Customer Feedback

One thing I love about Wednesday evenings in the Redwood City store is the amount of loyal K&L customers that we get roaming the spirits aisle during tasting hour.  I love shooting the shit with all the hardcore whisk(e)y fans and talking booze with people who love drinking booze.  Today, I was discussing the Smooth Ambler/Pappy 15 comparison with Nick Kiest, a K&L customer with an affinity for rye - particularly his bottle of Sazerac 18. He picked up a bottle of the Very Old Scout today and, to him, the high rye content of the Bourbon reminded him of the Sazerac. The richness of the mature casks, married with the peppery rye flavor, didn't at all remind him of Pappy Van Winkle, but rather another legend of the Buffalo Trace Distillery.  Nick's also a big fan of Four Roses and he thought the Smooth Ambler was more similar to their high-rye recipe than anything wheated.

I found that fascinating.  I never would have compared the two, but it's been a while since I've tasted the Sazerac 18.  That's why I love Wednesday nights.  I love talking booze with people and hearing from customers with their own personal experience and perspective.  Come join us one of these Wednesday nights and talk shop with us.

-David Driscoll


Winner By Default?

I've been so careful about not comparing the new Smooth Ambler Very Old Scout 14 Year Bourbon to the Pappy 15 that I think I've been doing it a disservice.  True, it's the only older Bourbon we have in stock at the moment, but it's not simply a winner by default.  The Bourbon is fantastic.  In all honesty, if I had to compare it to something, I'd compare it Pappy 15 because it's the same age, the same price, and it has a similar low 50's proof.  They're simply two Bourbons cut from the same cloth.  Obviously, there are some differences.  The Pappy 15 uses wheat for its flavor grain, the Smooth Ambler uses rye.  The Pappy 15 is pretty much 15 years old exactly, while the Smooth Ambler has older Bourbons blended into it.  That being said, I feel like someone who likes Pappy 15 would like the Smooth Ambler.  I'm not saying they'd like it better, but they might be interested in trying something new, much like someone who likes Laphroaig might want to try Ardbeg. 

Despite their obvious similarities, I just couldn't bring myself to say that yesterday.  Once you throw the Pappy 15 comparison out there it looks like cheap pandering.  "Hey, that guy at K&L said he has a Bourbon that tastes like Pappy." I could just see the sea of emails pouring in, accusing me of trading on the Pappy popularity, my credibility funneling out the door faster than Walter White draining methylamine from a freight train.  So what to do?  Was I so far off in my comparison?  There was only one way to find out.  I needed to put my best Bourbon boys in the bar for a blind tasting, have them write down their notes, and then talk about what they thought.  Again, I wasn't so much interested in which one they liked better, but more if the styles were even comparable.  Would they group them together as similar Bourbons, or were they totally different?

Bourbon A was the Smooth Ambler and Bourbon B was the Pappy 15.  Jim Boyce and Kyle Kurani, two of our best spirits guys at Redwood City went in first.

Kyle: Bourbon A has more cocoa, more wood, and the flavors are more focused.  Bourbon B has a big honeyed nose with spicy brown sugar.  Hot.

Jim: Bourbon A is much more focused and the flavors more balanced.  Bourbon B has big maple notes, honey, brown sugar.

Both guys were able to identify the Pappy as Bourbon B, but thought Bourbon A showed favorably by its side.  Kyle and Jim both said they'd rather drink the Smooth Ambler personally, mainly because the Pappy came across as hotter.  It does have an extra 3.5% of alcohol, but they thought the Smooth Ambler was more in balance.

Next were our Bourbon-drinking customer service guys, Shaun Green and Joel Nicholas. 

Shaun: Bourbon A has a sweet nose with caramel and grain.  It's quite smooth with nice butterscotch on the finish.  Bourbon B is less supple on the nose, hot and course on the palate, with a bit of dirt on the back.

Joel: Bourbon A starts off rich then dies on the mid-palate.  Alcohol comes through. Bourbon B is big, rich, and much more drinkable.

This was an interesting dichotomy.  Shaun thought the Smooth Ambler was terrific (so much so that he bought a bottle right after) and did not like the Pappy at all.  Joel felt the exact opposite.  He did not like the Smooth Ambler, but did like the Pappy.  "That's good," I thought because if I write an article about a taste test and everyone likes the Smooth Ambler better, no one's going to believe me!  Someone had to like the Pappy better for this to have any credibility.

