisky entirely drinkable right out of the bottle and the intensity of the vanilla and oil goes all the way to the finish, lingering long on the back end. Complex, mysterious, and understated, much like Bunnahabhain distillery itself.  A wonderful whisky at a knockout price. We expect this one to move fast.

-David Driscoll


The NAS Dilemma

My entire motivation for starting this blog was to help bridge the gap between what's happening with the online whisk(e)y community and what's actually happening in the business.  There is no bigger divide between these two very different worlds than how each perceives "Non-Age Statement" whiskies, i.e. brands that don't provide a maturity statement. Without any information about the age of the whisk(e)y, companies are sometimes free to sell younger spirit at a higher price.  I think one of the biggest misperceptions from whisk(e)y enthusiasts is that their personal distrust for these bottles resonates with a larger audience. My recent post about Black Maple Hill, for example, resulted in a few emails and some public discourse about my possible exaggeration of certain details – namely, was BMH really as hot of an item as I was making it out to be?  Maybe I just wanted to push sales, despite the fact that I didn't have any to sell.  There couldn't possibly be so much love for a whiskey that doesn't provide an age statement, nor a distillery of origin.  That wouldn't make sense. When the internet whisk(e)y community has deemed it totally uncool to enjoy certain NAS bottles, how could the public possibly go against such strong sentiment?

NAS whiskies are not going away, however. While they anger those in search of complete transparency, they make complete business sense from the company's perspective.  They can sell younger whisk(e)y for the exact same price as older whisk(e)y and people will happily pay it because they don't know the difference!  If it didn't make complete business sense, Macallan single malt whisky wouldn't be transitioning their packaging to NAS color-coded selections.  They are a gigantic brand and it would be the worse possible decision they could make if it really mattered. I know that sounds crazy to certain people, but you have to remember that, if this idea upsets you, you're very different from the large majority of the purchasing public – you actually care about this.  I'm not saying this to upset anyone.  I'm saying it because I work in a big liquor store and it's just part of my daily routine.  I care about whisk(e)y, too.  If I didn't, I wouldn't spend so much time writing this blog.

Some people care so much about whisk(e)y that the idea of actually enjoying a NAS bottle is forbidden. In some circles you can completely lose your credibility if you come out in favor of one.  Personally, I think that's silly.  There are many terrific whiskies that don't post an age statement and we'll just have to accept the fact that some people enjoy them.  I really don't care either way – I'm not totally in favor of them and I'm not completely against them (I am against price gouging, however, which can happen with these).  It's a case by case basis.  I care about flavor and value, which I can assess from tasting a whisk(e)y and deciding if I think it's worth paying the price. Everyone has one simple tool they can employ if they don't like something: don't buy it.  That's all you need to do.  The problem for some, however, is that most people do buy these whiskies – in droves.  Black Maple Hill is so hot right now that I'll sell out my monthly allocation in a day sometimes.  Sixty bottles in twenty four hours.  Granted, this trend isn't happening everywhere as some customers in other states have no trouble finding it, but it is happening at K&L and I'm just reporting what I'm experiencing.

People buy Black Maple Hill because they like it.  They buy it because it's now hard to get.  They buy it because some bar in downtown San Francisco uses it for their house cocktails.  They buy it because it's cool.  Whatever the reason, most people absolutely do not care that it's completely without an age statement.  In fact, the idea that an age statement would change anything about this whiskey is completely beyond their ability to care.  If I were to ask every customer whether they cared about that fact, they would likely say, "Does it still taste the same?"  While we, the passionate, blog-following whisk(e)y faithful share our opinions about booze daily, the rest of the public continues to drink without doing much internet research.  Word of mouth, trends, sales, and brand loyalty guide spirits sales at K&L, not blogs or message boards.  As much as I wish the internet community could help push customers towards more esoteric and interesting products, it can only preach to those interested in listening.  From my personal experience, most people aren't all that interested in listening – at least not to speeches about age statements and transparency.

That's not to say that they should listen either.  Who are we to tell people what they should or shouldn't drink?  However, when you're passionate about something it can be disappointing to find that other people don't care.  I find it disappointing when people care too much about what I say concerning booze, just like I find it disappointing when people don't care enough.  That's life, however.  We're constantly bitching about what other people are doing.  Here's one thing people are definitely doing: they're buying NAS whiskies.  Whether you're alright with that or not, it's happening.  Until that stops happening, companies are going to have a field day with it.  If you don't like that, you know what you can do: get people to care (which I can tell you is extremely difficult) or don't buy them.

-David Driscoll


My Head is Pounding

My head is going to explode.  I need a break.  I've had four glasses of Ricard in honor of Bastille Day and I'm ready to hit the floor.  See you all next week.

-David Driscoll