Big Data

When I first started getting into spirits I spent a lot of time reading message boards, blogs, and various consumer sites about whiskey. I was trying to both educate myself and get a sense of what people were drinking. That practice only broadened when I became the spirits buyer. What whiskies were people excited about? What were people anticipating? What were the hottest trends? What was going to be the next new thing? I needed that kind of data if I was going to be successful in my position. But then a funny thing happened: I realized that the correlation between what people talked about on the internet and what actually sold in the store was a tricky one. In a sense, people were quick to profess their love or desire for a particular spirit online, but not necessarily likely to buy one when the actual opportunity came around. It was like people were more interested in voicing their opinions than actually spending their money. You might see ten or so whisky blogs hyping a particular bottle, but almost no response from the market once that bottle came into stock. At the same time, a whiskey might get universally panned by critics, yet sell like hotcakes on our website despite the bad press. That's when I realized that, while sometimes entertaining, internet data and opinion was in no way, shape, or form guiding the lion's share of consumer habits.

I made a joke a few years ago about how whiskey "experts" will berate a particular brand online, but wake up the following morning to find that whiskey completely sold out at K&L. It's as if they're living in two different worlds: the virtual version on the web that confirms their collective beliefs and the real world here on earth where the actions of actual humans are not guided by bloggers or pundits. Many consumers don't care about what the whiskey community is talking about, nor do they take their cue from what whiskey media tells them is good. Most people just drink whatever's cheap, reasonably tasty, and speaks to their most basic core beliefs. You have to have a firm grasp on both of these worlds if you're going to succeed in the business of retail. You need the same general understanding of this concept if you're going to accurately predict a presidential election.

The internet has changed much about our lives, but perhaps most of all it's changed how we perceive reality. While it's comforting to tailor our worlds around what we believe, doing so can often further remove you from the truth. Big data ain't what it used to be.

-David Driscoll


Two New C&K Apple Brandies

 Now that we've helped our friends at Copper & Kings break through in California, you can look forward to seeing their products beyond the K&L shelves. The distillery has signed on with Southern Wine & Spirits locally and plans to expand to bars, restaurants, and other retailers with its core trio of classic American brandy, Butchertown, and apple brandy. For the super limited stuff, however, you'll still have to deal with us! We just received our limited allocation of C&K's new apple brandies, each with their own unique twist due to cask enhancement. The "3 Marlenas" is a 375ml-sized rarity finished for two years in Tequila casks, lending a delicate spice to the fruit on the finish. The "Floodwall" is a rich, sherry-aged edition that tastes more like Glendronach with apple notes than pure apple brandy. Plus, we've got their delicious Butchertown sodas, to boot! Check it out:

Copper & Kings "Floodwall" Apple Brandy $42.99 - The new Floodwall release of the Copper & Kings apple brandy series may be the Louisville distillery's boldest move thus far. Using a heavy proportion of sherry cask maturation, the brandy takes on a heavy, Oloroso-filled single malt character more reminiscent of Glendronach or Macallan than Calvados. The finish, however, is where the pure and crisp apple flavor breaks free from the rich and textural Sherry element and comes shining through with finesse and classic character. This is fantastic crossover bottle for whisky drinkers who are curious about brandies, but not quite sure they want to give up their beloved Speyside flavor. It's the richness apple brandy we've ever tasted and it's a fantastic new addition to the C&K line-up.

Copper & Kings "3 Marlenas" Tequila-Aged Apple Brandy (375ml) $39.99 - Copper & Kings distillery in Louisville, Kentucky is doing some interesting things with brandy, especially when it comes to cask finishing. While their standard Floodwall edition uses Oloroso sherry casks, this limited edition "3 Marlenas" release is finished in Tequila barrels for two years before bottling. At five years of age the freshness of the apple is still the focus and its accented by a bit of citrus, baking spice, and pepper from the Tequila casks. Adorned with an absolutely beautiful label, this is a fun collectable for serious Applejack fans.

