Tasting With Charles Neal - Always A Pleasure!

Charles Neal has simply the greatest line-up of Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados.  He has little competition when it comes to the great spirits of France.  True, we have great deals available on our store shelves, but they're not on the level of the bottles that Charles imports.  He is a bonafide expert (you can see his book on Armagnac here) and is always the first person I turn to whenever I need something really great for a customer.  We've always carried the entry level spirits from his portfolio, but I thought it was time that we really step it up and show the world that we can play with the big boys, so I'm bringing in some of the top shelf items that still won't cause you to miss a mortgage payment.  Charles asked if he could stop by to taste me on them, and I, of course, was more than happy to oblige.  Here is what we had followed by my write up:

Domaine Boingnères Armagnac Reserve Speciale $89.99 - When discussing the components of a great brandy, the soil is just as important an indicator of quality as it is to a great wine.  Boingnères grows all their fruit in a majority of sand and limestore - the absolute best makeup for producing fantastic grapes.  Run by Martòn Lafite, of the esteemed Chateau Lafite family, the Domaine also owns their own still (rather than hiring someone to bring them a still like many producers do) so they have been familiar with the workings of their distillation for decades.  The aromas of the Reserve Speciale are full of new wood with rich fruit lying underneath it.  A blend of folle blanche and colombard, the spirit is less than 10 years old, but at 48% ABV has only been slighty reduced with water.  The palate has loads of creamy fruit with a finish of mocha and orange peel.  It is the definitive Armagnac for the true coinoisseur - being on the list of the best Michelin-starred restaurants in France.

1982 Chateau de Ravignan Bas-Armagnac $94.99 - Located close by to the prestigeous Domaine Boignères and its perfect mineral composition of soil, Ravignon has a very similar sand and limestone makeup in its terroir - the key to growing great grapes.  Composed of 80% Baco (the traditional grape of Armagnac), the spirit is tawny colored with plenty of new wood and vanilla aromas.  The entry is smooth and soft with more barrel spice and rich fruit, but the kick that many Armagnacs exhibit is polished and rounded off.  It finishes with a beautiful almond character.

Camut 12 year old Calvados Pay d'Auge $89.99 - I've always known that the Camut is considered the top producer in Calvados - the crème de la crème of apple spirits.  However, I had only tasted the 6 year, which, while impressive, was not the best I had ever tasted.  The Camut 12 year however blows everyone else out of the water - its quality is unreal.  The grand majority of the fruit, if not all of it, is apple (some other regions of Calvados use pears as well) and following Pay d' Auge tradition it is double distilled.  The second distillation tends to make the spirit more neutral in its youth, but more free of impurities which makes a big difference as it ages.  The nose is a heavenly blend of barrel-aged baking spice with gobs of pristine red apple.  The palate is soft with more baked apple coating the roof of the mouth, before finishing in perfect harmony with the barrel influence.  You must try this at least once before you die.

Camut 18 year old, Privilege Calvados Pay d'Auge $115.99 - The spirit opens onto the nose with baked apple aromas and then transitions into ripe red apples wiht some nutty notes from the extensive barrel aging.  The Camut line of Calvados always show better with age, as the double distillation, while making them more neutral in their youth, frees the spirit from impurities that show with age.  The palate is soft, rich, and oozing with baking spice and fresh fruit.  It is the top of the line for 15+ year old Calvados.  Simply the best.

1984 LeMorton Calvados Domfrontais $99.99 - The Lemorton's distill their cider after aging it for eleven months in oak barrels. Distillation takes place in their own alambic, a single-distillation unit that distills to about 140 proof. The clear spirit then goes into barrels which have an average age of 30 years. The Lemortons sell some excellent young blends, including a five and 10-year-old. The jewels of the family crown, however, are the vintages like this amazing spirit.  The palate is supple and easy going with a full and textural mouthfeel.  The spirit is actually 60-80% pear which creates a more vibrant fruit flavor.  The baking spice on the finish gives it a kick as it washes down.

