Drinking Then & Now

There's a lot of pretense in the enjoyment of alcohol and most of it is based on image.  Society places value on knowing what's good and what isn't, so we of course feel the pressure to align ourselves with only the best!  What amazes me however is when experienced vinophiles forget that their drinking habits weren't always quite so advanced and that they were once just as green as any budding enthusiast.  I'll never forget going to a prominent local winery's tasting bar and trying to joke with the person pouring about the old days of Boone's Strawberry Hill.  She stared at me, straight-faced, dead serious and said, "I never drank anything but great wine.  Even when I was sixteen." 

Drinking only what's "good" isn't something one can generalize because "good" isn't a blanket term.  What people value depends on what they consider "cool" or desirable.  I read an article in the New Yorker today that mentioned the "upper-middle class desire for authenticity" as a trend currently driving the food industry.  I would venture to say that it's a topical force with booze as well, influencing the purchases of those who want to be viewed as more in touch with world culture.  Other factors that currently affect our drinking image are points and ratings, rarity and collectability, and scale or size of production.  Some people pride themselves on only drinking 90+ point wines, others only the whisky from closed distilleries.  Some people are way too cool to drink anything you've ever heard of because they don't care about image (the irony is incredible).

Now I'm not pointing out the trendiness that influences other people's liquor purchases while considering myself above the fray.  I'm just as susceptible to marketing and image as anyone else and so are most of the people I work with.  What's interesting though is that, because we at K&L are considered experts, people tend to rationalize their purchases to us as if we are constantly judging them by what they buy (like the guys at the record store in High Fidelity).  We are not some group of super snobs who only drink amazing, expensive, rare booze every time we imbibe.  I, particularly, am very vulnerable to marketing and self-perception, and it has only been through trial, error, and much contemplation that I have come to the conclusions I have about alcohol and what it means to me. 

No one wants to be seen as an uncultivated novice, but we all were at one point, so there's no point in acting like we're too cool.  Every curious drinker tried to learn more about their passion by following other respected figures or those considered knowledgable - that's how we learned.  What we also learned, however, (just like we did when we made friends on the playground as kids), was that certain wines, spirits, and cocktails could say something about the type of person we were.  Some of us look back now to what we drank five years ago and laugh because we can't believe we liked some of the things we did, but those choices say something about our development as drinkers and as people.  Our tastes have changed over time and so have our ideologies.  Since I don't think there's anything to be embarrassed about, I'll share with you some of the things I did when I was trying to "get into" wine and spirits.

-I started by purchasing the Wine Spectator and looked for all the affordable 90+ point bottles I could find.  Then I called every store I knew of to find them.  I figured this was what all serious wine drinkers did.

-I began downloading wine podcasts and listened to them while working out at the gym.  I remember running on the treadmill at the Embarcadero YMCA after teaching all day, listening to three guys sit in their living room and talk about how many 90+ point wines they just finished drinking.  In my mind I was learning more about wine.  What I actually learned was how many 90+ point wines these guys were drinking.

-I watched Sideways over and over again and romanticized the idea of knowing as much as Miles did. I thought it would be so cool to sit with people and talk about wine the way it was done in the movie. It wasn't until years later that I realized he was supposed to be rather pathetic and annoyingly pedantic, as well as hypocritical. 

-Once I hosted a dinner and was very proud of the fact that I was serving Yellowtail Chardonnay instead of Charles Shaw.  It was a big step up in my mind.

-When I started at K&L I would go to the staff tastings, taste a wine I didn't like, but then learn later that it got great reviews so I would buy it anyway, thinking I'm supposed to like this.  This happened many, many times.

-When I took over the liquor buying at K&L, I used to buy every single limited edition whisky bottle that came into the store thinking these must be the best because they're so sought after. 

-I am still to this day more inclined to buy a wine if the label moves me.  I love old school French labels that have a picture of a rustic farm or countryside drawn on them.  It makes me think that I too am a Frenchman, sitting in the hills drinking some ploussard or slightly oxidized savagnin.

Is there anything wrong with any of the above admissions?  I don't think so.  They're not practices that I'm likely to follow now, but they're not too different from what many people do or have done.  Nevertheless, some in the fine wine & spirits community (as referenced above) would die before ever admitting to having done something so elementary.  Doing so might change their perceived image.

-David Driscoll


More on the 100 Point System

Ratings exist to help consumers make educated decisions about products.  Cars, electronics, computers, and appliances all have websites and publications dedicated to sorting out the positives and negatives regarding major purchases like an HDTV or a new washing machine.  While there is a certain amount of opinion involved with these judgements, most consumers are concerned with facts, statistics, and experience to avoid ending up with a lemon.  If a product is poorly made or certain to break down then advance information can be vital to saving money and frustration.  Wine, spirits, and food also have notable reviewers in the form of critics, however, the difference between a critic like Consumer Reports and a wine critic is vast.  Namely, because Consumer Reports is using facts and data to draw a conclusion about overall quality, while a wine critic is forming an opinion based on his or her own personal taste.  Sure, there are some concrete elements like acidity, tannins, or general quality of fruit that can have some objectivity, but the final score is always a very subjective decision.

