The Order of Things

I was all set to write a blog post about Westland this morning; about how good their special distillery edition of "Peat Week" is, and about how we're going to have a big party two weeks from now to celebrate K&L getting an exclusive allocation of that whiskey. I'm still planning to address that exciting news, but something even crazier went down last night at Westland distillery that trumps this development. I got the phone call early this morning from the Matts: Westland was sold yesterday to Remy Cointreau in a move that adds another innovative malt distillery for the company's main star Bruichladdich. I was absolutely shocked; not necessarily in a bad way, just in a from-out-of-nowhere sort of surprise. As someone who has spent a good amount of time over the years with Emerson Lamb and Matt Hofmann and knows the full story of Westland, the move makes complete sense, however. Making good whiskey costs a lot of money, and that particular point is exacerbated when you're not getting paid for that whiskey until years down the line. Westland's potential for greatness has fortunately never been limited by money. The boys spared no expense right from the get-go because the Lamb family, who make up the majority of the Westland board, has always been financially able to cover those expenses. However, when Emerson left the company a year ago to pursue other ventures, it left Matt in charge of an operation still funded by his high school friend's parents. While everything continued to run smoothly in Emerson's absence, it probably wasn't the most ideal of situations for either party moving forward. Westland needed to find a new financial backer at some point if Matt was going to continue his incredible upward trajectory. Now that suitor has arrived, and it's one with a pretty good track record for helping creative malt distillers realize their lofty visions. I'm excited to see where they go from here.

In the meantime, let's talk about Peat Week: a special edition release that was only available at the distillery in Seattle this past October. It's smoky, fruity, round, and absolutely delicious. We're getting some (just us). We're inviting Westland's director Matt Freerks down to celebrate. We're taking over the new party room at Hard Water on the San Francisco Embarcadero on December 14th and we're going to pour a number of Westland whiskies to give you a full rundown on what the distillery has been up to (possibly their fantastic new "Winter" release as well, if I can pull some strings). Hard Water will be whipping up some seafood towers, crabby patty bites, fried chicken and waffles, and more for your snacking needs. I'm sure there will be cocktails involved as well. We'd love to see you there! Reserve your spot by clicking on the link below:

Westland Peat Week Party @ Hard Water, Weds, Dec 14th @ 7 PM - $50

By the time this party goes down I'm sure we'll know more about the transition. Of course, if you come on down to Hard Water, you can get the story straight from the horse's mouth! We'll see you there.

-David Driscoll



Over the next two weeks we're going to unleash four new K&L exclusive rums at a variety of different price points (all under $100 though) that I hope will do two things:

1) have serious rum nerds creaming their pants

2) introduce casual drinkers to a more flavorful, less-adulterated, pure style of pot distilled molasses without breaking the bank

Rum is a tough category to market and curate because there are so many different styles of it! There's sweetened rum, unsweetened rum, aged rum, unaged rum, column still rum, pot still rum, blended rum, agricole rum, etc. For every serious customer who buys a bottle of weird, expensive, super-nerdy rum and asks us to expand our selection, there are ten other guys who buy the same bottle by mistake, hate it, and bring it back into the store to yell at us for having sold them such a terrible thing. That's the retail reality of selling rum: there's zero consensus on what people like, so you can't go too far in any one direction. You carry too much Zacapa or Zaya, and the Tiki heads get frustrated. You carry too much ester-driven funk and the casual sippers freak the fuck out. It's not an easy balance and it's not like we're selling tons of this stuff either, so it's a lot of work for little reward. Rum is still an incredibly niche market and most of the profit comes from bulk production, not from a connoisseur-driven boutique market like we see with single malt and Bourbon. Despite our best efforts, we haven't seen much of an increase in activity here at K&L even with the rise of neo-Tiki culture.

