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Wednesday
Dec312014

2014: Day 365

We're almost there. Just another four hours and we can officially put this holiday season, and year as a whole, to bed. I'm gassed. Just totally spent—emotionally and physically—but all the hard work was worth it. The amount of support, great feedback, and good cheer from K&L customers over the last 31 days has been tremendous; nothing but outpours of well wishes and kind courtesy. It's been a wonder to watch and to receive. I'm pretty much at the point where I can no longer answer all of my email, which is exciting and depressing at the same time. I've always made it a personal point of pride to answer every single message that landed in my inbox, but there's just no way I can do it right now. I apologize to those of you who have taken time to drop me a line or start a new dialogue. I've always enjoyed the banter and back and forth, but there's just too much at the moment. If you've sent it, however, I've read it—that you can be sure of!

There are a lot of things to look forward to in 2015—both at K&L and here on this blog. We already have a number of new projects in the making that should please customers old and new—things that will break new boundaries and stretch the understanding of what buying a bottle of alcohol should entail. We'll be expanding into new genres as well, as it turns out that artists of all genres enjoy their hooch. It's amazing how many of these folks have found K&L via this blog or some of our unique spirits offerings. Starting next week I'll be posting an interview series with some of the people I've come into contact with over the last few years; to move beyond simply the practical knowledge of production and into the general application of enjoyment. I started off strong a few months ago with director Steven Soderbergh and the conversation we had about Singani, but since then I've added a few names to the list that should add to that dynamic. Musicians, athletes, and more public personalities will be adding their two cents to the mix.

There's a lot more to talk about, but all in due time. Right now, I want to say thank you to everyone who has supported us in the store, on the phone, and via email; especially those of you who take the time to read the blog as well. It's a lot of work and it's demanding at times, but it's always worth doing when it leads to the type of interaction and relationships that I've encountered recently.

I wish all of you a happy new year and I hope you party soundly and safely tonight. Rest assured, I will be passed out on the couch before midnightexhausted, disheveled, and drunk. But I'll have a big smile on my face. And that smile comes from all of your support and general enthusiasm for good booze.

We love you all. Thanks again.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Dec302014

Splurging โ€“ Part III: Anti-Splurging (IKEA Bar โ€“ Part II)

Like I said in the previous posts, there's nothing like spending tons of cash on expensive booze to make you realize just how good a value the everyday stuff is. I partied pretty high on the hog this weekend. I treated myself (numerous times) to fancy bottles, fancy meals, and luxurious living.  I won't lie—it was pretty great. That being said, I still love my basic hooch bargains. Much like fashion icon Coco Chanel once preached: it's not about looking rich, it's about looking good. That's why she always wore fake pearls; unlike the thousand dollar strands her namesake company peddles today. Since the IKEA bar post from last summer was such a hit, I thought I'd come back with round two today.

Let's see if we can keep it under $100, yet again:

Rye: Jim Beam Rye $14.99 — A hot deal for this little 40% workhorse. There's a new Green Label rye coming from Beam later in 2015 that will be bottled at 45%, but for now this guy is tough to beat. I prefer it over Bulleit Rye for cocktails as there's a more pronounced note of pepper and creamy corn.

Bourbon: Jim Beam White Label Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey $12.99 — By the end of 2015, the Beam renaissance will have taken place. There's a concerted effort—even more so since the Suntory merger—to restore Beam's reputation amongst the craft crowd of whiskey sippers. This is like the Pabst Blue Ribbon or Miller High Life of Bourbons. Drink it ironically if you want, but it'll hit the spot either way.

Gin: City of London Gin $14.99 — This is from the same distillery portfolio that imports Hayman's Old Tom and the Royal Dock London gins. It's clean, dry, and it's the personal home bar gin of both myself and Champagne buyer Gary Westby. Another unknown gem.

Vodka: Real Russian Vodka $7.99 — Our owner bought so much of this stuff a while back we're still trying to get rid of it. You won't see drinkable, clean neutral grain for cheaper than this. It's not normally this price, let's put it that way. An IKEA bar must.

Tequila: Cimarron Blanco Tequila 1L $15.99 — Still going with the Cimarron. Nothing better, and nothing ever will be better for the money.

Rum: Appleton Estate V/X Jamican Rum $17.99 — Campari is back to wheelin'-and-dealin' with the legendary Jamaican brand. A great, characterful rum for sub-$20. You can sip this over ice, mix it with Coke, or shake up a Daiquiri. It's even bold enough for a punch. Love it.

Subtotal: $84.94

CA Tax: $7.87

Total: $92.81

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Dec282014

Splurging โ€“ Part II

Splurging in the booze world is often like splurging for a seat in business class: there's no doubt that it's better, it's just a matter of how much better for the money. If I could afford to sit in business class on every flight I took, I would do it without question. Even just premium economy, if it's an option. You just have to ask yourself: is it worth an extra thousand bucks or more to be super comfortable on this transatlantic ride? Maybe it is to you, and maybe it isn't. That amount of money could buy you a nicer hotel room or a week's worth of fancy dinners. Decisions, decisions.

