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Wednesday
Jan312018

No Name Scotch

It's a lovely thing when the post-holiday dust settles and the national distribution chains start going through their remaining inventories. It's not easy trying to predict which parts of the country are going to be able to sell the appropriate number of bottles, which is why I find January is a great time to start making phone calls for previously-allocated whiskies. For example, Compass Box released an outstanding limited edition whisky in 2017 called "No Name," a blend of 75.5% Ardbeg, 10.6% Caol Ila, and 13.4% Clynelish with an additional 0.5% French oak-aged Highland malt for extra flavor. We sold through our allocation in a flash, even with the "one bottle limit per customer" allocation slowing things down in the sales queue. 

But that was upon release. 

Now that the furvor of the Christmas shopping season is over, it's time to move through what's left in the inventory for many of our national distributors. I was very lucky. I managed to consolidate a large chunk of what was left in the states of the "No Name" and get it all delivered to K&L earlier today. That means no bottle limits, no restrictions, and no risk of running out anytime soon. If you were a fan of the Flaming Heart or the Peat Monster, this is sort of like a combination of the two. You get the clean, focused, highly-peated intensity of Ardbeg, tempered ever so slightly by the roundness of Caol Ila and the oiliness of Clynelish. I just polished off a glass with my co-workers in the Redwood City tasting bar and we were all quite impressed.

Now let's get down to dollars and cents: I saw some of my local competitors online earlier today at $170 and even $250 in parts of SoCal. Of course, that's because they thought there wasn't anything left in California, so they moved the price up to reflect the scarcity in the market. 

But now there's plenty, so I'm going to bring the California market back down to earth.

Compass Box "No Name" Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $139.99

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jan312018

A Classic Whisky Revival

It's true that peated Scotch whisky has made a tremendous comeback over the last decade. Ardbeg has risen to an almost rock star-like status, Lagavulin continues to be a benchmark, and even Laphroaig has managed to turn the word "medicinal" in to a positive descriptor. Islay is indeed the new mecca for today's modern whisky drinker, but that doesn't mean the Highlands have gone completely out of fashion. I don't think you'll find a single retailer whose malt business has ceased to revolve around names like Macallan, Glenlivet, Balvenie, and Aberlour. Even though an influx of youthful enthusiasm has managed to build a modern market for edgier, higher proof, more potent styles of Scotch whisky, it's still something the allure of old fashioned single malt, from the basics of the Glenmorangie 10 year to the sherry-laden delights from Glenfarclas, that drives most of our sales.

After more than a decade of working in whisky retail, I've seen just about every trick in the book when it comes to new marketing ideas. I've tasted wine-finished malts, rum-finished malts, unpeated whisky aged in peated whisky casks, and just about any other permutation you can dream of that involves bringing something bold and new to the scene. I'm a weathered veteran at this point. We've withstood year after year of experimental batches and imaginative endeavors, and there's still not a week that goes by where I'm not being spoon fed a dram of some sensational new creation that intends on pushing the whisky boundries further. To be honest, it’s starting to wear on me. I’ve been losing my lust for Scotch consumption over the last year and I often find myself longing for happier memories from the past. I've been looking backward, not forward, for some semblance of that passion that originally excited me about whisky in the first place. However, for the first time in a very long time, I’m excited about old fashioned, no frills, classically-flavored Highland malt whisky again and I have Glengoyne to thank for that revival.

Glengoyne is one of those distilleries that seems to fall into the murky and rather nebulous pit of “Glens” in the Scotch whisky world—Glenallachie, Glenburgie, Glencadam, Glendronach, Glendullan, Glen Elgin, Glen Garioch, etc. It’s one of the Glens, right? Dig a bit deeper, however, and you’ll find a very compelling case for giving the distillery your attention. First off, Glengoyne was once part of the Edrington empire, alongside Macallan, Highland Park, Tamdhu and Glenrothes, until it was sold to Ian MacLeod in 2003. If that last name sounds familiar to you, it’s because Ian MacLeod was our very first point of contact back on our original trip to Scotland. We used to buy our Chieftain’s single barrel selections from them directly, including legendary casks of Brora, Port Ellen, and Clynelish. Like most companies today, MacLeod began to transition out of the evaporating single cask market and focus more on distillation, eventually buying Tamdhu as well in 2011. When the cask program vanished, so did our direct business with MacLeod, but I’ve kept my eye on their activity for years since as I always found them to be a professional-minded company. In short, it seemed like they really knew what they were doing.

