Alcohol Is Like ________

Alcohol is very much like music - and by music, I mean the music industry and its fan culture.  There are so many parallels between the music world and the booze world that they may as well be the same thing sometimes.  For a long time I thought I was going to be a professional musician and producer, working with my own band and the music of others.  Many of the same trendy, superficial attitudes I encountered towards pop music plague the whisky industry as well - people are too cool for certain types of music/whisky, people latch on to up-and-coming bands/whiskies, people rate music albums/whiskies on a scale of 1 to 10, as if a freaking number could summarize the merit behind creative creation.  There's no real point in elaborating on this theme because practically everything you can think of applies both ways.  The idea of discovering a band in a small local night club and following them down the road to success, only to bitch and moan when they become too mainstream is now the burden of the whisky/beer/wine fan.  Micro-distilleries like Stranahan's or micro-brews like Fat Tire were once the toast of the serious insider until they "sold out" to the pocketbook of corporate America.  "Now I only drink whisky from distilleries that produce ten cases a year or less." 

There's so much pretense, so much judgemental behavior concerning booze, and there are freaking genres of booze fan now, just like with music!  There's the rocker whisky drinker, the nerdy whisky drinker, the yuppie whisky drinker, and many more personas that relate perfectly to any Motorhead, Devo, or Tears for Fears fan.  What really spoke to me before writing this was a quote I read recently from pop singer Santigold, where she said:

I'm so disappointed with the state of music right now - fanfare is valued over actual substance. 

In the brave new world of internet booze, this couldn't be more true concerning alcohol as well.  How many comments did your recent blog post about whisky get?  How many "likes" does Remy Martin's Facebook page have?  How many people showed up for the last designer vodka tasting? 

Sure, your product is small-batch, hand-crafted, and all that.  But is it actually good?

"Good" has become secondary.  Fanfare is substance.

-David Driscoll


Sovereign Whiskies Have Landed

The long and arduous journey from Scotland to Oakland, via many rejections from the United States TTB, is finally over.  Our distributor has picked up the Sovereign single malts from the dock and we're expecting delivery on Monday.  From there we'll send them over to our operations department for pre-arrival sortment and get your advance orders ready for shipment or pick-up as soon as possbile.  We've waited so long for these bottles to make it here that I almost can't believe it's happened.  Bowmore, Caol Ila, Girvan, and Caledonian whiskies will be in the store soon! More news as we get it.

-David Driscoll


The Return of Osocalis

I don't know what it was exactly that happened, but when Dan Farber came by yesterday to taste us once again on his locally-produced, Santa Cruz Mountain brandies something simply clicked.  Maybe it was the fact that I had just been to Cognac and was more seasoned in my brandy experience.  Maybe it was the fact that the brandies have simply improved now that Dan has quit his job at Lawrence Livermore Lab and devoted his full time to distillation.  Whatever the reason, these brandies tasted better than ever.  The standard alambic brandy was more streamlined and focused, lacking the ruggedness I once attributed to it.  The XO and Hermitage blends (coming in later this week) were absolutely outstanding, the closest I've ever tasted to Cognac from a domestic producer. 

When you talk in depth with Dan, you're immediately struck by how informed he is about the distillation process.  He talks quickly and with confidence, continuously blowing your mind by how precisely he can describe to you why the brandy tastes like it does.  He can speak at length about the weight of solubles as they pass through his Cognac still or the fact that, while he doesn't personally use boise, he finds the practice completely fascinating when done responsibly.  He sources Colombard, Pinot Noir, and other California varietals from the central coast and makes his own distilling wine at the nearby Santa Cruz Mountain Winery.  He had just finished a batch of riesling before dropping by.  There's too much information that I want to share to fit inside a tidy little blog post now, so look for a new podcast episode soon featuring Dan where we can expound a bit on these topics.  We've also booked a tasting date in March where you can all come and meet him, while sampling his wares. 

