Whisky Season 2016 – Round One

Now that I'm moving into my upper-thirties, I'm finally of an age when I can start saying things like, "Remember when Coke cost a nickel?" Well, actually it's more like, "Remember when MTV actually played music videos?" In any case, if you've been reading the blog with any regularity, you'll know I've been suffering from nostalgia for the past year, longing for the days when everything made sense to me. Traveling to Scotland this year with my colleague Jeff Jones, we talked ad nauseam about the olden times at K&L, back when you could get eighteen year old whiskies for less than a hundred bucks and we actually had special selections on the shelf year-round. In our search for new single barrels and our meetings with suppliers, I channeled all of those sappy, sentimental emotions into our dealings. While of course I wanted to find great whisky, what I really wanted to do was find a way to bring down the prices. While tasting an old school, no-frills sample of 18 year old Auchentoshan at Douglas Laing, I looked at Jeff and said: "Wow, this is good." He agreed. "The problem," I continued, "is that it will probably sell for over a hundred bucks." But what if we could sell it for around seventy? That would really be something. But how could we do that? 

Creativity! We decided to move some numbers around, do a little of this, a little of that, back load a few things for the Y2K update, etc. In all honesty, however: don't ask how; just enjoy. This is just the beginning.

1997 Auchentoshan 18 Year Old K&L Exclusive "Old Particular" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky - $69.99 - Don't be fooled by the low price! The fact that we can offer 18 year old, single barrel, cask strength Auchentoshan is a result of our hard work and not the result of sub-par whisky. Not only is this Lowland delight a strikingly delicious single malt whisky, it's one of the most complex Auchentoshan specimen we've had the pleasure of tasting. The palate starts off with a kiss of sweet vanilla, followed by somewhat surprising notes of Earl Grey tea, savory spice, and a combination of citrus and stone fruit. At cask strength, those flavors are slightly muted by the 52.1% ABV, but a few drops of water help to placate that power. We typically sell the standard Auchentoshan 18 year old for $110 per bottle at the watered-down 43% ABV, so to see a release of this nature for $40 less per bottle is indeed shocking. Those looking for lighter, easy-to-drink summer malt can enjoy the sheer drinkability of the Auchentoshan without sacrificing depth, complexity, or intrigue. We're not sure if we're more excited to be selling the whisky or drinking it.

1996 Arran 19 Year Old K&L Exclusive "Old Particular" Single Sherry Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky - $69.99 - Last year we purchased a 15 year old single sherry butt from Arran that sold for $129.99. Now we're offering a second cask with an additional four years of age for almost half the price! These are heady times for K&L customers, indeed! This recent arrival from our Old Particular line is lighter on the sherry influence as the cask itself had been used previously to mature whisky, but that only allows the inherent maltiness of the Arran to come through. What the sherry does is simply highlight the toasted grains and the subtle hint of maritime influence, almost like a light frosting on a cake. The weight of the whisky is supple on the palate and the richness comes through on the finish with waves of baking spice, bits of cocoa, and a mealy biscuit note. Arran has been one of our most popular producers over the last five years with more and more customers finding a happy medium in the island distillery's mild-mannered profile. At no time, however, have we offered an Arran this good for a price this low. Take advantage of our direct-import offer while it lasts! As this is a single barrel, the quantities are finite and we rarely have enough for everyone. 

1987 Glenturret 28 Year Old K&L Exclusive "Old Particular" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky - $89.99 - It's rare to see a 25 year old whisky for less than $150 these days, and even when we do see the occasional bottle our first instinct is often to ask: what's wrong with it? Understanding that natural reaction we had to ask ourselves: how will people respond when we offer them a 28 year old, single barrel, cask strength, Highland single malt for $89.99? We're hoping you'll be excited because we're absolutely thrilled! Glenturret isn't a household name among whisky drinkers, but for those in the know it's part of the Edrington portfolio: the group that owns Macallan, Highland Park, and Glenrothes. Glenturret is also considered the oldest distillery in Scotland, having been founded in 1775, and today it's the home of Famous Grouse: the world-renowned blended whisky in which it plays a large role. This 28 year old expression has reduced naturally down to a perfectly-drinkable 46.4% ABV and has the richness, oiliness, and concentration that only mature whisky can offer. It's full of brandied fruit, resin, supple caramel, and creamy malted goodness. Despite its old age, the whisky is surprisingly lithe and light on its feet. By no means is this a heavy, full-bodied number, but rather a classic Highland whisky with plenty of barrel-aged complexity. For the price, it's a no brainer. 

We'll get back to you about round two in about ten days or so. Stay tuned! (But also, don't expect all three of these whiskies to last until then!)

