Old Scotch, Back in Stock

We've been out of these whiskies for some time and we'll likely be out of them again soon. Might want to grab these while they're here for a last minute gift!

Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old Islay Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - Color: Rich golden amber Nose: Liquid caramel bubbling on the stove, banana cream pie, macadamia nut brittle and the blowing sea breeze coming off the Sound of Islay. Palate: It lies on your palate like heavy syrup that coats your mouth. The flavors are all creamy butter; toasted almonds and Brazilian nuts, fresh pipe tobacco and a sea brininess that is a classic taste of Bunnahabhain. The weight of the 18 year old is very heavy like your favorite blanket on a cold winter's day. The finish is extremely long and warming with just a wee bit of spiciness. What a stunning dram!

Oban 18 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - Always tough to find - this is a limited edition bottling for the US only.  As the cannister states, "only so much can be made, it is never enough."

Old Pulteney 21 year old Single Malt Whisky $129.99 - Rated the #1 Whisky in the World by Jim Murray's Whisky Bible for 2012.  Get it while you can because there's likely to be a run on this once the word gets out.  Aged in a combination of Bourbon and Sherry casks, the 21 year has loads of dried apricots and a supple mouthfeel.  The expression, which was created at the Pulteney distillery in Wick, Caithness, scored a record-equaling 97.5 points out of 100 and in doing so became only the third single malt to have claimed the title since its inception in 1994. (There are another 12 cases coming to NorCal this Friday)

-David Driscoll


K&L Awards 2012: Best Discovery - Jacques Esteve

While traveling to Scotland has given us the opportunity to purchase some amazing whiskies, everything we buy is a one-off. We have to buy barrels with finite quantities of juice that will last a couple months until we sell through. Then we have to hope we can do it again. Our French spirits program, with the help of our friend Charles Neal, has worked much like our direct import wine program - we find small producers that are not represented in the U.S. and import their booze right to our store. We can consistantly offer the same products from the same producers because we're importing their standard portfolio, not something made just once for our store. It gives people a reason to shop at K&L. You can't find these wines or these spirits anywhere else domestically and, over time, people begin to depend on them.

Normally when you're dealing with a smaller producer, you're getting something a bit different from the norm. When we buy a cask from Kilchoman, it's a much younger, spicier single malt. Same goes for when we buy casks from small independents. There's a big difference between our barrel of Bunnahabhain and the standard distillery expressions. In the U.S., there's a large chasm between, say, the rye from Old World Spirits and something like Rittenhouse. Cognac, however, is a big industry made of little producers. Remy, Hennessey, and all the large houses buy all of their product from the same little guys we're buying from. Take Jacques Esteve, for example. He sells a ton of his brandy directly to Remy and Hennessey. That's where his financial stability comes from. The income he earns from his big house contracts allows him to focus on making more serious Cognac under his own family label.

When you drink big house Cognac, you're essential drinking a marriage of many different brandies. If you drink Hennessey XO, there's probably some older Jacques Esteve brandy swimming around in there. However, why not buy it straight from Jacques Esteve himself and get an older, undiluted Cognac for less than half the price? That's what Hennessey does! That's why we wanted to go to France and that's what we did when we got there. The Esteve brandies are not different, unique, or outside the norm of standard Cognac. They're simply richer, more supple, more textural, and more delicious. The Coup de Coeur we imported costs about $90 and blows every other Cognac we have out of the water. I don't see how anyone could go back to big house Cognac after tasting it. It's a combination of 1979 and 1981 vintage brandies and the length and complexity of flavor are astounding.

The best part about Jacques Esteve's Cognac is that we can keep buying more! True, the Tres Vieille Reserve de Famille is a single cask of 1979 bottled under his standard label, but we're heading back over in March to find more sustainable expressions. The Coup de Coeur is fully-stocked and loaded for the holiday season. It's a brandy we hope to have on our shelves for some time. I can't remember a spirit at K&L that has had a larger influence on the category as a whole. There have been some fun single barrels in the past, but nothing we could continuously sustain. That's why discovering the Jacques Esteve Cognacs and securing their exclusivity for K&L was probably the best thing we did all year.

-David Driscoll


K&L Awards 2012: Most Improved Player - St. George Distillery

When Proximo purchased Hangar One Vodka from St. George Distillery at the very end of 2010, something very amazing happened. Like a blossoming artist being subsidized by a wealthy aristocratic patron, the peace of mind that Lance Winters and Dave Smith achieved by no longer having to worry about bulk vodka gave them the freedom to start working on their own personal passions. "All of the work was being handled by someone else," Lance told me earlier today. "We didn't have to worry about coming up with new flavors or developing the brand." Instead of coming up with fruit flavors or fancy marketing ideas, Lance and Dave buckled down and started churning out some serious booze. They had time to visit Kentucky and invest in a Bourbon blending project (in case you didn't know, Dave Smith and Anthony Rosario are as passionate about blending as they are distilling). They released three, wildly-different, new gins to widely-recognized acclaim. They also teamed up with us to make two additional gins under our Faultline label.

