More Letters from the Mailbox

David - Why aren't there any older Bourbons available at K&L? What happened to things like Rittenhouse Rye 25, Vintage 17, and Jefferson's 18? How long until we're likely to see these again?

Great question(s). Let me start by saying that most extra-mature Bourbon that you've purchased over the years (let's say anything older than 15 years) wasn't really part of any particular business model or forward-thinking plan on behalf of American whiskey companies. It was simply because they had extra booze, sitting there in their warehouses, getting older because no one was buying it. If you've ever gone to a backroads liquor store and seen bottles on the shelf, covered in dust, that look like they've been sitting there since the 1980s, imagine the same situation for America's whiskey producers. These liquor stores never planned on having those bottles for two decades, they planned on someone purchasing those bottles. In the case of American whiskey distillers, they produced Bourbon and rye anticipating a certain number of sales as well. A good amount of it didn't sell, however. The difference between the liquor in a dusty bottle and the liquor in the barrel, however, is that the latter will continue to age. If you talk to someone from Heaven Hill they'll tell you exactly what they've told me - there were never any plans to make Rittenhouse 25. The only reason they even had 25 year old rye is because they made more than they could sell and it just sat there getting old. (According to Chuck Cowdery, they were storing it for a customer who had bought more than he could sell. When it got to be so old, Heaven Hill informed the customer that it was probably getting too old and offered to buy it back, because they realized there was now a market for it. That was a situation peculiar to the Rittenhouse)

Before this whole whiskey renaissance happened, many producers were happy just to clear this old stock out of their warehouses. That's how David Perkins from High West got his hands on older rye whiskies from LDI. Seagrams had made all that rye for their own Seagrams whiskey label, not for some single barrel cask strength limited expression. That rye only sat there in Indiana, maturing year after year, because Edgar Bronfman Jr. orchestrated one of the worst investment strategies in history, putting Seagrams money into the film industry, before finally losing his family's drink business to Pernod-Ricard in the year 2000. All of the Seagrams assets were sold off (Coca-Cola took the sodas and mixers) and PR planned to shut down LDI as well, until it was sold to CL Financial in 2007 – the exact same year David Perkins founded High West in Utah and began readying his old Seagrams whiskey expressions.

As far as I understand it (and there may be some things here I don't understand as well), any older stocks that Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, and Heaven Hill have on hand are so limited that we're likely to only see a handful of extra-mature Bourbon releases per year, in quantities so limited that getting a bottle of Elijah Craig 20 or Four Roses Limited Edition will be no different from finding a bottle of Van Winkle – at least at K&L (I can't speak for the allocations of other regions or retailers). If they are easier to find, expect a price tag north of $100 as the reason behind it. Heaven Hill plans on releasing an Elijah Craig 21 at around $140 over the next few years, as they continue to slowly leak out what extra-mature whiskey is left. The situation has gone from getting rid of glut-era whiskey, to recouping its full market value. I don't imagine that stocks are going to improve for some time either. If production only started increasing within the last five years that means we're at least a decade away from any healthy supply of 15 year old whiskey. From my conversations with Sazerac, Heaven Hill, and Four Roses this is the situation I've come to understand. I don't know much about Beam's older stocks, nor the situation at Brown-Forman or Wild Turkey, but maybe we'll learn more when we visit later this year.

-David Driscoll


Back-up Plans

I got home last night after a long day, put my phone and wallet down, made myself a French 75 cocktail, quickly assembled the IKEA mobile kitchen counter that was waiting on my doorstep, paid the delivery guy for the food that he delivered while I was doing so, then finally sat down to dinner with a bottle of Bordeaux I had been waiting all day to try. I was so excited to relax, watch the next episode of Orange is the New Black on Netflix, and swirl that wine in my glass while nosing the aroma. As I popped the cork, however, I could already smell what was emanating from within the bottle: a big, fat whiff of moldy, musty, wet dog, old closet coming right at my nostrils from the neck of the glass. TCA. Cork taint.

Son of a bitch!

