Wednesday
Jul012015

Marketing or Truth?

I'd be the first person to tell you that the alcohol industry is built on marketing necessity. When there's a glut of old whiskey to be sold, age matters. When there's a shortage, maybe flavor is more important. When Bordeaux has great weather for the year, it's the "vintage of a lifetime". When the weather isn't so great, they'll tell you "great producers can make great wine from any vintage." There's an endless supply of marketing spin in this business. I could keep going like this for hours. I could tell you how the only reason we even have single cask single malts at K&L is because the bottom dropped out of the blending market and all these guys didn't know what to do with the leftover barrels, but that would take all the fun out of drinking, wouldn't it?

When it comes to marketing, you play with the hand you're dealt. You try and turn something unique into something positive, or put a happy spin on circumstance. That's just the nature of the game. The goal is to tell a story and to make people feel excited about being a part of the process. Sometimes those stories are accurate, and other times they're a bit of a stretch. But there is one popular slogan making the rounds lately that isn't just ballyhoo, and deals with the truth of the situation staring all of us directly in the face: the quality of alcohol has never been better than it is today. That's not marketing; it's reality. There's so much good booze being produced today—from craft beer to craft whiskey, and from that little co-op in Napa Valley to the finest chateaux in Bordeaux—that we're running out of space at K&L. Five years ago I would taste maybe five new products a week. Now I'm tasting five new products every few hours. Where the hell is all this stuff coming from?! And how is it that so many of these new products are absolutely delicious?

Some whiskey drinkers have a hard time dealing with this issue because in their mind the retail shelves have never been barer. Where's the affordable Brora? Where's the Pappy? Where's all that old whiskey I used to be able to buy? Here's the thing: many of those whiskies we grew to love were also based on necessity, or simply the surplus of a stagnant economy. Most of these producers did not originally set out to make twenty or thirty year old whiskies back in the day. They just happened to make more than they could sell, so they sat on their inventory until the market came back around (and come back around it did). Now that the whiskey business is booming again they're no longer holding back—"let's sell while the sellin's good" is the mantra of the day. Sure, that comes at the expense of all the really old stuff. That's a given. But if you only drink really old whiskey and you think whiskey only tastes good when it's really old, then you're fucked. I don't know what else to tell you, other than there are 5,000,000 other delicious things out there to drink other than really old whiskey.

However, if you drink more than just old whiskey, and your interests span across all genres, then there's no doubt that we're living in a new renaissance of alcohol. When you look at the quality of what's being produced, and the amount that's being produced each day, I don't think anyone can argue the fact that there are more quality options of wine, beer, and spirits to choose from than ever before. Talk to our Bordeaux experts at K&L. They'll tell you they've never before tasted so much good wine from the region as they have recently. Winemaking practices have improved, smaller producers have taken the necessary steps to clean up their act, and the category has taken a huge step forward as a result. "Today you can get great Bordeaux for $20-$30, and there are so many small producers making excellent wines," our senior specialist Ralph Sands told me the other day. "That's what I'm filling my cellar with," he added. Not only are the wines better, but they're more approachable in their youth. Many of them don't need much maturity, which marks a huge change from the hugely-tannic wines of the past. If you need examples, there's no better proof than this bottle of St. Estephe—the 2009 Tronquoy de St. Anne—for $16.99. The property is located across the street from Chateau Montrose (a wine that sold for $300 that vintage), and is capable of aging for the next five to seven years. I honestly can't tell you if I've ever tasted a Bordeaux this good, for this cheap. Why is it so inexpensive? Because there's too much strong competition out there to justify charging more. When the market floods itself with quality products, then prices eventually go down.

If you need more evidence then look at the emergence of high-quality canned beer, or wine-in-a-box (hell, even wine in a can!). Every night, when we close the Redwood City store, I walk over to the cooler and I look at the 500+ beers we now stock (none of which we carried five years ago), and I choose one of many delicious, ice cold, aluminium cans to enjoy as I count the registers. Avery Brewing "Joe's Pilsner, or maybe the Ballast Point "Scuplin" IPA. Beer has never been as diverse or exciting of a category as it is right now, and there's a new label out there every thirty seconds. There's no way you can possibly keep up with the innovation currently being seen in the American brewing scene. It's growing at an unheard of rate and it doesn't look to be slowing down any time soon. I could drink a new beer every single day for the next year and never come close to working through our complete inventory. There are now more internet message boards about brewing than distilling, and beer geeks are far more die-hard about getting their Pliny than the Bourbon guys ever were about Pappy.

