Books on Whiskey and Other Booze

If there's anyone who turns to solid book research when trying to make up for a lack of experience, it's me.  I was a graduate research student before working at K&L and spent my 2 years of that life in a library.  That being said, when i got the job at K&L I started diving into the wine manuals as fast as possible.  Same for when I thought I might give this spirits thing a try.  For every good book about booze that exists in this world, there are five bad ones.  Here are some that are worth your time if you are looking for something to expand your own knowledge or are looking for a non-alcoholic gift (concerning alcohol) for someone you know.  I have read and fully recommend each of the following.

Whiskey: The Definitive World Guide - Michael Jackson - This is simply the most informative, interesting, and colorful book about whiskey that exists.  The attention to detail concerning production, sourcing materials, water, malting, history, and distillery specifics is incredible.  It's even fun for people who don't like whiskey.  Put together by the late, great Michael Jackson (not the pop singer), it's more of a coffee table reference that won't ever be read cover to cover, but will be returned to time and time again like a solid atlas or encyclopedia set. 

The Scottish Whisky Distilleries - Misako Udo - Not an easy book to track down (currently out of print and being updated for a new edition sometime in the future), I had to order mine from the Ben Nevis distillery in Scotland, pay for it in English Pounds (not a good conversion rate for us) and then pay for international shipping.  Was is worth it?  Yes, indeed.  This book is simply a straight forward whisky almanac. There is little text concerning style, tasting notes, or history - this work is all about the specs.  Wash bin sizes, type of still, capacity, amount produced, barley type, and even the name and picture of the distillery mousers (the cats that keep the rodents away!).  It's only for the hardcore whisky fan, but it's indispensable for those who care. 

Imbibe! - David Wondrich - A beautiful history of the cocktail and the evolution of each style of drink, including the first celebrity bartender Jerry Thomas.  The cocktail renaissance started long, long ago and this book by cocktail historian David Wondrich is the most detailed account of how it has evolved.  Full of recipes as well as facts, it's a book you will literally drink your way through (and that's a fun way to read).

Joy Of Mixology - Gary Reagan - Stay away from those brightly-colored, glossy-covered, "101 Cocktails" manuals you see at Draeger's or Borders near the check out.  This is the only book you need.  It covers tools, technique, and ingredients for making the finest cocktails and it's geared towards the serious pre-Prohibitionist.  If you need another book for mixing drinks you should be writing this blog not reading it.

Bourbon, Straight - Chuck Cowdery - This book is 100% American history and has been one of the most helpful resources for me since taking over the spirits department.  It chronicles the history of the American bourbon families and how bourbon became big business here at home.  It answered about 100 questions that I had about who made what, where they made it, and how they began making it.  If you like rye or bourbon then you need to read this.

Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol - Iain Gately - This fascinating history of alcohol in general covers wine and beer as well, but it starts long before the birth of Christ and is one of the best books I've read all year - fiction and non-fiction.  If you like to drink at all you will get a kick out of learning about the Egyptians drinking unfiltered beer through thick straws and Pliny the Elder's time in Pompeii.

- David Driscoll



Whisk(e)y Birthday Marathon (not a good idea)

I decided to celebrate my 30th birthday by having my best friend Kai come over to taste some whiskies.  The plan was just to hang out, eat some good food, watch the Warriors on HDTV, and taste some good single malt action.  Kai loves whisky, but never buys it on his own, nor does he know much about anything other than Glenlivet/Glenfiddich.  Needless to say, we both had a blast.  We had such a good time that he decided he would also like to learn more about American whiskey and taste through a whole line up there as well.  That was not the smartest decision I have ever made, but we were having such a good time, and, hey, you only turn 30 once.  In any case, the reason I'm telling you this is because I thought it would be interesting to show you the line up and give you the feedback from Kai - a lover of whisk(e)y who knows nothing about what he's drinking.  If you have some buddies who you are shopping for this holiday season, it might be useful.

Scottish line-up:

1998 Clynelish Highland - Not thoroughly impressed.  This is a bit too gentle and subtle for the newbee.  I really like it though.  Don't get this for a friend, only yourself.

