Dusty Morning

While we all know that Steve Ury is the dusty hunting king of California, K&L customer Matt Prinz has been making some headway in the Bay Area.  Foraging deep into the some of the less-traveled neighborhoods of the North, he's been able to amass quite an interesting collection of old Bourbons.  For those of you unfamiliar with the term "dusty hunting," it refers to rummaging through old liquor stores in search of forgotton or "dusty" bottles that they never got around to selling.  You'd be amazed at what's still sitting in the warehouse of your local corner supplier.  Matt brought me a few to sample this morning and we had a blast tasting through them.  I admit complete ignorance to the history of American whiskey, the brands, the producers, who made what, etc.  One of the best ways to fill in the educational gap is to get your hands on some of these old dusties.  Even if the Bourbon isn't great, each bottle is still a window into what America was drinking over thirty years ago.  Most of the whiskies pictured above were light, lean, mellow, and made for drinkin', much different than the Bourbons we currently have on the shelf.  Personally, I've never been much of a scavenger, so I really appreciate Matt's time and effort.  What a great way to start the day!

Speaking of Bourbon, our newest barrel just arrived in Redwood City today - a fresh batch of 1792 Ridgemont Reserve $26.99 bottled exclusively for us!  The bummer about this whiskey for you non-local customers is that the bottle, due to the wide shape and size, costs more to ship so it may be something more for those living nearby.  However, this is the ultimate summer Bourbon just in time for the summer!  Light, soft, fruity, mellow, easy to drink.  Maybe a bit too easy to drink.  I can already picture my friends and I putting one of these away in a half hour.  I can already picture not remembering what happened.  I love that we have a single cask that isn't big, woody, spicy, and rich.  It's nice to switch things up every once and a while.  200 bottles available!

-David Driscoll


Reviewing Whisky For The Purchasing Public

According to CNN, the internet now has 340 trillion trillion trillion addresses or, as the guys from the Big Bang Theory would say, 340 undecillion.  I'm pretty sure that half of those sites are up and coming whisky bloggers (ha!).  There's been a huge explosion of food and booze-related websites over the past few years, mainly due to the huge explosion of interest in food and booze!  People love talking about booze, almost as much as we love gossiping about the lives of celebrities.  Collecting has a become a serious hobby and in order to keep one's collection spotless, we want to know which bottles to buy and which to avoid.  Like Rolling Stone rates new records or Entertainment Weekly grades upcoming films, there are a number of different systems in place for ranking the quality of various whiskies – the 100 point system, five stars, A through F, etc.  As a retailer, we refrain from using any of these rankings because we don't want to get in the habit of saying we have good and bad inventory – obviously, we're here to sell all of it (our wine buyers will definitely let you know, however, when another publication has favorably reviewed one of our products).  Just because we're in the business of selling booze doesn't mean that we can't give our opinion about the various selections.  I love reviewing, writing, talking, and thinking about whisky.  Personally, I don't avoid ranking systems because I'm a retailer, I avoid them because I genuinely dislike them.

If I could get back the money I paid to go see a bad "four star" movie from Leonard Maltin or to purchase a terrible 9+ point album from, I would feel better about rating systems.  Inevitably, rankings come down to personal opinion and scores based on personal interpretation of a sometimes personal scoring apparatus.  There's nothing wrong with using a scoring system for yourself, or to share with friends and other hobbyists, but when people start spending money based on these ratings, there's simply too much that can go wrong.  I'm trying to avoid going off on a completely different tangent here, so let's just say that I don't feel personal rankings help consumers make educated decisions about purchasing.  They may help spark an interest or curiousness in tasting a particular malt, but they don't always put things into context. There's one question that needs to be answered before making a purchase above all and it rarely, if ever, gets addressed in most widely-read whisky reviews: Why would someone want to own this whisky?

There are many fantastic single malts available on the market right now.  Few of us own every one of them.  Even if we could afford it, would we really want to possess every single expression known to man?  There are at least fifty whiskies, just on the Redwood City shelf alone, that I absolutely adore.  Want to know how many of those I actually own?  Five.  While the other forty-five are, in my opinion, of the highest possible quality, flavor, character, and value, I have no desire to actually bring them home and drink them when I'm feeling thirsty.  The point I'm trying to make is that whisky needs to be more than just 90 points for me to buy it.  I'm not saying it needs to be 91 or better (ha ha), I'm saying that something on top of quality, flavor, and price needs to speak to me. 

Yesterday, I called Kilchoman's Machir Bay my favorite single malt of 2012 so far, to which one can attach some sort of numeric value or rating if they so choose.  However, I don't want anyone out there to purchase that whisky simply because I like it.  That's not a very good reason for buying anything.  Sure, I taste a lot of whisky for a living, but I may like whisky that you don't, or vice versa.  Therefore, what can I tell you about the Kilchoman Machir Bay that will help you make a decision?  Everyone knows tasting notes are dull and boring, so cross those off the list.  Everyone knows I'm enthusiastic and prone to hyperbole, so cross excitement off the list.  How about the fact that the Machir Bay tastes kind of like "Bruichladdich meets Lagavulin."  Maybe someone out there loves both of those distilleries and is interested in the idea of trying something similar.  Context – that always helps.  How about some information about the distillery?  Maybe because this is Kilchoman's first "affordable" release and it's a chance for someone to get a feel for the style without dropping a hundred bucks.  Maybe because this is a five year old whisky that tastes better than many twelve year old malts, or maybe because someone likes the idea of supporting the little guy.  Perhaps those are interesting reasons to consider taking this bottle home.

