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Sunday
Apr032016

Living the Life

Bordeaux is pretty much a playground of amazing wine and food backed by insanely-wealthy properties that can afford to fly in Michelin-starred chefs like Vivien Durand to cook for them at their leisure. We dined at Haut-Bailly last night and had it not been for the fact that I was extremely tired, it would have been one of the most spectacular nights in my wine industry career. It's going to be ten straight days of this type of living here in Bordeaux. I'll continue to post photos here, but the main work will be over at On the Trail. 

I got about three hours of sleep, which I guess I'll have to deal with like a professional. It's off to the first growths today! 

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Apr022016

Je Suis Prêt

Well folks, the time is nigh. In just about an hour I'll be heading over to the San Francisco airport and boarding an Air France flight to Paris for my first-ever wine expedition abroad. For the last seven years I've been the spirits buyer at K&L, spilling my guts to you all here on this blog about all things distilled, but now I've been tasked with a completely different mission (and I've chosen to accept it). Can the off-the-cuff, knee-jerk, deeply-personal style of writing I've been successful with in the spirits world translate to a larger audience over on the wine side? We're about to find out. For the next two weeks I'll be covering the 2015 Bordeaux vintage from this year's en primeur tasting with the K&L team on our On the Trail blog.

"I'll give it everything I have," I told him with a straight face.

So here's my big break. I might completely crash and burn, but maybe I can take what is a complicated and convoluted subject to many and turn it into something personable and intriguing. Entertainment always come first, of course. Are you guys ready to learn everything there is about Bordeaux? No? Good, because I'm not the guy who's gonna teach it to you. Are you ready, however, to go on an adventure? Yes? Good, because I am, too. If you need a primer on what en primeur is then start here. Otherwise, I'll check in with you all in about twenty-four hours.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Mar312016

Ride the Mule (Alley Cat)

My friend Joe Heron, the owner and founder of Copper & Kings distillery in Kentucky (and the best thing we've discovered at K&L since sliced crystal meth), sent me this outstanding care package in the mail yesterday: a bottle of the unaged C&K brandy, a tall glass, and a bottle of the official C&K ginger beer. What you may not know about Joe is that he was twice previously the owner of a beverage company before setting up his Louisville distillery, so making soda or other bottled concoctions is no sweat for him. Copper & Kings is currently producing a ginger beer, a tonic water, a cream soda, and a standard cola—not really for profit, but just because they can (and because all those things mix well with their distillates).

So why the glass that says "Ride the mule"? Because Joe thinks making a Moscow Mule with his unaged (yet flavorful) brandy is far more interesting than the standard neutralized vodka. He's right, by the way. I arrived home this evening, my best friend the black alley cat (not mine, but he might as well be) sitting on my stoop, awaiting my return. "Let's hang out here and enjoy the evening breeze," I said to him. What's funny is that C&K actually makes a barrel-aged gin called Alley Cat with a black Bombay on the label just like mine. 

Feel free to use this photo for publicity, Joe.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Mar312016

The Best Things Come...

The internet age has taught me a very important lesson over the years: that time is of the essence. I remember back in the day when you could actually line up for concert tickets. If you were first in line, you got the first crack at the front row. When Pink Floyd went on tour in 1994 I remember there were actually people camping out in front of the Ticketmaster office in Modesto in order to save their spot in the queue. That ended quickly, however, when the box office began doing a lottery. But the entire concept of lines, waiting, and paying your dues ended entirely when the internet allowed concert-goers to buy their tickets online. Now it's all just a mad rush once the ten o'clock hour hits—who's got the fastest fingers? You can buy tickets now from the comfort of your toilet seat if you so wish. Remember when an important new rock album was being released (hell, do you remember when rock albums were important?) and you'd go to the Tower Records midnight sale for a chance to get it first? Now you can just download the songs you like as soon as the record hits the web. Remember when you had to actually make time to watch TV, to reserve the spot on your calendar so that you didn't miss the latest episode of Beverly Hills 90210? Those days are over. Maybe time isn't of the essence after all. Maybe time works for us now.

As I talked about this subject with my friend Ben last night, he said to me at one point: "I love binge watching TV shows. It's great. It's an incredible option, but I'm not going to act like waiting a week in between episodes wasn't more exciting." Rather than time creating nostalgia at this point for many of us, time itself is nostalgia. We're actually looking back at the past and saying: "Remember when you actually had to wait? Wasn't that nice?" Why was waiting so wonderful, you ask young millennial? Because back before the internet existed you actually had time to develop context, evaluate quality, allow for deeper concepts to sink in, and reflect on the enjoyment you derived from an experience. When you can get whatever you want, whenever you want it, it unwittingly devalues the very thing you're looking forward to enjoying; it turns from a luxury into a simple convenience. "I can't tell you the last album I've downloaded that I've listened to more than once," Ben added at one point. Of course! Why listen to something again when you can just download a new one once you've finished? We're passionate about saving the earth these days, about reusing our paper cups over and over, but what about art? Is an experience something you actually experience anymore, or is it now just something you record on your iPhone, post on Facebook, and immediately move on from?

