Rediscovery: A Canadian Primer

It’s interesting in the booze business (and life in general) how sure the future can seem at times. When things are looking up it can be hard to imagine how they could ever take a turn for the worse. Whiskey has been on quite the run for the last decade and the future still looks bright for the category as a whole, but to assume it’s going to keep chugging along at the same clip, uninterrupted by competing markets and global affairs, might be perhaps a bit overconfident. More than a century of cycles—booms and busts—should be enough to remind most of us about the ever-fragile state of the whiskey market, not to mention changes to key legislation. There’s a small murmur of worry moving through the industry currently about potential America-first import tariffs or taxes from the Trump administration that would seriously hike up Scotch prices, let alone the vast quantities of French wine and spirits we bring in. While it looks like that proposed 20% border tax isn’t going to happen any time soon (and it looks like it wouldn’t apply to booze anyway), it only takes one little act of Congress to completely change all of our fortunes. Like the time in 1920 when they voted to make alcohol completely illegal throughout the United States; don’t forget about that. Not all markets are changed by fashion alone.

When Prohibition did come to America in the 1920s it completely gutted the Canadian whisky industry, which at that time—according to Davin de Kergommeaux—was the top selling whisky in the states. The spirit never quite regained the same momentum when the ban was ultimately lifted, despite the fact that bootlegging over the border was quite a regular thing. Detroit was actually one of the epicenters for booze smuggling given its close proximity not only to Canada, but also to one of Canada’s major distilleries: Hiram Walker. You may have to take a look at a map to understand the uniqueness of the relationship, but Windsor, Ontario—where the distillery is located—is actually south of Detroit, separated by the Detroit River that runs between Lake Erie and Lake Huron. There’s a peninsula that juts out to the southwest of Toronto and hovers above Lake Erie, flanked on the east end by Buffalo and on the west end by Detroit. Remember that it’s quite cold in both locations, to the point that rivers generally freeze and can be skated or walked upon. During the long, cold winters of Prohibition, late at night when the viability was low, it wasn’t uncommon for a few trucks to be driving directly upon the ice, packed with barrels of Canadian whisky for the dry and thirsty palates of American drinkers, and headed for the other side of the bank. It’s interesting to me that with all the hoopla and romanticism surrounding pre-Prohibition cocktails and drinking habits from the moonshining era, Canadian whisky never thought to jump on that marketing bandwagon. There's a lot there to chew on.

But considering how fleeting and fickle our fashionable tastes are here in America, taking the long road may have been the better move. This current iteration of whiskey's lore is temporary; it's not meant to last. The more I travel around the US, and the more I talk to regular bartenders and restaurateurs about their thoughts and feelings concerning our current drinking culture, the more it’s clear to me that a counter movement is underway—against the connoisseur-driven “sip it, don’t shoot it” mindset. Too much time has been spent analyzing whiskey and ranking its quality rather than drinking it, which is why you’re going to see a push towards consumption and enjoyment moving forward. It’s no different than the evolution we’ve seen with smart phones over the last few years, with more and more places asking consumers to politely show some manners and refrain from using them in various public places. We don’t always understand what the consequences are of cultural evolution until we’re presented with its annoying by-products. In the case of whiskey’s development, that consequence would be a social media sub-culture of collectors buying up and hoarding supplies to be used as cultural currency rather than actual consumption and enjoyment (kind of like people who record live rock concerts on their iPhones instead of actually watching them). The continued evolution of that subset has real drinkers and industry professionals alike scattering so as to separate themselves from that ilk. What’s the best way to prove you’re not one of these people? To drink something those guys would never drink. To find appreciation in simple consumption and enjoyment, the value of which will never be determined by exclusivity. To drink something delicious simply because it tastes good and not because it will impress anyone. Canadian whisky, anyone? Yes, Canada: your time is now. 

