2011 K&L Awards - Best Blended/Irish/Japanese Whisky

David Othenin-Girard picks: Great on the rocks.  Full of flavor.  Goes down easy.  Makes a fantastic highball.  Nothing tastes better on ice right now. 

David Driscoll picks: This is one of the best deals of the year in spirits - period.  For $50, this is a wonderful single malt and it's so versatile.  You can sip it neat, or on the rocks and it's just as enjoyable.  I personally really like it straight.  A top contender on my overall whisk(e)y of the year short list. 

 -David Driscoll & David Othenin-Girard


Sound Investment?

The whisk(e)y blogs are rife with chatter right now over the idea of investing in a whisk(e)y collection.  Two articles have been written, representing both sides of an argument that might see the current trend as a bubble, or possibly an opportunity to cash in.  John Hansell's blog also has a ton of conversation going in the comments field about this issue.  There are numerous well-written opinions and it seems that people generally have a lot to say about drinking or not drinking your booze. Is it really possible to invest heavily in whisk(e)y and make a financial return on that investment?  According to some people it is.  However, I don't plan on personally investing.  Not for any moral reasons about the enjoyment of whisk(e)y or some evangelical belief in the soul of a single malt, but because I don't know where the future of whisk(e)y consumerism lies.  I don't believe we're in a bubble, meaning I don't think the whisk(e)y market is going to crash any time soon.  However, like pop music or fashion, whisk(e)y is trendy.  I don't mean whisk(e)y itself, but rather the specific whiskies that people are actively searching for. 

I've seen a few articles that advocate the purchasing of rare and limited edition bottles for an investment portfolio and that's a wise, if not overly obvious, piece of advice.  However, rarity alone is not enough.  As Dominic Roskow states in his take on the subject - the whisky has to actually taste good.  People have to want to drink it before it becomes valuable or else there's no actual reason to buy it.  In other words, if you want to become a whisk(e)y investor then you have to buy whiskies that people are going to want to drink five to ten years down the road.  There will always be wealthy people who have no problem paying a premium for the best possible drinks.  The question is - will you be sitting on what they want when that time comes?

While the pro-investment side of the issue believes that profit comes with smart selections, the anti-investment side thinks the time to get in has already passed and that a bubble is forming.  There is another factor, however, that is being ignored here and it must be addressed: pop culture.  I want to use SKU's analogy of baseball cards as an example (as he posted on Hansell's blog earlier).  When I was a kid in the 80's we bought baseball cards thinking we were going to get rich in the future by leaving them in our parent's basement for a few decades, waiting for their value to appreciate.  What we realized, however, was that every other kid was doing the exact same thing.  All of a sudden, there was a glut of "rare" baseball cards from the 80's and our dreams of living off Topps, Donruss and Upper Deck were crushed.  SKU believes that current whisk(e)y collectors are following the same pattern, putting away "collectable" bottles that won't be very collectable ten years from now if everyone still has them.  Pop culture, however, can throw that logic for a loop if the right elements fall into place. 

In 2001, Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs for the San Francisco Giants and everything linked to him went up in value - including a box of 1986 Barry Bonds rookie cards I had sitting at my parents house.  All of a sudden, the bulk of dead weight sitting in my old bedroom had tremendous value.  After communicating with a few collectors online, I was a few hundred dollars richer.  Boom.  Pop culture pays me for having the right product at the right time.  The American whiskey demand right now is no different.  Pre-prohibition cocktails are all the rage, people are drinking rye like never before, distilleries can't make enough, and suddenly there's a demand for more quality Bourbon.  People start gathering at parties and they're drinking Maker's Mark instead of Dewars, a few names get thrown around, "Pappy Van What?"  All of a sudden there's no more Van Winkle whiskey to be found.  Make no mistake about this - the demand for George T. Stagg and other rare Buffalo Trace Bourbons is not about some new awakening of the American palate.  It's also not the result of rarity or collectability.  People want Pappy Van Winkle because they've heard it's the best, they want to drink it, they can't find it, and that makes them want it more.  That's called popular culture and it's what makes people obsess over Justin Bieber, the iPhone, and any other phenomenon that drives people into a frenzy.

So, yes, if you bought a case of Old Fitzgerald in the 1970's and you're sitting on it now - you're going to make some serious profit.  That's the original Van Winkle whiskey and that's what people want right now.  However, Old Fitzgerald was dirt cheap back then and no one EVER thought it would be collectable.  The same goes for old Michter's Distillery juice.  People look at the profit being made by selling a bottle of Hirsch 16 year Bourbon at $600-$1000 right now and think - there's a sound investment.  At least it was a sound investment.  My point is, however, that no one saw this coming.  No one said, "One day these distilleries are going to close, Bourbon will suddenly become popular among a new drinking culture of Americans, and this will lead to an educated base of enthusiasts that will eventually recognize the superiority of long, forgotten classics," and then filled their basements with cheap bottles of grocery store Bourbon.  The Van Winkles have become the darlings of pop culture, desired by a rabid base of drinkers who are excited about drinking the absolute "it" whiskey of the moment.  However, will Pappy Van Winkle 20 still be as highly celebrated ten years from now or will people be over the hype?  I would ask yourself that question before spending a small fortune on an investment.  Sure, it's Stitzel-Weller whiskey and it's incredibly rare, but that was also the case three years ago and no one cared.  They may stop caring again.

