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Wednesday
Mar162016

The Classy Move

As I mentioned in a previous post, I went down to Malibu a few weeks ago to meet with multi-billionaire magnate John-Paul Dejoria and have a drink at his house. We talked mainly about business and beer, both of which are covered in my interview with him here at our On the Trail sister blog. As I was getting ready to leave, however, he called me over to the bar so we could have a shot of Patron together. As he brought the bottle down and laid out the glassware, I flashed back to a moment in high school when I came home from a party and found my parents sitting at the dining room table taking tequila shots. A bright green box was sitting on the table's center and my parents seemed to be almost in the midst of a serious ritual. I asked them what they were doing and they explained they had just purchased a rather expensive tequila from the store called Patron, one that they were savoring slowly due to the high quality and cost. They offered me a sip and I obliged. Even as a teenager I was taken aback. This didn't taste like that rot gut slop I'd been downing at my illicit underage parties. It was smooth and easy to drink, in a way that I had yet to experience in my young, adolescent life.

I told that story to John-Paul as we were sipping our shots and he was very pleased by it. Rather than simply smile and nod as a common courtesy, he asked me if my parents were still living. I said yes. He then asked where they lived. I said Modesto. He asked for their names and address after that, then he grabbed a limited edition bottle of Patron from the shelf and proceeded to write a small personal note to my folks on the top of the gift box that finished with: P.S. - Your son rocks! "Make sure you tell them I loved the story," he added before we left. My parents received the bottle in the mail a few days later from JP himself. They were absolutely thrilled.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is class. 

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Mar152016

Cr&ftwerk Arrives (and Beer Geeks Cream in their Pants)

We've been anxiously awaiting the arrival of Copper & Kings's "Cr&ftwerk" project since we first tasted the brandies from barrel at the Louisville distillery last Fall. While craft whisky producers have spent years trying to best capture the flavor of distilled beer into an interesting and sippable spirit, we think C&K may have the better idea: aging brandy, rather than whisky, in the used barrels from some of America's most iconic breweries. The finished result actually captures more of the that beery essence than the actual distillates we've tasted since the idea first took hold. All four of these are must-haves. If you send me an email asking which one you should buy, I won't be able to help you. The Sierra Nevada is going to be the least popular of the bunch because it's the less "crafty" of the beers, but it's the most complex and balanced of the brandies in my opinion. That's about as much as I can offer. I'll be buying one of each, however.

While they last (which won't be long)...

Copper & Kings "Cr&ftwerk" 3 Floyds Stout-Aged Brandy $49.99- Bottled at 55.5%, the 3 Floyds edition takes C&K brandy and finshes it in former Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout casks. The rich and chocolatey flavor of that massively-textured beer comes right through on the first sip. The fruit from the brandy melds seamlessly with the vanilla and almost chewy texture from the beer residue, leaving a pure stout flavor on the finish. It's an absolutely incredible accomplishment, and fans of both C&K and 3 Floyds are going to go bonkers. Grab it while you can.

Copper & Kings "Cr&ftwerk" Against the Grain Scottish Ale-Aged Brandy $49.99- Bottled at 55.5%, the Against the Grain edition takes C&K brandy and finshes it in former Smoked Scottish Ale casks. The first sip of the brandy yields the classic C&K character with the trademark fruit and oak flavors, but the finish is where the delicate and nuanced flavors from the smoked ale come into play. The graceful finish carries on for a good thirty seconds, and after a minute you're not quite sure whether you've just finished a dram or a pint! Very limited.

Copper & Kings "Cr&ftwerk" Oskar Blues IPA-Aged Brandy $49.99- Bottled at 55.5%, the Oskar Blues edition takes C&K brandy and finshes it in former Imperial IPA barrels. The fresh hops and almost citric IPA flavors explodes on the palate, and the richness from the weight of the beer fills out the middle. The brandy flavors are so integrated they're almost unnoticeable. Serious fans of IPA won't ever want to be without a bottle of this.

