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Wednesday
May122010

Hanging At The Hangar

Daniel Hyatt from Alembic Bar called me up one day last year and asked me if I wanted to take part in a rum tasting somewhere north of Marin out in the country.  I was pretty sure that, not having a car, he just needed a ride up there, but as it turned out I had actually been invited.  As we arrived at the scene and started shaking hands with our fellow participants, I realized that this was a serious room of players. "Hello, I'm David," I said to man who replied, "Nice to meet you, I'm Hubert Germain-Robin."  I soon realized that this was a room full of distillers and that I was the lone retailer - what I was I really going to offer to this meeting of professional craftsmen?  It was here that I first met Dave Smith, who along with Bay Area legend Lance Winters, creates all the booze over at St. George distillery - the home of Hangar One vodka as well as Dave's new sensation: the Firelit Coffee liqueur.  Having talked that day about a possible future distillery tour, it wasn't until another meeting at a recent whisky conference that we decided to nail down a concrete date.  So yesterday I finally drove out to Alameda for what was, embarrassingly enough, my first visit to the Bay's most beloved spirits factory.

When you look at the distillery on a Google map, it's clear that the location is on the tip of some peninsula/island formation that juts out into the water by downtown Oakland.  As I drove through the underground tunnel that connects to the region from 880, I certainly did not expect to find an area brimming with spotless track homes much like I remember from my native Central Valley upbringing.  "What the hell are these houses doing here?" I thought as I cruised north down Midway.  The only thing more surprising than the suburban sprawl is the military-styled housing project that follows it.  The former looking like an Ozzie & Harriet safety zone and the latter looking like an abandoned ghost-town I would want to avoid at night.  As soon as you make it through the warehouses that sprout up after the barracks fade away, you have reached the end of the peninsula and the home of St. George.  The view of San Francisco on a clear day is absolutely breathtaking and as I entered the distillery, which is as much of a clubhouse as it is a place of work, I realized why people loved hanging out here on a sunny afternoon.  The tasting bar windows face north towards the Bay Bridge and the picnic tables are perfect for packing a lunch.  Andie Ferman, who runs the tasting bar for public tastings, said that the weekends were incredibly busy and that the room was usually packed to capacity.  What a great place for a party this would make, I thought.

When I arrived inside I was greeted by Dave, Lance, and Andie who proceeded to get me a spot at the bar as we began sampling the line of St. George products - many I had yet to taste.  We also discussed the history of the brand and its origins in eau-de-vie.  When Jörg Rupf came to California from his native Germany some decades past, and discovered the quality of the produce we have growing here, he founded St. George Spirits on the idea that he would sell the best fruit brandies available.  Selling eau-de-vie today is an uphill battle, so I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Jörg back in the mid-1980s.  It is a fitting origin however as most of the best distillers that I have encountered seem to be most passionate about fruit-based spirits - from Steve McCarthy to Davorin Kuchan, people who make booze seem to agree that eau-de-vie is the penultimate achievement.  Ironically, most of the people who purchase liquor from me seem to feel exactly the opposite.  Nevertheless, St. George soldiers forward with their Aqua Perfecta brandies including the framboise, pear, cherry, and basil expressions.  Tasting the cherry, I was amazed at how accurate the flavor was.  The fruit doesn't jump out at you, but rather lingers tartly on the tongue.  "You see, this is what cherries actually taste like," I said, "but it's never what people expect when they get something cherry flavored."  "That's because they expect it to taste like red," said Andie.  "These aren't Otter Pops," added Dave.  Maybe that's why these guys get so into the fruit-based spirits, as defenders of the true essence of the fruit itself, they feel a duty to provide the purest expressions possible and eau-de-vie most of all allows for that manifestation. The people at St. George can spend time doing what they're most passionate about because their vodka will always be their bread and butter and their meal ticket.  Their fruit-infused Budda's Hand citron (as seen above), orange, lime, raspberry, and spiced pear vodkas are moving off of our shelves on a continual basis.  Every bar has a bottle of each behind the counter, and every bartender must admit that the infusions give vodka cocktails a whole new profile.  The purity of the fruit flavor is as amazing in the infusion process as it is in the distillation, which is an incredible achievement.  Revisiting these vodkas made me realize that I really do like everything in the booze world and that every spirit has its place at the table.  Pigeonholing yourself as a pre-Prohibition mixologist after sampling these vodkas just seems silly if you really care about flavor.

