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Friday
May182018

Wild Price Reduction on Well Aged Diageo Malts

Every so often we get that special little email from our suppliers with the magic words in the subject line: INVENTORY REDUCTION. It's never usually worth getting excited for since the list typically consists failed types of flavored vodka, schnapps or some goofyball shimmery liqueur. But, every so often we open them up to find prices for serious products so ridiculous that we just can't hold back. The deals below make us question just how much margin these guys are taking to begin or who's losing their shirt on this deal. There's a reason they didn't sell at the higher prices, but there's no stopping them now. Each of these three wonderful malts is being sold at the absolute lowest price worldwide. One is a solid workhorse maltfrom an underappreciated Speyside distillery perfect for mixing, sipping, gifting or parties. The two others are from the special Diageo Limited Release series from more than two years ago. I don't care why they didn't sell, just that we can sell them now. ENJOY!

The Singleton of Glendullan 15 Year Old Single Malt Whisky (750ml) (Previously $55) ($34.99)The Singleton of Glendullan 15 Year Old Single Malt Whisky (750ml) (Previously $55)

The lovely and easy drinking Singleton of Glendullan is always a favorite with the staff. It's easy drinking and well aged and with a price like this it won't stick around for very long. The Singleton brand is a bit of an enigma. Owners Diageo use malt from different distilleries in different markets under the Singleton name. Other markets see Singleton of Dufftown or Glen Ord and typically it's a pretty high end brand. So when we're able to offer it at this exceptional price we don't hold back. Grab as much as you can now because price reductions like this won't last forever. The style is round, rich and malty, showcasing the classy apple fruit, honey, and subtle mineral quality that Glendullan is known for.

Auchroisk 25 Year Old 2016 Limited Release Single Malt Whisky (750ml) (Elsewhere $500)($249.99)

The wonderful Auchroisk distillery is one of the least understood and most mispronounced malts in Scotland. This wonderful Speyside distillery is actually one of Diageo's youngest. Founded in 1974, the distillery was marketed for years under the Singleton brand, likely due to the incompressible mangle of letters that make up its name. The humble and efficient Auchroisk has become a stalwart of the Special Release line, having been featured in the 2010 and 2012 line ups. The 2015 release is inarguably the best of recent official bottlings and at 25 years of age it's in perfect form. The 3954 bottles were meant to fetch upwards of $500, but it tastes way better at $250.

1991 Glenkinchie 24 Year Old 2016 Limited Edition Single Malt Whisky (750ml) (Elsewhere $400)($200.00)

This unusual limited edition from Diageo's stalwart Lowland distillery is one of the finest we've ever come across. It was aged exclusively in refill European oak and bottled at full cask strength. Bigger and richer than the standard releases from this special little distillery, expect a heady mix of dense fruit, woodsy powerful oak, barrel spice, and strong vanilla. Powerful and tense, quite unlike most lowland whiskies, with the structure and depth provided primarily by the European oak. There's not an overt sherry influence, but we assume that some of this would previously held sherry at one point, leaving the soft impression of dried fruit and honey to balance the intensity of wood.

These insane prices are only available while supplies last and we don't expect that to be very long so have at it before it's too late. 

-David Othenin-Girard

 

Wednesday
May162018

Gascogne Day 1: A New Terroir

 

Very few feelings compare to the joy of diving into a scottish warehouse searching for barrels. It’s not easy leaving Scotland after that fleeting little sense of glory, but it's the mysteries of a magical place to the south where brandy is hidden like treasure that draw me away. This was my first time on my own in the Gers. I wasn't able to secure the good company of my friend Charles Neal, but when this little slice of heaven beckons I must abide.

Gascogne doesn’t have fancy castles like the Loire or beautiful beaches like the Riviera, but it does have one of the most important food cultures in France and a proud population devoted to the agrarian industries that sustain this region. I spent a short few days in the region last week without access to WiFi, a feeling as liberating as it is nerve-racking, to visit with suppliers and search for new domaines. I'm finally home a harrowing trip back thanks to Air France's Spring transit strike, but the three quick days I spent in Armagnac were some of the most illuminating to date.

My first stop was a gorgeous little castle in the north eastern part of the Gers. We don't see alot of brandy production in this area (officially we're in Haut-Armagnac) because the terroir is typically less than approriate. There's more grain and fruit production here thanks to the rich soils and bad drainage. Yet, outside of the gorgeous medieval commune of Lectoure, a single contiguous estate sits perfectly situated at the peak of the regions tallest hill. The unique terrain here means better drainage and sandier soils than the neighbors in the valley below. Easily one of the most picturesque properties in the Gers, Chateau Vacquie has extreme potential thanks to its special terroir and passionate proprietor.

