Gin Night Extravaganza @ Martin's West, March 16th 6-8 PM $15

So we're finally having an event that isn't based around whisk(e)y and I'm more excited than ever.  Brown spirits are great for sipping, but I feel that the tastings require a more formal approach in order to appreciate and understand their complexity.  Gin, on the other hand, is all about fun.  Cocktails are the epitome of a good time out and gin makes the best drinks that exist.  If you've been drinking vodka martinis or Jack & Cokes your whole life, I'd better see you here front and center.  I'm going to blind taste you on 6 different gins of 6 different styles and then show you how to make quality libations, such as the Corpse Reviver #2 and the lovely Aviation.  Best of all, you get to do all of this for only $15.  Other beverage academys (which will remain unnamed) charge a whopping $100 for you to make two drinks and sit around while some bartender talks about ice the whole time.  I know because I've gone to them, hoping for some enlightenment.  They are the model for what I am NOT going to do.  Please join me, as well as Derek and Moira from Martin's West.  Call the restaurant to reserve a spot - (650) 366-4366

-David Driscoll


Ardbeg's Secret to Success - The Purifier?

My time as spirits buyer here at K&L is largely spent educating myself not only about our products, but also about how they are made.  As I make my way through Jefford's Peat Smoke & Spirit I am learning some interesting facts that I can't believe I hadn't heard before, but maybe that's just because I am so new to this.  I'm sure that some of you out there already know about the purifier attached to Ardbeg's spirits still, but for those you you who don't, it's really a fascinating thing.  According to Dr. Lumsden, the man behind the process, it is the key to Ardbeg's finesse.

During the distillation process as the alcohol rises, the more contact the alcoholic vapor has with the copper, the more delicate it becomes (scroll down a few posts to the copper still article if you need a refresher).  Many stills have what is called a ball or lamp glass shape at the top where the neck widens.  This is to create a process called reflux where the vapor gets pushed back down a bit therefore extending the contact time with the copper.  Without the reflux effect, Ardbeg would surely be a more robust and savage spirit. 

However, Ardbeg goes one step further in this process by having what they call a purifier underneath the lyne arm.  This is a pot that is connected by a U-shaped pipe to the arm and it captures the heavier alcohols during distillation.  Why is this important?  For the first hour and a half of distillation, the lighter alcohols are the primary spirit evaporating from the wash.  The heavier ones eventually make it the top as well, but Ardbeg wants more delicacy, so the purifier helps seperate the lighter alcohols from the heavier ones.  The heavier ones are then sent back down and reintroduced into the wash.  The lighter alcohols have the sweeter and fruitier aromas, which is obviously what separates Ardbeg from heavier malts like Lagavulin.  It is for this reason that Ardbeg calls its whiskies two and a half times distilled. Dr. Lumsden has said that without this purification, Ardbeg would be far more one-dimensional.


-David Driscoll


My Review Of The Ride

Here it is.  No BS or hype (because I don't really need to convince people to buy an extremely limited bottling of Ardbeg, do I?). I don't normally do the breakdown like this, but I know people are interested in knowing how it tastes before they commit, so for the sake of the consumer...

Nose: It has the assertive aromas of young whisky, but they are not in anyway immature - it's more that they haven't yet mellowed.  Seaweed and peat smoke with just a smidge of golden honey in the distance.  It changes, though.  When you nose it for the forth or fifth time you notice more behind it. 

Palate: Lots of power and lots of spice right on the entry.  It's hot and I maybe should have added a bit more water, but at least it's Ardbeg - no doubt about it.  Lighter-bodied and completely without any richness or dried fruit components.  This is all medicinal with streaks of white pepper. 

Finish: The peat lingers, but because you're not getting much specifically on the palate, there's nothing really specific to add on the finish.  I get a brief lemony note, but then it's a continuation of what I tasted on the palate.  A minute later I can still taste it in full effect.

Conclusion: I just reread the above notes and they seem less than enthusiastic, but again I was being scientific.  For me, it is impossible to separate story from drink.  I don't want to drink something unless I'm intrigued by its history, its purpose, and its function.  When I buy wine from our store, I don't just pick the bottle that tasted good at our staff tasting.  The bottle I enjoyed last night was a Petit Rouge from the Vallee d' Aosta - a tiny region of Northwest Italy from which we rarely see wines.  Had I tasted the wine blind I wouldn't have been that excited, but that's the point.  I was interested in tasting a wine from that region so my fulfillment came from the experience of doing so.  Do I like the Rollercoaster?  Yes, very much.  Because of what it is and my love for Ardbeg, I really enjoyed my small glass.  This Committee Member whisky was specifically crafted to contain portions of every year from 1997 to 2006 in celebration of the committee's 10 year anniversary.  The fact that it is more than palatable is awesome.  The label breaks down the content by percentage:

1997 - 9.5%, 1998 - 12.2%, 1999 - 14.2%, 2000 - 10.9%, 2001 - 6.2%, 2002 - 8.9%, 2003 - 11.7%, 2004 - 10.6%, 2005 - 10.4%, 2006 - 5.4%

That's really neat and it's even more special that this not a bottle that will be available full time.  It is a whisky that was bottled once for a designed purpose with a specific theme.  The Rollercoaster is like catering for a wedding or baking a cake for a birthday - it's never the best food you've ever had, but hopefully it suits the occasion.  It succeeds because there's no pressure to do it over and over again.  It needs only to be a manifested expression of that one moment which it represents - in the case of Ardbeg, a decade of ups and downs; a veritable Rollercoaster. 

