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Saturday
Nov202010

Interesting Van Winkle Notes

I'm often asked about the Van Winkle bourbons (why they're supposed to be so good, who makes them, etc.) and I found that there was onc question that I got asked this year which I was unable to answer: "If Stitzel-Weller closed in 1992, then how is the whiskey still 15 and 20 years old?"  I was pretty sure that all of the stocks were sitting in stainless steel vats (so that they remain 15 and 20) just waiting to be bottled every year.  I knew that was the case with the Sazerac 18, but I wanted to make sure so I emailed Preston Van Winkle to find out.

Interestingly enough, I was right about the 15 and 20, but wrong about the others.  Apparently, the Pappy 15, 20, and 23 are the only entries that are still being sourced from old Stitzel-Weller reserves, making them true Pappy whiskies.  The 10, 12, and 13 rye are now whiskies that were made either at Bernheim or at Buffalo Trace, so they are new generation Van Winkle whiskies from Preston and Julien, rather than reserves. For those of you who are clueless as to what I am talking about, I'll fill you in quickly.  The "Pappy" is the grandfather of Julien and Preston who made whiskey at Stitzel-Weller distillery which closed in 1992.  When you see the Pappy smoking his cigar on the bottle, you're drinking his distillery's whiskey that is still sitting in a tank and is being slowly bottled over the years.  However, it will eventually run out, which is why Preston and Julien have been making new Van Winkle whiskies at Buffalo Trace.  They don't have any 15 or 20 year old bourbon yet to sell, but it appears they do have 12 and 10 year old stock because that is what you are drinking this year (and maybe for the previous few for all I know).

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Nov182010

These Things Do Not Make Sense

Writing about the Compass Box Flaming Heart earlier caused me to kick around the same train of thought that usually runs through my head when I think about vatted malts.  Why the lack of enthusiasm?  It can also be difficult to recommend indy bottlings to customers who want something directly from the distillery.  What's the problem?  Here are some of the usually arguments I hear against certain whiskies in bold, with my counter-response in italics.

I like single malts, not vatted malts, because I want to taste the style of the distillery.

A somewhat valid point, except for the fact that most distillery bottlings are vatted versions of their own whiskies.  It's not like Ardbeg 10 is one single ten year old whisky from Ardbeg.  It's a blend of different Ardbeg whiskies of various ages, from various types of casks, with various flavor profiles.  People go crazy for the Uigeadail, which has some sherry-aged whiskies and some bourbon-aged in the recipe.  The flavors of any particular whisky is completely lost in the marriage of the malts.  All that matters is the resulting flavor - that's why Bill Lumsden is the creator and Rachel Barrie is the blender.  A more accurate snapshot of a distillery can be found in an independent bottling or single barrel expression.

I also don't like independent bottlings because I want to taste the style directly from the distillery.

An argument I could understand would be one that is hestiant to trust the quality of the barrels being bottled.  The distillery likely is keeping the better barrels for themself.  However, they are not bottling single expressions because they are creating a house style - like Coca-cola or Pepsi.  A person who is uninterested in vatted malts because of the lack of purity should therefore be most interested in indy bottlings - they are the purest examples of a distillery's style.  It's like getting a movie star without their make up - maybe that's not a good thing, but if you want the red carpet look, then you want the blended or the vatted.  If you want to learn about a whisky's character, you need the indy bottlers.

-David Driscoll


Thursday
Nov182010

Best Whisky In The Store Right Now?

Wowee wow!  There is a slew of whisk(e)y available in our store right now, and our barrels haven't even arrived yet!  Next week there is going to be even more and I'm not sure where we are going to put all of it.  Then you've got small quantities of single barrel Ardbeg showing up out of nowhere from Chieftain's (congrats to those 17 of you who got one this morning).  Then we've got all the Pappy and BTAC stuff that just came in today - it's insane!  With all the hoopla, it's easy to forget about some of the less prestigious, but nevertheless fantastic bottles that have arrived.  As much as I thought about buying a bottle of Pappy 20 today, I passed.  Not because of anything other than the fact that for about the same price, I could get the Flaming Heart from the masterful John Glaser.  Made with whiskies from the villages of Brora, Port Askaig, and Mull (which is pretty much a roundabout way of saying Clynelish, Caol Ila, and Tobermorey) this vatting is something to truly treasure.  Hints of smoke from the Islay, hints of minerality and wax from the Highlands, and the sea smell of Island malts.  Because for some reason people don't like vatted malts, these Flaming Heart bottles will likely trickle out, slowly gathered by those who really appreciate a fine dram, while the phone calls continue to pour in for the big trophies.  If you've ever been curious about Compass Box however, this is one damn fine bottle of whisky and there isn't very much of it.  I'd venture to say that at this very moment in time, taking price point, value, quality, and exclusivity into account, it might be the best whisky available in the store.  It might be.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Nov172010

In Addition...

