Not All Bottles Are Equal

Someone emailed me the other day about our single barrel of Port Ellen that currently sells for $600. He was asking me why our bottle was so expensive compared to earlier independent bottlings that were still available on the market. Apparently he had done some investigating on Wine Searcher and had discovered some different Port Ellen offerings that were significantly cheaper.

If you do the same search right now you'll come up with a few hits:

A 1983 Scott's Selection for $199.99 in Rhode Island.

A 27 year old Douglas Laing bottle for $270 in Connecticut.

A 1982 Signatory cask for $314 in New York. And so on.

"Why should I pay $600 for your cask when I can get these for less?" he asked.

Where do I even start?

First of all, no one is forcing you to buy our Port Ellen. You're under no obligation to get one. Honestly! You can use your money to buy whatever you like. It sounds crazy, I know. Secondly, not one of these other whiskies is the K&L Exclusive 30 year Port Ellen. They're all from younger casks and were all bottled years ago. They're not 30 years old and they're not even the same whisky! All casks are different. We happened to think ours was pretty good. Third of all, those prices are based off wholesale costs from years ago when Port Ellen was more "affordable." Fourth of all, some of those stores appear to be closing out the products, maybe because no one wants to buy them. Fifth, you'll have to pay for shipping and hope that they're willing (and/or able) to ship to your home state (if they actually have the bottle).

Those are the quick points. The most important one being the second.

While all of the whiskies he had searched were made at Port Ellen and said Port Ellen on the label, they were not the K&L Exclusive 30 year Port Ellen. Let me give you an analogy.

Let's say I come into work wearing my brand new Levi's (the 511 Skinny Fit with Stretch that I buy from the main store in Union Square) and my co-worker asks, "How much did you pay for those jeans?" I answer him with, "That's really none of your business, but I paid $69.99 per pair." He says in reply, "HAAA! You got ripped off! I just got this pair of Levi's at Marshall's for twenty bucks!" I look at my jeans - sleek, classic dark denim, perfectly fitted, and stylish. I look at his jeans - an ugly shade of bronze, baggy on the sides, with a seam mis-sewn on the leg. "Wow, you got quite a deal," I say.

Not really.

I know people that think this way. They're constantly worried that the entire world is conspiring to rip them off. When they go to an all-you-can-eat buffet, they eat six plates to make sure they get their money's worth. They price check everything and compete with me to see if I paid more than them. As concerns the price for our Port Ellen, we paid a premium for three reasons:

1) It's freakin' delicious. We tasted it and we even like it more than the official Diageo release. We've tasted other independents that are not up to snuff, but nonetheless are still expensive. Rather than save $200 or $300 per bottle, we paid extra to get the good one. Why pay $350 for sub-standard Port Ellen? If you're going to shell out for something like that, it had better be good.

2) Prices today are not what they were last year.

3) Have fun even finding a cask of Port Ellen. If you find someone willing to even sell you a cask, let me know. It took us three years to even get this offer, let alone complete the purchase.

That's why our cask of Port Ellen costs $600 a bottle. Because it's delicious. Because when you spend the money you're going to get a really good whisky that's worthy of the reputation. Because we didn't feel that being cheap was in our best interest, nor the interest of our customers.

I love shopping at TJ Maxx and finding a Ben Sherman shirt for $20. It's a great feeling. However, this isn't TJ Maxx. We want top quality stuff on the rack at all times. Stuff that fits, that makes you look good, and makes you feel like you got your money's worth. Most of the time, I'd rather pay my money and know I got something of quality than feel like I got a deal. Deals are great as long as the product is the same one I wanted originally. Not all Port Ellens are equal, however. Not all bottles are the same.

If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I can't promise anyone that our Port Ellen is going to fulfill their $600 expectations. I can only say that I have tasted it against other expressions and it stands above them. I'm willing to pay more to get the product I want. But that's just me.

-David Driscoll


When Being Booze Knowledgable is/isn't Helpful

This past Sunday I went to Modesto for my father-in-law's birthday celebration. We ended up going out for dinner to a fairly nice restaurant (really nice by Modesto standards) and having a few bottles of wine in the process. When the waitress dropped off the wine list everyone expected me to make the decision. They wanted red. No problem! We're not having the McManis, the Rombauer, or the Mondavi, so I guess we'll go with the Greek selection. Easy.

While I don't mind using my experience to make family decisions about booze, I really (really) don't like to put them on display while I'm out. There's nothing worse than dealing with some prick who thinks he knows everything (and that goes for me at K&L or any waiter in a restaurant). I like to keep it mellow and nonchalant.

