Devolution of Experience

I had a great conversation with a customer in the store last week who drove all the way from Nevada to pick out some unique bottles of booze.  When it came time to choose a nice Cognac, he turned to me slowly and said to me very directly, "I want something with balls, not this sweet and smooth nonsense."  Not only was he speaking my language literally (as I have a notoriously dirty mouth), but also figuratively as I knew exactly what he meant.  He didn't want something with a kick or with high alcohol, but rather a brandy made with real flavor, not simply a richer spirit that's all wood and caramel. As we started talking booze, he brought up a pet theme of mine that I could spout off about for hours: the dumbing-down of experience for the sake of the entry level payoff.  I can see how that might not make sense so I'll elaborate.

I have my own examples of what I mean based on my own interests (books, film, booze), but I loved how this guy had his own personal peeves.  "It's like camera equipment or camping gear!" he exclaimed and I pressed him to explain a bit further.  As a serious photo enthusiast, he stated that every new high-end camera was made cheaply these days and without the various options that appeal to the serious photographer.  The intent is obviously to market their formerly esoteric equipment to a greater number of people, but they do so at the expense of their true diehards.  Those with patience and experience would rather take the necessary time and training to understand what makes their product, while more difficult to comprehend at first, ultimately more rewarding over time.  It takes a while to understand shutter speed and aperture, but in the end when you understand their relation to film speed you will take better pictures than any default setting on a digital camera.  Experience is the key to appreciating high quality because it takes time to understand all these complicated concepts, but these days everyone wants to be an expert right out of the gate.

All of this guy's opinions on camera equipment, followed by my views on modern literature, ended up leading into our shared feelings towards booze.  These days, everything is manipulated to taste good to the greatest number of people, forsaking those of us who appreciate the traditional character, which isn't immediately agreeable or even apparent to the novice drinker. Tequila is the best example of this, but there are a growing number of rich, oaky, and vanilla-loaded single malts that are geared towards the inexperienced.  I say "inexperienced" because they're priced like premium spirits despite their obvious lack of quality and character.  The hope is that someone that's new to the genre will want to feel like an expert and pay a boat load of cash for their bottle, oblivious to the fact that what they're really getting is a bottle full of crap. 

Any one else out their have a similar opinion about this societal devolution?  Please chime in on the comment field if you do.  I loved hearing about how camera equipment fit into this formula.

-David Driscoll


Whisk(e)y Club Selections For August

Some people wonder about our whisk(e)y club and what being a member entails.  Basically, it means that you buy one bottle of spirits or wine from us a month.  You can leave it up to me to choose for you, or you can communicate with me to select it yourself.  The advantage to being a member comes in the discounts you receive with both wine and spirits.  Every month you have access to our 10 wine club selections at a steep discount, as well as the whisk(e)y selections that I pick out.  In the past I usually came up with one good bottle per month, but I figured that more selection means more satisfaction.  This month I've given our members three choices for discounted bottles, so if you are not a member you can see what you might be missing out on. 

1995 Highland Park 14 Year Old, Murray McDavid, Chateau Lafite Cask Single Malt Whiskey $75.99 (CLUB PRICE $65.99)

Highland Park 15 year old, Isle of Orkney Single Malt Whisky $52.99 (already lowest price in the nation, but CLUB PRICE $39.99)

Buffalo Trace K&L Exclusive Single Cask #162 Lot 1677 Kentucky Straight Bourbon $24.99 (CLUB PRICE $19.99)

-David Driscoll


Tequila, Tequila, Everywhere!

It's simply amazing how much tequila is being produced these days.  A few posts back I wrote about the Charbay tequila and, in doing so, I vented about my displeasure with many of these new endeavors.  Literally once a day I receive a phone call, walk-in visit, or an email about a new brand of tequila that I "need" to know about.  If you think you're overwelmed when you look at all the new bottles on our shelves, imagine how I feel!  However, my job is to taste them and separate the wheat from the chaff. 

Three new bottles will be in stores by the end of tomorrow and I couldn't be more excited.  Espolón tequila won the gold at the SF Spirits competition in 2006 and seemed to be on the right track foward, but their bottle was supremely ugly and they couldn't seem to get good placement in the market, so they eventually got dropped and it was soon gone from our stores.   They've now been picked up by Skyy and have revamped their bottle with an ultra-cool "Dia de los Muertos" style mural, which immediately catches the eye.  The price tag is more than reasonable, so that's two for two.  If you actually get around to tasting the tequilas, then you're going to experience the ultimate trifecta in the spirits world: package, price, quality.  Both the blanco and the reposado are $22.99 and extremely good for the price.  I'm super excited about their potential as I think true fans are going to really like them.  They have a softer mouthfeel, but they never sacrifice spice for smoothness. 

