The Gin Takeover

Alessandro Palazzi pouring me one of the world's best gin martinis in London at the Duke's hotel

While we can talk about the rise of American whiskey, the proliferation of single malt, the emergence of brandy, and the rebirth of rum in the realm of our modern spirits renaissance, I don't think there's one bartender from here to Shanghai that will argue with me when I say we are currently living the era of gin. Not just gin, but great gin—more gin, from more places, with more flavors and more botanicals than we've ever seen in the history of this planet. While brown spirits continue to dominate the message boards, blogs, and Instagram review sites of today's connoisseur subculture, it's gin that is dominating the consumption market; not just in America, all over the world (what's funny is that the U.S. actually lags behind the Phillipines, of all places, and it's not even close!). How long does it take you to consume a bottle of gin versus a bottle of whiskey? For me, it can be as quick as 24 hours if I'm making heavy gin and tonics, but rarely will I consume an entire bottle of whiskey in less than a month. Think about that comparison from an economic perspective now. If consumers (and bars & restaurants alike) are blowing through gin at a faster clip, using a product that's cheaper to make than whiskey (yet often costs the same per bottle), can be made faster than whiskey, and will likely never suffer from the supply and demand issues that have hampered pricing and availability in the whiskey market, then tell me honestly: would you rather build a whiskey distillery in 2017 or a gin distillery? I know where I stand.

It's crazy to think that between 2009 and 2014 gin was seen simply as a way for many small distillers to make money while waiting for their whiskey to age. Many of these players got into the game with visions of Pappy dancing through their heads, but found out quickly that gin was the spirit that ultimately paid the bills. My problem with that strategy then is the same as it is today: to distill gin with such a mindset is almost a slap in the face to the legacy of the spirit (a legacy that is much more interesting and far more romantic than whiskey's, to me). Can you imagine if you heard a distiller say:

"Yeah, I really want to make pear eau-de-vie, but since whiskey's popular and people will buy it, I thought I'd throw some corn spirit in a few oak barrels just to make some extra cash."

I know whiskey drinkers who would lose their minds if they heard something like that! Yet, for almost a decade that's been a perfectly acceptable mindset for many a small distiller—to treat gin with such deference. There's an enormous gap in quality between those distillers who take gin seriously and those who see it simply as the means to and end. Over the last three years, I'd say, as a drinking society we've gone from a mindset of "good gin makes a great classic cocktail" to "good gin tastes pretty damn good—period!" Because more drinkers are understanding how gin is made, how the botanicals play such an important role, and how an ancient recipe for gin can be every bit as complex and intriguing as a old family recipe for Bourbon, we're seeing a change in public thinking. As a result, we're beginning to see more and more small distilleries who focus almost entirely on gin—and that's a good thing. Let me tell you: there's a reason why Monkey 47, Four Pillars, North Shore, and Edinburgh Distillery have come on the scene over the past decade to construct some of the world's best gins: they all make gin almost exclusively. Do the world's best Scotches come from distilleries that also make vodka, gin, and brandy? Not usually. There's something to be said for focus.

That being said, there's also something to be said for discovery, education, and redirection. For years, the crux of any argument concerning what makes a spirit worth its price has been its age. A large majority of the marketplace believes a 12 year old whisky should cost less than a 15 year. More importantly, these consumers believe a spirit that's entirely unaged (like gin) should never cost more than a spirit that is (like whiskey). But we're now starting to see cracks in that facade. I was flipping through Tristan Stephenson's excellent book The Curious Bartender's Gin Palace last night, when I found a passage that made me both chuckle and ponder deeply about gin's origins: 

In 1495, a wealthy merchant from a region known as the Duchy of Guelders decided it would be a good idea to have a book written for him. Being a household guide, the book documented some of the lavish recipes he and his family were enjoying at the time. Included was a brandy recipe made from '10 quarts of wine thinned with clear hamburg beer.' After distillation the liquid would be redistilled with 'two handfuls of dried sage, 1lb of cloves, 12 whole nutmegs, cardamom, cinnamon, galangal, ginger, grains of paradise' and—crucially—juniper berries.' The spices were placed in a cloth sack and suspended above the distillate, allowing the vapours to extract their flavour.

...and here's the kicker:

Grinding diamonds over white truffle is as close a comparison as I can imagine to expressing the extravagance of such a recipe during that period.