1991 Glenrothes Speyside - Good.  He liked the dark fudge and orange flavor, but I think he didn't quite get why it's really amazing.  Maybe a bit too complex for a young palate.  50/50

Highland Park 18 Year - He loved this one and, really, who wouldn't?  Subtle smoke, sweetness, with a smooth and semi-rich mouthfeel.  Highland Park 18 is a great malt loved by both beginners and experts.  This one tied for first place.

2000 Caol Ila Murray McDavid Ridge Zinfandel Cask - I am loving this whiskey more everytime I try it.  I had a second serving of it.  Kai was intrigued by the cask enhancement and enjoyed the red fruitiness, but I'm not sure if he was crazy for it.

Ardbeg Uigeadail - The overall winner I think, and I was a bit suprised.  I know how much I like Ardbeg, but it can be a bit overpowering for someone who has never tasted the intensity if Islay.  Kai had never tasted the intensity of Islay, but immediately fell in love.  The smoke, the seawater, the power, and the brine.

Suntory Yamazaki 12 Year - Ok, techincally not Scotch, but this one received high marks for its supple mouthfeel and sweet butterscotch notes.  I really enjoy it as well.  A good pick that's not too pricey and it's neat because it's Japanese.

McCarthy Oregon Pot Still Whiskey - Again not Scotch, but more Scotch-like than Bourbon-like so we tasted it here.  The peat is there and the whiskey is sooo smooth despite only being aged 3 years.  This one was also a favorite.  I think it would make perhaps the coolest gift of all and it's not too expensive.

American Whiskies - Where it all went downhill

Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Bourbon - Powerful, sweet, and spicy, this was a big favorite and possibly the winner for the American stuff.  Even a non-bourbon drinker could appreciate the intensity and complexity of the Pappy.

Weller LaRue Antique Collection (09) - Again, the power of the cask strength bourbon really impressed my friend Kai, but I think it was a bit too hot to really appreciate it.  We watered it down, but at this point in the night it simply fried our taste buds. 

Willet 13 Year Single Barrel - Kai was not really feeling this one.  It's less rich and sweet, more spicy and earthy.  This is a bourbon for experts.

Vintage 17 Year Bourbon - The other overall favorite.  How could you not like this whiskey?  It's soft, smooth, rich, and integrated.  Everything is in balance.

Thomas Hardy Sazerac Rye Antique Collection (09) - Not a winner.  Too hot of a whiskey at this point.  Cask strength simply burned our tongues.

Old Potrero 18th Century Style Spirit - This was more like a homework assignment, but I think he really liked the idea that he was drinking what Jefferson and Washington likely drank. 

Old Potrero Single Malt Rye 3 Year - This was also high on the list.  The peppery notes and the clean flavors were well received.  This is the purest rye in existence.

We did not spit any of these.  :()---------

-David Driscoll


Tequila Talk

So the last time a tequila vendor walked into my store and wanted to talk to me without an appointment, I ended up acquiescing and wound up with a new, locally-distributed tequila on my shelf.  Then the word got out and another vendor did the same thing, so I ended up with two new, locally-distributed tequilas on my shelf.  Those tequilas were so accessable and fun that they drew the attention of Costco who bought a gazillion bottles and beat our retail price by almost $12.  Well, I've got news for you Costco, you are not the low price leader anymore (even though their rule is they must be!).  I dropped the prices on Don Pilar and Mejor Blanco & Reposado to a ridiculous new low, so take advantage while you can if you need a gift for a tequila drinker.

So yesterday, a third tequila vendor walked into my store with the above bottles and wanted to taste. Given how my first two encounters with what I thought were small vendors ended up causing a price war with the country's largest wholesaler, I was a bit apprehensive, but I was taken by the absolutely beautiful bottles (which you can see above) and I had to taste what was inside.  "I'll just do the blanco.  Come on, we have to go fast because I'm super slammed right now," I said.  I ran to the tasting bar, poured a quick splash of clear tequila, and took a quick whiff.  Clean, crisp and floral, with pure agave aromas lingering with citrus and pepper.  "Oh jeez," I thought, "This is really good."  So I ended up trying all three and they are all very, very good.  What is this new tequila you ask?  Why are we the ONLY (sorry Costco) store that has it now?  Here is some info straight from the source:

Los Osuna 100% Blue Agave comes to you today from the same picturesque countryside as in 1876 and continues as a part of the long-established Osuna family heritage. Made with all natural blue agave through traditional processes, Los Osuna products exhibit the distinguished and characteristic flavors that have been imparted through generations of the Osuna family for over a century. 