-David Driscoll


Tequila Breakthrough

Congratulations to K&L utilityman Jorge Valencia.  Today he became the first person in the world (besides the distiller himself) to taste a 21 year old Tequila.  Where did we get such a crazy, mind-blowing sample of something so old and so rare?  From Jacob Lustig, of course - the man behind the fantastic ArteNOM tequilas.  Enrique Fonseca, known as El Arquitecto in Mexico, is one of the largest growers of agave in Jalisco.  He's also the producer behind ArteNOM's añejo selection (ArteNOM sources each of their selections from a different distillery).  He's been eager to do something special with his tequilas for decades, but the right opportunity has never come along.  Jose Cuervo offered to buy all of it, but he declined to sell.  It was an all-or-nothing proposition and Enrique wasn't ready to give up on his dream yet.  He makes plenty of money from selling agave, so there's never been a need to bottle any of these super old expressions.  They've remained locked away in his warehouse, some for more than two decades.

Now, after keeping these tequilas to himself for so long, Enrique has decided that Jacob along side Haas Brothers from San Francisco are the right people for the mission.  That doesn't surprise me - Jacob knows more about tequila than anyone I've ever met and he's as puritanical as we are about quality.  He wants tequila with no additives - just agave, yeast, water, a still, and maybe some oak barrels.  Knowing how head-over-heels the staff went for the ArteNOM products, I begged Jacob to find me more amazing samples from Mexico that we could feature at K&L.  He came back from Jalisco with unopened samples of such a superlative quality that I was quite speechless. We gave the first sip to Jorge.

According to Jacob, the oldest tequila he'd previously ever heard of was an 11 year old speciman, also from Enrique Fonseca's collection.  No one else has tequila of this age sitting in barrel that we're aware of.  Today, we went through 3, 5, 6, 8, 14, 16, 18, and 21 year old tequila samples - some from first-fill Bourbon barrels, the older ones from second-fill Tequila casks.  They were incredible.  The 3 year was dynamic and complex in the best of ways - green apple, spicy pepper, balanced richness.  The 8 year old was the unanimous winner - candied orange, loads of clove and cinnamon, ungodly length on the finish.  The 21 year was everything you hoped it would be - ethereal and graceful, flavors of such integration that only present themselves after two decades in wood.  The best part - this will be an exclusive deal between Enrique, Jacob, Haas Brothers, and K&L. 

Want to know the crazy part?  These weren't rich, supple, creamy, oaky, smooth tequilas.  They were all pure, clean, focused, and fresh, but none possessed the silky texture we've come to expect from extra añejo Tequila.  How is it that a 21 year old tequila from Enrique Fonseca could be less rich than a two year old Tequila from a larger brand?  The same way that the 60 year old Cognac from Dudognon was less rich and supple than the six year old Cognac we tasted from a big house producer - there are no additives in these tequilas.  You've all tasted Bourbon before - even if you char the crap out of the barrel, you can oak a spirit to death, but you can't make it sweet and supple.  Something extra has to go into the extra añejo to make it taste like that.  The oldest tequilas available, the very ones we tasted today from El Arquitecto, are mature beyond anything the world has ever tasted, but they're not creamy or rich.  They're vibrant, exuberant, and alive with fruit and spice, balanced beautifully by the slow addition of mild oak aging.

What will they cost and when can you get them?  We're not sure yet.  The goal is late Summer/early Fall, but we still have a lot of work to do.  They won't be crazy expensive - we want them to be accessible.  These won't be luxury brand tequilas, they will be historical documents that attest to the potential duration of the agave spirit.  We think they'll be a very big deal.  Hopefully the tequila community is ready for what's coming.

-David Driscoll


Why All the Talk About Value?

What are you getting at, David?  Why do you keep posting articles on the blog, breaking down the qualities of a spirit, meticulously explaining every little detail about why whisky is priced the way it is?

I'm notoriously slow about getting to the point sometimes.  My wife is always telling me to hurry up with my explanations.  Jacob Lustig, the founder of ArteNOM Tequila, is the same way.  We both want to make absolutely sure that you're with us before we go any further.  We met up today about a super secret tequila project that we've been working on for some time.  More on this in a minute.