Copper & Kings "Cr&ftwerk" Sierra Nevada Porter-Aged Brandy $49.99- Bottled at 55.5%, the Sierra Nevada edition takes C&K brandy and finshes it in former Imperial Smoked Porter casks. Of all the four Cr&ftwerk editions, this is easily the most balanced of the bunch. It's equal parts beer and brandy, and the best parts of both beverages enhance one another beautifully. The mid-palate swirls with vanilla, smoke, and richness from the beer, but the citrus and spice from the porter reach a crescendo on the finish that's truly fantastic. Fans of craft beer may go gaga over the other three, but fans of single malt whisky will want this bottle first and foremost. It's like a smoky Speyside or lightly peated Highland malt. Well done.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Mar152016

Dark Cove Expected Later This Week

To save you the trouble of emailing us or calling all over the state, Ardbeg's new Dark Cove release is NOT "on sale now" at K&L. It will be soon, however! Final pricing and quantities are still unknown at this point, but the earliest we're going to see this baby is Friday according to the distributor. Standard first-come, first-served rules will apply as well as bottle limits. Until then, you know as much as I do!

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Mar122016

Scotland 2016 Post-Script

People ask me all kinds of questions about the direction of the Scotch whisky market. Is global demand really that high? Are we really going through a shortage? Who’s drinking all this stuff? Who can afford to buy that much Scotch? These are all important inquiries for consumers and fans of the spirit, but in all honesty the answers to the mysteries of Scotch depend entirely upon who you ask. For example, I remember asking Hunter Laing owner Stewart Laing once about the correct pronunciation of Ledaig distillery. “Is it Le-dayg or is it Le-chig?” He told me the former, but about four minutes after that his brother Fred walked into the room and asked us what we thought of the “Le-chig” sample. I hear all kinds of reports about what’s happening behind the scenes and many of the things I hear are often contradictory to what I myself experience or what I learn from other professionals. Let's use the rising importance of India as another example. Some people believe stocks of whisky are purposely being held back in preparation for a potential a tariff decrease on the import of Scotch into India. Others don’t think that’s ever going to happen. 

In looking at the stats, however, you can see why some companies might be itching for India to come online. According to reports printed in this year’s Malt Whisky Yearbook, the top selling whisky in the world is Officer’s Choice—a brand whose core sales are in India. Number two is McDowell’s No. 1—another Indian brand. Johnnie Walker comes in at number three, but its complete global sales are about half those of Officer’s Choice. Looking at those numbers you might also assume that the billion-plus population of India was the top whisky-consuming nation in the world, but not the case. They’re actually number eight. That tells you something very important about India’s whisky fans: they’re drinking a lot of domestically-produced whisky, likely because it’s vastly cheaper than the Scottish imports which see gigantic mark-ups due to taxation. Remove the heart-stopping 150% tariffs and who knows what might happen. Some folks I've spoken to are still holding on to this idea, while others seem to have moved on from the possibility.

But that’s just one theory concerning the future of whisky economics I hear in the industry locker room. Another reason for shortages in whisky involves greater consumption of single malt itself, many of them now at higher proofs, which could potentially exhaust supplies at a much quicker rate. The top two whisky-purchasing countries in the world are the U.S. and France. When it comes to blended whisky, France buys about double of what the U.S. does at 12.7 million cases per year. When it comes to single malt, the roles are reversed with America doubling the numbers of the French. However, case quantities of single malt purchasing are at 1.7 million in the States versus 890,000 in France. Malt consumption globally is still well under 10% that of blended whisky, but it’s rising steadily and current supplies are still heavily-based on production levels from a less-glutinous era. All in all, you can analyze the numbers all you want in a search for more answers, but I’ve never been a stats guys. I like to look at behavior and intent when it comes to business, and I’ve noticed a pretty significant pattern in terms of the people I do business with. Let’s look at the behavior of the friendly faces from the independent bottling community we’ve worked with over the years.

