Tuesday
Aug112015

Arran Returns to Remind Us 

Quietly flying under the radar, continuing to produce more impressive malts with each release, is the island distillery of Arran; one of Scotland's more modern distilleries, built in 1993 before the boom. There are precious few producers left who will let K&L purchase directly from their live inventory, and even fewer who will quote us a more moderate price for such treasures. To get a fifteen year old, cask strength, sherry hogshead in this market is like asking for the moon. To get it distillery-direct for $129.99 is a no-brainer. This whisky, to me, represents the perfect marriage of malted barley and sweet sherry. Both elements are in complete balance, yin and yang, constituting an equal 50/50 of the flavor profile. There's a huge note of sweet malted vanilla, but it gives way at the back to fruitier notes of Oloroso goodness. At 56.8% ABV, the heat is dialed up, adding an extra blast to all that intensity.

As long as Arran keeps letting us in the door, we'll keep knocking. This is textbook Scotch.

2000 Arran 15 Year Old K&L Exclusive Single Sherry Cask Single Malt Whisky $129.99- We've grown awfully fond of the little-distillery-that-could on Scotland's Isle of Arran. Every time we make a visit and search for a new cask, we seem to find just the right barrel to bring back home. We're batting 1.000 with their sherry-matured inventory, and this new hogshead cask is quite possibly the grand slam of finds. It's not a sherry bomb by any means, as it beautifully meanders from stonefruit and creamy malt into elements of cakebread and spice, but then back to the soft vanilla of the malt again. At 56.8%, it's a powerful dram, but one that can handle water like an Olympic swimmer. In the whisky boom era, finding distilleries that can directly sell us casks of the highest quality (that aren't obvious leftovers from the recent batch), from their very best stocks is not easy. Most distilleries that still offer cask programs have increased their pricing by 25-40% over the last year. But Arran keeps on chugging away, fully showing us that they're a distillery and a relationship worth investing in. This latest 15 year old sherry cask is all the proof you need.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Aug102015

The Box Game

If you want to know how 40% of my week is spent, I can tell you: it's usually spent dealing with the many perils of whiskey packaging. Yes, whisky packaging—as in those flimsy little cardboard boxes and tins that sometimes come with a bottle of booze. They're responsible for a huge chunk of my work load during the average shift. Why? Because of the many invariables that revolve around their very existence. The uncontrollable (or sometimes very controllable) forces of fate that decide which customer gets which box, and if or if not that box even makes it to the customer at all. In this new age of whiskey collecting, the original packaging is very important, and can often determine resale value. Therefore, it's very important to certain consumers that both the bottle of whiskey and the packaging it came in be delivered in perfect condition. I'm not at all making light of that, or of the various value systems that separate our motivations. I get it, and most of all, I want all of our customers to get the packaging in the condition they want it. I'm not here to opine as to whether one should or should not care about the box (I have in the past, but I've since changed my tune). I'm just here to share a few fun facts with you. 

Here are some things you should know about whiskey boxes and the perils of booze distribution:

- The price of the box is NOT included in the price of the whiskey—at least on invoice to K&L. I know that some customers think if they buy a bottle of whisky, the price of the gift box was included and is therefore theirs by right. However, this is not fully accurate. Just about every single day I get a booze delivery, there are at least a few whisky bottles delivered without packaging. Regardless of their condition, the price on invoice is exactly the same—with the box or without it. If the distribution company delivers me 24 bottles of Lagavulin, the price is the same no matter the condition of the bottles. Now, I have the right to refuse delivery if I don't like what I see, but some whiskies are allocated and rare; meaning if I refuse delivery, I'm refusing the only bottles available. If my allocation of Yamazaki 18 is one bottle a month and my one bottle comes without a box, I can either take it or leave it—same price, either way.