"Let's do the Greek red."

A few minutes later, the waitress delivered the bottle and asked who would like to taste first to show their approval. I deferred to the birthday boy. The wine would be fine. No need for me to make a big deal out of checking its quality, giving my expert opinion, or some such nonsense.

My father-in-law tasted, nodded, but seemed unsure, as the waitress began to pour glasses for the rest of the table. I swirled my glass quietly while the others continued to talk, took in a whiff of the aromas, and suddenly felt an impending sense of dread in the pit of my stomach. Musty, moldy, damp closet smell. This wine was corked. We needed a new bottle, but how in the hell was I going to explain to the waitress that we needed a new bottle without sounding like a pompous wine snob?

There were two things running through my mind at this moment:

1) I was perhaps being a total condescending and rather prejudiced jerk by assuming that a waitress in Modesto wouldn't know what a corked bottle of wine was. She might know way more about wine than I do.

2) If she questioned me or didn't agree, would I have to pull the whole "I work in the field" card? I was really hoping it wouldn't come to that.

What is a corked bottle of wine, you ask? First off, it has nothing to do with the quality of the cork. "Corked" is one of those terms that gets thrown around at parties or dinners, and then immediately misused so that people come walking back into K&L with pieces of cork floating in their wine claiming the wine is "corked." The term refers to the byproduct of a fungus called TCA that gets into the cork before the wine is bottled. It can result in a musty or damp aroma and flavor, but sometimes it may be so minor as to go unnoticed. Sometimes the wine may simply taste like nothing. It's very controversial at K&L wine dinners where some of us think a wine might simply be earthy or terroir-driven, while others think the wine is TCA-laden. If you want to know why more producers are switching to screwtops, this is the main reason. Some experts believe that as many as 1 in 10 bottles of wine have TCA cork taint. However, a bleeded, crumbling, falling-apart cork has nothing to do with TCA.

Back to the situation. When my sister-in-law asked me what I thought of the wine, I said it was corked and that we needed to get a new bottle. What? What did that mean? Was it harmful to drink? Was she going to get sick? No, no, no, we just needed to get the waitress over so that I could ask for a new bottle. When our server finally came back by the table, I began to explain that there was something wrong with the wine.

"What's the problem?"

"Well, you see, there's this thing called cork taint and it gets into the....," I replied, but I was quickly cut off.

"I know what it is," she said politely, but defensively.

"Oh, good, well then this wine is corked," I said, rather relieved, and handed her my glass. She ignored my offering and picked up the bottle to check the aroma.

"Hmm, maybe it just needs to open up. I don't smell anything wrong with the bottle and the cork isn't showing any signs of leakage."

Oh no. This was even worse than I had imagined. We've got a defensive server with a chip on her shoulder about wine knowledge, but who actually doesn't know what she's talking about. There's no way that I can get us a new bottle without being completely pedantic. What do I do? No time to sit here and think about it.

"Here, why don't you smell my glass? It's pretty clear that this wine is off when you put your nose into this."

"Ma'am, he's a sommelier and he knows what he's talking about," my sister-in-law chimed in. Goddammit! Not at all what we needed right now.

"Did you want to pick out another bottle?" the waitress asked with an unconvincing attempt at civility.

"I think we would just like another of the same." I answered.

"You don't think there might be something wrong with that one, too?" Oh man. This is getting worse. By the way, cork taint is totally random. It usually doesn't affect batches or cases of the same wine.

The waitress left and went back behind the bar where I could see her talking to one of her co-workers about the situation. The face of the other server immediately contorted into a combination of "What the F?" and "You've got to be kidding me!" There was obviously some mad shit-talking going on outside the range of our hearing. Wonderful. Would my food come with a healthy dollop of spit, as well?

"Here you are, sir." The second bottle was fine. The difference was night and day. I said nothing more about the situation and thanked her for her help, but the damage had been done. The serving staff was polite, but employed nothing but brevity for the rest of the evening.

My sister-in-law's boyfriend was utterly fascinated with the whole situation. "I never would have known there was something flawed, I would have thought it was just bad wine!"

Therein lies the problem. Most people, including most people who drink wine, have absolutely no idea when the bottle they're drinking is flawed. They simply blame the winemaker or they don't even notice. I'm sure that I've probably recommended at least 100 wines over the five years I've worked at K&L that ended up being corked. What did the customer take from the situation? Did they understand what was happening? Did they blame me for giving them a bad bottle? Did they think it was the wine? Did they decide that they didn't like pinot or Rioja because of it?