-David Driscoll


Whisky Tasting at Martin's West 1/27- The Review

What a blast of a night at Martin's West Gastropub in Redwood City!  We had a private room with plenty of eager and excited Scotch whisky fans tasting the most interesting malts of the Highlands & Islands.  This was the first of a series of educational tastings organized between myself and Moira & Derek from MW.  We want to give people an overview of single malt whisky by showcasing regional distinctions and differences between the malts, and I think that the inaugural event Wednesday night was a huge success.  I want to thank all of you who attended for sending me a follow-up email about your experience.  There were a few people who wondered why the whiskies were not for sale at the event, and to them I say: this night was about enjoyment and education, not sales for K&L.  If anyone wants to purchase one of the bottles from that night, I will happily accomodate you, but I never want anyone to feel like a tasting is merely a marketing tool for increasing sales.  To me, it's about fun and enjoyment, and I'm so pleased that so many people experienced exactly that.  As for what we tasted and the notes I had about the whiskies, I am posting the sheet that I prepared for myself below.  If you didn't make it, don't miss the next one (which is at this point still unscheduled, but you can find out about it by checking in here).  The Burn's dinner that MW put on along side the tasting was simply unbelieveable.  If you like sticky toffee pudding (which I didn't know I did until Wednesday night), you should rush to Martin's West ASAP.  It might be the most delicious dessert I've ever tasted. 

Fantastic pictures of the night can be seen by clicking here, taken by taster Chris Matthews

-David Driscoll

HERE ARE THE WHISKIES (we didn't drink them in this order):

Highland Park  8 year old – Isle of Orkney

-Founded in 1798

-Owned by the Edrington Group

-Pot stills

-70 islands make up Orkney, which lies far to the north of the Scottish mainland, but have been occupied since 8000 BC.

-Highland Park is the most northerly distillery in Scotland

-Considered one of the best distilleries in the world and one of the great single malts

-Characteristic flavor of Orcadian (of Orkney) heather runs through all the offerings and makes them unique

-In it’s earliest incarnation, it was made in a peculiarly Orcadian fashion: Bere barley (an archaic strain widely used by early distillers) remained in use much longer here than on the mainland

-There was also a heather house where dried blossoms were thrown into the flames of the kiln, giving the malt a perfumed lift

-The peat in Orkney is made up of almost entirely decomposed heather

-Highland Park brings all elements together: peat, honey, orange, sweetness, and dried raisin fruit and it has a sense of place

 Scapa 16 Year – Isle of Orkney

-Always takes a backseat to Highland Park, and was only operated briefly every year to top off HP stocks (using the HP staff to do so).

-Was falling apart until Allied-Domecq announced a $4 million refit in 2004, along with frontline promotion.

-Was considered one of the greats in 1887

-Houses one of the last Lomond stills (rectifying head replaces the lyne arm)–which tends to give the malt an oily and juicy characteristic

1997 Isle of Jura Cask Strength – Isle of Jura

-Jura is next door neighbor to Islay, (split by the Sound of Islay “Caol Ila”) but the landscape could not be more different: one road, one town, and one distillery

-Founded in 1810 – Small Isles Distillery

-Owned by Whyte and Mackay

-Pot stills

-Was not very successful until 1875 when the heavily peated Small Isles malt began to make money

-Did not last however, as equipment was stripped in 1910 and roofs were removed in 1920

-1963, two Jura landowners hired famous distillery designer William Delme-Evans to create a modern distillery installing huge stills to assist his vision – the goal was to bring more people and more work to the island

-A lightly-peated Highland style malt was the new product

-Jura survived while its one-time sister distillery Bruichladdich closed down by contributing to blends –the big stills could produce a lot of whisky

Talisker 25 Year – Isle of Skye

-Founded in 1831

-Owned by Diageo

-Pot stills

-Skye is a rugged and uncompromising terrain.  Part of the Hedbridean islands with Islay, getting there is not easy even today due to its location. 

-One island Tiree (from the word Tiordh meaning “land of grain”), was able to support a population of 4,000 in the mid 19th century with its rich grasslands, but too remote to support a distillery.  Skye, however, managed to hang on.

-It has passed through numerous hands and, like many other great distilleries, Talisker contributed to blends at times in order to survive economic hardship.

