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Thursday
Sep012016

Post-Kentucky Musings

If the craft spirits movement of the last ten years has taught me anything, it’s that terroir and tradition in the realm of whiskey are as real as anything in the world of wine. You can’t just grow top quality grapes anywhere, and—as it really hit home over the last few days in Kentucky—you can’t just make top quality whiskey wherever you feel like. It always used to sound a little dramatic to me when I started learning about whiskey production—back when I first met passionate and knowledgeable distillers like Jim McEwan or Willie Tait and heard them talk about the importance of water and weather in Scottish single malt production. They’d be off on some tangent about the minerals and the purity of some hard-to-pronounce loch, but back then I didn’t really have a real point of reference. It’s not like there were a bunch of other regional single malts to compare them against and it sounded like marketing at the time. I remember Jim Rutledge talking about the importance of Kentucky’s atmosphere to the maturation of Bourbon—the intense heat in the summer and just the right amount of cold in the winter; how that fluctuation of temperature forces the whiskey in and out of the oak in perfect ratios. But would the exact same whiskey aged in California or Colorado really taste any different? Is Kentucky’s unique climate really that important, or was this just the opinion of some local distiller looking to protect his territory? It seemed farfetched to me. That was in the past, however. Today, after spending nine years tasting hundreds of craft whiskies made in dozens of different locales that are neither Kentucky nor Scotland, I have a different mindset.

Some people seem to think making a batch of whiskey is just a matter of following a recipe, no different than baking bread or roasting a chicken. It’s as if alcohol is just a simple formula made from a few simple ingredients that can be replicated anywhere and by anyone. I’ve been invited over for dinner by people like that before. They stand there literally cooking a particular meal for the first time, following instructions off a piece of paper and acting like it can’t be that hard. It sucks, and usually their food does too. Guess what? Spirits made in that same flippant manner are no better. I cannot tell you how baffling (and rather insulting) it is to visit with a distiller who has absolutely no taste or feel as it pertains to production, but for some reason expects his whiskey to be gobbled up by the rabid marketplace just because he took the time to make it. My wife said to me once after such an occasion: “If I ever offered to personally cook for someone I would only ever make something I knew I was good at.” I patted her on the head and said: “Sweetie—we’re living in an age where everyone thinks they’re good at everything.” If whiskey can be made anywhere, however, under any type of conditions and on any type of still, then why is it that I have yet to taste one craft Bourbon from any of the other forty-nine states that tastes better than the cheapest corporate Kentucky version? Jimmy Russell told me on Tuesday that the limestone-rich water Wild Turkey pumps from the Kentucky River is one of the most important ingredients in his whiskey. Do you think he’s making that up? Or do you think that’s maybe one of several important factors that modern craft distillers overlook when they hook up a hose from their urban warehouse space and pump tap water into their cooker? There’s something particular about whiskey made in Kentucky that can’t be a coincidence, don’t you think?

Then there’s the importance of tradition. You know what Brown-Forman, Beam, Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, Barton, and Heaven Hill have in common besides decades and decades of experience? They’re all still in business. Why are they all still in business? Because over the last sixty years many companies have come and gone, opened and closed, and moved in and out of the American whiskey business; but these are the players who have maintained their standing through many turbulent eras. That’s just simple evolution, if you ask me. The market decides what is and what isn’t worth paying for and the distillers who can’t hack it get crushed by the cruel hand of capitalism. I have to imagine that a similar day of reckoning is coming to the American craft whiskey market in the near future. Last night at Meta, a hip and happening cocktail bar in Louisville, they had a Wednesday special: a can of Old Style and a shot of Old Forester for five bucks. It was such a fun deal I couldn’t pass it up. The real kicker, however, was how great that Old Forester tasted compared to some of the absolutely terrible (and pricier) craft whiskies I had tasted earlier that day. Did you know that you can get a handle of Old Forester in Louisville for less than twenty five dollars? Same with Ancient Age and Very Old Barton. How can you beat that?!! The only way a craft whiskey distillery can compete with that type of bang-for-your-buck quality is by making a spirit that’s clearly better. However, in order to make something clearly better you not only need years of experience, you need to find the right combination of terroir, ingredients, and equipment. You can’t just set up shop anywhere, buy a still, grab a few bags of commercial grain and yeast, and expect magic to happen. I can tell you this: the guys who recently rebuilt Wolfburn in Scotland were much more interested in locating the original water source than the original distillery site. “The water was the most important part,” they told me. Funnily enough, their three year old whisky is already delicious.

