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Saturday
Jan272018

New Bowmore, Plus Updates from France

One of the hardest things to do as a retailer/importer is to temper your enthusiasm (I'm terrible at it) when making a large purchase. Charles and I discussed this subject at length during our most recent lengthy drive through Cognac country. How much of the pleasure we derive from tasting is due to the quality of the liquid itself, and how much it comes from the romance of travel? For example, I continue to buy cask after cask of available Bowmore because I will always think about our first night at the distillery in 2011 with Jamie MacKenzie (pictured above with David OG). It was a cold and foggy night and we were fresh off the ferry, our first visit to Islay. I'll think about that wonderful memory each and every time I take a sip of Bowmore whisky, so that's when I have to ask myself: does this latest cask of Bowmore really cut the mustard, or am I letting myself get carried away by sentimentality?

Which brings me the latest K&L single cask arrival: a heavenly 22 year old hogshead that was bottled for us by our friends at Sovereign. Let’s go down the list with what is yet another great deal from our direct barrel program (one that the current Pound/Dollar rate will make difficult moving forward): 1) the standard edition of Bowmore 25 year sells for about $400, while the standard 18 year comes in around $130. At full proof, this 22 year comes in at well less than the 25 and for only a bit more than the distillery’s 18 year old edition. That’s a great price. 2) Despite the isolated single barrel character, this whisky is incredibly balanced. You’ve got loads of vanilla, plenty of peat smoke, and a lovely, oily texture. You’d think this was blended into a harmony, but it just so happens to taste that way right out of the cask! 3) Finding Islay whiskies with age in this market is getting harder and harder. We can get as much no-name Highland whisky as our customers can buy, but to secure barrels from the legendary peated whisky distilleries is becoming a tough task. I’m doing everything I can to lock down more supply, but the truth is it’s not something I can assume will continue with any frequency at this point. Needless to say, you can’t go wrong with a classic expression of Bowmore. This isn’t an anomaly in any way. It’s everything you hope it will be with no rough edges and plenty of richness to balance out the campfire notes. Plus, my colleague Alex thinks it's one of the best whiskies he's ever had. That's saying something.

1995 Bowmore 22 Year Old K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $139.99 - Bottled at 51.8%

We met up with Claudine, Gerald, and Pierre at Dudognon this week for dinner at their home in the Cognac region. If you'll recall, I was here at the end of 2015 and at that time Pierre and I made a blend for K&L: two brandies married together, one distilled from ugni blanc and the other from a rarely-seen grape called montils. We brought it in the following year and it sold through around the end of 2016 during that holiday season. Since then, however, the remainder of that blend has been sitting in a cask, marrying slowly and gaining complexity from the additional oak maturation. We tasted it against the original blend (they still had a bottle on hand) and there was no question: it was way better, so I told him to bottle it up and ship it over ASAP! I'm also going to have Gerald bump up the proof just a bit. It will still say 40% ABV on the bottle because the labels were printed long ago, but in reality it will be more like 42.3%. That extra little kick on the finish made all the difference for me. 

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Jan252018

Armagnac Tourism

It's only been a year since my last trip to Armagnac, but it seems that every time I'm away I forget just what an incredible place this is for passionate spirits drinkers. It's honestly a giant Disneyland of booze, full of ancient, brandy-maturing barrels around every corner, colorful characters, and farmhouses that look like movie sets or theme park installations with their quintessential rustic charm. There are endless casks of brandy, vintages from the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties just sitting around in old barns and cellars. Bonbons with spirits distilled in 1900, 1919, 1923, and 1939 just above them, still filled with plenty of Armagnac from a century ago or more. You can taste whatever you want, buy whatever is there, and bottle it however you like. Everything is on the table. To the locals, Armagnac is really just a commodity, no different than the olive oil or pistachios you might buy at a roadside stand in the California countryside. Some are better than others, but in the end it's really just one of many things these people do. You won't find many producers talking about the "art" of their distillation, or their "craft" as a "master distiller."

The only real roadblock to Armagnac's breakthrough with the greater public in my opinion is the language barrier. It's not unlike mezcal in that sense. For example, when agave fans head off to Oaxaca for a spirited vacation, they're typically not driving out into the sticks to visit the actual palenques unless they speak fluent Spanish or are with someone else who does. It's not like the distillers of Santa Ana del Rio wouldn't welcome any friendly and passionate mezcal tourist with smiles and open hearts into their tiny village (because they would). Rather, they simply wouldn't be able to communicate in English and they might find it a bit awkward after a few uncomfortable minutes without any sort of connection or mutual understanding. When I was at Domaine de Barailllon earlier today, I spoke with the Claverie family about some American tourists who came by for a visit this past year. Laurence told me she was somewhat shocked by their arrival, but more than happy to show them around. However, she felt a bit weird continually telling them things in French when it was clear they didn't understand anything she was saying. 

