In Search of Local Flavor

It’s hard to know exactly where to start when attempting to summarize what could be an eighteen page New Yorker length article into an easy-to-skim K&L blog post, so let’s just dive right into it. Here’s what I knew about the guys at Westland distillery going into my trip this week: they use local barley, local peat, and local oak to make a large percentage of their whiskey. They do so, however, because it actually makes their whiskey better, not simply because it’s fashionable in the food and drinks business currently. Of course they also enjoy supporting local farmers, making a product that’s regional and distinct, and working within the Seattle community to strengthen the ties of industry, but—unlike a number of exploitatively-local spirits—flavor is first and foremost on their minds. To better understand just how committed the gang at Westland is to creating a better tasting single malt, the two Matts (distiller Hofmann and sales manager Freerks) invited me to accompany them north of Seattle to the Skagit Valley, a fertile farmland known mostly for its tulips. They were vague on the details of our field trip, promising me that I would understand the significance of our appointment when I met our hosts. We were starting at the Mount Vernon outpost for Washington State University known as the Bread Lab where Dr. Stephen Jones was waiting for us. 

Dr. Jones is a bit of a folk hero in the food world (read this related article in New York Magazine) and let’s just say he’s not very popular with Monsanto. He’s a professor and a breeder of wheat, barley, beans and various small grains and one day he decided he was tired of big agriculture telling him what did and didn’t constitute quality when it came to commodities. “The commodities market has no room for flavor,” he said with a chuckle as we stood in his barley breeding field outside the main office, “Once you start operating outside of it you’re free to focus on quality.” What large scale producers want in their wheat are characteristics that allow for high-speed, industrial baking that in turn allow for consistency and efficiency. Once all that starch is processed they add the flavor back in later with additives, chemicals, and other mystery ingredients (like caramel in your whisky). Fortunately for us, Dr. Jones wasn’t interested in breeding commercially-viable grains for Wonder Bread. He was interested, however, in breeding flavorful, unique, and interesting grains that would flourish in the Skagit Valley soil, giving chefs, bakers, maltsters, brewers, and distillers like Matt the chance to work with real terroir. Dr. Jones is dealing with tens of thousands of different species, many of which have a unique flavor and flourish in the nearby soils; none of which are of interest to operations like Miller or Anheuser-Busch.

Terroir in barley? I’ve heard of that idea before; the concept that unique strains of barley growing in distinct regions of the world may be just as important to a whiskey’s ultimate flavor as certain grapes are to the character of a wine. I’ve even tasted a few local barley whiskies from Springbank and Kilchoman, a Bere barley expression from Bruichladdich, and an experimental barely release from Glenmorangie. They were indeed unique, but how thought out were they in origin? Why did the distilleries choose those particular strains? Did they taste better? Were they more interesting? Or was it simply a fun little exercise in locavore politics? Perhaps it made for a better story than it did a whisky. It’s tough to know how important the inherent flavor of barley to whisky is when you have no real point of reference. As we walked through the barley rows, each with its own individual strain, I noticed the difference in breeds—the various colors, the different shapes and sizes. “Barley has historically been grown in the region as a way to replenish the soil,” Matt Hofmann said to me. “The farmers would then try to sell it off as feed and maybe break even before replanting their more profitable crops.” 

“What we need to do is find a way to make it profitable for them,” said a voice from behind me. 

A man in aviator sunglasses was approaching the field, looking a bit like Lou Reed from a distance. It was Wayne Carpenter, the founder and director of Skagit Valley Malting—a company created roughly five years ago to begin malting some of Dr. Jones’s difficult local grains for commercial operations like Westland. “The Skagit Valley is a unique climate,” Wayne said to me after we shook hands. “There are only six others like it in the world and the barley that grows here is higher in starch and lower in protein, which is exactly what you want if you’re a brewer or a distiller. The problem is the kernels themselves are fatter and more difficult to malt.” 

“That’s where you come in?” I asked with a smile. Wayne grinned.

Just up the road from the Bread Lab is the Skagit Valley Malting facility where Wayne has set up what could be the greatest malting production ever created. In fact, when Matt and Matt first visited the site and saw the machines up close, Wayne forced them to sign a non-disclosure agreement because he was still patenting the technology. Wayne is an interesting guy, a former military fighter pilot who was very successful as a computer engineer and mathematician during Silicon Valley’s processing boom of the early nineties. “We’re using technology to malt more efficiently. We’re not going backward,” he said to me as we walked into his lab. “Some people see what we’re doing here and they write it off because it’s modern, but we’re keeping the important elements in place.” I made a joke about Amish hipsters and we all laughed. In the food and drinks business the branding of “hand-crafted” has become a bit ridiculous, especially when much of what’s said to be “hand-crafted” isn’t all that good. At Skagit Valley Malting they’re incredibly focused on efficient and effective processing, it’s just that Wayne is doing so in the name of flavor, rather than at the expense of it. What’s even more compelling is that he’s invested more than ten million dollars in order to do so, all of it from his own fortune. 