One of the reasons I have so much respect for Westland in Seattle is because, before they built the distillery, they realized Seattle has a lot in common with Scotland: the climate, the quality of the barley, the local peat bogs—everything. Those guys chose to make single malt whiskey in the Pacific Northwest because they understood the Pacific Northwest was particularly suited to making single malt whisky. The proof? It’s in the bottle, boys and girls. The recent Garryana release from Westland is without a doubt the best American single malt I’ve ever tasted and it’s one of the most exciting whiskey releases of 2016. They’ve got nothing left to prove to me. But is California particularly suited to making whiskey? I don’t know. I can’t say I’ve ever had a whiskey made in California that was life-changing. What about Texas? Is Texas particularly suited to make whiskey? Maybe. Again, I don’t know. What I can tell you with absolute certainty right now is that if either of those states is a preternatural haven for whiskey distillation, no one has yet figured out why. More importantly, no one has figured out how to strategically harness those mystical forces to create a better spirit. Maybe rye whiskey is California’s thing. Maybe wheat whiskey. We won’t know for sure until we’ve tried a number of different options, and the creation of that whiskey culture is still in its infancy. Kentucky? Scotland? They’ve been making whiskey for hundreds of years. Even if they don’t scientifically know why they do something, you can bet that the reason came from decades and decades of trial and error. Just like a recipe from a grandmother is passed down from mother to daughter, generation to generation, these whiskey making traditions are tweaked and honed over time. The better they get at making it, the better the whiskey tastes. The better the whiskey tastes, the better it sells. The more they distill, the cheaper it becomes to make it. The better the price, the greater the market share. The distilleries that don’t evolve to that ratio of price and quality go out of business and that’s why the same Bourbon distilleries have dominated the marketplace for some time. Even the newer ones to gain traction like Willett and Alltech are still located in Kentucky. The Kentucky outliers like MGP and Smooth Ambler? They’re a stone’s throw away—technicalities of geographical politics, that’s it. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

When I hear about new whiskey distilleries popping up today, most of the strategy is indeed based on geography, but it’s one based on local economics rather than any local potential for quality. “There wasn’t anyone distilling in the area, so we figured there was a need,” the owners say to me with confidence. Then I taste their whiskey and it ends up tasting like every other craft whiskey: it’s drinkable and not flawed in any way, but there’s nothing special about it—other than the fact that it’s the only whiskey made in that particular area, of course. More importantly, there’s no way I would ever buy a bottle myself, so how can I expect my customers to do the same? I’ll admit: there’s a certain novelty to seeing new American whiskey distilleries pop up in strange and unusual places. But real Kentucky Bourbon? Real Scotch whisky? Those are special things. You can’t just make them anywhere. I’m not sure I would really have understood that, however, had so many people not tried and utterly failed over the last decade. If there’s one thing craft whiskey has helped me to do it’s gain a better understanding on just how complex and arcane Kentucky Bourbon and Scotch whisky really are.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Aug312016

Stocking Up

They say you see a white flash just before you die and enter Heaven. That's exactly what I saw walking into the Four Roses warehouse today: a white flash followed by images of eternal paradise. It was rows and rows of delicious Bourbon casks just waiting for us to pluck a few from their ranks. How much more can I really tell you about Four Roses that you don't already know? We've been here so many times and I've written so many posts. Today we snagged five new casks, two of which were incredibly fruity and sweet, and scattered their bottling dates so that we plan our inventory accordingly. You might see the first releases from this particular haul just before Christmas if all goes as planned. 

While we've purchased single barrels from Barton distillery before (you know it in California as 1792 Ridgemont), we've never actually been on a tour of the facility. Built in the 1870s and located in Bardstown, the Barton distillery is a classic complex of a lost manufacturing era. It's a behemoth of 19th century industrial brick layering and it looks like something right out of a black and white photo. I'd always wanted to get inside and snoop around, so we made the necessary arrangements and stopped by on our way through town.

Most distilleries take the summer off in Kentucky because of the warm temperature. As Jimmy Russell explained to us yesterday, the water used to cool down the condensers is too warm to do its job in July, so the Bourbon ends up taking longer to distill. It's not only less efficient, it can also throw off the flavor. Wild Turkey was just getting things started back up when we visited and Barton was making similar preparations for the new season. We walked up to the third floor to get a look at the giant, multi-story fermentation tanks and, when I looked down inside through the hatch, I noticed a welder deep inside the tank making a few repairs. 

While additions have been made to Barton distillery over the years, the giant boiler is still fueled by coal power—an extra dose of industrial era nostalgia. It's not unlike the massive relic we discovered in the abandoned Old Crow distillery yesterday (more on that later). We might have a few casks of 1792 lined up for the future, but in the meantime I ran over to CVS after lunch and snagged a 1.75 liter of Very Old Barton for twenty bucks. That's an annual Kentucky purchase for me.