After spending an hour blabbing about our own personal gripes with this industry and how we wished more people cared about eau-de-vie, Dave and I made our way out to the barrel room.  This was what Dave had been patiently waiting to show me and where I would realize that St. George is going to be a serious player in the future of single malt whisky.  I've made no secret recently of my growing disappointment with the lack of creativity in the Scotch world.  I'm sick of seeing the same whiskies with higher price tags just because they spent an extra six months in barrels from prestigious chateau.  Why can't someone really start tinkering with mash bills and start tweaking the barrel maturation process from the very beginning, rather than at the very end?  It was as if Dave Smith had read my mind and wanted to comfort my soul with the knowledge that someone out there was going to answer my prayers.  As we strolled through the racks I began to read the signs posted on the sides of the casks.  Brandies aging in wine casks, whiskies aging in brandy casks, freakish mash bills, and all kinds of Frankensteinian experimentation was afoot in this building.  As we started tasting samples from the barrels, I realized that Dave and Lance were not beginning their attempts to revolutionize single malt whisky, but were already well underway.  We tasted whiskies that were already 8-10 years of age and had seen two or three different barrels of various origins already in their young existence.  The results were incredible and seriously tasty. 

While I won't go into too many specifics about flavor, as to not sabotage St. George and give away their guarded secret formulae, I will say that what I tasted, were it to ever leave the distillery in a bottled form, would blow some of our customers away.  The flavors imparted onto the whiskies from various maturations were apparant, yet perfectly intermingled and balanced.  You could taste each barrel's thumbprint, but one never overshadowed the other.  Even more amazing than the creative maturation abound at St. George, is the experimentation in their mash bills.  While all of the single malts being made are indeed 100% barley, they are not all made from the same types of barley.  Working closely with a well-known California brewery, St. George has been customizing their own styles of barley and imparting flavor onto them, much like the peating process that takes place in Scotland, only here they're using more than just smoke.  When you start analyzing the potential number of permutations possible from various combinations of mash bill and barrel enhancement, and you realize that Dave is literally trying as many of these possibilities as he has time and space for, it's enough to make your head spin.  Then add on the fact that they're also making bourbon and rye and you've got enough to make your brain explode.  We did get a chance to sample the new make rye and wheat whiskey they had in stainless steel and I was more than impressed.  It literally tasted like rye crackers and wheat bread, and not the sweet fruity white dog that you get from corn or barley.  I was absolutely amazed that white whiskey could be that good and that pure.

In the end I was happy that I had decided to spit everything because a whole line up of brandy and vodka, followed by cask strength whiskey is a bit much for one day.  Should you get the chance to visit St. George distillery, I would highly recommend bringing a lunch and enjoying the scenery as well as the booze.  Let Andie show you her enthusiasm behind the bar and hopefully you'll get a chance to talk to Dave or Lance as well about their views on whiskey.  There are some serious products coming our way from the hangar in the near future and I'm hoping that we can be the ones to deliver them to you.  We'll have to wait and see.

-David Driscll

Tuesday
May112010

Reasons For And Against Joining Our Whisk(e)y Club

"What?!  You have a whisky club?" someone asked me yesterday when I told them they could save four bucks a bottle on the K&L Buffalo Trace Single Barrel.  "Yes," I said, "I've mainly been telling people on the whisk(e)y newsletter about it," I mentioned.  "Well I'm on the newsletter and I haven't heard about it."  Really?  That explains why some of you out there are buying all of the club selections without joining the club: I haven't done a good enough job of explaining how this club works. 