 Only the finest agave plants are harvested and roasted using traditional underground ovens, where they are infused with the aromas of fruit, flowers, spices and earth.  Next, the agave juices are fermented with a special Osuna-family blend of ingredients unique to the environment; it is this proprietary mixture which shapes the unique flavor of Los Osuna Blue Agave.  After fermentation and distillation, the flavor is further refined as the product is aged in oak barrels, where it achieves the perfect balance of texture and body to yield an incomparably smooth finish. 

 Whether you prefer to sip a young Blanco with crisp flavors and notes of citrus, or you prefer the more complex and refined nature of a Reposado or Añejo, you’ll experience the aroma and distinctive smoothness only this authentic Sinaloan native can provide.

Seems like the normal info right?  However, there are two very important hints, however, as to why this is NOT your normal, everyday tequila.  Did you catch them? 

1) Do you see the word tequila in those paragraphs?

2) The very last sentence "this Sinaloan native" 

Sinaloa is not in Jalisco - therefore this is not legally tequila - a fact I didn't realize until after I bought it.

I don't care if it's true tequila or not, however, because I know that what I tasted was better than most stuff coming from the real source. As of now, we have Los Osuna Blanco on the shelf in Redwood City and I'm very excited to see how it does.  It's the only blanco I have ever tasted that gives Arette a run for its money.  We should be bringing in the other two soon, but it's the blanco that's going to wow you.

And they have no desire to ever be in a Costco store. 

-David Driscoll



Pacult's Spirits Journal Reviews Our Other WhiskyFest Bottle & More

Sweet! Right when the SF Chronicle showed our Murray McDavid selections a little love, Paul Pacult gave us a little more.  Our Highland Park 8 Year just got 4 out of 5 stars: Highly Recommended.  He writes:

"Initial sniffs detect light peaty smoke and minerals...entry is keenly ashlike, tobacco-y and peaty; midpalate is more saline and kippery than smoky; ash-like and finally a delicate cereal sweetness emerges in a finish that's all Highland intriguing insight into the young stages of this classic malt."

I'm very excited that people ended up liking this as much as I did.  We really focused on bargains this year and, me being very new at this, I'm glad I didn't blow it.

Speaking of Pacult.  He also review the new 1991 Glenlivet 18 Year Old Triumph Nadurra that I just ordered today.  It will be in tomorrow.  It got a great review from Malt Advocate and Pacult gave it a perfect score 5/5 stars, writing:

"The entry is fat like sweet creamery butter and honey; the midpalate is deeply flavored with honey, dark caramel, fudge, and sherry.  Ends on a stupendously sweet note that brings the experience t a spctacular finale."

I'm not normally crazy for Glenlivet but this one is getting crazy good reviews everywhere.  I've got 24 bottles for Wednesday the 2nd.

-David Driscoll


Oh Man...Tons of New Whisky Coming In.  

For those of you that got the email from yesterday, here are the specs on all the new drams.  For those of you who didn't get the email, there's a boatload of new stuff coming in, mostly from Diageo.  Nothing will be in stock as of today Tuesday December 1st, but it looks like I'm going to get a big fat birthday present on the 2nd (if you think unloading tons of booze and stocking it on the shelves is fun, which sometimes I do).

Lagavulin 12 Year Old Natural Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $69.99 - A limited edition, natural cask strength single malt whisky from the essential Islay distillery, Lagavulin, on Islay’s rocky south coast.
Eighth of a series of special 12 year old releases from the original distiller’s stocks. Vatted from refill American Oak casks, each at least 12 years old. Available in limited quantities worldwide.  An elegant classic; massive smoke and purity of flavour supported by complex aromas and delicious sweetness. Less rich and plummy than the 16 year old yet every bit as refined, with all the hallmarks and a fine, complex nose. 57.9% ABV

Brora 30 year old Rare Edition 8th Release Single Malt Whisky $399.99 - A limited edition, natural cask strength single malt from a closed distillery at Brora on the Sutherland coast. Very rare at this age. Eighth of a very limited series of annual releases. Annual allocation has extended availability of this irreplaceable malt but stocks have depleted. Vatted from a mixture of American Oak and European Oak refill casks, at least 30 years old.  Another fine Brora: deep, sweet and rich; yet with great delivery of smoke, as from camp fires in the late summer. Indisputably Brora, yet in an attractive, softer guise.  The palate is tongue-coating and surprisingly citric. Firm oak. Shows its refined maturity in waves of flavour that surge across the tongue. It needs water, but just the merest drop, which allows the texture to show itself. Full fleshy fruits. Rich and smooth, with hints of smoke. 53.2% ABV

