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



Indian Single Malts Set to Hit CA This June

I want to thank two guys from a local distributor who let me sit in on their lunch meeting with Amrut last Friday for giving me a chance to try these whiskies in advance of their CA launch.  Like many of you, I had heard to expect great things from this up and coming Indian distillery and my initial introduction did not disappoint.  As long as the pricing works out, I'm confident that all single malt fans are going to have a blast getting to know these whiskies.  Amrut will be releasing five products to the domestic market here: a 3-4 year blend offered at both standard dillution and at cask strength, a peated 3-4 year again bottled both in a dilluted and cask strength proof, as well as the now famous Fusion, which Jim Murray recently named the "third best whisky in the world."  The Fusion is going to be very popular.  It has a richness that marries beautifully with the peat, but also a rather exotic earthiness that makes it very unique.  The other offerings are solid for what they are, almost tricking your tongue into believing they may be a bit older, but the greenness does come across on the finish.  The humidity and temperatures in India are obviously drastically different than Scotland, so the whisky does age faster and evaporate at a greater rate.  I'm interested to see how this affects future bottlings.  In my opinion, the standard bottlings were more polished than the cask strength versions, but I'll be curious to see what many of you think.  Indian single malts are an intriguing concept and, at least in the case of Amrut, the whisky does far more than simply quell your curiosity.  They are very tasty and offer a bold new flavor.

-David Driscoll



Which Set You Claim, Punk?

There is a polarizing argument that flows through the world of food and wine, a debate that really seems to irk traditionalists and forward-thinking activists alike.  It's a battle between good and evil, right and wrong, future and past (at least according to the participants), with each side placing itself among the righteous and correct.  It is a dangerous topic to raise at the dinner table with foodies or cork dorks because everyone has likely chosen their allegiance and has armed themselves with the latest talking points.  While working in this titan of the wine industry, I've been privy to many a snooty conversation concerning terroir and regionality. I have leafed my way through Alice Feiring's puritanical crusade to save the soul of her beloved vino, and read Neal Rosenthal’s musings on the ethics of wine merchantdom.  Living in the Bay Area, I've learned to love Alice Waters and her philosophy of cooking only with local, freshly-picked, organic produce, while scouring through the farmers markets in search of humanely-raised meats.  I shop at grocery stores with signs that say “bio-dynamic” and “cage free,” while giving me the option to pay more for the privilege.  I do this happily because of what I believe concerning haut cuisine. I’ll be perfectly up front with you: I’ve chosen sides, I’ve been initiated, and I put in work for my clique on the street.  I buy local to support local business and I buy organic to keep pesticides out of my body.  I've watched animals so pumped full of hormones they can't even support their own weight.  For me, it's a moral decision, but I don't dismiss others for not doing so.

If you’ve been reading this blog at all lately, you’ve probably seen a few posts referencing Anthony Bourdain – the opinioned, outgoing, traveling chef who has written some explicit accounts of his food industry experiences. I love the man, and really get a kick out of the way he does things.  In fact, the idea for this article comes from a chapter in his book The Nasty Bits titled “Are You a Crip or a Blood?”  Bourdain, unlike me, remains firmly planted in the middle of this debacle concerning food – he’s all about taste and nothing more.  The turf war he describes is the battle between fusion and tradition.  Do you dare add exotic herbs and spices, cilantro or thai chili even, to a traditional French meal?  If it tastes good, Bourdain’s answer is yes.  In his mind, while the grass-fed cow enjoyed a happier existence, the corn-fed steer tastes better on a plate, and when his reputation is on the line as a chef, the choice is a no-brainer.  Many of our customers feel the same towards their wine selections.  “Just give me something that tastes nice and smooth,” they say.  Most could care less about terroir, tradition, or typicity, and rightly so if they’re just looking to sip on something simple at the end of the day.  Many of us however, the oh-so-jaded staff, have moved beyond flash and instead look for classic versions of substance that will mature into perfection.  We don’t want new oak in our Bordeaux and we don’t want Merlot in our Tuscans.  Why would you mess with hundreds of years of excellence? 