There's absolutely nothing typical about Chateau Vacquie or its owner Bruno Compagnon. He's not a Baron or a farmer, nor is he even from Gascogne at all. He struck me as being some kind of artist at first with wild hair and an absolutely infectious demeanor. He's as likely to be wearing a sherwani and sandles as he were to be dressed for the fields. His elegant wife makes espresso while we chat sitting on shag covered chairs in the cozy little kitchen. Despite his counterculture vibe, he's actually a successful business man who founded a luxury trading company in Paris before becoming wealthy in real estate and other investments. 

He's filled with passion for his domaine and the special products that come from there. He purchased property in 1986 as a vacation home for his young family and at the time it was one of France's largest estate plum producers. Along with Bruno came a renewed committment to sustainable and ultimately organic agriculture. Since the early days of plums and poplars, they've refocused the domaine toward the production of wine and Armagnac. They're currently producing certified organic armagnac and several previous vintages used uncertified organic viticulture.

Of course, this is not Bruno's day job and he's not able to tend to the property alone. He's hired consultants to aid with the viticulture, vinification and the distillation, but is still extremely involved in the process. He's quite meticulous and is also committed to making at least some fully natural wine with absolutely no sulfite addition before bottling, if he can manage it. While the area is not particularly renowned for great wine or brandy, this special domaine has been identified by experts as being of exceptional quality. Most notably Aubert De Villaine, a friend of Bruno's who's personally examined the domaine and declared it be one of the finest in the southwest. 

 

Despite all its potential, Bruno has done little to commercialize his Armagnac. He's sold some to highend clientele and friends. He's even sold a chunk of the '99 Vintage supposedly destined for the White House. Only one cask remain of that special vintage and it's twice the price of the others. Bruno won't be able to run the domaine forever. He's producing for the future and his son Morgan, a movie producer in LA, who will one day inherit this exquisite property. I tasted a number of good vintages here and we'll be working hard to get these unique brandies to the states in the coming months, our first Haut-Armagnac. A succesful first day in an unfamiliar terroir and a reminder that things in Gascogne aren't quite always what they seem.

-David Othenin-Girard

 

Tuesday
May082018

Scotland Day 5: Old Friends New Future

My final day in Scotland was spent renewing our relationships with two of our best suppliers. This family has been integral in our growth as one of America's leading sources for Single Cask Single Malt. The Laing brothers, Stewart and Fred, are really the reason we’ve been able to do what we do here at all. We owe alot to their generosity and willingness to look at this industry differently from so many of their compatriots. Over the course of the last eight years they’ve been excellent partners in this unusual and sometimes difficult business. 

I’ve always looked up to both the Laing’s. They've truly became a resource for us. When shit hits the fan these guys have always stepped up and made it work. We worked hard to gain their trust and they reward us with access to some amazing products and a small window into the very opaque world of whisky. Scotch is not an open industry. To learn the inner dealings you must tease at the edges and perhaps you'll catch a few glimpse of truth. I’m certain there are still many secrets left for me to uncover behind the copper vale, but each of these men has always answered any question honestly and thoughtfully, even when they can't answer my questions at all.

Few, save maybe George Grant, are more willing to describe the inner workings of this fascinating industry. Indeed both the Laings and the Grants, on very different sides of this industry, provide incredible insight into their respective specialties. When the Laing brothers split their stocks and their company to make room for the next generation, it was honestly a somewhat somber moment for me personally. There was something interesting about the dynamic between Fred -boisterous and effusive- and Stewart, always more reserved and stalwart.

They were a fun pair. As we’ve come to meet their progeny, who have become our equal partners, I’ve realized that sometimes more is actually more. Now that the new generation is taking the reigns in both houses, there's even more opportunity then ever before. At one end, the husband and wife team of Cara Laing and Chris Leggat, a kind and dynamic duo who balance the personality perfectly of Cara’s Father Fred. And on the other the new brothers Laing, an ambitious duo as open about their dealings as their father ever was. With them this year, we finally got to peak into part of the Laing’s operations side.

