(E)valuation of Booze

I just finished reading a truly fascinating article in the most recent New Yorker about a man named Bernard Berenson, once the most-respected art attributor in the world. As someone who made expert decisions about whether a painting was or was not the work of Raphael, Berenson could single-handedly determine the market value for these old masters. This was at the turn of the 20th century, before technology could give us a more scientific answer about authenticity. Berenson relied on his expertise, a sixth sense so to speak, that could not be described or put into words, but would nevertheless guide him to his decisions. Despite his more than adequate salary, Berenson's hatred of the emerging commerce for art was clear. He once wrote in a letter to a friend:

It seemed so much greater than ever, and an everlasting rebuke to people that want to submit art to newspaperology...You can say that it is beautiful of course, you can call people's attention to the transparency of color...but you can't "give away" the secret of the picture.

Berenson was tired of struggling for his income. He had hoped to become a curator or art history professor, yet his income was mostly tied to sympathetic female benefactors, for whom Berenson purchased and collected artwork privately. His eventual inability to sever his financial relationship with the dealers lead to the demise of his reputation and a world-famous court case. Berenson's opinion that a Kansas man's Leonardo was not the actual work of the Italian master cost the owner a deal with the Kansas City Art Institute. The case went to court and the idea of art expertise was on trial for the world to see. Could someone actually sue an "expert" because of an opinion that was detrimental to a financial transaction? Could a court decide which paintings were authentic and which were not?

You'll have to pick up the latest October 8th edition of the New Yorker to read more about the case (and I would advise any serious whisky collector to do so), but the parallels to the booze world and its ever-expanding collector's market are clear. On one hand, art collectors never would have made their gigantic fortunes had men like Berenson not offered up their expert opinions. On the other, as soon as they made an evalution that didn't favor the side of the market, these collectors wanted their heads! Sounds kind of like the Bordeaux market right now!

We've already seen this exact same thing happen with the Parkerization of wine. Collectors want a guarantee that something is good.  They feel better knowing an expert has given it a numerical score. They invest. When the wine sells out, it's worth even more on the secondary market, mostly because it got 98 or 100 points. These collectors selling their Bordeaux bottles for hundreds to thousands of dollars would never be getting this kind of cash were it not for critics like Parker. Yet, it's still the same catch 22. As Clive Coates writes in his book, The Wines of Burgundy:

The trade has allowed itself to be emasculated. Instead of continuing to buy and sell based on their own professional judgement, they have consigned themselves to the role of mere purveyors. They buy what the Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate score highly and then sell their wares by proclaiming the magazines' marks. It is totally crazy.

Yet, imagine if Parker rated a wine 88 points and the Chateau sued him for costing their wine its reputation for 95-100 point scores?  Now that is totally crazy! Nevertheless, much like Berenson wrote, people who don't understand wine or whisky depend on experts for an evaluation of quality and therein a valuation of their worth. You can't make people understand why a wine or whisky is special, especially when their finances are on the line. Once those opinions start costing these collectors big money, who knows what the future will hold?

-David Driscoll


Terroir in Booze

I really, really like drinking wine. I started working at K&L because of my interest in Bordeaux and Burgundy, rather than Bourbon or single malt. The spirits thing kind of fell into my lap. My current fascintation with booze was the rediscovery of an old passion, a nostalgic look back to my roots as a Scotch and gin guy in college. The thirst I had for wine, however, was as much pedagogical as it was literal. It was all so new! There were so many grapes, so many traditional ways of fermenting them, and so many different countries all participating in the fun. I love to learn and wine presented me with a whole lifetime's worth of educational work. What really got me hooked, however, was Loire Valley Sancerre and the sauvignon blanc that actually tasted like limestone and wet rocks – just like the soil in which the grapes were actually grown. It was terroir, as the French call it – the idea that a sense of place is actually palatable in the final product. That really blew my mind.

The idea of the land influencing the flavors of a grape isn't too difficult to comprehend. If you put an onion on your kitchen counter right next to the bananas, you end up with onion-flavored bananas. However, to think that these terroir-driven flavors could actually grow inside of a fruit, then maintain their influence through a fermentation process is hard for many to fathom. Add distillation and further maturation to the formula and you're really pushing it, but nevertheless it's there. Smoky Islay single malt, for example, maintains the earthy flavor of the peat phenols all the way through the fermentation, distillation, and maturation processes. The water used to ferment the mash, as well as proof down the whisky can also add local flavor to the finished product (which doesn't always cross one's mind when clamouring for more cask strength expressions). Despite these clear and palpable influences, terroir isn't really a term that gets brought up when people discuss spirits.

With booze, terroir isn't always a product of the source material. Most single malt distilleries use the exact same barley, malted at the same commericial plant, so there's nothing uniquely "Islay" or "Highland" about the barley. Even Kilchoman's 100% Islay single malt, made from home-grown barley right next-door, doesn't necessarily scream "Islay" the way its salty, peaty flavors do.  While it's a cool idea and a wildly-different flavor profile, the difference in barley isn't really terroir because its flavor doesn't speak to a sense of place.  Terroir doesn't have to be grown into the grain, it can make itself known via the fermentation or maturation stages. Campbeltown's Springbank distillery, for example, has the moldiest, muckiest warehouse I have ever seen. There are pools of blue, green, and white mud all over that building, sometimes swallowing your shoes if you step in the wrong spot. That earthy funk makes its way into the whisky and you can really taste it in some of their single barrel expressions (like our 14 year Madeira-finished cask). It's a flavor that can only occur in whisky aged in that particular place, which is the whole point of terroir. 