In the end, I purchased a bottle of Machir Bay because it's delicious and I absolutely love it.  However, as I said earlier, taste is just step one for me.  After accounting for flavor, I need a reason to believe in a whisky.  I purchased the Compass Box Flaming Heart last year because John Glaser's approach to blending fascinates me and this was his homage to peated Brora.  I grabbed a bottle of the Ardbeg Day last week because the idea of an Ardbeg malt with extra sherry maturation really intrigued me.  I always have a bottle of Springbank on hand because they're a distillery that still handles every step of production and for some reason that makes it taste better in my glass.  The Machir Bay came home yesterday with me because I can't wait to pour it next to a glass of Lagavulin 16 and then make all my friends do a blind tasting. 

In the end, maybe I'm the crazy one for believing there's more to a whisky than just flavor.  However, I can't help but think that knowing something about what makes a particular whisky special helps it to taste better.  Giving a whisky 95 points or five stars doesn't make it special because that's just one person's opinion.  There are still objective elements to whisky.  As a retailer, it's my job to help you find which of those are important to you.

-David Driscoll


Kilchoman in Stock, Time to Circle the Wagons

My early pick for Best Whisky of 2012 is here and ready to rock:

Kilchoman Machir Bay Islay Single Malt Whisky $53.99 - See my post below for tasting notes

Normally I don't read whisky reviews online, mainly because I don't need to (I get to taste the stuff myself so why do I need to know what other people think?).  However, I did do a quick search for Machir Bay scores because I want to see how the industry reacts to this malt. So far I haven't seen too much press. I'm curious about the reviews because this whisky disproves everything that the Scotch Whisky world holds sacred - it goes completely against the theory that great whisky needs ten years or more in the barrel.  Personally, I too have always been of this mindset.  I've tasted the craft distiller attempts to accelerate aging with small barriques and other clever tricks, but it's never worked as well as extended time in good ol' Bourbon or Sherry casks. 

So what makes Kilchoman different?  What is so special about their whisky?  Think about it this way.  For a guy, I'm a pretty good printer - as in calligraphy.  If you asked me to print your name on a piece of paper five times in a minute, I could probably do it perfectly and cleanly, no problem.  However, if you asked me to write your name thirty times in a minute, the quality of my printing is going to suffer as a result.  Going back to the Kilchoman's whisky, their new-make, fresh from the still, is one of the most amazing white whiskies I have ever tasted.  They don't sell it, but if they did I think people would drink it over most quality mezcal selections.  It's simply amazing.  Kilchoman only has one still and they're not capable of pumping out large quantities of whisky like other distilleries.  They can only write their name on the paper five times per minute.  Even if they wanted to go for thirty printings in a minute, they wouldn't be able to.  Quality comes with precision.  They know they can't play the bulk game, so they don't even try.

I relate to that philosophy.  K&L is not the bulk whisky store.  We're not Costco doling out rock-bottom prices for 100,000 case buys of big-brand hooch.  We couldn't be Costco even if we wanted to be, so we don't try.  Instead we focus on quality and hope it's enough because that's our only choice.  Somehow little old K&L, the family run liquor store, is now competing with some of the bigger stores in the country.  At the same time, little old Kilchoman is making whisky at five years of age that competes with the ten to sixteen year malts from its larger competitors. 

My question is: will the industry allow that to happen?  Is anyone going to give this whisky its due?  Are the major publications going to say, "A nice first effort, but it needs more time."  Because if the industry does try to shrug this whisky off with a simple "It's alright, but it's still too young," I'll call bullshit.  We all know that Kilchoman is only going to get better with time, but this whisky is great right now.  I'm so curious to see how the world reacts.  Will the Scotch industry circle the wagons and protect the sacrosanctity of long-term maturation, or are they going to admit that in some cases, when a distillery takes the time to do everything right, young whisky can actually compete with older expressions? 

I'm dying to find out.

-David Driscoll


Tasting Schedule (plus, David freaks out like a little girl)

Tomorrow's tastings will feature Val in San Francisco pouring the debut of Kilchoman's Machir Bay which we will have in stock at that time for $53.99.  He might be a few minutes late, so stop by at 5:15 or so.  Redwood City will feature Christine Cooney pouring her selections of Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados.  Both are free of charge!

So here's the deal with the Kilchoman: if you had asked me yesterday what my favorite single malt of 2012 has been so far, I would have said it's a toss-up between the Glenmorangie Artein and the Bruichladdich 10.  Now, however, there's no doubt in my mind about what the best malt of 2012 is so far:  it's the Kilchoman Machir Bay.  Having just re-tasted it with Val a few minutes ago, I can pretty much say that I screamed like a little girl meeting Justin Bieber after tasting it.  It's that good.  I don't make any guarantees that you'll think it's that good, but something about Kilchoman really hits me on that upper level.  This is supreme whisky.  