We have so much new gin at K&L that half of it doesn't even fit on the shelf. We found so much new Armagnac this year in Gascony, we might have to start recruiting college kids at parties to help drink it all. I've already been solicited with fourteen new agave spirits just this week. There's a sheet on my desk about ten new rums from the Caribbean. A guy from New Zealand just sent me an email about his latest single malt project, and another guy from the Central Valley just asked if I'd be interested in custom-made liqueurs. Come to one of our California wine tastings—you'd never believe this much good Chardonnay existed in the entire history of the state. Or talk to our New Zealand buyer Ryan Woodhouse—every day he finds a new pinot noir that beats out the one he found last week (which at that point was the best pinot noir we carried). It's absolutely crazy. I don't know how people keep up. And that's the point! There's so much good booze out there right now that you'll never even come close to tasting 1/1000th of it. In fact, it's so overwhelming at times that I often just pour myself a vodka on the rocks and try to numb myself to death. I have to just forget about it, or risk permanently floating my liver.

Of course, when you have this much good stuff, it means you have twice as much bad stuff. So in turn, I guess I would also have to say: there's never been as much bad booze as there is today. But you know how to read between the lines.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jun302015

2015 Single Malt Whisky Casks

Remember when this blog was primarily about whisky? Ah, those were heady days. Never fear though single malt fans because we're still bringing in tons of new K&L exclusive barrels for you to enjoy this calender year. We're just finalizing some of our purchase orders as we speak (or as I type this), so I thought I'd give you a small peak at what we're working on. We've got a boat full of hooch ready to leave Scotland very, very soon, and since I know some of you like to get your finances in order before landing, let's take a look at some of the forthcoming K&L releases.

From Signatory:

1981 Glenlivet in sherry

1995 Benrinnes hogshead

1988 Blair Athol in sherry

1990 Glen Elgin ex-Bourbon

1996 Glenlivet in sherry

1985 Linkwood hogshead (the star of the show)

1995 Imperial hogshead

There will be a few other surprises in this group, but you can count on these babies right out of the gate. Four of them are the sister casks to barrels we imported last year; whiskies so good we had people literally begging us for more.

From Hepburn's Choice:

More young peated whiskies (i.e. Caol Ila, Talisker, etc)

More affordable Highland whiskies in their high teens (including an 18 year Clynelish hogshead, and a sherry butt of Inchgower that will make your fucking head spin)

More older grains under the Sovereign label

A smattering of old and rare whiskies (including an 18 year old Springbank in sherry that lit the room on fire at my last private tasting, plus a pair of 40+ year olds in sherry)

We've trimmed down the list a bit this year to include only whiskies of supreme value, supreme quality, and supreme decadence. You'll have the choice of young and interesting, old and unknown, or really old and really good.

You're going to be happy. Trust me.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Jun302015

Every Day Give Yourself a Present

I was definitely overwhelmed by the response yesterday’s tribute to my grandmother garnered. I had almost one hundred emails by the day’s end from customers all over the country who took the time to drop me a line; many who felt a certain kinship with Helen and her love affair with gin martinis. Let me say this: my grandmother would have been absolutely thrilled had she been alive to read all of these messages. She would have been downright giddy. So thank you to everyone who chimed in. My family is extremely thankful for your sympathy and well wishes.