If you think cork taint affects only wine, think again! I've had at least ten bottles of corked whisky at K&L in my half-decade there. It can happen. It's important, however, to know what it is so that you can feel confident in asking for a replacement when the situation warrants one. However, just be aware that by bringing this to the attention of the retail store or restaurant, you might be in for a bit of a fight. People get very defensive about corked bottles. I don't know why, but they do.

That being said, if you ever think you have a corked bottle and you bought it from K&L (or even if you didn't) we can always help you access the situation and hopefully rectify it – without all the drama.

-David Driscoll


K&L Spirits Journal Podcast #24 - Tim Morrison

Tim Morrison, former owner of the Morrison-Bowmore portfolio (Bowmore, Glen Garioch, & Auchentoshan) and current owner of A.D. Rattray stops in for a chat. We talk about the whisky glut of the early 1980's, the closure of Port Ellen, the state of the independent cask market, and the future of owning a whisky brand. I know I said I wouldn't write anything new about the industry, but I never said I wouldn't talk about it! This is a very open discussion, perhaps a bit too open. Nothing is off the table. If you've ever wondered about what we're talking about behind the scenes, this is it.

You can download this episode of the Spirits Journal podcast here or via our iTunes site. You can also listen via our embedded player above.

-David Driscoll


Things to Think About

I've been perusing the various whisk(e)y blogs and message boards this morning, reading the comments from various drinkers all over the country. It seems that many of us are a bit sarcastic about what to expect in 2013 (me included). Most are predicting more non-descript whisky, more gimmicky BS, more costly bottles, and more frustration (me included). What can you do about this?

- Pledge to buy more booze from the little guys: This is a tough one for many of us. We look at the shelf and we know that we can buy Bulleit for $22 compared to something like the new Dad's Hat Rye for $50. I noticed a few optimisitic readers hoping for craft distilleries to start releasing older, larger barrel whiskies in the near future. This isn't going to happen if these companies go bankrupt, however. If you don't buy their whiskies now, you're definitely not going to be purchasing them later. Meanwhile, we're giving our money to Diageo (Bulleit) who is doing everything they can to undercut these little guys, while continuing to offer us more NAS whiskies! It's the whole Amazon problem. People lament the loss of local businesses, but they keep on buying from Amazon because it's less expensive (me included). When things are simply cheaper there's nothing you can do to convince anyone. I would have written a huge dossier this year about what will happen when Diageo rules the world, but I knew it wouldn't matter. We whisky blog readers are but .00000001% of the drinking public. Even if everyone of us pledged to buy local we wouldn't affect Diageo's trajectory.

- Expand your horizons: Our trip to France this year was a real eye-opener. Like the wine business, there are some really terrific spirits that are affordable coming from tiny farmers. France has a craft spirit industry (albeit not whisky) that is loaded with backstock. There are tons of great products that simply need to be bottled in 750ml, put on a boat, and shipped over the Atlantic. There's not a lot of money in doing this and it's a ton of work to promote brands that no one has heard of. Sounds like a job for us! In all seriousness, we will be heading back to France in March and we'll really be loading up this time around. If you don't think Cognac could ever excite you like whisky, check out what my man SKU had to say earlier this year about our Esteve. While $90 isn't inexpensive, most of the brandy in the Esteve CdC is from 1979. Our Glenfarclas 1979 is $300 and that's currently a deal for old single malt, so it's something to keep in mind. Start looking at rum and tequila as well. These markets are getting ready to explode and you can still find quality hooch for cheeeeeap. Zafra 21 year, anyone? Mount Gay Extra Old? These are 15+ year old, quality spirits for $35.

- Stay Involved and Support Brands That Support You: I read some enthusiasts were planning to sit out 2013 and simply drink what they have. That's a great idea because booze is don' meant to get drunk! However, you can't sit out simply because you're discouraged that times are changing. You need to push on. My grandmother is upset that people don't write letters anymore, but she hasn't stopped writing them. My Dad is upset that fish and chips costs more than it did in 1983, but he hasn't stopped eating it. The only way that more companies will evolve and populate the marketplace with more selection is if we continue to foster it and nurture it. Pay attention to who is making what. Learn about what you're drinking. Tell your friends and spread the word about products you like. Look what the internet is starting to do for Four Roses! We might not be able to stop the brands that are screwing us, but we CAN support the ones that aren't!

