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Saturday
Oct292016

Soderbergh's Sneak Preview

I've spent a decent amount of time discussing brand strategies with director Steven Soderbergh over the past few years, but the only advice I've ever really had for him was obvious to anyone: "You're a filmmaker; a storyteller," I said to him once; "Go down to Bolivia, shoot some footage, and tell people the story." Like I needed to tell Steven Soderbergh that. Some advice, huh? Still, media plays a huge role in the way people choose their beverage. It's a powerful motivator. If you can effectively communicate with customers on a visual and emotional level (and on a large scale), you can really make an impact. In the case of Singani 63, Steven already has a great product. I'm a huge fan. After Campari, it's probably the number two most-purchased spirit on my bar (my wife has a lot to do with that as she also loves both). The fact that Steven is a master of media only works to his advantage. "You don't have to pay an ad company, or a film crew, or any of that extra promotional coverage stuff that most booze companies have to shell out for. You can do that all on your own," I added. And so he did.

Earlier this morning, Steven forwarded me his most recent cut of the new Singani short film. "I haven't even posted it on our webpage yet, but you can share it if you like," he wrote to me via email. Here's the link. See what you think. Does it make you thirsty? 

I know what I'm drinking tonight. Singani with ginger beer. Hot damn that sounds good right now.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Oct282016

The Rise of Hood River

Before professional wrestling became dominated by Vince McMahon and his corporate WWE enterprise, the business was a regional one. There were territories and those geographical lines were respected and honored. You didn't run a show in another man's backyard. Stampede ran out of Calgary with the Hart family. Jim Cornette ran the Smoky Mounatins. The Von Erichs ran much of Texas with the NWA and WCCW. Verne Gagne oversaw Minnesota's AWA (that's where guys like Hulk Hogan, Mr. Perfect, and Ric Rude came from). Future stars like Ric Flair came from the Crockett promotion in the mid-Atlantic. Eventually many of these federations joined forces and became national circuits, much like booze distribution today. Most operations now are national or global, but there's currently a quiet force slowly consolidating some serious brands in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, one that I never paid much attention to until this past week. It's a company hearkening back to the old days of regionality, back when you gathered your neighbors together and helped each other out, rather than try to dominate the world with a global portfolio. 

I had never even heard of Hood River Distillers until they purchased Clear Creek distillery from my friend Steve McCarthy a few years back. I was devistated by that news initially, thinking they were just another big booze company who would try to expand on Steve's work by sacrificing his commitment to quality. It was a completely unfair assessment on my part, but it was a cynical reaction based on my experience in the business. That being said, after tasting the most recent edition of the brand's peated single malt whisky, I've completely changed my tune. I met with Hood River this week not only to learn more about the company, but to get an idea of where they're going. I learned that they've actually been around since 1934 and that they're the Pacific Northwest's largest importer, producer, and bottler of spirits. They're kind of like San Francisco's Anchor in that they distill as well as work in tandem with other companies. But while Anchor works with producers all over the globe, Hood River is focusing solely on its own territory.

I tasted three products yesterday with Dustin Reed, the brand's account manager in California, and I thought all three were fantastic. Let's talk first about what Hood River distills. They've owned Clear Creek since 2014 and it's been about that long since I've tasted the McCarthy single malt. After working directly with Steve McCarthy for years and even doing a single cask program with him at one point, I was incredibly sad when he decided to retire. The peated single malt had long been a labor of love for Steve and, at one point, it was by far the finest American single malt in the business. I was skeptical that Steve's meticulous care for quality and ethics would be as sharp and that those traits would shine through in future Clear Creek products like they had in the past. It's important to keep an open mind, however. You can't prejudice yourself against any wine or spirit before you've given it a fair shake. When I tasted this year's new batch of McCarthy's Single Malt, the peated Oregon-distilled whisky that tastes a bit like Kilchoman or Laphroaig, I have to admit that I was quite impressed. They'd managed to retain all the potent flavor of Steve's older releases, but had cleaned up some of the grit and rounded off some of the rough edges. The whisky tastes incredibly professional, meaning that I think it's a big step forward for the label. If you put the new batch of McCarthy's in a lineup with some of Islay's younger stalwarts, I think the Oregon whisky would stand a serious chance of fooling a few professionals. This might be the best batch of McCarthy's I've ever tasted, even though I honestly hoped it wouldn't be. The smoke, sweetness of the malt, and oak influence are in complete balance. In this case, Hood River seems to know what they're doing, while paying homage to the foundations of their inheritance. I'd say this release (unlike the past few batches) firmly puts McCarthy's back into the conversation of the top American single malts. 