I learned one of the most important lessons in my booze career from my grandmother, when she taught me that giving people exactly what they want is sometimes more rewarding than expanding their horizons. When I first got the job at K&L I told her specifically how much great Champagne we had in stock, and how I couldn’t wait to send her some; Helen being a big fan of the bubbly. She responded by telling me she had always wanted to try Dom Perignon, but had never been able to afford it. She had always pictured the monks out in the field (back when that was still happening), tending to the vines, making one of the world’s most revered liquids, and she would tell me how just the thought of having a glass would often send chills up her spine. Me being new to the industry and eager to show off my chops, I told her about all the other incredible K&L exclusive Champagnes we carried; many of which were cheaper in price and higher in quality than Dom Perignon, in my opinion. She thought that was interesting, so I sent her a bottle of Frank Bonville “Belles Voyes” (the best Champagne we carry, in my opinion) which I know she enjoyed. She told me later on “it was nice.” She thanked me profusely. “Oh, it was just lovely,” were her words. But I could tell from the tone in her voice that it hadn't really moved her the way a bottle of Dom would have. Drinking the Bonville wasn’t going to go down in history as a memorable moment for her, which is ultimately the experience I had hoped to give her.

The next year when my mother went up to visit Helen, it was Mother’s Day weekend and a Champagne shipment was most definitely in order. This time around I didn’t make the same mistake. I sent the Dom Perignon—a Champagne that wasn’t nearly as delicious as the “Belles Voyes” in my opinion, but was what I ultimately knew she wanted. At that point, I was completely focused on my grandmother’s dream of living out one of her most-coveted fantasies, and the romanticism she felt towards Dom Perignon the brand, which was far more powerful than the elegant and refined flavors of the Bonville. It wasn’t about drinking “the best” for her, or deciphering quality. It was about feeling special, and getting the chance to experience something she never thought she would have the chance to enjoy for herself. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with her the next day after she and my mother drained that bottle. She was so happy. She was absolutely thrilled. That bottle of Dom Perignon had made her entire year.

That moment created a serious sea change in my customer service philosophy, and ultimately in the way I looked at the intentions of my job. Up until that point I considered my responsibilities as a wine store specialist to include both knowing which wines were best, and informing our customers of my own personal opinions as to which selections represented a better value. If someone came in and said, “My dad loves Johnnie Walker Blue, what can we get him?” I figured it was my job to say in return, “Well, I have something even better.” After realizing how happy the Dom Perignon made my grandmother, however, I started asking people what they specifically wanted, and then did my best to give them just that. Being a specialist of any kind can cause some of us to get a little preachy. We think our main purpose is to enlighten people and educate them, but it's not. We're just here to connect the dots. If someone asks me a question, I'll be happy to answer it, but I'll never force my opinion upon anyone at this point. Because let tell you about my grandmother and the time I tried to convince her there was a Champagne "better" than Dom Perignon. It didn't work out the way I had hoped, unfortunately.

The other thing my grandmother believed in deeply was a daily ritual—a moment each day when she would stop, sit down, relax, and give herself something special. That moment usually included a gin martini, as you all know. One of the emails I received yesterday actually recommended that I lobby to make June 29th “National Helen Felber Gin Martini Day”; an honor which I can tell you my grandmother would have enjoyed whole-heartedly. Except that Helen Felber didn’t believe in indulging herself merely one day per year. She never even considered the word “annual” when thinking about her martini. She believed in the idea of daily indulgence—that every afternoon was an opportunity for reflection and reward. So I say to you—those of us who want to do the memory of my gin-loving grandmother a certain dignity—we should make each day a memorial. Or maybe I should leave you with this classic line from Twin Peaks; a show my grandmother enjoyed greatly seeing that it was filmed in her own backyard:

Every single day should be "Helen Felber Gin Martini Day" because every single day we're alive to celebrate with a cold drink is worth recognizing.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Jun292015

In Memory

Last night one of the world's great gin connoisseurs passed quietly in her sleep from this world into the next. She was ninety-four years old. You might remember Helen Felber, former owner and bartender of the 219 Saloon, from a series of gin-related blog posts I did a few years back (click here to read her thoughts on the subject). I, of course, remember her as my grandmother. She was a woman who enjoyed simple, yet elegant pleasures; Chanel and Champagne should they be available. But what she enjoyed more than anything in life was sitting out on her deck every afternoon, watching the animals in her front yard, and sipping a cold gin martini—shaken, not stirred—with a few olives.

She will be missed.

