Monday
Jan182016

2016: Crisis & Quest - Part III

You have to wonder at what point you run out of new things to write about when it comes to spirits. How many new distilleries can you be excited about? How many new products can still be worth talking about? How much history can you be intrigued by after you've covered so much territory? How many trips can we continue to take in the hope of breaking new ground? I've had two crises (at least two that I've written about) since my time here at K&L (which you can read here (#1) and here (#2)) and they've been followed by some sort of quest based on my personal response to them. I've been having a third crisis as of late—namely, how in the hell do we undo some of the terrible, terrible damage we've done as serious spirits enthusiasts?

Do I mean the rising prices in the spirits business? No, those are just the result of simple supply and demand economics. More people want things, there are less of those things to be had.

Do I mean the obsession with rare, limited edition, special releases? No, that response is just Pavlovian at this point. On both sides actually.

Do I mean the saturation of the boutique market with all kinds of "artisan" brands that are really just expensive, yet inferior versions of long-established labels? No, that's just plain old opportunism. You can't blame people for trying.

What I'm talking about is the creation of a horrific scene—one that uses basic and enjoyable things like whiskey, wine, food, and cocktails as its system of merit. I'm talking about an environment where people use information about production methods like cultural currency, rather than as the means to a more satisfying enjoyment or appreciation. I'm talking about a dreadful terrain where bartenders, wine critics, and master distillers are not only treated like celebrities, they're acting like celebrities; affecting to the plebeian masses like their adornment and affection is expected rather than obliged. Bill Maher said something wonderful the other night about his awesome show Real Time on HBO: "I'm old school showbiz. I'm here for the audience. I don't expect the audience to be here for me." I wonder where that mentality has gone in the service and retail industry? I spend about three to four hours every single day answering my emails. Unless I simply forget or get buried under some monumental task, I will answer every single one of them (on average I get about 100-150 a day). Not only will I answer them, I generally enjoy it because I like working with people and helping them with their questions. Contrast that with the fancy new San Francisco bar opening I went to a while back where the bartenders looked miserable, the crowd even more so, and the snobbery in the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

I guess borrowing Bill Maher's logic I would consider myself old school booze biz. I show up to work every day no matter what. I cut boxes, stock product, work with vendors, and generally try to be as amiable as possible. I ask customers if they need help when they're looking at the shelf. I ask them if they've found what they're looking for when they seem lost. I use my weekends and free time to write blog posts. I try to get better at what I do every day, not for necessarily for me, but to make our store more interesting and accessible for our customers. The information I provide and the stories I tell are meant to add enjoyment to your experiences at K&L and with the products you purchase from us. Yet I went to a bar in the city yesterday to grab a drink and watched some asshole bartender lecture a poor woman about the difference between gin and vodka and why she should switch over to the former. This type of nonsense is getting to the point where I want to drink vodka just to spite everyone.

Isn't that what counter-culture is, by the way? A way of life and set of attitudes opposed to or at variance with the prevailing social norm? What happened to that whole idea? Where's the counter-culture to pop music right now? Where's the counter-culture in fashion? What happened to real hippies, punk rock, and independent thought? Yesterday I watched a teenage daughter and her mother walk down the street wearing matching yoga pants and active wear tops. Twenty years ago we wouldn't have been caught dead dressing like our parents. And where the hell is the booze counter-culture? Ten years ago we all rebelled against big brand slop and started giving a damn about what we drank. We wanted more information, we searched out quality for the sake of it, and we exulted in the historic traditions of artisinal production. Now in 2016 the whole message has been co-opted and revamped into a cultural badge of honor (albeit often without the actual quality). Find me a fucking bottle of booze that isn't "hand-crafted." I challenge you!

Where is the response to all this? Who's going to make drinking to drink cool again? Where's Max Frost when you need him, lowering the voting age to fourteen and sending anyone over the age of thirty to an LSD concentration camp? (click below if that went over your head)

Please, please, please give me anything that will make drinking good booze fun again—and by that I mean something that doesn't require me to systematically create an artificial environment to prove to the world how sophisticated I am rather than provide pleasure and entertainment with friends. At least with big fancy brands I know what the message is: we're fancy. But at least fancy is fun!! I'd rather hang out and drink "fancy" big brand booze any day of the week than sit with a group of serious, straight-faced sycophants in a pissing contest of booze culture and information. I've seen too much of that nonsense already at this point. I'm ready to drink more vodka if that's what I have to do. I went to M.Y. China in the mall downtown yesterday and had two deliiiiiicious vodka cocktails—both interesting, flavorful, and ultizing cucumber-infused expressions. That's no problem, for me. There are people out there making vodka cool again. 50 Cent sent me a bottle of his new brand the other day. I've had a lot more fun making vodka drinks this past week with a Super Bowl-inspired, football-lined bottle of 50 Cent Effen vodka than I've had trying to figure out the exact warehouse location of our latest Four Roses barrel in an attempt to better understand the effects of specific temperatures in single cask Bourbon maturation. I'm sorry, but I just don't care about whiskey to that extent. I like whiskey because it tastes good and it makes me happy. If there's a reason behind all of that, I'm dying to know. If there isn't, I'm still going to enjoy it.

