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.



K&L Spirits Dept 2010 - What's Coming Up, How We Can Improve

It's been nearly a year since I found out that I was going to be the next spirits buyer at K&L.  I didn't actually start doing any buying until September, but I was told last May to start getting my ideas together.  My whisky-loving predecesor Susan Purnell let me add a few new products over the summer so I could then hit the ground running when I took full control.  So far I'm pretty satisfied with the way things have gone and it's been a fantastic learning process - both about who our spirits customers are and also how I can best serve all of you.  I thought I'd take this moment, sitting at home watching the Giants take on the Cardinals, to give you an update on some of our plans for the future as well as ask for your input as to how we can make the rest of 2010 even better. 

In between dozing on the couch (after an incredible lunch from Moira & Derek at Martin's West) and waiting for sports to start, I watched a few episodes of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and felt an immediate pang of inspiration to do a better job at helping the Bay Area community.  If you haven't watched him before, you should set your DVR to record every episode.  The last episode I viewed before flipping open the old laptop saw Anthony take a trip to Portland & Seattle where he visited local restaurants and sampled the cuisine.  The idea that really stuck with me was a line from a Bourdain voiceover where he talked about how the Pacific Northwest has become a haven for people who do one thing really well.  When you get a bunch of those people all working in the same neighborhood - making cheese, distilling booze, cooking Italian food, curing meats, etc. - it makes for an interesting place to live and visit.  I feel like we're really getting a great little stretch of destinations in Redwood City (with us, Martin's West, Donato's, Sigona's, Gourmet Haus, and an ever expanding list of other great places) and as excited as I am to be a part of a great local vendor, seeing Bourdain visit those Pac NW spots really got me motivated to do a better job. Here's how I'm going to do it:

1) Expansion - Starting next month the Redwood City store is going to be completely remodeled inside.  This is great news for me and my shelving system.  At the moment, I have more bottles than space and some of them are too tall to stand upright (as you've probably noticed while grabbing a bottle of North Shore gin).  While I think we're doing a fantastic job with the website, I think the in-store experience could be better.  I want every product to have a sign and a description so that browsing the shelf can be like perusing the online catalog.  I also want more product!  Starting this summer we will have an even bigger selection of in store bottles.  More booze, equals more fun.

2) More Tastings - I love Martin's West, and as I said above, I'm all about building more ties within the Peninsula food and bev community.  It seems people really loved the gin tasting and want more cocktail-oriented stuff to balance out the whisk(e)y tastings.  I plan to do more of everything with all kinds of price points to keep things affordable, inclusive, and fun.

3) Personal Sommelier Perks -  I really love that more people are signing up for the personal sommelier spirits club and when I figure out how to work it better, there are going to be even more perks for people that are club members.  I really want you to be getting something special - more than just a discounted bottle every month.

4) Education - I want people who are interested to have access to the educational resources that I have.  I am either going to create an online database for spirits information or find more links to people who have already created one.  We should be promoting appreciating through knowledge as well as consumption.  For me, I'm finding that I could do with a bit more of the former and a bit less of the latter.

5) Customer Input - Ideas?  What makes you go to other stores instead of ours?  I want to know what we could do better.  Even if we can't do it yet, I want to know what you would like to see us do.  Please email me if you have a gripe, a concern, or a plan.

-David Driscoll


In Stock Today - Very Limited!! The Original Violette Liqueur


Crème Yvette Violette Liqueur $42.99 - The original violette liqueur, first made in 1890, is now available again in the U.S. for the first time since 1969.  This highly allocated item has the cocktail world buzzing for an authentic Blue Moon or Aviation.  Cooper Spirits, makers of St. Germain, has had the original recipe for years and has finally concocted the extremely rare elixer and bottled it in a wonderful package.  Made in Bordeaux, the liqueur is a blend of blackberry, raspberry, currant, and wild strawberry with dried violet petals from Provence and bits of vanilla, orange peel, and honey.

I was supposed to get this in a few weeks ago, but a problem with our vendor coupled with my vacation in New York delayed things, but that's probably a good thing because everyone else is already sold out!  They didn't make much of this and, being a huge fan of the Rothman Violette, I'm super excited to get home tonight and make a Blue Moon! 

-David Driscoll


New Independent Whisky Bottlers!

We are starting to carry a few bottles by a new indy named Duthies that has just made it over the pond to California.  The initial offerings are very strong and very moderately priced for what they are.  I am excited to see what else we get from them.  Right now we are expecting.

