Don't Put All Your Booze Into One Basket

This is my sixth Thanksgiving Wednesday at K&L and I like to think I'm a bit wiser with five superdays under my belt. We're going to get absolutely thrashed today and I'm completely ready for it. There will be lines out the door, mayhem on the sales floor, and staff members running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Deliveries coming in, orders going out, and only us standing in between them. With all the madness that is the day before Thanksgiving at K&L, it's the actual holiday that I'm still learning how to deal with. I can handle the store and the stress, but getting the right booze for the following family occasion still gives me fits. Let's look at my five previous Thanksgivings to illustrate this point:

Thanksgiving 2007: I had just started working at K&L so I had no idea what to get. I basically relied on the advice of my colleagues to make my wine selections, which led to mixed results with my family. None of us really knew what we were drinking.

Thanksgiving 2008: This year I had a good grasp on things as far as selecting great wines and pairing them with the appropriate courses. I was really excited. This was my first real chance to nail this thing. I did a list with info about how each wine was made and what made it special. When we sat down and I gave a quick rundown, my family began getting restless and began interrupting me after only a minute. They were totally bored, seemingly annoyed, and it was completely unsuccessful.

Thanksgiving 2009: After learning from the misguided educational efforts of 2008, I still chose really great wines, but decided to just leave them there for people to drink at their leisure. This ended up with only about a third of the wine being consumed with some more expensive bottles being opened, but only partially drunk. Still a disappointment because people didn't care about the wine whether I told them about it or not. This was also my first T-Day as spirits buyer so I brought some great booze that no one ended up drinking because they had already drunk too much wine.

Thanksgiving 2010: This was the first year that I introduced Pliny the Elder beer to the table. It was the hit of the night. So much so that no one wanted to drink wine or spirits, so the bottles just sat there.

Thanksgiving 2011: We had a completely different group this year as half of my family went down south to visit my cousin and his new twin daughters. I opened way too much wine for a small group and watched as one of our family friends took down a $40 bottle on her own. She really enjoyed it, but I think she would have enjoyed it no matter what it was.

Let me clear up a few things here to help put this into perspective. My family loves to drink. My family enjoys beer, wine, and spirits. They all purchase booze on their own and look forward to my selections. In no way am I bringing booze to people who don't want to drink or enjoy it. The problem is me. I have certain expectations for how booze is going to be consumed, received, and enjoyed. They are impossible standards that can never be achieved. I have realized that and have finally freed myself from the eventual disappointment that will inevitably follow. Thanksgiving is not the time to bring out the big guns and show everyone how big It's a time to sit back and enjoy yourself with family. Stressing about drinking the perfect booze just means more stress!

The only times I have enjoyed really expensive wines were while dining with other K&L employees. The only times I have enjoyed really expensive whiskies were while drinking with other K&L employees (or with my friend David OG while overseas). That's not because they're the only ones who "get it," it's because they're the only other people I know who care. Why take your wife who hates James Bond to see a James Bond movie with you? Why take your mother, who hates French cuisine, out to the a fancy meal at the French Laundry? Who are you really trying to please? I'll give you a hint: it's not the other person. If you want to enjoy doing something you like to do (i.e. talk about wine or ponder a glass of single malt) then you need to do so with others who share your interests. Find a social club or a weekly meet-up group, but don't force your loved ones to carry the burden. Just because someone likes to drink doesn't mean they actually want to talk about what they're drinking. That's a very important distinction.

Thanksgiving 2012: Inexpensive Italian white: 2010 Malvira Arneis Roero. Inexpensive Spanish reds: 2011 Lesmos "Cuarteto" and the 2006 Crianza. These wines are delicious, pair well with turkey, and represent tremendous value. They're unique and different enough to generate a bit of excitement, but still taste familiar enough to be inclusive. For a starter we'll drink our new Spanish import: the Mas Codina Brut Reserva. I'll probably bring a bottle of Calvados and a bottle of Scotch just to have in case someone wants a glass later on. That's it. I bring some good booze, others drink it. If they want to know more, they can ask. If not, no big deal.