Speaking of flavor, isn't it funny how gin is having this renaissance while vodka is still getting buried as neutral and boring? I hear people say all the time: vodka is only about marketing. The whole situation is pretty ironic for a number of different reasons. First off, gin is really just flavored vodka. It's like an herbal vodka tea of sorts. Only about one out of every hundred gin producers even makes their own neutral spirit to begin with, let alone uses "artisanal" methods. So who's really getting fooled by marketing here, huh? Secondly, "craft" gin cocktails have become the calling card of today's drinking masses, so there's nothing interesting or unique about gin at this point. I love gin, mind you, but all I see nowadays in the Bay Area is a sea of scenesters drinking Negronis and talking about how lame vodka is. Meanwhile, I'm picturing 50 Cent in the club, partying it up in the VIP room with a bottle of vodka and an electric atmosphere that's 100% focused on fun rather than some authenticity grudge match. I know where I'd rather be.

Love your new vodka, by the way, Fifty.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Jan162016

2012 Bordeaux Tastings Today

Obviously I've been on a bit of a Bordeaux tangent lately, especially given the underrated quality of the 2012 vintage and the far more-reasonable prices we're seeing. Today's your chance to experience all this quality for yourself. At 1 PM in Redwood City we'll be opening multiple $100 offerings from 2012 along with a smattering of older vintages. It's the best possible way for anyone even remotely interested in Bordeaux to cut their teeth and get an idea of the genre without spending an arm and a leg. $20 gets you a glass and all the education you need.

The same tasting starts at noon in the SF store, and at 3 PM in Hollywood. Walk ins only! Come join us!

-David Driscoll

Friday
Jan152016

Rockin' & Rollin'

Would you rather see Robert Plant and Jimmy Page perform Led Zeppelin songs live in their current state, or would you rather watch a cover band dressed up exactly like the original band shred through that very same catalog? It's a tough choice. It's almost like the dilemma whisky customers face when they struggle between buying the original brand name versus something quite similar under an independent label. I went to go see Heartbreaker—a Zeppelin tribute—in Redwood City this past week and rocked out like there was no tomorrow. I kept going back to the bar for plastic cups of Belvedere on the rocks, while my wife danced at the front of the stage. These guys absolutely ripped up the joint. They can really play and the guy who does Robert Plant can wail those high notes like no one else. In my opinion, this whole thematic cover band movement is one of the coolest things ever. I want to hear the songs that I love live in concert, but many of my favorite bands are no longer active or performing. I would highly, highly recommend catching these guys on their next trip through. I would also highly recommend drinking heavily during the show and screaming as much as possible.

When it comes to the real thing, however, David J of Bauhaus and Love & Rockets fame is still doing it well. He invited me to catch his show in San Francisco last night, then stopped by the store this morning to grab a few bottles of whisky. Mr. J loves his sherry-aged Scotch, so I sent him home with the 1988 Blair Athol and the 1990 Bruichladdich from our Signatory labels. I was heading out the door to lunch and he was getting ready to hit the road, so I gave him a ride back to his guesthouse and we chatted in the car about music. David is one of the nicest rockers I've ever met and has kept in touch since our initial D2D interview a while back (but that's because he loves my whisky, not necessarily me!).

I also managed to rock out Lebanese style this past weekend as my local San Mateo restaurant Tannourine was doing a big belly-dancing show. We had reserved our spot a month in advance since we're regulars, so we had primo seats. I brought a few bottles of Château Musar with me to celebrate—the famed Lebanese winery that makes both delicious reds and whites—and ordered up a table's worth of appetizers and grilled meats. The ladies came out one by one and turned the party out, twisting and gyrating their way through the crowd as we drank ourselves silly. 