Now let's talk about what Hood River contracts, like Canadian whisky for example. Pendleton Canadian whisky is a brand that's contracted by Hood River in Oregon at full strength and bottled using spring water from Mount Hood to proof down the spirit. The standard Pendleton 1910 has always been a delightful sipper, but the new release of the Director's Reserve 20 year edition is something to stand up and take notice of. While the rare edition was typically bottled only every five years or so (we last carried it in 2010), the company decided to ramp up production a bit after learning that many of the brand's admirers were hoarding their bottles rather than drinking them (unsure if they'd be able to replace them once finished). The beauty of the Pendleton 20 year is its straightforward drinkability. Canadian whisky when it's unadulterated can taste much like a lighter version of American rye whiskey, but in this case it's mellower and less spicy. There's nothing hiding beneath the surface here. It's a smooth, satisfying, and seductively simple whiskey. Whereas Scotch and Bourbons are often prized for their power, I would say the beauty of the Pendleton is in its ease. It glides over the palate effortlessly, while still maintaining spice from the oak and richness from the two decades in wood.

Personally, I love a good Canadian whisky because it takes away any of the bullshit that comes with whisky evaluation and focuses it entirely on the enjoyment. Canadian whisky, for me (and I know I'm going to get butchered for saying this), is a simple pleasure. It's to-the-point, succinct, and straightforward. It's rich, smooth, delicious, and easy to love. It's like a John Steinbeck novel. I don't need someone to explain to me why East of Eden or The Grapes of Wrath are good books. They're easy-to-understand masterpieces of American literature. That being said, you're never going to see a college professer teaching a class on Steinbeck because it's all right there on the page! What more can an expert teach you that isn't right there? Professors want to talk about books like Moby Dick or Ulysses or Der Zauberberg because you can interpret them in different ways (plus, you can make a career for yourself by arguing about what they mean). People love to argue about Scotch and Bourbon in the same way, but you rarely hear anyone raise a fuss over Canadian whisky. In the case of the Pendleton, I don't think there's any argument to be made. This is a fucking delicious product, period.

Now let's talk about what they're contracting from Kentucky. While this technically counts as stepping outside the Pacific Northwest region, Hood River does put a nice little Oregon spin on this lovely Bourbon. Trail's End is one of the better third-party American whiskies on the market for a number of reasons, one being the use of actual Kentucky Bourbon in the bottle (rather than the ubiquitous Indiana-distilled MGP Bourbons) and the age statement on the side of the label. This eight year old beauty was contracted and then shipped out to Oregon where it was aged for an additional period in new Oregon oak. The extra spice and toasted character that foreign wood adds to the mix definitely dials up the richness. There's an exotic and woody note that stands out above the standard vanilla and char flavors. For the price, it's one of the more interesting and unique independently-bottled Bourbons that commands a very fair price (thirty five bucks). It's a welcome addition to the category and one of the more drinkable and satisfying new Bourbons I've tasted this year.