As I read Bourdain’s take on this, I began to ponder an analogous debate in the whisky world.  Was there such a fierce divide among my malt enthusiast customers and friends?  There is a bit of an old-school mentality concerning the recent trend of wine-cask finishing, but nothing that really polarizes anyone.  It wasn’t until I began talking to a vendor about the 1990 Sheep Dip that it hit me.  There is a giant chasm that cuts through Whiskyville, and it does very much concern taste and purity, it’s just that the majority of drinkers all stand on the same side.  In this divide I am without allegiance and stand firmly in the middle with Bourdain, because when it comes to whisky, as long as it tastes great I’m all for it.  I’m speaking, of course, about Single Malts vs. Blends, and the vitriolic barbs that I hear from fundamentalists on both sides are sometimes frightening.  Single malt drinkers want nothing to do with Mr. Johnny Walker, or any of his friends for that matter, while Chivas Regal drinkers think Glenlivet tastes like battery acid.  In this vicious war, I’m here to play peacemaker because I think that both sides are going to have to get along if the whisky business is ever going to progress.

My good friend Rich Trachtenberg, head of Pacific Edge Wine & Spirits, was in earlier to taste me on some of his latest acquisitions and we discussed in detail the direction we both felt the industry was heading.  We both agreed that producers needed to get creative if they expected their audience to continue growing.  I’m personally no longer impressed by cask enhancements, or barrel strength, and I’m even less interested in tradition.  However, if you want to talk tradition, the history of Scotch whisky is built on the backs of the blends.  Mixing and matching flavors to create the perfect dram was always the goal of whiskymaking, however today it is distillers who receive all the kudos.  Choosing the right casks and marrying them properly hasn’t become only a lost art, it’s become a rather dubious one.  I’ve been stared down, laughed at, vented upon, and scowled towards after recommending a fantastic blend to some of our customers; I've experienced that harsh reality of the street.  Rich told me of a retailer who trash-talked the Willett bourbons he represents, purely on the fact that they weren’t actually distilled by the Willett family.  “Who wants bourbon they didn’t even make?” was the response.  Taste never factored into the equation, I guess.

Meanwhile, while I taste the latest releases from the best distilleries, I’m seeing the same thing over and over again, except it usually carries a higher price tag.  What gets me excited as a whisky buyer, you might ask?  Flavor, first and foremost, but a bit of creativity and risk-taking never hurts.  The Big Peat, for example, is one of my favorite bottles we currently have on the shelf.  A blend of four Islay powerhouses, Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore, and the defunct Port Ellen, this unchillfiltered malt is a smoke-filled, seaweed-soaked, medicinal beast that would please any single malt drinker were it presented to them blindly.  The modern imagery on the label only adds to the fun factor – it’s clear this bottle is plenty short on pretense.  My absolute top choice of the moment is the previous-mentioned 1990 Sheep Dip “Old Hebridean,” a blend of individually aged Dalmore, Fettercairn, and Ardbeg that were vatted, and then aged together again.  Unlike virtually all single malts, the 1990 refers not to the date of distillation, but to the year of the initial blending.  The flavor after 15 years together in a bourbon cask is simply outstanding.  The malt is beautiful mixture of caramel, dried fruits, and toffee with hints of spice from the 25 year old Ardbeg.  If this whisky is any testament to the virtues of barrel-aged blends, then please keep them coming!

Despite the ingenuity and obvious talent involved making in some of these bottlings, there’s absolutely no convincing some single malt purists.  Most detest simply the idea of polluting their palate with such a pedestrian beverage, much like the Jets detest the Sharks, or the Bloods loath their rival Crips.  To me, that’s unfortunate because it’s my job to introduce people to what I think are the tastiest whiskies, and the need to think about such reservations before I speak seriously handicaps my ability to do so.  I’m not looking to jump into a gang fight or incite a riot.  This obviously works the other way too, with Dewars drinkers who I think might benefit from having their whisky world infinitely expanded, but it’s usually just an old-timer who’s set in his ways.  He’s been drinking Walker Black for forty years, so who am I, some punk kid, to tell him what he should be consuming? 

What is interesting, is that few established writers and critics have eschewed such a bias against the blended malt.  While most of the big names are serious single malt fans, I’ve rarely read a derogatory remark against the multi-whiskied.  There are clearly allegiances towards particular distilleries, but not necessarily towards single malts as a category.  Maybe the lack of press regarding vatted malts constitutes a grudge being held, but that’s a far cry from the hate speech I hear in the store.  However, if anyone catches John Glaser or Dave Broom talking smack about the East Side Blends, make sure and let me know.  I’d be curious to know where some of the so called experts stand.  As far as gang membership being “for life,” I’m hoping to convince some of our polarized whisky customers to come to their senses and leave their thuggish intolerance behind.