I didn’t need to work in the booze industry to learn about fads. I’ve lived through decades of them. I remember when we all thought Guess Jeans would be cool forever. Same with Reebok Pumps. And Starter parkas. And baseball cards. And Vanilla Ice, too. In the end, everything bright must eventually burn out. In some cases, a popular fad dies because too many people jump on the bandwagon, watering down the potency of its power among the people who made it cool to begin with. Part of the reason fads start has to do with a feeling of newness or freshness, but that all goes away when you see your mom, grandmother, and next-door neighbor wearing Coldplay T-shirts. In other cases, there’s no substance beyond the initial offering, like a one-hit wonder who fizzles out when the second song fails to live up to expectations. If you ask me, American whiskey is in serious danger right now of succumbing to both pitfalls. Not only is the market overpopulated with overzealous consumers, the major distilleries themselves have run out of the very reasonably-priced aged whiskies that created the buzz in the first place and are now struggling to find a follow-up. You wanna know why Madonna is in her fourth decade of relevancy? Because she was able to reinvent herself time and time again, keeping us all on our toes and finding new generations of fans along the way. I don't know of any pop artist who has found lasting success by releasing a second album full of songs that were half as good as the first record, but for double the price. That being said, plenty of great artists over the years have fallen out of favor, off the charts, and off the radar, only to reemerge years later when the general public rediscovered and recognized their ability and charm once again. See Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia" or John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. Again, I ask: Canadian whisky, anyone? Is it time for another American rediscovery?

I’m on a plane to Detroit right now, typing this all up as I watch the flight tracker on the map in front of me. I know literally where I am right now and where I’m going, but I’m still not quite sure where we’re heading. I’m hoping for glimpse of the future on this trip.

-David Driscoll


On the Road Again

I'm laying low this weekend as I prepare for another early Monday morning flight out of SFO. I'm off to Detroit, a city I've never visited unless you count layovers at the airport and I'm actually really fired up! While others seem to want to get as far away as possible from the former Motor City, I've been curious and fascinated by the happenings there over the past decade. I'm not sure how many people read the news anymore, but Detroit's population has shrunk by over thirty percent over the last twenty years due to the region's struggling economy. The bustling metropolis that was home to over a million people in the late nineties is now well under 700,000 inhabitants and apparently has loads of vacant housing. That may not interest you, but for people like me who are obsessed with New York in the late seventies, or who spent time in Berlin shortly after the millennium, there's a certain entrepreneurial energy that tends to form in money vacuums exactly like Detroit's. Artists can live cheaply, as can young people with new ideas looking to make an impact. As I read in one article recently, "you can come to Detroit and really make a difference." 

I've definitely purchased a few American-made items from Detroit out of support for that movement, including a pair of Shinola watches that I adore. I should also mention that the best American horror film of this generation came out of Detroit a few years back, utlizing the vibe and atmosphere of the city to utter perfection:

...and I will definitely have the brilliant Disasterpeace soundtrack on my playlist as we touch down Monday afternoon. 

Needless to say, I'm very, very interested in getting my first look at Detroit and forming some of my own opinions, rather than relying on what I read and hear from others. Hopefully I'll have some time to post a few of those thoughts here.

But, I have to say I'm not really going to Detroit just to visit Detroit. I'm going to Detroit because it's just across the river from a distillery I've wanted to visit for some time now: Canada's Hiram Walker facility in Windsor, Ontario, the home of Lot 40 rye whiskey and numerous other delicious Canadian products like Wiser's 18 year, easily my favorite Canadian whisky. I still wholeheartedly believe that Lot 40 is the best rye whiskey for the money on the market today, and has been since it's initial launch a few years back (that is if you actually like to drink whiskey rather than sip a thimble-sized sampling once a month from one of hundreds of various bottles in search of the ultimate complexity). It's so round and supple for a rye, yet it doesn't skimp on real rye flavor and concentration. You can drink it all night long and never get tired of it. It's always showing you something new, and the price today is also much more affordable. 

While I've conducted interviews with Hiram Walker's distiller and other experts in the field like Davin de Kergommeaux, easily the spirit's fighting champion, we've never seen a large interest in Canadian whisky here at K&L because I think most people can't shed the stigma of Crown Royal. What I'm hoping to finally do with my first-hand accounts is convince at least a small percentage of our shoppers that Hiram Walker is indeed one of the few overlooked and underrated major whiskey distilleries left. Canadian whisky on the whole is one of the few whisky genres where you can still "make an impact." You can still find a number of the best representatives for cheap! Like Detroit, it's been utterly abandoned by the masses of millennial whiskydom and presents a number of investment opportunities for those looking outside the box.