-David Driscoll


France Day 3 - Gascogne 

Returning to Gascogne feels like coming home. After a week alone on the road it felt incredibly comforting to see the ancient walls of Montreal on the horizon ahead of me. A grueling seven hours in the car and I was finally winding through the rolling hills of the Ténarèze. An euphoric feeling of jubilation began to take hold. It’s not just that I believe Armagnac is the most exciting brown spirit for your dollar on the market today, but also because David and I have built a relationship with this place. We’ve been exploring this area for more than five years and each time, we leave with a resounding feeling that these people have got life figured out. It is not a life is without worry, drama, or sadness. It does, however,  feel like they’ve all sort of got this special secret. They can never share it, but when you’re there you can catch glimpses of it. They certainly want you to get it, as if they might lean over and whisper it to you at any moment. To begin to understand it requires persistence, although you can start to feel its presences instantly. Maybe that’s why we keep coming back. Or maybe it’s just this guy…

The Daubin family is an incredible group of people. Their restaurant is an extension of themselves in everyway. Every time we’re there, the entire family is working tirelessly together to create some of the best food I’ve had anywhere in the world. The restaurant is an emotional manifestation of the Chef and his family act as both psychic and physical anchors for its operation. This is why some people hate it while others love it. Some people get it others will never. Often when you speak to locals about it they’ll say, “Chez Daubin? Quand il est en forme, c’est manifique.” Meaning when Bernard is “performing” the restaurant is great, but otherwise maybe not so much.

These people don’t get it. What they don’t get is why they can’t go in and order the dish they liked last time. They don’t get why sometimes they’ll be seated and have several meticulously constructed courses intricately coursed out while other times the service is family style and casual with long periods of time to drink and talk between courses. These are generally the people who don’t really like Bernard anyway, which guarantees that he can’t stand them either.

Bernard is loud, opinionated, and bullish. He won’t hesitate to tell someone they’re wrong or dumb, loves to pick fights, and make fun of people. I will note that his family provide excellent service and attentive service, while Bernard berates his customers –who invariably love it and jab him right back. No matter what everyone in the family is working their ass off. And maybe this isn’t what hospitality is supposed to be –certainly restaurant critics would likely agree that it is about consistency and accuracy, catering to the needs of your customers. 

But life is none of those things, family even less so. And this restaurant is truly an extension of those things for Bernard. So if you accept that and embrace it then you realize quickly that you’re not paying a man to eat at his restaurant, but instead you pay a tiny entrance fee to join his family. You pay to sit at his table and accept the uncertainties of family. You deposit trust and withdraw love. And food, delicious delicious food. 

-David Othenin-Girard


The Tenets of Nationalism

What does a term like "Irish whiskey" mean beyond the technical and regulatory definitions? Does any whiskey made in Ireland that abides by the standards and practices of the category qualify, or is there something beyond that—something rooted in the national spirit? If it's merely the former, then—yes—whiskey made at the big three all constitute as "Irish whiskey"—and by the "big three," I mean Midleton, Bushmills, and Cooley. Located in the town of Midleton inside of County Cork, Midleton's whisky complex has been in the hands of the Irish Distillers company since 1966 when Jameson, Powers, and the Cork Distilleries Company merged to form the whiskey megapower. Jameson had been made in Dublin prior to that at the old John Jameson distillery originally established in 1780. Powers had also been centered in the Irish capital, but subsequently moved its operations to Cork, following suit. Since then both brands, as well as Paddy's, Redbreast, and Midleton Rare, have been made at Midleton. In 1988, however, Irish Distillers merged with Pernod-Ricard and continues to be owned by the French spirits giant based out of Paris.

The old Bushmills distillery dates back to 1784 in the eponymous village of Northern Ireland. Its spirit is sometimes referred to as "Protestant whisky" by the predominantly Catholic mainland. Bushmills, too, joined the Irish Distillers group in 1972 and fell into French hands after the Pernod-Ricard takeover in 1988, but the distillery was sold out of the portfolio in 2005 when Diageo made an offer for the brand. For nine years Bushmills was owned by the London-based corporation, but in 2014 Diageo traded the distillery to Jose Cuervo in exchange for full ownership of Don Julio. Today Bushmills remains in Northern Ireland, but it's owned by the Mexican Tequila conglomerate. 

Cooley distillery is much younger than its older brothers. Founded in 1987 in County Louth by Irish businessman John Teeling, the site was formerly used to make potato-based alcohol. Converted into a whiskey distillery with the addition of proper whisky stills, within ten years Cooley was turning heads as an up-and-coming independent producer. Its core expressions—Tyrconnel, Kilbeggan, and Connemara—were being sought out by fans of the genre who were seeking something different, outside the normal scope of Jameson and Bushmills. In 2011, however, Teeling sold the distillery to Jim Beam, which as we know was purchased by Suntory in 2014. What was once the only Irish-owned distillery went quickly from American hands into Japanese stewardship. 