There will be no Pappy at my table. No Four Roses. No K&L Exclusive single barrel Scotch. No limited edition Cognac. No fancy, pre-Prohibition cocktails. I know I'm supposed to be writing an article about all the fancy booze I'll be "drinking" (in the fictional, fantasy K&L spirits buyer world, that is) in order to get you all to buy some. That's what holiday booze articles are for: getting the general public to feed into the romanticism and react with their credit cards. However, I want you to actually enjoy yourselves. I'm not going to lie. You don't need trophy bottles to enjoy Thanksgiving. In my opinion, it's probably the worst day of the year to drink them.

If you're eating Thanksgiving dinner with Robert Parker or your weekly wine tasting group, then by all means break out the old Burgundy. If you're carving the bird with the Malt Maniacs or the LA Whiskey Society, then bring your Port Ellen and Brora stash. Those people will actually enjoy, appreciate, and marvel in what you're offering. If you're dining with your family, however, I'd suggest bringing it down a notch. Forcing them to sit through wine pairings, boring lectures, tasting notes, and booze history is quite torturous. You can't force people to love something as much as you do (especially in the span of a few hours). In the end you'll be the most disappointed, knowing that you put so much effort into making Thanksgiving perfect, but ended up isolating your family members as a result.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go and prepare my first annual Thanksgiving movie screening. We'll start with a retrospective of Jean Claude Van Damme's early films before a segway into some older WWF matches from the early 1990's as we continue to get more intoxicated. I know my family is going to love it!! They're going to love my passion for these classics! Who wouldn't?

-David Driscoll


New Stuff for T-Day

Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinally, our single barrel of Bruichladdich has arrived. I had no idea when this was going to get here, but it's in stock as of now in Redwood City.  SF will get some tomorrow and LA later in about a week.

2003 Bruichladdich K&L Exclusive Peated Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $72.99 - Originally slated for Bruichladdich's short-lived 3D3 Peat expression, this malt began its life in Bourbon casks until it was dumped into a refill Sherry butt for extra maturation. That classic Bruichladdich tang is on the nose, the briny aromas that meander between rich, earthy, and tart. The peat shows itself first, bringing bright smoke and peat moss similar to Laphroaig, before the mild dose of Sherry kicks in, finishing more like Lagavulin with some nice oak and caramel. After a disasterous recall on last year's Chenin Blanc barrel, this new offering from Bruichladdich comes just in time for the holidays to fill the hole. Now that Remy Martin has acquired the once-independent distillery, we're not sure if this will mark the end of the independent cask program at Bruichladdich. Is this the last time we team up with our friends on Islay, or is this just another great chapter in an incredible relationship? We hope to continue our business with Bruichladdich, but if this peated cask is the last of its kind, it's a hell of a way to go out. Big smoke, big flavor, tons of complexity, lots of chewy richness. This is Islay through and through. It's Bruichladdich at its smoky best.

This stuff is very special. I can't wait to do another one of these if they're all going to be as good as this.

Germain Robin K&L Single Barrel Alambic Brandy $56.99 - Labeled as single barrel no. 125, batch 2012-F, this is our first collaboration with the legendary Ukiah distillery, known for its exceptional California brandy. Aged in French Limousin oak, this brandy begins with a lovely flurry of fresh fruit before settling into more classic Cognac flavors of caramel and subtle toffee.  The balance of this batch is impeccable and the brandy is decidedly better than the standard Craft Method in our opinion.  Germain Robin already makes an amazing and affordable brandy, so we weren't going to take a cask unless it was significantly better or different than the standard expressions.  In this case, it's both. Round, supple, but full of life and character. This is a bottle you won't want to miss. Only 108 bottles available.

This just in from St. George. Dave Smith and I tasted some samples of the Faultline Gin Batch 2 today. We took thin-skinned oranges, juiced them, distilled the juice, then put the peels in a rotisserie-style smoker to give them a bit of an edge before putting them in the gin to macerate.

Thin peels!

Into the smoker.

The result.

You really get the rotisserie flavor in the gin. Does it still taste like gin? We'll see what you think.  It will be here before Xmas.

-David Driscoll


Living in Denial Part III (Living with Irony)

I'm glad someone has more time to write than I do. Having more time results in more thought out, more cohesive pieces of journalism that more accurately put words to ideas I'm still trying to iron out.

This is really well done and it addresses many of the points I was hoping to make.

-David Driscoll


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