DOG Nails It


Wow. Simply delicious. David OG's new selection from down south is finally making its way up north. This is loaded with rich Bourbon goodness and cinnamon baking spices on the finish. Absolutely stunning.

2002 Evan Williams Single Barrel #726  K&L Exclusive Bourbon $26.99 - Our first ever Evan Williams exclusive barrel is here. Enchanting as it is affordable, Evan Williams is one of America's great whiskies. Here we have a single barrel that we selected after combing through countless samples. While the standard Evan Williams is great and bottled one barrel at a time, occasionally you get a bottle that just out shines the rest. Trying to find another bottle from that same cask is next to impossible. What we have is an entire cask of this superior quality, one that will certainly be compared to the best offerings from this famed brand to date.  It's extremely limited yielding less than 16 cases. This is one of the more elegant Evan Williams, I've come across. Easy and approachable, but with tons of depth.  Some tropical citrus flavors, mark the overal honey and spice.  The palate shows great depth, although it's not one of these sticky bourbons. The sweatness is balanced by a lovely exotic tea element, not bitter, but a bit tannic. It all come together with a lovely drinkable balance and a totally lack of any heat at all. This is painfully easy to drink. Be very careful! (David Othenin-Girard)

-David Driscoll


Re-evaluating Johnnie Walker

Since I started buying spirits for K&L I have never devoted much time to the Johnnie Walker whiskies. The retail market for them is competitive, the margins are slim, and my shelf space for booze is even slimmer. I don't have the luxury of buying 10,000 bottles, storing them in a gigantic warehouse, and letting them go for nothing while waiting for the volume game to even out the deal.  When I took over for Susan in Redwood City it was a trial by fire. We were a single malt store. We loved Bruichladdich. We didn't really sell blends. That's all I knew. No one ever taught me anything about Johnnie Walker.  There were no Walker staff training sessions. I was never a Walker drinker in my younger days, so I had little experience with the brand even back when I was primarily consuming the blended stuff. When customers ask me about these whiskies today I avoid the topic, mainly because I know very little about them. 

As a whisky professional, however, this was a major hole in my industry knowledge. How can the buyer for K&L not know anything about Johnnie Walker, the top-selling Scotch whisky brand in the entire world? I can lecture you about the barrel program at Lagavulin. I can show you personal photos of Caol Ila. I can even wax intellectually about the fermentation times at Mortlach. What I cannot tell you, however, is what these whiskies taste like when you blend them together.

I find it amusing that Talisker, Linkwood, and Clynelish are some of the most popular single malts in the world among whisky geeks, yet these same drinkers are entirely uninterested in how they work together in a blend. I'm utterly fascinated by whisky blending.  I think combining flavors is far more interesting than dumping yeast into a washback. Diageo has the most amazing portfolio of distilleries in the world, which are all primarily used for Johnnie Walker rather than single malt brands. One of the Diageo heads is actually on record as saying that if they could actually stop bottling single malts, they would! Their network of about thirty distilleries functions as a palate of colors with which they can paint a variety of different pictures.

So which whiskies are in which Walkers? That information is top secret, but we know a little bit about the ingredients from hearsay and from Diageo directly. Looking at the Black, the Green, and the Gold (perhaps the three most highly-regarded of the portfolio), there are some rather obvious flavors involved in each that can be discerned with a little bit of work.  The Black is obviously peated and one would have to assume there's a heavy dosage of Caol Ila in play. The Green is actually composed of only single malt whiskies, so it's much richer than the Black on the finish. I've heard that Talisker, Cragganmore, Caol Ila, and Linkwood make up a heavy proportion of the cepage. The Gold is Clynelish all the way.  I know this for a fact, but even if I hadn't known there's no doubt about it when you taste it.

After talking to Diageo last week about cost increases, we worked out a deal to help bring some of the Johnnie Walker whiskies back into the store at competitive pricing. However, I wanted to evaluate them first and not just use someone else's tasting notes when promoting them. I needed to understand this portfolio if I was going to keep any of my credibility as a whisky buyer. After spending some time with these guys, here are my conclusions.