Why, you ask? Because this recipe dates back to the era of the spice trade! Back when nutmeg was more expensive than gold. To make such an elixir with those valuable ingredients was unheard of! While it's true that all of those botanicals can be purchased much more cheaply today, let's not discount the importance and the impact that carefully-sourced, fresh, and flavorful ingredients can play in a true top-shelf gin. Not only in terms of flavor, but also terroir. One of my goals this past February in traveling to the Four Pillars distillery outside of Melbourne was to use as many indigenous, locally-grown Australian botanicals as possible in our K&L cuvée. St. George's outstanding Terroir gin uses herbs and spices sourced entirely from California's Mt. Tam. Bruichladdich's Botanist gin collects most of its botanicals from Islay, giving the gin a true local flavors. Botanicals can be to gin what age is to whiskey. For those looking beyond flavor to determine value and intrigue, the origin of each recipe should provide endless talking points and fodder and provide insight into the great regional gardens of our planet.

Gin isn't just taking over the world right now, it's also going to take over the K&L spirits blog for this week. Each day, I'll be digging deep into a few gins that I think you all might want to know more about, while providing a deeper insight into how gin is made and why you should be drinking it. Until then!

-David Driscoll


One More Round of Villa Zarri

Emilia-Romagna is a beautiful place. Located just north of Bologna, the Villa Zarri estate is set in between rolling hills of green. The property itself dates back to 1578 and has hosted scores of parties, concerts, exhibits, and events over those many centuries, but distillation at the site is a rather recent development in context. Everything Guido Zarri does in the distillery is exactly as is done in the Charentes: the grapes are same varietal, the stills are the same shape and size, the proof of the spirit comes off just over seventy as it does in Cognac. It's in the barrel room, however, that Guido changes direction. Rather than age his brandies in used Limosin oak, he starts each distillate off in new oak casks to impart color and intensity before transferring them into refill barrels over time. He also does not top up the barrels to prevent evaporation, instead choosing to transfer the brandies into fewer and fewer barrels as they begin to lose volume. The result is a richer, darker, and more oak influenced spirit; one that does not require coloring agents or added sugar to soften the mouthfeel. The brandies are impressive and all encompassing from the very first sip. But, if you're a modern spirits fan, wait until you taste that concentrated flavor at 59.7%

This most recent batch of Villa Zarri represents the remnant of our previous cask, of which we only bottled a portion. Rather than change the label and go through the whole TTB approval game again, we left it at "24 years" even though it's older than 25 at this point. Why should you buy this brandy? Simple: rarely has a grape distillate ever come this close in my mind to mimicking the best parts of Scotch, Bourbon, and Cognac all in one tidy, cask strength, single barrel package. You get the richness of of the Brandy on the nose; oodles of caramel and creme brulée. You get the power and oak dominance of a Bourbon on the entry, with big spice and bold strength. You get the nuance and complexity of a Scotch on the finish with candied fruit, hints of earth, and rancio notes for minutes after swallowing. There's a reason we went crazy for this bottle last time around. It's the same reason we're crazy about it this time: it's a dynamic, delicious, and dangerously drinkable spirit.

1991 Villa Zarri 24 Year Old "K&L Exclusive" Single Barrel Cask Strength Italian Brandy $99.99 - Nestled into the hills of Emilia Romagna is the Villa Zarri distillery, a small production run by Guido Zarri with a stunning portfolio of traditional Italian recipes and impeccable aged brandies. The Cognac-style brandies are distilled on an alembic pot still by from Trebbiano (the Italian version of Ugni Blanc, same as Cognac) and aged in French Limousin oak for at least 10 years. They are unadulterated, have no added caramel or sugar, and are like fuller, richer, more interesting versions of their French cousins. I was absolutely smitten with the 10 and 21-year-old brandies the first time I tasted them; so much so that I immediately requested barrel samples to hopefully purchase older, higher proof selections directly for K&L in the future. Guido was excited about working with us on a project and provided us with an incredible 1991 vintage 24 year old brandy at cask strength, combining the richness and the finesse of great Cognac with the power and depth of a fine single malt Scotch. It's not only one of the best brandies I've ever tasted, it's one of the most reasonably-priced spirits I've ever tasted for the quality involved. At nearly 60% ABV, there's a lot of heat, so a drop or two of water really helps open up the fruit. Underneath all that power is plenty of rich vanilla, sweet oak, lush stone fruit, and Cognac-like finesse, but without all the sticky additives. What you get here is almost like a Glenmorangie version of brandy. 