Luckily, I had a second bottle in my bag. That one tasted just fine. I came back in to work today and swapped the old bottle with a new one. That's what you should do, by the way, if you find yourself with a bad bottle of wine. Put the cork back in, take it back to where you got it, and ask for a replacement. Don't ask for a different bottle because then you look like you just didn't like it and want your money back. Get the same bottle and try again. TCA has nothing to do with any one producer, or a set of bad corks. It's totally sporadic and it can happen to the most expensive of bottles.

I still find that TCA or "corked" wine puzzles many shoppers. Some people think they can hold a bottle up to the light and see if there's cork in the bottle, but that's not what "corked" means. Some people mistake the earthy, herbaceous flavor of old wine or a skunky cabernet franc as TCA, but it can sometimes just be the flavor of the wine. Some people dump the wine down the drain and return an empty bottle, but how will we know it's corked if the wine isn't there to analyze? Some people think a crumbly cork means the wine itself is bad, but that doesn't have anything to do with it either. TCA is a compound that comes from contaminated equipment and finds its way into the cork.  As a buyer, there's nothing you can do to prevent it and there's nothing you can do once it's happened.

Can you imagine buying a bottle of wine, saving it for ten years, waiting to drink it for that entire decade, only to open it and find that it's corked? That's why people buy wine by the case! Because you need a back up plan. It totally sucks, but that's part of the risk when you buy a bottle of wine (or whisky too, but it's much, much rarer). If you've ever thought about laying down a bottle for an anniversary, birthday, or the future date of your child turning twenty-one, you might want to buy two. Or three. Or six.

TCA happens. Usually when you really don't want it to.

-David Driscoll


Karuizawas Arrive at Distribution

I just got word from our importer that our Karuizawa casks have passed customs inspection and have been delivered to the warehouse. There are a few things that need to be cleared up still, but we're expecting to take possession of the bottles next week. HOWEVER, there are more than 600 single bottle orders that need to be processed and organized, so don't expect the bottles to hit our retail stores for pick-up until at least another week after that. At this point in time I don't know if we'll have any bottles left over for general retail sale, as most of our available selection sold out on pre-order within hours. If there are leftovers we will of course make them available here.

We're almost there!

-David Driscoll


Big Brand Potential

One thing I mentioned yesterday on the blog was that big brands have both the potential for overpriced, profit-oriented crap and high-quality, superbly-crafted products that could only exist in a large volume matrix. That might mean a delicious blend composed of selections from a vast library of stock. It might also mean the capability to produce inexpensive, value-priced booze on a gigantic scale, further bringing down the cost of production and therefore the cost of the bottle for customers. One of the problems that "craft" producers have is their ultimate sticker price. Sure, you made your own whiskey by hand, macerating the grains by chewing them yourself, spitting them into a hand-crafted clay pot, using only your own saliva and the free-roaming yeast in the air to begin fermentation, before distilling it on an antique still thought to have been used by the early Mayans. But it's $100 a bottle! Do all those detailed production methods justify the final cost?

This is where big brands have the edge. While I know that many consumers have become used to rising prices on the Bourbon shelf, there are still values. And then there are the super values - whiskies so inexpensive that customers just assume they can't be any good. We carry two such whiskies at K&L: the George Dickel #8 Tennessee Whiskey made by Diageo and the Old Crow Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon made by Jim Beam. Diageo and Beam are two of the biggest corporations in the liquor game. They are gigantic, global operations with a finger in almost every booze pie available. It's because of their immense size that they can afford to sell George Dickel #8 for $14.99 a bottle and Old Crow Reserve (in liters!) for $13.99. Sure, they're dirt cheap. But that's because they're not good whiskies, right? Wrong.

Again, "good" whiskey depends not only on your taste, but your expectation (mostly the latter, in my opinion). If you're expecting the Old Crow to taste like 18 year old Stitzel-Weller, it doesn't. However, if you expect that it tastes like Draino mixed with rat poison and an old man's armpit, it doesn't taste like that either. Old Crow Reserve smells like Bourbon, with that classic Beam woody aroma. It tastes like Bourbon with a rich woody burst of sweetness right off the bat (it does finish a little thinly, however). And it mixes like Bourbon (try making a Manhattan with Old Crow and Carpano Antica. You'll be kicking yourself for wasting that High West Rendezvous you could have been sipping this whole time).