First off, a few things to think about:

- Diageo sold almost 16 million cases of Johnnie Walker in 2010. You can find it in over 180 countries around the world. How they can keep it tasting good is mind-boggling with that kind of demand.

- I have been thrashing Diageo on this blog lately. That's what eventually led to us even discussing this very attractive deal. I have no motivation to love these whiskies whatsoever. They will sell themselves whether I like them or not. In fact, as I said earlier, I've never paid much attention to them simply because they're so ubiquitous. Any praise I heap upon them is genuine (and there will be praise).

- The Green and Gold labels are going to be discontined next year in the U.S. and in many other international markets.  The Green will remain in Taiwan, I believe, while the Gold will be replaced with the Platinum, if I remember correctly.

- If I'm going to sell these at K&L, then customers should know my honest opinion of each, which is as follows:

Johnnie Walker Black 12 Year Old Whisky $29.99 - Strikingly soft and easy to move over the palate (some people might call this "smooth"), with a leaner mouthfeel due to the grain. This is a blend of around 37 different whiskies, so there's nothing really standing out in the overall malty sea of flavor. It tastes like Scotch and there are hints of smoke behind the maltiness, but as my friend Marc said, the obvious design of this whisky is to simply taste good.  The whisky definitely tastes good.  However, for $30 there are better options in my opinion.  I think the Bowmore Legend is killing this at $23.99. That being said, Bowmore isn't making millions of cases of Legend to supply to the world's population. Considering how much Walker Black is being pumped out into the market, it's a much more impressive achievement.

Johnnie Walker Green 15 Year Old Blended Malt $55.99 - I really, really like this. According to Diageo, there are 15 single malts in this marriage, all at around 15 years of age. Talisker, Cragganmore, Caol Ila, and Linkwood all lead the way. I would reckon there are probably portions of Dailuaine and Benrinnes as well, simply because of the fruity richness. This whisky was designed to taste good. It's so full of toffee and nougat with delicious butterscotch across the mid-palate. The viscosity is also quite satisfying. While it's nothing wildly different, it's good for the money and I would happily drink this at home. What else can you get in the 15 year range at this price? Talisker 10 costs $50, as does Caol Ila 12. Cragganmore 12 is $44. Why would we not pay $55 to have 15 year old versions of these single malts married together into something so tasty? It's a shame they're getting rid of this because it's amazing considering how much they make of it. This absolutely destroys Macallan 12. I should probably sit on this and jack up the price when it's all gone, right? :)

Johnnie Walker Gold 18 Year Old Whisky $75.99 - I also really like this.  The sweet vanilla on the entry is delicious, that waxy fruit of Clynelish comes out to play on the palate, and the finish is malty and lasting. It's not exciting or new, but who expects that from Johnnie Walker? I'm not going to hold that against it. Again, for the price I can't argue. The grain component of the Gold isn't nearly as noticeable as it is in the Black, perhaps due to the fact that the grain must also be 18 years old (Cambus and Cameronbridge?). There's also a lovely creme brulee element that I think must come from the addition of more Speyside malts. What are the 18 year old options at this price? Oban 18 is now going up to $130 or so. Clynelish 18 wouldn't be that price if it existed (our 21 year cask sells for $125). If you were ever interested in trying a Clynelish 18 this would be the whisky for you. It also tastes expensive, which is important for mass-market sales.  I would have to think that Diageo is getting heavy customer satisfaction with this, however, they're obviously not getting the sales they want. Might have to squirrel one of these away.

- Here's something else to think about: while other producers are getting rid of age statements, Diageo still puts 12, 15, and 18 year labels on these whiskies. They're not gutting their flavor with younger juice while charging you the same price.  At least for now, they're not. That's admirable.

- The prices are competitive. Because every store in the world sells Johnnie Walker, we all have to compete with each other.  That's good for consumers and for prices.

- Considering that Thailand alone counts for 10% of Walker sales, this stuff is being made in gigantic quantities. When they replaced the stills at Caol Ila, they couldn't even take a quick break! They had to get their neighbor Bunnahabhain to loan them their distillery for a few weeks! (that's right - there is some Diageo-made Bunnahabhain out there in barrel at the moment). I have to be impressed by the quality at those levels.