-David Driscoll



Preiss Imports to Begin Octave Program with Duncan Taylor

I've been bugging these guys for months now to get this thing rolling, but as usual there are a ton of hang ups in the whisky importing/distributing business, so I've had to twiddle my thumbs and wait.  I just got confirmation from Ken today that they will be sending out pricing later this afternoon or tomorrow.  He did however send me the list in advance and I am passing that over to you below. WHY WOULD YOU PASS THAT LIST ON TO US, DAVID? you might be asking.  BECAUSE: you can buy your own octave!  That's right, boys and girls, you can own your own 1/8th of a barrel by placing an order via us. You can get some friends to chip in or keep it all for yourself; the choice is yours.  All the whiskies were purchased by Duncan Taylor and finished off in an octave cask after being aged in bourbon or sherry previously.  They are all single barrel, although I'm not sure yet if they can be bottled cask strength or not, but I'm assuming "yes."  Because an octave is so much smaller, the influence of the wood is greater, so all of the whiskies will be in the octave for less than 12 months as not to completely ruin the flavor.  There are no barrel samples available, so you're going to have to trust Duncan Taylor and have faith in the distillery.  Pricing will be available later, so email me if you want to have an idea of what a whole 1/8th (roughly 70-80 bottles) of a barrel will cost.  We will also be buying some for the store so there we be single bottles available.  Here is the list:

2000 Auchentoshan 9 year
2002 Bowmore 7 year
1999 Ben Nevis 10 year
1999 Auchentoshan 10 year
1998 Ben Nevis 11
1996 Teaninich 13
1998 Bowmore 11
1998 Imperial 10
1997 Cragganmore 12
1997 Imperial 12
1993 Aberlour 16
1997 Bunnahabhain peated 12
1997 Macallan 12
1996 Macallan 13
1990 Ben Nevis 18
1997 Laphroaig 12
1995 Macallan 14
1993 Macallan 16
1987 Glen Grant 21
1989 Glengarioch 19
1992 Macallan 17
1988 Glen Moray 21
1987 Glen Moray 22
1987 Glenlivet 22
1991 Macallan 18
1986 Glen Moray 23
1991 Glen Scotia 18
1978 North British 31
1979 Cameronbridge 30
1978 Cameronbridge 31
1990 Macallan 19
1979 Casrsebridge 30
1984 Caol Ila 24
1986 Royal Lochnagar 23
1980 Strathclyde 29
1983 Caol Ila 26
1983 Glen Moray 25
1973 Port Dundas 36
1982 Bowmore 27
1982 Caol Ila 27
1983 Glen Esk 25
1973 Strathclyde 35
1981 Caol Ila 28
1981 Dallas Dhu 28
1975 Glen Moray 34
1974 Glen Grant 34
1978 Inverleven 31
1965 Invergordon 43
1976 Tomatin32
1975 Banff 34
1971 Glen Moray 38
1972 Glen Grant 37
1972 Caperdonich 37
1972 Tamdhu 37
1975 Glen Mhor 33
1970 Glenlivet 39
1970 Glen Grant 39
1970 Glenrothes 39
1983 Port Ellen 26
1969 Macduff 40
1968 Glenrothes 41
1969 Glenrothes 40
1969 Glen Grant 40
1969 Caperdonich 40
1968 Caperdonich 41
1968 Glenlivet 41
1969 Bunnahabhain 40
1968 Bunnahabhain 41
1973 Ladyburn 36
1968 Bowmore 41
1969 Kinclaith 40
1969 Macallan 40

This will be an ongoing thing so there will be new barrels coming in after the current ones sell out.  Exciting!  We're already coveting some of the old Caol Ila and Bowmore casks.

-David Driscoll


Bourbon Review

I'm going to be the guest lecturer at a private Bourbon party in a few weeks, and while preparing for the event, I made this small list of information that I am planning to pass out to those in attendance.  I thought I'd post it here for some of you to glance at in case you needed a refresher! 

Note: I only included the distilleries we are planning to taste. 

-David Driscoll

 Bourbon Overview

Quick Facts

-Bourbon must be at least 51% corn-based and must be aged in new, charred barrels for a minimum of two years. 

-While the main ingredient in a bourbon mash bill must be corn, there is usually a high percentage of rye and a smaller percentage of barley in the formula as well.  Wheated bourbons, such as Van Winkle, use wheat instead of rye as the flavor grain. 

-Bourbon does NOT have to be from Bourbon County or from Kentucky.