But.....I love rum, so I have to keep trying to find our voice. When one selection doesn't work out, we'll go back to the drawing board. This time I around I did try something we'd never done previously: I got clever with the math. That's going to help, I think. It's easier to take a chance on something when the price is more inline with what you're used to seeing for standard rum selections. Rum casks are expensive, no matter where you buy them from, so you have to find clever ways of manipulating the prices if you're going to be successful. I've got two new single cask Jamaican rums for fifty bucks that you can sip, but at the same time feel comfortable mixing with. I also secured an ultra mature Jamaican pot still expression, then lowered the price to about fifty dollars under where it should be (don't ask how). People looking for a high-end, sippable selection with interesting and unique flavors should be thrilled. Those who still feel that Jamaican rums are too intense or wacky for their taste buds will be able to sip on our latest Cuban....I mean....Caribbean Faultline edition instead, and I doubled the order this time around so we wouldn't sell out before anyone could taste a bottle. 

We've got a whole 'lotta Scotch to show you over the next month, but I wanted rum drinkers to know we weren't ignoring them. We'll have our most exciting rum shipment yet in stock by next week. Stay tuned!

-David Driscoll


More Cocktails with Andrew Stevens

Mezcal is one of the most interesting categories for distillates these days with a booming popularity despite so many brands on the market being unknown. In many ways these may be the glory days for mezcal in that you can get an incredible variation and selection, not only from agave to agave, but from producer to producer—at times even from batch to batch. Yet, despite the growth of fantastic sipping mezcal and all the complexity it carries, it is still the mezcal cocktail that truly fascinates me. Mezcal is rapidly becoming as useful as gin for me in my home bar. It has so much flavor to offer in a drink and you can dress it up in so many ways. Seriously, there is almost no shortage of cool drinks to be made by substituting mezcal for gin or vodka in a drink much less your tequila. I love the smoky and fruity characteristic that this spirit has to offer and the way it can play off of herbal French, bitter Italian, or sweet American liqueurs.

My birthday falls near Halloween so every year my wife and I have a duel Halloween/birthday costume party. This year I decided to play around with mezcal in a very traditional cocktail for that time of year: the Corpse Reviver 2. I started the recipe with the Alipus San Andres mezcal, which has been a good mixing mezcal for me, being well balanced in flavors of candied fruit and interesting smoke (although any well-balanced mezcal could work here). Although Cointreau is usually used for the orange liqueur element and works well here, I went with the less expensive Suau orange liqueur but kept the traditional Lillet Blanc and of course fresh squeezed lemon juice. Putting all the ingredients into the shaker I gave it a good four or five shakes to really combine the spirits and break up the ice (but not too much so as to create a sea of ice chips), and did a "dirty dump" into a tulip glass. A highball would have also worked, but I wanted to utilize the tulip glasses I had. After that I took the bottle of our Faultline "Jaime Hernandez Special Edition" absinthe that I have been keeping around and poured a small float on top of the cocktail. The idea here is to really bring about those beautiful aromatics of absinthe without necessarily overwhelming the palate with the flavor. Garnish with a twist. That's it! 

If you've been curious about what to do with that half-empty bottle of mezcal sitting on your bar, this is a great option:

Smoking Corpse

-1 oz mezcal 

-3/4 oz orange liquour 

-3/4 oz Lillet Blanc

-3/4oz lemon juice

-float of absinthe 

Garnish with a lemon twist

If you have any other questions about cocktails feel free to track me down in the San Francisco store!

-Andrew Stevens


Everything Zen (I Don't Think So)

The Nikkawa River near Miyagikyo distillery in JapanI've been reading a lot about Zen Buddhism and Japan lately. Not so much because I'm looking to become a Buddhist, but mainly because as I get older I appreciate the philosophy of action over words. I care less about what people say these days than how they behave (watch Search Party on TBS for an absolutely blistering criticism of modern youth culture on this topic). People are always trying to convince us of something—who they are, what they're about, what they value—but often their actions tell a different story. Reading about Zen is an enjoyable respite from modernity. The irony of reading about Zen is that you can't really understand Zen by reading about it (I said the same thing about wine ten years ago, which is why I applied for the job at K&L). You have to live it. In his book Zen and Japanese Culture, D.T. Suzuki recounts a number of ancient stories when monk disciples questioned their masters about the tenets of Zen, only to get slapped across the face, bonked on the head, or have their noses twisted into uncomfortable positions. The misconception here is that the monks were being punished for their foolish inquiries, but that's not the case. The masters were simply giving them the clearest and most direct answer, one that brought them back into the moment, which is what Zen is about: right here and now. "Zen is not necessarily against words," Suzuki writes, "but it is well aware of the fact that they are always liable to detach themselves from realities and turn into conceptions. And this conceptualization is what Zen is against."

