Indie Bottlers - Who Are They? Can I Trust Them With My Kids?

I spend a decent amount of time explaining to our wonderful customers why a silver-tinned canister of something, that doesn't look anything like the other Laphroaigs, is really Laphroaig whisky that has been put into a different kind of bottle.  Not only has its package changed, but it's likely been manipulated by some sort of cask enhancement.  Either that, or it hasn't been tampered with at all - no chilled filtration and sometimes no dillution of water whatsoever: cask strength.  This can be mindblowing to someone who is used to seeing the same big fat cannister around their Bruichladdich single malts. 

That a whisky could come from their favorite producer, but yet be sold off at some point during the maturation process can seem like blasphemy to some diehards, but it's a very lucrative business for others.  Some of our most outstanding whisky deals ever have been bottles of this sort and I'm here now to tell you a bit more about them.  There are many different names and they usually are affiliated with a specific distributor.  Some are as reliable as the sun rising in the morning, while others can be a bit iffy.  Basically, you've got a bunch of guys who don't make whisky, but like whisky, and work out an agreement with a specific distillery to buy a barrel or two (hence why almost all are vintage dated) of their superfluous stash.  They use the reputation of the producer to sell the product, but with their own name on the bottle as well.  For those of you who are familiar with our Kalinda wine label, it is very much the same process and idea. 

Independent bottlers are essential to the Scotch whisky world because not only do they bottle older, rarer whiskies that many distilleries don't bother to distribute, they allow domestic access to certain malts that are not available here, either because the distillery has since closed or because the whisky is no longer distributed in the U.S.  To give you an idea of who these guys are and what they're all about, I've drawn up this cheat sheet for you:

Murray McDavid

Probably the most prevelent of the indies on our shelf, mainly because the whiskies are tasted and chosen by one of the most respected whisky authorities in the world: Bruichladdich master distiller Jim McEwan.  All the Murray McDavid bottles are actually bottled at Bruichladdich as well, and sometimes they are cask enhanced (as with the above Laphroaig aced in Chateau Margaux wine casks).  Murray McDavid really covers all the bases with a fantastic selection of interesting, young drams, as well as some ancient, highly-sought relics.  They are about as solid as it gets, but, because they are owned by Bruichladdich, they're not truly "independent."

We currently carry: 1999 Laphroaig, 2000 Caol Ila, plus many more for special orders


Right up there with Murray McDavid is Signatory.  Founded in 1988, they tend to specialize in whiskies that are normally not individually bottled by the distillery (such as Linkwood which is used in blended malts), single barrel expressions, or unchillfiltered versions of more renowned whiskies, but bottled at different ages than the standard releases.  In 2002, they purchased Edradour, which is Scotland's smallest active distillery.  They are a hands-on, small boutique company (each bottle is hand numbered) and are a great resource for the true whisky nerd looking to taste hard-to-find single malts.

We currently carry: 1998 Clynelish, 1997 Isle of Jura, 1995 Linkwood, and many more for special orders

Gordon & MacPhail

The history of Gordon & MacPhail dates back to their grocery and spirits business started in 1895.  The grocery store is still active today.  The duo began the business as a way to market single malts outside of Scotland (back then, and even until recently, blends were far more popular because they were dependable).  They would purchase the spirit and mature it themselves until they felt it had reached its proper age.  Because they mature the whisky in their own warehouse, they have far more control than other independents who have to settle for the ages available in the marketplace.  G&M usually has the great whisky at a completely unheard of age level, and are almost always the only independent who have enough supply to blend their own single malts together, hence why the Highland Park 8 year is not a 2000 vintage Highland Park. 

Currently available: our outstanding, award-winning Highland Park 8 Year

Other well-respected indpendents include Duncan Taylor as well as Cadenhead, but because we currently do not have any of their bottles to offer, I will spare you the details for the moment.  Independent bottlers are the only guys out there keeping some of the big boys in check.  With the crazy prices being asked for the distillery-bottled, single barrel, cask strength expressions these days, it's a relief to know that there are other more affordable options that are just as good if not better.  It's important to support their work for this reason.  I'm always on the lookout for a great whisky deal, and nine times out of ten, I'll find it with these bottlers. 

-David Driscoll


Glenfarclas Tasting Notes - Meeting With The Sales Reps

Sometimes people show up at K&L to have us taste their products.  Most of the time it's a vendor or producer trying to find a market for a new wine or spirit that could use a push from a retailer like K&L.  I look forward to those opportunities because you get to discover exciting prospects and try to get in on something big at the beginning stage.  However, I really enjoy getting to meet the brand ambassadors from Scotland's whisky producers because it's a chance to taste products we already sell! When I took over the spirits buyer position, I inherited a whole line of whiskies that I have continued to buy because we have always sold them, not because I knew too much about them.  Many of our whiskies already have a captive fanbase who have continued to deplete their stock from my shelves, without me having to say or write a word.  A perfect example of this scenario is Glenfarclas.