-Talisker has always prospered despite its location because of the quality – it was triple distilled until 1928 which is unusual and today it is still set up to produce an unique malt

-The spirit is condensed into old-style worm tubs that add richness – when the peat is added to the equation you get a highly complex malt that speaks of its place – smoke, seaweed, salt spray.

Edradour 10 – Highland

-Founded in 1825

-Pot stills

-Scotland’s smallest distillery

-Founded by 8 local farmers as a co-op

-While other distilleries expanded, they stayed the same size and today little has changed

-Changed hands numerous times, was owned by Pernod-Ricard, then put on the market in 2002 and bought by Signatory – needed their own brand to survive

-Iain Henderson who used to manage Laphroaig took over and helped get it running smoothly while using the old equipment – it is truly hand-crafted whisky

-Known for its rich and sweet character

 Dalwhinnie 15 Year – Highland/Upper Spey

-Founded in 1897

-Owned by Diageo

-Pot stills

-Is thought of as a Highland distillery despite being more upper Spey

-Part of the DCL portfolio since 1919 it has played a major role in Black & White, Buchanan, and is the Highland representative in Diageo’s Classic Malts

-Character it partly the result of condensing in wooden worm tubs – the icy water minimizes the contact between the copper and the vapor which makes for a weighty and sulfury new make

-The sulfur shows up as a hint in the 15 year along with a bit of peat

Clynelish 14 Year – Northern Highlands

-Founded in 1819

-Owned by Diageo

-At the start of the 19th century there were 15,000 people living in the area lorded over by the Duchess of Sutherland.  The Duchess & Duke cleared out the valley by burning the people out of their homes and replaced them with sheep.  They were forced to the coast and the farmers had to become fishermen.  The Duke then decided to build a distillery in the coastal town of Brora to provide employment and prevent the people from profiting on their own illegal hooch.

-It became part of DCL in 1912 and Johnny Walker bought an interest in it as well

-A new distillery was built in 1967 – a modernized replica of the original

-The original was later reopened as Brora, but sadly closed in 1983

-It’s known for its waxy (due to the sludgy deposit in the stills) and oily character in its youth which evolves into a mouth-coating richness when mature – therefore used in Walker blends

Tobermorey 10 – Island of Mull

-Founded in 1823

-Owned by Burn Stewart Distillers

-Only distillery on the island

-Across the way from Oban on the mainland

-Despite a deep and fertile soil, barley was always imported from the mainland because the farmers had abandoned the fields to farm kelp and seaweed on the coast.

-Was closed between 1837 and 1878

-A brief period in the Distillers Company Ltd in the 1930s before closing again until 1972 for three years.  Brand name and stock were sold and the whisky became a vatted malt.

-Burn Stewart bought it in 1993 and began reproducing the light and slightly sweet spirit

 Ledaig 10 Year – Island of Mull

-The peated version of Tobermorey, Ledaig (the original name of the town) is made using barley malted at Port Ellen

Isle of Arran 10 Year - Isle of Arran

-A light and easy drinking whisky

-One of the few distilleries to be independently owned

-At one point in the 19th century there were 50 illicit distilleries on the island, but Arran is the first legal one to be opened for 155 years (the last closed in 1836).



What's In David's Bar - 1/25/10

So this bottle is not a staple of my home bar, but rather something that I just purchased today.  I've been tempted by this bottle since it first came in, as I've only ever tasted Talisker's standard 10 year bottling.  This malt is considered to be not only one of their best, but also one of their best values.  For $75.99 you get an 18 year old whisky!  Oban 18 = $130.99.  Bruichladdich 16 = $99.99.  Highland Park 18 = $89.99.  Talisker is one of the great all-rounders in the single malt world: it has the peat of Islay, the sweet richness of Speyside, the fruit of the Highlands, and the seawater of the Islands.  I rarely buy whisky these days because I taste for a living; if anything, I'm begging for a bottle of wine.  However, I'm so satisfied with this bottle beacause it's both comforting and interesting.  Some Speyside malts are a bit too bland with only the Sherry wood to carry them.  Sometimes the big guns of Islay are too intense for unwinding during the evening.  Talisker gives me everything I desire and the 18 year is a spectacular expression of the Isle of Skye's finest dram.  The nose is primarily peaty smoke, but a second whiff shows honey and caramel.  The flavors are soft, but concentrated with smoke, honey, hints of sweetness, and seawater notes.  The finish is still lingering as I type this nearly a full 20 minutes after I finished my glass.  My buddy John Hansell over at the Malt Advocate considers this whisky to be one of the true values in today's market and I understand why.  It overachieves and astounds in every way.