Seeing that last night marked the end of my annual holiday push (this one being the hardest yet), I decided I was going to splurge on a fancy bottle for myself. Originally I had decided on Burgundy, but when I walked by the glass case in the Redwood City store yesterday and saw the smattering of first-growth Bordeaux offerings, the wheels in my head started turning; especially once I saw the price tag on the 2001 Haut Brion. It wasn't inexpensive, but it wasn't as outrageous as prices for Haut Brion can often be. At least it was sub-$500. "Wow, that's a great deal for that wine," I said out loud to myself. 2001 wasn't a heralded vintage (hence the price), but I've had plenty of great Bordeaux wines from that year. It's simply a classic harvest; nothing above average, but certainly nothing to shake a stick at. I've always loved the somewhat-gothic label of Haut Brion and I've always longed to try one of the Chateau's legendary wines. I've tasted samples from the five fabled first growths at industry events or company dinners, but never one with good maturity and never an entire bottle of it for myself. Did I have the stones to pull the trigger on this one?

The Burgundy I was looking at was about $150 cheaper, but ultimately there was one major issue: I'd never tasted it, and no one I worked with had tasted it either. That being said, no one at K&L had tasted the 2001 Haut Brion, but the great part about high-end Bordeaux is that it's dependable. Burgundy, on the other hand, is often a total crap shoot. The best way I can explain the difference is by looking at distillery edition bottles of single malt versus single barrel expressions from the independent market. If you buy a rare distillery edition of Springbank or Port Ellen, it's going to be good. It's going to be expensive and maybe more than you're comfortable paying, but it's not going to suck. They will have blended numerous casks together to cover up any flaws in flavor, so while there's no guarantee you'll like it, there's at least some certainty in the level of quality. That's directly comparable to Bordeaux and the Chateau game. However, if you see an independent version of Springbank or Port Ellen from someone like Douglas Laing, Signatory, or Chieftain's, then you have to be a bit more careful because it's likely from a single barrel. You then have to start digging a bit deeper. What type of barrel did it come from? Where was it aged? Has anyone tasted similar barrels from this bottler? Even then, the specs won't necessarily save you. It's still a gamble.

Burgundy is exactly that kind of a gamble. Just like with single cask selections of whisky, you'll never know for sure what you're getting until you taste it. You might know it's from a good village, a good vintage, and a premier cru vineyard site, but there are too many things you'll ultimately never know unless you're a bona fide Burgundy expert (as in someone who lives there and tastes year round). You'll never know exactly where the producer's plot in that vineyard actually sits. These properties have been divided and sub-divided into smaller holdings for centuries. Maybe the bottle you're drinking was made from grapes near the road where the ground always gets flooded, or maybe they came from the top of the hill where the vines are more prone to frost. Maybe Jacques the winemaker makes his cuvée in the same barn where his cows live, or maybe he dropped a cigarette in the vat that year when he fell asleep. When you're talking about such minute quantities of grapes, every little decision matters and will ultimately impact the final flavor; just like with a single barrel of Scotch. You can read all the books in the world about Burgundy's terrain, its terroir, and its many prestigious vineyard sites, but you will still never know anything for sure until you taste each wine. You can have fifty wines from the same vintage, made from grapes that were literally grown right next to each other, and they might all taste totally different (just like single barrels).

So what did I do? Like I said in the previous post about splurging, I don't have the coin to buy multiple bottles and protect myself against a bad beat. I need to go with the sure thing if I'm summoning Dionysius. I did the Haut Brion. And it was fucking aaaaaaawesome! Was it worth what I paid for it? Tough to say. But flying in business class is an incredible experience either way.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Dec272014

Wheat, Not Wheated

This was a fun surprise from last week. I got a call from Germain Robin distillery about a haphazard project I began with them more than four years ago. In 2010, less than a year after I had taken over as spirits buyer, I had all these empty Jefferson's 18 barrels from the casks we were purchasing at the time (back when you could not only buy bottles of Stitzel Weller juice, you could buy entire barrels) and I wanted to give them to a distillery for maturation purposes. At that time, Germain Robin had started playing around with different grains for whiskey distillation and they were working with 100% Bavarian wheat spirits. I said, "You know what would be funny? If you aged a wheat whiskey in a wheated Bourbon barrel. I don't know if it would taste very good, but it would at least make for a funny story." I thought about the prospect of this project for about three seconds, said "Huh," and then promptly forgot about it until a few weeks ago.

"Whoa, you guys actually went through with that?!" I asked, half kidding.

"We did," said the distillery, "Would you like a sample of it?"