-David Driscoll


The Lore and Lure of Highland Park

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been recently revisiting the whiskies of Highland Park with great relish after a long absence of Orkney blood in my veins. I remember being a young, up and coming whisky buyer back in the day and hearing all these veteran drinkers clammer about how good the island distillery was—its inherent complexity, its potential for greatness, and its status as a top-tier single malt in the greater world of Scotch whisky. For me, however, Highland Park was never one of my favorites. 


I don't know. Maybe I was looking beyond the obvious. Maybe I was contrarian in nature as a more youthful drinker. Maybe I just didn't get it. What matters is: I'm getting it now.

The evolution of the palate is an interesting thing. In most cases, at least from my experience, drinkers tend to move from bold and obvious flavors to more nuanced and discreet complexity over time. That's how I've evolved as a wine drinker, and my development is decisively similar to that of my colleagues as well. When it comes to whisky these days, rarely am I looking for power. Much like I'm turned off by some blowhard who can't shut up (the irony isn't lost on me there), I'm similarly less enthused by whiskies that are all punch and no prowess. It's for that reason that I found myself utterly charmed this week by a whisky I had previously written off: the Highland Park 12 year. The combination of ripe and supple stone fruits, bolstered by creamy vanilla and just a whisper of peat, is just what I've been looking for as of late because it's all so well integrated. As I pondered previously: is the HP 12 really that good, or am I just being bombarded by mediocrity as of late? It's hard to know for sure, but either way I'm happy so who really cares?

When I saw the new Highland Park "Valkyrie" show up this week, I was really curious to see how it compared. Historically, I've not been intrigued by the distillery's viking mythology series. I've spent countless hours in the Heathrow duty free shop looking at the Valhalla bottles, wondering where the Edrington Group was going here, thinking the heritage of a legendary brand was getting caught up in too much legendary heritage. All of this lore regarding the history of Orkney and the vikings that once dwelled there, but little talk of the whisky itself—and for a premium, no less! I tend to tune out that noise and look elsewhere when limited edition bottles like that are released. However, when they're under $75, I'm open to discussion. 

Highland Park's new Valkyrie edition, much like its previous releases, is long on viking mythology and short on specifics, but that doesn't mean it doesn't taste good. I did a side by side comparison with the 12 and 18 year this week and felt that—as a middle ground between the two—the whisky holds up quite well for the $70 price. More importantly, it tastes like the best parts of both. While the 12 year is light and fruity, the classic 18 year is remarkedly more sherried. With the Valkyrie, you get the malty, lightly-peated texture of the 12 with some of the rancio, cakebread, and richness of the 18. From what I understand, about half of the barley used in the Valkyrie was peated, which is higher than what's used in the 12 and 18. That extra kick helps to mask any rawness from the whisky's younger components and was clearly a good move.

On the finish is a wave of dark chocolate and earth from the sherry, bolstered by more smoke. The packaging is nicely revamped and marks the beginning of a complete make-over for the entire portfolio. I'm normally not one to write whisky reviews like this in the classic sense, but given the all-or-nothing reviews I've read thus far online, it seems people either hate this whisky because of its NAS (non age statement) status and consider it pure marketing, or completely love it and think it tastes great. I thought I'd chime in. As someone who in the past has avoided Highland Park for those former criticisms, I have to say I'm with the latter group of drinkers in this particular case. I think the Valkyrie tastes pretty damn good, and I'm much more inclined to appreciate the gorgeous packaging and the mood of the messaging when I'm satisfied with the whisky itself.

I'm not at all opposed to Highland Park's new direction of viking-oriented themes and Orkney lore. In fact, I think it's an interesting approach and a smart move in terms of distinguishing the whisky amongst a younger, Game of Thrones-watching generation. What I appreciate most here is that the Valkyrie delivers its finest work on the nose and the finish, rather than on the mid-palate. These are two elements of whisky appreciation I appreciate more as I get older: how it teases my nostrils and how it comes together as a unit on the back end. There's a robust sherry aroma right out of the bottle, and sweet, concentrated hit of Oloroso richness on the finish that dries out a bit with the smoke, but clearly makes itself known. While Highland Park went heavier on Orkney's viking heritage this time around, they didn't do so at the expense of the whisky.

I'm finally coming around to Highland Park as a longtime whisky drinker. Perhaps a bit too late, but better late than never.

