K&L Purchases An Entire Barrel Of The Best Gin Ever

You might remember my post from a few weeks back about hanging out with Davorin Kuchan at the Old World Spirits distillery.  You can see in the picture to the left that he is filling a beaker with something magical and brown.  A whiskey, you ask?  Yes, and no.  It is distilled from grain and aged in wood, so techincally it is a whiskey, but because it was macerated with herbs and then distilled again before it entered the cask, it is in actuality a barrel-aged gin and a damned good one at that.   It only took one small sample during my recent trip to realize that Davorin Kuchan may have produced the greatest gin we've ever tasted.  Already well known throughout the Bay Area for his fantastic Blade gin, Davorin decided to experiment with adding some richness to his spirit, much like many of the Old Tom Gins do.  After 13 months in the barrel (more than most craft whiskies spend in wood these days) the juniper and citrus notes already present in the gin became aromas of baking spice and cloves, with hints of vanilla and a rounded mouthfeel - flavors of the holiday season, and just in time!  The result is so good we're not sure if we want to sip it or mix it, or both simultaneously.  The whiskylover in us decided to bottle it at cask strength as not to adulterate any of the concentrated goodness, so in the end it's more like a bottle and a half of gin, as you should add some water to proof it down.  I am convinced that this is the best barrel-aged gin available and am going to go on record here that it might be the best gin ever made.  For sipping, for martinis, for negronis, or for mixology experimentation, the Rusty Blade is as delicious and unique as it gets.  Only 250 bottles made with a retail price of $59.99.  Release date very soon, so stay tuned.

-David Driscoll


Booze - Why Are We Interested? Part IV

Steve posted this in the comments field for Part III and I felt it was important enough to become Part IV.  He has a blog site about eating around LA and he has guest blogged on Hansell's webpage as well.  Here is what he had to say:

"Going back to your original question, why are we interested? I think for the people I know who are real spirits afficionados, it's wholly experiential. I love whiskey for the same reason I love all manner of cheese and dark chocolate and that I seek out regional Chinese cuisines I've never had before, because it provides for a unique sensory experience. It's about experiencing the most you can in life, like an art museum (or film festival) for the palate. Whiskey offers a complexity and a combination of flavors just as complex as any museum piece. Once you get into it, it becomes an intellectual pursuit as well, as you work at identifying styles, tasting changes in expressions, sensing the difference between oaks, finishes, grains ages, or just good and bad. That's why I would nearly almost rather try a bad whiskey that I've never tasted than a good one that I have (though, sorry to tell you, it doesn't mean I'll buy the whole bottle).

As you've pointed out, there are those who drink for status or who collect trophy bottles, and those people are surely satisfying some other need, probably just as legitimate. If someone wants an uopened bottle of Stagg to decorate their mantle or loves the unlikely gamble that a given whiskey will one day turn them a profit for them, who am I to tell them otherwise? It's just not my gig.

As to intoxication, it's actually a side effect I'd rather do without. I wish I could drink without getting any more than a slight buzz, so I could taste endlessly into the night, drive home safely and suffer no ill effects, but hey, I also wish I could eat all the cheese I could find and not gain weight and that ain't happenin' either."

If you're one of those drinkers who wakes up face down on the couch because you couldn't help but taste everything in your collection, then you relate to this.  If you're one of those people who never buy the same bottle twice because it seems like a crime when there's so much out there to try, then you relate to this.  If you are truly interested in booze and finding out everything about it, then you relate to this.  Sometimes our enthusiasm can cause our skin to itch.  It sends our eyes over to the clock in search of a justifiable hour to begin imbibing.  It makes us drive half away across town just to sample a few drams or find that one missing nugget of experience we long for.   To me these are signs of honest passion and I want to thank Steve for pointing out what does constitute a serious interest in booze, especially since I've been all over the place dwelling on what doesn't.

-David Driscoll


Booze - Why Are We Interested? Part III

I was watching the movie Funny People recently and found it interesting that there was another industry, the comedy world specifically, in which insiders felt strongly about staying true to the honest form of their profession.  A group of young stand up comedians are always giving their buddy (played by Jason Schwartzman) grief for starring in a cheesy sitcom called "Yo, Teach," a show that caters to the lowest common denominator of humor.  In their opinion, stand-up comedy is the truest form their art can take, and they attempt to stay loyal to these roots.  Another film (and book) that tackles this same dilemna is High Fidelity, which depicts the tale of a small Chicago record store and its staff, who are full of dismay for their consumers and their "terrible taste" in music.  They are outspoken about their passion and constantly take offense when a customer asks for an album by an artist they do not admire.  Having been a film major in college, I can tell you that these circles work in much the same manner.  As students, we were interested in directors who were pushing the boundries of what film could be, rather than those catering to the taste of the general public.  Speaking of film, we all know the power of Sideways where a serious vinophile said he wasn't going to drink any merlot.

