The Pressure to Deliver

While many might find tasting whisky for a living quite the perfect career, let me tell you, there are many responsibilities that go along with the position - especially when you're in the business of selling the products you're reviewing.  Every day there will be at least one customer in the store who believes we're completely full of shit.  We simply must be trying to put the most expensive bottle possible in their hand, preying on their vulnerabilities, looking to squeeze every cent possible out of the transaction.  While this scenario undoubtedly plays out in sales situations every day all over the world, it doesn't happen at K&L - at least not with David and me.  I'm hyper-sensitive to to the value of every whisky we import as a special K&L selection.  As David brilliantly summarized in yesterday's Glenlochy post, we painstakingly analyze every barrel we bring into the store - especially the expensive ones. I lose sleep over them on a regular basis, tossing and turning, hoping that other people find them as wonderful as I do.  There are phone calls, emails, and requests from all over the country coming into K&L right now, asking to speak to one of the spirits buyers, wanting to know if one of our selections is truly worth the money.  People want reassurance.  They want a guarantee that their money is being well spent.  I don't blame them!  These bottles are not cheap!  It's a lot of pressure.  If one person, just one of these customers who spends hundreds of dollars on a bottle that only we have tasted isn't satisfied with their purchase, then David and I are responsible.  When you're talking big bucks, there's no room for " a difference in taste."  "I'm sorry, sir, but it looks like we just don't agree." No way.  The whisky needs to deliver and it needs to live up to every expectation from every type of palate, and every type of customer.  I get the feeling sometimes that people think my statements are hyperbolic and designed to evoke a quick sale, as if I wouldn't be here tomorrow morning to face the wrath of our clientele were I to sell them a lemon.  Believe me, we are well aware of the faith our customers have in us.  It's a weight on our shoulders.  It's what keeps me going, but it's also what pains me with anxiety.  I want people to love these whiskies because we think they're wonderful.  There's no worse feeling than when someone winds up disappointed in a whisky I recommended to them, but it obviously happens.  That's part of the game and it's not an easy thing to deal with.  Nevertheless, it's worth it.  It's a great job and we take it very seriously.

We're here to bring you the best we can find.  All we can tell you is that, based on our experience with tasting on a day-to-day basis, we like these whiskies very much.  I can't promise anyone anything.  I can only hope you agree! I'll be up until at least 2 AM for the next five months, worrying myself sick, hoping that you all do!

-David Driscoll


Whisky Season 2012 Update: The MVP

Today we're very proud to announce another cask for this year’s Whisky Season. This is truly one of the finest casks we've EVER had a chance to sample during our journeys through Scotland, but it also represents so much more than that. This cask, for both David and I, represents a microcosm of the entire experience we've had as Scotch lovers and buyers. We spoken many times here about the struggles we face as a retail store trying to do business in Scotland. You know, as we do, that we're in a whisky boom and never has Single Malt been more popular in more places than it is today. This struggle is basically between our love for the whisky we taste and the price that we think the whisky is worth.

It's not as if there's a shortage of whisky in general, but there is definitely a shortage of GREAT whisky. When we arrived at the little Edradour distillery outside of Pitlochry situated in the heart of Scotland, we were certain that we'd be sampling some incredible whisky. This was the home of the legendary Signatory bottler of Single Malt and we'd had incredible success in the last campaign with an exquisite cask of Signatory Ladyburn at a thoroughly reasonable price.  As we pushed our way through a crowd of tourists (all clearly upset that we were visiting with Valinch in hand) in the first warehouse on the top rack we spotted it, "Glenlochy?" I exclaimed. "I've literally never tasted Glenlochy." Our guide, Des McCagherty (who we affectionately call the Scottish Liam Neeson, but apparently is of Irish descent, so I guess we should just call him Liam Neeson), casually noted that it was completely off limits, but we might have a wee taste on the way out.  It sat next to a treble lot of Bowmore 1974, which was also notably not for sale.  Approximately two hours later, having tasted at least eight casks that we loved, we decided to call it a day.

