Inaugural Salon Event Tonight

I've put an extra five tickets, plus two guest passes, into the system due to extremely high demand. After that we'll be violating the fire code! They're up for grabs for anyone who wanted to go, but got shut out. Here's what's happening at tonight's Buffalo Trace/Heaven Hill event:

- Six handsome shots of whiskey (not this 1/4 oz. BS we have to do in the store): Rittenhouse Rye, E.H. Taylor BIB Rye, Elmer T. Lee, 2002 Evan Williams Single Barrel, Weller 12 Year, Larceny Wheated.

- Plenty of snacks: homemade potato chips, three kinds of flatbread, crab cakes, bacon-wrapped dates, and endless bowls of the Vault's absolutely addictive brussel sprout chips. Servers will be walking around so that you can pick them off at your leisure.

- Kyle and I will be behind the Bourbon bar, rocking out to a fabulous 80s-themed soundtrack with classic romantic cinema flickering on the multiple screens. There will also be a second bar with a full stock of beer, wine, and booze for those who want to pay separately for something different.

- 100+ people in a fantastic space, drinking, partying, enjoying some fantastic American whiskey, all in the name of booze appreciation.

Five extra spots. Come join us!

-David Driscoll


iPhone Photos From the Backroom

Just doing my usual Friday morning stock work. Filling the shelves up with Bourbon. This box caught my eye. Excuse the poor quality of the photograph. Sometimes a simple iPhone shot is all you can do. While I've been looking for quality in big brand portfolios as of late, I've been absolutely confounded by the piss-poor PR work. The flipside of being a big brand is the reliance upon marketing. When your entire slogan is "we don't change," you'd better stick to it. Otherwise, what are you? The whiskey that doesn't change, except when you need more money?

-David Driscoll


Revisiting Hennessy

Remember when I said that 2013 will be the year the Empire Strikes Back? The year that the big brands play smarter, focus more on quality, and attempt to regain that portion of the market they conceded to the craft producers over the past few years? I recently finished retasting through the LVMH Hennessy portfolio and I found a few bright spots that I think represent value and quality in a way that smaller producers have been unable to offer with Cognac. A simple, clean, basic, mixing Cognac that isn't overly sweet, offers a bit of punch, and doesn't cost an arm and a leg - who's making that right now?

First off - which brands are reaching out to the quality-focused consumer, you ask? How about Burns Stewart with their new 46%, unchillfiltered Bunnahabhain? How about Pernod-Ricard with their new 48%, unchillfiltered Aberlour 12? For the under $50 price point, these are my two new, go-to whiskies when helping a customer in the store.  In the Cognac world, the largest producer of brandy in the region has recently introduced a new flavor called "Black" into their lineup - an entry that has been met with little fanfare from both the Hennessy costumer base and the boutique consumer equally. However, after moving through the VS, Privilege, XO, Paradis and Richard Hennessy Cognacs respectively (a range of brandies stretching from $30 to $5000 per bottle), I found myself most impressed with the Black - a Cognac that was ridiculed amongst smaller producers on our trip to France last winter.

Why is LVMH struggling to reach new Cognac consumers with the Black? It's pretty clear when you taste it against the other selections. First off, there have been numerous other disappointing "black" releases already in the liquor realm. Remember Crown Royal Black? Whoop-de-doo. Most consumers view the idea as pure marketing, no substance. Second of all, the Cognac tastes and looks absolutely nothing like its brethren. Hennessy Cognacs are unmistakably dark, rich, full of caramel, toffee, and wood flavor, and very supple in texture. The Hennessey "Black," ironically enough, is the lightest and most pure of the bunch. Any fan of the standard VS would be completely taken aback by this. Bottled at 43% instead of the standard 40%, the Hennessy Black was originally meant for bartenders and cocktail fans as a slightly more potent, less sweet ingredient for Sidecars and French 75s. It has an extremely mellow profile and tastes very much like many of the young barrel samples we went through on our 2012 buying trip. I'd be surprised if there was any boise at all in the mix. You certainly can't taste it.

When David and I visited one distiller in Grand Champagne last year, he commented that other grower-producers in the region were not impressed with the Black, which puzzled this person. He quickly replied to this group of hecklers, "Hey! This is your Cognac you're talking about! You sold it to Hennessy! You're criticizing your own brandy because they haven't done a whole lot to change it." Remember that Hennessy is a Cognac house that purchases almost all of its supply from other small producers in the region. Thinking back on this story, it doesn't surprise me that the region's own producers were quick to take jabs at the Hennessy Black. Of anything in the Hennessy portfolio, it's the product that most competes with what smaller producers can offer - a clean, unadulterated spirit that offers high-quality brandy flavor at a more than reasonable price. However, where as most grower-producers clock in at the $50-$60 price point for their entry level selections, the Hennessy Black will be $39.99 at K&L.