-David Driscoll


K&L Awards 2012: Best Whisk(e)y of the Year

Out of my own personal interest, I asked our spirits specialists in all three stores which whisk(e)y stood out most to them from everything we had opened this year.  I wanted to get some feedback on how the staff's interest in whisky was coming along. Which whiskies did they like? Which whiskies didn't they like? David and I already knew we loved the 1979 Glenfarclas, but we were actually a bit surprised when everyone else seemed to choose that whisky as well. It's not easy to find concensus when speaking in absolutes, especially when you're dealing with a bunch of opinionated drunks. It was exactly this full-fledged agreement that inspired us to give a "best whiskey" award this year.

"If we all agree, then why shouldn't we tell people that?" I asked. At first, I didn't want to give an award because I knew it would fuel discussion about how our choice was wrong or different from what other people thought. I could envision the message boards lighting up.

"Hey David, I tasted your whisky and I don't agree with you that it's the best of the year! You're an idiot who's just trying to sell whisky."

Yikes! I didn't really want to deal with that. But then I thought more about it.

If someone doesn't agree with our choice then what do you want me to do about it? They don't agree, so what? We're not lying to you. It's our opinion. We can have ours and you can have yours. I think it's the best whisky I've had this year. So does the DOG. So do many of our staff members. I had to remind myself that this was the K&L Awards, not the United Internet of Whisky Blog Readers Awards. There are people who read this blog who want to know what we think because we taste whisky every single day of the year.

You want to know which whisky we most enjoyed this year? Which whisky made the largest impression on our staff? Which whisky WE like the most (even if no one else does). Here it is:

1979 Glenfarclas K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $299.99 - Glenfarclas is well-renowned for its heavily sherried character, a mainstay of the Highland distilleries in its region. Located just down the way from Aberlour and other famous Speyside institutions, the dried raisins and fruit cake flavors of sweet sherry casks are ubiquitous in the region and in Glenfarclas whisky expressions. For that reason, the single cask of 1979 vintage malt we tasted from a fourth-fill sherry cask really caught us off guard. Because the barrel has already been used three times to mature other whiskies, the sherry residue left on the wood is quite faint, therefore having less of an impact on the eventual color and flavor of the spirit aging inside of it. After more than 30 years, the result is absolutely incredible and very unlike most other Glenfarclas whiskies (exactly why we wanted it!). Instead of rich sherry, the whisky opens with oily resinous notes, sweet barley, and supple texture that can only come from three decades of wooded slumber. The finish turns somewhat smoky, filling in the gaps with more oil and a wave of vanilla.  The whisky is simply delicious, loaded with character, and unlike anything from Glenfarclas or any other distillery offering currently on the market. David and I are always on the lookout for the delicious oddball and we definitely found one deep in the plentiful warehouses of Glenfarclas. Easily one of the top five whiskies from our trip.

Mike Barber, K&L San Francisco - One of the best glenfarclas I have ever tasted- this is a fantastic bottle for any lover of real highland whiskey. There is a lot of oak on the nose and flavor (hey, it's been in wood for 33 years), but I'm amazed at how much all the floral and fruit notes have held up and even developed in this very bright and delicious older single malt. Rich and malty with an incredibly long finish- this is beautiful whiskey.

Melissa Smith, K&L Customer Service - Mmmm, this is yummy. There is this sweet barley thing going on with just the faintest imposition of sherried oak. A suppleness that you allow to linger on your tongue while the vanilla and spirits macerated dried fruit make appearances, leading to a long waxy classic Glenfarclas finish.

Greg St. Clair, K&L Italian Buyer - If you’ve heard me talk about having my breath taken away by a Single Malt Scotch, I was probably talking about a cask strength undiluted version whose fierce alcoholic nature literally took my breath away; this Malt however took my conceptual breath away, I wasn’t quite prepared for the depth, viscousness and layers of dynamic yet subtle flavors this incredible spirit gives. So often we taste wines or spirits that are so flavorful they are out of balance, impressive as hell they can stuff all of that flavor into one bottle but not really a pleasure to drink. This Glenfarclas is so stylish, so at ease, so complete I don’t think I’ve ever had anything quite like it. The nose is attractive, inviting and shows great depth that beckons you to explore further, on the palate the Malt is surprisingly rich, the nose is so balanced and delicate it doesn’t prepare you for the density. This isn’t a smoke filled, charred molasses barrel Malt this is true sophistication, balance, depth and unrivaled character. This is quite the spirit; you’ll not regret this experience.

Jeff Garneau, K&L Bordeaux Specialist - An exceptional single cask bottling, this '79 Glenfarclas is a model of subtlety and finesse. Aged in a fourth fill sherry butt, the whiskey trades typical Glenfarclas overt sweetness for layered complexity. A honeyed nose offers notes of dried fruits, butterscotch, and vanilla. On the palate intriguing gingerbread spice and a wonderful black licorice note that reminded me of the old fashioned penny candy we used to buy when I was a kid. The creamy, rich texture makes this a whiskey to savor.