On our way out of the warehouse, I stopped Des to remind him that he'd promised us a taste of the Glenlochy and could we perhaps dip into the '74 Bowmore just for fun? Starting with the Bowmore, we realized immediately why these casks were off limits. They were not being held for any reason other than they'd been committed to another source which was apparently located in Switzerland. While noting that I was indeed Swiss, I'd have to contact this person and convince them otherwise. This was some of the best whisky in the warehouse. This was some of the best whisky in Scotland! And then the fateful moment came, as the Valinch slipped from the cask into our glasses, the Glenlochy touched our lips. A look of horror crossed David's face. When I see this look, I know exactly what will follow. Fist pumps. The only description that comes close involves a sports analogy; say scoring the winning goal or hitting a grand slam. That said we'd not done a thing, except tasted this whisky that was apparently not for sale.  Nonetheless, we felt like we'd hit the jack pot. This was BETTER than last year’s Ladyburn! As we sat in the Edradour tasting room with Andrew Symington and Des McCagherty discussing the potential casks that we'd like to purchase for the store, I may have mentioned one too many times how much we'd like the Glenlochy and the Bowmore, because Andrew finally relented and noted that he wasn't sure the committed parties would be able to come up with the money for these casks. Cue the feeling of overwhelming joy! As we drove away, David & I were brimming with excitement. 

When we returned home we immediately requested pricing on the 10 casks that we'd fallen in love with. To our incredible disappointment, the pricing structure that we'd known to be extremely favorable at Signatory had simply evaporated. We considered long and hard what this whisky was really worth.  1974 Bowmore 38 Year Old for $1400 retail? I mean it's good, but this was not 1964! Depressed and demoralized, we pushed and pushed to get pricing down with absolutely no success. As you've seen, a few of the casks were already competitively priced and we jumped on those, but our baby the Glenlochy was completely out of reach. We decided that we'd just been priced out of the market and that no matter how much we loved this whisky we could not justify buying something if the price wasn't right. 

After several weeks, I phoned David one morning and casually said, "I miss our Glenlochy." We decided to push the envelope and make an offer. After multiple meetings between our importer and our distributor, they finally realized that this was an open and shut deal and relinquished whatever ridiculous margin they'd been tacking on in the first place.  A 30% reduction in price will do! I cannot tell you how special this case is and while it is certainly far from inexpensive it will feel like an incredible value when you actually get that glass in your hands.  I never thought I'd ever quote our former Secretary of Defense and I hesitate to compare Single Malt to national defense in any way, but this outrageous statement is actually incredibly meaningful in this context, "There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns - there are things we do not know, we don't know." I would categorize our Glenlochy cask as an unknown unknown. Now you know.

Glenlochy 32 Year Old K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky 750ml $399.99

I've maybe glossed over a mention Glenlochy in the Malt Yearbook or one of Michael Jackson's books, but it has never had a form or context for me. It is not been on our radar because it is absolutely one of the rarest single malts on the market today.  Purchased by DCL (the company that would become Diageo) in 1953, Glenlochy is one of these distilleries that met its demise during the whisky slump of the early '80s. It had only one wash still and one spirits still.  That is to say, they made very little whisky.  This is the only bottle of Glenlochy currently available in the US market. It also happens to be the sister cask to the incredibly acclaimed 31 year old Glenlochy that was recently rated 92 points by Serge Valentine of  I cannot express how outrageously complex this whisky is.  The range of flavors is unfathomable. This thing is absolutely packed up. It’s like unraveling a giant ball of yarn. We start on the almond, nougat, exotic wood, all savory and powerful. Subtlety shifting into the herbal and fruit aromas, this nose is like a chameleon, at once beautifully exotic and powerfully brooding. On the palate, fabulously rich in texture, the whisky is like a ball of plasma oscillating through multiple states of being. It leaves you smiling and exhausted. Seriously, this is one of a kind.

–David Othenin-Girard


A History of Glenlochy Distillery

Glenlochy in 1960 (Image courtesy of

Glenlochy is one of the rarest, most difficult to find single malts in the world.  Located in Fort William, just north of Oban in the far west of the Highland region, the former distillery operated on and off between 1898 and 1983, when it became victim to one of Diageo's notorious mass-closures, also ending production at Banff, Brora, and Dallas Dhu. In 1992, the remaining buildings - a malt barn and kiln with pagoda roof - were sold to a hotel group and eventually turned into apartments, erasing the existence of a once prominent whisky distillery.  Today, the town of Fort William, sitting on the banks of Loch Morar (the deepest in Scotland), is more known by single malt drinkers for its other distillery, Ben Nevis, than for the eccentric history of Glenlochy.  The truth is, I'd never even seen a bottle of Glenlochy until last year.  In all of our tasting visits around Scotland, with our fascination for rare malts guiding our noses, we'd never come across a barrel.  It wasn't until late morning last May, while visiting Signatory in Pittlochry, that we discovered a cask sitting high above the others near the warehouse entry.  We had missed it on the way in and couldn't believe our eyes when it read Glenlochy 1980.  Much like last year, when we noticed the cask of 1974 Ladyburn resting in a corner, we wanted to try it simply for the experience.  Even if it was terrible, at least we could say we'd tried a sip.  Five minutes later, we would begin negotiations to make this whisky the cornerstone of the entire trip.

