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Saturday
Mar122016

Scotland 2016 Post-Script

People ask me all kinds of questions about the direction of the Scotch whisky market. Is global demand really that high? Are we really going through a shortage? Who’s drinking all this stuff? Who can afford to buy that much Scotch? These are all important inquiries for consumers and fans of the spirit, but in all honesty the answers to the mysteries of Scotch depend entirely upon who you ask. For example, I remember asking Hunter Laing owner Stewart Laing once about the correct pronunciation of Ledaig distillery. “Is it Le-dayg or is it Le-chig?” He told me the former, but about four minutes after that his brother Fred walked into the room and asked us what we thought of the “Le-chig” sample. I hear all kinds of reports about what’s happening behind the scenes and many of the things I hear are often contradictory to what I myself experience or what I learn from other professionals. Let's use the rising importance of India as another example. Some people believe stocks of whisky are purposely being held back in preparation for a potential a tariff decrease on the import of Scotch into India. Others don’t think that’s ever going to happen. 

In looking at the stats, however, you can see why some companies might be itching for India to come online. According to reports printed in this year’s Malt Whisky Yearbook, the top selling whisky in the world is Officer’s Choice—a brand whose core sales are in India. Number two is McDowell’s No. 1—another Indian brand. Johnnie Walker comes in at number three, but its complete global sales are about half those of Officer’s Choice. Looking at those numbers you might also assume that the billion-plus population of India was the top whisky-consuming nation in the world, but not the case. They’re actually number eight. That tells you something very important about India’s whisky fans: they’re drinking a lot of domestically-produced whisky, likely because it’s vastly cheaper than the Scottish imports which see gigantic mark-ups due to taxation. Remove the heart-stopping 150% tariffs and who knows what might happen. Some folks I've spoken to are still holding on to this idea, while others seem to have moved on from the possibility.

But that’s just one theory concerning the future of whisky economics I hear in the industry locker room. Another reason for shortages in whisky involves greater consumption of single malt itself, many of them now at higher proofs, which could potentially exhaust supplies at a much quicker rate. The top two whisky-purchasing countries in the world are the U.S. and France. When it comes to blended whisky, France buys about double of what the U.S. does at 12.7 million cases per year. When it comes to single malt, the roles are reversed with America doubling the numbers of the French. However, case quantities of single malt purchasing are at 1.7 million in the States versus 890,000 in France. Malt consumption globally is still well under 10% that of blended whisky, but it’s rising steadily and current supplies are still heavily-based on production levels from a less-glutinous era. All in all, you can analyze the numbers all you want in a search for more answers, but I’ve never been a stats guys. I like to look at behavior and intent when it comes to business, and I’ve noticed a pretty significant pattern in terms of the people I do business with. Let’s look at the behavior of the friendly faces from the independent bottling community we’ve worked with over the years.

Chieftain’s (Ian Macleod) - We’ve bought some legendary casks over the years from Chieftain’s. Today there are none available for us to purchase, however. Ian Macleod bought the Tamdhu distillery in 2011 and now supplies us with more official distillery bottlings, rather than independently-bottled casks.

Gordon & MacPhail - When I first started working at K&L we purchased a number of different selections from G&M, one of the most historic bottlers in the business. Today I buy a lot more Benromach from the distillery G&M reopened at the end of the 90s. 

Signatory - While Signatory has owned Edradour for decades, they’re now building a second distillery next door to the main site—one that can be expanded if necessary. There’s also a lot more Edradour whisky in their warehouses than I remember seeing before.

A.D. Rattray - Some of the first whisky casks we ever purchased on behalf of K&L were bottled for us by the Morrison family. Today they’re much more focused on getting their Glasgow distillery project off the ground as independent selections become less prevalent.

Adelphi - While we never actually bottled anything under the Adelphi label, a number of our Faultline editions over the years have been from Adelphi’s stock. Today, however, there’s nothing for us to buy. No worries for our friends Keith and Alex, however, because they’re far too busy making whisky at their new Ardnamurchan distillery which opened in July of 2014. 

