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Saturday
Oct152016

Weekend Stuff

The Hennessy special edition I told you about a few weeks ago (that we may or may not have helped create while visiting the company's headquarters a few years back) is now here. A single batch orchestrated by one of Hennessy's master blenders Yann Fillioux, this is a totally different version of Hennessy than what you're used to tasting. Not only is the style completely different, the bottle couldn't be less swanky. I was a fan of this when I tasted it in August, and I'm just as big of a fan today. This bottle is proof that even the industry's most gigantic of players cannot deny what's happening in select pockets of the spirits world. It's adapt or die. This is Hennessy's bold first step in reaching out to more serious Cognac drinkers who don't want a diabetic amount of sweeteners in their brandy. It's much more delicate, layered, and fruit forward than any of their other expressions. And it's in stock now!

Since I've been helping to cover David OG's ordering in the LA store this month (he's home taking care of little Oliver), I just brought in more allocations down south of things we'd run through in the north. There's more of the limited Lagavulin 8 year if you missed out on that, as well as a small serving of the Rhetoric 22 year old Bourbon

After taming the hoards of customers in San Francisco yesterday afternoon, I'm back in Redwood City today to work the sales floor. Come on by if you need booze before the rain comes!

-David Driscoll

Friday
Oct142016

WINNER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Since Campari became cool again and Negronis began popping up on bar menus outside of Italian trattorias, there has been a quest by distillers everywhere (American, Swiss, French, and Italian as well) to create an alternative—something new that the Campari-loving crowd could sink its teeth into. First Tempus Fugit brought us the Gran Classico, then the Leopolds created their all natural aperitivo version, and just recently St. George jumped into the game with their excellent Bruto Americano. In between there have been twenty or so other Italian and French imports that have tried to steal a bit of Campari's thunder, hoping to lure devotees like myself away with the promise of something new and exciting. While I'm all for a little healthy competition, as someone who drinks about two gallons of Campari a week I can safely say that no product has even come close to replacing it in my bar. They were too bitter, or too sweet, or not sweet enough, or not bitter enough. Campari, on the other hand, is perfect. It's unflawed. It's never boring and it never gets old. I drink Campari like water (and with sparkling water). I've ingested more Campari in my life than every whiskey I've ever tried put together. When the recycling truck comes to pick up my empty bottles each week, the plastic blue can is full of empty Campari bottles.

The only product that's ever come close to luring me away from Campari is the company's other bitter aperitivo Biancosarti, sold only in Italy as far as I know. My parents of all people had a bottle stowed away in the liquor cabinet that they had brought back years ago. I discovered that bottle in 2011 and I enjoyed every last drop of it while it lasted. Biancosarti is pretty much a lighter, straw-colored version of Campari. You can enjoy it with soda or in a white Negroni (gin, Biancosarti, and white vermouth). So when my Anchor rep Chris Fu dropped by with the new Luxardo Bitter Bianco, I played along with fake enthusiasm. "Here comes another new contender hoping to challenge the champ," I thought to myself with a completely undeserved snark. But then I tasted it and my senses sharpened instantly. The Luxardo tasted legit. It was perfectly balanced between sweet and bitter with lovely notes of soft citrus. I rushed home after work to put the Bianco to the ultimate test: ice and soda water. I was practically sweating as I scooped the cubes out of the rubber tray, cracking open a small can of Perrier so that I had the finest of bubbles. I stirred carefully and sipped. Imagine an angel singing, the clouds parting, and a beam of sunlight shining down from the heavens. Not only was the Luxardo the best Campari substitute I had ever tasted, it was even better than my beloved Biancosarti. I was nervous that maybe something was wrong with me—my palate was off, or I wasn't tasting correctly—so I made a second Americano for my wife as soon as she got home. Her eyes lit up. She reiterated the experience. It was indeed the real shit. We drank two more before all was said and done.