-David Driscoll


The True Spirit of France

When you're trying to develop a niche category like grower/producer Cognac or rustic, artisinal Calvados, you start by doing the obvious. You bring in really good stuff that any lover of booze can get behind and you open minds to new possibilities. It's like any indoctrination, really. If you're giving your four year old cheese for the first time, maybe you start with American or a mild cheddar before trying their taste buds with bleu or Camembert. If you're trying to get your friends into Scorsese, I think you start with Goodfellas or Casino before testing their dedication with Mean Streets or Raging Bull. Likewise, if I'm introducing a customer to Cognac I'm not going to begin with something dry or earthy. I'm going to pick the creamiest, roundest, softest, most mouthcoating selection I have. Once I get their attention and their curiosity, however, I'll move on to a more complex option. After five years of traveling to France and bringing in a number of interesting, yet fairly safe brandy selections, I'd like to start pushing the envelope a bit. I'd like to start showcasing a few classically-tailored French spirits that cater more to the experienced palate, rather than the beginner. You see that heavily chalky earth on the left side of the above photo? That's what the Grande Champagne Cognac soil looks like in Dudognon's ugni blanc vineyards. It's the same chalky soil that makes Sancerre, Chablis, and Champagne so piercingly dry and mineral in style. It actually does the same for Grande Champagne Cognac, but you'd never know it because by the time the Cognac gets to your mouth it's been heavily sweetened, colored, and adulterated. What would it taste like if it were allowed to keep its original character in tact, you ask? You're about to find out.

I spent a good amount of time talking about the inherent flavor of fine Cognac with Pierre Buraud, the newest generation to distill at Dudognon along side his mother and father. The brandies from his family's estate have never been the most obvious spirits. They're not the most rich, nor the fullest on the palate. They're not oaky or spicy, or overtly fruity and expressive. What they are, however, is delicate, nuanced, and graceful. They're focused and clean. They express a sense of place and the character of the soil in which the grapes are grown. But what they are not, in any sense of the word, is sweet. There's no supple vanilla or caramel coating your palate and it's a glorious thing. Much like Americans drinkers have spent the last five years getting over their sweet tooth as it pertains to cocktails, I think it's about time we do the same with Cognac. On my last trip to Dudognon I put together a blend with Pierre after tasting a number of different single casks in his family's warehouse. We found one particularly mineral-driven ugni blanc distillate and another brandy made from a grape called montils, which I believe—like folle blanche—is legal to use in the region if planted before the region's insistence that ugni blanc be the official grape of Cognac. On their own they were quite striking, but when blended together they exuded a lovely balance of pure Grande Champagne chalk with just enough fruit to round out the edges. I thought it was fabulous, as did Pierre. But was it too much too soon? Was giving drinkers a taste of what "real" Cognac tasted like going to completely shatter their reality? I was nervous. Almost a year later, I wasn't completely at ease until just a few hours ago when my colleague Gary Westby took a sip and said, "Wow, that's really good." 

This is Jean-François Guillouet, the man who's running the show today at Michel Huard. I'm a big fan of his brandies, especially the blend that my friend Charles Neal has been importing for the last few years. While the Hors de Ages edition that's available at most fine retailers exhibits plenty of fresh apple and sweet fruit, I've found that most Calvados I've tasted abroad tends to be drier and earthier in style. You often get more of the apple skins than the juicy apple itself. I'm not sure how many of you saw or heard this story about heirloom apples on NPR this past week, but it's pretty much the same idea: our selection here in America has been dictated by what's marketable. The farmer they speak with talks about how both he and his pigs no longer eat Honeycrisp apples. "They just have gotten used to more complex flavors," he jokes. "They're interested at first, but then, you know, I can tell in their eyes that they're looking for something more." That's the same way I feel about Calvados. While we're used to sweet apples here in the states, the apples in Normandy are old heirloom varieties that create ciders and brandies with a symphony of flavors rather than just a one-note solo act. That's the way Jean-François likes his Calvados to taste—symphonic—but he's been drinking the stuff since he could walk. He has an experienced palate. Could an unseasoned American palate appreciate the more subtle nuances with the same level of appreciation? We set out to make a blend worthy of both the old world and the new. I let Jean-François lead the way. 