- But David, why would some bottles come without boxes? For a number of reasons. Maybe a bottle broke at the distribution warehouse and leaked whiskey all over the eleven other cardboard boxes in the case. Maybe the case was jostled during transport and all the gift boxes were damaged and unpresentable, so the distributor decided just to toss them before delivery (that happens all the time). Maybe they forgot to add lids at the distillery (I've opened up at least twenty cases of Glenfiddich that had tubes, but no lids). Maybe another retailer complained about not getting a gift box in his delivery, and forced the distributor to take a box from my delivery to compensate. Yes, that happens! It happens at K&L, too, when a customer writes to request packaging after the fact. Where else am I going to get a single whisky box from? Which then only means that some customer down the line will be without the gift box, and the process will repeat itself. It's like musical chairs. There are about five hundred ways that a cheap, flimsy piece of cardboard or tin can be mishandled between the distillery and you, the consumer. Oh, and when those bottles show up smashed, dented, torn, crushed, dismantled, or rattling around in some random unmarked case, the price on the invoice is still the same. 

-Here's the real tricky one: did you know that some whiskies come packaged half-and-half? Meaning half of the case has a gift box and the other half doesn't? I'll bet you didn't know that! For example, when I slice open a case of Compass Box Oak Cross, three of the bottles have gift boxes and three of them don't. Same goes for the Carpano Antica vermouth in those beautiful tins everyone loves to collect so much. Three have tins, three don't. Guess what—the price is the same for all six bottles, regardless of whether they have a tin or not. So when people ask me: didn't this come with a box? I have to say: that depends on which of the six bottles you're talking about. 

Now imagine all of those situations that happen in between the distillery and K&L, and then add our own clumsiness into that equation. You think I haven't broken a bottle of whiskey before, and then watched that whiskey soak into five other cardboard gift boxes, rendering what's left into a mushy pulp? If you see six bottles of Talisker on the shelf without boxes, that's likely what happened. We do our best at K&L to bring you each bottle of whiskey in supreme condition, but there's no way we can ever guarantee the integrity of every whiskey box. Especially when we're not in control of the entire process. 

Just some food for thought.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Aug082015

Bourbon's Existential Terror

You don't have to read Kafka to understand what an existential crisis is—just hang out in the Bourbon section of any major retailer long enough and you'll witness it first hand. I've never seen a topic of conversation that strikes as much dread into the hearts of customers as does American whiskey. Not even Scottish single malt causes the anguish, self-loathing, anxiety, and sheer terror that selecting the right bottle of Bourbon seems to inflict. We're talking about deep, intense, metaphysical questions that go far beyond pure flavor. Sir, can you tell me: does this Bourbon have value? Does it have any meaning? Any purpose? And, if not, what does that say about me? Should I be drinking a Bourbon without meaning? Does that mean that my life has no meaning? What will people think? What meaning is there in my life if I'm not drinking the absolute best American whiskey available? What can I do? Can you help me? Can you get me a bottle of Pappy? Oh shit, I'm hyperventilating! I need a brown paper bag. Breath! Breath!

I'm at a complete loss these days. There's still plenty of great Bourbon available on the shelf at K&L, it's just that none of it will:

-increase your social standing at parties

-be worth taking an Instagram photo of

-make you feel like more of a man

-secure your place in history as someone who drank only the rarest of the rare

No other spirits category seems to symbolize more of a Nietzchean mindset to its most passionate consumers—namely the idea of a will to power: achievement, ambition, and striving to reach the highest possible echelon as the chief motivators of human existence. If the best and most-coveted Bourbons cannot be obtained, then what's the point of even drinking Bourbon in the first place? Is God dead? Or have we replaced him with a bottle of wheated whiskey? I'm freaking out.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Aug082015

Aged 16 Years

I honestly cannot remember being more excited for the release of a new album than I was this week. When I learned that Dr. Dre had abandoned his long-awaited Detox project and secretly recorded an entirely new album called Compton: A Soundtrack, a flutter went through my heart and the physical excitement soon spread to the rest of my limbs. I don't think there are two albums in my collection that have received more play time throughout my life than The Chronic and The Chronic: 2001, so the fact that Dre and Snoop will once again take to the mic and produce something new has me feeling like a teenager again.  

