One time there was a little boy who lived in a small town full of wealthy children.  This boy was not rich, but rather from a humble family of craftsmen.  He didn't have the advantages of the kids around him, but he had desire.  This desire carried him successfully through school and into maturity, despite the obstacles thrown into his path.  Everything he had in life was earned from blood, sweat, and tears – no victory came easy, unlike the other children whose money and family relations brought them a life of ease and plentitude. Because of his work ethic and ingenuity, he won over other residents of the town who also were not wealthy.  They respected his ability to thrive in an environment in which he faced numerous obstacles.  Because they related to his circumstances, these residents went out of their way to help the young craftsman as he struggled to feed his family.  They made an effort to purchase his goods, they spoke kindly of him to other villagers, and they did favors for this boy that they would never dream of doing for other children in the town. 

With his own perseverance, and the combined effort of his local supporters, the boy was able to turn his family's craft business into a successful enterprise, competing handily with the craft businesses of the wealthier families.  It continued to grow so quickly that eventually other families wanted to buy his business. The boy had a decision to make. He could continue to fight, scratch, and claw to stay consistent with the other families in town, or he could take their money and finally transcend his class status, beyond a humble craftsman and into a successful businessman.  Finally, an offer came that was just too lucrative to pass up.  The boy took the money, moved his family into a larger house, and smiled at his newly-found wealth.  However, when he went back into town to visit his old supporters, those who had helped to pave his climb upward, he found little enthusiasm.

It was when he visited an old supporter, the shopkeeper who had eagerly sold his crafts, that he asked why the others in town were not happy for his success. 

"It's not that we're unhappy for you," said the shopkeeper, "it's just that we wanted you to win." 

Confused, the boy replied, "But I did win!  I finally escaped the dogfight that was my life for the past ten years.  I beat the other companies at their own game." 

The shopkeeper chuckled and said, "You definitely proved you could beat them at their own game, but you didn't win.  You were co-opted." 

"I don't understand the difference.  In the end, I've acquired exactly what those wealthy families have! I'm one of them now and I did it without their resources or their help!"

Again, the shopkeeper laughed quietly as he looked down at the floor. "You had my help," said the shopkeeper, "because you weren't one of those families.  We, the residents of this town who exist outside the wealthier families, we pushed for your success because we wanted you to win.  We worked hard along side you, singing your praises, lauding your achievements because we thought you were looking to move beyond this town, beyond the wealthy families who have controlled this town for years.  Instead, however, we've realized you just wanted to be part of their world.  Had we known that from the beginning, we may not have invested so much on your behalf.  That, young boy, is the reason we do not celebrate with you.  Because we have to start all over again.  We have to hope we have enough in the tank for another push.  We have to find another young person to believe in."

As the boy left the store and walked into his new neighborhood high upon the hill, he shrugged off the shopkeeper's remarks.  "That crazy old man thought I was here to be his friend," he said to himself and he never looked back.  "This is business and I did winI got paid and that's the point."

-David Driscoll


New Gin (for this weekend?)

Royal Dock Navy Strength Gin $27.99 - More than any one distillery, more than any single producer, I'm completely obsessed with the products of Haus Alpenz – the small import company headed by Eric Seed, who you might call "the Kermit Lynch of the spirits world." He has a knack for traveling the globe, finding great regional spirits, and getting them back to the U.S. with fantastic packaging.  Dolin vermouth, Smith & Cross rum, Cocchi Americano – those are all from Haus Alpenz, along with many other unique and exciting products.  Eric has now introduced a new high-proof gin to the lineup.  Made by Hayman Distillers, the same company behind the Old Tom Gin we carry, this 57% London dry style gin is just what the doctor ordered for your gin and tonic, or any other cocktail where water is added, diluting the flavor of the spirit itself.  The massive proof cuts through those bubbles and keeps the gin itself at the center of focus.  Herbacious and full of bright juniper notes, this is a welcome addition to our shelf because of the value.  Most of the other "navy strength" gins are in the $40+ zone, but the Royal Dock comes in at a cool $27.99.  What a deal! I'm taking a bottle home with me tonight!