I'm happy I can think of Hood River in a completely different context now than I did previously. Before they were simply the people who bought Clear Creek and were probably going to ruin the brand. Now, they're on my list of promotions to watch. I like a little regional competition. The booze business needs it as much today as professional wrestling does.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Oct272016

Whisky Season 2016 – The Final Two

What a great day to finally release these two ancient Islay casks. The drizzle is coming down outside, the light from the warmth of my office is illuminating the bottles, and I'm thinking of how delicious both of these are going to taste later this evening as I sit in my living room with the sound of the rain hitting my rooftop. No one wants to think about sipping an old, complex, and smoky glass of 35 year old Caol Ila when it's 92 degrees outside and the sun is shining. You drink old Caol Ila when the skies are grey, the air is crisp, and you need that bit of Islay warmth to lift your spirits after a day of winter weather. While I'm hoping to get another container of whisky in just before Christmas, I can tell you straight up right now that there's nothing quite this rare from Islay coming later. If all goes well we should have some 40+ year old blends and grains, but nothing this impressive on the malt side. If you're looking for a good holiday gift for that Islay whisky lover, the time is now. You're getting a 24 hour head start here by reading the blog. When the email goes out tomorrow I'm expecting a smoking crater in the warehouse where the Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain were once stacked.

While both of these whiskies are expensive, they're nowhere near the prices we're seeing for similar whiskies from the major players. Diageo released their Port Ellen 14th Edition, a 35 year old expression that I tasted earlier this week and one that very much resembles our Caol Ila edition pictured above. The difference in price, however, is about $2,650 per bottle and most of that is due to the rarity. Bunnahabhain just released a new version of their distillery-direct 25 year old. That's going for around $900-$1000 depending on where you look. Our 28 year old version is three years older and $700 less. We're not necessarily comparing apples to apples here, but you get what I'm saying. The weakened British Pound definitely helped us out and it's going to really help me on this next container. When you deal with merchants like us who buy direct, you get the benefit of the currency exchange (so long as they pass it on to you like we do). When large corporations sell to themselves, you don't. It's that simple. We could have priced the Caol Ila at $500 and I think it would have sold just as fast (especially considering how quickly the Ardbeg 21 went at that price), but that's not how I roll. Both whiskies come in the standard wooden box that we've been using for our Hunter Laing Old & Rare malts in the past, like the Longmorn and Teaninich. We've got some great whiskies scheduled for mid-December, but if you're looking for big names, it won't get much bigger than this. Neither will the quality of the whiskies. These are the two best casks I found on my trip to Scotland this past Spring. I've saved the best for last and I've been waiting for the right day to release them. When I woke up this morning to the sound of rain on my window, I knew that day had come.

1987 Bunnahabhain 28 Year Old "Hunter Laing Old & Rare" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $199.99 - While peated whisky fans will fawn over the 35 year old Caol Ila we're releasing in tandem here, the Bunnahabhain 28 year is the whisky for those who love nuance and restraint. There's no heavy smoke to be inhaled in this jewel of a single malt. There's little smoke, whatsoever, actually. This ancient Islay whisky has everything we love about the standard Bunnahabhain 18, just with an additional ten years in wood and a drinkable cask strength proof of 49.1%. There's that earthy, resinous stonefruit on the palate that we love so much; a creamy and supple texture that haunts your senses. The salted caramel comes in later, washing over the back of the mouth like a wave off the coast of the sea nearby the distillery. Considering the standard edition Bunnahabhain 25 was released earlier this year for a whopping $900 per bottle, our direct import program comes out looking great with this release. For $700 less you get three additional years and an unfiltered, undiluted purity. Fans of Islay whisky will be thrilled with the complexity and the value. Fans of whisky in general should consider grabbing more than one of these. Unfortunately, however, the older the cask, the more the evaporation. There's less than 200 total bottles of this beauty. We recommend grabbing one quickly.