For fans of bitter liqueurs, I can't promise that you'll like the Luxardo Bitter Bianco as much as I do. If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that everyone has their own unique set of taste buds as it pertains to aperitivos and amari. But I can tell you where my taste bud loyalties lie: Campari. This is the best alternative to Campari I've ever had. It has the same level of sweetness and bitterness and it melds with water in an almost identical fashion. The only difference is that it's white instead of red. I get the same sensation when I drink an Americano on the exact same parts of my tongue and palate (and that palate is seasoned at this point). I will never be without a bottle from this point on. I can't believe someone actually made a serious Campari contender after all this time. We have a winner!

I'm pretty excited.

Luxardo Bitter Bianco $24.99

-David Driscoll

Friday
Oct142016

Punk Rock Lives

While I've always written the spirits blog as a means to communicate with customers and keep people up to speed with the happenings in our booze department, the D2D interviews and the celebrity outreach was purely a selfish endeavour. Sure, it's great marketing to show famous people visiting your store and drinking products that you helped them pick out, but it was always just an excuse to reach out and interact with my heroes in some way. The punk project we did with St. George and Frontier Records grew out of that same outreach, but there was also some unfamiliar ground for me. I was a big fan of Suicidal Tendencies and the movie Repo Man as a kid, so I knew about Frontier Records, but it wasn't until I started hanging out with Lisa Fancher and Julie Masi (the ladies who run the label) that I really started listening to the Adolescents, Christian Death, and other Rikk Agnew influenced music. In my heart, I have always been a post-punk person. It's by far my favorite genre of rock music. I sat in my bedroom as a child in the eighties listening to cassette tapes by the Cure, Joy Division, Bauhaus (hence my love for David J—the first guy to do the D2D interview series), Devo (hence the Gerald Casale interview), and Echo and the Bunnymen. Real, gritty, scenester-style punk rock was never my thing. 

Of course, to call a genre of music "post-punk" is to say that punk rock ended and something new came afterward. The Sex Pistols fell apart, Sid Vicious overdosed, and Vivian Westwood went on to become a couture fashion designer, so rock and roll moved on to new adventures. Be careful saying that to a true punk rock fan, however. Punk rock didn't end in the seventies for many people. It began again in the eighties. These folks will scream at you until they're hoarse about the merit of the Dead Kennedys, Operation Ivy, and—of course—the Adolescents. Folks who came of age in the nineties like me will tirelessly defend the honor of Pennywise, Green Day, and NOFX—all decent bands in their own right, but none of which ever did it for me. Be it punk, post-punk, or rock and roll in general, music from experience is always the most moving for me. I'm an eighties junkie by nature, and when it comes to my iPod playlist I'm pretty much stuck in that decade by choice. Up until last year, I thought I had pretty much heard every single meaningful style of music the eighties had to offer. That's when Julie Masi sent me the Christian Death "Only Theater of Pain" album in the mail and my whole world changed. How had I missed this? It was everything great about goth, shock rock, and punk all rolled into one, with an artsy undertone and somewhat seedy core. It was unbridled and raw, yet melodic and almost genius in its instrumentation. It was captivating and overwhelming. It sounded so familiar, yet I was hearing it for the first time. It was the rock album I'd been waiting my whole life for. I became obsessed.

In that box of Frontier Records goodies was also a copy of the Adolescents "blue album," a record that began to grow on me over time despite my lack of serious passion for punk. What the Adolescents and Christian Death records have in common is serious songwriting. Like a great bottle of whisky, you may not like it, but that doesn't mean it isn't well made. The more I played the "blue album," the more I started to recognize that quality. The link between both bands and the high quality of songsmanship is Rikk Agnew, a man who's been called "the Brian Wilson of punk." Agnew started off in the band Social Distortion (another legendary group) before joining the Adolescents in 1980 and handling most of the songwriting for the "blue album," which was released in 1981. Agnew left the group after the record was released and quickly joined Christian Death after watching them perform at a SoCal venue. He played guitar and wrote most of the songs on "Only Theater of Pain," as well, the band's debut record that came out a year later in 1982, marking two seriously groundbreaking albums written by Agnew in a short span—both completely different in style. Thanks to my relationship with Frontier, I was finally discovering these albums more than thirty years after their time. I won't say that my interaction and relationship with Frontier Records made me any more a fan of punk rock, but it definitely made me a fan of Rikk's. The man was clearly capable of creating a wide spectrum of sounds.