ArteNOM's 1414 Reposado Tequila uses all native yeast to ferment its mash – a risky move considering that the various strains of yeast can produce all kinds of flavor variation (see the Four Roses' mashbill guide with its talk of yeast). Most winemakers and distillers ferment in a hyper-sterilized environment with commercial yeast they have evalutated and purchased. Feliciano Vivanco's distillery, however, lets the local yeast hovering freely within their environment do its work on the agave sugar. The result is sensational – a delicate, slightly-earthy flavor that could only come from a tequila being produced in that particular place. Flavoring a spirit with ingredients that are sourced from a specific area also speaks to the idea of terroir. St. George's Terroir gin is actually named after this very point! Using botanicals and plants taken entirely from California's Mount Tam region, they've created a flavor profile that represents one very special place. Even gin can be site specific!

Perhaps the most amazing example of terroir in booze I've ever tasted is in our very own Commandon Petite Champagne 30 year old single barrel Cognac. Our trip to France last year really opened my eyes to how difficult it is to be a brandy producer.  You have to be a farmer, a winemaker, and a distiller!  It's literally triple the work! Cognac's Petite Champagne region has calcareous, mineral-rich soil, which results in a mineral-driven white wine (much like I discussed above with Sancerre sauvignon blanc). While I've tasted eau de vie, grappa, and brandy that managed to beautifully translate the essence of fruit, I've never tasted another spirit that brought the mineral notes with it. Concentrated inside the Cognac, along with the caramel, vanilla, fruit, and wood, is a very clear, very precise, and very distinct mineral flavor that somehow made it up out of the ground, into the grape, into the wine, into the spirit, and lasted for thirty years inside of a wooden barrel. Absolutely amazing.

-David Driscoll


Big Bay Area Weekend

We had WhiskyFest last night, the Castro Street Fair, the Blue Angels for Fleet Week, the America's Cup boat race, the Giants vs. the Reds in the divisional playoff, and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.  Unless you're going to one of these events, I'd stay away from the city! If you're all boozed out from last night's whisky extravaganza, check out these sweet wines from Lanessan I just wrote up for the wine blog.

-David Driscoll


Hide the Salami

While I won't be able to attend tonight's WhiskyFest extravaganza in San Francisco due to a previous engagement, I will be sending my assistant Kyle......or rather his alter-ego, the sexy loverman Rodrigo.  Take a look at this photoshoot he did recently for Veuve Cliquot, featuring his world-famous pout (take that "Blue Steel").  If you'll be attending WhiskyFest and you can locate this man amidst the gigantic crowd of enthusiasts, you'll win a prize.  Rodrigo will have something in his front pocket for you.  No!! It's not what you're thinking!!  Disgusting! It will be whisky-related and you'll be very excited if you manage to track him down.

The rules are this: you must approach Rodrigo and say, "Rodrigo - I hear you've got something in your pocket for me," to which he will respond and reward you with your prize.

Happy drinking tonight! Say "hi" to everyone for me! Find Rodrigo! Find Rodrigo!

-David Driscoll


Whiskyfest Visitation: Benriach

With the biggest whisky-tasting event in the U.S. happening in San Francisco tomorrow, many of the producers are flying in tonight to prepare and make the rounds. I expect I'll be shaking hands with many Scotsmen as the day goes on, who want to come say "hello" before the big show tomorrow. I just met with Stewart Buchanan, the brand ambassador for Glendronach and Benriach and he had a few new malts to show us – a 16 year old Sauternes-finished whisky and a fantastic, peated 12 year old that had been finished in PX sherry. We all really loved the 12 year and can't wait to add that to the shelf (if you're going tomorrow night, make sure you taste it!).

Chatting with Stewart, he told me some interesting news about the distillery happenings. The first thing that caught my attention was the increased fermentation times. Stewart said that Billy Walker, the managing director, had been pushing the fermentation up to 96 hours per mash! Many distilleries are around 40-50 hours. Previously, the longest fermentation I had ever heard of was at Oban, where 90 hours was the norm. Because it takes so long to make Oban as fruity and round as possible, it's the only Diageo-owned distillery that doesn't go into any of their blended whiskies (they don't have time to wait around, gotta keep pumping out that Walker Black!). Because of this extended fermentation time, it takes much longer to make Benriach whisky now, which leads to the second interesting fact: they're no longer selling extra whisky to Diageo or Pernod-Ricard. 

There's a long history of whisky-swapping in the Scotch industry. Many times, this is how independent bottlers end up with casks from various distilleries. I guess Benriach had been making extra whisky for other blended whisky companies over the past decade who were always in need of more juice, but that's all coming to an end.  Sorry, guys. Benriach is too busy making some of the best single malt on the planet. No time for you anymore!  This doesn't surprise me one bit. Benriach and Glendronach are slowly becoming two of the most-respected malts in the business. People are catching on to their quality and sales are going up.

Can't wait to get our 27 year old cask in, along side these two newbies. Yum.

-David Driscoll