Here's a rare photo of me from the road. Since I'm always the one with the camera, I'm never in the photos. My buddy Michael Housewright had his Canon on hand for the blending sessions, however, and snapped this quick shot of me taking out an insect from close range. You have to do a lot of spitting when you're working out the intricacies of a Calvados blend. I wanted the nose of our "Vieux" edition to invite you in, but the palate to challenge you a bit with more than just sweet apple and oak. I wanted the bitter notes from the skins, the earthy pomace, and the musty notes from the cider to come through. In France, these are considered positive characteristics in a spirit. In America, however, not so much. The question is: can we start to introduce these elements on a level that brings them into focus without bashing people over the head with it? I think we've done it here with his marriage of 7 and 17 year old apple brandies. It won't be for everyone though. If you love the freshness of Camut or the clean and vibrant apple of the Hubert edition we also import, this Huard edition might startle you a bit. It's more about the secondary flavors than the fruit. It's a French Calvados reminiscent of my most memorable experiences in Normandy, a jus du pays edition so to speak, not the more fruit-friendly editions we usually bring home. I hope it ends up being something memorable for you as well.

If you want that sweet, rich, round, and deliciously straight-forward flavor then—never fear!—I've still got you covered. This 15 year old Calvados from Domaine Pacory is distilled 100% from pears! I don't really need to elaborate on this one. It tastes exactly like it sounds. I figured not everyone would want to move outside their comfort zone this time around. I can't imagine anyone not liking this.

So now they're here and now you know what's what. Take a look at the descriptions below and grab what sounds good to you!

Dudognon "K&L Exclusive Cuvee" Napoleon II Cognac $49.99 - What we see in the U.S. of Cognac is a dark and supple sipping spirit, but what we don't always understand is that almost all of these brandies have been artificially sweetened & colored. That richness of caramel and oak isn't something that's inherent in most Cognacs, not unless they've been aged for thirty years or more. When we visit small producers who actually grow their own grapes and distill in micro-batches, we get the chance to taste unadulterated brandies of incredible finesse and beauty before they've been shipped off to negociant houses who add their artificial magic. Perhaps the best of these producers is Dudognon, a family run operation in the Grand Champagne region who is not only the best distiller in Cognac in our opinion, but also the purest. This Napoleon II K&L blend we put together is a blend of two different brandies: one distilled from the standard ugni blanc, the other from a local grape called montils, a rarity in the region. The goal was not to showcase weight, texture, or richness, but rather the incredible grace and beauty imparted into the distilled wines by the chalky soil. There's a minerality at play upon the first sip, like a splash of fine Chablis. There's a delicacy of fruit & a subtle hint of oak & spice, but there's a clear chalky and stony note until late on the finish when warm baking spices flicker faintly and gently. This is real Cognac. It's elegant, yet is has drive. It's Cognac for Armagnac drinkers. Are you ready for it, however?

Michel Huard "K&L Exclusive Cuvee" Vieux Calvados $52.99 - When you look at what we've imported from Calvados over the last few years, be it Camut or Hubert, you'll notice a thread that runs through all of these expressions: they each taste like a juicy apple. Yet when you travel to Normandy and you taste the huge variety of different apple ciders and brandies, many of them are not so juicy. There are some that taste like brown apple, some that taste like an earthy apple, and many that taste like the skin of an apple. Knowing that the sweetest apple flavors are the most accessible, we've generally gone down that route. With this K&L exclusive blend from Michel Huard, however, we've decided to branch out from the easily marketable. A mix of 7 and 17 year brandies, this is the first Calvados we've imported that focuses more on the apple skin, the peel, the earth, and the complexities underneath the fruit. The nose is entirely contradictory, however. The brandy smells of delicious, juicy, pure apple flavor. The first sip is where the contrast makes itself known. Gone are the sweet apple notes, replaced by unmistakable flavors of bitter apple skin and earthy cider. You can almost taste yourself in a wet orchard just after the rain falls. In a sense, that's where we were when we put together this blend. The December weather was cold, the ground was wet and earthy, and this Calvados was just what we needed to fend off the piercing Norman air. This Vieux is a testament to that day and those influences.