It's no secret that we're big fans of Kilchoman here at K&L. Our recent visit to the distillery on Islay really opened our eyes to the incredible job this small farm is doing. Kilchoman is truly a tiny operation, producing on one spirit still and malting whatever they can inside their humble barn. Because of their small-scale operation, the cost of production is higher so prices for Kilchoman so far have not been inexpensive. Getting to taste the new-make whisky right off the still, I can firmly say that, in my opinion, there is no higher quality of peated whisky being produced anywhere else. The attention to detail and the hands-on distillation Kilchoman is able to give its single malts is making a world of difference. Every release has been better than the last, albeit extremely limited in supply. Finally, however, the time has come when this small farm is ready to introduce a full-time, affordable, house recipe, rather than another pricey single barrel release. The Machir Bay is not only incredibly delicious, it's a huge victory for a distillery that had to overcome huge obstacles. At $54, this is what Kilchoman fans have been waiting for - incredibly delicate, finely-tuned flavors of soft smoke, sea salt, creamy vanilla, and butterscotch. It's a more subdued version of their high-toned barrel expressions, but it's still very much Kilchoman. Think Bruichladdich meets Lagavulin. 

The Machir Bay is a vatting of 60% 3 year, 35% of 4 year and 5% of 5 year old single malt, matured in fresh bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace. The 4 year old portion was finished in Oloroso Sherry butts for 2 months. I can't stress enough how fantastic this whisky is. It's not for the super-esoteric whisky geeks, this is as accessible as peated whisky gets - soft and gentle, yet loaded with smoke, with a high-toned cinnamon finish, and a mouthful of butterscotch when it's all said and done. It's absolutely stunning and there's no amount I wouldn't buy of it. If we could buy 2,000 cases, I would.

I don't usually throw my weight behind something this strongly.  I'm always passionate about booze, but I can clearly say that this really caught me off guard.  I had to keep tasting it again and again to make sure I wasn't simply over-reacting.  If you don't believe me, I don't blame you.  However, tomorrow night at K&L San Francisco, you'll have a chance to decide for yourself.  Kilchoman has now proven to me that producing high-quality whisky for five solid years can result in whisky more impressive than what other distilleries achieve in ten to sixteen.  Even if you don't think it's as good as I do, I think you'll still be shocked at what they've been able to accomplish.  

-David Driscoll


Humble Beginnings

There have been a few interactions in the store lately that have caused me two dwell upon some early experiences in my booze education.  We had a customer in yesterday carrying Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible, scavenging through the aisles in search of the varietals she needed for her studies.  Seeing that book instantly brought me back to Millbrae, summer of 2007, when I lived with my wife (then girlfriend), our one small room in the basement of our landlord’s house, skimming that book under dim light through the characteristics of each grape, running back and forth to Safeway, purchasing bottles that hopefully fit the description. I was still going to grad school, working part-time, so spending $16 on a bottle of Bonny Doon Cardinal Zin was absolutely crazy, but I so badly wanted to know what it tasted like.  That’s how my wine education began.  Not at a dinner table, or in a beautiful wine cellar, or in a fancy restaurant, but rather on an old double mattress, in a dank, underground bedroom, with whatever I could find at the supermarket.

While stocking the liquor shelves in the afternoon, I overheard someone discussing wine glasses and how they needed to get a set for their home.  It was clear this person was new to the wine game, but he was adamant about only drinking “high-end” stuff.  Therefore, he was only interested in glassware that could support wines of quality, not low quality glass for drinking the rinky-dink, everyday slop.  Besides the misguided belief that fine wine cannot be enjoyed from an eight-dollar wine glass, the unnerving part of that conversation relates to society’s obsession with only drinking the “best,” while skipping over the unimportant parts.

Crime author Jo Nesbo has a character in his book Nemesis who only buys greatest hits compellations on CD because he doesn’t have time for anything but the best.  I laughed out loud reading that.  There’s no way to understand context if you haven’t experienced everything, but sometimes people are more concerned about appearance than actual understandingYou can’t understand Steinbeck just by reading the Grapes of Wrath.  You’ve got to read Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and East of Eden too, even though they’re not as famous.  Buying a fancy camera with expensive lenses won’t make you a professional photographer.  You still need to understand how to use a standard manual SLR before you’re ever going to take better pictures. 

When I look back at drinking inexpensive wine from mis-matched glasses on the floor of my overcrowded bedroom, I don’t think of those times with any sense of embarrassment.  Realizing how my experience has led me to different tastes only makes those beginning stages more important.  I could never realize the beauty of the Ridge Geyserville had I never tasted the Cardinal Zin.  I would never appreciate Tavel rose were it not for the jugs of white zinfandel I chugged during college.  Don’t feel the need to pretend you’re not from humble origins if you are.  Those roots are requisite for any serious appreciation of booze.  Any embarrassment or regret should stem from never having had those experiences, not the other way around.

-David Driscoll