I think I can safely say that there is no "bad" wine at K&L, and when I use the word "bad" I mean undrinkable, terrible, pour-down-the-drain slop.  While I wouldn't choose to drink every single bottle in our store, I definitely could drink any of our selections and enjoy them if offered no other alternative.  I bring this up because there's no way you're going to walk out of our store with a terrible product.  What we serve to do as employees is help our customers navigate the vast quantity of choices within our retail locations.  We listen to the flavor desires of our patrons and direct them to the wine that we feel closest fits their description.  We serve to educate those who are interested about the region in which the wine is from, the conditions in which the grapes were grown, and the process with which the wine was made.  If asked for our opinion we might say something like, "It's good," or "very delicious," or maybe "it's still a bit young for my taste."  We might even say, "it's well made, but I don't like the style of wine so I'm not the right person to ask."  One thing we would never, ever in a million years say to a customer is "on a scale of 1 to 100 this wine rates as an 88."  We would never say such a thing because it isn't the way people having a conversation about their opinion interact or talk to one another.

I could go on forever about why I dislike the 100 point scoring system as a way to rank alcohol, but I think that the website Score Revolution has already done a fantastic job, so I'll let you read their manifesto (and maybe you'll sign it if you agree).  According to Jon Bonné at the SF Chronicle, other big names in the industry like Kermit Lynch, Michael Mina, and Washington producer Hedge's have already lended their reputation to the cause.  I am completely behind the movement as well, but I have my own philosophical reasons for backing it that are greater than just the idea that a numerical score does booze an injustice.  My fears run much deeper than the possibility that a wine might be misinterpreted. I feel like summarizing an emotional response in a quick, succinct, and concentrated number is going to eventually be the downfall of human communication (dramatic, yes I know!) because it's conditioning us to rank our emotions rather than explain them.

When I come home at the end of a long shift, there are many aspects of my day that I need to get off my chest and when my wife asks me, "How was work today?" she offers me the opportunity to release any frustrations or tell her a funny story.  I don't simply say to her, "Honey, this day ranks as an 84," to which she might hypothetically reply, "Wow, at least it's better than yesterday. You only gave yesterday a 72."  Choosing to quantify my own personal emotions about my quality of work day would be terrible, namely because it doesn't offer me the chance to share anything deeper or more specific.  Humans have an instinctual need to share their opinions (in my opinion!) so conditioning them to interpret a number rather than an explanation is unnatural.  We need to practice expressing our emotions in a way that other people can understand because doing so is a vital element of overall happiness!  It should come as no surprise that the happiest people in the world are those who socialize the most.

I already know what some of you are going to say now.  "But David, that's why scores should never be separated from a detailed description or further explanation of how that number was determined."  To me, this is the same as saying that guns should only be sold to responsible people who know how to use them safely - it's a nice fantasy, but it isn't how the world actually works.  Never in my time at K&L has a customer asked me to look up a Robert Parker score for a bottle of wine and then requested that I provide him with the text written in conjuntion with the score.  NEVER.  The number was all that was needed.  Never has someone come in and said, "Hey David, I heard Hansell gave this whisky a 92" and then proceeded to explain to me how John actually came to that conclusion.  NEVER.  When we send out emails for wines that get 90+ points from the Wine Spectator the bottles fly off the shelf regardless of where they are from or what type of wine they are.  We have people coming in everyday asking for us to print out a list of all our wines that are rated 90 points or more.

Now, of course, I'm not claiming that no one out there is capable of looking at both a score and a review and making an educated decision upon it.  My point is that no one actually TALKS about both.  Communication about how wine and spirits make us feel is what suffers when we use systems that attempt to quantify our emotional response.  I don't want customers coming into the store and saying to me, "I heard the new Ardbeg got 95 points!" because there's absolutely nothing I can say in response other than, "Wow." or "Yeah, that's awesome."  I would prefer it if a customer came in and said, "Did you hear how Hansell described the new Ardbeg?  He said it's supposed to be super peaty and really salty, one of the best he has ever tasted."  Now that's the beginning of a great whisky conversation!  Unfortunately, the points are always the most valued prize and they encourage consumers to trophy hunt rather than delve deeper into true appreciation.

