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Sunday
May142017

Photos From the Vault

Speaking of Bowie (from the previous post), I was visiting my parents in Modesto this weekend for Mother's Day and I came across a box of old concert photos I shot while in high school. My folks have a scanner now, so I sat down and began digitizing some of the good ones. I think I was a sophomore when I took this picture of David Bowie back in 1995. 

I was lucky enough to get to see him a few times before he stopped touring and I was a master of manipulating ticket lines back then, so I always got seats near the front. Those were the days....

-David Driscoll

Saturday
May132017

Singles and Albums

I’ve long used music as an analogy for alcohol when talking with consumers, but lately it seems like the spirits game is beginning to resemble the actual business of music, rather than the art form itself. The idea that pop culture cycles—movements that used to define decades and span a similar length of time—are now speeding up into two year blips on the radar is a concept I’ve been fixated on for the past few months. When we think of music (or at least when I do), I still compartmentalize it into the decade from which it came. When I think of the fifties, I think of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. For the sixties, it’s the Beatles. In the seventies, you can go classic rock, punk, or disco. The eighties is clearly characterized by the birth of hip-hop, new wave, and post-punk. The nineties had the grunge and alternative movement, and in the 2000s we had…….

We had….uh….

What did we have?

We had the internet—that’s what. The birth of the world wide web completely changed the way trends unfurled and developed throughout the world, which is why our decades of pop culture dominance ended in its wake. You no longer had to wait years for trends to permeate into the far reaches of the planet. Kids everywhere could look at pictures, watch videos, and connect with people in the blink of an eye, allowing them to see what was happening in other cities and countries around the globe. With the internet, musical movements began fizzling out within a year or two, rather than ten. I remember discovering new bands back around 2008 that were already breaking up by the end of 2009. Can you imagine how much faster cultural movements are spreading today with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram now? It’s crazy to think about. Before you can even figure out what’s happening these days it’s already over. 

For most of my lifetime the booze game has been dominated by brands—recognizable labels that became stronger over time and developed deep and lasting loyalties with consumers. People defined themselves by the bottles that they drank and took pride in calling themselves a Jack Daniel’s guy. Unlike the music business, which has always sustained itself on fresh new blood and reacted to even the most fickle trends in the market, the booze game has always required strategic planning. Throwing an eighteen year old heartthrob into a recording studio to croon out a melodramatic pop single takes no longer than an afternoon, but building a distillery? That’s a much heavier investment and it’s not a plan that allows itself much flexibility. Of course, that was never a problem for the big players in the spirits game because they were planning to dominate the industry for decades, if not centuries. They didn’t need the ability to turn on a dime and react to the ever-changing fashions in front of them. While booze has long played a role in pop culture, it has never been governed by the laws of pop culture. Until now. 

I’ve had a number of conversations over the past week with some of my long-time friends in the industry, and almost all of them were centered by a concern over what’s been happening as of late. Gaining serious traction as a spirits brand seems almost impossible at the moment. No one seems to be able to get a foothold anymore. One day you’re on top of the world, selling cases to everyone knocking on your door, but six months later you’re wondering why nobody ever reordered. Was it not any good? Did some bad press leak out from one of the major magazines? No, it wasn’t that. Then what was it? It may simply be that your time is up! In my opinion, we’re seeing pop culture cycles for spirits brands that are mimicking the same limited exposure periods granted to any musician in today’s market. As a brand owner, you might have the world's most popular gin for 2017, but I can guarantee you that by 2018 there will be three new gins to knock you off that perch, grab your market share, and leave you in the dust. 

Just like I got rid of my Cinderella, Bon Jovi, and Warrant cassette tapes when the nineties hit, I think we’re going to see today’s modern drinkers continually evolve and outgrow their latest discoveries. While that’s nothing new in the world of booze, I think the kicker here is that it’s going to happen at a pace that’s unsustainable for the industry. You can’t build a distillery with the intention of selling booze for three solid years until the limelight fades and the next new brand comes along—it’s a terrible business plan. Yet, this is exactly what’s happening right now (without the intention, of course). What’s even more shocking is that major corporations are circling in these murky waters, searching for fresh new blood just like record producers, and gobbling up these upstarts thinking they’ve just hit gold. And maybe they have! But for how long? A year? Two years? Three years? What are you going to do with all that infrastructure once the cycle ends and a new one begins? If I were a big booze company, I would be scared to death about that possibility. If the contracts for Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam had each come with tens of millions of dollars of music equipment and debt, I’m not so sure the Seattle scene would have ever happened.