I knew that Glenfarclas was a Highland malt that was distilled in Speyside.  I knew that they used mostly sherry barrels to age all their whiskies and I was somewhat aware that they have always been family owned.  In fact, the Glenfarclas story begins and ends with one family: the Grants, who since 1865 have hardly changed a thing in the way they produce their single malts. From John Grant (born in 1805) to John and George Grant today, the family tradition has been passed from father to son for over 140 years.  In an age when Diageo and LVMH seem to be acquiring new distilleries daily, to see an independent producer like Glenfarclas succeed is heartening, indeed.

The Grant family success is due to the taste of their fine whiskies and the fact that they have never changed them.  While other malts are tinkering with cask finishing, double-maturation, and other enhancement experimentation, the Glenfarclas has always been and will always be about the expression of sherry-matured Scotch at various ages.  Having never tasted one of them until today, I was delighted when Edward Minning walked into the shop with a case full of open bottles.  We gathered in the tasting bar and got down to business. 

10 Year Old $39.99 - Classic sherry nose of dried fruits, malty cereal, and hints of honey.  This is a simple malt, but it's still great - light and easy-going.  A black T-shirt isn't interesting, but it's classic and it always looks good.  This 10 year is the same thing.  A kiss of sweetness of the finish.

12 Year Old $49.99 - Only two years older than the 10 year, but far more aromatic with an enhanced sweetness lingering with honey, cereal, and baking spice.  Richer and fatter in mouthfeel.  This is a real deal for the price, but I have a feeling that all of them are going to be deals. 

17 Year Old $89.99 - Darker amber color with sweet butterscoth aromas.  This has a rounder, softer profile with a more viscous mouthfeel.  It's full of complexity and really exemplifies how delicious a used sherry butt can mold a fine whisky.  I think 17 years is just about right for a single malt, so I'm going to bet this is the best of the bunch for me.  Outstanding.

21 Year Old $129.99 - Insanely complex nose of dried fruit, spice, wood, and earth.  The palate however is not nearly as fat as I expected.  It's the opposite - delicate and gentle.  With hints of vanilla, the dark golden color is beautiful, but it's a very specific style for people who like older malts.  Not the full-bodied, richly sweet whisky you're expecting.  It's very graceful.

25 Year Old $159.99 - Holy Christ! This is amazing.  The best of the bunch by far.  Golden amber color, wildly haunting aromas of honey, fruit, vanilla, spice, and earth.  It's the perfect combination of the rich weight in the 17 year with the flavorful complexity in the 21 year.  This thing goes on for 5 minutes after you swallow.  It's top of my list right now for any 20+ year malt in the store.  My highest recommendation.  (I just ordered 6 bottles so it's coming tomorrow).

1974 Vintage $259.99 - It's hard to believe this is a whisky.  It looks, smells, and tastes like a sherry.  It's dark brown, and has the nutty aromas and flavors that I like in a good Oloroso.  It's earthy as hell, too.  Definitely one of the most interesting malts I've ever tasted and it's got plenty of kick at 57.4% alcohol.  A true experience and a very very rare bottle.

I left the tasting knowing that I was going to come home tonight and write this all up for the blog. Meetings like today are what get me excited to do my job better.  When I taste incredible whiskies that are family made and independently owned - I get giddy.  I knew that I wanted to support Glenfarclas, but now I know that I personally want to drink Glenfarclas and recommend their whiskies to others.  I'm starting right here and now.  If you haven't dipped into their selection, you're truly missing out.

-David Driscoll





Big Huffabaloo Over Drink Menu Rules

Camper English writes some pretty fine articles about the world of craft cocktails and is a very informative source for all things alcohol.  In fact, I turn to him every once and a while when I need some insider info concerning new products or special events.  This past week he wrote an article for the SF Chronicle (which you can read here) concerning the new trend for upscale bars to try and educate their clients, rather than condescend to them.  However, the quote from Rickhouse mixologist Erick Castro really worked some SF Gate commenters (who at times can be incredibly over-the-top, let alone dense) into a frenzy.  The argument then spilled over to Camper's personal blog, where commenters continued to debate the role of the bartender as a purveyor of consumer will.  Castro used a hypothetical conversation with a make-believe, newby cocktilian as a metaphor for the evolution of the entire scene:

"Three years ago it was OK to be rude. It used to be 'I'm not making a cosmo and you're a horrible person.' Now we say, 'I'm not making a cosmo, but I'm making you something better than a cosmo.' And if they like (the drink) they trust you for the whole night."