In all of these cases, there will always be those who feel as if they truly appreciate their passion and the essence of what it's all about.  The irritation expressed by these characters stems from what they feel is the public's interest in inferior expressions that do little to help the progression of their beloved genre.  Idiocracy is another film that we could discuss in this instance, if anyone remembers the state of television and film in Mike Judge's devolved society.

I'm going to think about this for a bit.

-David Driscoll


Booze - Why Are We Interested? Part II

Last night I hosted a dinner with whisky pairings at the Draeger's Cooking School along with my co-worker Melissa Smith who did all the cooking.  It was a fantastic evening and the people who came were very interested in both the cuisine and the booze.  While Melissa cooked, I educated about whisky.  When we sat down to eat each course, Melissa revealed her techniques in the kitchen.  It was a back and forth cooking class and whisky seminar that seemed to work really well.  This is the type of experience that excites people about alcohol.  It seems like there is an endless array of information to be learned and of flavors to be analysed.  There is something romantic about this research into what makes each spirit unique, and what makes it taste so good with a meal.  Besides the idea of booze, there is the practicality of fun involved and having a solid background of understanding only enhances the fun even further.  I think one reason some people geek out about alcohol is grounded in the extension of a good time - intoxication with information is doubly rewarding.

In my opinion this is the most enjoyable and honest form that an interest in booze can take.  It does manifest itself in other guises, however.  There is also the enthusiast who has little time for education and wants someone else to do that work for him - i.e. Wine Spectator or Robert Parker.  There is too much wine available and not enough time to try them all, so some people turn to lists, rankings, and points to help guide them towards the sure thing.  I want to stress before I go any further that I am so passionate about this issue because I too used to rely on these publications for my wine and spirits education.  I thought learning about wine meant drinking what other people said was good because how would I figure it out on my own?  Let me stress that when I speak of this particular form of interest, I speak from my own personal experience (which I revealed a bit in the last entry) and not as an elitist trying to point out what constitutes a "real" afficionado. 

Using the Chronicle's top wine selections, or Jim Murray's Whisky Bible is a good way to try something new that you wouldn't normally have selected.  Expert opinion is always interesting to read and even more fun to disagree with.  Commentary always brings more perspective to any passion, but I have found that it is often misinterpreted as a guide or system to a better appreciation of booze.  It isn't.  When I started to get interested in wine, I decided I should read a bit about what was happening in the industry and I turned to the Wine Spectator for some guidance.  What eventually happened was that I would look at the ratings in the back, found the best scores with the lowest prices, and then scoured the interest looking to see which stores carried them.  Every month I drank what they thought was quality wine, and I formed my opinions based completely on the reviewer's notes.  "This wine got 90 points from the Spectator," I would tell my mom when we got together and she would say, "Oh wow!" and I would smile and feel happy because I knew she was impressed.  The pride I felt however was based on no real knowledge of my own, only my ability to hunt down the trophies of the month and show them off to people I knew.  That is embarrassing, don't you think?

Because so many people engage in this form of alcoholic interest, it has taken a completely legitimate form.  I have heard of people having parties where everyone brings a wine that got 90 points from Parker.  While I admit it can be a fun way to bring people together behind a theme, it doesn't really constitute an interest in wine or spirits, or does it?  If we only are interested in drinking the "best" then are we really interested in what's in the glass?  It seems to me like chasing points and highly-rated products reveals more of an interest in one's self - and I say that in full admittance of having done so.  It's only because I've known that form of interest that I feel I can speak so candidly about it. 

Over the past few weeks I've received close to fifty phone calls regarding either the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection or the Pappy Van Winkle bourbons, all of which are among the most highly regarded whiskies available.  They are released every Fall and will be making their way to our stores shortly.  I know however that, while these are quality spirits, most of this interest is generated by trophy hunting.  Because these bottles are hard to get, it makes them even more desirable.  Many people hoard them, buying two or three of each if they can just to be able to look at them and know they are in their possession.  I too have found myself in awe of these bottles, and understand this desire.  As much as I like these whiskies, I don't consider my interest in buying them to be founded in my passion for whiskey.  These bottlings tap into my desire to own something collectable and to buy for the sake of buying because I may not have the opportunity later.  They create a sensationalistic frenzy with no one wanting to be left out in the cold.  "You have to get one!" people tell their friends, so in the end they do and it makes them feel good. This isn't an interest in booze, is it?