Dickel #8 is its own animal entirely and has a pretty devout following all over the country. There's a sweet and mellow corn aroma on the nose, a light oak flavor on the entry, and a long, soft kiss of vanilla on the back end. In my opinion, Dickel was made to drink on the rocks or with soda water. Even in today's age of boutique whiskey, it's still a ridiculous deal - especially when compared to some of craft whiskey options on the market. It's this type of product that can never be created on a smaller scale. It's this type of product that makes a player like Diageo a vital part of our whiskey community. While we may pull our hair out over their management of smaller single malt distilleries, we can't complain when they give us George Dickel #8 at $14.99 a bottle. That's the trade off.

While I know I don't need to convince anyone about Dickel (because I'm only preaching to the choir with many readers), I do think there will be some skepticism with the Old Crow. That's why I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is. I'll eat Crow so you can drink it (at least for the first 20 people to click on the link).

Give it a try. I think you'll be quite impressed for what you paid.

Old Crow Reserve Bourbon 1L $0.99 (SOLD OUT NOW) - Four year old Jim Beam in a liter bottle. You can't lose. For those who like the grainy component in the forefront, this is the value-priced mixer you've been dreaming of.

-David Driscoll


Questions from the Mailbox

Pretty much every morning for me begins with opening my eyes, making sure I'm in my own apartment, checking to see if I left a half-full glass of Scotch on top of the blanket, and reaching for my laptop to check my email. There are usually twenty-five to forty unread messages that have materialized sometime between the hours of 11 PM and 7 AM. I like to clear those out before brushing my teeth and commencing with fifty push-ups. An average day for me consists of about 300+ emails, of which 250+ will need a direct response. It's nice when I can move through at least 10% of those before leaving the house.

Lately there have been a lot of repeat questions in the old "inbox," so I've considered investing in a rubber stamp for some of them. However, I take pride in the fact that I'm able to answer every email individually. If someone takes the time to email me with a question they should get a direct answer. Not everyone has the time or the desire to actually write me, however, despite the fact that they may have a question. That's why I'm going to start answering some of these queries here on the blog. That way I might be able to clear up an issue that's been bothering you or nagging at your soul indirectly. Plus, you can forward the answers to other people you know who might have a similar question.

Most questions lately have been Bourbon-related. That makes sense seeing that we're running low on a number of expressions that are normally quite easy to find. On top of that, we've been forced into super-strict allocation measures for special edition releases that have confounded many K&L shoppers. Can it really be that hard to get a bottle? Without further ado, let's get started:

David - I'm in search of a bottle of Pappy or Stagg. How can I get one?

Getting a bottle of Stagg or Pappy at K&L is next to impossible. We're one of the most popular boutique retailers in the country so most people start with us. Our website gets scoured every second for new Bourbon releases, many of which will sell out in minutes if not seconds. On top of that, we have an insider whiskey email list that devours most special editions before we ever release them to the general public. If you're not on that list, your odds are zero. If you are on that list, your odds are just a bit above zero. We have so much pent up demand for Pappy and Stagg that we have now started a raffle system that involves us pulling names from a hat (figuratively). We usually get between 1,000 - 1,500 entries into each raffle.

On top of these almost insurmountable odds, Pappy and Stagg are only released once a year now - in the Fall. Technically these bottles are released in October, but that just means they're released to distribution. Once they've arrived in California, the Sazerac reps have to break up their state allocation into smaller allocations for every bar, restaurant, and retailer on the list. All the while, the buyers for these establishments are bitching, screaming, and moaning for their Pappy, threatening that they had better get more than they got last year or else they're never going to sell Buffalo Trace again. With all the pressure to get it right, it can sometimes take an extra month before the bottles are actually shipped to each account. Therefore, release dates are meaningless. You'll never know when the bottles will actually arrive. Last year we didn't get ours until December.

Your best bet to find a bottle of Pappy or Stagg is to visit the most out-of-the-way liquor store you can think of that might still be sitting on a bottle from last year, or even the year before. However, with the demand where it is today I highly doubt there are many places left that don't know what they have. There are guys out there who spend every waking moment searching out every last retail outlet known to man, hoping to find that treasure buried under an inch of dust. Even if your local retailer does get an allocation, I've heard stories of retail buyers hoarding their drop, purchasing their full allotment at their staff discount, only to turn right around and quadruple their money on Ebay. I have to fight off our own staff members with a stick. With the situation as it is today, the odds of finding a bottle of Pappy or Stagg on the shelf are lower than they've ever been and they're only getting lower.

