A Blend of Ideas

We had a lot to discuss with Suntory's master blender Shinji Fukuyo this morning in the San Francisco store. While I snapped a few photos, Andrew Stevens (the booze man in the SF store, if you didn't know) waxed philosophical about the trends he's noticed in the retail environment. I threw out a couple of zingers as well, for instance: why even sell Yamazaki to retailers at this point? Give it all to the bars and restaurants who will sell individual pours to the public and maximize the impact of each bottle. Do I really care at this point whether I get my six bottles of 18 year? Those bottles mean very little to our overall sales numbers in the grand scheme of things. Another deep thought I shared: do you think the guys who shell out for the Yamazaki Sherry Cask edition are the ideal Suntory customers, or do you think they're more often than not just trophy hunters who have never bought one bottle of Toki or Hibiki and have little interest in supporting the general Suntory brand? Because in my experience, the guys who lust after Yamazaki today have no interest in Toki; yet that's the very whisky Mr. Fukuyo is most interested in promoting right now. It's an interesting situation because Toki was made specifically for the U.S. market. It was made with the interests of the American drinker in mind, but it's definitely a primo session whisky if there ever was one. It's the type of whisky you drink in a Highball or on the rocks in large volumes. But do our customers in America still drink that way? I don't know. I get the feeling most people want Japanese whisky these days because it's rare and exotic rather than because it's delicious. That synopsis begs the question: can you build a new foundation of whisky drinkers on something like Toki? Something that stresses drinkability and finesse over rarity and age?

"We're all gonna find out together!" I said with a big grin as we shook hands on the way out. Both Andrew and I were honored by the visit and the chance to exchange ideas with Suntory's head honcho. I'm hoping we didn't overwhelm him!

-David Driscoll


Post-Brexit Luxury

This cask introduction really needs very little explanation. Just know this: I was offered similar casks this week for prices nearly triple the cost below. Personally, I'm not interested in an entire cask of Macallan for $800 or more per bottle. But for $299.99? That I can do. Especially when it tastes this good. I sold twenty bottles within ten minutes of putting this product on the K&L web page. I expect a mushroom cloud when the email launches later this week. Macallan is still a very popular whisky. I can't keep the standard 25 year in stock even at $1700 a bottle. I wonder what's going to happen when those same guys see this offer?

1993 Macallan 23 Year Old "Old Particular - K&L Exclusive" Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch Whisky $299.99 - This single cask of barrel strength Macallan 23 represents our biggest coup yet in the post-Brexit Scotch era. We're living in whisky world where Macallan 25 now costs $1700 per bottle. If the distillery even offered a cask strength edition of that expression it would easily be over $2000. Yet somehow, someway, we've managed to secure a single barrel of 23 year old Macallan at full proof for a shocking $299. One of the main differences you'll find in the Old Particular offering is the lack of sherry influence, which would normally be the calling card of the distillery version. Rather than toffee and cakebread, this single hogshead cask highlights the finesse and fruitiness of the Highland legend. With ample vanilla, dried apricot, oak spice, and plenty of sweet malted barley on the finish, the flavors are dialed up at 110.2 proof, so a bit of water is recommended. Macallan is one of the most graceful and effortless whiskies in the world, qualities that have cemented its status as the elite Scottish single malt distillery. We have to imagine this will be the last time we're able to offer a whisky of this status at this price. Having just gone back to find more this past month, prices were upward of $800 per bottle for casks of the same maturity.

-David Driscoll


A Breakout Addition

As I was getting ready to send out the email for the 2014 Domaine de Chevalier I mentioned in this morning's post, I noticed this paragraph in a review of the vintage by Vinous head critic Antonio Galloni:

Most importantly, 2014 is a very consumer friendly year. The market for Bordeaux tends to divide between those vintages that are considered ‘great’ and are therefore subject to massive price speculation, and those that are ‘average’, which are seen as much less desirable by many marker constituents. This market dynamic creates a significant opportunity for savvy consumers to pick up any number of gorgeous wines at fair prices. Two thousand fourteen is an ideal vintage for consumers who buy wines to actually drink them (because prices should mostly be favorable) and members of the wine trade who have a commitment to serving those consumers. The 2015s, and most likely also the 2016s, will be surrounded by much more market hype. Some of that enthusiasm will be warranted, some not, but what is almost certain is that both vintages will be more expensive in bottle than the 2014s.

Note the sentence: "for customers who actually drink them"?

That's exactly what I was talking about in the State of the Union post on Friday. With Bordeaux it's already common knowledge that many people are buying for reasons other than consumption.

-David Driscoll


A Breakout Moment

Why is the K&L Bordeaux group hanging out at Domaine de Chevalier, smiling alongside owner Oliver Bernard and his sons? Because we all knew what was imminent at the time. The wines of this underrated Pessac-Léognan property have been too good for too long to remain a secret and, having tasted through the upcoming offerings during our visit, we were all taken aback. With two incredible vintages at the "secret garden" in 2014 and 2015, along with pricing that—compared to the similarly-rated Médoc properties—is about half of what it should be, we all knew 2017 was going to be Chevalier's time in the spotlight. That reality hit home last week when the 2014 vintage was rescored by Vinous and the Domaine came out the clear winner, dollar for dollar. If you've ever been interested in collecting a few Bordeaux bottles for your cellar, this is one of those moments when you have to act. I spent all day Friday locking down allocations from France, trying to catch the negociants before their weekend, to make sure we had enough wine for a big email today. As is the case with Bordeaux, you have to order and pay in advance, but let me tell you: this wine will not be $49.99 by the time it makes it here in bottle. Expect $70+ or more once the other retailers get their hands on some inventory. I put in my order on Friday for a case.