Wemyss - We’ve done a few dealings with Wemyss over the years, but I’m not sure independent casks will be a big part of their future at this point. The Edinburgh-based family opened Kingsbarns distillery in the Lowlands at the end of 2014.

Hunter Laing - Our business with the boys at Hunter Laing has never been better. The supplies still look strong in Glasgow. That being said, Andrew and his brother just announced their intention to build a new distillery on Islay. Starting ASAP.

I think the only people I’ve left out here are Duncan Taylor (who were planning to build a distillery at one point) and Douglas Laing who are slowly moving into more blended NAS brands. You could throw in Compass Box, but in a sense the company did just work out a deal for five distilleries—Royal Brackla, Craigellachie, Aberfeldy, Aultmore and Macduff—now that Bacardi has become a recent partner in the operation. This obsession with supply isn’t a coincidence. If you’re a skeptic and you honestly believe there isn’t an issue with obtaining continual supply just look at the almost unanimous scramble from independents to secure access to production. The writing’s on the wall here. You either need to own your own source of single malt, or face what lies ahead without a guarantee. But what actually does lie ahead? Confidence, from what I’ve seen this week.

No one is even slightly worried about the market taking a turn for the worse, it seems. I can’t help but think of a similar confidence in the housing market back in 2007, especially after watching The Big Short on the flight over. Of course, as a number of friends and colleagues pointed out to me over the last few days, the rock-solid confidence investors had in the housing market was based on fraud, which isn’t the case in the whisky industry. That’s true, but the only thing more unstable than fraud in my opinion is fashion. Whisky isn’t a necessary commodity. It’s a fashionable choice based on personal preference, as well as stylistic and economic conditions that can change at the drop of a hat. It’s because of these unpredicted changes that distilleries in Scotland over the last century have been boarded up, closed down, and mothballed only to be reopened, refurbished, and rebuilt later on down the line.

This type of flux seems to be business as usual for those in the whisky industry. Strikes and gutters. Gluts and shortages. You take the good as it comes and you prepare for the worst. These guys are used to it, but it still scares the hell out of me.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Mar102016

England: Day 5 - Cider Secrets in the West

We headed west this morning from Paddington Station, taking the train to Taunton in Somerset near Devon where my colleague Ryan Woodhouse is from. Through a few different word-of-mouth references (Ryan’s family included) we had heard rumors of an English apple brandy distillery that had stocks as old as twenty years and Calvados-like spirits of serious repute. Ryan and I had even spent an afternoon perusing their website from the Redwood City office we share, wondering what the products tasted like. We didn’t waste much time pondering, however. Within a day, Ryan had phoned his dad who was keen on taking a drive to check the place out. By the end of the week we had made an appointment to visit the farm of the Somerset Cider Brandy Company with plans for Mr. Woodhouse to pick us up from the station. Due to a bad leg, however, Mr. Woodhouse was unfortunately ordered to maintain strict bed rest, so distillery owner Julian Temperley himself was there to pick us up from the train station in his 70s-era Bentley on our arrival. We introduced ourselves, shook hands, and hit the road in style. I could tell from the get-go this guy was a character.

We were treated to a fascinating lecture on the history of Somerset cider and the importance of its economic role over many centuries on our way to Julian’s home. Cider production in the UK dates back to the Romans, but the West of England in particular has a number PGIs—protected geographical origins—where the orchards are treated like Burgundian vineyards, each with its own particular terroir. Cider and the taxation of it was once quite a political issue (and still is today depending on who you ask). Julian told us of an old 18th century grandfather clock he owns that has an inscription reading: “No excise on cyder.” To say that folks in West England take the production of cider seriously is an understatement. If you’ve ever talked to an Iowan about corn you’ll understand exactly what I mean. Apples are a way of life.