1980 Caol Ila 35 Year Old "Hunter Laing Old & Rare" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $349.99 - We've bought a number of amazing Caol Ila casks over the years, some at just five years of age and others at more than thirty, but there are two things we can say about this particular cask of Caol Ila: we've never had one this old and we've never had one this well-priced considering the market. Experienced whisky drinkers compare old Caol Ila to old Port Ellen, that elusive and rare Islay distillery now selling for thousands of dollars per bottle. While Diageo released the 14th edition this past year, a 35 year old cask strength expression of pure peated splendor, it will run you at least three grand. With this cask strength Caol Ila, we're offering you a whisky that's just as delicious (if not as rare) for about ten percent of that price. If you're looking for decadent Islay goodness, you've got it all here. It's oily, resinous, round on the palate, thick with brandied fruit, but oh so ashy, smoky, salty, and peaty. It's sweet and then it's savory. It's bright, but then it's heavy. It's easy to drink, yet utterly complex. It's the entire package and it comes just in time for the holidays when gifts like this are greatly appreciated by savvy drinkers. We've waited until the end of our most recent container to release this beauty to the world. There are less than 130 bottles available at 56.3% cask strength. Don't let our reasonable price fool you: if you or someone you know likes smoky whisky, this is about as high end as it gets.

To reiterate some points from Tuesday's blog post, do not sleep on these bottles. If you want them, buy them now. They won't be here for long once that email announcement goes out to the big list. There's not much to be had, anyway.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Oct252016

October Updates

With David OG out on leave this month it's been a busy October for lil' Davy D, but we're almost home. I got the big hump out of the way last night: INVENTORY! I haaaaaaaaate inventory. I hate it. I hate waiting around all day for the store to close so I can count every single bottle we have. I hate it because I have to move slowly and be meticulous (two things I'm not very good at, but can do if forced). I hate just thinking about the possibility of potentially doing inventory, but now it's over and I got the entire warehouse cleaned out in the process thanks to my co-worker Andrew who showed up last night to help me out. That was a huge relief.

I've also been working with our Bordeaux team to begin a Bordeaux email newsletter similar to the Whiskey News alerts many of you have been receiving from me for years. You may have noticed we updated the format recently and changed the way sign-up works. It was getting too big for me to manage individually, so now in order to get either newsletter you simply have to login to your account and click "spirits" under email preferences for the Whiskey News, or "Bordeaux" for the Bordeaux news. If you're having trouble figuring that out, send me an email and I'll help you do it. Much like the Whiskey News focuses on under-the-radar selections and new releases, the Bordeaux news will do the same. We just got a new container of wine in from France that has tons of new twenty dollar options for those who like value. I'll probably post a copy on the On the Trail blog later today, so you can see if that's something you'd be interested in learning more about.

Both of my upcoming dinner parties sold out quickly (thanks for the positive reenforcement!), so it looks like I'll have to plan a few more soon. A quick word about our online "real time" inventory. I received a ton of emails after the Bruichladdich event booked up last week about how people "looked online last night and there were plenty of tickets left," but woke up to find out there were no more available. What gives? Well, there are tens of thousands of people reading this blog and getting our spirits emails now, that's what gives. If we have fifty tickets available for a dinner event and that invite goes out to twenty thousand folks, then....well, you can do the math. The internet is a bold new frontier, people. My wife asked me what I wanted for my birthday this past weekend. I told her the new replica Nintendo that's coming out in November, but "you'll never find one," I added. Toys R Us, Amazon, and Best Buy sold out 100% of their pre-order inventory in minutes. The only way to get one now is to hope Target has one available on the morning of November 11th, but I'll have to be on my game to make that happen. If there's something cool out there and it's limited, then the internet has a way of finding out about it. Make it available for purchase from the comfort of your home or office chair, and you can bet the sales lifespan will be short. But this all goes back to the number one rule of shopping: IF YOU WANT SOMETHING AND YOU SEE IT AVAILABLE, THEN BUY IT! If you wait around or sleep on the idea, you do so at your own risk. In today's internet era, you can't sleep on anything.