I may have to do a third round before I get this all out of my system.  More later.

-David Driscoll



Booze - Why Are We Interested?

When I first started working at K&L I did an April Fools joke where I came in early and switched some of the wine reviews in the store with fake ones that read something like, "Kalinda Zinfandel - This wine will get you totally wasted" and "Napa Chardonnay - You won't remember how bad it actually is."  I never actually left them up for customers to see, only for some of the staff members and our manager, but the jest was that these signs were catering to an adolescent sense of drinking.  Getting drunk for cheap is really important for college students and young club go-ers, but as adults we're supposed to be drinking moderately for taste, for dinner, for hanging out with friends, or to unwind with something nice after work.  That's why our signs tell you about the flavor of the wines, how the grapes were grown, what you should pair with them, and why we think they're great.  However, while many wine and spirit enthusiasts are delighted to shop on our website and in our stores with this wealth of consumer information, there are still those who are motivated by status and showmanship.

However, rather than start another one of my whiny tirades about points and trophy hunters, I'd rather focus on what motivates us, or in this case me personally, to continually taste and experiment with new alcoholic beverages.  It does begin with a youthful curiousity for change in consciousness, but as we become more experienced we long for more sophistication.  Why did I want to quit teaching and work at K&L Wine Merchants?  Why do I spend so much money on booze?  Why do I want to read books about wine and whisky instead of books about architecture or history?  I think that I am more able to answer that question now than ever before, but there are different reasons for different drinks and I think that what they represent in our lives plays an important role in these meanings.

Wine used to be a fun way to get my buzz on that didn't fill me up as much as beer, or wipe me out as quickly liquor.  I remember drinking Yellowtail Chardonnay and having dinner parties when I was 23 where we all sat down and drank what we thought was good booze.  I remember wanting to like Scotch when I was 19 because no one else I knew was drinking it, and that would help me to stand out, I guess.  We had nights at UCSD where we would force ourselves to drink Blandy's on the rocks until we finally started to like it (kind of like how one gets hooked on cigarettes).  The origins were always grounded in fun and image, which is why the alcohol industry continues to market on that idea.  Cristal at the dance club, tequila in the new rap video, and even Hennessey XO at the after party.  If Puff Daddy is drinking it, then it must be amazing!  While I have never wanted to drink something simply because someone famous was doing so, I must admit that I am still heavily influenced by liquor in the movies.  If the boys at Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price start pouring a round on TV, then I find myself strolling over to the bar to make myself a drink as well.  Sideways made me very wary about drinking Merlot (because I didn't know if it was actually good or not at the time), but it also made me long for the knowledge that Miles had about wine. 

Perceived objective expertise about subjective themes is a powerful motivator as well - again it's about image.  Being able to dabble in art criticism, music criticism, literary criticism, really any criticism that involves experience and knowledge can be very attractive, but it usually tends to make people look bad rather than good.  The guy who acts like he knows the most and feels like he needs to tell you about it is usually the biggest jerk at the party.  Nevertheless, it's what motivated me at a young age to get more serious about drink (because I have been that jerk many a night).  As time went by and I landed the job at K&L, I realized that I knew absolutely nothing compared to my colleagues and I was forced to shut up and accept my giant spoonful of humility.  My friends still thought I was super cool and knowledgable, but I knew better and that kept my ego in check.

I have always been a researcher so I had a blast learning about wine and spirits by delving into encyclopedic volumes about the subject.  That was the first change regarding alcohol's role in my life - from intoxicating to educational.  Three years later it has become ritualistic - a natural way to end the evening, or the perfect accompanyment to my weekend hobbies.  I have developed a passion for food and cooking, so wine fits in naturally.  I like the idea of sitting around a table with my friends and eating well, enjoying really interesting wines while we chat and a glass of whisky after we're through.  Booze has become romantic in its importance, as much an idealistic image in my mind as it is a tangible force in my glass.  Perhaps what has changed for me most dramatically is the necessity for what I drink to be recognizable to any one other than me.  When my buddies came over I used to launch into a diatribe about how what they were drinking was amazing because of a), b), and c).  I wanted everyone to realize that not just anyone could drink this, you had to be very special!  Now I just pour it and we keep talking about our lives.  If they feel the need to comment on its quality or ask me a question I'm happy to answer, but I no longer go into an account of Pappy Van Winkle's lifestory and highly-regarded reputation before we even take a sip.

More on this later.  I'm really all over the place here.

-David Driscoll