Chieftain’s (Ian Macleod) - We’ve bought some legendary casks over the years from Chieftain’s. Today there are none available for us to purchase, however. Ian Macleod bought the Tamdhu distillery in 2011 and now supplies us with more official distillery bottlings, rather than independently-bottled casks.

Gordon & MacPhail - When I first started working at K&L we purchased a number of different selections from G&M, one of the most historic bottlers in the business. Today I buy a lot more Benromach from the distillery G&M reopened at the end of the 90s. 

Signatory - While Signatory has owned Edradour for decades, they’re now building a second distillery next door to the main site—one that can be expanded if necessary. There’s also a lot more Edradour whisky in their warehouses than I remember seeing before.

A.D. Rattray - Some of the first whisky casks we ever purchased on behalf of K&L were bottled for us by the Morrison family. Today they’re much more focused on getting their Glasgow distillery project off the ground as independent selections become less prevalent.

Adelphi - While we never actually bottled anything under the Adelphi label, a number of our Faultline editions over the years have been from Adelphi’s stock. Today, however, there’s nothing for us to buy. No worries for our friends Keith and Alex, however, because they’re far too busy making whisky at their new Ardnamurchan distillery which opened in July of 2014. 

Wemyss - We’ve done a few dealings with Wemyss over the years, but I’m not sure independent casks will be a big part of their future at this point. The Edinburgh-based family opened Kingsbarns distillery in the Lowlands at the end of 2014.

Hunter Laing - Our business with the boys at Hunter Laing has never been better. The supplies still look strong in Glasgow. That being said, Andrew and his brother just announced their intention to build a new distillery on Islay. Starting ASAP.

I think the only people I’ve left out here are Duncan Taylor (who were planning to build a distillery at one point) and Douglas Laing who are slowly moving into more blended NAS brands. You could throw in Compass Box, but in a sense the company did just work out a deal for five distilleries—Royal Brackla, Craigellachie, Aberfeldy, Aultmore and Macduff—now that Bacardi has become a recent partner in the operation. This obsession with supply isn’t a coincidence. If you’re a skeptic and you honestly believe there isn’t an issue with obtaining continual supply just look at the almost unanimous scramble from independents to secure access to production. The writing’s on the wall here. You either need to own your own source of single malt, or face what lies ahead without a guarantee. But what actually does lie ahead? Confidence, from what I’ve seen this week.

No one is even slightly worried about the market taking a turn for the worse, it seems. I can’t help but think of a similar confidence in the housing market back in 2007, especially after watching The Big Short on the flight over. Of course, as a number of friends and colleagues pointed out to me over the last few days, the rock-solid confidence investors had in the housing market was based on fraud, which isn’t the case in the whisky industry. That’s true, but the only thing more unstable than fraud in my opinion is fashion. Whisky isn’t a necessary commodity. It’s a fashionable choice based on personal preference, as well as stylistic and economic conditions that can change at the drop of a hat. It’s because of these unpredicted changes that distilleries in Scotland over the last century have been boarded up, closed down, and mothballed only to be reopened, refurbished, and rebuilt later on down the line.

This type of flux seems to be business as usual for those in the whisky industry. Strikes and gutters. Gluts and shortages. You take the good as it comes and you prepare for the worst. These guys are used to it, but it still scares the hell out of me.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Mar102016

England: Day 5 - Cider Secrets in the West

We headed west this morning from Paddington Station, taking the train to Taunton in Somerset near Devon where my colleague Ryan Woodhouse is from. Through a few different word-of-mouth references (Ryan’s family included) we had heard rumors of an English apple brandy distillery that had stocks as old as twenty years and Calvados-like spirits of serious repute. Ryan and I had even spent an afternoon perusing their website from the Redwood City office we share, wondering what the products tasted like. We didn’t waste much time pondering, however. Within a day, Ryan had phoned his dad who was keen on taking a drive to check the place out. By the end of the week we had made an appointment to visit the farm of the Somerset Cider Brandy Company with plans for Mr. Woodhouse to pick us up from the station. Due to a bad leg, however, Mr. Woodhouse was unfortunately ordered to maintain strict bed rest, so distillery owner Julian Temperley himself was there to pick us up from the train station in his 70s-era Bentley on our arrival. We introduced ourselves, shook hands, and hit the road in style. I could tell from the get-go this guy was a character.