Flash forward to July of 2016. I got an email completely out of the blue from Rikk Agnew about our special Faultline releases—an homage to his inspiring work. He was now sober and not necessarily interested in drinking a boutique bottle of gin or absinthe; however—seeing that he was the main guy in both bands—he still wanted to put a bottle of each on his mantle (along with the records, of course). Would I be willing to get him a bottle of each? Absolutely. I put an order on hold in the Hollywood store, he came by to grab them, and we took a quick photo of him (above) to mark the occasion. Since then I've kept in touch with Rikk via email, more so as of late because of his new record release. Today, October 14th, Rikk Agnew is releasing his latest record, an album called "Learn"—the newest addition to the Frontier catalog. I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy a few weeks back. I have not stopped listening to it since. It's so good. It instantly drew me in the same way that those Christian Death and Adolescents records did when I received them over a year ago. There's something inherently wonderful about Rikk Agnew's music, which has won him his place in punk rock history. What's amazing to me, however, is that in a genre where most people burn out (or die) in their twenties, Rikk might have saved his best work for his fifties. "Learn" isn't just a statement about Rikk's history of hard living, it's one of the best new rock and roll albums I've heard in years.

Before I ever wrote a word about wine or spirits, I wrote music reviews for an indy newspaper in Southern California while attending USCD. I'm a bit out of practice, but here goes: "Learn" is an album rooted in punk rock origins, yet completely unrestricted by those limited architectural designs. I think that's why I love it so much. It starts out with a track called "I Can't Change the World," which opens with an acapella anthem of the chorus. It's that same punk texture of harmonies that moves the album forward, all the way until the final track, "Deprogrammer"—potentially the record's best song. Personally, I don't consider background vocals and harmonies to be one of punk rock's stronger suits. If you can even stay on tune as a singer, you've got a leg up on a number of other bands. The Rikk Agnew Band can not only sing, they can orchestrate. When punk rock bands orchestrate, they expand their horizons greatly. Listen to a Red Hot Chili Peppers album before John Frusciante, and then after. There's a HUGE difference. Background vocals and harmonies add so much more depth to punk rock and, in the case of "Learn," they're a major part of the record's infrastructure. Not every song is as deeply structured, but there's a nice variety of styles.  "Ripped to the Tits" and "Nelson's Blood," for example, are two incredibly catchy tunes you'll be singing all day after listening to them (and rum fans will enjoy the reference there). They're beyond a mere punk classification. They're just good songs. 

Agnew's Adolescent roots really come out on "Think Ov The Children," with the escalating guitar chords moving up the fretboard in classic Agnew style. The song plays like an updated version of the band, which should greatly please longtime fans. "Bash!" gives you a good old punk rock screamfest with some quasi-humorous lyrics and a clever usage of the old children's rhyme: sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. There's always an element of humor at play on "Learn," despite Agnew's rather serious attempt to atone for his past indulgences. While the subject matter is heavy, the message never is. It's the difference between being preachy and being experienced. In this case, it's the experience that gives Agnew the edge. The guy simply knows how to write punk songs because he's been doing it for so long. He's telling himself to learn from previous mistakes, yet it's pretty clear what else he's learned over the years: how to add nuance, depth, and richness into his rock and roll layers. The songs have texture and complexity (see, this is just like reviewing whisky!). Then there's "Catfight," a song I've listened to about a hundred times already. Gitane Demone blisters through the vocals here. I'm imagining a biker bar with bottles flying through the air and tables being overturned amidst the chaos. I love it.