That interests me. The whole idea of budding cultures and burgeoning movements is far more interesting than the apex of any pop culture phenomenon. Shopping for old rye or Bourbon today is like looking for a penthouse in Manhattan or San Francisco, but I've heard you can buy a house in Detroit for about $10,000. That's what some guys pay for a bottle of Pappy 23!

In any case, I'll be live from Motor City starting Monday. 

-David Driscoll


2016 En Primeur

Just in case you only read the spirits side of our blogging, I've been editing and posting articles at On the Trail this week from our Bordeaux team currently traveling the region and tasting barrel samples from the 2016 vintage at the annual en primeur festivites. From everything I'm reading thus far from the critics (and from our top guys like Clyde Beffa and Jeff Garneau), it looks the vintage is not only better than expected; it's downright sensational. After finally experiencing the hoopla for myself last year (this time around I was tasked to go to Burgundy), I have to say I'm really a fan of the way the Bordelais release their wine. It's dramatic, exciting, and it's always a show! If you're not up to speed with how the annual Bordeaux soap opera works, I'll give you a short primer:

- The châteaux harvest the grapes and make the wines in the Fall, then the following Spring top critics and retailers fly out to taste them (even though they're not quite finished).

- The symbiotic relationship between the critics and the Bordelais winemakers works as such: the press writers generally give their opinions right away so as to be first to break the story, while the châteaux then use those reactions to determine a price. The cost of the wines is always a mystery each year. Where will they come out at? Who will launch first? Will they come out too high and crash? Or will they come out too low and sell it all too quickly? The bigger the hype, the higher we can expect the pricing. In the case of Bordeaux, the price is never fixed. It's 100% determined on how badly they think people will want it.

- Allocations are parceled out to top negotiants (consider them the distributors of Bordeaux) from whom everyone else buys the wines. Those prices will also differ depending on the size and the prowess of the company. Sometimes we can buy the wine directly from the château as well.

- Once the pricing is decided, the retailers (like us) start scrambling to get allocations of what we think we can sell and we start racing to launch quickly with what we think our pricing should be. Note that we start selling the wine (taking pre-orders) years before the wines will actually be here. This is called the "Bordeaux futures" system, or pre-arrival. There's a general understanding that the advance pricing will be significantly cheaper than the in-stock price, so there's a financial incentive to order early. That way the châteaux can start making their money while the wines are still being matured in cask (whiskey makers should maybe start doing something like this, eh?).

- How do you know if the wine you're buying is good? You don't. That's how professionals like us make our reputation. We give you our feedback (as do the critics) and we hope that our advice aligns with your desires. Of course, you won't really know for another decade or so anyway because no one is going to open these wines when they arrive! They're going to sit in your cellar for at least another eight to ten years, if not longer! That's why a general understanding of the house style is recommended before you start buying futures. You have to try a few bottles of the back vintages then see what you like and hope the reviews and scores released by the press and trade match up with your expectations.

- Years later, once the wines are finally bottled, they are released as normal in-stock items and go into our stores, but by this point the prices may have doubled and/or many of the top wines might have already sold through. Or just the opposite! If the harvest is a bust, it's also possible that the in-stock pricing will be lower due to lack of demand. That's the worst case scenario for the châteaux, which is why it's in their best interest to find the right équilibre of price to quality right away.

Much like with whiskey here at K&L, we're always very sensitive to pricing. I'm sure Clyde has said to every château owner so far this week: "And the prices are going to be reasonable, right?" There's nothing more exciting than a good Bordeaux vintage with decent pricing to match, which is why it's up to us to apply the pressure. We need them to know that everyone stands to win with reasonable costs!

Normally I'm not a fan of professional wine writing because it's generally just tasting notes and scores these days, but I have to say that The Wine Advocate's Neil Martin (he's taken over for Robert Parker) wrote something this week that made me laugh out loud. I'd link it here, but you have to pay for access to their site so I'll paraphrase. He wrote that rushing to be the first critic to release your Bordeaux en primeur scores "is like bragging to your wife that you can come really quickly. And it's just as unsatisfying." You want to get it right, not do it as fast as possible!