See that? That's Noah's Mill. It's no longer just a romantic ideal sketched on to the front of a KBD Bourbon label; it's now a real place. The expansion that's taken place at Willett distillery over the last year is simply amazing. We caught up with owner and distiller Drew Kulsveen as we stopped by the estate to check out the progress. If you didn't hear, Kentucky recently passed a new law allowing distilleries to also pour alcohol. Much like Joe over at Copper & Kings who's added a rooftop bar and restaurant, Drew and the gang didn't waste anytime building a new hang out. They're adding a full-service bar, a bed and breakfast, as well as private cabins back in the more private reserves of the property. It's a fantastic addition to what is already in my opinion the most rustic distillery in Kentucky.

The great thing about Willett is that, while it didn't start distilling its own whiskey until a few years ago, there was indeed a previous Willett distillery back in the day. All the warehouses and office buildings you see on the campus are the originals from that era. Even when KBD was acting as solely as a blender and bottler, the whiskey was being aged on site in the Willett warehouses. Now that production is back in full swing, Willett has the look and feel of a distillery that's much older than four years. It's the only modern craft distillery I've visited that in no way, shape, or form feels like a craft distillery. The new whiskies don't taste like craft whiskies either. They're legitimate Kentucky players in every way; independent, self-owned, and with no intention whatsoever of selling out to the man.

Drew showed us the plans for the new additions then took us over to the gift shop for a taste of the new Willett Reserve Bourbon: four years old and 100% Willett-distilled. It's only available at the distillery right now, but—hey—that's what travel retail is all about, right? Something exciting needs to motivate you to get out there and see it for yourself. Plus, they're the only distillery with great merchandise. I don't really need an oversized, yellow and tan Four Roses hoody. But I'll definitely take a few retro, fitted Willett T-shirts to go.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Aug312016

National Treasures

I remember the first time I visited Wild Turkey well because it was the moment I said to myself: why am I not drinking more Wild Turkey? I don't know if it's the name or some residual stigma passed on from previous generations, but for some reason the Kickin' Chicken always gets overlooked on the retail shelf by casual customers. Personally, I've made the Russell's Reserve 10 year my house staple. The 6 year old rye is maybe my favorite American whiskey right now—period. More importantly, Wild Turkey has been made the exact same way by the exact same guy for the last sixty years! While other distilleries play around with your age statements, change the packaging, and create pricier new versions of the exact same thing, Wild Turkey offers you nothing but consistency. Consistency is the most important thing in the world to Jimmy Russell. 

Jimmy Russell is also cool as hell. The man is 82 years old and he's sharp as a tack. He picked us up at the Wild Turkey visitor's center yesterday morning and drove us over to the distillery's warehouses so we could do our barrel selection. I have to say, riding around Lawrenceburg with Jimmy at the wheel is a magical thing. He took a few detours, told us a few stories, and pointed out some of his favorite landmarks on the way. You can't stop smiling when he talks. He's just the sweetest guy in the world and he's so humble despite his legendary status in the industry. "Eddy's in Europe," he said to us as we got in his car, refering to the fact that his son—Wild Turkey's other master distiller—would not be joining us. "So you're gettin' the B team instead." 

Part of the reason I think the Wild Turkey whiskies don't get the same fanfare as some of the other big Kentucky names is their generally mellow nature. They distill to a lower proof at Wild Turkey and they fill their barrels at 55%, so ultimately the whiskey is a physical manifestation of Jimmy's demeanor. It's smooth, mellow, and easy to like. Unfortunately for us, we're living in the big dick California cab era where nuance and subtlety might potentially allude to one's lack of manhood. As a result, strength and power are considered the ultimate virtues even if they come at the expense of inherent flavor. That's never been Wild Turkey's thing, however. Jimmy Russell doesn't have anything to prove. We found four casks from four different warehouses that showed four different sides of the distillery's character. One was creamy butterstotch. Another was all spice. The others more brooding and oak driven. Not one of the whiskies, however, was over 55%—even straight from the barrel. They were drinkable without water, right then and there. 

After saying our goodbyes to Jimmy, we had a few hours to kill so I suggested to David we take my favorite detour and drive past the formerly-abandoned Old Taylor and Old Crow distilleries. The Old Taylor distillery is now home to a new operation called Castle and Key that is currently refurbishing the site, but as far as I knew the Old Crow site was still haunted. I've been itching to get into that old distillery for four years. This was the year I was going to finally be a man and jump that fence no matter the consequences. As we approached the gate, however, we noticed the most curious thing: it was open. I'll have to dedicate an entirely separate post to that experience, but let's just say we spent a good hour digging through one of the most amazing old distilleries I've ever visited.