A twenty minute drive from Glasgow, their small bottling hall is where countless rare and legendery casks handled. Ardbeggedon, Brorageddon, our Port Ellen Sovereign etc. It’s done all by hand. It seems absolutely tiny until I’m shuttled over to the new warehouse they’ve built across the street. While the scale seems huge, it won’t be long before Hunter Laing needs another warehouse just like it. Their operations manager Ian was there directing the crew. It will get tight in here quickly once the stills start running. Right now they’re aging grain stocks as well as finishing various malts, moving casks in from rented warehouse space, now that they command their own future. Soon they’ll fill the place with Ardnahoe. That distillery, which won’t be a tiny one, will quickly out grow the space reserved for on island aging and this is this is home base for blending and bottling. 

Honestly, I'm a bit crushed that I'll miss the Islay portion of this trip considering all the incredible stuff going on there and the hard work our old partners put in out by Port Askaig. What an incredible feat that will be, to have completed a new Islay distillery, despite the logistical nightmares that endeavor involves. I realized after I’d left that we still haven’t pre-purchased our first Ardnahoe casks. It seems that with Jim McEwan at the helm it will no doubt be spectacular spirit. You can still grab a cask yourself if you’ve got the inclination.

As my colleagues went off on a glory tour of Scotland, I spent my final hours with Douglas Laing. Sitting back in that same old tasting room where it all began, I was filled with nostalgia. The samples lined up on the giant wooden bellows, just as they’d been the first time we’d met nearly a decade before. Important people from that era were missing, but the excitement was palpable as it always is when present with this veritable buffet of godly nectars. Even on her day off, Cara nonetheless arrived as gracious and thoughtful as ever. After introducing the samples, which she’d selected and evaluated personally, she wished me the best and left Fred and I to discuss the state of our business. After nearly two hours of substantive exchange I realized I’d a flight to get on! I gathered the incredible array of samples and thanked my dear friend for his unparalleled generosity. I’m off to Gascogne to overeat. I know just the perfect thing to settle the stomach though, a glorious glass of Gascogne gold.

-David Othenin-Girard

Sunday
May062018

Scotland Day 4: Dawn in the New Era

 

My final night in Speyside I met up with some friends who happened to be in the area. The next day was the start of the Speyside Whisky Festival, an annual celebration of this special part of the Highlands. Over ten thousand visitors were expected to attend the various festivities. I’d spent so much of the last few days talking business and examining casks I’d forgotten how fun Scotland really is. 

We headed over to the famous Highlander Whisky Bar in Craigellachie. Even early it was packed with people from all over the place. Loads of Scandinavians, Japanese, Germans, Americans all squished into that little bar examining their exotic selection—it was a site to be hold. They traded stories about their favorite distilleries or just shared a few glasses of some ridiculously rare whisky. Even the Japanese whisky selection at the Highlander is unprecedented by California standards.

 

Equally magnificent is the food at the Copper Dog Restaurant in the Craigellachie Hotel, which was my final stop of the Speyside portion of the trip. The next morning I said goodbye to my friends in the front yard and headed out for my last full day in Scotland. I swung by the new and, might I add, outrageous distillery at the Macallan, a giant middle finger to traditional Scottish architecture, but certainly an impressive feat of engineering. 

 

After gawking at the Speyside Spaceship, the cost supposedly about equal to a mid-tier space program, I zoomed back through the Cairngorms to make my final appointments. Today I was visiting Signatory for the first time in a few years. I was excited to see my old friend Des and check on the progress of their new facility. Edradour #2 is fully functional and nearing the final stages.

They’ve been distilling here for a bit and working to achieve a consistent replica to the spirits down the hill. It’s a near copy of its tiny neighbor but with plenty of room to expand. Des explained that the biggest challenge to regulating the spirit was the use of the naturally cooled work tubs, which affect the speed of distillation. That natural movement in the original distillery’s water source has been difficult to replicate, but they seem to have worked out the kinks.  

Next, we dove into the warehouses to see if there was anything new that might be attractive. A lot of the old stock we’d done so well with is so rare and depleted that at this point they’ve become prohibitively expensive, but Des had some new tricks up his sleeve, including some young glorious Highlanders and a few older offerings. Indeed these guys are extremely good at making sure they pull in the best cask and the additional 19K spots in those warehouses bode well for the future.

 

We’re going to push hard to get the best possible pricing on this new batch of Signatorys. Their new distributors are old friends so hopefully that will help speed the process along. As Driscoll has mentioned here many times before, bottlers are almost dead in the water these days if they’re not already building a distillery at this point. G&M saw the writing on the walls in the 90s. Signatory bought one and they still had to build another! But they can’t all be Bruichladdich, you know?