You can see why over the last decade or so the major distillers of the world have hired multi-lingual tourism directors to help promote their facilities as potential destinations of interest. It's completely normal these days to see a huge group of Japanese tourists walking through Maker's Mark in Kentucky with a Japanese-speaking guide. The same goes for the major distillers in Scotland. Armagnac, however, is not quite ready for the spotlight, which is part of what makes it so wonderful for those seeking something less manipulated by money. But if you can speak French, or dedicate yourself to learning it like I have, then you can really start to peel back the layers and get into what is easily the most exciting place in the world right now for distilled spirits. On my first trip to Gascony in 2012, I didn't speak a work of French. Today, while I'm far from fluent, I can follow every conversation and participate in any sort of dialogue. I make mistakes and sometimes I use the wrong words here and there, but the difference is night and day and that effort went a very long way towards ingratiating me here. These people went from knowing me as the quiet American guy who travels with Charles Neal and buys a lot of stuff, to knowing me as a person—understanding my sense of humor, my intentions as their American representative, and my own personal interest in their products.

I had an hour long conversation with Christelle Lasseignou (pictured above) from Domaine de Maouhum yesterday about the perils of modern technology and its troubling effect on today's society. Compare that with the last time I saw her where I pretty much just stared at the ground and nodded my head now and again like an idiot. If you're interested in Armagnac and you'd like to visit the region, the adventure doesn't begin with a book about Gascony and its many brandy producers; it begins with a French dictionary and a guide to grammar. This is a region completely oblivious to the current spirits culture and what's happening with connoisseurship in places like New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco. They have no concept of whiskey's current rise in popularity, or how the spirits market has exploded in America, nor would they understand why some foreigner might knock on their door and want to meet them or take a few photos of their chai. They will, however, want to know why you're there. What is it exactly that you want? How did you hear about them? Would you like to buy a bottle? 

You'll need to be able to explain those things to them. Once you break the ice, it's all gravy. Just understand that no one in Armagnac will give a flying you-know-what about your extensive personal collection of bottles, or the fact that you think their brandy rates highly on a scale of 1 to 100 points. They will, however, want to know about you, so you'd better be ready to talk. If there's one thing I've learned over the last six years of traveling in the region, it's that there are no short appointments. Taste a few things, then head off to the next producer? HA! Yeah right. This isn't Napa. If you show up, be prepared to commit. They might invite you to eat lunch with them and talk about your life in America. If you're unable to do so, it's going to get weird quickly. 

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Jan242018

Detective Work

It's taken serious diligence, but after a few years of detective work I've managed to track down what happened to the last stocks of Pouchégu Armagnac. If you'll recall, Pierre Laporte's brandy was one of our original discoveries back in 2013 and the immediate customer feedback we received was off the charts. People went absolutely crazy for the combination of richness, concentration, and higher than normal proof, especially as the mature Bourbon shortage was just beginning and older American whiskies were disappearing from the market. The Pouchégu Armagnacs seemed like a pretty good substitute for those craving something old, woody, and sweetly spiced. 

Then something terrible happened. Pierre Laporte succumbed to to cancer shortly after our first order arrived in 2014 and all business stopped immediately thereafter. We tried to find out what the future held for his estate on our next visit, but apparently there were no heirs interested in continuing Pierre's legacy and eventually the stocks were sold off to a mystery buyer. We checked with all the regular negociants in the region, but none of them had been involved with the deal apparently. It was only after a random conversation with another distiller in the region that we discovered exactly who had purchased the remaining barrels.

Charles and I met with this mystery entity today and tasted through the vintages. They were every bit as spectacular as I remembered. The 1980 in particular might be the best Armagnac I've ever had in my life, an amazing combination of vanilla, oak, and bold baking spices with plenty of proof. I tried to hide my excitement so as not to tip my hand.

Now let's see if we can make a deal.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Jan222018

Have Some Armagnac

I'm holed up at a small, remote country house near Domaine d'Ognoas with my good friend Charles Neal. We've got a fire lit. We just made dinner and had a few intimate conversations while moving through numerous wines and open bottles of brandy. It's been a long day in the Tenereze, but we've had some incredible tastings. Plenty to talk about later over at On the Trail.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Jan202018

Working the Calvados

The longer I remain in the booze business, the more I come to value the close relationships I've formed over the years and appreciate the people who are an absolute pleasure to work with. Astrid Hubert is one of those people and we've sold so much of her Pays d'Auge Vieux expression at this point that we're by far her largest client (thousands upon thousands of bottles out the door). Few things in life at this point make me as happy as finding success with people I adore and respect. Astrid is like a burst of bubbly energy that never quits. She's constantly smiling, making funny faces, telling self-effacing jokes, and reminding me of how much I like her. She's also tough as hell, one of the few woman I've seen running an entire estate in Normandy from harvest to distillation. We hung out with her for over an hour today, working on potential new products while getting an advance tasting of our newest batch of the Vieux. This upcoming edition (due to land at the end of the month) is based primarily on the 2008 vintage with bits of 2006 and 2010 blended in. It's textbook Astrid—friendly, feminine, but with a bit of a spicy kick. I'll have the whole day's events up at On the Trail shortly. 

-David Driscoll