So there it is. Johnnie Walker. Back at K&L. Nothing new or exciting, but good whisky with very good pricing, I think. Even for single malt geeks like me, it's fun to try and taste the components in each particular recipe. That would make for a fun tasting, in my opinion.

We're all friends again.

-David Driscoll


The 411

Again - there is about five blog posts worth of information that I would like to share with you, but I simply don't have the time to write five blog posts.  I can write one quick one, however, and we'll have to make do with that.  Here's the latest:

Suntory's Mike Miyamoto was in the Redwood City store last night to pour the Hakushu 12 and Yamazaki 12 single malt whiskies. Having master distiller Miyamoto personally lead the tasting was a rare honor and one that we all took full advantage of. The information was invaluable to our whisky-loving customers. Two interesting things I didn't know about Yamazaki - they have multiple stills, of various shapes and sizes, to produce different types of spirit. This allows them to play with different flavors and create marriages that usually requires ownership of multiple distilleries (i.e. Diageo blending together Talisker, Benrinnes, and Clynelish to make an expression). The other fact is that Yamazaki 12 is running at around $100 per bottle in Japan right now. They're basically subsidizing the foreign markets to keep their momentum going.  We're selling this for about $40 right now.  I'd expect a pretty big hike here in the U.S. at some point in the near future.  There's just not enough of it to go around.

I spent the morning at St. George Distillery with Dave Smith and we went over various points of business.  First off, we tasted the new 30th Anniversary Single Malt coming in early December.  It contains some of the oldest whisky the distillery has ever produced, including one of Lance's first-ever malts. It comes in a beautiful box and the label is pretty awesome as well.  It won't be cheap, but it will be delicious. One of the components was aged in a pear brandy cask (the sister to our apple brandy-aged barrel from a few years back). We also got rolling on our Faultline Gin Batch #2. Dave will be attempting to smoke some orange peels next week and begin maceration. Smoke and citrus - together at last!

The other thing Dave and I discussed was the sourcing of American whiskey from Kentucky. Prices are beginning to go up and we're both evaluating the future of the market. If prices come back down when stocks begin to increase, then we will have bought in at too high of a price.  If the market continues to raise the price of whiskey, then we will have to pay more if we wait. This is a perfect analogy to the housing situation I discussed previously.  No one is sure what the market will actually do so we're all being cautious. That being said, I went by Old World Spirits afterward to meet with Davorin and select a new cask of Rusty Blade (it's coming home - at cask strength once again for the holidays!). We began talking about rye and Davorin mentioned that he currently can't source any actual rye to distill.  The drought in the midwest has left little supply from the harvest and he mentioned that Diageo has been buying up most of it for their Bulleit brand. First we had a shortage of rye whiskey and now we have a shortage of actual rye.  This should keep prices nice and high for all you rye drinkers!

Speaking of rye, it appears that the Rittenhouse shortage is slowly beginning to fade.  We've got a ton in stock right now if you need any.  There's some Black Maple Hill as well.

Also, the wholesale price of Oban 18 is now over $100.  All of you who paid $77 got a real good deal.  Better than your local retailer can actually get! Wild. As I promised earlier, I now have to lower the price on another Diageo whisky. Let's seeeeeeeee................Dalwhinnie 15.   Was $50.  Now $41.99.  That should help even things out a little bit.  Remember, we need balance!

-David Driscoll


Housing Tips

After a week of faint optimistic hope that I might finally be able to afford a small house on the San Francisco peninsula, I'm now pretty sure there's no hope whatsoever. Even the tiniest fixer-uppers are going for $600,000 before all is said and done and unfortunately that's where my comfort zone says "No thanks." You might be thinking to yourself, "David, I just saw a two bedroom house in San Mateo for $480,000 last week!" To those thoughts in your head I would reply, "Yes, but did you see what the house actually sold for?" It wasn't the list price.