We’re looking to partner with people who are in it for the long haul. That’s why we’re so excited that our two best suppliers of single malt are each building distilleries, albeit in very different places and styles. Tomorrow we visit the Laing Companies. One family, two companies, and thousands of barrels of great whisky. I’ll have the two Andrews from the NorCal stores along to introduce them to our old friends. From there, they’ll depart on a whirlwind tour of Islay, while I head south to Armagnac to secure new single casks from cult bottler L’Encantada. Expect some exciting commentary from that most mystical isle and, if I can find a WiFi signal, I’ll try to keep you up to date on the brandy hunt.

-David Othenin-Girard 

Friday
May042018

Scotland Day 3: Dufftown Dynasty

Nowhere in Scotland (save for maybe Campbeltown), does the stark contrast between corporate and family ownership become more clear than visiting Dufftown. This little village is home to a number of famous distilleries, but two overshadow all the rest. William Grant and their two flagship malts, Glenfiddich and the Balvenie sit proudly at entrance of town. The massive facility actually has three working Single Malt distilleries; Kininvee is kind of their dirty little secret. What’s most impressive is that the Grant and Gordon family have achieved unprecedented heights all while retaining familial control.

Indeed, the vibe is very much like Brown-Forman in that there’s a sense that the leadership takes personal responsibility of each aspect of the business. The Balvenie Distillery is the jewel in the crown , but rather than insist on squeezing the maximum out of the old distillery, management is committed to continuing production the old fashioned way. They malt approximately 10% of the barley onsite and are even using a small proportion of barley grown on the estate.

The barley, 100% Concerto, is malted by hand and dried over anthracite coal, which burns with a eerie blue flame. This dense expensive type of coal is smokeless and relatively efficient, a crucial element in traditional maltings in the highlands. Once it would have been far to expensive to use as an exclusive heat source, but it has long been a crucial element in the regions style. As tradition dictates, The Balvenie is also peating the malt they dry, albeit very mildly and the guides are adamant about the importance of this step for the ultimate character of the whisky. While we don’t think of the Balvenie as peated the local low phenol peat does play an important role in the ultimate flavor profile we experience.

The mash tun is massive holding about 53K gallons of wash over three waters. Of the 53K about 48K go into the gorgeous old wooden washbacks. These massive barrels are coopered on site from Douglas fir. The fermentation is a medium 60 hours long resulting in a rich and slightly sour wort that creates a nice oily fruity spirit. That contrasts Kininvee’s 74 hour ferment which results in more floral spirit. Indeed, the strangest thing about Balvenie is that another distillery is running in parallel in the exact same space, but the ultimate whiskies created are very different. While Kinivee’s wort is piped into that distillery located some ways down the hill, the Balvenie’s goes into five pairs of stills, but all other aspects of production occur in the Balvenie facility.

Beyond the maltings, parallel distilleries, and the wooden washbacks -The Balvenie is set up like most other high quality malt distilleries in Scotland. The biggest contrast, as is the case for all top tier distillers, is the focus on wood quality. The onsite cooperage is truly at the heart of the quality difference across the portfolio and the city of barrels outside stretches to the horizon. Nine skilled artisans are working hard to make sure every barrel meets the strict standards required, but the diversity of casks at play is astounding. They’re reusing barrels for the Balvenie three times and do shave and rechar spent barrels onsite at least three times depending on the resulting spirit.

Once you’ve made a good consistent spirit and filled it into a solid casks you’ve really only got one more ingredient before you can start blending and bottling – time. The painful process of sitting and waiting seems to be a hurdle some distillers are trying to avoid, but at the Balvenie they’re not afraid to sit tight. In fact, they’ve got some impressive old stocks and while I wasn’t allowed to take pictures behind these doors, I did see a significant number of casks of 40+ years old in there. These of course are the most prized stocks in the portfolio and a single barrel of 1965 will realize millions of dollars of revenue when it’s bottled at 50 years of age.

While these sorts of tours are eye opening and exciting, they’re also wildly frustrating. Tasting 15 year old first fill sherry cask strength Balvenie out of the cask makes me week in the knees and I want to share that experience with my customers. I don’t expect these companies to adjust their business model simply because I know I could use a certain product or style. There’s too much demand and too little whisky to start dividing the stocks between the existing programs and any potential barrel program. When I pressed the issue at the distillery it becomes clear that I’m not alone in my desires. While we may never bottle a cask strength single barrel from the shop, the experience was eye opening and brought a new appreciation for one of most important partners. And to be honest, anything is possible if you’ve got the right connections. SO if you’re looking for a barrel of 1965, you just let me know...