I did an interview with Fred Minnick and the Whisky Advocate a few weeks back about what it takes to be a whisky customer in today's internet market. I don't know if my quotes will make it into the final piece, but I'll tell you here what I told him over the phone: if you're trying to figure out how to track down the rare American whiskies and the annual limited Fall releases without paying a premium, there's almost nothing you can do at this point. It's an issue that the Bourbon industry will have to address eventually because thousands of customers are looking to take their hobby to the next level and there's nowhere else for them to go. Gift givers want something unique and special for their Bourbon lover at home, and there's just not a lot out there. I'm just starting to get news on this year's allocations and we're talking paltry: two bottles of this, three bottles of that, and six bottles of this—if I'm lucky. With tens of thousands of customers asking about these bottles, that means I can satiate about one out of every 2,000 loyal shoppers. But don't forget about the 100+ K&L employees, their family members, my old friends from high school, that guy I met on the plane last month, my bosses, their friends from high school, every professional athlete in the Bay Area who likes whiskey, and every other person who wants a bottle, too.

How do we allocate them now? That's what everyone wants to know, but I don't have one simple answer. "Give me a black or white answer," people tell me. However, just like everyone has tried to make whiskey black and white for the last decade by using points, systematic reviews, and top ten rankings, they're hoping for the same clear-cut advice about how to get a bottle of rare Bourbon. I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, but the world isn't black and white. There is no "best whisky in the world" and there is no one guaranteed, fail safe way to get these whiskies anymore. I've learned over the years that if you put clear rules into place, it only encourages people to figure out how to get around them. Everything is done in the back of the house now. I might contact a few of my best customers privately first, then randomly put a few on the webpage for the quick-fingered, then give a few to co-workers who have asked politely, then hand out a few in the store to customers who are friendly and polite. You have to mix it up and reach out to various groups. You have to spread these bottles out as best you can to reach as many different folks as possible. That's how I'm going about it now. You can email if you want and ask for a bottle. Just know that I rarely give bottles anymore to people who ask. I usually offer them to people who don't. Fred asked me if I'm annoyed with the whole process at this point. I said, "Absolutely not!" I love helping people. If I can help someone get a bottle of great booze, that never gets old. You just have to be realistic and understand how impossible this has become. If you're angry about the way the market works today, there are plenty of forums online where you can vent. There are plenty of guys out there already talking about the days when Coke cost a nickel and you could get a house in the city for under a hundred grand. That's the place for that conversation.

There's still plenty of fun stuff to look forward to in November. Old Forester is coming out with some new selections, including a 1920 Prohibition Style edition that's supposed to be pretty good. We still have two ultra mature Islay casks to tell you about (both priced very reasonably for their age and stature). I've got a container of new Cognac and Calvados landing featuring blends that I put together last December when I visited both regions. God willing, I'll have another container of Scotch landing mid-December to really finish the year on a celebratory note. That all depends on how fast we can get the TTB and our bottler to approve the details, but I think we can do it. If you're willing to work hard, put your head down, and stay positive, good things will happen.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Oct212016

2016 Cairdeas Arrives

This is Laphroaig's distillery manager and head distiller John Campbell. Every year John puts together what is, for me, one of the best annual limited releases in the single malt industry: the Laphroaig "Cairdeas." Started as a distillery release for the pilgrims of Islay's Feis Ile festival, the label has since become a global release (much to the joy of whisky drinkers everywhere). In the past there's been a port wood edition, an amontillado sherry finish, and a 100% in-house floor malted expression, and in 2012 it was just a tasty whisky. This time around it's a Madeira cask finish, so there's a glaze of soft, honeyed sweet wine that highlights the trademark peat and iodine. We had a one bottle limit on this earlier in the week, but I figured we had enough now to remove any restrictions. Go for it! Treat yourself to some deliciousness.

Laphroaig 2016 "Cairdeas" Madeira Cask Islay Single Malt Whisky $79.99 - Each year Laphroaig's Master Distiller, John Campbell, handcrafts a limited edition malt to celebrate friendship ("Cairdeas" in Gaelic). The 2016 bottling features fully-matured Laphroaig aged in ex-bourbon barrels before being blended together for a second maturation in Madeira seasoned traditional hogsheads. The result is a classically smoky Laphroaig with accents of sweet fruits and honey around the edges. Bottled at 51.6%, the extra kick helps balance out the additional richness.

-David Driscoll

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