The stills were steaming at full speed when we arrived at the Somerset Cider Brandy farm. Two wood-fired pots burning away just like I’d seen in Normandy so many times before. The property is delightful; a rustic ranch with hundreds of acres of orchards behind it, each inter-spliced with numerous varietals of apple. We went in the house for a cup of tea first and a chance to sample a few selections while getting a better understanding for the operation. Julian produced a few glasses along with two bottles of pommeau—one labeled Kingston Black Apple Liqueur and the other called Somerset Pomona. “The Kingston Black is the aperitif,” he told us, filling our glass with the chilled liquid. I raised it to my nose and took a whiff. All I could think of in that moment were my friends the Camut brothers who make the best apple spirits I’ve ever tasted. The aromas were just pure and enticing on the nose. “The Pomona is the digestif,” he added. “You can pair this with a cheese plate a the end of a meal like you would a port. It’s been barrel-aged.”

After our introductory course over tea, Julian took us down into the cellar to look at the barrel room. Much like a single malt distillery, Somerset is using hogsheads, sherry butts, and port pipes to age its brandies. The core range includes three, five, ten, fifteen, and twenty year expressions, each with its own unique character. The three year is juicy and bursting with energy. The five year is more subdued and mellow. The ten year is refined and elegant, The fifteen is hauntingly beautiful. The twenty year is rich and robust with notes of sherry intermingling lightly on the finish. The line-up as a whole is a giant slam dunk. The prices are more than reasonable. I was ready to cut Julian a check right then and there. “How is no one selling this in the U.S.?’ I whispered to Jeff.

While we were initially interested in the brandies of Somerset, we were almost more impressed with the other incredible products Julian and team are making there on the farm. There’s cider. Wonderfully dry and tangy cider with the finesse of the finest Champagnes. There are liqueurs. Deliciously vibrant cherry and cassis liqueurs with just the right level of sweetness and all the tart intensity we’re lacking in our American iterations. There are all kinds of little gems to be had at this little operation in the West of England, but unfortunately we were on a schedule.

Julian’s wife was kind enough to prepare lunch for us, so we sat at the wooden table in the windowed-terrace looking out over the orchards, feasting on fresh bread and local cheddar, while getting to know one another. I did the cheese pairing with the Somerset pommeau that Julian recommended, thinking: “I could really get used to this.” I was also satisfied in hearing Julian’s philosophy on cider and brandy is much like a winemaker's—he strongly believes in blending for balance of acidity and flavor. “Single varietal ciders are an abomination!” he said at one point with a laugh. All in all we spent about four hours with the Temperleys, drinking various apple spirits, eating delicious food, listening to their incredible stories, and enjoying the bucolic splendor of Western England. For brevity’s sake I’ll have to end here for now, but don’t worry: this isn’t the last you’ll hear about the Somerset Cider Brandy Company. This is just the beginning, my friends.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Mar102016

England: Day 4 - Modern London

Only in Paris, New York, or London can you walk the streets in wonder while simultaneously realizing how ugly you are. The people here are not only beautiful, they're hip, modernly-dressed, and stylish. I'm oozing self-consciousness right now. Jeff and I landed at around noon and made it to our hotel in time for an afternoon stroll down to John Maynard Keynes's former residence. 

We're staying at the Hoxton in Holborn, which is by far the coolest hotel I've ever stayed at. When I say "cool", I mean in terms of the vibe rather than the service or the comfort (not that either of those things are lacking in any way). The people hanging out in the lobby, bar, restaurant, and lounge are so modern and hip that I feel like I'm on another planet. They're all working on laptops and phones, but they're drinking cocktails and showcasing their style while they're doing it. This is what San Francisco could and should look like (but it doesn't). I'm moving to London as soon as I hit the lottery.

While we had a few hours to scope the scene, we were not in London for pleasure. We had serious business to attend to. A reservation at Mac & Wild awaited us—the Fitzrovia district tribute to fine Scottish Highlands cuisine with a modern twist. Not only Scottish cuisine, but Scotch cocktails as well—created, blended, bottled, and for sale at the restaurant. How about a bottle of Ginger Ladie? Bruichladdich whisky with ginger, orange peel, Oloroso sherry and sweet vermouth. There are a number of great options on the table (literally).

