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Thursday
Nov172016

Watch the Web

There's a lot of balls in the air right now. We're getting small allocations of all types of limited releases at the moment, little drops of Michter's 10 and 20, scattered mature Nikkas, dollops of Weller 107 and Rock Hill Farms. There are three to six bottle drops of things coming in and out of each retail location right now, but nothing you'll be able to waitlist or get an email about. You've gotta be in the right place at the right time. If you watch the web tomorrow I think you'll see more of these things appear on the K&L site. Just keep checking back in! In the meantime, I managed to secure a reasonable about of this stuff, if Blanton's is your bag.

Blanton's Original Single Barrel Bourbon $49.99 - The nose is very deep and satisfying. The taste has a masterful start with powerful dry vanilla notes in perfect harmony with strong hints of honey and caramel. The long, creamy caramel holds the fort until some late soft peppers arrive to spice things up. The underlying dryness amid the spice and honey really makes for a bourbon that should suit all tastes. "Double Gold Medal" winner at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Nov162016

Seasonal Greetings

Grabbing yourself one of the many seasonal Fall release American whiskies has become an exercise in futility (or in overspending) for many people at this point. You can still find a bottle on the shelf from time to time, but it will cost you. It's not just the big metropolitan markets, either. When I was in Kentucky yesterday I saw bottles of Van Winkle 12 year Lot B selling for $600 a pop. Stagg was on one shelf for $1000. For many people it's no longer fun or interesting, it's just plain frustrating. If you're one of those whiskey fans who thinks all interesting American whiskies are impossible to get anymore, let me direct your attention to the 2016 Fall release of the Leopold Maryland-Style rye whiskey, a product that's become a must-buy for me each time it arrives. This seasonal whiskey is distiller Todd Leopold's homage to a lost style of American whiskey: Maryland rye. It's a mellow, yet flavorful and bready whiskey that has loads of baking spices and plenty of character without the intense peppery or dill-dominated notes we see from the MGP stuff. I love how creamy it is while maintaining a distinct rye-based core of flavor. There's nothing else like it on the market, which is exactly why Todd felt it needed to be made! Most importantly, you can actually get it! Here. Now. We've got plenty...for the moment. If you could get it year-round, however; it wouldn't be a seasonal release!

Leopold Bros. Maryland Style Rye Whiskey $46.99 - From the distillery: Pre-Prohibition American rye whiskey involved two different styles. The first, Pennslyvania rye (known sometimes as Monongahela-style) is generally spicy, dry, and heavily oaked. Maryland rye, by contrast, is fruity, floral, and less aggressive. Leopold Bros. Maryland-Style Rye Whiskey achieves this unique flavor profile by hand selecting a variety of yeast strains to use in our fermentation process, paying homage to a lost style of whiskey that hasn’t been distilled in the United States in decades. In keeping with tradition, the rye whiskey is barreled at 98 proof, enabling the flavors to develop in our charred American oak barrels. Very limited in quantities and released only seasonally at this point by the distillery.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Nov142016

Before I Leave...

While I was only visiting Kentucky for a brief day-and-a-half, I had to find time to hit up my favorite Bardstown liquor store (with a drive-thru, no less) and grab the two new Old Bardstown releases from Willett. We don't have these in California at the moment, so I was excited to get my hands on them. Willett began sending its self-distilled rye out to the West Coast within the last year, but the Bourbon remains on lock down in Kentucky. While we do indeed have the black-label Old Bardstown edition at K&L, that particular expression (like Noah's Mill, Rowan's Creek, and the rest of the original KBD portfolio) wasn't produced by Willett. These two new white-label Old Bardstown releases are 100% Willett distilled, however! Two fresh new specimen to add to the single barrel distillery bottling I snagged this past August.