It’s easy to stay on top when you’re a big fish in a small pond, but making it as a pop star today has to be harder than it’s ever been, mainly because of all the competition. Every fifteen year old kid from here to Dubai has a YouTube audition video for American Idol. There are no longer gatekeepers in the record industry. Any aspiring teenager with enough money (and a little talent) can put together a track on an Apple laptop, edit it cheaply with Garageband, and upload it to the internet in seconds, flooding the market with more than it could ever handle. The spirits game seems to be the new rock and roll for a number of bright-eyed youngsters today. Rather than a guitar for Christmas, they want a pot still. The problem here for big booze companies is that these passionate kids are not just dicking around in their parents’ garage, plastering xeroxed posters on the streets for a live show at the local pizza parlor. They’re getting actual bottles to market, support from hungry distributors, and taking up coveted shelf real estate at every bottle shop in the country. The once-small pond for distillation has turned into a raging sea over the last few years. Again, it’s easy to remain a pop culture darling when there’s no one to replace you, but now that we have hundreds of new distilleries eager for their chance on top, it’s a completely different game. The cycles are speeding up.

I was talking with Copper & Kings owner Joe Heron yesterday about various music analogies, and he came up with a doozy. I was discussing the split in direction that seems to be happening between on-premise and off-premise fads in the booze game (retailers vs. bars and restaurants), and how they’re no longer parallel markets. Today you can completely strike out in the retail world, but find incredible success in the mixology scene. “It’s a bit like the difference between a single and a full album, isn’t it?” Joe said. 

“Oh my God,” I answered; “You’re 100% right.”

The music industry has seen a similar split between older audiences who still cling to the concept of an album, and younger audiences that just want to listen to the songs they like. The purchase of a single track requires much less of an investment and it can be added to a playlist of other singles to create a mix of whatever suits the listener. “Going out on the town,” Joe continued, “they can order a few different shots or a cocktails and create their own playlist based on whatever they’re into at the moment.” Today’s curious drinker no longer has to invest in an entire bottle, so long as there are bars and restaurants that have enough of a selection. I’ve seen that mentality continue to attack the retail side as well, with younger customers continually asking for minis, sample sizes, and smaller options that don’t require them to commit to a full bottle. That won't happen in the short term because there's no money in small sizes for retailers or producers (part of the reason why record stores no longer exist), but a bartender on the other hand can make a killing off of one ounce pours. 

As I’ve written numerous times before, drinking spirits today has less to do with drinking than with experimenting. Alcohol is now as much of a pop culture phenomenon as music or fashion, and as such it’s being governed by the same cycles and demands. A bottle of wine or whisky on the table is no different than a designer hand bag or a rock T-shirt. It now says: “Look at me. Look at what I’m showing you. What does this tell you about me?” While thousands of pop stars have come and gone over the years, there is always that handful of artists capable of reinvention. David Bowie comes to mind. Madonna is another. In order for a spirits brand to remain competitive in this new world of pop culture competition, it’s going to require that same ability for adaptation. Ultimately, that’s what pop culture values most—a keen understanding of what’s happening now. It’s always been a competition. It’s always been about showing the world that you’re up-to-speed on the latest trends and styles, and that you’re always one step ahead of the game. Booze brands today definitely understand that part of the business, which is why you’re seeing more limited edition and seasonal products than ever before. One-off bottlings allow them to experiment with a more modern approach without risking their older and more foundational audiences. 