Not only did St. George have more time to engage in exciting new adventures, everything in their original portfolio seemed to get better. Way better. The single malt whiskey releases started to "wow" people. The absinthe became more polished. The fruit eau de vies were almost unrecognizable. I'll give you a bit of insider information here. At this year's Good Food Awards, there was one pear eau de vie that simply destroyed every other fruit brandy in that room. We thought we knew who had made it, but when we lifted the brown bag at the end of the day, it was the Aqua Perfecta beneath that veil. None of us could believe it. We'd all tasted that pear brandy a million times and it had never tasted this good. It was clear that Lance and Dave had stepped up their game. They were continuing to get better at their craft.

How many producers show this type of improvement over one year's time, especially those that are already incredibly successful? Success causes most people to let up, to draw back, to enjoy the fruit of their labor and take their foot off the throttle. Not St. George, however. Success has made them more determined to improve and live up to the reputation they've earned after thirty years in the business. What was started by Jorg Rupf as a small shack in Emeryville is now being taken to an entirely new level. The team at St. George is tight and everyone is playing a role: Andie in the bar, James and Chris on the still, Lucy in the office, with Lance and Dave on the front line. It's a team effort over there in Alameda and when you play as a team you succeed.

A few weeks ago, I was able to get a sneak preview of the 30th Anniversary edition of the St. George single malt scheduled for release next week. It's going to cost $400 and it's representing three decades of whisky evolution for the distillery. The whisky is magnificant and those who can splurge on the bottle are going to have something very special in their collection. To call St. George the "most improved player" for 2012 might sound a bit negative to some, as if they were only mediocre before and now have finally made the transition forward. I know Lance and Dave, however, and I have to believe they'll be more proud of this distinction than any other award we could give them. I believe this because I see how hard they both work and how dedicated they are to getting better at what they do.

Whatever it is you're doing, guys, it's working. Over the course of 2012, St. George Distillery has gone from quirky microdistillery to major industry player based solely on the quality of its booze. There's nothing these guys can't do and do well. I think it might be time to revisit that tequila project.

-David Driscoll


$100 is All We Know

"When I was your age, whisky used to cost a nickel. My mother would send me down to the store to fill up the family jug and, if I lost that nickel along the way, there was whoopin' a waitin' for me when I got home."

Sure, Grandpa. Whatever you say.

Things are changing faster these days. I love those new cable TV commercials where the kids can move the TV into the other room, while a ten year old talks about the old days before wireless DVRs. Some people like to reminisce about the old days, while others just like to whine. For many of us, the "old days" of whisk(e)y values were just a few years ago, which makes the transition even harder. However, I'm wondering if the talk about a whisk(e)y bubble is beginning to sound like those grumpy old men who aren't ready to deal with the new age of modern consumerism. I'm included in this group, so don't shoot the messenger. I'm just positing some ideas that we may want to think about. We might like to comfort ourselves with talk of "when all this hype dies down and I can find George T Stagg again," but I don't think we're ever going back to that. That's what people say who wish things were otherwise, but aren't.

An economic bubble is defined as "trade in high volumes at prices that are considerably at variance with intrinsic values." They occur when the value of something is inflated beyond what it's actually worth and will pop when prices rise so high that they can no longer be sustained – either because the current economy won't allow it or because people simply refuse to pay. The sub-prime mortgage crisis hit after banks issued huge loans based on inflated housing prices to folks who didn't have the money to pay them back. Netflix, on the other hand, saw its customers simply balk at the rising cost of service. They were forced to lower prices after customers started canceling their accounts en masse. Neither of these scenarios are about to happen with the $50-$300 whisk(e)y bracket that I'm focusing on.

Wikipedia's profile of the term economic bubble has this to say:

Because it is often difficult to observe intrinsic values in real-life markets, bubbles are often conclusively identified only in retrospect, when a sudden drop in prices appears. Such a drop is known as a crash or a bubble burst. Both the boom and the burst phases of the bubble are examples of a positive feedback mechanism, in contrast to the negative feedback mechanism that determines the equilibrium price under normal market circumstances. Prices in an economic bubble can fluctuate erratically, and become impossible to predict from supply and demand alone.

It's interesting to actually look up what some of the key characteristics of a bubble are in order to help determine whether we're actually going through one or not. I had a lot of people tell me I was wrong about the Bordeaux analogy, but that's not necessarily my opinion. I'm just throwing ideas out there. That being said, I still think the Bordeaux comparison is totally legit, mainly because of the generational divide that has taken place between myself and the older guard at K&L. I look at Cos de Estournal and think, "Wow, that's good wine. Maybe I'll splurge." Ralph looks at Cos de Estournal and says, "$150! Are you kidding? I used to get that for less than $20!" I don't remember a time when Cos was below $100, so it doesn't seem outrageous, much like a new generation of whisk(e)y drinkers out there doesn't know that Macallan 18 used to be $80. They don't know that in 2010 you could find a multitude of 15+ year old Bourbons for way under $100. They're new to the game and they have a totally different frame of mind. They're fine with the current status quo because it's all they know. To them, prices are high, but acceptable and Pappy is always impossible to find.