That brings us to West Cork, the only Irish-owned Irish whiskey we sell at K&L and one of the best bang-for-your-buck products in the business. The West Cork distillery started as a pet project by John O’ Connell, Denis McCarthy and Ger McCarthy in 2003 in Union Hall, West Cork. In 2013 after much expansion WCD moved to a larger distillery in Skibbereen, West Cork where it now resides. Not only are they the only Irish-owned whiskey at K&L, they're also the only producer in Ireland to actually malt their own barley and use Irish spring water for the production process, resulting in a softer, more delicate spirit. They also only distill indigenously-grown Irish barley and wheat. Yet, somehow their prices are cheaper than the standard brands, despite the disproportionate cash investments and the supremely diminished size of scale. In a move reminiscent of the Warriors signing Jerry West as an advisor, West Cork snagged Frank McHardy last year, the former master distiller for Springbank who has a penchant for making great stuff. 2016 might be their real break out year, however, as the company just unleashed a 62% cask strength edition with plans for a double black, charred cask release later in the month. 

I had a lady in the store yesterday who asked me for an Irish whiskey recommendation. She had no idea what Irish whiskey was or what made it different from Scotch whisky. "There's not that big of a difference," I told her with a laugh, "except that one is made in Ireland and the other is made in Scotland." She frowned. "But," I added, "Irish whiskey is typically lighter, softer, easier to drink and it rarely has peat or sherry-maturation, so it tends to taste rather similar unlike Scotch which can vary widely in its flavor profile." She perked back up. "Plus," I continued, "it tends to have more of a blue collar, working class, everyman reputation; you might typically get a shot and a beer down at the local pub while chatting with the boys after work." 

"That sounds like my kind of whiskey," she said with a smile. I gave her a bottle of West Cork ten year old. 

Why did I choose the West Cork? I'm not sure. Maybe because after thinking about my characterization of Irish whiskey my mind just unconsciously went with the Irish-owned distillery. Does the geographic location of ownership really matter in today's corporate-dominated environment? Is Four Roses any less American because it's owned by Kirin in Japan? Are Ardbeg and Bruichladdich less authentically Islay because they're owned by the French? I don't know. I think it depends on the drinker, but I know that there's a certain pride in a product being American made. Does it make a difference if that same product isn't American owned?

Whiskey that's made domestically, but owned by foreign investors. That's so often the case these days I'm not quite used to the anomaly: Irish-made, Irish-owned. It does have a nice ring to it.

-David Driscoll


Whisky Season 2016 Set to Begin

As many of you long-time K&L single malt customers know, we refer to the annual arrival of K&L single casks as "Whisky Season" and for many of us (me included) it's the most exciting time of the retail year. This season's crop is not only one of the most intriguing ever, it's also going to be the most affordable. Why is that the case? How is it that during a period when single malt prices are at some of their highest ever, we've managed to reduce the costs? I can't give away all our secrets, but I will say that, unlike some of our other campaigns where we simply went in search of the best possible casks, I went in this time around with a plan and a mission. As some of you know, I've been trying to buy some property in the Bay Area for the last few years and I've found that process to be one of the most disheartening and depressing possible. Everything is outrageously expensive and the quality is often questionable. I channeled all of the emotions I experienced looking at homes and condos into my whisky quest this year, looking to bring at least some relief to others who—be it with whisky or with the housing market—have come to expect disappointment in all transactions. 

Since I'm not a contractor or a landowner there's little I can do to help those in search of their first home. However, I am a whisky retailer with a few good connections, so there's quite a lot I can do to bring relief to the single malt Scotch market. I'm hoping to start this week with a few 18+ year old, single barrel, cask strength whiskies that bring serious bang for the buck. This will be a process, however. The whiskies will be released slowly and over time, allowing us to focus on the moment and make careful decisions, rather than scramble to grab everything all at once. I think you're all going to be very happy, even if you don't buy a thing! Just knowing that Scotch of this age and quality is available again for prices this good should put a smile on your face no matter where you are or who you shop with.

Stay tuned!

-David Driscoll


So Cute

I'm generally not a fan of gift sets, gift packaging, or any sort of holiday-oriented VAP pack that results in a bulky, oversized product that takes up too much shelf space and is a pain in the ass to ship. Call me old fashioned or practical. In cases where a producer has three products, however, all of which are fantastic, I am a big believer in the 200ml three pack and will make an exception in the store for these scenarios. St. George is a great example of this phenomenon. They have three delicious gins and choosing one is sometimes difficult for curious customers. Why not then buy the three pack and experiment with each one? We sell those St. George three packs like they're made out of crack cocaine because people love having little samples of multiple products. Now Westland is joining the fold and the timing couldn't have been better.

I've been telling people about Westland's whiskey for years now, but most guys don't want to blow $60-$70 to try a full bottle from each of the three mainstay expressions. Now for the low price of $59.99 you can try the American single malt, the peated edition, and the sherry aged whiskey in one fantastic set. With the Garryana release set for later this month, I'm expecting renewed interest in the distillery and this is a great way to indoctrinate new whiskey fans into the fold. The bad news is we can't ship them, so they're only for local customers. The good news is they're on the shelf right now!

-David Driscoll

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