Even with those limited releases, I'm not sure they will be enough to sustain the growing number of small distilleries today. It's not enough to be good anymore. It's not enough to be new, either. As a spirits brand in 2017, you have to be exciting, hip, cutting edge, tradtionally-minded, and of a tremendous quality. Even with all those qualities, however, you may only have a year or two in the sun. Information moves quickly in the internet age. Fashion, even faster.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
May112017

Currently My Favorite Bottle

There are always customers who want to know what we're drinking at K&L. While most might ask for a good bottle of cabernet, or a great single malt recommendation, there are always those inquisitive folks who say: "I want to know what you're into right now." My answer would be the bottle pictured in the above photo. Of all the spirits we have in the store currently, this particular one is my fascination: the Rancho Tepua Bacanora. To be clear, I have a bit of a soft spot for bacanora because of my in-laws. My mother-in-law is from Sonora, the Mexican state from which bacanora originates, so I've been the lucky recipient of a bottle here and there over the last decade when she or one of her sisters comes back from visiting relatives. What is bacanora, you ask? It's a form of mezcal made from agave pacifica, a particular species that grows in the mountains of Sonora and is used for distillation. When made with care and an eye for quality, it can rival the best tequilas of Jalisco and mezcales of Oaxaca. The problem has always been getting your hands on some of the good stuff. Much like German pinot noir, most of the best examples never leave the region. The Sonoran locals have tremendous pride in their bacanora, so rarely have the top specimen been exported to the states because it's being consumed locally. That's part of my excitement. I've never tasted anything this good before from Sonora. Let me tell you: the Rancho Tepua is really, really good bacanora and it's here on the shelf for anyone to buy.

What does it taste like? Like the best parts of tequila and mezcal fused into one glorious spirit. You get the sweet baking spices and the clean citrus flavors of an ArteNOM or Fortaleza blanco, but with a subtle roasted hint that comes from a thirty-six hour roast in a mesquite oven. You see, distiller Roberto Contreras comes from a storied family of cattle ranchers in Sonora, one that established itself in the mountains of Aconchi back in the mid-1800s. Today, cattle is still the main focus of Roberto and his wife Lupita (as it's a big part of the Sonoran economy), which should help you understand the mesquite oven roasting a bit more in terms of cooking the agave. In fact, the logo on the front of the label is the same brand that's seered into the hide of each cow. But Roberto's father was a distiller, as was his father, so bacanora distillation was always a part of the family business in addition to beef. 

Much of my fascination with bacanora comes from the fact that I married into a Sonoran family, so I'm naturally interested in my wife's culture and heritage. But for those of you who just like well-made, delicious, and pure flavored agave spirits, this bottle is an absolute must. It's bottled at 48.2% as well, so there's a little kick on the finish. The price is also right, which helps. I can't say enough good things here. Get a bottle and you'll see exactly what I mean. Then you can come over to my house and taste all the other bacanora bottles I have that aren't as good as this one.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
May102017

Classic Scotch, Classic Prices

I picked off two more casks from a recent opportunity to work with Old Malt Cask again because they were from two of my favorite distilleries and the prices were simply too good to beat. I will almost always buy a cask of Benrinnes if it's priced accordingly and 20+ year old Longmorn is simply a thing of beauty that rarely disappoints and almost always over-delivers. While normally I would buy these out of the Signatory warehouse, the direct pricing we're getting via OMC makes the value proposition too good to pass up. Both Benrinnes and Longmorn make classic Highland Scotch and these two specimen are as classic as they come. If you're in the mood for vanilla, creamy malt, sweet grains, tropical fruits, and buttery biscuits, then these are two whiskies for you. Plus, they taste great on the rocks out on the back patio, which is where I'll be drinking them later this evening.

1997 Benrinnes 19 Year Old "Old Malt Cask" Single Barrel Single Malt Whisky $69.99 - There are few things more pleasing to the K&L staff than a new single cask exclusive from Benrinnes distillery, a Johnnie Walker producer that has become the darling of the sales team over the last few years. While typically not sold individually as a single malt whisky, the Highland producer makes one of the fruitiest, friendliest, and easy-to-love profiles in all of Scotland, one that offers a straightforward creaminess and a somewhat decadent finish despite its standard hogshead barrel maturation. The nose is a heavy dollop of toffee and fudge, but the color is a golden straw. There's no sherry influence to this single cask noticeable from the appearance, yet the flavors are rich and heady. The palate offers an initial burst of herbaceous spice, but that quickly oozes into sweet custard, chocolate with nuts, and candied tropical fruit finish with hints of macaroon cookies. The best part about this cask of Benrinnes, however, is its ridiculous price. Our last cask of Benrinnes 20 year from Signatory sold out quickly at $100, yet here we're offering a near 20 year barrel of a similar quality for only $69.99. We can thank the drop in the Pound/Dollar ratio for the extra discount, and our spirits team for passing along that savings to you! Bottled at 100 proof.