When David and I went to Cognac last month, we were shocked at how much boise is used to flavor the brandy.  If you didn't read those posts, it's completely normal for a Cognac producer to create a substance known as boise: a maceration of sugar, caramel, flavor additives and oak chips that sits in low proof brandy until it becomes a dark and sweetly-concentrated liquid.  Boise is the reason that some VS Cognacs are brown and supple, while other XO Cognacs are straw-colored and light-bodied.  It's not the wood aging, people.  It's a totally normal practice to alter the flavor of a spirit through chemical compounds.  Companies need the product to be consistent and they want it to appeal to a large audience.  There's nothing wrong with these products at all.  Many of them are totally delicious.  But if VS Cognac only has to be two years old, what are you really paying for?  The brandy or the boise?  Trust me, it doesn't taste the same without the boise.  It's not even close.

Cognac is not the only world-class spirit to allow flavor additives.  Tequila is just as notorious.  There's no such thing as a soft, supple, rich and smooth one year old spirit - at least I've yet to taste one.  Nevertheless, we've all tasted anejo tequila that goes down like silk.  It's not natural.  But who said it has to be?  There are plenty of wonderfully tasty tequilas out there that have vanilla flavoring, banana-concentrate, or other unorganic flavor enhancers to round out their profile.  It's completely legal.  That being said, should they cost $100?  What are you paying for - the tequila or the flavor enhancer?

When I sat down with Jacob earlier this morning to taste samples of potential K&L exclusive tequilas, this was the main subject of discussion.  Jacob's source (more on this in a later post) has devised a system for pricing his tequilas by taking into account the cost of agave at the time of production and the amount of time they've spent in wood, with interest added on per year.  He takes a small cut for himself, but ultimately he's not thinking "what can I get for this?"  That's the difference between the producers we're looking to do business with and some other luxury-driven companies.  Our model is based around sourcing unmodified spirits of quality and distinction, with the intent of selling them at a fair and accessible price.  Other models are based around creating something "smooth" and attempting to convince the public that it's more valuable because it tastes better.

Fritos corn chips taste good to me, but they're not worth $40 a bag because they're not expensive to make.  I'm beginning to think that many "luxury" brand spirits might also be quite inexpensive to produce.

So, again, why the need to break down value in a spirit for the K&L readership?  Because soon we'll be bringing in new exclusives of Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, and Tequila that don't necessarily taste like what you're used to.  There's nothing going into these bottles except distilled spirits that were aged in wood - period.  We're bringing in extremely old Cognacs, but they don't taste as supple as some of the younger releases from larger brand names.  We're bringing in tequilas much older than five years of age, but they won't taste as sweet or as smooth as some of the one or two year old brands on the market.  Nonetheless, the younger, brand name products will cost the same or more as our older, unadulterated exclusives. 

Some people might taste an eight year old tequila from us and say, "This isn't smooth or rich! What the heck?"  Some people might taste a thirty year old Cognac from us and say, "What the F? Where's the sweet caramel finish?"  That's my worry.  The luxury brand market has consumers convinced that wine and liquor are expensive when they're smooth - the less alcohol you taste, the better it must be.  Unfortunately, this is entirely wrong. 

Alcohol should only be expensive if it's costly to produce, old and rare, or high in proof - period.  Yet, there are plenty of brands that are hell-bent on convincing us their product is expensive because it tastes better.  What makes it taste better, however?  Is it the extra time in wood?  Is it the quality of the barrels?  Is it the quality of the raw materials?  The expensive distillation process?  WHAT IS IT??!!'s caramel coloring and sugar?  That's it? That's why it costs $100?

So what's the point?  The point is: know what you're paying for.  When our new exclusives hit this year there will be some people who go crazy for them.  Others will be merely satisfied.  A few may be entirely unconvinced.  However, no one who buys any of our Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados from Charles Neal, or our Tequila from Jacob Lustig will have overpaid.  No one will have paid any more than what the product was worth based on what it cost to make it, bottle it, label it, and import it.  Whether it's worth that price will be up to you. 

-David Driscoll