I can count my closest industry friends on one hand and Compass Box's John Glaser would easily make that prestigious top five list. We had planned this celebratory dinner long in advance. John has finally finished the upcoming K&L exclusive "5th & Harrison" Compass Box edition: a tribute to our new San Francisco store. We sat down to taste the final blend with Mac & Wild owner Adam Pinder, hoping to get a sense of what people thought right away. Everyone was pretty blown away, as we expected. It's a marriage of 19 year old sherry-matured Glen Ord with 31 year old Caol Ila from a hogshead, blended, and then aged an additional year in cask. All I needed to do was sign off on the finished product, give my stamp of approval, and we were set. Thumbs up, John! Now let's eat!

The venison at Mac & Wild is absolutely to die for. I've honestly never had meat that savory and seasoned cooked so perfectly. I couldn't stop eating it and I'm not what you would call a serious carnivore. I could probably give up eating meat forever and be totally content. But not when you put something like this on the table. Between that and the "5th & Harrison" blend, I was high on life.

-David Driscoll 

Wednesday
Mar092016

Scotland 2016: Day 3 - Local Culture

Edinburgh is an absolutely amazing city and, coincidentally enough, it shares many similarities to my home of San Francisco. It's small enough to explore entirely by foot, there are numerous vistas and vantage points, the hills provide incredible photo opportunities, and the nearby waterfront eventually opens out into the sea. However, because there's little business for us to do in Edinburgh, we rarely spend much time there. After finishing up a few morning appointments, however, Jeff Jones and I found ourselves with a few hours to kill. Luckily for me, Jeff likes to walk as much as I do. We didn't waste any time. 

Jeff being the history buff that he is, I wanted him to see Edinburgh Castle. High atop Castle Rock overlooking the city below sits one of the most-sieged fortresses in history. The battles this structure has seen over the centuries are well-documented and visiting the facility's jail is an absolute must. There's an audio track they play in the barracks that assumes what the prisoners might have said to one another while in captivity. "Can you please stop snoring?!" one of the voices screams out in a thick Scottish accent. I about died. There's a lot to do here.

Don't think the Scotch whisky industry isn't aware that they're lacking a single malt distillery in Edinburgh. It's exactly because of all that potential tourism that the major players have chipped in to create the Scotch Whisky Experience, a museum as well as an educational tutorial that helps give visitors to the capital a true hands-on involvement with the spirit.

This being our first time to the Experience, we had a date set up in advance with head manager Lenka Whyles, one of the most down-to-earth and interesting ambassadors for the industry I've ever met. She's all about the enjoyment of whisky with none of the pretense. One thing that always interests me about Scotland is the vast preference for blended whisky over single malts. I asked her explicitly which one she drank more of. "Blends," she said with a nod, "No doubt about it." While the Experience does spend some time covering the production of Scotch whisky, they spend far more time and energy discussing the skill and the strategy behind blending. Meanwhile, we Americans obsess over purity. Shows you how much we know! One of my favorite parts of the Experience was the display room for Brazilian whisky aficionado Claive Vidiz's vast 20,000+ bottle collection. We got our own private tour which allowed for plenty of time to explore the selections. I would highly recommend stopping by if you're in Edinburgh. We had a truly terrific time there.

If you walk directly out of the castle and down the Royal Mile right nearby the Whisky Experience, you'll find a plethora of great whisky shops. You'll also find plenty of inspiration. There may not be a distillery in Edinburgh to visit (North British is closed to the public), but there's a lot of whisky culture to bask in. We were very thirsty by the time we made it back to the hotel. We needed a quick dram of the 1980 Glenlochy fino sherry cask sample I smuggled out of Signatory.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Mar082016