-David Driscoll


How Companies Profit When We Don't Know the Difference

Last year, my neighbor went to see Foreigner and Journey in a co-headline bill here in the Bay Area.  I thought it was funny she was so excited to see what are essentially two cover bands masquerading as the original act (and charging a fee as if they were the original act, to boot).  Not wanting to ruin her buzz, I kept my mouth shut and said it sounded like a good time.  She came back the next day talking about how much fun she had, how she and her friends had danced to all the hits, and how it took her back to high school hearing those two familiar voices.  I couldn’t take it at that point, so I said, “You know that those weren’t the two original singers, right?”  She stared at me with a blank expression.  “Lou Graham.  Steve Perry.  They’re not in the band anymore.  These bands have a couple of the original guys with some studio players filling out the gaps.”  All of a sudden, my neighbor wasn’t as excited about her experience.  “Well who the hell did I just pay to see then?” she cried.

There’s a reason why whisk(e)y companies pay millions of dollars for brand names. Most people don’t pay attention to what’s in their glass the way you and I do, but they do have brand recognition. “I’ve heard of Michter’s,” they say and they buy the Bourbon despite the fact that it’s no longer made in Pennsylvania.  In fact, they couldn’t care less about where it was made.  It’s not important to them nor has it ever crossed their mind.  That is, it’s not important until you tell them they may have bought the lesser version of the original thing.  No one likes to feel like they’ve spent money on something that wasn’t the real deal.  No one wants to be the person who didn’t know the difference.  “Oh, you didn’t know?  Jeez, I stopped drinking Michter’s years ago after they closed the distillery in 1989.”  That’s a line nobody ever wants to hear ­– even if they couldn’t tell the difference!  It’s not about flavor at that point, it’s about personal pride.  My neighbor couldn’t tell the difference between the old bands and the new ones. She had a blast at the concert. However, once she found out she paid big money for a karaoke jam session, she didn’t like it.

When big whisky companies start removing age statements from their whiskies and replace them with younger whiskies for the same price, it angers many of those who pay attention to booze. Nevertheless, most of the public won’t even flinch. For a majority of the population, there are more important things to do in life than follow the provenance of single malt whisky.  Kids, soccer practice, what’s for dinner, paying the bills – this is what we focus on.  "Foreigner got a new lead singer?  Sorry, I missed that. I figured if they were calling themselves Foreigner then it was probably the original band."  That’s where they get you.  You “figured” it was the same because it was called the same thing. Eddie Murphy made an entire movie about this idea years ago called the Distinguished Gentleman, where his character wins a seat in congress because he has the same name as the dead senator who once filled it ("No one actually knows their congressman is dead!"). 

As SKU pointed out yesterday, the “Golden Age” of booze probably ended about three years ago.  At K&L in 2009, you could walk into the store and get any whiskey you wanted for a reasonable price.  Now we have to keep things in the back, start a waitlist, and email people if they’re lucky enough to give us their money.  In 2009, there was enough whisk(e)y for everyone.  Now supply is running short, driving up prices, and sending enthusiasts into a frenzy while trying to source their favorite juice.  When shortages occur, companies take liberties with their brands. They drop age statements, use younger whisky to fill the bottles, replace one distillery with another, and charge us the same price.  We pay it because we don’t know the difference.  It has the same name on it, right?  What more do you need to know?

-David Driscoll


Two Whiskies No One Will Buy (but we carry, nevertheless)

Highland Chief Blended Scotch Whisky $12.99 - Anyone who is finding their bottle of Great King Street being emptied on too regular a basis should look here.  This is a little blend put together by the Hart Brothers independent bottler and I think it's just what we needed for our inexpensive blend category.  This easily drinks better than Dewar's or Famous Grouse and it's cheeeeeeeap! If you're outside on a warm day with some ice and soda, don't waste your good single malts.  This is fantastic alternative that has just enough vanilla and malty flavor.  I have gone through a bottle on my own (although, in honesty, I don't remember doing it).