And where do wine and whiskey fall in the conversation? Are today's new drinkers even interested in having an experience, or are they more interested in crossing off another name on a list of the ten best whiskies that they found after seven seconds of Google searching? Are they actually trying to enjoy the liquid, or are they more interested in forming an opinion so that they can add another blog post, tweet, or Instagram opinion to their daily regiment? Companies are really asking these questions because they want to know if it's even worth the time to explain everything! What's the point of going into detail when no one's going to actually pay attention? We live in an age of efficiency. We want to be able to learn about as much as possible, as fast as possible, by putting forth as little effort as possible. But as we've learned from the current strain of affluenza, when you're given something for nothing you tend to lose sight of what's really important. Professional wine or whiskey reviewing is no different. You often go into a room, there are thirty glasses in front of you, and you do the best you can with the time allotted to you. In no way, however, is tasting thirty Bordeaux wines back-to-back the same as sitting down with one bottle over the course of an evening, which is why the entire concept of power tasting is flawed. It's for that reason I love tasting at Signatory each year with Des, tracking down the actual cask in the warehouse, climbing up on top of the stacks, and using the screwpump to open each bung. The fact that we actually have to work for our whisky makes it that much more enjoyable.

On a larger scale, you can use the example of the 2012 Bordeaux vintage I wrote about a few months back to see what happens when professional critics race to be first and completely miss the context as a result. You had guys releasing scores before the wines had actually developed, lowering the release prices, but then scrambling to go back and rescore their initial attempts to save face. We're leaving on Saturday to score the 2015 vintage (the first week of April as we do every year), but we heard stories of other guys tasting in February! That's like trying to psychoanalyze a child while it's still in the womb. Sometimes you just have to wait, and by waiting you actually get a more substantive review. The quality of all connoisseurship increases by moving slowly, taking one's time, and allowing the nuances of the process to reveal themselves. But who really cares about context these days, anyway? Just give me the quick rundown. And quickly! I don't have much time to spend on this purchase. Is it good? On a scale of 1-100, where would it land?

And there you have it. 

-David Driscoll 

Wednesday
Mar302016

The Savory, Sake-Filled Skies of Tottori

I'm not sure exactly why Mantensei refers to its junmai ginjo sake as the "Star-Filled Sky," but I think it might have something to do with the Tottori Prefecture (where Matensei's Suwa brewery is located) being the least-populated in all of Japan. I'm thinking that with so few people around and so little light disturbance from the lack of a bustling cityscape, one must be able to see the star-filled sky with relative ease. One thing I do know for sure is that Tottori has some of the softest water in the country, which allows the Suwa brewery to ferment its sakes at extremely-low temperatures for extremely-long periods of time. If you've learned anything about whisky from this blog over the years, you'll probably recall that long fermentations lead to gentle, soft-fruited flavors; think of Oban as an example. 

Along with all that clean fruit flavor in the Mantensei "Star-Filled Sky" sake is a whole lotta earthiness—an earthy, almost umami note that practically screams for mushroom risotto or black truffles. Much like enzymes are introduced into a barley single malt mash during the cooking process, converting the starches into fermentable sugars, sake production uses a mold called koji to complete the same conversion with rice. Because the rice kernels are stripped of their husks, however, there can be no malting process which is why the enzyme must come from an outside source. The spores are sprinkled over the steamed rice, and then worked into the mixture either by hand or by a machine (as you can see from the above photo, they do everything by hand at Suwa). As most koji is cultivated by the producer itself in Japan, the Suwa brewery makes a very special style, utilizing higher temperatures to impart a different effect onto the mold. In the case of the "Star-Filled Sky" sake, quite a liberal amount of this special koji is introduced into the mix, resulting in a unique flavor in the final liquid.

As Monica Samuels, the national sake manager for the importer Vine Connections told me during our meeting, "Generally for ginjo/daiginjo types the koji-making is very delicate, referred to as 'tsuki-haze.'  In this style, you can still see the rice after the koji making with the white koji flecks all over it. At Suwa, however, the koji-making is done in a style called 'so-haze,' where the koji is heavily applied, resulting in a white frosting of sorts that completely coats the rice grain. It creates a lot more umami flavor, but koji mold also accelerates fermentation, making it difficult to achieve precision, so you have to be careful."

On the palate the resulting flavors range from soy sauce to caramel with almonds, with a dry yet rich finish that is simultaneously clean and refreshing. There's even a bit of smoke underneath all that savory goodness. As Monica went on to say, "Generally when you have that intense soy-caramel koji aroma, the finish can be cloying or flabby, but this sake is surprisingly clean on the finish. The fact that the rice is polished to junmai daiginjo grade and the fermentation is so carefully controlled creates the umami aromas, but with that clean finish; resulting in a sake that is much more drinkable. It is also a higher ratio of actual koji rice to non-koji (kakemai), but the application is what makes it so intense." The "Star-Filled Sky" from Mantansei is a bold and fragrant sake with intense aromas and savory richness. It's also a sake you might want to enjoy at room temperature. It was also a huge hit with the staff at our Tuesday tasting.

Mantensai "Star Filled Sky" Junmai Ginjo Sake $29.99

-David Driscoll

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