“Barley does not want to be made into beer or whiskey,” Wayne said as we moved over to his on-site testing brewery; “What it wants to do is make other little barleys, so it’s up to us to convert the starch into sugar before it tries to sprout.” Some strains of barley are more difficult to malt than others, which is why they’ve been phased out by the agriculture industry; they’re too difficult to work with on a large scale. But it just so happens that many of those difficult strains are the most flavorful when malted properly. Like I mentioned before, I’ve only tasted a few barley-specific whiskies in my lifetime. Part of the reason more distillers don’t experiment with various strains of barley is because they don’t know exactly what the resulting whisky will taste like. When you’re talking about years of maturation time, waiting around to see test the results isn’t exactly the most attractive business model. That’s why Wayne uses beer for flavor analysis rather than whiskey. Making multiple batches of identically-malted brews, each with the exact same amount of hops and yeast allows for a more realistic side-by-side comparison. “These are called ‘smash’ beers,” he told us; “Single Malt And Single Hops recipes. Everything is exactly the same except for the type of barley used.” All five were unique, and one in particular—a beer made with locally-grown Skagit barley—was simply to die for. It was indeed more flavorful and more delicious, and it did indeed make a better beer—just like he had pointed out back in the field. 

While Wayne hasn’t done much in the way of marketing, the word is out in the food community about the various flours he’s been able to mill from his flavorful homegrown malting. The bakers from San Francisco’s legendary Tartine were scheduled to visit this week, and Wayne has similar appointments with Dan Barber and the team from Blue Hill in Manhattan. They’re apparently thrilled with the breads they’ve been able to make from his collaborative work with Dr. Jones and there’s even been talk of specific tasting menus. Can you imagine it? Barley-specific bread paired with beer and whiskey made from the same strain? The possibilities are endless. What struck me most of all was something Wayne said before we left: “Silicon Valley helped make Napa what it is today. Without heavy investment and a market for those wines it could have become another Danville.” Wayne thinks the Skagit Valley could do for barley what cabernet did for St. Helena. Can you imagine that as well? A Napa Valley-like home for craft beer and whiskey just outside of Seattle? Wayne isn’t just imagining it, he’s banking on it—literally. From what he told us, there are already a number of big craft beer names looking into property just across from his malting center. Even I was practically itching to buy a plot of land nearby after he finished talking. I meet Bay Area tourists every day who plan on spending a few days in wine country. Why wouldn’t a veritable beer country have the same appeal in the Pacific Northwest? 

“This is the local eco-system we’re talking about when we talk about Westland being a locally-made whiskey,” Matt said to me as we drove back towards Seattle that evening. I was flat out inspired. This is the model all locavores should be working towards. You’ve got local farmers sitting on some of the best barley terroir in the world, but they can’t grow it profitably without customers. With the help of Dr. Jones, Wayne Carpenter, and Westland, however, they just might create an entirely new economy for it—one where everyone wins. The farmers get paid, Wayne gets paid, Westland gets a better barley, and the customer gets a better beer or whiskey, all while working to be sustainable and improving the local agriculture. Isn’t that everything working and buying locally should be about? It gets better, actually. Apparently not only is Wayne’s malting technology better at malting the Skagit Valley barley, it only uses a fraction of the energy and water used by standard malting facilities. “It’s green as well?” I asked him with amazement.

“Yeah, but I was really just trying to save money,” he said in all seriousness; “I came into this as a problem solver, mainly.” Barley that’s more flavorful and cost-effective? I have to imagine it’s only a matter of time before Skagit Valley seriously revolutionizes the way we think about whiskey. Once again, Westland is leading the way. It was never just about making single malt in Seattle for these guys; it was about making single malt in an environment that is uniquely and geographically suited for doing so. The proof of that is in the pudding. It’s in the soils of the Skagit Valley as well. 