The more I listen to people talk about wine and whisky, the more I'm wondering if a Zen-like approach is what's necessary to get away from all the pageantry and get back down to basics. I honestly feel like there's too much talking about booze these days and not enough drinking it. Not that I don't want to talk about booze, it's just that I don't want to do more talking than drinking. I was watching an episode of "Petitrenaud" on French TV 5 Monde last night and Jean-Luc, the escapading vivant, was in Burgundy drinking pinot noir with some local farmers. Everyone was talking about wine and food the entire time, but they were always sipping or eating in between sentences. There was no ridiculousness whatsoever; no one was talking about how good the cheese was or how the wine tasted. They talked about production and specifics. The simple discussion wasn't meant to distract from the task at hand, but rather to enhance it, which is exactly why we should talk about alcohol. Contrast that with the American shows I watch about wine and food where it's all fluffy romance, self-centered focus, and no real action. I think that's the real difference between the French and the Americans when it comes to eating: the French actually want to eat their baguettes, while the Americans want to go to the bakery, take a picture of themselves buying the baguette, and then tell everyone how good it was. In both cases there are words, but the Americans are the ones detaching themselves from reality and conceptualizing the experience. They've lost track of the thing itself.

"Zen insists on handling the thing itself and not an empty abstraction," Suzuki adds to this topic; "It is for this reason that Zen neglects reading or reciting the sutras, or discourse on abstract subjects. And this is a cause for Zen's appeal to men of action." But, of course, we've known this since we were kids. Hollywood has been pumping out Karate Kid-like sensei movies for decades, where a wise-cracking, unfocused American gets paired up with a wise Japanese Zen master and gets an education in discipline. Heck, Daniel-san even got his nose twisted at one point just like the apprentice monk when he questioned Mr. Miyagi's motives. While we've come to understand some of the basic elements of Zen as it pertains to martial arts, it's also clearly engrained in the Japanese approach to drinking. Watch a Japanese bartender in action and you'll get the gist. There's no talking, no discourse, and no abstraction. Making a cocktail is a lesson in satori: the part of Zen that finds hidden meaning in our daily experiences like eating and drinking. The goal in discovering satori is emancipation. When you can purge the "intellectual sediments" from your mind, you're free to see the real meaning of any action normally hidden from sight. That's basically how I feel about drinking right now. I want to cut out all the BS—the scores, the reviews, the novelties, and the abstractions that further remove me from its origins—and focus on the act and the beverage itself. I'm becoming a man of action. I drink to drink.

If you want to learn more about wine or whiskey, you can't read about it. You have to drink it and drink as much of it as possible, slowly, over time, until you eventually develop your palate. You can't rush it. You can't buy every whisky available all at once and become a master. That doesn't stop people from trying, however. I see it every single day. They want the answers, they want the full experience, and they're in a hurry, so they buy more booze than they can ever drink and try to fast track the process. They read every book, every blog, and every article they can, but they're not really drinking, nor are they really getting the point. "While technical training is of great importance," Suzuki writes, "it is after all something artificially, consciously, calculatingly added and acquired. Unless the mind that avails itself of the technical skill somehow attunes itself to a state of the utmost fluidity or mobility, anything acquired or superimposed neglects spontaneity of natural growth. This realization cannot be taught by any system designed for this purpose, it must simply grow from within." 