We had a few other appointments to see to before finishing our day at Copper & Kings with Joe and the gang. They've made some serious advances in their barrel maturation program and are doing amazing things with sherry casks and old Tequila barrels. Colombard brandy in Tequila cask? It's like the best parts of Cognac and reposado in one beast! Wait until you try the new apple brandy as well. It was more like Glendronach than Calvados.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Aug292016

The Basics of Give and Take: A 2016 Kentucky Primer

When I was in Austin a couple weeks back I met and drank with a bartender originally from San Francisco—born and raised in the heart of the city. He decided to move to Texas after becoming frustrated with the ever-growing pretense of the city’s food and beverage scene. We bonded briefly over our shared observations of the Bay Area’s flux and recent transformation, and before I finished my drink he said to me:

“Ever since I was a kid I watched new groups of people move to San Francisco and change the landscape of the city. They came and went, but they always added something to the culture. This recent movement, however, seems to be a lot more focused on taking rather than giving. It’s sucking the life out of the city without replenishing it in return.”

I’ve been pondering that comment ever since. I thought about it again this past Friday while eavesdropping on a conversation between a customer and a colleague. A guy came in looking for trophy Bourbon bottles and was dismayed by the prospect of settling for anything less than George T. Stagg or Pappy. My co-worker suggested our single barrel selection of Russell’s Reserve. “Wild Turkey?” the guy responded with cynicism; “I’ve never had anything from Wild Turkey that didn’t make me want to puke.” He left in a huff. I just laughed and sighed. The Bourbon category seems to be a particularly frustrating one for high-end consumers these days as the availability of high-end expressions is scarcer than ever. When a customer comes in looking for a fancy bottle of Bourbon to splurge on, we don’t have much to offer—and if you ask me, that’s a good thing. The Bourbon industry, much like the aforementioned bartender opined about San Francisco, has been sucked dry over the past decade by folks looking to take what they can, hoard the inventory of mature stock, while giving little support to the general category in return. What do I mean by that exactly? I mean that opportunism and glory has replaced practical growth and appreciation as it pertains to American whiskey.

Bourbon buying, much like with Bay Area property these days, is incredibly speculative. It’s become much more of an economy than a community. How many people buying rare bottles of American whiskey right now are actually drinking them? Likewise, how many people who have bought homes or condos in San Francisco actually live in them? In both cases, you’re looking at categories that have been overrun by investors with little interest in participation. A true fan of Bourbon enjoys the history and the culture as much as the caché; from Beam to Brown-Forman and beyond. Much like I enjoy the diversity of San Francisco and its many restaurants—from the greasy spoons to the fine dining institutions—I enjoy the entire spectrum of American whiskey. As long as there’s a bottle of something around, I’ll drink it and enjoy it. Contrast that with today’s modern consumer and you’ll see a large gulf between our desires and intentions.

But, like I said, it’s great to see frustration from within those ranks because a market full of nothing but basic Bourbon is good for real fans of the genre. Just like I have zero interest in making a new Pappy customer these days, I can promise you that Buffalo Trace isn’t interested in reaching a new generation of Weller or Elmer T. Lee consumers. No company needs new customers for goods it can barely furnish as is; especially when many of those same customers have little interest in anything other than those few coveted items. If you only buy the annual Four Roses limited releases and never the Yellow Label or Small Batch, you’re not really the ideal Four Roses customer. If you only buy the Brown-Forman Birthday Bourbon and never the Old Forester, I think it’s safe to say you won’t be on Brown-Forman’s list of VIPs. If an angry trophy hunter storms out of K&L when he’s forced to settle for a mere single barrel of the Russell family’s finest, that’s one less guy sucking the lifeblood from Bourbon’s livelihood while giving little in return. The fewer trophies there are available, the more likely the big game hunters will try their luck elsewhere, leaving more delicious tidbits for the true aficionados and loyalists.

Don’t think the Bourbon industry isn’t hip to this strategy.

I can’t prove it, and I have no evidence other than my own observations over the last few years, but I’m pretty sure that most of the major distilleries are choosing to allocate most of their rare and collectable bottles to bars and restaurants, rather than retailers. Why would they do that? Because fewer direct-to-consumer sales prevents secondary market flipping and it almost guarantees that the bottle will be opened, served, and enjoyed. I’ve watched my own allocations dwindle down to practically nothing over the last few years, yet I see more Pappy bottles than ever on back bars while dining out—and I’m not talking about fancy places either; I'm talking about basic San Mateo steakhouses and burger joints. I think it’s great, personally. I’m all for it, especially if it means pissing off hoarders and getting the actual liquid into the glass. It’s not like we were getting thirty cases a year of Sazerac 18. We were getting a bottle here and a bottle there whenever Sazerac could spare one. There’s no profit in selling rare American whiskey anymore because there’s no volume, so why should retailers care anyway? From a purely economic view, we’d rather sell fifty cases of Buffalo Trace. More money, less hassle.

