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


A Crisis of Romanticism: From Rousseau to Booze 

There are a number of crises that can behold the wine or spirits drinker, but the one we face most often at K&L involves our own personal booze philosophies. When I say we confront them, it's usually within ourselves rather than with our customers.  There are many roles to play within the world of booze: the high-browed wine intellectual, the down-to-earth beer guy, the artsy-fartsy cocktailian, or the super-duper whisky geek.  It's no different from walking into Amoeba Records and finding the indie rocker, the punk, the emo girl, or any other genre-specific employee who wants their own personal taste in music to reflect in their appearance.  Like with music, there are periods of growth, inner-reflection, and change when it comes to our alcoholic tastes.  Much like I outgrew my love for psychedelic drugs and Pink Floyd, I've outgrown my desire to drink ultra-ripe California wine.  We get older, we shape our own philosophies by where we stand in life, and our tastes mirror these changes.

I've just recently come out of a serious transition and am in the middle of an identity crisis myself. For years, if not decades, I've considered myself a romantic - I've always had a proneness to emotion, and more particularly to the emotion of sympathyI've always loved the idea of wine or whisky, perhaps more so than I've enjoyed the actual liquid - the idea of drinking Bordeaux with a finely-prepared steak, the idea of sipping great whisky after dinner with a few friends, the idea of having a fancy cocktail party with amazing drinks that blow everyone's minds.  I love to imagine the greys and the stark landscape of Islay as I consider purchasing more Bowmore, the spray from the sea and the brooding image of Jura in the distance. The rustic farmer who made the Bourgogne Rouge on my dinner table also comes to mind, picking grapes in a bucolic landscape of serenity.  In the school of romanticism, the poor are more virtuous than the rich, the sage is the man who retires from the corruption of the modern city and seeks solitude in the unambitious life of the country. The images of classic romanticism are ubiquitous in everything I think I love about booze.

The truth is that I've begun to shed my romantic skin. I've become a realist, more utilitarian and practical in my outlook, and I'm thinking that maybe I've actually been a realist in denial for some time.  Valuing emotion and feeling has always been at the core of my personal philosophy.  I've always preached the idea of drinking what you like and what makes you feel good, rather than chasing points or over-hyped brand names.  The boutique wine store world is definitely skewed towards the romantic school of thought, much like Fox News is skewed towards the conservative side of politics.  I've found comfort in this world because it made for an easy transition, like a liberal teenager starting his first semester at Berkeley.  If anything, my romantic nature became more extreme, emboldened by the likemindedness of those around me.  Here at K&L, much like with the romantics of Rousseau, the small farmer is always more virtuous.

Seeking council for my condition, I consulted Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy, in an attempt to understand my crisis. I still felt a kinship to romantic imagery, but my drinking as of late had been less than satisfactory. In describing the romantic movement, Russell wrote:

The romantics did not aim at peace and quiet, but at vigorous and passionate individual life.  They had no sympathy with industrialism, because it was ugly, because money-grubbing seemed to them unworthy of an immortal soul, and because the growth of modern economic organizations interfered with individual liberty.

The above passage still strikes a chord with me.  I still believe that industrialism is ugly and that it takes the fun out of drinking.  While I won't completely discount a whisky if it's a mass-produced, profit-driven product, I do find it entirely less interesting.  There had to be more though because something was entirely wrong with my romantic nature.  Reading deeper into Russell's account, I found this passage:

The romantic movement, in its essence, aimed at liberating human personality from the fetters of social convention and social morality...By encouraging a new lawless Ego it made social cooperation impossible, and left its disciples faced with the alternative of anarchy or despotism.  Egoism, at first, made men expect from others a parental tenderness; but when they discovered, with indignation, that others had their own Ego, the disappointed desire for tenderness turned to hatred and violence.

Yes!  Wow, what a summary!  Perhaps the problem doesn't lie in the romantic notions themselves, but rather in where a firm belief in romanticism leads.  Let's break down the above statement and translate it into booze terminology we can understand.

In attempting to liberate human personality from the fetters of social convention, I've spent countless hours talking to customers about the romantic ideals behind Springbank, Bruichladdich, Glendronach, and other rustic single malt producers that exist outside the scope of the mass-marketed brand options.  This part makes total sense.  However, my firm belief that small, hand-crafted spirits are inherently superior has given me a bit of an ego when I hawk my wares.  I feel strongly that the small, country producer is more virtuous and therefore desire that my customers do so as well.  Yet, how can I build a social community with people of all opinions if I expect everyone to simply listen and agree with me?  In a sense, I'm on the verge of becoming a whisky despot, a dictator who demands that all customers recognize the virtue in craft distillation and grower/producer wines.  However, when confronted with someone who feels differently than me, I immediately turn indignant because they're not giving me the confirmation, or in Russell's words parental tenderness, that I need to feel secure in my beliefs.

So it's not the psychology that's at fault, but rather the standard of values, according to Russell.  He writes that

(Romantics) admire strong passions, of no matter what kind, and whatever may be their social consequences...but most of the strongest passions are destructive...Hence the type of man encouraged by romanticism is violent and anti-social, an anarchic rebel or a conquering tyrant.

