Lessons From An Artist

My wife and I took the subway out to the Brooklyn museum today to visit the Keith Haring exhibit.  Anyone who grew up in the 80's remembers his cartoon figures playing a huge role in the MTV and street culture of the time - the Very Special Christmas album covers and the animated commericals with Run DMC holiday jams blasting.  While I was very familiar with his work, I wasn't as well-versed in Haring's particular background or philosophy.  Apparently, I was the only one who didn't know about his "art is for everyone" motto.  One quote from the exhibition really stuck with me:

The public needs art -- and it is the responsibility of a 'self-proclaimed artist' to realize that the public needs art, and not to make bourgeois art for a few and ignore the masses.

I find I share Haring's big-tent sensibility, albeit with booze instead of art, in that I want it to be as inclusive as possible.  Haring's art isn't technically complex, but it is poignant while still easy to enjoy - exactly what booze should be like! After getting back to the hotel, my wife went down for a nap while I continued to browse Haring's history on the web, which led to me typing up a blog on my vacation.  I found another quote from him that also struck a chord with me:

People were more interested in the phenomena than the art itself. This, combined with the growing interest in collecting art as an investment and the resultant boom in the art market, made it a difficult time for a young artist to remain sincere without becoming cynical.

As we've seen with some of the big-ticket whiskies lately, the phenomenon surrounding their release has completely transcended the actual quality of the booze itself.  Haring became cynical about this trend in the art world over three decades ago, in that his art was no longer affordable for everyday people (part of the reason he drew on subway walls - access for everyone!) yet wine and whisky drinkers are just beginning to come to terms with the fact that certain bottles, once readily available, will now forever remain out of their reach.

Haring was also a fantastic curator - organizing art shows for everyone and inviting whomever would listen.  He really wanted as many people as possible to have access to his art and to be able to enjoy it without pretense.  I find his approach quite inspiring and I've been brainstorming all day with ideas to make whisky and other great booze more available to K&L customers.  Good booze, like good art, doesn't need to be complicated - and if it is I'm not all that interested in it.  As a specialty retailer, it is my responsibility to realize that the public needs alcohol, and good alcohol at that, so I can't be stuck doling out only high-end prestige bottles for the few.  We need to reach as many people as possible and make drinking as inclusive, fun, and exciting as we can - otherwise what's the point of imbibing?

-David Driscoll


Pappy Programs Clog K&L Server

Well, we thought we had it under control.  Sure, there's a huge demand out there for the Pappy Van Winkle Bourbons, but we get high-volume hits all the time on our webpage.  I asked one of our owners Tuesday night if he thought our servers were up to speed, able to handle the onslaught we were sure to receive, and he said "for sure."  However, never under-estimate the passion of a Pappy enthusiast.

Despite the fact that we had strict rules laid out about purchasing only one bottle, lest your order get cancelled, some people thought they had a pretty smart plan - they must have not read the part about us watching over the entire process and weeding out the troublemakers.  Some people were so desperate for the Pappy that they designed programs that would access the K&L webpage and place repeat orders every one to two seconds automatically.  These scripts were so effective that one person was able to attempt 300 orders for Pappy 20 year in a matter of four minutes.  While we were up for the demand of human capability, we were not prepared for the overload that ensued.

Instead of a quick-fingered showdown, we were stuck with a technological meltdown. The strain on our systems prevented the bottles from even being loaded (instead of arriving at 8:00 PM online they didn't show up until around 8:15).  These hand-crafted programs sent in repeat orders at a speed that no human could ever hope to achieve.  I was sitting here, enjoying my vacation in New York, when a mass flurry of emails overtook my Blackberry and sent me scrambing to get in touch with David OG.  People were pissed.

Instead of being able to place an order, our customers were flooded with "Internal Error" messages, of a type that have never before existed on the K&L webpage.  We are a high-volume online location, but we'd never been hit like this.  Only Pappy Van Winkle whiskey could bring this type of mayhem to K&L.  We ended up in a public relations nightmare, far beyond the stress that selling these whiskies entails as is. 

To those of you who spent a half hour online doing things the right way - we apologize and we will make it up to you.  What this has shown us, however, is that attempting to be open (letting customers know the date and time of the arrival) about the Pappy process has only brought dishonest players to the dance.  We're going to have to return to the drawing board and figure out a better way to get these bottles to the right people.  Until then, we hope that you understand our dilemma and that you will bare with us as we adapt to the brave new world of Pappy persuers.