They're also $23 and $25 a piece. So why does that shitty new two year old Bourbon from that micro-distillery over there cost eighty bucks? I don't know. And I don't care. I won't be buying that one.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Nov142016

The Maker's 46 Single Cask Experience

For those of you who have never tasted Maker's 46, the Loretto distillery's only variation on the standard Maker's Mark flavor profile in more than sixty years of operation (not counting the Mint Julep edition), it's a French oak-enhanced formula that stimulates additional spice and richness by the addition of seasoned staves into the barrel during maturation. If you look at the miniature cross-section pictured above, you'll get an idea of what that process looks like. Ten expressive French oak planks are hooked on to a ring and inserted vertically into an empty Bourbon barrel, which is then refilled with mature, cask-strength Maker's Mark and aged for an additional nine weeks. Pretty simple, right? The first time I heard about the idea back in 2010, I can't say I was all that intrigued. It seemed somewhat gimmicky, to be honest, and the idea that three months of additional maturation with a few staves could really make that much of a difference was hard to believe. However, I eventually tasted the 46, realized it was indeed a unique expression of its own with extra spice and richness, and quickly had any doubts or inclinations about the whiskey put to bed. We've happily carried it ever since and it remains popular with our audience. But it wasn't until 2015 that I really understood the potential of the Maker's 46 seasoned-stave process or how far one could take it. I was visiting the distillery on business and my guide that day happened to have a sample of a Maker's 46 variation they had been working on at full proof. "Would you like to taste it?" he asked with a grin. I nodded, tasted, and rejoiced. The increased complexity in the whiskey was equally as drastic as the gulf that exists between the standard Maker's Mark and the cask strength edition—one of my personal favorites. "We're hoping to do a barrel program with this concept in the future," he continued. "Retailers like yourself can come out, pick your own staves, and make your own formula."

"And bottle it at cask strength?" I asked, wide-eyed and rabid.

"Of course."

A year later, I was back at Maker's Mark, ready to finally participate in the program I had been eagerly anticipating. It was finally happening. I flew out to Louisville with my Beam-Suntory rep Glen and we met up with Scott Mooney, who has been appointed to oversee the program. The chilly morning weather had my senses crisp and clear. As we walked through the campus towards the old Samuels house the wreathes were adorned on each window, the holiday spirit was in the air, and the mood was perfect for whiskey tasting. Maker's Mark might be my favorite distillery site in the world because of its quaint and rustic charm. There are few places more picturesque and idealistic in the booze business. In no way does it feel like a big distillery. When you come here, you're quickly transported into the Kentucky Bourbon frame of mind. 

While most whiskey drinkers understand that Bourbon must be aged in new, charred American oak barrels, I'm not sure how many of them know the differences between French and American oak, especially as it pertains to flavor. One thing I never knew until today's visit was the actual reason the whiskey was named "Maker's 46" in the first place. It turns out "46" was the nickname given to the project by the coopers in charge of seasoning the French oak staves due to the latitude of the forest in France where the wood was being sourced. While whiskey drinkers may geek out about fermentation times and distillation times, coopers apparently geek out about the way different types of trees grow in different parts of the world. It turns out that French oak trees grow at a much slower rate than American oak trees do, which in turn creates a tighter growth ring pattern inside the wood itself (as you can clearly see in the photo above) which changes the way the oak influences the whiskey. Part of this phenomenon has to do with the soil and the weather conditions, but it's also an intentional effect. The French government carefully manages the growth of its oak trees (the renowned L'Office National des Forêts) for the purpose of creating tall, straight, and tightly-grained staves that are perfect for cooperage. When seasoned and toasted, French oak has a much more exotic profile than American oak. Wine drinkers know this well as French oak is the preferred vessel for richer cabernet and chardonnay expressions. The official story is that Bill Samuels Jr. was looking to create something "yummy" when he set out to create the "46." The influence of French oak is a great place to start when looking to enhance the richness and spice of any liquid. It often imparts flavors of chocolate, incense, mocha, and nutmeg—all flavors that go well with Bourbon, in my opinion.