I was ready to call it a day when Todd Smith from Pacific Edge walked in the door with some samples for me to taste.  I gave him a glass and said, "Go taste Bourbon A and Bourbon B."  I didn't say anything else.  Todd's been a bartender in San Francisco for years and knows his whiskey well.  He walked back out of the tasting bar and said, "Well Bourbon B is obviously Pappy, but where the hell did you get Bourbon A?" 

"Why, do you like it?" I asked.

"It's delicious!" Todd replied.  We talked booze for a few minutes and then I sent him home with a bottle of Smooth Ambler under his arm.  Todd loved the Pappy and thought it was the better Bourbon, but still liked the Smooth Ambler enough to buy one.  Again, I was ready to call it a day when another familiar face came through the door (one who will remain anonymous because I didn't ask him if I could post his opinion).  He was actually coming to talk to me about Bourbon, so I sent him into the bar for another round of tasting.  Being an experienced taster, he came back and said, "Bourbon B tastes like Pappy.  You can tell because it's just so big and intense."

"How do you think Bourbon A compares with it?" I asked.

"Quite well," he said. "They're both in the same school of Bourbon with similar levels of richness and age.  I'd choose the Pappy over it, but I'm still going to buy one of these!"  This man also left the store with a bottle under his arm.  So now, after debating whether I wanted to say it or not, I feel more comfortable with the comparison.  Some people loved it, some people liked it, and one person didn't like it, but not one person found the Pappy comparison out of place.

Because of that, I feel I can say that the Smooth Ambler Very Old Scout is a Bourbon that you should check out if you like Pappy 15.  If I had to compare it to something, that's what I would compare it to.

There, I said it.

-David Driscoll


Get Some

Two big guns just dropped in.  They're both pretty f-ing good.  See what you think.  Get some.

Smooth Ambler Very Old Scout 14 Year Old Bourbon $64.99My official notes are below.  Let me reiterate my feelings about this whiskey right now: it’s very good and it’s definitely worth your time.  It’s not a Pappy 15 replacement, however.  It’s not a big wheated Bourbon (in fact, there’s no wheat in it at all).  If there wasn’t a vast shortage of mature Bourbon right now, it probably wouldn’t be that big a deal.  HOWEVER, it does scratch that itch.  It has that extra burst of wood and richness that you get from older American whiskies.  The Bourbon itself is well balanced and the casks were expertly married by John Little.  It delivers for the price and it also offers a chance to see what older LDI Bourbon stock tastes like (as we all know, their mature Rye was dynamite in the High West Rendezvous).  I personally am going to buy a few because 1) it’s delicious, and 2) I want to give some to friends who like Bourbon and want to try something new.  Just wanted to make that clear before I get the “this isn’t as good as Pappy” emails. :)

The Very Old Scout is likely to be the best mature Bourbon you'll taste this year. It might not be the best Bourbon of 2012, but unlike other limited edition items that sellout in seconds, you'll actually be able to get one. The days of seeing Pappy Van Winkle on the shelf are over. We get hundreds of requests every week for bottles we don't have and cannot get. Bourbon is the hottest ticket in town and sadly the mature stocks were gobbled up faster than producers could replenish them. We're stuck in a drought and there's no end in sight because it takes time to age new whiskey. That's where John Little comes in. His West Virginia distillery purchased the last mature stocks of Bourbon from LDI distillery some time back and he's been secretly crafting them into a special cuvee - 40% 14 year, 40% 15 year, 15% 17 year, and 5% 19 year, bottled at 100 proof for a bold and spicy flavor.  The result is a knockout.  The sweetness from the charred oak permeates deep into the whiskey, baking spices dance on the palate, cinnamon and vanilla come big on the finish. While there isn't much of this whiskey (about 3000 bottles total), we jumped on it fast and secured a fifth of it.  If you know someone who loves Bourbon, you need to act now. We're not expecting more, not for the holidays, not for Xmas - nothing on the horizon. Again, this is the best deal we're going to see for Bourbon this year, or perhaps next year as well.  A fantastic deal while it lasts.