Dre hasn't released a new album since 1999. It's been sixteen years. There's a been a lot heartbreak and success put into cask during that time, slowly maturing into what will likely be his final release. I'm incredibly excited to hear what he has to say about that, while I pop bottles, sit back, and reminisce on what was.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Aug072015

Westland Distillery: Day 3 – The Building Blocks of Industry

Being from California, I consider my state the spirtual home of the old west, the final destination for the entrepreneurial pioneers who headed West in search of gold. However, as I was reminded yesterday at Filson, the Pacific Northwest had its own spell of gold fever and Seattle’s industries at the time adapted to meet that impending influx of mountain men and the remnants of that era are still actively at work. When thinking of today’s technological boom, I suffer from the same sort of tunnel vision. I work right smack in the middle of Silicon Valley. I’m more than aware of what’s happening with continued expansion, population increases, and all of the headaches that come with that progression, but I forget that it’s happening elsewhere, too. Apparently, Seattle’s traffic has become an absolute nightmare due to the increase in population, and as Amazon expands its central campus, along with new developments from Expedia and Facebook, the city is racing to create more affordable housing in response. Much like San Francisco, Seattle is changing, adapting, and modifying itself in response to these pioneers of the new frontier. It’s in the middle of this transition that Emerson Lamb looks to add Westland to the modern age of Seattle’s industry leaders.

We began our third day with a ferry ride west, across Elliott Bay to Bremerton. Due to my many journeys to Islay—the mecca of single malt production off the western coast of Scotland—taking the ferry is something I naturally associate with whisky. It made complete sense that we would travel by boat to visit a Washington peat bog. Ferries and peat bogs go hand-in-hand in my mind.

We hit land at the Bremerton dock and began the drive southwest to a small town called Shelton, where the Wright Brothers own a company called Organic Solutions, specializing in nursery, lawn, and garden needs—including peat moss. Behind the main building is a dusty path that leads to a six acre pond, created especially by Westland and Organic Solutions for the harvesting of local Washington peat.

What strikes you immediately about Islay—and really Scotland in general—are the colors. It’s all browns, greens, dark blues, and dark grays. With the exception of the timber, Western Washington shares much of that same natural color pattern. There’s a similarity in the feel of both locales—the cool breeze coming off the ocean, the moisture in the air, and the brooding darkness looming beyond the horizon.

Let’s talk about peat for a minute (because not all peat is equal). Because the structure of peat depends on the decomposition of vegetable matter and minerals, the deeper down you cut into the earth, the more the composition of the peat itself begins to change. Top-cut peat, for example—the peat that’s closest to the surface level—is less broken down, and therefore less dense. When burned, it releases strong phenolics and it catches fire easily due to its more-fibrous structure. Most of what’s harvested for malting purposes is top-cut peat, dug out in rows along the surface of the Scottish bogs. Hence: many Islay whiskies carry the stronger, phenolic aromas and flavors from that matter.

What Westland is beginning to do, however, is very different from any other producer I’m aware of. They’re using a tractor to dig much deeper into the earth (up to thirty-five feet under the lake); extracting both middle-cut and bottom-cut peat as well, then separating the three groups to create a variety of peat options. When ignited, middle-cut peat creates a much milder smoke, whereas bottom-cut peat—with its incredibly-dense composition—burns slower and cooler, releasing lighter aromas and heathery notes. Using strictly the high temperatures of top-cut peat to dry one’s barley can have adverse consequences, however, such as damaging the structure and integrity of the barley itself. What Westland is looking to do is blend various cuts of peat to combine the slow-burning, cooler flame of the bottom-cut peat with some of the more-flavorful compounds of top-cut peat to increase the absorption of smoke, while creating a more dynamic set of aromatics and flavor. Emerson and Matt are every bit as serious about the many possibilities of peat blending as they are about every other factor of their whisky production. It’s mind-boggling how deep they’re willing to go in the name of better booze (in this case, both literally and figuratively, with a "bog" pun thrown in for good measure).