-David Driscoll


Why Copper Stills Make A Difference

When a vendor or master distiller comes in to taste me on their whisky, I always here them talk about the how the copper still really makes a difference, but when I ask them specifically why, they say something vague like, "the shape makes a difference in the flavor" or "it enhances the spirit."  WTF?  That doesn't help me understand the distillation process as someone who is trying to get a grip on this whole artisan whisky thing.  However, having finally secured a copy of Andrew Jefford's Peat Smoke & Spirit, is was clearly spelled out for me in a way that I think everyone can understand (which is why I am going to quote it on this blog). 

The basic function of copper is to help filter out the impurities in the whisky.  While alcohol boils at 78.5 degrees, so do a bunch of other other chemicals, such as Methanol, which will make you blind if you drink too much of it.  Great distillers are able to capture the purest of spirits in their still and the "fine, microscopic hairiness of copper, and its sociable, reactive nature...makes it such an ideal distilling material."  Douglas Murray is quoted as saying, "If you look at copper under a microscope it looks like a scouring pad.  The result is that, as the spirit vapour passes over it, copper stops that vapor for what we call a 'chat.' The more slowly the vapour passes over the copper, the more the chemical impurities in the spirit attach themselves to the fine scouring-pad threads.  The longer the chat does on, in other words, the lighter the spirit." 

This also explains why the shape of the lyne arm - the neck of the still where the vapor collects - is also so influential.  The length and width of the lyne determine the amount of contact the condensing spirit has with the copper!

That makes total sense to me.  I now understand why copper stills are important.

-David Driscoll


Springbank And The History Of Campbeltown

In anticipation of our gigantic purchase of Springbank 9 Year due to hit the Oakland ports this week, I am providing the backstory for the distillery and the region itself - Campbeltown - which is still considered one of the five Scottish whisky regions, despite containing only three distilleries. 

The truth is that Campbeltown used to be home to 22 working distilleries and, by the end of the 18th century, was the capital of whiskymaking in Scotland.  The Kintyre peninsula was the landing place for settlers in 1300 and remained important as a trade outlet to England and also to the West.  The city of Campbeltown was established in the early 1600's by the Dukes of Argyll to encourage farmers to practice agriculture in the region.  Where there is barley, there is whiskymaking and it wasn't long until a family named Mitchell moved to Campbeltown and became one of the area's top distillers. 

At the end of the 17th century the 21 distilleries in Campbeltown were pumping out millions of gallons a year and the town became one of the wealthiest in the UK.  The demand was so high they were forced to import barley from the Baltic! Yet with the rise of blended whisky, the bottom fell out as the heavy and oily whiskies of Campbeltown were passed over in favor of Speyside's lighter style.  Other factors such as the exhaustion of local coal supplies as well as the start of Prohibition in the U.S. played a role.  Those distilleries who were still selling direct to the Canadian middlemen were forced to lower their costs, and in turn, lower the quality of their whisky.  The introduction of low quality spirit was the end for Campbeltown. 

Springbank was one of the few that did not go under.  It was founded by the Mitchell family in 1828 and is run by the same family today, making it the longest continually owned distillery in the history of Scotland.  It is also the only self-sufficient one.  Springbank does all their own malting and sources all their peat locally, ages the whisky in their onsite warehouse, and does all their own bottling - a veritable whisky farm for proponents of sustainable living.  Today they produce their own signature lightly peated and full-flavored malts - of which we carry the 10 year and 15 year, the heavily peated Longrow, and the triple distilled and unpeated Hazelburn (the latter two named after defunct Campbeltown distilleries). 

In 2004, after 80 years of silence, Glengyle was reopened and refurbished giving Campbeltown its current total of three distilleries.  The whisky however will be called Kilkerran as the final distillery in the region, Glen Scotia, owns the Glengyle brand.  The stills at Glen Scotia have been run only off and on over the last few years and the bottlings have been inconsistent, making it an almost forgotten brand in the world of single malts.

Springbank, being an independently owned and operated distillery, almost never appears in an independent bottling, which is why the availability of this Murray McDavid 9 Year Old aced in Yquem cask is so exciting.  Giving a fantastic Campbeltown malt to Jim McEwan to enhance is a fantastic idea, so I can't wait to have it on our shelves.  I will post tasting notes on it when it arrives this week. 

Most of the info in this article comes from Michael Jackson's terrific book Whiskey.

-David Driscoll