I have to imagine other fans of Agnew will love the record, too. As I mentioned above, I'm a relative newcomer here. But I'm far from a newcomer to rock music. I like to think I'm as well-versed in the genre as anyone. As someone who continues to follow the music scene, I've repeatedly watched musicians with former pedigrees attempt the great comeback, hoping to rekindle just a bit of the old magic. As a fan, I end up going to these shows, dreading the idea of them "playing the new stuff." Just stick to the hits, please! Most people want nostalgia from their nostalgia acts. In the case of Agnew, there's no difference between new and old. If twenty year olds could write records this good today, I'd probably go to more shows. "Learn" combines many of his strengths from both the punk and death rock genres, along with a number of other stylistic tricks he's picked up since then. There's a thirty-four year gap between "Only Theater of Pain" and "Learn," but you'd never know it. Punk rock is alive and well in the veins of Rikk Agnew. It's like riding a bike for him. He's fallen off here and there, but he's never forgotten how to ride. Plus, he rides better when he's sober.

"Learn" is available today from Frontier Records. You can download a copy here, as well as order the vinyl if you like. I can't recommend it highly enough.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Oct132016

An Intimate Affair

I'm always experimenting with different ways of doing whisky tastings and last night I decided to move our scheduled Kilkerran event into the more intimate front salon at Donato, scrap the dinner, and just do finger food appetizers for a more casual approach. No three hour meal this time around, just a chance to mingle, taste at your own speed, and snack on some bruschetta, pizza, and ravioli bites. I was pleased with the results and especially the atmosphere. The weather has started to cool down again and the time is right for a glass of Scotch after a long day at work. We had Ranald Watson in the house all the way from Campbeltown, Scotland to tell us about the twelve year journey of Glengyle distillery, Springbank's second production house. As Ranald said, "The whisky actually turned twelve in April, but we didn't want to release it over the summer. We thought October was a better time to introduce a new whisky." Indeed. I purposely held off of tasting the new Kilkerran 12 year until last night because I wanted to be there with Ranald and the group to experience it for the first time together. I was not disappointed.

Everyone else seemed pretty pleased as well. My buddy Anthony (who was grabbing a snack here as we discussed the whisky) and I both agreed the Kilkerran 12 tastes like an improved version of Oban 14: there's just a bit more mouthfeel, a touch more sweetness, and a slightly peatier finish. It's everything I've always liked about Oban, just more fine-tuned and focused. Ranald added: "It has a little bit of everything, doesn't it?" Yes, it does. It's got the fruit and vanilla of the Highlands, just enough roundness like to be a modern Speyside, the subtle brine of the islands, and a bit of peat like Islay. But it's also light on its feet like a classic Lowlander. I think just about everyone there wanted to grab a bottle before the night was over because it's definitely not just Springbank light; it's an entirely different whisky with a different set of strengths.

Then, as promised, I broke out two bottles of cask strength 19 year old Springbank from the distillery's recent American single cask allocation: one aged in refill sherry, the other in a "recharred" sherry butt. Both whiskies were incredible, albeit in totally different ways. It was also my first time tasting either one. The recharred sherry is exactly what it sounds like. "Nineteen years ago we took ten sherry butts and had them sent to our cooperage to be blowtorched," Ranald explained. I'd never heard of such a thing! Wouldn't that caramelize the sherry? The result is a whisky that's as black as black can be. It looks more like a dark Demerara rum than a single malt and it tastes like something in between El Dorado and Springbank, yet entirely natural. The refill sherry was simply perfect. If I were a whisky customer looking to spend $300 on a bottle, this is what I would spend it on. It delivers on all fronts. It has the rich fruit and oiliness of a classic Springbank whisky, but with balance, length, and finesse. My co-worker Andrew and I were spellbound.