Production at Glenlochy has a history of instability.  The distillery was silent during WWI from 1919 to 1924.  In 1926, the stills were once again halted, this time until 1937 when Canadian businessman Joseph Hobbs purchased the distillery (he would later purchase Fort William's other distillery - Ben Nevis).  Hobbs' investment group would sell to DCL (now Diageo) in 1953, but Glenlochy would only run another fifteen years before it was closed again in 1968.  According to Louis Reps at, "the pot stills were converted to internal heating system by steam from an oil-fired boiler in 1971" when production began again and Glenlochy became a source of malt for White Horse, Johnnie Walker, and other DCL blended whiskies.  However, after the disastrous year of 1982 severely crippled the whisky industry, DCL would close Glenlochy one more time and this time it would not reopen.  May of 1983 was the final date of production and in 1986 the distillery was scheduled for demolition, before that decision was appealed by the Lochaber District Council. Eventually, most of the main infrastructure would be removed and converted into a hotel, on the condition that no distillation would ever take place there again (a typical Diageo deal).

Highland newspaper 1986 after demolition was blocked - Courtesy of Glenlochy.comAccording to the chart on only 81 expressions of Glenlochy have ever been bottled as a single malt, mostly single cask offerings from independents.  Diageo has bottled six itself.  Seeing that production didn't officially begin until 1901, that's about one cask for every year that Glenlochy was in theory a working distillery.  Like many silent distilleries, the whisky has a reputation for being more rare than good.  Since there haven't been many bottles to taste, there are few reviews.  The best I've found was written seven years ago and comes from Serge over at WhiskyFun - a 1980 single cask bottled exclusively for Switzerland from the same vintage and warehouse as the one we tasted, although seemingly different in style.

More than anything, Glenlochy just seems mysterious to me.  There's simply not much information about the distillery other than important dates and events.  I can't find a descriptor of the house style, or any tasting notes that paint a picture of consistancy.  Had the whisky we sampled from the cask of 1980 been simply run of the mill or lackluster, I wouldn't have put much more thought into the distillery.  However, the taste we had in Pittlochry was transcendent.  It was mindblowing whisky, easily ranking among the best I'd ever had.  Before writing this brief history I went back into my tasting book to see what I had scribbled down at the time:

Candied nuts, roasted almonds, rich toffee, cotton candy, oils with butter, butterscotch, unbelievably good.  Jesus!  WOW!

To me, there's nothing more exciting than when the whisky from the ghost of history past completely blows you away and exceeds any possible expectations.  Sampling single malt from places like Millburn or Ladyburn can be extremely exciting, until you get to the part where you actually taste it.  When it's good, however, there's something magical that happens - rarity, quality, and legend combine to create a total and complete whisky experience.  I've only ever tasted one Glenlochy single malt whisky and it's one of the top five in my career.  While I've tried to delve a bit deeper into what could have produced something so singular and incredible, there's simply not much information available, in my mind only adding to the mystique.

-David Driscoll


Whisky Season 2012 Continues: Three Sleepers

One of the best alliances we formed last year in Scotland was with Sovereign, a label from the Laing Brothers located in Glasgow that we now bring in exclusively for K&L.  Sovereign has deep stocks from outstanding producers, always showcasing the essence of each distillery in the whiskies they bottle.  While we love finding powerful, bold, expressive flavors that leap out of the glass, there are many of us who appreciate delicacy and nuance - two terms I will use ad nauseum to describe these whiskies.  One of the most important skills I have learned as a taster of booze is the appreciation for fine flavors.  Not everything has to punch you in the mouth.  Some whiskies are so subtle that they are quickly written off by some as lacking or boring.  Last year's Banff cask we purchased is a fantastic example.  Some customers emailed me to tell me it was the best whisky they had ever tasted.  Others were entirely underwhelmed.  It all depends on what you want out of your single malt.  Expectations are everything.  With that being said, I think we've found three fantastic whiskies that exemplify perfectly what these three distilleries do best.  Whether those flavors are exciting or not, will be up to you.  Personally, I'm a big fan of the lighter style and I find them more satisfying in the end.  For enthusiasts looking to know Caol Ila, Linkwood, and Caperdonich more intimately, check out the following:

1996 Caol Ila 15 Year Old K&L Exclusive Sovereign Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - One of the most surprising visits from our 2012 trip was at Caol Ila distillery on Islay. The Diageo plant is so big, so efficient, and so sterile that our appointment was more about professional growth and crossing another distillery off our list. We didn't expect to be wowed. For all of the criticism Caol Ila takes as being a whisky factory, the single malt made on site is damn good. Caol Ila uses big, fat-necked stills that produce a round and fruity spirit. That soft and supple character compliments the peat smoke of Islay perfectly. None of their whisky is aged on the island, so the brine and salt character attributed to Islay aging never really appears. What's frustrating for U.S. customers is that most of the expressions that showcase the depth and potential of the distillate don't make it across the water. The 18 year old we tasted there was one of the best whiskies I had tasted all year, but since we can't buy casks directly from Diageo, we were going to have to look elsewhere for something similar. Last year's visit to Sovereign resulted in a 30 year old Caol Ila cask of supreme complexity, but we were so intrigued by the 18 year that we wanted something with less age and more fruit. Tasting the 15 year old cask on the mainland in Glasgow, we found what we were looking for. Soft, supple textures, youthful campfire smoke, brandied fruit on the palate, with vanilla accents that smooth out the finish. A tasty winner that we can't wait for you to try.

1991 Linkwood 21 Year Old K&L Exclusive Sovereign Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $115.99 - Diageo's Linkwood distillery is generally considered one of, if not the best of, the Speyside distilleries that are not sold stateside.  We're lucky to find a delicious, independently-bottled expression from time to time and we're always on the lookout for something special.  While most Speyside distilleries use heavy amounts of sherry, Linkwood's elegant, fruity style stands on its own when aged in hogshead barrels as an alternative.  Unfortunately, getting that delicate nuance of fruit and vanilla takes time and we haven't seen older expressions of Linkwood very often.  Our friends at Sovereign dug deep into their inventory, however, and surfaced with exactly what we desired: unsherried Linkwood with more than two decades of time in the barrel.  Graceful, playful, and light with flavors of stonefruit, with the vanilla from the wood acting as a backbone.  Because it's bottled at cask strength, water is key to toning down the proof and releasing the potential for more flavor.  A few drops helps balance the power and brings out notes of baking spice, resinous oils, and more richness from the wood. This is a whisky we expect many to pass over in favor of our other, more exciting casks, before coming back around later to realize they've overlooked a true gem.  The sleeper of the older expressions we've had bottled.

1994 Caperdonich 18 Year Old K&L Sovereign Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - We love finding great casks of whisky from "lost distilleries," single malt institutions that are no longer in operation making their whisky more collectable and difficult to find.  While the buildings at Brora and Port Ellen still stand today 30 years after their closure, Caperdonich, closed forever in 2002, was completely gutted and destroyed just recently.  Nothing remains from the former Pernod-Ricard institution other than the single malt already sitting in cask.  Much like its demolished cousin Banff, which we featured in last year's K&L single malt lineup, Caperdonich has a distinct and understated character that doesn't jump out of the glass immediately.  It needs to be coaxed out.  Our single barrel of 18 year old malt is a tease at first - hinting at supple fruit on the nose, yet lithely avoiding any serious concentration on the palate.  Water is a must with the cask strength in order to temper the heat and bring out the nuance.  With the alcohol in check comes the classic character of the distillery - grass, hay, and notes of pepper with more stonefruit.  It's a keenly interesting whisky that offers a chance at understanding a fallen soldier.  Again, the Banff comparison will be key. Some people thought last year's cask was underwhelming, others thought it was the best they had ever tasted. This year's Caperdonich barrel will likely polarize drinkers much the same, wowing those who appreciate delicacy. Like the distillery itself, it will be missed after it's gone.

-David Driscoll


Tastings Tomorrow!

Our free, educational spirits tastings continue tomorrow with Combier making their way to San Francisco for some liqueur sampling.  They'll have their classic orange recipe along with the new pamplemousse grapefruit, as well as a third expression to be determined.  They are tasty and worth your time.  I've been drinking the grapefruit with tonic water all week. 

Redwood City will host Pacific Edge who will be pouring their latest acquisitions from Springbank.  We'll have the new Hazelburn 12 and the Kilkerran "Work in Progress," as well as a third whisky to be decided later.

Tastings start at 5 PM and run until 6:30.  They are free of charge.  See you there!

-David Driscoll