That's basically what the attitude was, and whether people like it or not, it's the truth about bars like the Rickhouse today.  The Cosmopolitan (a less-than-exciting blend of vodka, cranberry juice, and lime) has become to the high-end liquor world what domestic merlot was (and is only now overcoming) to the wine world after Sideways: an unexciting, unadventurous, and terribly safe choice of libation.  Good bartenders like to be challenged and like to show off a bit, much like a wine store clerk appreciates a customer who shows an interest in obscure, French regional whites.  In the wonderful world of alcohol, life is simply too short to waste so much time drinking the same boring thing time and time again - according to some. 

The truth is: there's nothing wrong with ordering a Cosmo.  But my question is: why all the anger, hatred, and obvious fear towards high-end cocktail bars that don't feel like cowering to the lowest common denominator?  I was literally shocked by some of the comments I read.  People are honestly this threatened by the four bars in San Francisco that don't make Cosmos as a general principle? There seems to be a prevelent mindset that the customer with money is entitled to whatever drink he sees fit, so long as he's paying.  This is not the case anywhere else, so why should it be the case at a speakeasy? 

If I have a customer walk in and ask for Seagram's whiskey, I say, "I'm sorry, sir, but I cannot sell it to you.  I don't carry it." I then offer to recommend something else that he may also like, and he has the option to say yes or no.  Does the customer then have the right to trash me for failing to carry his favorite brand of spirit?  K&L caters to a specific group of afficionados that come to us because we have what specifically what they want.  We have a business model and we stick to it because we have what certain people are looking for.  We would like to be all things to all people, but it isn't possible, so we pick our spots and do the best we can. 

I know for a fact that the Rickhouse doesn't have cranberry juice in the building, so even if they wanted to oblige the customer and try to make the Cosmo, they don't have the proper materials to do so.  The Cosmo metaphor is used to paint a picture of the customer who hasn't yet tasted the wonders available from the top class mixologist.  If they don't want to drink something interesting and new, then maybe the Rickhouse isn't for them.  There are plenty of other bars in the city who exist only to serve the simple pleasures of the everyday consumer.  But for those that are looking outside the box for something new and different, there are the serious watering holes such as Heaven's Dog, Alembic, Bourbon & Branch, and the Rickhouse.  I like to think that we fall into that same category of retailer.  The store that can offer you something beyond the usual.

-David Driscoll


Cocktail of the Day: Sazerac

So, of course I made this with Rittenhouse instead (because I love it and I'm going to hoard it now that it's unavailable until February).  This is such a tasty classic cocktail.  I had to make one of these when I was behind the bar at Alembic the other night and I had honestly never made or tasted one before.  I used their formula that night, but this one above is adapted from the Gary Regan recipe:

In a pint glass give 4 hefty dashes of Peychaud's bitters

-add a 1/2 oz of sugar and 1/2 oz of water and stir until the sugar is COMPLETELY dissolved

-add in 2 oz of rye whiskey and fill with ice

-stir 30 times gently

-in a chilled glass pour a bit of absinthe and swirl until it coats the most of the inside

-strain the cockail into the glass and garnish with a lemon peel.

Mmmmmm.....doesn't that hit the spot?

-David Driscoll


Holiday Madness!

Well, the liquor department is getting sacked and I'm scrambling here in RWC to do anything I can to plug the holes.  If you're looking for something, call ahead or check the web and buy in advance before you stop buy.  I'm selling whiskies by the case that haven't moved in months.  I keep thinking I have enough of each product in stock and then someone on the internet buys us out and ships it for Christmas presents.  I'm learning how to balance the holiday rush, but I'm not doing a very good job so far.  I apologize to those of you who stopped by thinking, "of course, they'll have plenty of Talisker 10." 

After the rush is over and the New Year has begun, look for a total revamping and expanding of the whole department - starting with cognac, armagnac and mixers.  Stay tuned.  Now that I know how this thing works and it's not a mad panic I think we can really start putting together the best collection in the Bay Area. 

Tonight after we close I'm heading up to Alembic Bar in SF to jump behind the counter and make some drinks for Savoy Cocktail night.  If you haven't seen the book, it's a gargantuan pre-Prohibition cocktail recipe bible that has a whole slew of fancy ingredients that haven't been seen since 1910.  The goal is to be able to recreate any drink in the book.  I'll be there with Alembic bartender Daniel Hyatt and Mr. Savoy Erik Ellestad, who has been going through the manual and making every single recipe in alphabetical order, while documenting the journey with photos and tips.  You can visit him here:

Sorry for the lack of updates lately.  We're slammed.  Come have a drink tonight.

-David Driscoll