The Whisk(e)y Club is just an extention of our Personal Sommelier wine program, which, instead of forcing you to receive selections completely of our choosing, lets you decide how many bottles you want per month (with one being the minimum), what type of wine, from where, and at what cost.  You could be in the club for $15 a month if you really wanted to be, or for $1000.  It's entirely up to you.  Signing up for the whisk(e)y club means you go online and sign up for the Personal Sommelier service, choose spirits as your selection, and click on me as your personal sommelier.  You can then decide how much you would like to spend.  There is no obligation to receive the whiskies I choose as part of the club.  You could get a bottle of cheap rum every month, or the 1.75 bottle of gin you were going to purchase anyway.  The difference is you would now be eligable for the discounts on whisk(e)y and wine.

Who should be in the club?  If you bought the Springbank 9 Year, the Bowmore 13 year, and the Buffalo Trace Single Barrel are were not a club member, then you just gave us an extra $20.  If you plan on buying the 1982 Clynelish we're getting, followed by the 1991 Aberlour, you're going to be handing us an extra $25.  These whiskies are all discounted for club members and can count as your once-a-month selection.  Even though the Bowmore was received weeks ago and is now sold out, I held bottles back to be included in the current May shipment at a $10 discount for club members.  There is no need or pressure to purchase the discounted whiskies on top of a mandatory monthly shipment - they can be one in the same.  If you join the club we can communicate every month about what you would like to have selected for you - it's very easy.

Who should not be in the club?  Those of you who do not purchase more than one bottle of booze of any kind on a monthly basis should not be in the club.  That wouldn't make sense.  Those of you who do not like single malts or bourbon likely wouldn't be interested in the discounts.  Also, people who already subscribe to any of our monthly wine clubs are already eligable for the discounts and possibly do not need the burden of an extra club.  Otherwise, there really aren't any other reasons not to be a member.

I'm planning on having a monster cask of either bourbon or whisky instock all the time.  If you plan on being a part of these barrels then you should sign up to save some cash.  You do not have to purchase every club discounted whisk(e)y as part of your membership.  If you want something else instead, that's fine too.  It's totally flexible.  Go to the link below to sign up or email me if you have further questions.

http://www.klwines.com/sommelier.asp

-David Driscoll (daviddriscoll@klwines.com)

Friday
May072010

K&L Commissions?

Every now and then I'll assist a customer in picking out some wine and then walk him/her over to the counter where one of my colleagues will ask to ring them up.  The customer then says, "Oh, well he's the one who helped me so I want him to get credit for the sale."  We all kind of smile to ourselves, laugh a bit, and then let the person know that there are no commissions for sales at K&L.  We can all only hope that our fellow employees are just as motivated to help customers out of a sense of pride and duty.  I work on a fixed salary as the spirits buyer and regardless of whether I sell $100 or $100,000 of single malts to a customer, I'm going to get the same paycheck at the end of the day.  I think that's an important fact for people to know sometimes, especially those of you who get my email blasts on a weekly basis.  At this moment, I'm sitting at my desk in my apartment - completely off the clock, using my own time to update this blog.  Half the time I send out the newsletter from home as well.  I do it because I like it and I enjoy writing about whisk(e)y.  When I'm jumping out of my seat about a new barrel we are purchasing, I'm mostly excited because I get to buy a bottle for myself, rather than because I'm going to get a huge bonus or make a big sale.  My motivation to sell single malts stems completely from my desire to share my passion with people, and the knowledge that if I can clear out 375 bottles from one barrel, that gives me enough profit to buy another one!  When I was in high school, I used to like professional wresting (I still kinda do) and I wanted to watch the monthly pay-per-views they offered.  However, the price was $30 and I didn't want to spend that myself, so I made friends with as many WWF fans as possible who would come over on Sunday and split the cost with me.  It was a great deal for everyone and I made a number of lasting relationships.  This whisky gig is basically a more expanded version of that.  I want to select as many new barrels as I can possibly get, but I need help from all of you out there to chip in with me.  As long as we all like what we're drinking, we all win!  So the next time you're browsing through the aisles, remember that we genuinely want to help you because we like booze, not because we're trying to spike our commissions.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
May052010

