Get Your Wallets Ready, It Keeps On Coming...

Just when you thought that you had bought everything you could afford, the distilleries keep the new releases coming.  If you thought my post a few days back called "The Death of Brand Loyalty" was just a random observation, then you would have been mistaken.  The brands are not stupid.  They know what's going on.  They know that people need constant input, constant stimulation, constant novelty!!  Glenmorangie knows that single malt fanatics are not going to buy the GlenMo Original over, and over, and over.  Hence, another new limited edition release (and, yes, it is VERY good).  Finealta, based off an old recipe for Glenmorangie made in 1903 and sold to the Savoy Hotel in London, is a lightly peated expression that sees Lumsden & Barrie bringing the smoke from Ardbeg over to the Highlands.  Don't expect a Lagavulin-style effect however, this whisky is very much Glenmorangie and the peat is only around 10-12 ppm.  There's plenty of fruit, it's round and elegant, and everything is balanced.  I can't wait to buy one for myself in a few weeks! 

Here's the best part: I sat down with Moira last night at Martin's West and we had a business talk.  I had a sweet little idea and she did nothing but smile and nod and say, "yes, let's do it."  Starting soon, every Tuesday at Martin's will be "Taste A New Whisky At Cost."  That means we divide the bottle up by the amount of pours and charge you exactly that price.  $2, $4, whatever, just not the $10+ you would pay for just about anything good.  I think the Finealta will be featured very soon, maybe the first one we do?  Can't wait to see you all there!

-David Driscoll


Podcast #3 - Compass Box's John Glaser

Our originally scheduled podcast #1 finally happens!  John Glaser sits down with me and discusses the art of the blend, grain whisky as a white canvass, and vatting as a trend for 2011.  It was a wonderful conversation and I am really looking forward to visiting his laboratory in London this summer. 

Download the podcast here (remember to right click for PC users, or hold down "option" if you have a mac).

The podcast is also available in subscription form on iTunes.

Or you can listen here via our embedded Flash player.


The Death Of Brand Loyalty

Picture it: K&L Redwood City on a Sunday afternoon.  The store is relatively quiet, the sun is low on the horizon, the lighting is lazy, the clerks are steadily stocking the shelves, and an older gentleman walks in the front door.  He strolls around the back to the liquor shelf and finds his way over to the gin.  He stoically peruses the selection, making his way over to the tequila before realizing he's exhausted his options and moved too far.  Back to the gin shelf.  Staring.  Searching.  Looking left, and then right.  "Sir, did you need some help?" I ask as I wander over to the area.  "You guys don't carry Bombay Sapphire?" he asks with a hint of frustration.  "Unfortunately no," I respond, "but we have some fantastic gins that I think you might also really like."  The man replies not in words, but rather with a grunt as he makes his way out of the store.  In his world, there are no other options, no other choices.  He's a Bombay man, through and through.

For most of the post-Prohibition era, large liquor companies have spent countless sums in the effort to convert drinkers into loyal brand customers, proud consumers who identify with their liquor's image.  This strategy didn't apply solely to booze, as any Lucky Strike smoker will tell you.  The idea that a specific company deserved one's sole business was a natural way of living.  It said something about a man.  It spoke volumes to one's character, and advertising agencies made sure to re-enforce this principle (as any episode of Mad Men will certainly showcase).  However, with the death of this now elderly generation comes the death of brand loyalty as a manifested philosophy.  Blended whiskey companies are being hit hardest and recognize this trend as a serious threat to their continued profitability.  In 2008, we carried Ballantine's in 1.75 L format.  In 2009, we stopped because our one loyal Ballantine's customer passed away.  Same thing with Crown Royal.

Today's spirits enthusiast is excited by selection.  Many never buy the same thing twice.  There are so many whiskies, and so little time! Speaking for myself, I certainly have my favorites among available brands, but there are so many new releases that I would quickly fall behind the times were I to repeatedly drink the same thing. 

Bartenders are noticing the same phenomenon.  Thirty, even twenty, years ago, a man would walk into a bar and order his brand without even perusing the menu.  Today's cantinas however pride themselves on their diversity and their creativity, making cocktails that no one would think to mix at home.  Drinkers are trusting the people who work with alcohol to guide them towards something new, rather than playing it safe with a trusted favorite.  If anything, there is loyalty to a locale rather than a brand where customers abide by the establishments that continue to expand their horizons. 

