The Power of Marketing

I don't have the strength or the time to put these ideas into a long, well-written, cleverly-organized article right now, but here are some things about booze that have been on my mind over the last day or two:

- I participated in a blind tequila tasting last week where we rated five premium tequilas and gave our thoughts.  Using the dreadful 100 point system, most of us gave medium to low scores for all of the tequilas involved, but one of the judges gave all 90+ ratings.  Because we knew which tequilas were involved in the competition, her rationale was that these were all ultra-premium tequilas so they should all be in that range.  That blew my mind because the term "ultra-premium" is a self-designated label.  The point was that this minute bit of marketing was enough to influence a professional taster, so it must be influencing millions of other drinkers around the world.

- Yesterday I met with Belvedere Vodka's brand ambassador and we talked about the brand's role in the category.  She mostly talked about how it compared to other premium vodkas and how it was great for bartenders wanting to make great cocktails.  I said that trying to convince SF bartenders to use vodka was a lost cause because it doesn't fit in with what they're doing.  It isn't about snobbery, it's about taste and vodka doesn't add anything to these recipes.  That doesn't mean, however, that vodka doesn't have a place, but no one is marketing it appropriately for people who like craft spirits.  Don't talk about luxury or purity, talk about tradition.  Belvedere vodka should have two marketing teams: one schmoozing it up with Usher and Lil Wayne in the club, and the other preaching the tradition of vodka.  White people like myself love co-opting other people's cultures as our own!  Every hipster in SF is looking for the taco place that doesn't speak English and makes the "real" comida.  Show me a picture of a group of Poles from the 1800s drinking vodka in a warm cabin while eating a potato stew!  Romanticize the tradition of vodka in Eastern Europe!  That's the way to get the other side interested.  Make vodka cool again by showing people a rich heritage! That's free marketing advice vodka companies!  The craft movement has single-handedly made vodka uncool.  No one wants to admit they like it, but this is one way around that.  Make it cool again and everyone will come right back.

More on this subject later.  I've got a million things swimming around in my head right now that I need to consider first.

-David Driscoll


Podcast #9 - High West's David Perkins

Fresh of his recent award of 2010 Pioneer of the Year from the Malt Advocate, David Perkins and I discuss what it means to blend whiskey, the state of the barrel sourcing industry, and the misconceptions surrounding High West as a distillery.  A quick warning, there was some noise in my house and the combination of my loud voice with David's quiet one can make it difficult at times so listen in a quiet space!  I hope it's still audible and enjoyable.

This episode can be downloaded here.  Archived episodes can be found here or on iTunes.  You can also listen via our embedded Flash Player below.


David Perkins - Pioneer?

There's a lot of contraversy on the blogosphere right now concerning the Malt Advocate's awarding 2010 Pioneer of the Year to David Perkins - proprietor of High West.  People are asking the question, how can he be a pioneer if he didn't make the whiskies?  Go to these blogs if you want to read the entire thread of the argument.  I offer this in contemplation and then I'll let David defend himself later on our podcast this week:

Using a different analogy, let's look at the Bay Area's esteemed chef Alice Waters - considered a pioneer in cooking.  What is her claim to fame?  She said that people should use fresh ingredients, grown locally, without pesticides.  Her recipes are basic and simple.  She is worshiped in San Francisco for this.  I personally love her cookbooks and her philosophy.

But is she the first person to ever do this?  Aren't there farmers and people living all over the world who have been doing this for thousands of years?  Heck, my father-in-law grew up in Mexico and was FORCED to grow and cook with his own local "organic" food - it was necessity not a trendy choice.  Yet, people consider Alice Waters a food pioneer for doing exactly that.  Some people like my wife do not.

The U.S. is a different place than the rest of the world.  Traditions of growing local vegetables in the motherland were lost when a new generation discovered TV dinners and fast food.  Agro companies began pumping pesticides into our food to make larger, shinier produce that lost its nutritional value as well as its taste.  Alice Waters simply said, "let's go back to what we originally did" and started a food revolution - if you think that a revolution means doing what millions of other people had been doing their whole lives.