You've got to pay to play in the housing market right now. You've got to overpay just to get overpriced. Everyone's talking about low interest rates, but that doesn't help when you can't actually get the product your paying a low rate on. There is such fierce competition for "affordable" housing right now that every sale results in a bidding war. When there's a bidding war, the price of the house goes up. When prices go up, it gives people the impression that the market is booming. When the market is booming, people start making big money. Does this sound familiar to you, whisky fan?

One of my best friends is in the real estate game. We were talking on the phone last week and he told me that where banks were once looking to sell foreclosures quickly, in an attempt to recoup expenses, they began to notice that investors were turning around and selling those forclosures for even more profit (very much like what was happening on Ebay with the Van Winkle Bourbons). When the banks saw what these houses were going for later, they began to think to themselves, "Why the rush? Let's wait this out a bit and see what we can actually get." Whisky companies are currently thinking the exact same thing. Since banks and owners are now sitting on properties, waiting for the big sale rather than the quick one, it's diminishing the amount of available properties. With interest rates so low there are many interested buyers. We've got big demand, but low supply. Time to cash in.

The problem for me with the housing market is that people are paying these prices. $600,000 for a small shack that needs an extra $75,000 in repairs just to make it liveable?  Where do I sign? As long as that's the case, I'm going to be renting. It's in every business person's best interest to have low supply in times of huge demand. Not low enough to where you have zero inventory, but just low enough that it scares people into thinking that if they don't buy now, they may never get a chance to buy again.

I call it "fear capitalism." I've been watching it for the last two years.

I was asking my friend last night, "If I don't buy now do you think I'll ever be able to afford one down the road?" I could have been talking about a house or a bottle of Port Ellen.

-David Driscoll


The First Hot Deal of Fall

I promised you we would start working hard to bring you hot deals. Deals you can afford. Deals that bring single malt whisky back to that enjoyable, pour-yourself-a-few-fingers, end-of-the-day drink that you don't have to fuss over, but can still enjoy.  I also promised that I would stop buying overpriced whisky and start working with producers who have your best interests first. I have been working with Morrison-Bowmore and Campari all week to put this little project together. I'm soooooooooo pumped about it.

Bowmore Legend Single Malt Whisky $23.99 - The Bowmore Legend is an absolutely delicious Islay whisky.  It's got the perfect amount of smoke and the right amount of richness.  At this price, we had to taste it against Johnnie Black and there's really no comparison.  The Walker Black, being a blend, is tasty enough, but it thins out at the back.  The Bowmore Legend being 100% single malt whisky (at around eight years of age, I believe) is simply more exciting. Being someone who loves oily, smoky, and fruity flavors in my malt, I can't think of a better deal for a bottle of whisky since I started working at K&L.  This is cheaper than Glenfiddich 12!!!

Auchentoshan Classic Lowland Single Malt Whisky $23.99 - This has been at $30 for as long as I can remember.  Tasting the soft, light, and vanilla-laden character of the Bourbon cask aging, I look at the price point of Auchentoshan now and think, "this is the same price as Jameson's now."  That's just ridiculous.  Get in on this while it's priced where it's at.

I have to say that I am very impressed with the direction Morrison-Bowmore is taking towards more cooperation with retailers.  First, they hired Rachel Barrie to do their blending, which helps to improve their product.  Then they allowed us to start buying casks directly, giving us a heavenly barrel of Glen Garioch for our exclusive collection. Now they've responded to our blog post that called for better prices for single malts and have given both us and the whisky consumer a chance to drink something delicious for a reasonable fee.  Bravo, Bowmore.  Bravo.  You've got our full support and I'm sure the support of our customers once they taste how good these whiskies are for the price.  I'm buying my bottle of Legend right now.


Speaking of Morrison-Bowmore, they're owned by Suntory who happens to be in the tasting bar tonight.  Neyah White, their brand ambassador just emailed to remind me that Mike Miyamoto, who is the former Master Distiller at Hakushu (as well as former Master Distiller at Yamazaki and for Managing Director of Morrison Bowmore) will be here tonight as well to pour the Japanese whiskies.  This is a fantastic chance to meet some of Japan's whisky legends. Don't miss tonight's event at 5 PM.  It's a Halloween party you'll be happy you attended.

-David Driscoll