Scotland 2016 - Day 2: Follow Your Instincts 

One of my favorite whiskies of all time that we've purchased on behalf of K&L (or just in general, really) was the 1979 Glenfarclas vintage-dated malt we originally bought back in 2011. What made that whisky absolutely magical was that it had spent more than than three decades in a fourth-fill sherry barrel. The sherry residue at that point was almost completely spent, so unlike any other Glenfarclas whisky I had seen up until that point the whisky came out the color of pale straw. But much like a hearty stew that's been simmered for days over a low flame, that 1979 Glenfarclas was concentrated with flavor from a long, slow, and deliberate maturation. The beauty of that refill sherry butt was that it still imparted flavor on to the malt, albeit in the most dainty and ethereal manner possible. If you think about a great Bordeaux or white Burgundy wine, the most beautiful expressions often have just a faint touch of oak. The most legendary are the ones that have integrated that oak to the point that the fruit and wood become one unified, harmoneous note. These are the whiskies I went to Signatory yesterday in search of. Luckily for me, these are the whiskies that are currently being overlooked in lieu of big flavor. The market is still pushing for huge, beastly, over-the-top sherry flavor. I was told recently by one bottler that a major retailer in Europe will only buy sherried whiskies that are as black as coffee. My answer was, "Let him do that. That means all the really good whiskies will still be available."

So I was back in the Signatory warehouse with my old friend Des McCagherty, popping bungs and dipping the old dip stick. This is one of the few places left in the world where I feel completely at ease and where I can actually forget about everything else other than the task at hand. "Do you want to try this one?" Des would ask.

"Is it first-fill?" I would inevitably respond.

"Yes."

"Then no."

"You don't want any first-fill sherry butts?"

"That's correct."

Des sat there looking at me, an untameable sea of stoicism. "Let's look at every second and third fill cask you have, as well as older hogsheads and Bourbon barrels," I said. 

Four hours later we were still slogging down the list. I could sense Des was getting a kick out of my plan, but at one point he said to me: "There's a point where your boss wants the bottles to start moving off the shelf." I laughed because I knew what he was trying to say, but I stopped next to an old cask of 1974 "Rare Ayrshire"—the code word for Ladyburn. 

"Do you remember when when we bought a cask of this?" I asked him.

"Of course." 

"Don't you think this is one of the best whiskies you've ever had? Because I do," I replied.

"Let's taste this one and see if we can remember," he said. I was game. It had been years since I ran out of the amazing Ladyburn cask we purchased so long ago. For those of you who don't know, Ladyburn is one of the rarest single malts in the world, produced in a separate facility that was operated inside the Girvan grain distillery from about 1965 to 1975. 

"I remember having to explain to our customers why they should pay $400 for a whisky they'd never heard of. It sold because of the rarity, of course, but we bought it because of the flavor," I said.

Des poured some of the whisky into my glass. I took a sip. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I looked at Jeff, who had also just tasted it. He was entranced. This 40+ year old Ladyburn was like the purest form of honey, sweet grain, vanilla, and butterscotch. It was awe-inspiring; a life-changing whisky in my mind. There's no peat. There's no sherry.

"There's nothing distracting you from the whisky itself," Des added in. A rare opinion from the oft silent sage.

"Exactly!" I said. "We all want that when it comes to wine. I think pretty soon the market is going to demand the same from single malt whisky."

After finding roughly ten solid candidates, we decided to call it a day. Des wanted to show us the new site where Edradour plans on building a second distillery—or an expansion of the first, really. It will still be called Edradour, but maybe it will operate similarly to a Brora/Clynelish situation. Since we were staying in Pitlochry overnight we made plans to grab dinner. Des met us at our hotel around 6:30 and we decided to walk the mile and a half to the restaurant. With the cold mountain weather at round 27 degrees, we walked briskly.

"Are you happy with what you found?" Des asked as we crossed the hydro-dam and looked at the reflection of the moon in the river below. 

Three refill sherry butts, three Bourbon barrels, four hogsheads. Three peated whiskies, seven unpeated. Exactly the balance I had hoped for.

"Yes, indeed," I said with a smile. Then we sat down for dinner and ordered a bottle of Chablis.

-David Driscoll