The United States, however, isn't the same as other countries so being a pioneer here can sometimes mean pointing out the obvious and doing something that seems relatively easy.  David Perkins simply said, there's a market for good rye whiskey - "why don't I just buy some rye whiskey, blend it, and sell it?  I'll open my own restaurant, distillery, and whiskey bottling operation."  Sure, the distilleries that made these whiskies could have blended them themselves, but they didn't.  By taking these products and creating the High West whiskies, David merely pointed out to them that they had some fantastic product on their hands, made it into a tasty cuvee, and gave us something delicious.

To me, being a pioneer can mean taking an industry in the proper direction for growth, even if the direction itself is lacking in novelty.  The original pioneers helped lead the U.S. west, although the land was not undiscovered or unused (Native Americans can effectively ask, why are these people called pioneers?)  David Perkins obviously saw that rye was going to be big, took the appropriate actions, and did the job effectively well.  There are plenty of other rye producers that are out of stock right now because they did NOT see this boom coming.

I'm closing up shop right now and I just sent my wife a text telling her I'm not going to go to her Oscar awards party because I'm sick with a cold and I can't get shake it.  My wife sent me a reply saying that I'm still sick because I'm supposed to be lying down in bed and resting instead of working.  She ended the message with, "maybe I should market that idea and be the next Alice Waters."  

Ha ha, but maybe she's onto something.  

-David Driscoll


Clynelish/Brora Dream Tasting

So, I'm going to apologize up front for bragging about last Friday's tasting, but this was one for the books.  While none of the bottles are available through normal channels, their mere existence is worthy of a blog post.   We don't sell any of these, so I won't go too in depth, but I'll try to give you an idea of each bottle and where it came from.  Brora/Clynelish has a long and complicated history of distillation, closure, rebirth, etc.  Originally known simply as Clynelish, the first distillery in the town of Brora was built in 1819.  In 1968, construction of a second larger and more modern distillery finished and Clynelish relinquished it's name to its larger baby brother.  That would have been the end of it, but the whisky gods intervened.  Demand for smoky Islay style whisky started to outweigh supply and so the stills at the old "Brora" distillery began working again.  Between 1969 and 1973, Brora produced a heavily peated whisky that was used as a substitute for Islay whisky in the blends.  Between 1973 and its closure in 1983, Brora continued to produce heavily peated whisky intermittently, but mostly exhibited a more typical low peat highland style character.  In 1983, the whisky market crapped out and Brora Distillery was mothballed along with several other legendary distilleries (Banff, Dallas Dhu, Port Ellen, etc).  While the UDV never bottled a Brora Single Malt, the demise of the whisky markets in the '80s allowed several independent bottlers to take healthy positions on this exceptional whisky, as the blenders needed less of each particular expression.  You can also occasionally find Brora 25 and 30 bottled as Limited Release from Diageo.  Here's what we tasted:

Clynelish 12 Year Old bottled approximately 1967.  This is a bottle from before the split and thus represents an unpeated highland style whisky.  Bottled at 70 proof (British proof, 40% ABV) the flavor profile is surprisingly similar to present day Clynelish 14 year.  While spectacularly educational , this whisky itself felt a bit lacking.  Nose was apple, herb and malty grain.  Palate was a bit flat up front and straight forward, but stiffening up in the middle.  Finish was dry and short.  Still awesome to taste something in the bottle this long.

Clynelish 37 Year Old Bottled by the Whisky Exchange.  Didn't take notes on this one, as it was tasted to against the 12 year for comparison purposes.  Obviously, the Whisky Exchange was trying to capture the aesthetic of the old bottlings.  Similar flavor profile to the 12 year, but much more depth and texture.

Brora 22 year Rare Malts Selection is an exceedingly rare American release of Diageo's Rare Malts line.  Bottled at 58.64, this was my least favorite whisky of the night.  Aromatically dull, the subtlety of the Clynesh totally masked by the intensity of the alcohol.  Mostly malty grain notes and a bit of apple peel if I really stretch it.  The back label of this botting suggests that you drink this "1 part whisky, 2 parts water"?!?  I've seen this suggestion on other rare malts bottlings and because of my disappointment I actually tried it out.  Despite the fact that it was totally devoid of intensity on the palate, this actually revealed and incredible bouquet of aromas.  Weird...