-David Driscoll


I Stay Away

I’m a fast mover by nature. I’m the kind of person who would rather stay late and get everything done before taking a break. In fact, I can rarely rest unless I’ve finished all my work and completed all my chores (which means I can never rest in theory). So while doing the one thing that brings me peace yesterday—riding my skateboard around the car port behind my townhouse—I lost my footing while trying to turn sharply over a pool of unseen water leaking from the washing machines. Before I knew it I was on my side, unscathed and unhurt, except for a pain emanating from the top of my left foot. I’m not sure how you can hurt the top of your foot while falling backwards off of a skateboard, but I found a way to do it and—let me tell you—if you think your fourth toe isn’t all that important, think again. I’ve been reduced to about 30% of my standard walking speed, which about drove me insane this morning while trying to get through airport security. I hate holding people up. I try to get my business done quickly and efficiently so that the guy behind be doesn’t have to wait, but it’s hard to move fast on one foot. “Slow down, take it easy,” I said to myself. “You can’t go any faster than this.” Once I resisted the urge to increase the pace and accepted the reality of my situation, a surprising and unexpected calm came over me. I don’t have to move at full speed all the time. It’s probably not all that healthy, to tell you the truth, the constant rushing. Yet, I often hurry to nowhere, trying to be on time for some unknown appointment. Today, however, I'm moving at a more realistic speed. Sometimes a small foot injury can become enlightenment in disguise. It’s like life telling you: “If you’re not going to slow down, I’m going to take matters into my own hands.”

I love flying for a similar reason: an airplane is pretty much the only place I can disconnect and relax because it’s one of the few places the cell phone and internet can’t penetrate. There’s no choice but to unplug. I get a lot of thinking done on planes; sadly, the same type of pondering and self-reflection I used to achieve on a daily basis before 24/7 news cycles distracted me from happiness. I always choose a window seat and most of the time I’ll just put on my headphones and stare at the blue. Since I’m flying to Seattle today I’ve got my playlist set up thematically: lots of Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, etc. I can’t honestly say most of those songs sound as powerful or emotional today as they did in high school, but I find that the Alice in Chains catalog may have help up best—an interesting development because they were probably my least favorite Seattle band back then. Today, however, I’m a bit emotional listening to the more tender, gloomier hits like “I Stay Away.” When the group’s lead singer Layne Staley died, I was working at Tower Records on Market and Castro and that whole month we were mourning the loss with an epic playlist over the store’s speakers. I can’t remember when it happened exactly, but at some point I was standing behind the register and talking with a customer about Staley’s death—a long-haired, weathered man I had never seen before and would never see again. “I was just up there visiting him,” the guy said to me suddenly. I was taken aback; this guy apparently new Layne well. “He was in bad shape, but I didn’t expect this,” the man told me with remorse, and he continued on with a number of intimate details about Staley’s condition that only could have been known to friends and family. It was a bit forthcoming and surprising, but the man was clearly venting to a sympathetic ear in me and I listened quietly and intently. It would be another few years before I realized the guy I talked to that night was likely Mike Starr, the former Alice in Chains bass player who would sadly succumb to a similar and tragic fate.  I can’t say that with certainty because I remember the man’s hair and demeanor more than I remember his face, but after watching Starr’s appearance on Celebrity Rehab in later years I’m pretty sure that’s who it was. 

It’s not easy to make serious changes in life, even when you so badly want to alter your path from its current trajectory. Sometimes it takes an injury, a run in with death, or a situation beyond your control to force that needed change upon you. Part of the reason I find it so difficult these days to eat better, exercise, relax, and manage my stress levels has to do with my inability to slow down and allow life to unfold at a more manageable pace. Flying, for me, is a reminder of what life can be like when you stop to take a breath. What’s funny is that during college I developed a short-lived phobia of flying after a very bumpy ride between Oakland and San Diego scared the piss out of me. Today, however, I think I’m at my most calm on an airplane; ironically, for exactly the same reason that flying used to scare me: the lack of control. Getting on a flight at one point used to frighten me because I was in essence handing over my ability to control my environment to a stranger. Today it’s that same scenario that brings me nothing but relaxation and peace. Take me away, captain! I’m in your hands. I can't wait to let go.

-David Driscoll


Northwestward Ho!

After a busy day on the Redwood City sales floor (a day that saw six different customers come back to buy sealed CASES of the new 5th & Harrison—just incredible!), I'm heading out of town for a short jaunt to the north. I'm going to Seattle to visit the two Matts at Westland and get a deeper look at some of their new malting projects as well as the intimate details for the new Garryana. There's a lot going on up there. I'll be back Tuesday night to start planning the arrival of our latest Scotch container, a shipment that's going to raise a few eyebrows. Some of the prices are going to be a little out of whack with the current market, but that's by design. Like I've said for the past few weeks, I'm feeling nostalgic. I like seeing people come in and buy sealed CASES of Scotch!