-David Driscoll


Trust Me, I Know What I'm Talking About

There's something about booze (and many other forms of high-brow entertainment) that makes people a bit pedantic.  It's a characteristic usually associated with wine, but believe me - it's as prevalent in the whiskey world as it is at your local modern art museum.  I'm slowly working on my own problem.  It's that part of me that really enjoys the limelight, but can't quite shut up about it yet.  An example being when I went to a well-known San Francisco watering hole not too long ago and met the local bartender.  He was telling me all sorts of things about the cocktail he was making, about the spirits involved in the process, and about the provenance of "strange" liqueurs like "Creme de Violette."  It finally got to the point where I just had to blurt out, "I KNOW, I WORK AT K&L AND I BUY ALL THE BOOZE, AND I KNOW ALL THESE PEOPLE, AND THEY'RE MY FRIENDS, AND I'VE BEEN TO THAT DISTILLERY, AND I KNOW EVERYTHING YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT, AND I KNOW, I KNOW, I KNOW, I KNOW!"  Let's just say that I failed that test.  I was officially the douchebag at the bar for that night.

Let's face it - there's something about knowledge that makes people feel good about themselves.  However, there's a time, a place, and a manner in which we should make others aware that we're aware.  For example, sometimes I'll ask a customer mingling in the spirits aisle if they need help.  Sometimes they'll say, "No, I'm fine thank you."  Maybe that means he or she is just browsing, or maybe it means they know enough about booze to handle that section on their own.  That's the polite way of saying it.  Sometimes they'll say, "Actually, I have a huge bar at home and I've got, like, fifty open bottles and I've already had everything here and can you find me something actually good?  It doesn't seem like you have anything I haven't already tasted." 

But who am I to judge?  I did the same thing, pretty much.  Our damn egos keep getting in the way.  One day, I'll be older and wiser and I'll know to just nod politely at the bar when the mixologist serves me my drink.  No one likes the guy who's had every whisky and who recites his list of open bottles at home.  Yet, we want to be taken seriously, right?  How else is the world to know how experienced we are?  Oh, that's right, the rest of the world could care less.  They've got important stuff to do.  Remember folks - this is booze.  It's not rocket science. 

-David Driscoll


Justice is Blind

Seven people now have tasted the new K&L Four Roses Single Barrel head to head with the Pappy 15 - at cask strength, with no water.  They were told in advance that one of the whiskies was Pappy and that they should attempt to guess which one was which.  All seven have guessed that the Four Roses was the Pappy 15 - four were K&L employees who were very familiar with the Van Winkle range, while three were customers that I know well.  Even at 59%, the K&L barrel is incredibly balanced - that's not to say it tastes like Pappy 15 (it doesn't), it's just to say that it tastes like great whiskey (which is why everyone figured it was Pappy).  Just a little food for thought.  I can guarantee the opinions would have been different if the labels had been on display.  Blind tasting is the only way!

UPDATE 6:08 PM: Whisky superstar Paul Tong just made it 8 for 8! Everyone loves the Four Roses!

-David Driscoll

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I don't think anyone who tasted knew the difference between "wheated" or "rye" flavor grain whiskies, so they weren't looking for the obvious give-away.  It was more about expectations of quality).


New Four Roses Barrel Arrives

We've done so many Four Rose's barrels now it's getting hard to tell them apart!  Here's my write up on the newest K&L exclusive:

Four Roses K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Bourbon $59.99 - This barrel, aged 10 years and 6 months at the distillery, is from formula OESV and it's the most utilitarian whiskey we've yet selected from Four Roses. It's not the richest, the spiciest, the most esoteric, or the sweetest, but I believe it to be the most balanced and delicious. At 59% you'd expect it to be a monster, but it's quite restrained, almost brooding in its profile in that you expect it to explode at any moment. It never does, however - it remains in check and keeps its distance. The fruit is there, lush and soft, but it stays in the background. The richness is there, but it's not obvious. The spice is robust, with hints of cherry and banana struggling to be tasted, but still there's some reluctant force holding it back. The result is dangerously drinkable Bourbon, one that takes three or four sips just to get a grasp on before you know what's hit you. There's no denying that it's good, even great - but there will be fierce attempts to penetrate its core and understand what its all about. This Bourbon will not cave, however. It just wants to be drunk, not contemplated. It seeks to be enjoyed, not studied. It demands to be appreciated, but it will not beg for your attention. Who knew a Bourbon could be so anthropomorphic?

-David Driscoll