We started at seven. We were done by eight-thirty. I like the new model. I'm going to see about planning more of these.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Oct122016

Worthy Arrivals

It seems to be a collective response to a rather bloated and impenetrable whiskey market, this newly-found desire from hundreds of K&L shoppers to expand their horizons and look beyond the Scotch and Bourbon categories. Like a downpour that comes from out of nowhere, my email inbox has been absolutely overflowing with inquiries from longtime customers who are now asking about rum, mezcal, tequila, and anything else that might scratch that same spirited itch. Whiskey customers are getting bored, in my opinion. Anything they want, they can't find. Anything they can find, they don't want! They've had all the entry level stuff and they're looking to take their passion to the next level, but that next level is either ridiculously out of their price range or you have to bribe someone to get there. Thus: people are looking outside the whiskey category. Here's an example of a conversation I'm starting to have on an almost hourly basis:

David, the mature Bourbon and single malt market has become ridiculous. I want to branch out and save some cash. Should I get this fifteen year El Dorado old rum instead? It looks like a really good price!

Sure! There's just one thing you should probably know: El Dorado rum is pretty much the Hennessy Cognac of the rum world, meaning it has added caramel and sugar to make it dark and sweet. It's still delicious, but it's not an unadulterated product like a Bourbon or single malt.

Oh. I don't want that. How about a different rum?

Rum is a pretty diverse category and there are so many different styles, many of which were not necessarily made for sipping like your beloved Scotch and Bourbon. There are funky pot still rums, milder sipping rums, high proof mixing rums, and even grassy and intense agricole rhums made from sugar cane juice. It all depends on what you want.

I want something smooth and rich and round with that Bourbon sweetness or that Sherry cask suppleness.

Then see my first response about El Dorado. The same applies to just about any rum in that genre: Ron Zacapa, Diplomatico, Zaya, etc. Aged rums are usually quite dry and mellow unless they've been artificially sweetened. You could try a Panamanian rum like Zafra or Panama Pacific, or a Bajan rum like Mount Gay for something less sweet.

I've had those and I found them rather uncomplex. What about mezcal? I've heard that's the next adventure.

Mezcal is smoky and unaged. It's pretty much just tequila with more tanginess and smoke, but zero richness. It's vegetal, earthy, and the absolute opposite of smooth.

Oh. I don't really want that either. 

So let's find you some interesting options that you'll probably enjoy! One new release that really surprised me was the new Macallan 12 year old "Double Cask." Not only is the price totally reasonable, the whisky itself is exactly what Macallan fans are looking for: dark, rich, decadent, and mouthfilling. It's got that exotic spice of supple sherry goodness and plenty of balance from the whisky's inherent maltiness. It's about fifty-five bucks and it's pretty much exactly what you said you wanted: round and smooth, but with character and complexity.

But what about something that's NOT whisky? Isn't there anything new out there worth checking out that will scratch that same itch?

Actually, there is. I just met these guys yesterday and for the moment we're the only people in California carrying their stuff. It's a new tequila called Código, made by Tequileria las Juntas, but for a private investment group that's been contracting their own formula and shipping it to Cabo for almost a decade. They finally got together a team to bring the tequila to market in the U.S. and, I have to say, I was very impressed by their juice. While the blanco is flavorful and delicious, it's the añejo and extra añejo editions that might be worth checking out in your case. Both were aged in French oak ex-wine casks instead of the standard ex-Bourbon barrel, and the difference is absolutely night and day. The añejo is full of that exotic oak spice that only French oak can exert and the wine influence acts like a milder Sherry note, adding that little hint of chewiness that I think you might enjoy. The extra anejo is absolutely insane. I've never tasted a tequila like it before. First off, it's the darkest tequila I've ever seen. Secondly, at six years of age, it's really sucked up that wine note and at this point tastes like something between a port-finished Bourbon and wine-finished Bruichladdich, but with spicy and sweet agave notes on the finish. It's expensive, but in comparison to the other top shelf tequila offerings we carry, it's undoubtedly the most satisfying and decadent. You might want to try those.

-David Driscoll