My Review Of The Ride

Here it is.  No BS or hype (because I don't really need to convince people to buy an extremely limited bottling of Ardbeg, do I?). I don't normally do the breakdown like this, but I know people are interested in knowing how it tastes before they commit, so for the sake of the consumer...

Nose: It has the assertive aromas of young whisky, but they are not in anyway immature - it's more that they haven't yet mellowed.  Seaweed and peat smoke with just a smidge of golden honey in the distance.  It changes, though.  When you nose it for the forth or fifth time you notice more behind it. 

Palate: Lots of power and lots of spice right on the entry.  It's hot and I maybe should have added a bit more water, but at least it's Ardbeg - no doubt about it.  Lighter-bodied and completely without any richness or dried fruit components.  This is all medicinal with streaks of white pepper. 

Finish: The peat lingers, but because you're not getting much specifically on the palate, there's nothing really specific to add on the finish.  I get a brief lemony note, but then it's a continuation of what I tasted on the palate.  A minute later I can still taste it in full effect.

Conclusion: I just reread the above notes and they seem less than enthusiastic, but again I was being scientific.  For me, it is impossible to separate story from drink.  I don't want to drink something unless I'm intrigued by its history, its purpose, and its function.  When I buy wine from our store, I don't just pick the bottle that tasted good at our staff tasting.  The bottle I enjoyed last night was a Petit Rouge from the Vallee d' Aosta - a tiny region of Northwest Italy from which we rarely see wines.  Had I tasted the wine blind I wouldn't have been that excited, but that's the point.  I was interested in tasting a wine from that region so my fulfillment came from the experience of doing so.  Do I like the Rollercoaster?  Yes, very much.  Because of what it is and my love for Ardbeg, I really enjoyed my small glass.  This Committee Member whisky was specifically crafted to contain portions of every year from 1997 to 2006 in celebration of the committee's 10 year anniversary.  The fact that it is more than palatable is awesome.  The label breaks down the content by percentage:

1997 - 9.5%, 1998 - 12.2%, 1999 - 14.2%, 2000 - 10.9%, 2001 - 6.2%, 2002 - 8.9%, 2003 - 11.7%, 2004 - 10.6%, 2005 - 10.4%, 2006 - 5.4%

That's really neat and it's even more special that this not a bottle that will be available full time.  It is a whisky that was bottled once for a designed purpose with a specific theme.  The Rollercoaster is like catering for a wedding or baking a cake for a birthday - it's never the best food you've ever had, but hopefully it suits the occasion.  It succeeds because there's no pressure to do it over and over again.  It needs only to be a manifested expression of that one moment which it represents - in the case of Ardbeg, a decade of ups and downs; a veritable Rollercoaster. 

-David Driscoll


Why Copper Stills Make A Difference

When a vendor or master distiller comes in to taste me on their whisky, I always here them talk about the how the copper still really makes a difference, but when I ask them specifically why, they say something vague like, "the shape makes a difference in the flavor" or "it enhances the spirit."  WTF?  That doesn't help me understand the distillation process as someone who is trying to get a grip on this whole artisan whisky thing.  However, having finally secured a copy of Andrew Jefford's Peat Smoke & Spirit, is was clearly spelled out for me in a way that I think everyone can understand (which is why I am going to quote it on this blog). 

The basic function of copper is to help filter out the impurities in the whisky.  While alcohol boils at 78.5 degrees, so do a bunch of other other chemicals, such as Methanol, which will make you blind if you drink too much of it.  Great distillers are able to capture the purest of spirits in their still and the "fine, microscopic hairiness of copper, and its sociable, reactive nature...makes it such an ideal distilling material."  Douglas Murray is quoted as saying, "If you look at copper under a microscope it looks like a scouring pad.  The result is that, as the spirit vapour passes over it, copper stops that vapor for what we call a 'chat.' The more slowly the vapour passes over the copper, the more the chemical impurities in the spirit attach themselves to the fine scouring-pad threads.  The longer the chat does on, in other words, the lighter the spirit." 

This also explains why the shape of the lyne arm - the neck of the still where the vapor collects - is also so influential.  The length and width of the lyne determine the amount of contact the condensing spirit has with the copper!

That makes total sense to me.  I now understand why copper stills are important.

-David Driscoll


Springbank And The History Of Campbeltown

In anticipation of our gigantic purchase of Springbank 9 Year due to hit the Oakland ports this week, I am providing the backstory for the distillery and the region itself - Campbeltown - which is still considered one of the five Scottish whisky regions, despite containing only three distilleries. 