To those of you on the email list who received the update, I offer this in addition.

I have and continue to have the support of my owners which make K&L a fantastic place to work and do my job.  In no way did the scenario that played out recently endanger my position, or even bring the slightest ounce of heat upon my head.  In sitting down with ownership, I brought the situation to their attention and they responded by saying that if I felt such frustrations were justified, then I had their full support to voice them and to continue voicing them in the future.

In no way do I feel that my opinions as a retailer are being censored, nor do I plan to scale back any strongly-felt opinions should I continue to have them.  However, I do feel that having a large audience is a responsibility, and I really had no idea how far these messages or blog posts were traveling.  That being put into perspective, being rash or shooting from the hip can exacerbate scenarios that don't deserve the frustration being wasted upon them.  Using that audience to vent your own personal issues can be satisfying, but probably isn't very useful in the long term.  I'd rather have a smirk on my face than a frown.

In order to be a strong retailer, I have a responsibility to carry the products that my customers want and I would feel horrible if my own personal frustrations resulted in bad relationships with producers that our customers enjoy. Why should anyone out there lose out on quality booze?

No one cares about personal beef, at least I don't when it applies to other people.  People care about good service and quality products at competitive price points.  I just want people to know what is honestly happening and what is honestly going on in this industry.  I have apologized for nothing in presenting our viewpoints on the marketplace and neither has K&L.  Nor do we feel pressured to do so.  Nor will we ever. 

Crediblity is everything.  I would quit if we ever lost it.

-David Driscoll 

Wednesday
Nov172010

Steve McCarthy @ Alembic

Alembic is a dark (hence my hazy photos) and cozy little place towards the end of Haight St. down from Golden Gate park and Amoeba records.  It has a gigantic selection of booze, from single malts to liqueurs, as well as local cult favorites like Russian River Brewery on tap.  They do a pre fixe menu every night with interesting plates and fantastic presentation.  The bartenders are well-versed and the staff is young with fashionable hipster vibe.  The cocktails are top notch and, with mixer Daniel Hyatt running the show, they push liquid creativity to a new level. In short, Alembic is the perfect place to bring the esoteric Clear Creek spirits line up and showcase its creator Steve McCarthy.  "Basically, if you're looking for spirits that are hard to sell and that no one likes, I'm your guy," Steve told the small crowd before beginning his presentation.  The plan for the night was simple: we had four courses paired with a cocktail, and in between Steve and I would go around to each table and pour some samples and talk about them. The intimacy was unparalleled by any other event we have done.  Steve basically ate dinner and talked with everyone personally and privately. 

Before getting into the Clear Creek products, I want to reiterate that Daniel Hyatt is capable of blowing your mind when motivated to do so.  I have my favorite bartenders in the city that I visit when the thirst beckons me, but Daniel's genius doesn't stem from an impromptu order behind the stick.  He prepares all day for his cocktails, so you need to go with whatever wave he's riding on.  In planning the menu for the evening - salad with tempura shrimp, polenta with prawns, roasted sweetbreads, and a fruit tart with lemon zest ice cream - Daniel whipped up four of the most creative drinks I have yet tasted.  The brilliance is in the subtlety and the ingenuity.  All four drinks went well with their respective pairings because they were like fine wines - restrained, and meant to tease your taste buds rather than overload them.  The first drink used the Clear Creek cassis with some black tea and sparkling rose.  The second was an insane combination of Clear Creek K&L Barrel whiskey with muddled persimmons and cinnamon.  The third, a take on the Clear Creek Pomme with crushed ice and infused simple syrup with fresh muddled borage.  Finally, the best for last, a cold shot of Clear Creek Pinot Grigio grappa and with lemon zest sweetener and espresso beans. 

For the sampling, we brought out the best of the collection: our new barrel of McCarthy whiskey, the blue plum brandy, the eight year apple brandy, the douglas fir eau de vie, the still-unreleased brandy, and bunch of fruit liqueurs before we finished with a cold glass of Steve's legendary pear eau de vie.  It was nice to watch everyone get the same fantastic treatment from Steve that I have always received.  I got to sit back and take my enjoyment from that.  The point that kept coming up all night long was the fact that every product in the Clear Creek line up is top notch.  Some wineries make a great cab but a lackluster pinot, but this is not the case concerning Steve. 

There's not much more to say that the pictures can't express.  It was a laid back, easy-going, and intimate evening that I would have enjoyed immensely were I sitting down and eating.  As it was, I know how I felt going through the tour two summers ago in Portland, so getting to see that excitement on the faces of last night's participants was almost just as good.  All in all, a fun night that we probably won't ever have the chance to do again.  At least not with cocktails this good and a man of Steve's stature.

-David Driscoll