Music and booze are just a wonderful combo, if you ask me.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jan132016

The Thrill of the Deal

I did a post earlier today for the On the Trail blog about 2012 Bordeaux which you can read here, but I want to use that post to talk about context in the greater alcohol world. Value plays a big role in our enjoyment of fine things. If you're reading this blog I'm assuming you like to treat yourself to luxury every now and again. If not, then you've probably found this page by accident. This is a site dedicated to the consumption of fancy booze. It's not a blog about important global issues that affect our daily lives. FYI—in case you didn't know. So because we like to treat ourselves every now and again (or all the time, in my case), I feel even more special when I know I scored a hot deal on that very enjoyment. For me personally, 2012 Bordeaux is that hot deal. It's a vintage where three very important factors played a role in decreasing the overall price points, allowing someone like me to afford wines that are normally out of reach:

1) 2011 was a very bad vintage. After two incredible harvests, everything went wrong in 2011 and the Bordelais were forced to lower their prices. They could have raised the prices back up for 2012, except that...

2) The vintage was late. Everything happened late. Because the wines were picked late and fermented late, they were still a bit closed when en premier tasting happened in April of 2013. The critics had a rough time coming to any sort of conclusion about the quality of the harvest, so there was a lot of uncertainty and prices remained low.

3) The Euro began to tank. Right now is a great time to go to Europe. The dollar is at 1.09 against the Euro compared to the 1.4 it was trading at a few years back. With prices already low for the 2012 we gained a significant amount of additional traction with a stronger currency.

When we got our first shipments of 2009 Leoville Las Cases—easily one of the top ten wines of Bordeaux, year after year—all I could do was dream about owning a bottle. The wine was absolutely magnificent, easily considered one of the best in the vintage. They're still selling for $350 a piece today at K&L, but compare that to the $129.99 we're currently offering the 2012 for. You see a price reduction like that and you immediately think: something must be wrong with that wine. Just like when you see a Ferragamo handbag for under $1000 or a Chanel purse for 50% off, you know something must be amiss in order for the price to be that low. However, I've spent the last few days tasting through a significant number of 2012 Bordeaux expressions and I can't find a bad one in the bunch! Not only are they not bad, they're freakin' fantastic! In many cases, I like the 2012 expressions more than a number of their 2009 and 10 counterparts.

DO YOU KNOW HOW EXCITING THAT IS????!!

It's the difference between $349.99 for the 2009 Clinet and $79.99 for the 2012, which is absolutely stunning. It's the difference between $299.99 for the 2009 Pape Clement and $89.99 for the 2012. Imagine you always wanted to buy a brand new S-Class Mercedes, but couldn't afford the 100K. Then you suddenly get the chance to buy one for 40K due to a number of economic phenomena. That's what's happening here in 2012. There's an entire populace of wine drinkers that isn't buying into the vintage due to perceived lack of quality. But now the big critics are circling back and realizing their error. We tasted the 2012 d'Issan on Tuesday and I about died—violets, soft plum, and fine tannins. A wine that sold for $90 in the 2009 vintage was now going for $49.99 from 2012—and the 2012 was better! Even Robert Parker had to release a new review, stating: "I underrated this wine dramatically in my report from April 2013."

Meanwhile, I'm backing up the truck. These wines are right up my alley. Lower in alcohol, lighter in fruit, more delicate in profile, and sooner to maturity. These are five to ten year cellar candidates in many cases. You can stock up and treat yourself over the next decade for prices that in no way reflect the luxury status of these chateaux. As a shopper, it's rare that I ever see a price-to-quality ratio this out of whack. Of course, you could always make the case that the nines and tens were overpriced to begin with. That may have been the case, but they still sold through. And I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jan122016

Not So Serious

One of the great insecurities of the wine world involves pairing the right wine with the right food. If you think that subject makes casual wine drinkers nervous, you should see the craziness it causes in professionals. I fall into that same trap. I always want to drink the right wine with the right meal because it does make a difference. If I'm eating fish I serve a cool, crisp white. If I'm eating beef, I drink Bordeaux. That's usually how it goes. Here's my problem, however: I LOVE BORDEAUX, but I don't really like eating beef as much as I used to. Because my beef consumption has gone down drastically, so has my enjoyment of red wine. I finally sat down yesterday, took a look at my cellar, and said: "This is stupid. I don't need to only eat beef when I drink Bordeaux." So I made myself a frittata and opened a bottle of 2009 Tronquoy de Sainte-Anne. It tasted just as good as it always did, even without the beef.

Why do I let myself be swayed by the rules of the industry so often, especially when I know they're not set in stone? I need to completely break out of that handicapped mindset. You can drink Bordeaux whenever you want, with whatever you want. I'm not sure I'd open it with spicy Thai food, but an omelet works just fine.

-David Driscoll