If you think I'm being a bit extreme here, you might be right.  However, with Facebook allowing us to give everyone a "like" and other social media sites offering "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" to public commenting, people are beginning to think that their every thought has an actual numerical value expressed in how many positive responses they've received!!  It's as if our own thoughts are not being properly valued if there's no one around to rate them.  Whisky and wine are two things that make me feel incredibly happy, inspired, excited, and alive.  Some bottles more than others, but I'm always happy to have an in-depth conversation or write a detailed review about how I feel exactly.  While I certainly don't feel it is the intent of any 100 point system reviewer to strip alcohol of its beauty and complexity, it seems to encourage some behavior that does so.

You might be thinking at this point that maybe I'm against the 100 point system because it's bad for business, but that couldn't be more opposite of the truth.  The 100 point system has done nothing but bolster our profits by making it easier for us to sell more wine and spirits faster than ever.  I simply do not like the 100 point system because it makes me sad to think that we're all in such a hurry to reach a conclusion about quality.  I like to think that there's more to enjoying alcohol than only focusing on what someone else feels is the very best.

-David Driscoll


Morning Musings

Last night I was reading an issue of La Cucina Italiana, the magazine for people like me who wish they could cook good Italian food, and was fascinated by an article they had about pasta making.  Here was yet another process (like wine or whisky-making) that had once taken great skill, but with the advancement of technology had been made easier for mass production and lower prices.  Not that this is a bad thing either because a box of spaghetti for 99 cents is a necessity.  However, if it were to come at the expense of serious, traditional, handmade pasta then it would be a serious issue.  Luckily, we have people in this world who are passionate about what they do and are dedicated to doing things the old-fashioned way. 

Before I get too far off track here, I want to talk about what "hand-crafted" means because I'm hearing that term get thrown around pretty often and I'm not always sure people know what it means or why it's important when it comes to booze.  To continue on with details from the pasta analogy, the mass-production of pasta led to three major problems - 1) water and flour were mixed too quickly which didn't allow the proper starch enough time to form, 2) the pasta was shaped with a teflon lie (the official word for pasta shaper) which created a smoother surface and caused the sauce to slide right off rather than cling to it, and 3) in order to dry the pasta faster it was heated at over 200 degrees which actually cooked it bit.  Purists claim that water needs to be added to flour slowly and mixed for more than 30 minutes because that creates better texture, that hand-rolling creates a less-smooth, porous surface therefore soaking up more sauce, and that pasta should be dried at a temperature no higher than 160 degrees because cooking it before it's time to eat it will remove essential flavors.  The conclusion is that hand-crafted pasta has a better mouthfeel, tastes better with sauce, and tastes better in general. 

Does the same analogy apply to whisky?  You bet.  At Springbank distillery they're malting their own barley on a concrete floor just like it has been done for over a century.  While the malting is nowhere as consistant as a commercial vat, the inconsistancy is what leads to character!  Peter Currie believes it's the slow floor malting process coupled with the old Springbank grinder that results in the heavier, chewier Springbank texture.  The process is never quite the same and neither is any expression of Springbank, but that's fine because at least its constantly delicious. Springbank is willing to trade consistancy for quality because quality is what counts. Taking the time, energy, and effort to do things right and to do things well is a lost art these days.  Like so many others, I'm a victim of my generation's positive re-enforcement upbringing, which created millions of kids who thought they did everything amazingly well (heck, we got trophies and awards for it!) therefore, didn't need to work hard to master any particular craft.  When I read about these pasta makers, I suddenly felt an overwelming admiration because I knew I lacked that desire to focus and specialize.

Italy's great pasta experts didn't learn about making "pasta artiginale" in a classroom or in a book and they don't have a certificate or trophy that proves they know something.  They know about proper pasta because they grew up in a kitchen with a grandmother or relative who taught them tradition.  Like many great wine making regions, Campania was the best pasta making region because of its climate (which allowed proper drying year round) and its proximity to grain fields and natural spring water, the only two ingredients in pasta (so they had better be good!).  Over time these people mastered the mixing process, the drying process, and the cooking process to a level of detail that would make today's instant-gratification generation squirm just thinking about it.  These techniques were passed down from generation to generation and it was the world market that ruined them. That there can still be a person who knows so much about pasta is incredible, however.  So many of us in the world are satisfied with "good," but it's nice to know that there are people who are driven to go further and make things with as much precision and perfection as possible, even if it's much harder and much more expensive.  We would all be drinking Glenfiddich all the time if that weren't the case.