-David Driscoll


San Francisco: July 12th, 2016

5th & Harrison arrives at K&L. We open a bottle. We weep. We hug. We shake hands and congratulate one another. It’s everything we hoped it would be and more. It’s perfect.

And now you can finally get your bottle(s)!!!

Prepare to be transported back in time; back to an era when old malts of incredible complexity were available 24/7 and four-figure price tags were unthinkable. This project has been in the works for years and the casks have been on reserve for us since John proposed the idea way back when, which is the only reason whiskies of this quality were available for this 5th & Harrison blend. In fact, the whiskies were allowed to marry for an additional year in cask after being blended (making it in essence a marriage of 20 year old Glen Ord and 32 year old Caol Ila) simply because of all the delays from the logistics involved with doing something like this! You can taste that extra vat time in the whisky. It's like liquid silk on the palate, accented with peat and smoke from the Caol Ila, and it's of a quality that I haven't tasted maybe since we bought two incredibly old casks of Glenfarclas back in 2012. This is the type of whisky you buy now for loved ones, months in advance of the holiday gift giving season. You squirrel extra bottles away for a rainy day. You buy as many of these as you can afford because I can promise you you'll be looking back on this opportunity years from now wishing you had more of this incredible elixir. If this was the last whisky project I ever worked on for K&L, I would go out happy. I don't know if we'll ever top this. I think this is as big of an achievement as we can ever hope to accomplish. I can safely say this whisky is on the level of some of the rarer Port Ellen bottlings we've carried and it's a fraction of the price.

And there you have it. The letter from John himself. He’s thrilled. We’re thrilled. We’re pretty sure you’re all going to be thrilled.

Compass Box "5th & Harrison" K&L Exclusive Limited Edition Malt Whisky $179.99 - We'd been bugging John Glaser about doing a K&L private blend since 2011, back when both K&L and Compass Box were still making their way forward. We wanted to create something incredible and deliver excellence on a level normally not seen in the whisky world. We were bold! The question was: what to do? John proposed combining two single malt whiskies he had put aside in his warehouse: a luxurious 31 year old hogshead of Caol Ila and a 19 year old sherry butt of Glen Ord. As big fans of his Flaming Heart series, we loved the idea and we placed our trust in John and his team to create the recipe. Then whisky got hot. We got busy. Another two years went by. Compass Box's popularity increased significantly. Things got hectic. We moved our San Francisco store to 5th & Harrison, prolonging things. Finally in 2015 John came to visit. "The address sounds like an old folk song," he opined. "That's what we should call the whisky," motivated to finish up a long-lived project now five years in the making. The finished product is now here and it's spectacular. The nose is a symphony of honey, brandied fruit, and the sea. Cocoa, fudge, and cakebread coat the palate and the oily, phenolic notes of smoke and ash roll over the finish. It's impossible to tell where the Glen Ord ends and the Caol Ila begins, their yin and yang a nebulous sea of harmony. It's luxury, brilliance, and soul all in one.  It's 5th & Harrison, the crossroads of culture and craft. It's K&L & Compass Box at last. 

Rejoice! An era I thought was completely over lives on in this bottle. I’m so very happy we can share it with you now.

I also want to point out that today is Kyle Kurani’s last day at K&L. He’s moving on to work for Rhys winery nearby and we’ve been fortunate enough to have Kyle with us in the spirits department for many years now.

Kyle was with us in London for one of the meetings with John and the first Scottish distillery he ever visited was Caol Ila back in 2014. I always loved this photo of him staring at the building in amazement. It’s fitting that this project launched on his last day here, both in homage to him and his time spent with us. A big thanks to Kyle for all the help he’s given us during his time here and for all the spirits customers he’s helped during that period.

We wish him all the best going forward!

-David Driscoll


London: March 10th, 2016

Jeff Jones and I fly out to London in March to have dinner with John and taste the final blend. The original 19 year old Glen Ord sherry butt and 31 year old Caol Ila hogshead have now been marrying the cask for almost an additional year. By the time it's bottled, the whisky will have seen an extra year of maturation. We taste the final product and go over the final artwork. We're absolutely overjoyed by the outcome. Five years after proposing the idea of a custom Compass Box/K&L blend, I can safely say that I never thought it would result in a whisky of this level of quality. The 5th & Harrison strays from a Flaming Heart prototype to become more of an unintentional Port Ellen homage. 

-David Driscoll