The truth is that Campbeltown used to be home to 22 working distilleries and, by the end of the 18th century, was the capital of whiskymaking in Scotland.  The Kintyre peninsula was the landing place for settlers in 1300 and remained important as a trade outlet to England and also to the West.  The city of Campbeltown was established in the early 1600's by the Dukes of Argyll to encourage farmers to practice agriculture in the region.  Where there is barley, there is whiskymaking and it wasn't long until a family named Mitchell moved to Campbeltown and became one of the area's top distillers. 

At the end of the 17th century the 21 distilleries in Campbeltown were pumping out millions of gallons a year and the town became one of the wealthiest in the UK.  The demand was so high they were forced to import barley from the Baltic! Yet with the rise of blended whisky, the bottom fell out as the heavy and oily whiskies of Campbeltown were passed over in favor of Speyside's lighter style.  Other factors such as the exhaustion of local coal supplies as well as the start of Prohibition in the U.S. played a role.  Those distilleries who were still selling direct to the Canadian middlemen were forced to lower their costs, and in turn, lower the quality of their whisky.  The introduction of low quality spirit was the end for Campbeltown. 

Springbank was one of the few that did not go under.  It was founded by the Mitchell family in 1828 and is run by the same family today, making it the longest continually owned distillery in the history of Scotland.  It is also the only self-sufficient one.  Springbank does all their own malting and sources all their peat locally, ages the whisky in their onsite warehouse, and does all their own bottling - a veritable whisky farm for proponents of sustainable living.  Today they produce their own signature lightly peated and full-flavored malts - of which we carry the 10 year and 15 year, the heavily peated Longrow, and the triple distilled and unpeated Hazelburn (the latter two named after defunct Campbeltown distilleries). 

In 2004, after 80 years of silence, Glengyle was reopened and refurbished giving Campbeltown its current total of three distilleries.  The whisky however will be called Kilkerran as the final distillery in the region, Glen Scotia, owns the Glengyle brand.  The stills at Glen Scotia have been run only off and on over the last few years and the bottlings have been inconsistent, making it an almost forgotten brand in the world of single malts.

Springbank, being an independently owned and operated distillery, almost never appears in an independent bottling, which is why the availability of this Murray McDavid 9 Year Old aced in Yquem cask is so exciting.  Giving a fantastic Campbeltown malt to Jim McEwan to enhance is a fantastic idea, so I can't wait to have it on our shelves.  I will post tasting notes on it when it arrives this week. 

Most of the info in this article comes from Michael Jackson's terrific book Whiskey.

-David Driscoll



Finally.....Small Hand Foods Makes It To K&L

It was last September when I took over the spirits buyer position at K&L and my first mission was to tap into the Classic Cocktail revival that is happening in comsopolitan cities like our own San Francisco (although ironically Cosmopolitans are not a part of it).  We have always had a great selection of brown booze, but we weren't doing enough to tap into this newly blossoming scene of pre-Prohibition libations.  For those of you who know nothing of this so-called movement here's a quick synopsis: when Prohibition made alcohol illegal in the U.S. it destroyed the craft of bartending - and during those days it was indeed a craft.  There were unknown quantities of secret recipes for syrups, bitters, liqueurs, and cordials that disappeared with the men who had created them, not to mention to collective knowledge of building cocktails with them.  Luckily there is some documentation from this period - such as the now reprinted Savoy Cocktail Book - that gives us a peek into some of the recipes.  Unfortunately, unless you have a bottle of orgeat or pineapple gum syrup somewhere in your cupboard, you're going to have a tough time recreating many of the best drinks.  Enter Jennifer Colliau.

Lucky for us, the Bay Area is brimming with some of the planet's finest bartenders and one of them has taken matters into her own hands.  Small Hand Foods is the result of one woman's desire to provide bartenders (including herself) and cocktail enthusiasts everywhere with the missing pieces of the pre-Prohibition puzzle. With other producers focusing on lost liqueurs such as Creme de Violette and Falernum, Jennifer Colliau decided to fill in the gaps and focus on forgotten sweetening agents such as gum syrups and quality grenadine.  Practicing her craft behind the bar at top destinations like the Slanted Door, and currently at SF's top cocktail destination Heaven's Dog, she had mixologists everywhere in a frenzy for her historically accurate drinks.  The demand for quality versions of these syrups was so high that she started bottling her recipe and selling it herself.  Because of increasing interest in classic cocktails nationwide (and the fact that Jennifer is the only one currently producing and selling these things) she has finally found a producer to help her concoct the recipes to her own high standard.  Now that they are being distributed throughout the state, there is finally enough supply for K&L to stock it consistantly and I couldn't be more excited.