Retasting through the entire portfolio, I was also quite impressed with the XO. When the average customer spends $200 on a bottle of Cognac, looking for the rich, smooth, seamless mouthfeel, the XO is exactly what they expect. Sometimes it's nice to just fulfill those expectations rather than try and convince the person to branch out. It delivers exactly what people expect for the money and that's a nice thing to know as a consumer. K&L has always been the store that looked outside the box for interesting and unique spirits. Now that we've established ourselves as the store with all the stuff you can't get anywhere else, I think it's time to start supplementing these selections with brand value. While the Hennessy Black isn't going set the world on fire, it does offer a fantastic mixing Cognac at a very reasonable price. To offer an analogy, I needed a bottle of grapeseed oil last week, so I walked over to my local grocery store, which happens to be quite fancy. While I'm sure that the grapeseed oils in their selection were stellar, I didn't want to pay $15-$20 for a half bottle. I just needed something decent and basic, but I was forced to look elsewhere.

The Hennessy Black is that Cognac for that type of shopper. It's a completely respectable, very un-Hennessy-like brandy that I'm excited about mixing with at home. It shows that Hennessy is willing to step outside of its comfort zone and use its vast stocks (more than every other Cognac house combined) to create an expression for serious cocktail fans. If someone would have come in last week and asked for a good Cognac to mix with, I would have given them the Ferrand 1840 at the same price, or something like Dudognon for $50. Almost everything else we have is near the $60+ price point. Not only would I be forcing many customers to spend far more than they had planned, I would also be selling them an unfamiliar name.

For $39.99, I'd be more than comfortable selling someone the Hennessy Black. In fact, I'd be happy to recommend it. That's something I couldn't have imagined saying last year. Times change, however. The brands are looking to strike back.

-David Driscoll


Dulces de Mexico

I've said it before and I'll say it again: no other country is brimming with the potential for spirits production like Mexico is. Fields of agave, sugar cane, fresh produce, and don't forget the coffee beans! The problem with spirits production in Mexico is that most releases are about bulk branding rather than quality. Rich guys from the U.S. go down there, work out the sliding scale economics, and then put cheap slop in fancy bottles. I've been retasting tequila brands lately and I can't believe how bad everything is. It's the one category where the general consumer is getting totally fleeced. One of the most interesting spirits we tasted recently was a charasmatic little Bacanora from the northern state of Sonora. The same importer who brings it into the U.S. has now tasted us on something called Xolotl - an absolutely delicious coffee liqueur from Veracruz.

Xolotl is actually a range of liqueurs produced by second generation master distiller Jose Villanueva Barragan (they have a tasty amaretto as well).  Jose is highly regarded by his peers and is among a select few who work with the Mexican government to develop standard liquor protocols. These bold and nuanced spirits are matured in neutral French, Spanish, Sherry, and American oak casks, many of which are 40 to 60 years old. Xolotl Liqueurs pay homage to the memory of Alfonso Caso, an intrepid archeologist whose contributions to pre-Columbian studies include the discovery of rare artifacts at Monte Alban, an important archaeological site in Oaxaca.

The coffee liqueur is blended with twenty year old rum to add richness. The coffee flavor is what jumps out most, but it's not ever bitter or intense like actual coffee (unlike other coffee labels like Firelit). The sweetness is very mild, however, and the spirit itself is quite lean. It's delicous to sip and should mix very well into something like a White Russian in place of Kahlua. At 19.5%, you can enjoy a few small glasses without getting into too much trouble. The Xolotl is exactly the type of interesting, quality spirit made from locally-sourced products in Mexico that I've been hunting for. It shows what Mexican distillers are capable of producing when taking the time to do something right. I really like this stuff.

A likeness of the mythical Xolotyl Jaguar, an Olmec icon found in the pyramid there, decorates the label and cap of the hand-blown bottles. You could bring this to your friend's annual Anchorman party and bust out a great Paul Rudd line: "it's made with actual bits of jaguar, so you know it's good!"

-David Driscoll


Ardbeg 21 For Sale

This one got buried under a box in our back warehouse. We had our quarterly inventory count a few weeks back and look what turned up! What a surprise. Why not auction it off? We can't auction your liquor, but we can throw out own stuff in the running every now and again.

Right now it's selling for much less than we had it for on the shelf. Will it stay that way?

Follow it live here! Less than 24 hours to go.

-David Driscoll