But while Mr. Samuels eventually came across the particularly-perfect French oak stave to create his dream whiskey and satiate his desire, the new Maker's 46 barrel program takes that initial idea and adds four extra possibilities. In addition to the standard Samuels selection, retailers like me can choose from seasoned American oak staves, and two additional French oak recipes: one that imparts heavy mocha and the other more dark cocoa and spice. With ten staves to work with and five different styles to choose from, there are many possible permutations for creating a recipe. But again that's only if you honestly believe the addition of a few staves over the course of nine weeks makes that big of a difference in a whiskey's flavor. To quickly squash any doubt or uncertainty about the efficacy of the process, Scott walked us into an upstairs conference room where he had laid out five individual whiskies, each matured with one individual type of stave for nine weeks. I nosed and tasted all five. They were all completely different, so much so that they could have been made by five completely different distilleries. There was no question about their unique characters. The goal was simply to figure out which flavors I liked and which flavors I didn't in order to create my own version of Maker's 46. After testing the idea out over the course of a year, the folks at the distillery discovered that by blending a test sample of the individual whiskies to the same proportion of staves used in the barrel, they could accurately predict the resulting flavor. For example: a blend of equal parts of all five samples would taste more or less the same as a barrel that used exactly two of each stave. It was up to me to create a blend that suited my fancy. Once I did that, I would know which formula to use for my barrel. 

For the purposes of simplifying the concept and streamlining the process, Maker's created poker chips and slotted staves to help track and evaluate each potential formula. You, the creator, get to choose the style and number of each particular stave by choosing the appropriate quantity of chips and Scott, the blender, whips up a test batch of each particular recipe based on each board. Before beginning, however, Scott asked me about my vision. "Well," I began, "I don't want to create some Frankensteinian version of Maker's Mark that no longer tastes like Maker's Mark. I want to keep the core elements intact."

He nodded and jotted down a few notes.

"This is a wheated Bourbon. I want it to still taste like a wheated Bourbon because that's what I like about it. Maybe we can somehow accentuate the sweetness; make it pop somehow in a way it didn't before. That would be nice."

When Bill Samuels set out to create the original Maker's Mark, he wanted the sweetest, most front palate-loaded Bourbon possible. That's part of the reason he eventually chose a wheated recipe, opting for 16% winter wheat in place of rye as the flavor grain in the mash bill. He also dialed up the malted barley to 14% for extra creaminess. On top of that, he had the distillery season its barrels for nine months to a year before using them. What does "seasoning" wood actually mean? Basically, you leave the wood outside and let nature take its course. Through exposure to the elements, the wood begins to breakdown and dry out. During that process the natural tannins in the wood will soften, which is why Bill wanted his barrels seasoned for an extended period. He didn't want wood tannins harshening his mellow, sweet, creamy wheated Bourbon. You know those bold, drying, astringent, and bitter notes you sometimes get in a real woody Bourbon? That's the wood tannins doing a number on your taste buds. Maker's Mark doesn't have any of that tannic character because they use heavily-seasoned casks. At the same time, however, their single casks have less variance as a result. "Part of the reason we didn't just do a Maker's Mark single barrel program is because most of the barrels taste exactly the same," Scott said. "Our whiskey is so carefully matured and well-managed, we realized there wouldn't be much of an incentive to pick one cask over another."

Hence, the creation of a Maker's 46 single cask experience where you can create your own particular variance based on your own particular taste.

How did I do? Really well, I think! I had a plan—a goal in mind—and a good idea of what would get me there, so I didn't need too much time in the blending room. Scott actually goofed up on my fourth try and inadvertently created the final recipe after mistaking two of the poker chips for the wrong stave. For some reason there were a few chips that were the same color as one another and I used those chips by mistake. Scott misread the formula and didn't catch the problem until it was too late. We soon realized, however, that the error was ultimately our success! The whiskey had everything I wanted: big creamy vanilla flavors, big baking spices, and a big, sweet, wheated Bourbon finish that never wandered over to the dark side. If you've ever wondered why people love Pappy Van Winkle so much, there are two main reasons: it's big and it's sweet. That's what wheated Bourbon is supposed to taste like, that's what I like about it, and that's what I wanted to make today during my Maker's 46 experience. After selecting my staves, filling my barrel, and rolling it into the rickhouse, I called it a day. 