You might be thinking at this point: "David, that's great that your so happy, but what exactly am I supposed to do with these things?"  That's a great question!  Did you know that a drink called Pisco Punch was once the most popular drink in San Francisco?  Do you know what a real Whiskey Cocktail is?  Did you know that the Jack Rose is my favorite drink but that it needs Jennifer's grenadine or else it just plain doesn't work?  Do you want to know where you can find these recipes or what exactly orgeat is?  Click here!

The Gum Syrup and Pineapple Gum Syrup will be in stock as of next Thursday.  The Orgeat and Grenadine will for now still be hand made by Jennifer herself and they need an extra week, so the following Thursday for them. 

-David Driscoll


Russian River Brewery Blows My Mind (Again)

The Supplication is insanely delicious - get some now!

Not to deviate from the emphasis of this blog for too long, but since our beer guy Bryan Brick doesn't care much for weblogging, I'm going to give it up for Russian River Brewery today.  For those of you out there who haven't noticed our beer department lately, it has been completely transformed.  No longer sporting Becks, Corona, or Budweiser six-packs for those last minute wine shoppers who forgot they needed a few cold ones, our new selection is on a single bottle basis and features the best and brightest craft-brewed beers from artisan brewers world-wide.  The entire Redwood City staff has been along for the ride and we have witnessed an entirely new base of customers frequent our store on a daily basis.  Some of these bottles are priced like a normal bottle of Anchor Steam, and some can be as much as $40 (for a single bottle of beer!).  Like whiskey, many beers are now being aged and enhanced in bourbon barrels, wine casks, you name it.  It is a market that has taken the booze world by storm and, in my opinion, it is the most exciting part of our store at the moment.  

My epiphany during this entire process came with my first sip of Russian River Brewing's Pliny The Elder.  When Bryan first aqcuired this beer for us it was nothing short of a phenomenon.  We were selling out our allocation in minutes with people rushing over to get their hands on the two bottles we limited our customers to at that time.  Some people were driving over 100 miles to reach us!  Wondering what the fuss was all about, I threw down my money, bought a bottle, and I've never looked back since (once you've tasted Ardbeg or Talisker, can you really go back to Glenlivet 12).  I can safely say at this moment that it is my favorite beer in the world and my appetite for it is insatiable.  Brimming with concentrated hoppy flavor, the palate is soft and graceful with smaller bubbles and it finishes with a clean and refreshing bite.  The intensity of the flavor never overpowers - like other beers that I can't drink more than a few sips of despite their deliciousness.  

While the Pliny has been their bread and butter, Russian River Brewing has made beer geeks everywhere salivate with their heavier offerings noted for their big rich flavor, as well as Belgian-styled ales that made our locals forget about Brussels; the Consecration - a dark ale aged in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels; the Temptation - a blonde ale aged in French Oak Chardonnay casks; and the award winning Damnation - a strong Golden Ale done in the Belgian style.  While I enjoyed each of these beers, they weren't something I wanted to unwind with after a long day of stocking whiskey bottles. 

Last night, however, I finally brought home the newest release from RR Brewing called Supplication and I was very impressed.  Having been introduced to sour beers last year with Bryan's selection of Belgian Lambic Geuze ales, not only was I fully prepared for the tartness, I was eagerly anticipating it.  Adding some barrel-aging to the sour beers seem to be the hot thing right now, but I've been bowled over by the last few I had.  Something about the combination of tart with the dark, thick richness of a stout was too much for me.  However, the Supplication - not nearly as heavy as some of the others - was spot on.  While some barrel-aged sours had tried to punch you in the mouth with intensity, Russian River Brewing knew how to tone it down a notch and balance everything perfectly.  The brown beer is aged in Pinot Noir barrels with sour cherries added and then fermented in the bottle.  The result is a masterpiece of harmony with the tartness, the bubbles, and the hoppiness of the ale all working together in perfect unison. 

I now face a tug-of-war between two amazing flavor profiles both hankering for my complete love and affection.  The Supplication is no one-trick pony - it is a sour beer that I can drink on a nightly basis.  Now I just have to afford it.

-David Driscoll