A few days later the tiny vial showed up on my desk, so I gave it a whirl. No, it didn't taste anything like Pappy, or even remotely like a Bourbon in general, but man was it fun! It started out basic and primary, but ultimately erupted into an explosion of wheat flavor on the finish. I've never tasted an aged whisky that expressed so much of the source material in the flavor itself. There are just gobs of golden wheat on the finish. I told them to bottle up what was left and sell me back my barrel. Now it's here. Check out the notes below:

Low Gap 4 Year Old K&L Exclusive Single Stitzel-Weller Barrel Wheat Whiskey $69.99 - Four years ago, when barrels of 18 year old Stitzel Weller Bourbon could be purchased on a whim, we began piling up more casks than we knew what to do with. When you buy a barrel of whiskey from a producer they usually send you the empty vessel with it. At that time we were working closely with Germain Robin on a number of new projects and when they mentioned they were experimenting with wheat whiskey, running it through their antique column still, I offered some of our ex-Bourbon casks for maturation. "Fill this old wheated Bourbon barrel with wheat whiskey," I said, "and maybe we can buy it back from you in a few years." Then I completely forgot about it. But a few weeks ago we got the call from the distillery; it had been four years. Did we want to see where the whiskey was at? You bet we did, and after tasting the sample we had Germain Robin bottle the whiskey immediately. It's in an absolutely perfect spot. The nose is a mixture of fresh cut grain and oak spices. The first sip is like a handful of Wheat Thins that turns into a rich, stone crackery explosion on the finish. There is no doubt as to which grain this whiskey was distilled from. It's just wheat all the way through. The SW barrel is really just a coincidence; a matter of what we had on hand at the time. Gimmicks aside, this is one fun new bottle I will be drinking lots of and a new step forward for California's whiskey movement.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Dec272014

Splurging

One of the questions I get asked most come December (along with "What's the best?") tends to be: "Is this bottle worth the money?" That's another loaded query with an answer that will vary from person to person, because—let's face it—what's worth it for you might not be worth it for me, and vice versa. So we need to dig a bit deeper. What are you normally willing to pay for a bottle of whisky? What's important to you in terms of quality and craftsmanship? What ultimately determines value for you personally? These are all follow-ups I would ask in the face of that question; more specific inquiries into the intimate philosophies of each customer that help me to understand how they typically spend. In attempting to predict consumer satisfaction it's important to know a bit more about what makes each person tick.

But let's say I wasn't able to ask any follow-up questions. Let's say I had to answer that inquiry point blank; on the spot. One general answer to guide every general spending habit. This is what I would say:

I've always loved Burgundy and I've always been really interested in learning more about the wines. Every now and again I'll splurge on a high-end bottle from some fancy vineyard that I've read about in a book, or from a producer whose wines we don't see all that often. Each time I do this I always fool myself into thinking that this bottle might be the one that really opens my eyes. But that never actually happens because, in the end, expensive bottles of Burgundy don't cost hundreds of dollars because of they contain epiphanies. They cost hundreds of dollars because the production is limited, the demand is high, and wealthy people have determined that this is what they like to drink (and they have the money to drink hundred dollar bottles whenever they feel like it). Whereas I'm buying one single bottle and holding on to it for dear life, others are buying cases of this stuff and burying it in a cellar full of hundreds of other cases.

With wine, you're never quite sure when the actual liquid is going to peak, or if you've got a spoiled bottle on your hands, so you need to buy multiple bottles to protect against that. Open one now, see how it is, then use that experience to judge when you might open a second. Buying one bottle of anything is always risky because there are so many things that might be off: it might not be the right time in the wine's evolution, the wine might be corked, the bottle may have been jostled in transit and is in need of a rest, or any multitude of other factors. When you look at how these bottles are usually purchased and consumed—in cases, rather than bottle-by-bottle—it really puts my dilemma into perspective. Here I am, anguishing over whether or not to splurge on this one experience, whereas the people are are generally drinking bottles like this don't even bat an eye at popping one just as a tester. It would be like buying a Rolls Royce and being afraid to drive it, or buying my wife a Chanel purse and her being afraid to wear it. We're not supposed to be afraid to drink these bottles, which is why I generally avoid buying them. It's supposed to be fun, not scary.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: splurging on one bottle hasn't ever answered any longing questions or delivered any ah-ha moments for me, and I don't know if I've ever spent more than $300 on a bottle of anything that actually delivered value or worth. What I usually take away from those experiences is a greater sense of who I am, what I enjoy, and what I'm willing to pay for that enjoyment. Sometimes that sense of awareness itself is worth paying for; just knowing that you don't need to spend that much to enjoy the best things in life and being certain of that because you've splurged, had the experience, and can safely come to that conclusion. You can't write off anything until you've tried it, so sooner or later you'll have to take the plunge. Either way, you'll probably learn something important about yourself.

-David Driscoll