Let's cross our fingers and hope our K&L cask tastes as good as the sample blend! We'll find out next Spring.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Nov132016

Making a Mark

My eyes are closed. All is dark except for the somewhat reddish hue created by the back of my eyelids. I can hear the monotonous, high-pitched hum of the plane’s engine—a steady B note—and it begins to hypnotize me further. My thoughts are no longer clear, but rather a hazy cloud of scattered memories and random pictures. I am barely conscious because I am exhausted. It’s somewhere around 5:30 AM, I’m running on four hours of sleep, and I’m on a flight headed to Atlanta. I’m comfortable enough to somewhat doze and drift between realms, but I’m not properly positioned for true slumber. I suddenly remember a dream that my brain had suppressed after its initial occurrence. A tingly sensation of déjà vu washes over me, but before I can grasp the image and place it in context it’s gone once again. I peek into the cabin briefly with my right eye. The night is still black outside the nearby window. I hear the captain instruct the flight attendants to take their seats and prepare for take off. Seconds later, the engines rev, the fuselage throttles forward, and we’re off into the early morning November sky. 

After one of the most jam-packed and exhausting weeks of my career at K&L, I’m choosing to extend the carnage and travel to Kentucky with my friends from Beam-Suntory. Besides the ubiquitous election fatigue and standard work week, I ended up doing a shift in Redwood City on Monday (typically my day off), put together a Bruichladdich dinner on Tuesday, worked additionally with the sales staff to prepare wine emails on Wednesday, hosted a Beaujolais dinner in San Francisco on Thursday, rocked out late into the night with Chris Cornell after work on Friday, put in a busy sales floor shift on Saturday, and somehow managed to drag myself out of bed at 3 AM this morning to catch an early Delta flight out of SFO. I change planes in Atlanta and get into Louisville around 4 PM. There I’ll catch a cab to the hotel and meet the rest of the Beam group to prepare for the evening’s activities. I’m on the road once again, heading to Loretto for the initiation of the new Maker’s 46 single cask program—a more hands-on barrel selection process that allows retailers and restaurants to actually customize their whiskey by personally selecting the additional wooden staves that enter the cask during maturation. If you’re unfamiliar with how Maker’s Mark 46 is crafted, I’ll fill in you on all those details tomorrow when I’m at the distillery. Know this: it involves the addition of seasoned planks of oak of various styles and sizes to add additional spice and flavor to the Bourbon. 

Since I have to work an additional shift this Sunday to help cover the pre-holiday rush, I’ve knowingly trapped myself inside a fourteen day run with no rest and no personal time off during the busiest part of the retail year. It remains to be seen if I’ll emerge unscathed, but I scheduled the trip to Maker’s Mark in spite of my schedule for two important reasons: 1) I think Maker’s Mark is one of America's top whiskies and deserves more respect from serious Bourbon heads, and 2) I wanted to help shed some light on what Beam is doing to create better versions of the brand. I find it almost stupefying that in a period plagued by sleepless consumers in a frantic search for more wheated Bourbon (a side effect of the never-ending Pappy craze that has drained the market of Weller products as well), Maker’s Mark is still considered too mainstream by many to be cool. If you ever needed proof that popular consumption is guided by fashion rather than flavor, this contradiction of desire is exhibit A. For my taste, Maker’s Mark is a better session whiskey than Weller 107. I’d happily drink both if given the option, but I certainly wouldn’t jump through hoops or pay a premium for wheated Weller when I can get wheated Maker’s Mark at any store from here to Bangor, Maine, any day of the week. I would, however, fly across the country in the middle of holiday madness to bring more attention to that issue. The Maker’s Mark cask strength edition is still, in my opinion, the best readily-available Bourbon we carry. It has all the sweetness and creaminess that you’d expect from a wheated Bourbon and it practically explodes in your mouth when you sip it. Last year when I visited the distillery, I got to taste the Maker’s 46 at cask strength for the first time and—much like my experience with the standard formula—was taken aback by how much more interesting the whiskey tasted at full proof. Now I’m going back to bottle my own batch on behalf of K&L. I’d say that’s worth hopping on a plane, potentially over-extending my weakening stamina, and burning out before Thanksgiving even starts, right?

What we do to ourselves in the name of good whiskey!

-David Driscoll