Remember when Old Pulteney 21 won "Best Whisky in the World" and the prices doubled overnight? This is going to be a similar moment for Domaine de Chevalier. When the fifty dollar Bordeaux gets the same rating as the hundred and fifty dollar Bordeaux, you know you've got something special. I've got the full story here over at On the Trail if you're intrigued. 

-David Driscoll


The State of the Union: 2017

It's funny every once and a while to eavesdrop on the K&L phone staff chatting about whiskey with a customer. You still hear a lot of this:

"No, we don't expect any more Weller 12 any time soon."

"No, there's no Elmer T. Lee and we don't think we'll have it available any time soon."

"Pappy? Are you kidding?"

I used to get a lot of that kind of thing in the store and via email, but I think most people are hip to the game at this point. That being said, I don't get a lot of other Bourbon questions as a result. Things I rarely ever hear anymore would be:

"What's a good, everyday Bourbon?"

"What's an interesting new Bourbon out there?"

"What's an under the radar Bourbon I might not ever have tried?"

I have my own personal feelings about the future of whiskey in 2017 and—to put it shortly—I think there's going to be a reckoning for those predicting increased growth in the industry. It's simple: a large percentage of whiskey "drinkers" out there aren't actually drinking whiskey. They're interested in acquiring whiskey, experimenting with whiskey, researching their whiskey, pouring samples into tiny bottles, and sharing their opinions about those experiences. The only thing drawing those people in is the rarity or singularity of the opportunity. Once that's taken away from them, there's nothing left for them to enjoy.

I hate to break it those folks, but 2017 will not be the year the Bourbon industry unleashes dozens of new and exciting releases, each over ten years of age, cask strength in proof, and at prices that everyone can afford. As a result, 2017 will be the year that thousands and thousands of Bourbon "drinkers" all over the country will walk away from the category.

But that's not going to happen because Bourbon in 2017 doesn't taste as good as it used to; on the contrary! Bourbon in 2017 is going to taste as good as it always has. The shelves will still be full with plenty of delicious, well-priced options. That's not the issue. The people who walk away from American whiskey this year will be the same people who only just discovered it; they'll move away from Bourbon because the very thing that originally brought them into the genre is now unavailable. In my opinion, a certain percentage of the growth (I can't say exactly how much because this is all speculatory) the category has experienced over the last decade has been founded on the market's boutique segment and the prestige associated with tracking down those rare releases. Now that there's no more boutique Bourbon out there, do you think the guys who spend all their free time Pappy hunting are going to settle for drinking Four Roses Yellow Label? Or standard Maker's Mark? Do you think the guy who has every Willett private edition bottling from 2006 to 2013 gives a shit about Very Old Barton?

I don't.

At the same time, I don't expect the guy who once paid $120 for Pappy 20 to now pay $550 for a bottle of Michter's 20. Why would you pay more for less? The same thing happened to the Bordeaux market about five years ago. The prices for the top wines had shot up due to Robert Parker's popularity and the market became a feeding frenzy for wealthy collectors. But when the prices kept creeping up and all the hoopla of the 2005, 2009, and 2010 vintages wore off, the château owners got a little dose of reality during the less attractive 2011, 2012, and 2013 harvests. When the trophy wines were gone, the "vintage of a lifetime" moniker absent, and all you had was classic, drinkable, dependable Bordeaux, no one seemed to be interested anymore (even though the wines were still perfectly delicious!). The Bordalais discovered there had been little growth in the actual consumption of Bordeaux, but rather that thousands and thousands of collectors and hobbyists had been caught up in the cultural hype and created that incredible growth out of a desire to participate. The château owners thought the increased sales they had experienced indicated a new renaissance for the category, when in reality it pointed to a mere pop culture faddism. Take away the 95+ point reviews and all of a sudden no one feels like drinking anymore. Isn't it funny how that works?

Personally, I'm not worried. The fact that I was just able to buy a mountain of the Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Bourbon is the result of this phase in the market (and it's good news for people who actually like to drink). This was my favorite Bourbon release of 2016: a rich, weighty, oily, supple mouthful of Bourbon goodness at 115 proof for a reasonable mid-range price. Yet, because it's not allocated or age-stated, there's plenty to be had. I've learned a lot about comparative analytics since becoming K&L's assistant head buyer last year and having worked extensively with our head buyer and owner Clyde Beffa Jr. They call Clyde "the King of the Off-Vintage" in Bordeaux because while everyone else is clammering for the hot vintages like 2000, 2005, and 2009, he's looking for deals in less-hyped years like 2001, 2007, and 2012. He's much more excited when he finds an overlooked $20 gem from 1998, than a $4000 case of Haut-Brion from 1995. But that's because Clyde likes to actually drink Bordeaux, not fawn over it or show it off. He drinks Bordeaux every night of the week. He's basically just looking out for his own interests and the people who shop for Bordeaux at K&L are thrilled to enjoy the same benefits.

Expect a similar philosophy in the K&L spirits department this year: looking out for the interests of drinkers who drink because they like drinking. 

-David Driscoll