1998 Caol Ila 10 years "Unpeated Style" Special Release Islay Single Malt $64.99 - A limited edition, natural cask strength single malt from Caol Ila, an active distillery on the Isle of Islay.  A fourth limited release of unpeated Caol Ila, the first at ten years old. From a batch made only once a year, from unpeated malt, for blending in the “Highland Style.” From 1st fill Bourbon oak casks filled in 1998. Vibrant, summery and a sure-fire summer hit. Reveals the basic structure of the malt, without the flavours being covered with smoke: plenty of sea-side character, interesting to compare both with recent 8 year old unpeated bottlings and with the peated 12 year old.  65.8% ABV

Caol Ila Distillers Edition Moscatel Single Malt Whisky $79.99 - An extraordinarily stylish and complex double-matured expression of Caol Ila; the Moscatel cask wood not over-evident; richly flavoured yet also drying and finely balanced. Brilliant, clean and refined with great balance. The nose is wonderfully concentrated pure, clean Caol Ila – peaty and medicinal, with rich fruit, spicy and fragrant. With water, the    fragrant smokiness comes singing through. The palate: sweetness and maltiness strike first, then are quickly  overwhelmed by peat smoke and intense, clean, crisp flavours. Caol Ila’s signature smoky bonfires are here, and build to quite a size. Overall, drying, in a beautifully balanced, complex, elegant development with cinnamon spice. 43% ABV

1993 Lagavulin Distillers Edition Single Malt Whiskey $105.99 - Double matured in Pedro Ximinez sherry cask. A really distinctive and distinguished dram, full of peat and brine, while the sherry wood naturally has a big say. A more mellow Lagavulin, not quite as deep or intense as the 16 year.  Powerful, peat-rich, sweet and very more-ish. Distinctive and distinguished.  The nose is intense peat and vanilla. A raisiny sweetness checks the smoke. Iodine-edged peat and crisp, roasty malt. Satisfying and enticing. The palate is sweet and luscious; clear, grassy malt, then the peat attacks, smoke filling the mouth. A very salty tang at one point; the middle offers coffee and vanilla with a glimmer of fruit.  The finish is incredibly long, even for Islay. Fruit, peat, and long-lasting oak. Very chewable and more-ish. 43% ABV
1991 Dalwhinnie Distiller's Edition Oloroso Cask Single Malt Whisky $79.99 - Double matured in Oloroso sherry cask.  A rich, spicy nose, then flavours of heather, peat and the bodega lead through to a very dry finish dominated by oak. Spicy, peaty malt and sherry-sweetness with a dry finish. The nose shows fresh sherry embraces the maltier, more honeyed aspects of Dalwhinnie. Peaty and surprisingly, still heathery. Spicy yet grapey.  The palate has a big, spicy buzz, followed by an impressive build up of very clear, well defined malt. After a quick burst of sweetness, a rich, grape effect then moves in towards the middle. The finish has tons of oak. Very, very dry, with vanilla dominating. 43% ABV

1995 Oban Distillers Edition Montilla Fino Single Malt Whisky $89.99 - Double matured in Montilla cask. Fruity, pungent, seriously complex whisky of the very highest order - a glorious zesty nose and masses of sweet fruit attack complemented by salt and chewy, roasty caramel malt. Fruity, pungent, seriously complex whisky of the very highest order. The nose is outstanding. Fruity and pungent; Oban’s salty sea breezes, with crushed grapes, orange zest and hints of smoke - massively complex. On the palate it's the most explosive Oban ever. Soft malt then wave upon wave of delicate yet rich fruit notes on a tide of brine.  The finish shows sweetened Jamaican coffee and oak, with an attractive malt-biscuit effect as it dies down. 43% ABV

1991 Lagavulin Distillers Edition Single Malt Whiskey $105.99 - An updated version, but apparently identical in taste to the last batch according to my recent phone call with Master of Whisky Stephen Beal.
-David Driscoll