As far as single malts go, that's a more difficult question.  People are fascinated with mothballed distilleries like Port Ellen and Brora because they're supposed to be great and they're gone forever.  The idea of drinking a lost whisky seems to captivate people - me included.  No one gave two shits about the Port Ellen 9th Edition last year.  Now it doesn't even make it to the States.  However, is that going to be enough down the road?  What's going to convince people to shell out serious dough for a bottle of whisky in 2020?  Will it be old bottles of Cooley Irish Single Malts?  Maybe Japanese whisky takes off and becomes the next must-have bottle for your house party.  Who knows?  The investor believes that if a whisky is rare now, it will therefore becoming even rarer as time goes on and increase in value.  As long as someone still wants it, that is.  In my opinion, pop culture will determine whether that is the case.  If you're a whisk(e)y investor, I'd research fashion rather than futures.

-David Driscoll


2011 K&L Awards - Best Bourbon of the Year

David and I really went back and forth over these selections.  Emails were sent last minute reading, "Hold on! I want to change my pick!" or "Wait - last minute change!"  There's a certain side of us that wants to reward the little guys or the artisan distiller, but you also can't argue with your taste buds.  Of all the spirit categories that include both large and small producers, Bourbon is definitely the one where the microdistilleries have made the fewest strides.  In 2011 there were some interesting "whiskies" and some fantastic new ryes, but no real great new Bourbons.  In our opinion, the best Bourbons of the year were both made by Buffalo Trace, a distillery that continues to pound the competition into the ground.  Heaven Hill and Four Roses are right behind them, but they simply don't have the stocks to compete right now.  

David Driscoll picks: Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Old Bourbon - I really did NOT want to choose this whiskey.  Mainly because I know how many people want to get one and this is only going to make that desire worse.  However, that being said, it's still the best Bourbon I have tasted this year and it is entirely Buffalo Trace whiskey.  I think it's important to note that because of all the hoopla surrounding the legend of Stitzel-Weller distillery.  So many people are worried about stashing away the original SW juice because it's almost extinct, but I'm definitely not one of them.  I once read a Michael Jackson article where he wrote about not feeling upset concerning the closure of Rosebank because Bladnoch was still operating.  I couldn't agree more.  Bladnoch is simply a better version of Rosebank, so there's no need to fret.  With the last stocks of Stitzel-Weller being used solely for the 20 and 23 (and regardless of what people say, I don't think the 15 has been SW for the last few years), the 15 still wins as the best Van Winkle in the bunch.  If it's the best of all the releases and it's 100% Buffalo Trace whiskey, then I think we're all going to be alright.

David Othenin-Girard picks: Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. Bottled in Bond Single Barrel Old Fashioned Sour Mash Kentucky Bourbon - I loved the Taylor because it was so different from most other Bourbons.  Dry and lean on the front end with a richness on the back end that didn't finish sweet.  I really like what Buffalo Trace is doing with the Taylor series and I think these releases have been entirely overlooked so far.  There's so much going on with the Sazerac Company right now between this, the experimental series, the single oak project, the antique collection, and the Pappy stuff.  They're a real force right now.

-David Driscoll & David Othenin-Girard


1512 Introduce New Aged Rye

 1512 Spirits, operating out of San Francisco's North Bay, raised the bar for white whiskey last year when they introduced their Barbershop spirit - a 100% rye mashbill recipe that was being produced clandestinely until Sal decided to bring it to the legal retail market.  While the geeky consumer base had begun to sour a bit on the idea of white whiskies, there was a lot to love in the flavor of the Barbershop.  It was clear that Sal wasn't just another upstart distiller - the whiskey was serious stuff.  Unfortunately, he appeared to be masquerading as one by being the 10th person on his block to bring white rye to K&L.  Sure, the rye was delicious and obviously better than almost every other white rye we'd previously tasted, but would that expressive flavor be enough to make his aged whiskies stand out?  Would it even make a difference?  We're about to start finding out.

After using smaller barriques to accelerate the process, Sal is finally releasing his first ever batch of barrel-aged rye.  While we would all realistically like to taste something around ten years old from a charred, bourbon-sized barrel, 1512 doesn't have that luxury.  They can't afford to simply sit back now and wait.  Purists will complain that Rittenhouse can be had for $22 a bottle, but there's no point in comparing the 1512 aged rye to something like Rittenhouse because it's just not the same type of whiskey.  This isn't a 60%-ish rye made on massive copper column stills at a couple-hundred-barrels-per-day pace.  This is a 100% rye mashbill (something very tricky to work with as I have seen first-hand) and it's made in batches on a small pot still.  The hearts aren't measured off by a computer - it's done by Sal on the spot.  It's difficult to make and it takes a long time.  It's not a streamlined, eco-efficient process.  The attention to detail shows in the quality of the spirit, but perhaps no one will truly appreciate what it takes to get there.  It's undoubtedly a better white whiskey than other producers are working with, but it costs more to make it.  The time, the effort, the materials, the necessary bottom line - it's very expensive.  The question is: are people willing to invest in that kind of effort?