Domaine Pacory 15 Year Old "K&L Exclusive" Domfrontais Calvados $59.99 - This is going to be one of the most crowdpleasing spirits we've ever brought in from France: a fifteen year old single barrel exclusive of 100% pear-distilled Calvados from our newest small producer Domaine Pacory. In the Domfrontais region of Normandy, the brandies are generally 60% pear or more. We figured there must be a few people distilling from nothing but pears, so we asked Frédéric if that was the case. He said somewhere in his small shed of casks were indeed a few pear-only distillates. Located on the ferme des Grimaux, the Pacory property has been in the family since 1939, but it wasn't until 1959 that Frédéric's father Claude decided to try and perfect the art of Calvados distillation. The torch was passed to Frédéric in 1986 and he's been carrying the tradition forward ever since. Pacory's orchards are 100% hautes tiges, meaning the trees are higher and older in age (as opposed to bas-tiges orchards that look more like grape vineyards with their tiny trees in vertical rows). The result is a more concentrated fruit that takes longer to grow, but it's worth it. This 15 year old is a sure-fire winner for any lover of fruit spirits. It's equal parts fruit and oak, neither outshining the efforts of the other. The pear flavor also comes to the forefront right off the bat; ripe juicy pears that meld seamlessly with the richness of the wood. You shouldn't be asking us whether you should buy one at this point; you'll be asking us if we can get more once you taste it.

We also have a bit more of the cask strength Pacory from last time around if you enjoyed that!

-David Driscoll


Second Annual K&L Holiday Food Drive

As the holidays approach, our team at K&L Wine Merchants is constantly exploring new opportunities to give back to the community that has now supported us for forty years. In that light, we have paired up with the tremendous team at Second Harvest Food Bank to host our first ever food and fund drive! 

Second Harvest is one of the largest food banks in the nation and has been serving the communities of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties since 1974. The support of organizations like K&L and individuals like you allow them to provide food for a stunning quarter million people every month. To participate in K&L's partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank, click on the link below or bring in nutritious, non-perishable food stuffs as detailed below on your next trip to K&L Redwood City in November or December. Your support goes a long way in providing a meaningful meal to those in need throughout or community. We've got donation bins set up in our Redwood City location so the next time you come in to shop for booze, bring a few cans with you!

The Food Bank accepts all non-perishable food donations, but especially needs these nutritious items: 

• Meals in a can (soup, stew, chili) 

• Tuna or canned chicken 

• Peanut butter 

• Canned foods with pop-top lids 

• Canned fruit in its own juice or water 

• Low-sodium canned vegetables 

• Olive or canola oil 

• Spices 

• Low-sugar whole grain cereals 

• Healthy snacks (granola bars, nuts, dried fruit) 

*Please avoid items packed in glass. No wine, candy or soda please. 

We're looking forward to helping our local community this holiday season. Here's to hoping you can help us make a difference! Donate online at our K&L donations page by clicking on the link below! $50 buys 100 meals! Our goal is 500 lbs of food and $5,000 in donations. If you'd like to help by giving directly, please click here to access the Second Harvest website.

-David Driscoll


Les Spiritueux

Last year I spent my birthday at Michel Huard in Normandy eating apple tarts and drinking Calvados next to the wood-burning alembic still in the crisp winter weather. It was idealistic in every way, but I wasn't just there for kicks. I was hoping to put together a few K&L exclusive Calvados expressions, maybe a single barrel or a special cuvée, but there wasn't any one particular barrel that stood out to me. It was only after I started tinkering with blending some of the individual samples together—playing around for fun, nothing serious—that I finally understood the nature of French spirits. When it comes to fruit distillates, I've found over the years that single barrel expressions rarely do justice to the spirit. While whiskey often does just fine as a solo act, I almost never find a sole cask of Cognac or Calvados that exceeds the quality of a finely-balanced marriage of brandies. I realized this past December that if we were going to continue importing interesting and exclusive French spirits from these romantic regions, we were going to have to take our blending skills to the next level. So I sat down with a few different cask samples that day and started a more scientific approach.

Later on during that same trip, I spent yet another wonderful evening at Dugognon in Cognac, going through more single cask samples with Claudine Buraud's son Pierre in the barn next door. The exact same thing happened that night that happens every time we visit the estate: we fall head-over-heels in love with the brandies, but we can't find one single barrel that matches the quality of the standard editions. I told Pierre we were going to have to pull a bunch of different cask samples and try our hand at blending something new. He was game. I ended up toying with a potent barrel of nine year old ugni blanc (the grape varietal used in 99.9% of all Cognac) and trying to merge its richness into a wacky variant they had on hand: a single barrel of brandy distilled from a montils, a varietal I had never heard of until that very moment. 

It's been almost a year since I put together these cuvées, but I got the word from Charles that they just hit the docks. There should be more cask strength Pacory Calvados, as well as that 2001 vintage edition I told you about made entirely from pears (no apple!). Fifteen year old pear brandy? Yum. Stay tuned!

-David Driscoll