Maybe I do have a future as a wine writer if they're willing to publish such crassness these days :)

-David Driscoll


The Lagavulin 8 Year Story

There's the old saying "when you assume you make an ass out of u and me." In that vein, I assumed that when Lagavulin released their eight year old limited edition expression a while back that most fans of the distillery read the propaganda that went along with it (because this is one of the better stories). What I've realized, however, after dozens and dozens of customers have said, "Why would I buy the eight year when I can get the sixteen?", is that the inspiration for the eight year edition may have gone unnoticed by a large number of folks. Personally, I'd rather drink the Lagavulin 8 year than 16 year edition not only because I think it's a fresh and exciting whisky, I'm also quite taken by the romantic writings of Alfred Barnard, the former Harper's Weekly Gazetter employee who visited all 150 whisky distilleries in the UK during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The exploits of those escapades are documented in the book The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, a thick and weighty tome that has inspired a number of modern whiskymakers and blenders today (like my friend John Glaser who once made a Compass Box edition based on a blend outlined in the book). I keep the book at my desk at work where I often thumb through it from time to time, looking for various details from the past, hoping to spark a bit of rustic romanticism here and there.

I'm clearly not alone in those endeavors.

When Lagavulin released their 200th anniversary 8 year old edition, they did so in tribute to Alfred Barnard's visit to the distillery back in the late 1800s. As you can see in the paragraph above, he mentions having tasted an eight year old expression which he refers to as "exceptionally fine." He adds that Lagavulin is one of the few distilleries that can stand alone as a single malt (because back then everyone knew blends were better, dude!).

That's pretty much the gist of it. In releasing the eight year, Lagavulin was paying homage to some of the industry's original travel blogging. I thought it was a great idea, and I think the whisky is pretty fantastic, too. There's more smoke, more maritime character, and more lift than the sixteen year classic and it's a joyous romp from the initial sip to the flurry of peat on the finish. I also just got a bunch more of it in:

Lagavulin 8 Year Old Limited Edition Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky $59.99 

-David Driscoll


Days Are Gone

It's funny. I loaded my iPod Shuffle early this morning and went to the gym to hit the rowing machine, hoping to get my mind off of work for an hour or so. The crisp morning spring air had me in the mood for one very specific album: Haim — Days Are Gone, a piece of precise pop perfection that has yet to grow tired more than three years after its initial release. I can't get enough of these girls, a trio of three sisters from LA that have managed to capture the essence of rock's past with a fresh and effervescent burst of new wave energy and drama. They really do epitomize something picturesque and romantic from my nostalgic psyche. I can't explain it. I'm simply a fan of pop female vocals and Haim's debut full-length record is probably my favorite album of the decade thus far. No matter how shitty I feel, these girls find a way to sing me back into the land of the living. After a solid fifteen minutes of rowing I finally got to the album's title track and, instead of an escape, its lyrics made me think of my whiskey customers and the emails I still get continually. 

David, any chance you can score a bottle of Elijah Craig 18 year?

Those days are gone, those days are gone...

David, is it really true we can't get Hibiki 21 anymore?

Those days are gone, those days are gone...

David, when are you going to get more reasonable 30 and 40 year old single malts in stock?

Holding on, holding on, those days are gone...

Here...go ahead and listen for yourself:

I'm not sure today's consumers really understand the reality of the situation, but I'll break it down very simply: the mature and heady days of Scotch and Bourbon glory are long over. They're not coming back either. We're not in a brief respite. We're not going through a short pause. We're not a year away from plenty of affordable Weller 12 or loads more of Willett single cask editions. There's no more whiskey like that anymore. We bought it all. Those days are gone. The little supply still left is being held back for ultra luxury editions and four-figure splurges that will not be wasted on reasonably-priced excursions. If the reality of this situation pains you and makes you upset, queue the above YouTube video and let the sweet sounds of the Haim sisters lull you into a better place. That's what I do. It's really quite effective.

Since it's happened before via the blog and I seem to be a magnet for notoriety as of late, if anyone out there knows the Haim girls, send them my way. I've got a care package of fine booze ready for them as a thank you gift. They've pulled me through some difficult days, so it's my pleasure. Hopefully they like to drink!

-David Driscoll