After reading that article I began to think about the other side of this equation.  Just because something is "hand-crafted" doesn't intrinsically mean that it's good.  For example, if I go into the kitchen and make some fresh pasta right now does that automatically mean I'm going to succeed?  This goes back to the usage of "hand-crafted," which has become a synonym for "quality" when it really means "focused-attention."  We need to be specific about how something hand-crafted is actually better than something that isn't.  There have to be uncomplicated examples that are easy to understand so that people have the necessary information to actually care!  More importantly, we can't give people the confidence to start marketing "hand-crafted" products when they have no actual experience with tradition, otherwise we end up with this and we do not want anymore of this.  We're already seeing an overconfident generation of beermakers, winemakers, and distillers begin to enter the market with products that are simply inferior, but are defended and justified by the hand-crafted mantra. 

There's a big difference between "hand-crafted with know-how" and "hand-crafted" and this generation is dangerously blurring that line.  Charles Bukowski once wrote about writing, "if it doesn't come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don't do it. Unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut, don't do it."  We need people who are driven by passion to continue the "hand-crafted" artisan products.  We don't need people who got straight A's, who once won a science fair, or who's mother told them they were good to invest in a pot still and maybe give it a try.  There is simply too much to know, too much to master, and too many chances to fail for someone to just pick up the gauntlet and try it out for a month.  There are intricate steps that only an Italian grandmother knows and she doesn't have a blog you can read, a course you can take, or a cookbook you can follow.  If you don't believe me, read the latest issue of La Cucina Italiana and see just what it takes to make good pasta.

-David Driscoll


Two Hot New Products

Finally got our hands on the tasty little blend David OG and I tried on our trip to Scotland.  While visiting A.D. Rattray they gave us a sneak peak of this delicious combo featuring four single casks of sherry-aged Bowmore, Benriach, Balblair, and Auchentoshan - all either 19 or 20 years old.  While this is a "blend" there is no grain whisky within it, but apparently the term "vatted" malt is no longer acceptable.  I'll tell you this however - this whisky DESTROYS any other old school blend on the market right now.  As you can see from the amount missing in the top of the bottle, the staff really enjoyed this one.  The flavors are classic and bold - hints of richness from the sherry, vanilla, and just the faintest touch of smoke from the Bowmore likely.  Basically it just tastes like Scotch - like really, really, really good Scotch.  It's also done at cask strength so adding an ice cube just puts you right where you need to be.  I had too much of this last night so I was not where I needed to be, but sometimes that happens.

While this is not quite available yet (we should see it next week) I was able to get an advance bottle of Dave Smith's new Firelit release while I was at St. George distillery.  The former two releases were made with Blue Bottle and Weaver's coffee giving them a bold, but traditional flavor.  This batch however was made with Verve coffee from Santa Cruz and they chose a far more interesting roast.  This new Firelit is more for the coffee geeks than the spirits nerds.  Lot's of earthy, spicy, fruity notes in this coffee which is not as dark or rich as its predecessors.  Because of its more rustic flavor, Dave decided not to use the Chardonnay brandy he had used previously, but instead to distill a new brandy from Syrah grapes - a varietal that shares some of the coffee's characteristics.  It worked beautifully.  Look for this in the near future.

-David Driscoll


MORE UPDATES: K&L Exclusive Dinner w/Dr. Bill Lumsden

Just finalized the details for our wonderful Ardbeg/Glenmorangie dinner with Dr. Bill Lumsden and it is going to be over-the-top awesome.  Tickets are going to go very, very fast as I am only offering 50 seats in advance. ON SALE NOW! Here is the link for tickets and the menu:

Thursday October 6th – Dinner with Dr. Bill Lumsden – La Boheme in Burlingame – 7 PM – Tickets $75 per person (plus tax)

(all tasting portions will be ¼ oz pours as we will be going through quite a few different expressions)

Meet and Greet: starting with a Glenmorangie cocktail and an Ardbeg cocktail


Pan Seared Foie Gras with Blueberry sauce on Porcini mousse


Mache Salad with Cured Salmon, Tuna tartar garnished with avocado, roasted pineapple, sesame seeds, chive and shallot oil 

Paired with tastings of Glenmorangie Quinta Rubin, Nectar d’ Or, Lasanta, and Finnealta

Choice of Entree:

Chilean Sea Bass, mashed Yukon gold potatoes and julienne of vegetables


Duck Confit, Grilled Duck breast, potato gratin and ratatouille


Rib Eye Steak (or New York steak), French Fries, grilled asparagus and Green Peppercorn Sauce


Jumbo Shrimps, PEI Mussels and Scallops flambee with whisky on a bed of house made pasta with cherry tomatoes, garlic and fresh herbs

Paired with tastings of Ardbeg 10


French mini pastries: napoleon, eclair, fruit tart, french macarons, opera

Paired with tastings of Ardbeg Uigeadail, Ardbeg Corryvreckan, Glenmorangie Signet, and Glenmorangie 18

Coffee, tea

RUMOR: there may be a certain reptile in the house as well

See you there – order your tickets now to reserve a space