The Spice of Origin (or the Origins of Spice)

What is gin, really? 

Is it simply flavored vodka, or is it a medicinal elixir with historic origins and a romantically unsavory past? It can be either depending on how you want to look at it. All gin starts with a still full of juniper berries and some base alcohol, but from that point on its upon us to provide our own personal interpretation as to what particularly draws us in. What’s interesting to me, having observed retail trends based on the origin of spirits over the last decade, is how the locality of a brand can have a serious impact on the consumer’s impression. Take Japanese whisky as an example. I’ve yet to taste an expression of single malt from Nikka or Suntory that was stylistically superior to Scotch whisky in any way, shape, or form. To me, Yamazaki, Toketsuru, and Hakushu taste exactly like single malt Scotch; it’s just that they’re made in Japan. They’re made just like Scottish single malts. They’re aged just like Scottish single malts. They drink just like Scottish single malts. But that doesn’t stop people from obsessing over their exotic origins and adding value based on that international intrigue. Japan is hot right now in the food and drink world. I know more people who have traveled or are traveling to Tokyo than ever before, and I'd say fashion-wise the country's culture has never been more prevalent in our sphere. Of course, if you think cultures and countries can’t be fashionable, then you obviously have never worked in the booze business. 

Gin's appeal is no less oriented in its origins, it's just that there's a lot more gin out there than there is single malt whisky, and it's consumed in so many different ways that it's often more difficult to pin point exactly what's driving sales. The uniqueness of the botanicals in each recipe plays a small role, I think. There's definitely a marketable terroir-driven element to expressions like Bruichladdich's Islay-based Botanist and St. George's Mt. Tam-sourced Terroir that excites the food-focused crowd. While it's tough to say for sure if the fashions of origin can boost a certain gin into the limelight, what I can tell you right now with 100% certainty is this: were I to move back to my hometown of Modesto and create "David's Modesto gin," that brand would tank right into the toilet from day one, no matter how good it tasted. Why? Because there's nothing cool or romantic about Modesto, California, I'm sorry to say. Sure, George Lucas is from there (my grandfather taught him as a student). We've got Jeremy Renner and Timothy Olyphant, too. But unfortunately neither the force, nor the power of the Avengers are enough to overcome the insurmountable odds a Modesto-based gin would most definitely face by using its Central Valley locale as a marketing ploy. Now Parisian gin? London gin? Mediterranean gin? Those are origins I can work with. 

Two big factors that make any particular wine, beer, or spirit successful right now are authenticity and credibility. The French get a huge pass on their winemaking because it's generally accepted that the vintners in Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Rhône know what they're doing. Ditto for most of Italy and Northern California. Any new player in any of these markets from the other side of the tracks will have to face a certain amount of scrunity because of where they're from (a la Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink). In the gin world, London and Holland are the default countries of distinction because it's there that gin was first created and rose to fame (or infamy). We often assume that the places with the longest traditions have the higher levels of quality (and often rightly so). Gin is an interesting case, however, because you can pretty much make it anywhere. I can't think of any particular reason that gin made in England should be any better than gin made in California, or in Australia for that matter, but that simple fact doesn't change the foundations of fashionable origins in our collective consciousness. One thing I suggested to the guys at Four Pillars this past week is that we all work together to promote the Yarra Valley as a whole. Not only is it ground zero for serious winemaking in Australia, it's one of the coolest and most-beautiful regions I've ever visited anywhere. There's a serious food and wine culture there and it's buoyed by some of the friendliest people in the industry. You start to enlighten people as to what's happening with wine and food in the Yarra Valley, and maybe they start getting interested in the beer and spirits as well.

A rising tide raises all ships, right? Something like that.

-David Driscoll


Australia: Day 7 โ€“ The Case for Down Under

To be honest, I can't say I had any expectations for Australia before leaving on this trip. I was excited to visit a few of the wineries and of course I wanted to make a batch of gin with Four Pillars, but I wasn't particularly pulled in by anything in Australian culture the way I'm often allured by the fashions of France or the icons of Italy. Had Stuart Gregor not invited me down personally to visit him in Sydney this past week, I don't know if I would have ever booked a flight on my own. I'm such a sucker for Mexico, Manhattan, Europe, and Japan that I usually divide my rare vacation time between those four locales. That being said, I believe I've been completely converted to a full-fledged Aussie aficionado over the last seven days. Sydney has shown me the best parts of my favorite American cities all rolled into one dynamic and concentrated area. You've got a huge bay with inlets and coves like Seattle, but without the rain. You've got shopping and restaurants like in New York, but without the intensity or the madness. You've got the beaches of LA and Miami, but they're cleaner and even more beautiful. There's a lot to do here. I had a fantastic time yesterday—so much so that I'm already checking my schedule to see when I can return later in the year. 