We were treated to a fascinating lecture on the history of Somerset cider and the importance of its economic role over many centuries on our way to Julian’s home. Cider production in the UK dates back to the Romans, but the West of England in particular has a number PGIs—protected geographical origins—where the orchards are treated like Burgundian vineyards, each with its own particular terroir. Cider and the taxation of it was once quite a political issue (and still is today depending on who you ask). Julian told us of an old 18th century grandfather clock he owns that has an inscription reading: “No excise on cyder.” To say that folks in West England take the production of cider seriously is an understatement. If you’ve ever talked to an Iowan about corn you’ll understand exactly what I mean. Apples are a way of life.

The stills were steaming at full speed when we arrived at the Somerset Cider Brandy farm. Two wood-fired pots burning away just like I’d seen in Normandy so many times before. The property is delightful; a rustic ranch with hundreds of acres of orchards behind it, each inter-spliced with numerous varietals of apple. We went in the house for a cup of tea first and a chance to sample a few selections while getting a better understanding for the operation. Julian produced a few glasses along with two bottles of pommeau—one labeled Kingston Black Apple Liqueur and the other called Somerset Pomona. “The Kingston Black is the aperitif,” he told us, filling our glass with the chilled liquid. I raised it to my nose and took a whiff. All I could think of in that moment were my friends the Camut brothers who make the best apple spirits I’ve ever tasted. The aromas were just pure and enticing on the nose. “The Pomona is the digestif,” he added. “You can pair this with a cheese plate a the end of a meal like you would a port. It’s been barrel-aged.”

After our introductory course over tea, Julian took us down into the cellar to look at the barrel room. Much like a single malt distillery, Somerset is using hogsheads, sherry butts, and port pipes to age its brandies. The core range includes three, five, ten, fifteen, and twenty year expressions, each with its own unique character. The three year is juicy and bursting with energy. The five year is more subdued and mellow. The ten year is refined and elegant, The fifteen is hauntingly beautiful. The twenty year is rich and robust with notes of sherry intermingling lightly on the finish. The line-up as a whole is a giant slam dunk. The prices are more than reasonable. I was ready to cut Julian a check right then and there. “How is no one selling this in the U.S.?’ I whispered to Jeff.

While we were initially interested in the brandies of Somerset, we were almost more impressed with the other incredible products Julian and team are making there on the farm. There’s cider. Wonderfully dry and tangy cider with the finesse of the finest Champagnes. There are liqueurs. Deliciously vibrant cherry and cassis liqueurs with just the right level of sweetness and all the tart intensity we’re lacking in our American iterations. There are all kinds of little gems to be had at this little operation in the West of England, but unfortunately we were on a schedule.

Julian’s wife was kind enough to prepare lunch for us, so we sat at the wooden table in the windowed-terrace looking out over the orchards, feasting on fresh bread and local cheddar, while getting to know one another. I did the cheese pairing with the Somerset pommeau that Julian recommended, thinking: “I could really get used to this.” I was also satisfied in hearing Julian’s philosophy on cider and brandy is much like a winemaker's—he strongly believes in blending for balance of acidity and flavor. “Single varietal ciders are an abomination!” he said at one point with a laugh. All in all we spent about four hours with the Temperleys, drinking various apple spirits, eating delicious food, listening to their incredible stories, and enjoying the bucolic splendor of Western England. For brevity’s sake I’ll have to end here for now, but don’t worry: this isn’t the last you’ll hear about the Somerset Cider Brandy Company. This is just the beginning, my friends.

-David Driscoll