Islay Mist 8 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky $24.99 - Worst name ever.  Terrible label.  Ugly combination of colors.  Great whisky.  Fabulous price.  With the amount of sherry and smoke going on in this bottle, I could probably be convinced this was Bowmore if I tasted it blind on the rocks.  I've tasted it about ten times now and each time I think it's going to expose its lesser qualities, but it never does.  Solid stuff.  Far better than Johnnie Walker Double Black and much less expensive.

Not excited about these?  That's OK.  These are for parties, when you need some Scotch and you don't want to break out the good stuff.  The best part is that no one even knows what these bottles are, so they also won't know how little you paid for quality sauce.

With all of the price increases coming, we should be happy to see fun little values like these.  Check out my man SKU's latest post today for another great synopsis of the current dilemma.  I've been posting in the comments this afternoon.

-David Driscoll


Whisky Season 2012 Continues: Two New K&L Casks

The above picture is the tiny little malting floor at Kilchoman where they do their own in-house 100% Islay single malt, made from barley grown right there at the farm.  When we went to Kilchoman last May to pick out a cask, we never thought any of these precious local barley barrels would be on the table.  There is so little of this whisky available and why would the distillery want to sell of their precious commodity to a little store like K&L? Sometimes certain people just get along, however, and deals can be struck through common interest and friendship.  David and I really love John MacLellan, so we bullied, I mean charmed, him into releasing us two casks instead of one.  Each is totally unique from the other, throwing completely different spices into the mix.  If they hadn't been so unique we never would have taken them both - we simply had to have them!  Much like Meryl Streep in Sofie's Choice, we said, "Please don't make us choose!"  Therefore, we have returned with both barrels under contract: a stunning five year old sherry cask of Kilchoman, full of earth, peat, rich sherry, and smoke, along side an ultra-rare sherry cask of 100% Islay, originally planned only for the 2012 Feis Ile Festival visitors.  Both are available for pre-order now at a discount.

Kilchoman K&L Exclusive Single Sherry Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - Getting to taste fresh Kilchoman, right of the still, was one of the highlights of the trip this year for David and me. Something magical is going on inside this tiny farm distillery. Their formula is so delicious, even as a white dog, that it hardly needs much aging at all. However, we were very curious to see what five years in a first-fill sherry cask would do to soften up some of the spice. Sitting in the warehouse with manager John MacLellan, we tapped into one of the fresh butts and poured ourselves a sample. This malt is loaded with fresh earth, chewy oils, petrol and peat smoke, mossy, dried grass, and a maritime sea air note that really hangs on the finish. It's a beast of a whisky, showcasing everything we love about both Kilchoman and sherry-aged Islay whisky. Of all the Kilchoman whiskies we've tasted, this one by far had the most maturity and was precocious beyond its years. It was only a matter of seconds before David and I looked at each other, nodded, and added another distillery-direct cask to the list. Years from now, when Kilchoman is one of the most sought-after malts in the world, no longer bottling private casks, we'll look back and say, "We used to buy them right out the warehouse."  These are heady days for Islay fans.

Kilchoman K&L Exclusive 100% Islay Single Sherry Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - Our single sherry cask of standard Kilchoman was an easy choice. The malt was simply brilliant, so good that any Islay fan could easily fall in love with its power and complexity. It was the other barrel, however, sitting in the corner of the warehouse that brought out the whisky geeks in David and me. We had heard rumors that Kilchoman was sitting on a small batch of sherry-aged 100% Islay single malt, their ultra-delicious and incredibly-limited whisky made from a small crop of barley grown and malted entirely at the distillery. It's no secret that the rest of Islay buys their barley from Diageo's Port Ellen malting facility, but circumventing that route is difficult, not to mention costly. Is it worth it however?  The answer to that question is a resounding "YES!"  The spice on Kilchoman's all-Islay whisky is totally different from the standard make - think blanco tequila meets smoky mezcal, with lots of citrus. When you add a sherry barrel to that equation the spice turns to cinnamon red hots, the fruit tropical and hedonistic, the peat to a sweet and vibrant tang.  At cask strength, the malt overwhelms the palate, almost like a giant party in your mouth. We had to push hard for this cask, but when you see two young buyers jumping up and down and hugging each other in your warehouse after tasting it, it's probably hard to say "no."

-David Driscoll