Now I'm basing the above statements off of what I see in the store every day. It may be a California phenomenon, but national sales numbers would say otherwise. The main people I hear who are worried about whisk(e)y pricing are the people who have been at this a few years or more. It's not a common theme among the younger clientele I serve. Bourbon is a better example of this current craze than single malt, so we can't blame everything on the Asian Scotch whisky market that's getting overly excited. For the past week I've had dozens of people drop by the store in search of "nice" Bourbon – meaning expensive. Unfortunately, there's nothing really all that expensive to be had because it's all sold out. I try and send them home with a bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel or maybe a Blanton's Single Barrel, but even $50 to them seems cheap.

"Don't you have anything that costs more than $100? You know....something......nice?"

There are new customers coming to me on a daily basis who don't want to spend under $100 for anything and it's not just because whisk(e)y is trendy. I don't think we're simply going through a whisk(e)y fad, where it's cool to drink whisk(e)y now, but won't be in another few years. Ten years ago people thought Thai food was a fad, but it was merely something new. Now we're eating South East Asian food everywhere and Pho has become a daily thing for many westerners. People hadn't been avoiding Thai food because it wasn't hip, they simply didn't know anything about it. Now it's ubiquitous and normal and generations of American kids grow up eating it every week. It's not some strange, mystical experience anymore because there's more information out there and a greater variety of experiences. Whisk(e)y is the same for many people. They're discovering a level of quality that goes beyond Jack Daniels or Dewar's and they're finding that they like it. Now that they like it, they're willing to pay a little extra to get it. The same thing happened with designer jeans ten years ago. $100 for a pair of jeans? That's crazy! Wow, these actually really fit well. Maybe it isn't so crazy.

$100 is becoming the new floor for many spirits customers. Despite what you may think, it's not just a group of mis-informed, trendy, or foolish people throwing their money away on overpriced whisk(e)y. People are willing to pay more for good spirits if that's what good spirits cost. A bottle of wine lasts just a few days, but a bottle of booze can last for years. People think about that when they throw down $100 on a single malt whisky, after finding that the wine they wanted costs nearly the same. What we may be witnessing is not necessarily a bubble, but rather a market that has realized they've been underpricing their product.

If a new generation of whisk(e)y drinkers is fine with paying $100 a bottle, why would you ever go back as a producer? Sure, there's a whole group of drinkers that will bitch and moan and complain about the way things used to be, but they're no longer relevant, are they? Forget perceived shortages, or scarcity, or any of that stuff. If the price of good whisk(e)y becomes $100, then that's what it costs regardless of any rational justification. No amount of blogging, writing, complaining, or reminiscing will ever change that trajectory. Didn't we learn that when we rolled our eyes at our grandparents?

Sure, grandpa, gas used to cost a penny and you had to walk ten miles to school in the snow. I get it.

-David Driscoll


K&L Awards 2012: Most Underrated Distillery - Caol Ila

I think I was more impressed by Caol Ila than any other distillery we visited in Scotland this year. They had the nicest staff. They had the most beautiful views. They had a fantastic tour. And they had the best tasting whisky. If I had to make a quick list of the top peated whiskies I tasted in 2012, at least four of them would be from Caol Ila (not necessarily official distillery bottles, but Caol Ila whisky in some form). Caol Ila was also the main component of one of my other favorite releases this year – the Compass Box Flaming Heart. What stood out in 2012? We had a 30 year old cask from Sovereign that we imported this January that blew our customers' minds. We also just imported another 15 year old expression that is a total fruit slut, while giving you all the peat you can handle. Absolutely delicious stuff. The best whisky I tasted this year in Scotland was the most-recent Caol Ila 18 year old, which is now unavailable in the states. It's aged entirely in Bourbon wood and, in my personal opinion, destroys the last few Port Ellen releases I've tasted. Magical.

If Caol Ila is making so much great whisky, then why is it always lumped on the bottom with Bunnahabhain for "Least Favorite Islay whisky" among most single malt fans? People go crazy for Ardbeg, have a passion for Laphroaig, consider Lagavulin a classic, and would follow Bruichladdich to the grave. Caol Ila, on the other hand, is seen as a commercial giant – a monstrous factory pumping out JW Black juice at a frantic pace. While it is a huge facility run electronically by a few local workers, Diageo continues to make great whisky at the Port Askaig distillery. The fat-necked stills create a supple and fruity malt and the peat smoke adds spice and character. What's not to love? True, there's very little romance in the idea of Caol Ila for most people, but I think a trip to the distillery might change many minds. It changed my mind, at least.

If you've never had Caol Ila, you owe it to yourself to get a bottle of the standard 12 year. You can also find the Moscatel-finished distiller's edition right now. If you're feeling up to it, you can also splurge for our 15 year old single barrel cask strength expression. All of them are dynamite for the price.

-David Driscoll