1996 Longmorn 20 Year Old "Old Malt Cask" Single Barrel Single Malt Whisky $79.99 - Longmorn is one of the stalwarts of the Scottish Highlands, a distillery that produces one of the most consistent and classically-flavored single malts in the business. Within the industry itself, it's a whisky heralded for its value and its ability to play well with others in a blend. There is only one widely-available officially branded version of Longmorn, which is why we often jump at the chance to snag a mature single cask when available. Known for its rich and creamy texture, flavors of honey and sweet malt, and a buttery, biscuity finish, few single malts showcase such an inherent consistency from barrel to barrel and batch to batch. This particular 20 year old single cask we selected in Scotland last year is a straight-down-the-middle expression of everything we love about Longmorn. The first sip offers sweet malted vanilla, supple oak flavors, and a butterscotch richness that coalesces into two decades worth of smooth, integrated, creamy single malt maturity. At 100 proof, the higher ABV lifts all that viscosity and adds a bit of spice on the back end that helps to balance some of the sweeter notes. This is a classic Highland whisky in the style of Glenmorangie 18, but with the grace and elegance of an Oban 18. The bigger difference here, however, is the fact that the Longmorn is two years older, higher in proof, 30% cheaper, and more intriguing than either of those two whiskies on the whole. You can thank our continued Brexit pricing for the deal! Also at 100 proof.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
May102017

Marketing

I was talking to a friend in Vegas this past weekend who was trying to sell his house. "It's been appraised at $350,000," he said, "but all the offers I'm getting are less than 320. It's total bullshit."

He was frustrated.

I visited with another friend recently who's a professional cellist and has spent the last ten years playing in symphonies and shows around the U.S. He was talking about his frustrations landing a gig these days:

"I know I'm a much better player than the girl they just hired, but for some reason they still went with her over me," he vented.

Just yesterday, I was talking to a wine supplier who was trying to get me to help promote one of his French regional producers and was running out of ideas. "I can't figure it out," he grumbled with a bit of anger. "This is one of the best wines I've ever sold, and I can't seem to get any momentum going. The wine should be flying off the shelves, but I might have to close it out just to get my money back!"

All three examples above constitute a phenomenon that happens daily in the world of capitalism: the difference between perceived value and actual value. The variance between the price on paper and what people are actually willing to pay. The chasm that sometimes exists between actual quality and human desire.

Do you know how many talented actors probably lost roles to Keanu Reeves simply because he was better looking? Probably dozens. It's not always about talent. I know plenty of people with PhDs who make far less money than some of my friends who were high school dropouts. 

In reality, the most qualified, talented, skilled, and educated candidates don't always get the job, the best wines and whiskies don't always sell for what they're worth, and ultimate value is often determined by emotion rather than fact.

The difference maker in almost all of these situations is marketing. If you have a story or a characteristic that stands out beyond the crowd it can make all the difference. When I talk to distributors, distillers, and sales reps today, I'm emphasizing this necessity more and more. It's no longer enough to be good. It's no longer enough to have the best product. You need more. You have to give people a reason to put down their iPhone and offer you ten seconds of their ADHD-riddled attention spans. 

"But I shouldn't have to do that," my cellist friend replied when I gave him a similar response. 

Again, that's the difference between what should be and what is. We're not dealing with what ought to be the case in today's business reality.

I did an interview for a magazine a while back in which they asked me what I thought was next for the spirits industry. Rum? Mezcal? 

My answer? WORK. Work is what's coming. Not winter, but work. We're all going to have to work ten times as hard just to make the same amount of money we made last year. Just to stay afloat! With competition fiercer than ever and more products flooding the market every day, you're going to have to find a way to stand out in that never-ending sea of booze.

But how do you get people to choose your bottle, to drink your whisky, to listen to what you have to say? 

Unfortunately, there's no one answer anymore. Back in the day you could run a TV ad and 25 million people would see it. Today, you're lucky if ten people click your paid banner on ESPN.com. 

Marketing in the new millennium is incredibly difficult because of how fractured our focus is as a society. Yet, I'm fascinated by the challenges it presents and the ever-increasing obstacles it puts in our path. 

-David Driscoll