The Bourbon industry has always supported those who helped to support it in return. Give and take is the foundation of any happy and successful community. It’s also how rare whiskey allocations work, actually; the more you sell of a company’s general whiskey expression, the more rare whiskey you get when supplies are eventually released. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. Be a loyal customer and when the time comes we'll make sure you're taken care of. Yet, I’m coming into contact with more and more people who expect the world and offer little in return. “David—can I get a bottle of Pappy this year?” Who are you? Do you shop with us regularly? Do you even have an account at K&L? Do you buy anything from us other than Pliny the Elder, Opus One, and the occasional rare bottle of whiskey? That’s how I personally determine my allocations these days. I don’t simply look for the customers who spend the most; I look for customers who appear to be interested in being a part of the K&L community—folks who want to participate and add something to our business. I would probably quit the retail world entirely if I lost the interaction with real drinkers. It would take all the fun right out of it. That’s exactly why the bartender I met left San Francisco: because it wasn’t fun anymore. There’s nothing cool, unique, interesting, or fun about an entire culture of people continually lusting after the “best”, which is why Bourbon needs this little high end drought in my opinion. Without the top shelf trophies clogging all the bandwidth we can finally get back to helping customers buy a regular old bottle of Maker’s Mark or Basil Hayden. I’m currently on a plane from Dallas to Louisville. David OG is with me. We’re getting ready to land in about twenty minutes. We’re going to pick up our rental car, hit the road, and search out some basic, everyday barrels of Bourbon. If that sounds exciting to you, fantastic.

If that sounds boring to you, even better!

-David Driscoll

Monday
Aug292016

New Faultline Rums (and, again, there's not much)

I've been doing everything I can to actually slow the sales of these rums in anticipation of today's spirits newsletter. However, when you manage to snag a 15 year old beauty from Nicaragua and a 17 year stunner from Cub....I mean....from the Caribbean, people tend to get excited. The Faultline Caribbean blend (another teaspooned cask, a la the Balvenie malt I posted about a few days back) is indeed full of delicious, forbidden fruit. Despite my best efforts, we've already sold more than 30% of our inventory with absolutely zero marketing, zero blog posts, and zero emails. That's because all your spirits dudes and dudettes are so savvy these days. In any case, these both say "Product of Scotland" on the label because they were aged in and purchased from Scottish warehouses, but they are indeed from Nicaragua and Cub...I mean...somewhere in the Caribbean. They're bottled at 100 proof and without additional sweeteners or additives. Rum fans, rejoice!

2000 Faultline 15 Year Old "K&L Exclusive" Single Barrel Nicaraguan Rum $59.99 - Those in search of "smooth" when it comes to rum will want to check out this special single-cask bottling of Faultline from Nicaragua; especially because the richness and roundness of the spirit is entirely natural and not due to additives like caramel or sugar. This 100-proof beauty comes from the distillery in Nicaragua widely considered to be the finest Spanish-style distillery outside of Cuba. In fact, many have speculated that this distillery is responsible for much of the expansion of Cuba’s rum exports due to the stark similarities in style and unprecedented growth in that category. There is a big nose of fudge, caramel, sweet earth, slight barnyard and burning wood. After some time, there are coffee and darker smoke flavors. On the palate it remains phenolic, with a good bit of funk to balance out the elegant, sweet, dark flavors. This is as complex a smooth-styled sipping rum as we've ever bottled under the Faultline label.

1998 Faultline 17 Year Old "K&L Exclusive" Caribbean Blend Single Barrel Rum $79.99 - We don't expect this single cask of 17 year old "Caribbean" rum to last very long, partly because it's so delicious and partly because of its origins. We can't say where it's from exactly, just that it's from somewhere in the CUribBeAN region. This incredibly complex and fragrant rum combines many of the ester-driven flavors we love about rum from Jamaica and St-Lucia with the richness and elegance of the Spanish style. The flavor profile is drier and more old school in character. There's a big dusty mineral note framed by tropical pineapple, overripe banana and powerful baking spice. On the palate, fresh grassy cane, touches of mint and anise and dried fruit that meanders in between tea and cola. It's a rum you absolutely do not want to miss, especially if you're interested in forbidden fruits.

-David Driscoll