Flash forward to 2017 when one of my long-time friends in the business switched companies and began to work for the MacLeod importer here in the states. “When’s the last time you tasted through the Glengoyne portfolio?” he asked me. I didn’t have an answer, so we made an appointment for after Christmas. It didn’t take long for my excitement to begin bubbling because perhaps the only thing more pleasing than the superb quality of the Glengoyne whiskies themselves is the incredible pricing that goes along with it. In style, the whiskies are very much along the lines of Glenmorangie, but with a bit more sherry influence. The entire range sees some sherry maturation, so think of the house style as somewhere in between GlenMo and Macallan. The richness of that sherry becomes more pronounced in the older expressions, particularly the 18 and 21 year old editions. Again, imagine the Glenmorangie 18 year old, but with more sherry, and for the same price. What I particularly enjoy is how the sherry and the oak maturation marry seamlessly with the inherent malt flavor and stone fruit character of the whisky—toffee and apples, as the label says.

When I look at the value proposition these whiskies offer in today’s market, it makes me think back to our original meetings with Ian MacLeod outside of Edinburgh long ago. I’ve always found that great businesses could be successful in whatever they put their mind to, be it bottling, blending, or distilling if they were focused on the customer. In the new and improved Glengoyne, you’ve got a whisky brand doing exactly what I wish more brands would stick to today: make really good whisky that tastes like it should, and sell it for a price that represents value to the customer. It doesn’t seem that hard, does it? Unfortunately, in the age of limited edition, turn and burn sales strategy, doing one thing really well is no longer all that appealing to the short attention span afflicted; hence, we get forgettable non-age statement (NAS) editions ad nauseum, over and over again. If it busts, then you simply start over and do it again. One of them will eventually catch on, right?

In summary, if you’re looking for something new (as in something you’ve never tried), yet you’re simultaneously searching for that initial taste sensation, that supple and mouthcoating richness that made you crazy for Scotch in the first place, I think you’ll rediscover that feeling as I did with these Glengoyne editions. On top of that, you’re dealing with a real Scottish independent here, in the vein of Kilchoman, that isn’t part of some multi-national conglomerate; it’s just a bunch of Scottish guys, making really good Scotch, for people who like Scotch—with an emphasis on the ”really good Scotch.” Maybe that has something to do with the quality here. Ian MacLeod isn't looking to take over the world, just provide it with something it's sorely missing as of late. We’ve locked in some pretty competitive pricing on the set.

Glengoyne 10 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $36.99 

Glengoyne 15 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $54.99

Glengoyne 18 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $99.99

Glengoyne 21 Year Old Single Malt Whisky $129.99

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jan302018

Did You Really Drink That?

Whoever makes the wine and spirits version of this will be my new hero. Lots of people celebrating food these days who clearly don't eat all that much. On the same page, lots of people walking into retail stores and taking photos of bottles, then walking out without buying anything. 

Live your truth. Props to this Instagram page.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jan302018

Hope

In response to my last post, if you ever need evidence that face-to-face conversation still exists and a pre-iPhone civilization continues elsewhere outside the Bay Area, go literally anywhere in Paris other than the Louvre and soak it all in. Anywhere. Any bar. Any café. Any restaurant. In Paris, it's not merely a generational thing, or a sign of age. I hung out Sunday morning by the Sorbonne with all the college kids, and not one of them was on their phone while drinking coffee. All of them were talking and laughing, socializing. It's simply rude in Paris, I think, to stare at your phone or computer while you're out. Instead, there are folks reading the newspaper, studying books, chatting vivaciously, or simply gazing out at the world like any good flaneur should. Going out in Paris means not having to rush, to think about what's next on the agenda, or map out each hour of your day. You just sit there and talk. Or not talk. Whatever. 