Ardbeg Galileo Single Malt Whisky $94.99 – A new 12 year old single malt from Ardbeg bottled at 49% ABV and comprised of whisky aged in marsala casks and first-fill Bourbon barrels.  Soft red fruits from the wine marry with creamy vanilla from the Bourbon, both intertwining with the big peat smoke of Ardbeg to create a rich and exotic experience.

I just tasted the Ardbeg and it’s by far the richest release we’ve seen in some time.  However, it’s an odd richness because it comes from the marsala fruit rather than from sherry.  I’m not sure how excited about it I am yet, but I definitely liked what I tasted.  It’s better than the Alligator, Rollercoaster, and Day releases in my opinion, mainly because it’s entirely different than the three standard expressions.  Big smoke on the entry that gets swallowed up in tangy fruit and creamy textures, before turning into savory herbs and aniseed.  Quite interesting and loaded with depth.  I’ll need another few tastes before I can decide how much I like it.  If I had to choose one or the other, I’d probably choose the Cairdeas right now, but I don’t have to choose, so I’ll probably end up buying both.

While they last!

-David Driscoll


Too Many Channels (or the Return of Brand Loyalty?)

When I was a kid, if you were on TV you were famous.  There were only about five channels when I was growing up, so I could keep up with every show that was on and every actor on each of those shows.  I still hear older generations talk about the stars from the past ("Now she was a star"), contrasting their memories of Hollywood royalty with the ever-expanding list of B, C, and D-list celebrities fighting for space in today's public consciousness.  There's a reason those stars were larger than life, just like there's a reason no band will ever again be as big as the Beatles.  Access to the audience was limited and controlled by a few companies.  Movie studios, broadcasting companies, and record labels decided who made it and who didn't.  If you made it, you were huge.  There were no side options, no independent channels to get your name out there.  Money, power, and fame were concentrated into NBC, ABC, and CBS and they only operated between certain hours ("off the air" is a forgotten term these days), which meant that everyone was watching at primetime.  It was the complete opposite of the endless selection of programming we know today.

As an adult, I barely have enough time to watch the shows I want to watch, let alone peruse the 800 channels on my digital cable box.  There are so many programs playing on so many networks that there's absolutely no standard of quality anymore.  MTV used to play music, but there's no more ad money in the music business, so now it's a 24-hour reality show network.  CMT, the country music equivalent, is following the same model, pumping out episodes of original programming like Redneck Island in between repeats of Smokey and the Bandit II.  There's no time to get hooked on a new show, or even record it on your DVR, because another new one is always popping up, then getting cancelled after a few episodes.  Almost anyone can be on TV these days, and anyone can make a movie if you can get the money together.  If you've recorded an album in your free time, Apple lets you up upload it to iTunes and if you've written the next great novel, you can sell it on Amazon in e-form.  Unlike the media world of decades past, there are no more gatekeepers.  The market is open, awaiting anyone (literally anyone) with an idea.  If you can make it, you can access the entire world rather quickly.

While it's great to offer opportunity and hope to those who might not have had a chance fifty years ago, the downside is market saturation.  There are too many channels on TV right now.  There are too many new bands in the music industry.  There are too many clips on YouTube.  There are too many webpages with useless information.  There's so much crap out there that we need someone to sift through it all and tell us what isn't crap.  My hands have been covered in crap for years, digging and digging for the great products buried under that crap. The other problem is the decline of our attention spans.  We're so used to getting new input every minute via our iPhones, that we've all become data junkies, waking up in the morning to our laptops and iPads, longing for the next fix.  New Laphroaig, new Ardbeg, new this, new that.  Every day, every hour, every minute - something new and exciting to grab your attention.  If it isn't the "best thing you've ever tasted," then it's not worth our time. You can see why people like myself have to use hyperbole with everything (although, in all honesty I've always been that way since I was little).