-David Driscoll


It's Savoy Night at Alembic! Sunday Jan 24th

Once again, that time of the month is upon us.  If you think you can't drink anymore after sitting around and watching football all day, then you are WRONG!  You CAN drink more and you should do it with me at Alembic on Haight St. in San Francisco - the home of great cocktails in the city.  I will step behind the bar for my second time and attempt to craft drinks with the great precision used by my colleagues: "Mr. Savoy" Erik Ellestad, Danny Louie, and Alembic boss Daniel Hyatt.  The entire book is the menu and you are free to order the zaniest, craziest, most-out-of-date libation you can find.  The vibe is mellow and the ambiance makes Alembic a great place to sit, relax, sip on something delicious, and chat with a friend.  I hope to see you all there.

-David Driscoll



New Arrivals and Updates!

Here's a peak at some new arrivals and some bottles that we've had for a little while, but forgot to tell you about.

Tuthilltown Whiskies From New York - Some of these we've had in the LA store for a bit, but we're going to expand and offer the whole line up.  From a state that used to boast numerous distilleries before Prohibition, Tuthilltown is the first to operate since then!  They're making some crazy young whiskies that are use only local grains and are hand crafted to perfection.  They also use smaller barrels so the maturation rate is faster.

Tuthilltown Four Grain Bourbon 375ml $49.99 - The four grain bourbon from New York's Tuthilltown is the only whiskey currently being made with four different grains - primarily corn, but also rye, wheat, and malted barley.  It is aged less than a year in barrel before bottling and is full of herbal peppery notes and an intriguing intermingling of all four grain elements.

Tuthilltown Hudson Baby Bourbon 375ml $49.99 - Tuthilltown Spirits is located along New York Hudson's River and has the distinction of being the first New York distillery to (legally) make bourbon since Prohibition. The Hudson Baby Bourbon is a single-grain bourbon made entirely from New York corn, and it is aged in small American oak barrels that impart vanilla caramel notes and soften the spirit's edges. Mild, this is a great introduction to bourbon, but enjoyable for even the most discerning connoisseur.  It is the only 100% corn bourbon in production.

Tuthilltown Hudson Manhattan Rye 375ml $49.99 - It wouldn't really be fair to say that this Hudson River distillery is hopping on the current rye-loving band wagon  when, in actuality, the state of New York was well-known for its ryes before Prohibition. But, surprisingly, rye hasn't been made in the state (legally) since that time. Tuthilltown Spirit's Hudson Manhattan Rye revives the tradition with class. This small batch whiskey is made with whole grain rye and it has a lovely floral and fruit-filled nose and a smooth palate with the fantastic rye edge that makes this many bartenders' spirit of choice. The hand-filled bottles are sealed with wax and numbered.

 Tuthilltown New York Corn Whiskey 375ml $36.99 - Tuthilltown is currently the only American distiller making 100% corn whiskey and in no other spirit could it be more apparent.  This "white" whiskey can call itself whiskey because it spends a brief week in barrel before being bottled.  Made from a 400 year old heirloom variety of corn all locally grown near the distillery, the whiskey is deliciously smooth with a creamy palate of corn and subtle fruit.  It is completely clear and without color.  A very unique and interesting product that we are excited to be carrying.

 Tuthilltown Single Malt Whiskey 375ml $49.99 - Aged for one year in barrel from 100% malted barley, this New York whiskey sources its barley from Canada and makes one of the most compelling American spirits around - an American single malt.  The nose is a beautiful and fragrant aroma of baking spice and the palate shows more youthful spice and peppery notes.