We went out on a water taxi to do a tour of the harbor, which I would absolutely recommend to anyone visiting; not so much because it's beautiful (which it absolutely is), but more so because I don't think you can really understand how big Sydney is until you see how far it stretches around the water. When you're done doing that, get back on to land and have a drink at Bennelong near the Opera House. That entire area is brimming with great places to sit, snack, and have a barrel-aged Four Pillars Negroni.

Don't think it's just tourists hanging out over at the Quay, either. There are just as many locals as there are out-of-towners getting their drink on. Like Peter Garrett, for example. The Midnight Oil frontman had literally just announced the reformation of his iconic rock band when we ran into him at the bar. Stu ordered me to take a photo with him because it was only proper for an American visiting Australia for the first time to meet the country's most famous rock star and former politician. "Is Paul Hogan going to jump out next and show me a koala?" I asked in return. They'll be at the Fox in Oakland on May 27th. Stu said Peter would get me tickets. I laughed and asked, "Are you staging all of this on my behalf?"

You most definitely need to have a drink with Jimmy Irvine and the gang from the Swillhouse group. Do it at the Baxter Inn, Frankie's Pizza, or at the Shady Pines, but make sure you go to one of those places and quench your thirst. As evidenced in my previous post and the T-shirt I'm wearing in the above photo, you can see where my loyalties lie. 

For dinner in Sydney, you absolutely must go to Hubert, which is also part of the Swillhouse group and represents a style of dining I rarely see outside of Vegas. It's a huge (and I mean big) hall done in a French brasserie fashion with a stage and a live jazz band playing hits while you dine and watch the show. The wine list is incredible, the food divine, and the atmosphere unbeatable. I could eat there once a week and never get tired of it. Jimmy and I talked about wrestling and our favorite Caddyshack moments while bonding over various other pop culture phenomena. 

There's a real scene happening here in Sydney, apparently one that only began about five years ago and has recently caught momentum downtown. It reminds me of San Francisco in 2008 when the bar scene began its resurrection and the night life began to change. With all the other great things Sydney has to offer—scenery, nature, culture, shopping, and the energy of a real city—you can add food and drink to that list. I've eaten and drunk as well over the last few days as I ever have in New York, Paris, or London. It's time we start looking further south in America, rather than just east and west. I think with our Francophile focus in the booze game we've been missing out on something special happening down under.

-David Driscoll


The First Must-Buy Bottle of 2017

I'll have to interrupt the current Australia narative to bring you news of a more important story, one that's actually in stock rather than conceptual. While I'm often excited by a number of the spirits we're able to feature at K&L, I'm also a curator who understands that there are different strokes for different folks. Not everything I write about or feature is meant for everyone. Here, however, is a clear cut case of spirits mastery that represents the first "must-buy" bottle of the year in the K&L booze department: a blanco tequila from Enrique Fonseca, bottled under the Fuenteseca label (as our previous projects have been done), that represents the highest possible quality expression of the style I've yet to taste. I don't care who you are or what you normally drink, you need this bottle (as long as you like tequila). What's perhaps even more exciting, however, is that the fact that it represents everything I've come to understand about the potential of agave spirits over the last few years: that tequila and mezcal are really much more like wine than whiskey. What do I mean by that? Have a look at the the full story over here at On the Trail. That should illuminate and intrigue you further.

Or just buy a bottle now if you want. But you're missing out on the story of the year for white spirits if you skip the logistics.

-David Driscoll 


Australia: Day 6 โ€“ Sunny Sydney

You hear people compare the east coast of Australia to the west coast of the U.S. every now and again. If Melbourne is Australia's San Francisco, then Sydney is its Los Angeles. There's a lot of sun, blond hair, beautiful beaches, and a more fashion-oriented crowd. However, while that may be the easy analogy, I've found Sydney to be a lot more like New York than L.A. The buildings go straight up, the people are suave and sophisticated (rather than laid back with flip flops), and everything is centralized and concentrated rather than spread over a large area. In many ways, it looks like a larger version of San Francisco as well. I was telling my wife on the phone: "Imagine the area around the Embarcadero, North Beach, and parts of Union Square, then combine that with SoHo in Manhattan, then multiply it by ten."