Also in a beautiful package is the Los Azulejos Añejo, which does us the lovely service of giving the market an añejo that isn't an over-oaked, vanilla-infused, single malt substitute.  It spends 18 months in new French oak, yet still powers through with white pepper and baking spice.  The textures are soft and gentle, but the flavor is traditional. 

What a great time to be a tequila fan.  There are more options than ever before and it looks like we'll have to expand our shelves once again.

-David Driscoll



Best Values In Whiskey = Rum

There has been a good amount of frustrated venting taking place on the blogosphere lately.  I wrote a few posts a month or so back about how annoyed I was with the crappy products being released so far this year, and today John Hansell added a new diatribe about mediocre single malts dominating 2010.  Just a few days earlier, he posted a shorter rant about whisky producers seemingly forgetting that all we as consumers want are good whiskies at good prices.  More and more distilleries, like Bruichladdich for example, are pricing their new releases at higher and higher prices forcing the fans to either shell out or look elsewhere.  The key problem with this development is that most of what is being released is simply average. 

For that reason I have stopped relying on distillers to taste me on what is good, and I am circumventing them by searching out single casks that have yet to be tampered with.  However, if you are as frustrated with single malt distilleries as Hansell is, then I would suggest you look into rum - aged rum, more specifically.  With the recent surge of Ron Zacapa sales blowing out Glenlivet 12 (honestly, we're selling more than GL 12 and Glenfiddich 12 combined!), I am literally watching the rum revolution happen before my eyes.  Unfortunately, I have yet to get any more rums in that taste as similar to a Speyside malt.  Many rums are being aged for a decade or more in sherry casks making them viable alternatives to your favorite Glenfarclas or Macallan expressions. 

Today I just tasted two new ones from Dos Maderas (due into Redwood City tomorrow).  The Dos Maderas 5+3 is absolutely fantastic and if any one of you were to pick up a bottle you would probably be very surprised with how much you actually love it.  I love it because it is nowhere near as sweet as the Zacapa or even their own 5+5.  Aged 5 years in oak and 3 years in sherry, it begins with the classic sugar cane flavor and then seamlessly glides into rich vanilla and caramel.  I was very impressed.  The Dos Maderas 5+5 is done with the same formula except that the sherry barrels are Pedro Ximenez.  This is much more like the Zacapa style and is well made - brown sugar and sweet toffee abound!

Other options in the rum category include the Zafra 21 (which we have a sweet deal on right now) and the Appleton 12 which is designed to persuade single malt lovers away from whisky.  Rum is becoming a true alternative for single malt drinkers, and the price to quality ratio at this point is strongly in favor of the consumer.  Maybe we should taste rum at an event in the near future?

-David Driscoll



Maker's 46 - It's Good

I don't normally do reviews of new products, I realized today (unless it's something exclusive to us), but the Maker's 46 is a whiskey that people all over the world have been wildly anticipating.  If you didn't know, Maker's Mark was the only whiskey that MM made.  It had been their only product since they opened in 1959 - that's fifty years of the same thing over and over again.  Just the idea that they were toying with a new bourbon had people buzzing all over the blogosphere, and now that it's come to fruition there are many curious customers.  We simply couldn't wait for a sample to show up so we just popped one and poured ourselves a glass.  I was impressed - I expected it to be sweeter.

Maker's 46 is called "46" because of the catalog number given to the type of French oak used in the barrel stave aging process.  The whiskey is essentially the same as the normal MM, just aged addtionally with charred #46 planks added into the barrel.  The extra wood gives extra flavoring, much like John Glaser did recently with Compass Box's Spice Tree, and in this case it is to the benefit of the bourbon.  The flavors are rich and fat on the entry with a good load of vanilla and oak, but the higher proof (94) kicks in to help balance that out.  The whiskey is smooth, but not soft, and the wood flavor really jacks itself up on the finish where the complexity really hits you.  I got some faint banana flavors a few minutes after tasting.  

So, the point here is that Maker's 46 is good.  In fact, it's really good.  I'm happy that they succeeded with this project because I'm getting tired of the marketing blitz without the substance to justify it.  This is a bourbon I would happily recommend to our customers.

-David Driscoll