Gary Westby, K&L Champagne Buyer - Greatness is a word that gets thrown around far too often in the single malt (and wine for the matter!) world. In order for a whisky to be truly great, it needs to have balance, individuality and trickiest of all maturity. The 1979 Single Barrel Glenfarclas is one of the most finely balanced drinks to pass my lips this year, with its faint hint of sherry and gentle (although full cask) power. This cask is a real individual and full of clean highland air and round maltiness despite its long time in Sherry wood. It is also mature- calm and round, but still full of vigor. Most Scotch of this age tastes too old and reduced for me, but this is full of verve. This is the malt of the year for me and a true great. If it is within your means, don't miss it!

Kyle Kurani, K&L Redwood City - A Golden Malt- This Scotch has proven to be one of the best single malts that I have had the pleasure to taste all year. It is over all one of the most complete and complex Whiskies that I have had the pleasure to introduce to my lips. This 1979 malt is at a natural cast strength of 41.7%, the Angel’s share in Scotland takes longer to have a real effect, but this whisky has had 30 plus years to mellow. The best thing that happened to this whisky all those long years ago when it was first being distilled was that it was put into a 4th fill sherry cask, giving it the ability to evolve for decades without being taken over by the wood. The harmony of wood and whisky is what makes this so darn special to me. Out of the bottle it is a rich golden colour, beautifully vibrant and inviting. The nose continues this golden theme with pure notes of Asian pear and crisp apple, enveloped with notes of vanilla and cream. The purity and freshness of the nose jumps out at you, and continues on the palate; velvety and soft, elegantly supple. The balance struck between the flavors the barrel imparts, vanilla, spice, butterscotch, and the flavors of the whiskey, creamy apples, yellow pears, a touch of honey, are in beautiful lock-step. This whisky is the epitome of a word that I hate using in the Liquor business, but I will break down on this occasion because it is an apt adjective, this whisky is truly smooth. Rounded, soft, textured and just plain delicious, this whiskey fits firmly into the category of smooth. Please enjoy this with good company, it is a whisky that any level of drinker can appreciate, and should be enjoyed by many!

Matthew Callahan, K&L Redwood City Assistant Manager - This whiskey really impressed me. From the nose to the first moments on the palate it's all about finesse. While not completely obscured, the sherry notes are definitely not overpowering - there's round, rich, supple texture and plenty of dried fruit. What struck me the most, however, was the marriage of ethereal flavors (smoke?, vanilla, dried fruit, slight medicinal note?) and incredible mouth-feel. This is a really special whiskey.

Sarah Covey, K&L Redwood City - Caramel, vanilla, and baking spice with a pretty, lingering sweetness- this 4th fill sherry cask scotch is one to sit with and ponder as it reveals itself. Gorgeous.

David Othenin-Girard, K&L Spirits Buyer - Tasting this whisky again brings me right back to the foot of Ben Rinnes, where we found this astounding cask among several of it's siblings of the same vintage. Many of the other '79s showed promise, as we were looking for something special the showcased the GlenFarclas spirit without the characteristic sherry character. This is truly one of the most elegant malts I've ever come across. After 32 years and at the surprisingly low 41.7%, this whisky has SO much life it's incredible. It starts malty, with an ever so slight earthiness. It truly reminds me of standing in the gorgeous GlenFarclas warehouses where this spent the last 32 years. With a bit of air, GlenFarclas' true character comes out. Typical of the famous distillery, herbs and mint, tons of fresh fruit. White peach skins, mango ripe and uncut, subtle tropical flavors that just make you want to guzzle this stuff. On the palate, you get cake frosting and more of that fruit. There is absolutely NO HEAT at all. The first sip finishes slowly, but lingers on the mid-palate, this malty fruitiness that you want to last forever. It obliges nicely. It's not over the top whisky, it's not in your face or 75% ABV. It is absolutely a pleasure to drink, potentially dangerously so. We may never see another quite like this one, so get on it!

David Driscoll, (in a photo circa 2007) K&L Spirits Buyer - Simply amazing whisky. This cask dipped down to 41% naturally and is now softer than silk. This is serious aged whisky that fulfills all your expectation for mellow and mature malt. $700 for Macallan 25? Or $300 for 32 year old, single barrel, natural cask strength Glenfarclas? Easy choice in my book. There's no one who wouldn't like this. Utterly drinkable and dangerously delicious. The most accessible mature whisky I've tasted all year.

-David Driscoll