So what does it taste like?  The nose is fantastic - smelling it out of the bottle is definitely the best way to capture its essence.  The aromas just seem to get lost in a glass.  Unbelievably pure rye bread/grain aromas mesh into rich vanilla and wood.  It's really a spectacular balance.  The palate offers some of what the nose promises - lots of grainy, yeasty rye flavors with powerful wood.  They made the right move bottling it at 50%.  The color is dark amber - it really looks like it's 10 years old or more, even though it definitely is not.  The finish is where the 1512 falls short and it's a common problem with rapidly-aged whiskies.  Like a soup that is boiled instead of simmered, the flavors just haven't had enough time to congeal.  Still, it's quite an enjoyable whiskey - especially for what it is.

I know exactly how old the 1512 is.  I know which type and size of barrel it was aged in.  However, I'm not going to disclose those facts because I know for certain it will only lead people to blow it off without trying it.  There's no age statement on Black Maple Hill, or Sazerac, or most other American whiskies, so I definitely agree with their decision to leave it off the label.  I'm sure Sal will tell you if you ask him because they're not trying to hide anything, but I know how fickle the public can be once they've made up their mind about something in advance.  The 1512 aged rye is a whisky that must be tried before judging its proper place in the genre.  Even after consumers do recognize its quality, however, the same querries are bound to arise.  Do we really need a $60-per-half-bottle, 100% rye mashbill, hand-crafted, rapidly-matured rye whiskey?  Why would a guy go through all that trouble to make a rye whiskey if it costs that much?  Do we want to find out what a five or ten year old 1512 rye would taste like?  Only you can answer those questions for yourself. 

I personally really like the whiskey.  We all have to keep in mind that there are very few high-rye mashbill whiskies out there with the exception of products like Anchor's Old Potrero or the 95% rye whiskies from LDI.  You have to compare it against those whiskies, not against Sazerac 18 or Pappy 13.  I'll say this - the 1512 aged rye is better than any young rye we've tasted from LDI and it was actually made by the guy who bottled it.  That goes a long way in my book.  It's also more balanced than Old Potrero, which always bothers me with its jarring pepperiness.  1512 Barbershop raised the bar for white whiskies.  I believe the new aged rye raises it for 100% rye aged whiskies as well. 

-David Driscoll


2011 K&L Awards - Best Tequila of the Year

This was a tough category for us to pick just one.  Both of us had to declare a tie for our final decision and so we ended up with four different top tequila choices.  All four are entirely deserving of the title.

David Driscoll picks: ArteNOM 1079 Blanco Tequila - Jacob Lustig's project of bottling tequilas by their distillery (rather than by brand) would have been fun to watch even if the tequilas weren't good.  However, he knows his stuff and he wasn't choosing his producers at random.  He knew right where he wanted to go and this blanco from Rancho Buenavista distillery is probably the best blanco tequila I've ever had.  So clean, pure, and vibrant.  It's the kind of bottle where people taste it and say, "Wow, I never knew I liked tequila so much."  It's not you, honey.  It's the tequila.

David Driscoll also picks: ArteNOM 1414 Reposado Tequila - One of the most important things I learned about tequila production from Jacob Lustig is that tequila producers chapitalize their must.  Legally, they can add agave nectar to the washback, increase the sugar, and get more alcohol from their base.  This also results in a sweeter, heavier spirit and when you taste the 1414 you realize what unchapitalized tequila tastes like.  You would never have know their was a difference until tasting this reposado.  It has all the flavor, the spice, the nuance, and the beauty, just without that fat texture on the mouthfeel.  It makes a HUGE difference and, now that I know there is one, I'll be taking my tequila without extra glucose.

David Othenin-Girard picks: IXÁ Blanco Tequila - IXÁ is made in an old and increasingly rare way with fully mature agave plants which are cooked slowly in traditional clay ovens and then fermented and distilled with the agave fiber included, compared to modern distillers who buy agave half the size, pressure cook in a tenth the time, and ferment and distill only the agave juice. This old school method, known to produce excellent tequilas like Siete Leguas, is more time costly, time consuming, and makes all the difference. When you taste IXA you'll understand why they went through the extra effort.

David Othenin-Girard also picks: Grand Mayan Extra Añejo 5 Year Old Tequila - For those in search of the ultimate sipping tequila, look no further.  All the richness of a fine Cognac, without the cloying sweetness of some other big-brand tequilas, is present in the Grand Mayan extra añejo - a bargain when you look at the prices of other extra añejos on the market.

-David Driscoll & David Othenin-Girard