 Tariquet Bas Armagnac Classique Armagnac 750ml $33.99 - This is our newest Armagnac and it's going to be our best deal on brandy of any kind.  It is simply outrageously smooth and supple, to the point that I can't imagine anyone truly not enjoying it.  The fruit is all handpicked and the Grassa family has been making it in a pot still since 1911.  It spends only three years in barrel, which seems impossible when you feel its velvet texture in your mouth.  The aromas are very delicate with dried apricots and caramel sifting gently in.  The palate is simply lush with rich barrel flavors of baking spice.  The finish has gobs of fruit, to the point that you'd think this is Cognac, not the normally spicy Armagnac.  Made of 60% Ugni Blanc and 40% Baco, I'm expecting this bottle to fly of the shelf once people taste it.  It's such a deal.

 Paul Giraud Cognac Napoleon 750ml $56.99 - The Paul Giraud cognacs are all about hands-on production.  The family has been working the same vines since 1650 and they specialize in authentic, rustic-styled brandies.  All of their fruit is from Grande Champagne amd their 35ha vineyard is in the heart of the appellation.  The Napoleon is a light golden color with absolutely gorgeous fruit on the aromatics.  The palate is full of spice and packs plenty of power for such an elegant flavor profile.  The barrel notes of vanilla really come in on the mid-palate and the spirit finishes with baking spices and a long rich caramel note.  This is exciting Cognac that we are happy to add to our shelves.

 Other Spirits

 Death's Door Spirits - Part of the sustainable food movement in Wisconsin, sourcing all the materials from a small network of local farmers, Death's Door is all about thinking locally.  Located on Washington Island, a small island to the north in the lakes, this distillery (converted from an old hotel) is not only about using sustainable and locally grown grains for making spirits, its about making delicious spirits as well.  I was very impressed with all three bottles.

 Death's Door Vodka 750ml $34.99 -This tastes as good as vodka can taste and is made with 60% winter wheat and 40% malted barley, so it's basically 40% unaged whiskey.  The subtle sweetness kicks in during the creamy mid-palate and the bottle is really cool.  As long as your spending $30+, you might as well get the locally grown, sustainably produced vodka that actually has quality ingredients!

 Death's Door White Whisky 750ml $38.99 - This little guy spends a whole 72 hours in barrel (in order to legally call it whisky) and was only bottled because a supplier offered to buy 50 cases if he would bottle it.  It is softer than one would expect and has some great subtle fruit flavors as well.  The barrels are made from Minnesota oak and the whisky is composed of 80% wheat and 20% barley.  It has become a sort of sensation in bars as mixologists are making "White Manhattans" and "White Sazeracs."  Very unique and definitely worth your time.

 Death's Door Gin 750ml $34.99 - Made from the same 60/40 wheat/barley blend as the vodka, and then infused with only three botanicals: whole fresh juniper berries (which actually grow on Washington Island where it is made), fennel, and corriander (harvested from south of Madison).  The fennel really comes through in the aromatics and the palate is soft with tender perfume notes.  It is a very easy going gin and would make a great addition to any martini lover's collection. 

 More stuff

 Ransom Old Tom Gin 750ml $36.99 - Ransom spirits is a one man, artisinal distillery, run by Tad Seestedt and located in Sheridan, Oregon.  The Old Tom gin is all done on an alembic pot still and it is an historically accurate replication of what people were drinking in the 1800's and during the golden age of American cocktails (Cocktail historian David Wondrich collaborated on the project).  It has just a touch of sweetness, a golden amber color, and is made from malted barley and corn.  Make the original Martinez cocktail with the original Old Tom Gin. 

 Averna Liquori Di Limoni di Sicilia $23.99 - Say hello to our new lemon superstar, but don't call it Limoncello.  Averna's Sicilian spirit is not simply Everclear with sugar and lemons added to it, they actually distill the base spirit after a long maceration with the actual lemons, to make sure that the lemon flavor is engrained in the character of the liqueur itself.  The palate is as pure fresh lemon as is possible and the palate reenforces it even more with just a kiss of sweetness and without any of the hot alcoholic notes that usually linger from using a high proof neutral grain spirit.  It will surely impress the heck out of you.