Out On The Town With A.D. Rattray's Andrew Morrison

Some of you who subscribe to my whisk(e)y newsletter may recall my mentioning of a possible double cask purchase - a whole barrel of 1991 Aberlour and a cask of 1982 Clynelish all for ourselves and our customers.  Well, I'm happy to write that the deal has gone through and last night, I went out to dinner with Andrew Morrison, whose family owns the A.D. Rattray line - from whom we purchased both whiskies.  We really had a great time talking about his family's history in the whisky business, his future role in helping to develop the Rattray label, and how we could team up to really bring awesome products to our customers. 

Also dining with us were booze industry veterans Todd Smith and Rich Trachtenberg, who participated with us in our night long discussion about where Scotch whisky was headed and how we could all stay afloat in this business for as long as possible.  My opinion as a retailer is based on what I see moving off the shelves and the comments of my customers.  I made it clear that the current trend cask finishing was wearing thin on the patience of the whisky fans I knew, not to mention the multitude of bottlings that these various enhancements produced.  "Who cares if it's the same whisky in five different wine barrels?!" I said.  My fears always revolve around our customers wallets being stretched too thin.  "All people care about is good whisky, maybe at cask strength, from a solid distillery, and at a reasonable price.  That's all you need; nothing more," I finished. 

Innovation is necessary in all fields of business, but there is nothing to be said for creativity just for the sake of it.  Good booze is good all on it's own - there's a reason people have been drinking the same Bordeaux wines for centuries.  As we sipped our respective beers and cocktails, we all agreed that what people wanted was easier access to that good booze.  Andrew and Rich mentioned that the whisky business has always been a rollercoaster ride, with prices rising and falling consistently over the years.  With the world economy in the toilet, Andrew thanked his lucky stars that he wasn't two years into a new distillery sitting on a rickhouse full of malt too young to drink.  I told him that he was exactly where I would want to be: using his long-founded family relationships to track down the best barrels in Scotland.  "You want selection," I said, "but you want to be able to consistently bring in new products.  How many different whiskies can you afford to make?"  With the Rattray line, Andrew's family is able to bring in a new whisky every time the old one runs out.  So far I've yet to taste one stinker in the whole catalog, and it's only a matter of time before people start associating that quality with his company.

As far as the future for retailers goes, I think our best bets are to start working with experts we trust and people we like to meet our common goals.  I really like Rich, Todd, and Andrew and they really know their stuff.  We brainstorm ideas constantly about how we can do our jobs better.  I long for the old-school, small-town grocery type of relationship with my customers.  If I could have a whisky barrel open in the store where everyone could bring in a bottle and fill it up every week, I would do it.  I would love to have a new cask every month that people could enjoy until it ran out, only to be replaced by something new and exciting.  While I can't have the cask open in the store, I can have it bottled for me and available for purchase, so that's where I'm headed and that's where guys like Andrew fit in.  He finds me the barrel and I sell it for him - it's a win-win for us and for our whisky-drinking friends who depend on us for good advice. 

So while we wait for A.D. Rattray to bottle our newest barrel acquisitions to make their way over the pond, I've got some of Andrew's other selections available for purchase.  Currently in the Redwood City store I have an outstanding Bowmore 17 Year Cask Strength $89.99 full of smoky almonds and rich amber flavor.  On the Spey side of things, we just received the Balblair 19 Year Cask Strength $74.99 which to me is a veritable steal of a malt - perfect balance of power, sweetness, and length.  Along with the two we have in stock we offer many more on special order (go to the website and search Rattray). 