-David Driscoll


Drink & Watch: Cailleach

I'm a big believer in the idea that inspiration must be constantly renewed. It's like a skill that fades over time when not sharpened. The same way that some folks find new meaning in life when confronted with death, I find that smaller, less drastic moments of realization act to replenish my lust for living—and drinking, too. Those instances can come from simple clarity of thought or from conversations with others, but—let's be real here—most of the time I'm inspired by art; just like the rest of us.

I signed up for Filmstruck, a collaborative streaming service between Turner Classic Films and the Criterion Collection, this past January thinking it would only be a matter of time before the network would launch on Roku. Six months later we're finally there, but the wait has been worth it. Not only did I recently revisit Ashes & Diamonds (which I wrote about a few days ago while drinking vodka), I found this little gem of a short documentary today called Cailleach—a piece of poetry from Scotland's Outer Hebrides.

Let me tell you: I had no desire to drink before I sat down to watch this film. Now all I want is Scotch, Scotch, Scotch!

If you've ever wondered what it's like to visit Islay, Jura, or any of the remote whisky destinations of the malted motherland, Cailleach takes you on a fourteen minute trip to the maritime locale. While filmed on the Isle of Harris, the terrain is much the same. Greens and browns, stony shores, and remnants of old buildings scatter the hillsides. It's an insight into life in Scotland's remote wilderness, the fear of getting old, and confronting death without anxiety (which of course only makes me want to drink all the more), but boy is it beautiful. You should watch this just for the scenery!

Life, just like whisky, requires constant evaluation in order to keep inspiration high. In getting the thirst this evening, I reached for an old bottle of Highland Park 12 year and poured myself a glass. If that whisky isn't one of the best deals in the Scotch universe, I don't know what is. I hadn't tasted it in at least a year and I was absolutely floored by the complexity. Is the Orkney malt really that good, or was I simply overlooking its quality in the face of so many other new whiskies? It's easy to forget how wonderful something can be if you go too long without revisiting it. This was a reminder: don't ever let yourself get too busy for life's great moments.

As someone said to me not all that long ago: busy is the new stupid. Only stupid people don't make time for what's important.

-David Driscoll


Finally, I Catch My Breath

It's been go, go, go for the last few months. Non-stop, pedal to the metal, go!!!!!!!!!!!

I've been at a tasting, or an event, or on the road, or at one of my own parties just about every other night since this past February, but after last night's amazing show at Donato, I'm finally due for a bit of R&R. We had my friend Dean Cameron in town to perform his play the Nigerian Spam Scam Scam, and—MAN—was it a hit! We had drinks, snacks, great people, and a whole lotta fun.

I think part of what got everyone so jazzed was the nature of the event. This wasn't our normal wine or whiskey oriented party. It was a live performance, featuring two comedians doing some serious acting, paired along side plenty of booze and a beautiful space. Most of the guests were a bit uncertain as to the specifics coming in, but every single person walked out of that room last night entertained, excited, thankful, and satiated with alcohol. I was over the moon.

Dean was in great form, as was Victor who plays his Nigerian counterpart. People I didn't know were hugging me as they left, so thankful that we had put on the event and that they had the chance to be involved. I can safely say it might be the best K&L booze event we've ever done, in terms of the creativity involved, the value of the ticket, and the sheer fun of the show. I'm so relieved we pulled it off! Our own Jordan Stone did the sound, which was 75% of the work. He did a fantastic job.

What's going on this week in the K&L spirits department?

- I managed to get the last few bottles from the same cask of Villa Zarri 24 year old cask strength brandy I purchased last year. That's kind of a big, mainly because I think it's one of the best brandies we found in 2016, and the reviews from consumer feedback were through the roof. Watch for that to come back in stock.

- Denver & Liely shipped out another case of their amazing whiskey glasses, so if you missed out on that initial batch last week there are now more in stock.

- Our latest shipment of Copper & Kings products arrived and should be in stock by Monday. Watch for their incredible gin (this batch distilled just for us), the Blue Sky Mining muscat brandy, as well as the incredible Serbian juniper barrel-aged absinthe.

-Finally, a new Old Particular 25 year old Cambus grain whisky should be landing shortly, for a price that should make you spit out your coffee.

I'll be out of town most of next week for a quick trip to the East Coast, but I'll check in via email. A big thank you to the fifty people who turned up last night for Dean's show! I'm so glad we were able to share that experience with you.

-David Driscoll