Upon leaving the bog, we continued west towards the coast and the town of Aberdeen—famous for being the home of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain (and the subject of the new HBO documentary Montage of Heck). Immediately next to Aberdeen, is the adjacent town of Hoquiam—the hometown of Emerson Lamb and the seat of his family’s industry empire. If you weren’t already aware, the Lambs are a bit like the Hearsts of the Pacific Northwest. As you drive through Aberdeen and into Hoquiam, you travel down Emerson Street—and, no, that’s not a coincidence. The name Lamb is ascribed to the side of numerous factory buildings; more and more often as you get closer to the Westland warehousing.

The Westland rackhouse and bottling line are closer to the ocean than appears; so close, in fact, that they sit on top of a rocky landfill in what was once part of the sea itself. There are two main warehouses, both dunnage style, neither of which are temperature controlled. Again, Emerson is committed to the idea of Westland as a distinctly Washingtonian single malt. Much like the aforementioned whiskies from Islay—aged near the sea and shaped by the salty island winds—he wants the rainy, maritime climate of Hoquiam to influence the flavors of Westland’s ultimate profile. If you thought Seattle was rainy, it’s got nothing on Hoquiam.

There are a lot of casks at Westland’s Hoquiam facility; much more than I had previously imagined. Like I've mentioned before, Westland is not some rinky-dink little stab at creating a single malt whiskey company. Emerson lobbied his family’s business with its ample funds and deep pockets to go all in with this project—either everything or nothing. If Westland fails, it won’t be for lack of trying. I think you have to visit to really comprehend the level of commitment here. This is truly America’s first serious single malt whiskey operation. No one else is even close.

Tasting from the cask is always fun. It’s always an insight into the purest of possible samples.

And then it was time to visit Westland—no, not the distillery, but rather the original Westland: the Lamb family estate, high upon the hill overlooking the town. The name of the distillery is Westland because the story of Westland begins here, in this very manor. While Emerson and Matt run and operate the day-to-day logistics of the Westland whiskey company, the business itself belongs to Enterprises International—the various interests and trusts behind the original Lamb magnates, still operated today by Emerson's family. The Westland estate is where that story begins, and the property itself is spellbinding. It's everything you think it will be when Emerson tells you about his childhood.

Take a bit of Wes Anderson’s Royal Tennenbaums and combine it with Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby and you’ll begin to understand Emerson Lamb and his family’s legacy. Westland is filled with artifacts from around the world, a vast library with original copies of anthropological books and travelogues from the 19th century, and various treasures that have a fascinating history beyond the likes of anything I’ll ever own. Adventuring seems to be innate in the family blood. His mother had just flown in from Europe—a quick jaunt through Croatia and Montenegro. There are manifests from various expeditions all over the main study. I wouldn't have been at all surprised if Emerson had told us he had to leave later that evening to go grizzly bear hunting in Alaska. I didn't think people like this existed in real life. I thought it was purely the childhood fantasy of Jacques Cousteau nostalgia a la Steve Zissou, but it's here and it's happening.

But if we're talking about Gatsby, and Emerson is indeed the new-world version of Howard Hughes, his presence is never decadent, ostentatious, or off-putting. Emerson Lamb is only in his mid-twenties, yet he shows the maturity, mannerisms, and determination of someone much older. At over six feet tall, he's a powerful, sturdy figure. He talks exactly like Johnny Depp, so much so that I would sometimes close my eyes and see if I could pretend it was him. He's captivating, mysterious, and magnetic—all signs pointing to his pre-determined destiny as the Lamb family's latest mogul and the American whiskey industry's next tycoon. But beyond all of that is the fact that he's well-intentioned. He wants you to know who he is and from where he comes, if only to prove to you how hard he's had to work in spite of it. He wants to bring industry back to his roots—to Hoquiam; a town ailing from the declining lumber trade.

The best part is: I'm rooting for him all the way. I'm just excited to know that I was there; that I saw this thing forming from the initial stages. And then it turned into something beyond any of our wildest dreams. A new American single malt whiskey industry. An Islay in the Pacific Northwest.

-David Driscoll

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