Brora '72 Connoisseur's Choice bottled in 1993.  The first of the peated Brora's that we tasted.  My lord this was something different.  My first reaction, which I must say the entire room agreed with, "Freshly Opened Tennis Balls!"  Shockingly bizarre little malt.  The nose, once you got beyond the tennis balls, showed freshly cut peat, light stone fruits, formaldehyde.  With a drop of water the stone fruit became more pronounced.  On the palate this malt kind of came apart.  At 40%, it did not have the body to carry all these insane flavors on through the finish.  A bit of saltiness til the end, but definitely better on the nose. 

I didn't get a picture of the next two, Brora 1981, 25 & 26 year Duncan Taylor Cask #1423 56.5% & 1424 54.5%.  These sister casks of low/no peat Brora were definitely fun to try side by side.  Filled most likely on the same exact day, there were surprisingly difference created in an extra year of aging.  The 25 year showed more herbaceousness and less apple/pear.  Greater oak depth on the 25 year was contrasted by a light floral citrus quality in the 26 year.  Both were solid and very tasty.  Proves once again how excellent the Duncan Taylor Single Cask can be. 

Clynelish "The Manager's Dram" 17 Year is one of the rarest and most sought after bottlings of Clynelish ever.  The Manager's Dram series is bottled for employees only and represents the favorite cask of all UDV's managers from any given year.  This particular bottle also happens to be on Serge Valentine's winner's list (for those who don't know, Serge is a Malt Maniac and notoriously strict judge of Single Malt).  I think the angry feral cat on the label says it all.  One of the top bottles of the night, it's aged entirely in Sherry.  This is a mean and monstrous malt.  Sweet plum, dark fruit, asphalt, and toffee on the nose.  The palate continues with intense spice, sweet grain, red berry, candied apple, tar.  A freakin' gem!

This bottle of Brora 22 year "Jewel of Scotland" 1982 was actually purchased at K&L several years ago.  It is a lightly peated version of Brora, which was unique to this tasting.  Bottled at 50%, this subtle little malt shows a lot of complexity.  Very light peat on the nose, characterised mostly by cotton candy, citrus blossom and a touch of savory saltiness.  The palate shows a bit more peat with plenty of pear and some fresh herbal qualities (mint tea?), the peat continues lightly through the finish.  Very nice whisky!

Be very jealous.  The Plowed Society "Brorageddon" 30 Year Old is bottled by Old Malt Cask for this exclusive single malt society that's best known for their venerable "Ardbegeddon".  The Brorageddon is equally awesome and unavailable.  Bottled at 50.8% cask strength, it is sticky with peat and sherry.  Awesome, over the top, ultra rich and intense.  It was almost to much to take, but you had to keep going back for more.  Nose: overripe plum, maple syrup, reduced PX Sherry, woven together with a silken thread of peat smoke that is unforgettable.  The palate is a viscous crescendo of sherry, dried fruit and smoke.  Peat reappears on the finish for a final wallop. This malt leaves you exhusted, teary eyed and a bit lonely...needless to say, we finished the bottle.  An exceptional and memorable Single Malt.  If you can find it, buy it at nearly any price!

-David Girard



Tuesday Tasting - Whiskey Appreciation Night

We might have to start calling this thing Whiskey Appreciation Night because that's the real goal of these gatherings, so in that case, don't miss this upcoming WAN when we unload the Parker's Heritage 27 Year Kentucky Bourbon $199.99 for around $7 a glass - that's not a taste, but rather a full pour.  We're doing these tastings at the wholesale bottle cost so that everyone can afford to become a true appreciator of quality booze.  If you haven't been out yet, this is a great night to make it because this whiskey is one of the best Bourbon's I've ever tasted and there aren't many that were aged this slowly to preserve the inherent flavors.  Most of the time you just get a big mouthful of wood with anything over 20, but not in this case.  We're starting at 6 PM @ Martin's West in Redwood City this Tuesday night, March 1st.  We've got three bottles so that should give everyone time to show up and drink their fill - there are refills allowed!

-David Driscoll