-Jack Daniels and George Dickel are NOT bourbons.  They are technically Tennessee Whiskies because they are 1) made in Tennessee, and 2) filtered through a charcoal filtration column, which takes out unwanted flavors and jump starts the aging process. 

-Whiskies aged less than four years must release an age statement on the bottle, pushing distillers to age for at least that period of time.

-“Small Batch” does not mean that the whiskey was made in small batches, only that it was likely selected and blended from a “small batch” of selected barrels.

-“Single Barrel” means the whiskey in the bottle is the product of one barrel only and not the blended product of numerous samples. 

Quick History

While Bourbon does not legally have to originate from Bourbon County, KY, it is named after the region formerly known as Bourbon, which used to encompass a greater area.  The region had since been subdivided into smaller counties, but many residents kept calling the area “Old Bourbon.” Whiskey at the end of the 18th century was primarily made from rye and all whiskey barrels that were shipped off were stamped with the name of the port from which they were sent.  The whiskey being moved from the area of “Old Bourbon” county was therefore stamped with that signifier.  When consumers began to ask about this richer and more flavorful style of whiskey, they were told it was old bourbon because that was the name displayed on the barrel.  Over time, people began to believe this meant the whiskey itself was aged and that the name must refer to the now-diminished Bourbon County, when in fact in referred to neither.  The whiskey from this region was made with corn, so over time other producers began to label their new corn whiskies as bourbon to signify to customers that their whiskey was of the same style. 

Distilleries – There are around twenty active distilleries in the United States that are currently making whiskey, but we are going to focus on a few of the important bourbon producers here.

 Jim Beam – Has distilleries in both in Clermont and Boston, KY and is known for two distinct styles of bourbon – the formula found in the eponymous Jim Beam and the other sold as Old Granddad.  The distilleries do not make uniquely styled whiskies and it is not really possible to decipher which came from where. 

          Knob Creek – A 9 year old version of the Jim Beam formula from selected barrels.  Bottled at 100 proof, charred White Oak barrel really adds a sweetness and roundness to the palate.  A rich and full-bodied bourbon.

 Heaven Hill – Located in Louisville, the distillery is located on the site of the old Bernheim distillery.  It lost its original location to a huge fire in 1996 and bought the new distillery to begin resuming production there in 2000.  They make a heavily-ryed mashbill that goes into the Evan Williams bourbons.  They make Rittenhouse Rye as well as a wheated bourbon known as Old Fitzgerald. 

Elijah Craig – Most of the Elijah Craig bottles on the market today still come from the original distillery in Bardstown before the fire gutted it.  It is known for its outstanding balance of both sweetness and spice.  There is both a 12 and 18 year old version available.

 Four Roses – Located in Lawrenceburg, this storied distillery has a long history dating back to 1818.  It is now owned by Kirin Brewery, but is run by Jim Rutledge – one of the best distillers working in the business today.  They are a very unique distillery because they make ten different bourbon formulas: 2 different mash bills with 5 different strains of yeast.  They are known for their more mellow and delicate style of bourbon.

          Four Roses Yellow Label – The only one of their whiskies to feature a blend of all 10 formulas, this is an outstanding example of elegance and restraint even with the new charred barrel influence.

 Buffalo Trace – Located in Frankfurt, BT makes several different formulas including both rye and wheat-flavored.  They have an incredible amount of brands including the Buffalo Trace standard bottling, Sazerac, George T. Stagg, Handy, Weller, Blanton’s, Van Winkle, and more.  The distillery is owned by the Sazerac company.

          Buffalo Trace – This is one of the most popular bourbons on the market right now, not only for straight sipping but for cocktails as well.  It has a rich texture, shows baking spice on the palate, and really displays the corn flavor from the mash bill.

 Willett’s – While not technically a functioning distillery yet again, this dated site of the original Willett family is slated to begin producing whiskey again very very soon.  For the time being, Even Kulsveen has organized a company known as Kentucky Bourbon Distillers which outsources its desires to other distilleries.  They then take the spirit and age it in their own rickhouse in Bardstown and bottle it at their own plant.  Their portfolio includes Willett, Johnny Drum, Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek and others.

          Black Maple Hill – One of the most popular whiskies we have ever sold, this is a double outsourcing.  KBD buys the barrels from a distillery, and CVI in San Carlos has KBD bottle it for them as Black Maple Hill.  It is a more rustic and spicy style of bourbon that really caters to the craft whiskey fans.