If you live in California and thought that world was dead, it isn't. While I did see more yoga pants and joggers on the road than ever before, the French still smoke, drink, eat, and talk as much as they ever did. France has always protected its cultural values that way, which is ironically why Americans love it so much. We're not willing to take any official measures that might impact our freedom here at home, so we simply gush about how romantic it is when tradition continues elsewhere. Look at France's AOC wine appellation system as an example. The reason these winemaking cultures remain intact is because the law states that they must. You cannot make Chardonnay in Sancerre and call it Sancerre. You cannot make Syrah in Bordeaux and call it Bordeaux. Contrast that with Napa or Sonoma where what's made is mostly dictated by the market. Merlot is popular? Let's plant Merlot. Merlot is no longer popular? Let's rip it all out and replant it with Pinot Noir. That's what happened during the last decade because our culture revolves around doing whatever sells, or whatever seems best in the moment. That's not to say there aren't great winemaking traditions in California, because obviously there is a rich heritage here; it's just to say the only real protection for that history is the will of the consumer. Napa Cabernet culture continues because of our continual desire to drink it, that's it. Ultimately, you can plant anything in Napa and call it Napa. You can make Bourbon in Alaska or Alabama, it doesn't matter.

Imagine if America passed a law restricting Bourbon to Kentucky only. It might piss off loads of people (mainly the people trying to capitalize on the current fad), but I'd be in favor of it because frankly I don't drink much California or Arizona Bourbon. I'd support protecting that heritage moving forward, despite that fact that Bourbon has long been made in Pennsylvania and Indiana. In the short term, it seems like restrictive oversight, but in the long term that's how value and tradition are matured, cared for, and preserved. You pick something, you do it better or differently than anyone else, and you stick with it. Then you protect it by preventing others from copying that model and capitalizing on that name elsewhere without the same conditions or standards. For decades and decades, cheap California bulk wine has been marketed as Chablis and Burgundy. When I was in high school we used to buy handles of "Blush Chablis," a sweet rosé à la Carlo Rossi, and drink it out in the orchards. Never once in my life, however, have I seen a French bulk wine trying to market itself as "Napa rouge" or "Blush Sonoma." 

When you don't take any measures to protect tradition and culture, you open yourself up to sweeping movements of monumental change. In many cases, that unrestricted potential has been a positive thing for America and it's a longstanding part of what makes our country great. You might say that lack of restriction is indeed our heritage. However, in many other instances, that lack of a firm identity leaves our values vulnerable to the influence of money and the market.

Starbucks at Yosemite, anyone? 

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Jan282018

Nausea

When I was in my early twenties I was a serious fan of existential literature. It's what ultimately led me to do my masters degree in German, focusing on Hesse and doing some comparative papers on Camus and others in the genre. One of the books I read back then that I probably didn't pay enough attention to was Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre. If you haven't read it, it's basically the story of a historian that suffers from attacks of nausea due to the panic caused by life's free will. Essentially, a tale of the angst that being completely responsible for your own actions can cause, along with a feeling of hopelessness and meaninglessness that accompanies one's daily activities when we realize there's no real purpose for our existence. That type of stuff. Real uplifting. 

I was thinking about Sartre today in Paris because I wound up in a book store this morning and found these books called Le Paris de...., a series that allows you to read about Paris from the perspective of the most renowned artists and thinkers who lived there. They had Cocteau, Cendrars, and of course Sartre along with his companion Simone de Beauvoir. I picked up the Sartre/Beauvoir edition and started reading it at the Café de Flore while having coffee. That's when I decided I would spend a thematic day in Paris retracing their footsteps and hanging out at their old haunts, using the book as a sort of guide. I had an entire day to kill, so why not? I think this is my ninth time in Paris so I've pretty much seen the main attractions at this point. 

Apparently, Sartre and Beauvoir once sat on a bench outside the Louvre, near the Jardin des Tuileries, and made a pact to continue their relationship while watching the passers-by stroll along the stony paths. I went and visited the spot after finishing my coffee, then wound up taking a walk through the Louvre since I was in the area anyway. That's when the nausea hit me. If you ever need a dose of reality as to the meaningless of life in the modern age, go check out the main attractions at the Louvre. It's bad enough when people take pictures of other pictures (they're all available to look at online!!), but now it's an entire room of people taking pictures of themselves in front of other pictures. The entire world is just one big Instagramable attraction at this point. Fashion is no longer just for clothing and celebrities. It's everything. Cities are fashion. Food is fashion. Bottles of whiskey are fashion. All of these things have lost their inherent and original meaning and have been replaced with a new value and purpose: their potential to become the next viral social media post.

We are indeed free to do what we want in this life. And this is what we have chosen to do. Barf.

-David Driscoll