Here is my underlying problem with romantic, emotional passion for booze over realism - it leads to this exact type of anti-social behavior: bickering on blogs, arguing on message boards, quarreling with customers, and an overall sense of resentment.  The more we stress the ideal of whisky, the virtue of the lost distillery, and the merit of the majestic family legacy, the more we lose touch with what booze is for: SOCIALIZING! 

I've found that perhaps my intellectual studies in alcohol have only isolated me, keeping me further away from true pleasure and happiness.  I know you all can relate!  Everyone reading this blog has bought that special bottle of whisky or wine, sat down with your friends and family, and attempted to convey to them the importance of the elixir, to which they all replied "That's nice," before continuing on with their previous dialogue.  How many times I've heard from customers, who lamented, "David, I opened a bottle of Port Ellen with my friends and nobody cared! Never again!"  This is our fault, fellow romantics.  We've become too entwined in our emotional connection to booze and have lost our ability to socialize normally.  We can no longer sit down with our fellow man, drink table wine or Jameson, and talk like regular people.

Ultimately, this is what Rousseau and the romantics had in mind.  They wanted mankind to retreat back into the forest, become again like the noble savage, and find the virtue in nature and solitude, wandering the countryside alone like Young Werther.  Unfortunately, this has not made me any happier!  It's only made me more lonely, sitting alone in my house, drinking the Pappy Van Winkle that only I understand and appreciate, while my wife and her friends have a blast with the box-o-white wine.  Russell understood this, which is why he wrote:

Man is not a solitary animal, and so as long as social life survives, (the romantic ideal) of self-realization cannot be the supreme principle of ethics.

Instead, whisky geeks like myself are more like Frankenstein's monster, a classic tortured figure of romantic literature.  In Frankenstein, the monster contends:

My heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures; to see their sweet looks directed towards me with affection was the utmost limit of my ambition.  I dared not think that they would turn from me with disdain and horror.

Nevertheless, this is what happens when you have a dinner party and expect people to listen to you about why your 1988 Chateau Margaux is so freaking amazing.  All you want is for people to say, "Wow, I can't wait to try this!  All that information was so stimulating, David!"  Alas, this is never what happens.  Which is why, ultimately, I find myself no longer a romantic.  I no longer imagine the perfect Bordeaux dinner with a finely-prepared steak, where everyone enjoys and appreciates the wine, because that image is a fantasy.  It doesn't exist for me!  It's simply a romantic notion.

When I say that I've become a realist, I definitely do not mean that I no longer appreciate great booze, nor that the merit or virtue of the small farmer has become devoid of value.  It's just to say that the romantic ideal of these products is no longer the end-all, be-all of what we should be drinking.  We should be drinking what we like, and if we're drinking with friends we should ease up.  Be practical and pragmatic - choose a simple, fun wine for a simple, fun evening.  This is the opposite approach of the romantic.  The romantics found everyday themes (and perhaps everyday wines) too pedestrian, finding inspiration only in what was grand, remote, and terrifying.  That sounds exciting and fun, but rarely are those qualities within actual reach, and if they are, you're usually the only one enjoying them.

While the romantic chooses to blame the common man for failing to understand such qualities, it's more or less the case that the common man doesn't care - he's happy with a bottle of Buffalo Trace and the company of his fellow man.  When I say that I've become a realist, it's to say that I am choosing to embrace the merits of social interaction and shun the philosophy of isolation.  It doesn't mean that I will no longer enjoy sipping my bottle of Brora in peace, it's just to say that this type of drinking won't dominate my way of life.  There's much fun to be had while we're alive and our time is too short to spend it wandering the country in search of the grandiose (or, in whisky terms, wandering from store to store in search of only Stitzel-Weller Bourbon).

While the romantics preached the virtue of the countryside, I now defer to Samuel Johnson's belief that the man who is tired of London must be tired of life.  I'm not tired of life, nor am I tired of drinking - in fact, I'm more energized than ever.  I am tired, however, of the romantic notions that have guided me thus far and the disappointment that has followed in their wake.  Drink up, my friends, and enjoy the company of your friends.  Have a good bottle on hand when you do, but let that bottle speak for itself.  We all know how good that bottle of wine you had in Italy last summer was, but it wasn't the bottle - it was being in Italy.

-David Driscoll


Six from the Vault

Being part and party to the nation's most exciting spirits programs has its benefits.  One of the finest has been a gracious invitation for membership to the prestigious and exclusive Los Angeles Whisk(e)y Society.  Truly one of the great resources for Whisk(e)y lovers of all sorts on the web, LAWS has provided me with a forum to taste some of the world's rarest whisky with some of the country's most knowledgeable drinkers.  While it might seem quite earnest and maybe a bit arcane, you really don't know the half of it!  The only downside to being a LAWS member from the professional whisky world is their unrelenting scruples.  I as a professional I am prohibited from posting reviews on their venerated website!  And hey I don't blame them, it certainly would not be fair for me to anonymously give all our Faultline products A+ ratings, but then again I do relish the opportunity to participate.  Lucky for us, I have this wonderful forum to express my opinions.  Last week, we tasted Six from the Vault (LAWS Members personal collections) and we are oh so GRATEFUL for it. So, I will proceed:

'75, Dallas Dhu Signatory 33 Year Old Cask Strength 46.7%

For me this is CLASSIC Dallas Dhu.  One of those old closed distilleries that comes at a collectors price, but honestly hasn't had the intense following that Brora/Port Ellen see.  I sat through a presentation at the UWE regarding investment grade whisky and Dallas Dhu was rated as one of the worst performing single malts on the market.  I guess I understand why as the distillery is all about subtlety and finesse, not power and punch.  Here we have just that.  The nose is a soft malty floral thing with fresh vanilla bean.  Whiffs of pomace fruit transform into the slightest grassiness.  As it opens, a touch of salted toffee comes out.  The palate goes fresh grain and some more wood, but brings out some citrus/cream and spice.  As it leaves the spice increases finishing somewhat austere, even peppery.  Could be longer and more complex, but all in all a pleasant glass. Good example of how Dallas Dhu should taste.

'63, Strathisla Gordon & Macphail "Book of Kells" for Limburg Festival 51.8%

I love love love this label.  Unfortunately, we don't really see this out here.  It was bottled for the famous Limburg Festival in Germany so good luck finding this one.  Anyway, it's from Strathisla, which I consider a rather enigmatic distillery, which don't see often of stateside.  Gordon & Macphail seems to own tons of this stuff and sells some old Strathisla for very reasonable prices.  Regardless, this one’s a cracker!  It opens up with pungent Seville peel, freshly tanned hide, dark roast coffee.  Then moves toward exotic wood, ultra complex and ever changing, I wrote dried flowers, baking spice, cacao, LOTS of fruit.  This is not a sherry bomb, it's like a laser guided missile.  ON the palate, what seems to be almost too much on the nose turns out to be pretty darn balanced.  Perfect blend of rich sweet sherry and lifted structure.  Dark malty grain, more exotic wood (sandalwood & birch bark), fancy expensive seeming spice notes (saffron? really?).  It's all just really well integrated.  This one is too old for water so just leave it out.  VERY GRATEFUL for this one!

'70, Glenrothes Whisky Agency 39 Year Old 48.1%

Whisky Agency bottles some great stuff, none of which is available domestically.  The labels are always so pretty; it has to be good right?  Well, I have to say this was the major underdog in the room.  To be perfectly honest Glenrothes is not a LAWS doll and this glass started with some rather disparaging comments about the little distillery.  Regardless, 'Rothes doesn't score terribly on the LAWS website although only 10 have been officially rated.  This probably won't help the average.  On the nose I got insect repellant, sour fruit, vanilla extract, and dirty oak.  The palate is apple cidery and astringent on the way to vinegar.  With water this calms down and straightens out.  I would go one to one and just get it out of the way. 

'78, Highland Park The Bottlers 21 Year Old 56.2%

I think it was the bad feeling I had from the Glenrothes, but when I first nosed this guy I really didn't dig it.  Rushing through my first tasting, I went back for a second go after my neighbor expressed interest.  On second pass I found something I'd missed the first time.  The nose was ALL sweet sherbet, orange liqueur, strong fresh sherry notes, a smidge of smoke.  On the palate fresh pepper and more of the HP smokiness.  Adding a bit of water helps coax some of the more intriguing qualities of this whisky out.  A very fine malt.

'72 Glendronach Oloroso Sherry Butt 39 Year Old 49.8%

Well if that Strathisla was a Laser Guided Missile, this would be the neutron bomb.  Just a huge monster sherry attack on the nose.  Ultra dark color in the glass, it smells just like it looks.  Strong Oloroso character - classic dried plums, dark red fruit, spice.  I think SKU and I both agreed that there was a clear sulfur (struck match not rotten egg-perhaps phosphorus not sulfur) note, which would have been off putting in a wine, but here builds complexity.  The palate continues with the spiced fruit, intense and dry, maybe some leather.  Some sort of mossy or nutty earthiness pokes through in the middle there.  All in all way dryer than expected and herbal.  On the end, the darker flavors (dark wood, leather) dominate.  Totally unavailable in the US as this is a special bottlings for Calgary's Kensington Market, but if you're north of the boarder it is a MUST buy for any sherry-head. 

'77, Port Ellen Old Malt Cask 23 Year Old 50%

This was a treat from SKU's cupboard and I thank him profusely for it.  I'm a sucker for Port Ellen and I don't often get to try younger Port Ellen (I know 23 year isn't that young).  But, this was bottled in 2001 and so it's been in bottle for over 10 years.  Anyway, this was very typical Port Ellen. Briny, peat, camphor, burning wax and paste.  The nose hints towards an underlying sweetness, maybe marshmallows, but it's really hard to pick out behind the smoke and salt on the nose.  The palate brings more peat which builds around a salty fresh grass and chalk element.  Rich, but not heavy.  Powerfully smoky and rustic, but it has that great sweetness that I love in Port Ellen.  The candied fruit work to balance out the waves of smoke.  The perfect contrast to itself.  A lovely little whisky. 

-David Othenin-Girard