At the end of the night, as I was sitting on the midnight train back down to San Mateo, I thought about how much fun it is to work with people who really care about building something from the ground up.  I'm hoping that we're on the verge of doing great things with all the new barrels we are ordering, and I'm glad that there are people like Andrew in his family who just as excited as I am.  It makes everything so much easier - and fun.

-David Driscoll

Monday
May032010

Cocktails In The City - Recent Ramblings

This past weekend I stayed a few nights at the Donatello Hotel in downtown SF, as the wife and I cashed in one of our wedding presents from a generous family friend.  A nice "staycation" can give you that much needed R&R, as well as provide for opportunities that are normally avoided for their inconvencience.  One such activity would be barhopping between some of the city's best cocktail lounges in search of quality libations.  Normally the responsibility of driving home prohibits me from more than one or two drinks, but a whole night of walking the streets followed by a quick elevator ride to my bed allows for a bit more indulgence. 

Within walking distance of Union Square (if you consider a mile or so walkable) are three very popular establishments - two of which I have frequented numerous times, and another to which I was to pay my first visit.  First on the list for Friday was the Rickhouse on Kearny just up from Market in the Financial District.  The drinks are always top notch and this visit was no different.  The wife had a gin drink with fresh berries and crushed ice which was fresh and delicious.  The main drawback to the place, however, is that space is limited and there are few places to sit in the afternoon before they open the back room up.  We probably would have stayed longer could we have had a seat, but such is the price of popularity.  The decor inside really sets the mood with the high wooden beams and the long rows of Rittenhouse, Yamazaki and other whiskies lined up behind the bar, so it is a fun place to relax if you can find space to do so.  Plus, the location is unbeatable if you're doing some shopping and want to get something better than watered down gin and tonic downtown.

On Saturday, we made our first trip to the newly-opened Smuggler's Cove, an old school tiki bar that makes immaculate rum cocktails from the finest ingredients.  The set up inside is fantastic with three different levels and a fountain that runs down a rocky wall into a pool on the lower level.  The menu is vast and expansive with all kinds of intoxiating options, but, as we were rolling three deep, we wanted one of the tiki classics that serve four and are presented in a large, over-the-top, drinking vessel.  We opted for the Top Notch Volcano, a blend of rums and tropical juices with marischino liqueur and a dusting of cinnamon and nutmeg that erupt over the open flame ignited on the surface.  It's a show and a beverage all in one.  While the drink was enjoyable, we ran into the same trouble of finding a seat, and unfortunately you are not allowed to enjoy some of the more ostentatious cocktails without a flat surface to rest them on.  The bartenders did their best to let us use the end of the bar, but we had to take turns in order to reach the giant skull our punch was served in - sipping one at a time, as quickly as we could.  If you can't sit, you probably shouldn't order the big drinks.

Seeking a locale that would allow us to enjoy our crafted cocktails in a more leisurely manner, we walked south of Market street to Heaven's Dog on Mission St - my favorite bar in San Francisco, and always the perfect balance of ambiance, quality, and showmanship.   We walked in at 9:30 on a Saturday night to three open seats at the bar that seemed as if they were meant just for us.  Sitting at the counter is always the way to go because not only do you want to watch the guys do their thing, you want to ask them about it as well.  While the booze scene tends to attract the pretentious and snobbish, the mixologists at HD are open, friendly, and talkative - a welcome relief from just about every other destination.  My friends Erik and Jennifer were not working that night, but I was more than happy to meet Craig and another fine chap who said that unfortunately they were without their "startenders" for the night.  We each ordered off the specialty menu and were more than satisfied with our choices.  I did a gin and Chartreuse drink with crushed ice, and the wife had a calvados-based something-or-other that was not the usual "Pan-American Clipper," but rather a new creation we had never tasted.  At that point I wasn't paying too much attention. 

-David Driscoll