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Jun282015

Too Cool For School

One of the reasons I love working in the booze industry is because of the opportunities it allows me to be out and about. Socializing, traveling, having a cocktail at a nearby restaurant—these are all aspects of my job that require me to interact with other people, both professionally and personally. I love talking to people; it’s always something that’s come very naturally to me. But what a few people have noticed lately is the movement of my eyes, constantly scanning the room for action while we’re engaging. I’m listening, but I’m also observing.

“Are you trying to find someone?” a person asked me at an event earlier this week.

“No, I’m just watching this guy over in the corner while we’re chatting,” I said. “He’s putting on quite a show.”

I love people-watching when I’m out on the town, both because I think human behavior is a fascinating thing and the fact that I’m constantly looking to improve my own understanding of certain personalities. Working with the public requires you to morph into whatever incarnation of customer service your client requires, and there’s no better classroom in my opinion than the public sphere. When you watch people behave in various social settings, you get a better idea of what motivates their intentions and how they expect you to react in turn. From there, you can decide whether you want to play along or not.

For example, there’s a very particular personality out there that I call “too cool for school”—a person who is constantly trying to downplay their enthusiasm, especially in relation to the enthusiasm of those around them. Whatever excites you doesn’t excite them, and what might arouse you will bore them to death. You can imagine my run-ins with these people considering I’m like an excited young puppy sometimes, unabashedly enthusiastic about numerous things in life. What’s ironic is that these folks who are “too cool for school” think that by acting uninterested and unmoved by the scene around them, other people are taking them more seriously as a result—like when someone who tells you they don’t watch TV honestly thinks that: 1) you actually believe them, and 2) that people who don’t watch TV are smarter than people who do. It’s the opposite, however. When it’s an act people can tell instantly, and many of us do our best to run from such behavior—quickly and quietly.

As you might guess, the wine and spirits world is full of such people, but there are just as many honest and genuine folks to balance them out, which is nice. At a party I attended in LA earlier this week I met a prominent restaurateur who just opened his ninth successful establishment in the city. As a theme, his bars are incredibly atmospheric and center around fun rather than the more serious pre-Prohibition approach that’s so popular at the moment.

“I can make you a kick-ass Manhattan. That’s not an issue,” he told me as we shared a drink. “But so can five thousand other guys around the country. Proficiency isn’t enough anymore. It’s expected. What about fun? Don’t you want to have a memorable time when you’re out?”

“What’s funny, is people think you have to do one or the other,” I said, taking a sip of my cocktail. “They think only intensely-straight-faced bartenders are going to be taken seriously. Smiling, showing emotion, and being enthusiastic mean you don’t know what you’re talking about, and that’s the kiss of death for snobby booze people.”

“Everyone’s too cool for school,” he answered.

“Hey, that’s what I say!” I yelled in response. “But you’ve really put yourself out there with your thematic elements. You’re inviting people to make a judgment as to whether they’re going to feel comfortable doing both simultaneously. Anyone who can’t have a good time at your bar isn’t someone I want to hang out with anyway, so I’m sure you bring in a pretty laid-back crowd.”

“I think if you can strive towards quality while having fun, people will ultimately respect you for it.”

“Amen, brother,” I said. “You and I are cut from the same cloth.”

As a retailer, I want people to enjoy coming to K&L. It should be fun, and our customers should feel comfortable, which is why I make an attempt to learn everyone's name who shops there frequently. I remember going to Manhattan a few years back and visiting one of my favorite clothing stores, only to find that the salesman working there was the same guy I had been dealing with in San Francisco for years. He had apparently switched locations, and yet here I was running into him 3,000 miles away.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I asked with a smile. “I didn’t expect to run into you out here.”

“Do I know you?” he replied with a frown. This coming from a guy who clearly recognized me, and who had sold me dozens of shirts, pants, sweaters, and suits on numerous occasions.

“Oh, we’re playing that game,” I thought to myself as I walked off.

“I knew that guy was too cool for school;” my wife said to me as we left.

“I bet he doesn’t watch TV either,” I replied to her with a smirk.

“He should,” she answered, “Because he really knows how to put on a show.”

-David Driscoll