Hope that helps! Have a nice day!

David - You're almost always out of Black Maple Hill and Weller 12, my two favorite whiskies. Can you recommend something similar for the same price?

Yes indeed, we are unable to order more BMH or Weller 12 right now, and even when we do get it in stock we sell out again immediately. Such is life. In the meantime, there are some alternatives. Replacing the Weller 12 is tough because it's only $25 a bottle and you get a lot of wheated whiskey for your money. Other wheaters would include its younger brothers: Weller Reserve and Old Weller Antique, but they don't really pack the richness that the 12 year does, tending more towards the pencil shaving, lean and spicy flavors. Larceny and Maker's Mark are also wheated, but they're a bit more mild and less intense. The Maker's 46 is probably the best replacement if you had to pick a wheated Bourbon, but it's $7 more a bottle. I tend to like the Evan Williams Single Barrel as a substitute for Weller 12, not because it tastes like Weller 12, but because it has a similar level of richness. The palate is creamier and softer, but it's the same price as the Weller 12 and, for me, it scratches that same itch.

Black Maple Hill is much easier to replace. It's made by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers ("made" meaning blended, as they don't have any aged whiskey they've distilled on their own) on behalf of CVI Brands just down the street from our Redwood City store. I find that KBD products tend to have similar profiles, especially that lean, grainy flavor that carries through most of their expressions. The Rowan's Creek for $39.99 is almost a spot-on replacement at times, depending on the batch you get. It's a tad higher in proof, so in my mind that justifies the extra few bucks you'll have to spend.

Let me know what you think!

David - When you say something is out of stock and that there's a "shortage," I'm confused because I went down the street to another store and saw it there. How is that possible?

Good question! Happy to answer that one. I guess the first thing I would say is that I'm not an official spokesman for retailers of America, only for K&L. I think sometimes people confuse the K&L blog as a general information site. Just because we're out of stock doesn't mean that other stores will be. We have a high-volume website that is updated constantly with real-time inventory, which means that we sell through things quickly. Whereas I can sell 180 bottles of Black Maple Hill in less than 30 minutes, it might take another store two years to sell that quantity. Therefore, you might find bottles from 2010 still sitting in a smaller retailer today if you check around. When I say a product is "unavailable" or that there's a "shortage" it means that I can't re-order from distribution. For example, I am currently out of Weller 12 year, Rock Hill Farms, and Black Maple Hill whiskies. I am unable to order more. If I could order more I would order thousands, but I can't even order one bottle. If I can't order any more, that means that no store in California can order more either. However, that doesn't mean they're not sitting on bottles they've ordered from the past.

A shortage won't always make itself known on the consumer level, only the retailer level. For example, we were out of Elmer T. Lee Bourbon for more than a month because California distribution didn't have any more to sell us. I'm sure that BevMo had some as did other stores, but not us because we sold our stock too quickly. That means I didn't buy enough the last time it was available. Part of my job is predicting how much we'll need to carry us through the next shortage. Sometimes, however, I'm only allowed to buy a certain amount, which doesn't allow me to backstock against the demand. Black Maple Hill, for example, is limited to 60 bottles now each time it arrives. That's only enough to last K&L about 30 minutes and that's with a "one bottle limit" per person. If I let people buy as much as they wanted it would be gone in seconds.

So you see, sometimes a "shortage" never affects the general public because distribution ends up getting more whiskey before the availability at retail "in general" sells through. Other times, however, there are periods of three to four months were no product is available anywhere. I think you'll start seeing this with Weller 12 soon as it's been out of stock for some time and there doesn't appear to be more coming in the near future. Eventually this will trickle down to all retailers in California and everyone will be out of stock. In that case, the shortage will make itself known to consumers in general, not just K&L shoppers.

Is there a question about booze or the liquor industry that you'd like to see answered here on the blog? Let me know. You know where to find me:

-David Driscoll