Glenrothes 15 Year Old, Duthies, Single Malt Whisky $69.99 - This is an easy, gentle, and very easy drinking Glenrothes.  It may be the best independent bottling of it that I have ever tasted.  The classic richness is there, but this whisky was aged in oak butts, so that sherry barrel sweetness and dried fruit componant is not present like in the 1991 distillery bottling.  This is more classic and balanced, with hints of honey and sweet vanilla.  Every flavor and texture is perfectly in balance making it a very fun malt to drink.

Highland Park 17 Year Old, Duthies, Single Malt Whisky $74.99 - This independent bottling aged in oak cask is fatter and thicker than most older Highland Parks and really stands out from the distillery versions.  Right off the bat you get sweet cereal notes on the entry followed by a waxy and oily componant that I usually associate with Highland distilleries like Clynelish.  A faint hint of smoke comes through on the mid palate, and then the flavors really mold together to finish on a high note.  This is very different from other HPs I have tasted and it is a fantastic deal for the money.

Auchentoshan 16 Year Old, Duthies, Single Malt Whisky $69.99 - Soft and delicate, just like the standard triple-distilled offering usually tastes, but with the added complexity of a full 16 years in barrel.  For me, 16 is the magic number for whisky aging, and while I'm not normally a super fan of Auchentoschan's Lowland, mild-mannered nature, this is a perfect balance of sweet cereal flavors, hints of heather, and honey.  An easy whisky to fall in love with.

Another new indy bottler we are expecting a shipment from is Whiskey Thieves.  Their cask strength offerings are very impressive.

Knockando 15 Year Old, Whiskey Thieves, Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $76.99 - Knockando is a Diageo-owned distillery in the Spey that we rarely see distillery bottlings from.  This independent offering from Whiskey Thieves is delightful, bottled at cask strength 59.6%.  The malt just brims classic malt whisky - balanced levels of richness, sweetness, and power with no flavor profile really making itself too obvious.  There are hints of baking spices that begin to open up when a drop of water is added, but this is an old school dram - no barrel enhancements, no peat, no nonsense.  Think Bruichladdich 16 or Benriach 18, but at full power!   A fantastic value.

-David Driscoll


A Visit From Clear Creek's Steve McCarthy

Steve McCarthy talking booze with Doug, Alex, & Cindy

Today was the kind of day when you really cherish your job at K&L.  When people find out what I do for a living, they think everyday is like today was - a day spent hanging out with the best distiller in the United States, and one of the absolute masters in the world, Steve McCarthy. I can only wish every day could be so fun! Taking the time to fly down from Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Steve brought his entire line-up of bottles with him for a staff seminar on eau de vie.  Both the Redwood City and San Francisco stores got the pleasure of meeting with him as they nosed and sampled a slew of fruit liqueurs, eau de vies, brandies, grappas, and, of course, the highly sought after and often discussed Douglas Fir Eau de Vie, flavored with real pine tree!


Having already tasted through the entire selection on my visit to the Pac Northwest last summer (click here to read all the details about my trip to the distillery), I reveled in seeing the eyes of my co-workers light up and hearing their glowing responses after they finished.  Jeff Garneau, not the most avid of spirits drinkers, was absolutely amazed.  Our new guy Jason Marwedel, also not a huge advocate of all things distilled, was simply blown away and made sure he went home with a bottle of Steve's knockout pear brandy.  Melissa Smith was in complete heaven as she began fantasizing about all the magical meals she could make with the crazy good liqueurs, and I just sat there smiling as I watched everyone learn what I already knew: Clear Creek spirits are so good they are life changing.  Getting the chance to taste them with Steve himself only makes the experience even more fantastic.  He has a calming and captivating effect on his audience and he really believes in making the absolute best products - not cutting corners and not cutting costs to do so.

Some of today's many participants

Luckily for you all out there, I talked Steve into making another trip back to the Bay Area this summer to conduct the same seminar with some of our lovely customers.  We are planning a dinner event where Mr. McCarthy and myself will team up to walk you through the world of fruit based brandies and liqueurs.  I'm sure some of you whisky fans out there are thinking, "Eh."  That's what some of my staff members also said to me when I told them Steve was in the bar, but I twisted their arm and they made sure to taste through.  They immediately found me after and told me how happy they were that I had forced them to do so.  While we all love whisky, Clear Creek is in a class all its own.  They taste of purity, elegance, and quality - something any spirit lover should enjoy.

Steve talks to Kirk & Susan at the SF store.-David Driscoll