About a year and a half ago, I wrote an entry on this blog called The Death of Brand Loyalty, briefly noting that the days of Marlboro Men and Crown Royal drinkers were over.  There were too many exciting new spirits being released to limit oneself to a single brand.  We were entering a time when people wouldn't even purchase the same bottle twice, choosing to constantly experiment with fresh faces and new experiences.  A new gin from Siberia, why not?  Whiskey made fifty feet under the earth's crust?  Sure!  However, once the market got wind that a new craft explosion was underway, there was liquid gold rush fever, and now we're beginning to saturate the accomplishments of true artisan production in a giant sea of incompetence.  A giant sea of crap, asking you to sample its wares, taste its new pomegranate and chocolate-infused tequila, begging for a spot at K&L, "just for a month to get things going."  You'll see!  People are going to love this!  We're already big in Fresno!  Here's a big bag of shelf talkers and information sheets.

There are numerous reasons for brand loyalty.  Image would be a big one, as Mad Men has taught us.  However, most of the impulse for buying the same product over and over derives from the dependability of its quality.  The consistency of taste.  A history of doing right by the consumer.  With booze, a product that offers so many unique and intriguing flavors, the only reason to limit one's experiences would be if the majority of them ended up being negative.  Therefore, if a customer continued to try new whiskies, yet found them consistently underwhelming, they're going to eventually get tired of wasting their time, flipping around all these channels, and finding nothing but crap on TV.  Like me, they'll record Breaking Bad every Sunday, while they wait for The Walking Dead to start in a few weeks.  There comes a breaking point where too many options and too many disappointing choices take their toll on the consumer.  That's where affordable brands with consistent flavor thrive.  They may not be the most interesting, but at least you know they're not a waste of time.

It's not easy convincing an adult to try something new.  We're fixed in our ways.  Getting me to watch something new on Netflix rather than a rerun of Revenge of the Nerds is hard enough ("You've already seen that a hundred times!"  "I know, but I love it!"), let alone getting me to spend money on an untested liquor brand.  Nevertheless, we've got people hooked on North Shore, Leopold's, St. George, and Blade instead of Bombay, Tanqueray, and Gordon's.  Older men come looking for Ballentine's and Famous Grouse and I give them Bank Note or Isle of Skye.  They love it and they've been coming back for more ever since.  Getting people at K&L to try new brands of liquor isn't so hard, as long as the products they're getting are truly superior and worth the extra few bucks.  However, I'm worried that the next wave of inferior distillation is going to undo some of that growing enthusiasm. 

There's already a small backlash growing against craft whiskey because it's young, expensive, and often not nearly as good as what the larger distilleries offer.  It needs time to prove itself, but these guys don't have time to sit around and wait.  They need to recoup expenses.  Releasing white whiskey for $50 and flooding the market with more products it doesn't need isn't helping their cause, however.  It's only re-enforcing the idea in the mind of many consumers that they should stick with their tried and tested brands.  Over the last two months, I've tasted many new whiskies that simply didn't need to be made.  They're not offering anything new, they're not cheap, and they're not all that good.  It's like a new version of the Jersey Shore, except this time they're in Nebraska and they're all teenagers hooked on meth.  I don't need another inferior reality show.  I don't want more channels on TV.  Too much bad programming makes me long for the good old days, when stars were larger than life ("Now Van Damme, that guy knew how to make an action film!) and life itself was more simple. 

Too much selection can be overwhelming.  There's a limit to how much input we can take as human beings.  Right now, the spirits industry is testing that limit and I'm beginning to see where it ends.  If we overdo it, I hope the damage isn't irreparable.  The smaller companies struggling for the attention of the modern whiskey drinker might be pitching their show before it's ready.  With so many new options coming out every week, you could only have one chance in front of that audience, so you'd better have your best stuff to show.  If it isn't something bold, daring, and better than the average whiskey, they'll just change the channel and watch a rerun of The Simpsons instead.

-David Driscoll


Following Up On The Lesson: Daiquiri Part 3

After playing around with a few different concoctions, I went with Thad and Eric's suggestion of the El Dorado 3 year, but with Erik A's stir-in-cold, simple syrup recipe and ratio.  I think it's the best drink I've ever made at home.  I can't believe how balanced it is - the cane flavor of the rum with the sweet and sour.  Amazing.  My wife was blown away.  This is a Daiquiri?  I'll be making these all weekend, rest assured.

I've learned about how citrus and sugar work together, about different types of rum, and how to make a Daiquiri that works for my household.  I'm pumped.  Sticking to one drink really works.

-David Driscoll