Of course, I don't look at travel as a constant comparison. I'm not trying to pigeon hole Sydney into anything. I'm just always looking for easy ways to explain complex ideas to people—in a nutshell. I've found that simply walking around and letting Sydney unveil itself to me has been incredibly rewarding thus far. It's kind of like drinking, in a way. Drinking a new whisky is kind of like traveling to a new place. Just like I never regret trying a new drink, I rarely go somewhere that I don't enjoy because the travel itself is educational. You learn a little bit more about the world each time you take that journey. Maybe you like some more than the others, but in the end each experience adds a little piece to the great puzzle of life. 

That's how Jonathan Walczak feels about whiskey, too; he's a K&L customer in Sydney who writes a really good site about booze called the Whisky Ledger and who also has a huge following on Instagram. We met up over at the Baxter Inn to grab a drink, an underground whisky bar downtown with a large selection of malts and Bourbons. We both drank beer, however, as I think we both knew there were many drinks to follow. While Jon has a passion for whisky, I never get the impression from his posts that he's ranking or judging his experiences. "I don't ever really get mad if I don't like something," he said to me as we discussed our approach to tasting. "I've never regretted buying a bottle. I just see drinking whisky as something fun." I laughed and said:

"I know, my friend. I wouldn't be sitting here with you right now if I thought otherwise."

The last thing in the world I'd ever want to do in my free time is sit down and drink whisky with someone anal who wanted to analyze and critique single malts with me. I think Jonathan felt the same way, which is why we quickly moved on from the Baxter and over to the Lobo Plantation, a thematic rum bar with a great vibe and incredible energy. We watched the fireworks behind the bar while drinking cocktails, before Jonathan turned to me and said: "I think I know just the place for you." It's always interesting to be told something like that because you wonder if the person saying that does actually know something about your tastes. Sure enough, Jon was dead on: Frankie's was exactly what I was looking for. A CBGB's-like underground rock and roll den with pizza by the slice, cold beer on tap, and a fantastic party atmosphere. I was thrilled!

"This place is incredible!" I yelled across the table to Jonathan while taking in the scene. "If I lived in Sydney my wife and I would be here every night!" There were so many different types of people there: young kids, middle-aged guys, punks, squares, nerds, and even a few motorcycle dudes back by the pinball machines. "There's a table of dads as well right behind you," Jon added with a chuckle. We ordered a pizza, got a few more beers (in plastic mugs), and I even bought a long-sleeved T-shirt that said: "Get Fucked at Frankies." Eventually I had to call it a night and head back over to the hotel to get some work done before bed, but I had a fantastic time doing the bar tour with Jonathan. Many thanks to him for reaching out and extending some fine Sydney hospitality my way. I've really enjoyed the city thus far.

-David Driscoll


Australia: Day 5 โ€“ Modern Melbourne

I spent a lot of time on Monday and Tuesday visiting wineries in the Yarra, having fantastic lunches, putting in a few orders, and locating some new producers for us to import, but you can read all about that stuff over at On the Trail. In the meantime, let's talk about Melboune's modern approach to spirits.

What is Melbourne? It's tough to say having only spent one day here so far. But here are my snapshot observations: it's like San Francisco, but with fashion and art. It's like the Mission before it was gentrified. Before women started wearing nothing but Lululemon. Before hipsters stopped caring. Before everyone started looking at a small illuminated screen in the palm of their hands 24/7. 

Sure: there are yoga mats, bicycles, ironic pizza advertisements, and plenty of the same modern developments we see on a daily basis in the Bay Area, but there's still an element of fun here. I don't get the impression that Melbourne takes itself anywhere near as seriously. Example number one? Jason Chan.

Jason not only runs one of the coolest bars I've ever been to called Hats & Tatts, he's part owner of West Winds; a small boutique gin distillery that has a line of Aussie-influenced expressions coming out of Margaret River. His American-themed watering hole had me in stitches. They have two retro arcade machines (NBA Jam and Street Fighter II), plus posters of "Big Trouble in Little China" as well as Tom Cruise's "Cocktail" on the interior. There's no pretense here, folks. You're here to drink.

I tasted through the entire line-up of West Winds, as well as a number of other local distillates. Jason is a great guide to the spirits scene in Melbourne, and he also has a friend who's making outstanding glassware. Denver Liely's unique and hand-blown editions made tasting spirits that much better. I snagged the whisky glass to bring home with me. I was impressed. 

After meeting with Jason, it was over to Starward: Melbourne's single malt distillery and a rising star in the world of micro-spirits. 

I'll go into more detail in a later post, but there's a lot to be excited about here. Three year old single malt aged in Aussie wine casks and bottled via a solera system for a reasonable price? Yes, please.

-David Driscoll