Do people want realization when it comes to wine and whiskey, however? Or is this new age of connoisseurship really about having an opinion? I think what I like most about Zen is its focus on self-reliance and personal experience, two things you absolutely must master if you're going to form your own opinions in life. Zen stresses going through practical situations oneself, without aid or assistance from others (which is why I needed to beat Castlevania this past weekend without any cheats or online guides). There's a Zen lesson that states: "Do not rely on others, nor on the readings of the sutras or sastras. Be your own lamp." You can't be a whisky master by mimicking the habits of others, or by downloading a list of 101 whiskies you must try before you die. You need to get away from words. You need to become a man (or woman) of action. Drink! Go out and drink! If you want to talk about drinking, get off your computer, and go to bar! That's where you learn about drinking. 

Of course, what you learn on your long journey to becoming a whisky master is that being a whisky master isn't something attainable. Nor is it desirable. People who parade around as whisky masters or experts are people I want to avoid like the plague. If I see a guy in the store wearing a kilt, I will literally run the other way. Someone asked me a few years back if I was interested in becoming a Keeper of something or other—some Scotch master society, I think. "No, thanks," I said. If you want to simply talk about wine or whisky appreciation, leave me out. It's for the same reason I'll no longer judge at spirits competitions, or participate in any sort of critical review. I'd rather be at the bar getting a drink. There's nothing abstract about that.

-David Driscoll


Exercising Demons

It wasn't easy. It required hours and hours of discipline and focus. The task pretty much swallowed up my entire weekend. However, after thirty years and countless efforts I finally beat the original Castlevania on Sunday afternoon. More importantly, I did it by myself. I didn't use any cheats, I didn't search YouTube for strategy videos, and I didn't call the old Nintendo Gaming Hotline in Seattle for hints (although I think they deactivated that service in 1989). Castlevania wasn't just one of my favorite NES games growing up, it was the first game I played after learning who Mario was. I fell madly in love with it and I've pretty much been obsessed with Dracula ever since. There was only one problem back then: Castlevania was and continues to be a very, very difficult game. If you're under the age of thirty I'm not sure you'll understand how classic gaming worked back then, but let me give you the short version: there were no directions, no walkthroughs, and no built-in teaching manuals that allowed you to get the hang of things as you played. It was classic kill and drill action; trial by fire. You died over, and over, and over, and over, and over again until you learned not to. You either toughed it out and adapted your strategy, or you screamed and cried and threw the controllers against the wall until it broke (I was notorious for doing the latter).

I had never even faced Dracula until earlier today when I made it to his lair for the first time. It took me hours of losses to figure out his pattern until I finally broke the code and lopped off his head. But then I got the ultimate surprise: after all that work, he didn't die; he simply morphed into a flying demon (with a fresh set of energy) that I then had to defeat again. I about fell over! After another two hours, I finally slayed the beast and put three decades of contrition behind me. You see: I was often a quitter when I was younger. I would usually only work as hard as my natural talent would take me, then walk away when adversity struck and things got really difficult. I would look for the easy way out, or find a short cut that would hopefully lead to quicker results. Unfortunately, that level of dedication never got me where I wanted to go—big surprise! It wasn't until I turned twenty-four that I completely broke down my motivations, retooled my head, and started changing my mindset. Today, I'm so far removed from my former self that it's almost difficult to look back. I try to pride myself on perseverance now. As a result, however, I often have little tolerance for those who won't put in the extra effort or go the extra mile with their work. It's more of a gut reaction to my own inner embarrassment, I think. Rather than relate to my former behavior, I try to cover it up with resentment and elbow grease. 

Sometimes I like to go back to old tasks and see how far I've come; to give my demons a little exercise. Remember Castlevania? You gave up on that game as a kid, David. It was too hard. But how about now? Do you have the patience, the determination, and the fortitude to sit down and see the job through? Beating Castlevania should be a resume requirement for employment today. If you can sit down and beat this game without assistance, you can be my assistant. If you can beat the first Megaman, can have my job!

-David Driscoll