The death of brand loyalty is certainly not yet complete, and is likely more apparant in the Bay Area bubble than say in rural Kentucky.  However, it has and will continue to shape the way that new liquor companies consider their finances.  Just this week, I consulted with a new independent bottler about some marketing decisions and this weighed heavily into the discussion.  Today's generation as a whole has an attention span of about 15-30 seconds before they're off to the next great attraction.  It might make more sense to be an independent bottler in this day and age because you can start fresh with every batch. 

-David Driscoll


Diageo Dynamo!

Every year we in the industry wait with bated breath for Diageo to announce their yearly special bottling.   We expect fresh distillers' editions, which tend to be very consistent and well made whisky, but what we're really waiting for are the "Special Editions".  The States only see a sliver of the total Diageo special edition/release offerings each year.  Last year it consisted of Port Ellen 30 year, Brora 30 Year, Talisker 25 year and Lagavulin 12 year.  They released single barrels at outrageous prices, but those were UK only.  In any case, the "Special Editions" are consistently exceptional, though generally predictable and always expensive.  Last year, Diageo did something different. They took a RISK! Highly unusual behavior for a publicly traded multination beverage company.  That said, they really don't have much to lose.  Their products are more popular than ever, the holy grail for all, but the geekiest among us.  What they truly have on the line is their credibility with this tiny portion of the customer base.  Fortunately, I'm part of that minority.

Diageo is like the Empire from Star Wars.  We all love to hate them, talk about how they're heartless, faceless, loveless.  In the end, we are forced to sheepishly admit they are at the very least really good at what they do.  Whether it's oppressing freedom on a Galactic level or distilling some of Scotland's very best whisky, all must acknowledge their ruthless efficiency and striking effectiveness.  Whatever risk Diageo has assumed with these new releases, it was clearly calculated, even decisive.  The new line is diverse and unique.  I don't think I need to adjust my expectations, this line up over delivers almost across the board.  The bottles are of course mostly very expensive to the point that all but the most "comfortable" (read: flush) Single Malt consumer will feel these bottles totally out of reach for everyday consumption.  I was lucky enough to taste the whole lot. Their organizational structure maybe multinational corporation, but we have to acknowledge that people still actually work at these distilleries.  These are real people who know how to make great whisky.  Remember, it wasn't the marketing team or executive committee that distilled these malts.  Here's our first review of the 2010 Diageo Special Edition Bottings:

Glenkinchie 20 Year Old 2010 Limited Edition Single Malt Whisky 750ml - $179.99

Shockingly, this was one of the favorite bottles of the evening.  I think many had preconceptions regarding the Glenkinchie 10 Year.  It has perhaps proved underwhelming at times.  Not that there's any particular fault with the 10 year, but it can feel touch pedestrian when poured next to Lagavulin 16 year.  Glenkinchie at strength with 20 years was a revelation.  Aged in American Oak, this whisky is fresh, fragrant and youthful. The nose is flowers, ripe fruit, and fresh barley, a smidge of minty tingle.  The palate brings citrus blossom and lighted honeyed touch of savory wood.  It finishes long, textured and flinty - a seamless integration of oak.  It's so soft and approachable, while retaining all it's intensity.  A velvet sledgehammer.  Exceptional! Bottled at 55.1%, Only 4854 Bottles made.  Stay tuned for more of my notes later in the week.

-David Girard


New Stitzel-Weller Barrel Has Arrived

I'm definitely one for hyperbole, but I'm not a person who uses it unless I am seriously excited.  I have never lied about my enthusiasm for the intention of selling a bottle, so I want you all to know that I am speaking the straight truth when I say that our new batch of Jefferson's is the best Stitzel-Weller whiskey I have ever tasted.  Our staff just tasted the new batch and we stood there, dumbfounded, just staring at each other.  It's so much better than the last two barrels I'm not sure how I'm going to explain it when people ask why.  It's just luck, I guess.  To clarify, we do not get to taste these before they arrive.  We buy them because of the integrity of the source, certain in the fact that they will be high quality whiskies.  However, getting a barrel that really hits the high notes - sweet grains, creamy corn, vanilla and chocolate, grassy on the finish - can really make one's day.  I know that, given the fact that this is Van Winkle whiskey, many of you will be tempted to store this bottle away, saving it for a rainy day, but in this case I would advise you against it.  You all need to taste this right away, then worry about saving extra bottles.  I will admit, I was not a huge fan of our last two barrels.  They were good, but not fantastic in my opinion.  This new batch is Bourbon perfection, however.  I'm simply stunned at how good this whiskey is.  My highest recommendation, if that means anything.

-David Driscoll