So Cute

I'm generally not a fan of gift sets, gift packaging, or any sort of holiday-oriented VAP pack that results in a bulky, oversized product that takes up too much shelf space and is a pain in the ass to ship. Call me old fashioned or practical. In cases where a producer has three products, however, all of which are fantastic, I am a big believer in the 200ml three pack and will make an exception in the store for these scenarios. St. George is a great example of this phenomenon. They have three delicious gins and choosing one is sometimes difficult for curious customers. Why not then buy the three pack and experiment with each one? We sell those St. George three packs like they're made out of crack cocaine because people love having little samples of multiple products. Now Westland is joining the fold and the timing couldn't have been better.

I've been telling people about Westland's whiskey for years now, but most guys don't want to blow $60-$70 to try a full bottle from each of the three mainstay expressions. Now for the low price of $59.99 you can try the American single malt, the peated edition, and the sherry aged whiskey in one fantastic set. With the Garryana release set for later this month, I'm expecting renewed interest in the distillery and this is a great way to indoctrinate new whiskey fans into the fold. The bad news is we can't ship them, so they're only for local customers. The good news is they're on the shelf right now!

-David Driscoll


Invecchiato Per 24 Anni

I've been waiting a long time for this day; the moment when we could start talking about Italy's potential as a serious source of distilled spirits beyond the ubiquitous vermouth, amaro, and herbal liqueur selections that are sweeping the cocktail culture. Distillation has been practiced in Italy since the early days of grappa and medicinal remedies. Unlike what's happening with the craft distillation scene in America, many of the "new" labels we're seeing from Italy come from companies established in the 1800s. In many cases these producers have not only generations of knowledge as it pertains to spirits, but also plenty of back inventory. Take the case of Guido Zarri as an example, the man behind the Villa Zarri brand. In addition to his fantastic amaro, his delicious nocino, and his dangerously drinkable ciliegia, Guido has mature stocks of Cognac-style brandy (distilled from trebbiano, basically ugni blanc grown in Italy) dating back to the late 1980s. As if his incredibly well-priced ten and twenty-one year old brandies weren't enough to persuade you of his prowess, I decided to dig a little deeper into his cellars.

"I want to do a single barrel and I want to do it at full proof. Is that OK with you?" I asked Guido during a phone conversation earlier this year.

"Yes, I actually think it tastes better that way," he replied, almost as if he was embarrassed by that admission.

I laughed and reassured him: "So do a lot of other people."

Last month I decided to do a little survey with some of my most knowledgeable whisky customers. At a private dinner event, I poured each person a small glass of the 1991 Villa Zarri K&L single cask from an advance sample I had received from Guido, then I bid everyone adieu. The next morning I had multiple emails from these guys asking me just what in the hell they had tasted that evening. Most of them were shocked to discover it was brandy. All of them were stunned that it had been distilled in Italy. It was when I told them the potential price that the excitement really got going; I was hoping to sell it for just under a hundred bucks.

Emilia-Romagna is a beautiful place. Located just north of Bologna, the Villa Zarri estate is set in between rolling hills of green. The property itself dates back to 1578 and has hosted scores of parties, concerts, exhibits, and events over those many centuries, but distillation at the site is a rather recent development in context. Everything Guido Zarri does in the distillery is exactly as is done in the Charentes: the grapes are same varietal, the stills are the same shape and size, the proof of the spirit comes off just over seventy as it does in Cognac. It's in the barrel room, however, that Guido changes direction. Rather than age his brandies in used Limosin oak, he starts each distillate off in new oak casks to impart color and intensity before transferring them into refill barrels over time. He also does not top up the barrels to prevent evaporation, instead choosing to transfer the brandies into fewer and fewer barrels as they begin to lose volume. The result is a richer, darker, and more oak influenced spirit; one that does not require coloring agents or added sugar to soften the mouthfeel. The brandies are impressive and all encompassing from the very first sip. But, if you're a whisky fan, wait until you taste that concentrated flavor at 59.7%

Back in April, I wrote an article about three upcoming spirits I was very excited about: Four Pillars gin, a new cask of Caol Ila, and this cask of Villa Zarri. So far I haven't met one person who hasn't fallen completely in love with the Four Pillars gin. I expect the reactions to this single cask of Villa Zarri 24 year old brandy to be similar. On the nose, the aromas meander between stewed fruits, oak spice, burnt vanilla. On the palate, the flavors continue to evolve along the same track, but what shocks you is the richness and the power. I have to imagine that Bourbon fans will be drawn to that sheer strength and Scotch fans to the maturity and the concentration.

Again, my favorite part about this whole deal is the price. Our very, very best Cognacs typically retail in the $90 to $150 range and that's at the watered-down 40% ABV. Here we've got single barrel, unadulterated brandy at full proof with twenty four years of age at $99.99. It doesn't matter what you like to drink: Scotch, Bourbon, or Cognac. If you're a fan of brown spirits, you're going to love this. The proof? Our owner just bought a bottle and he drinks about one glass of brown spirits per year. Looks like we know what this year's selection will be. Don't wait for a better Armagnac or Cognac to come later in the year. There's nothing better than this bottle on the horizon.

Villa Zarri 24 Year Old "K&L Exclusive" Single Barrel Cask Strength Italian Brandy 99.99- Nestled into the hills of Emilia Romagna is the Villa Zarri distillery, a small production run by Guido Zarri with a stunning portfolio of traditional Italian recipes and impeccable aged brandies. The Cognac-style brandies are distilled on an alembic pot still by from trebbiano (the Italian version of ugni blanc, same as Cognac) and aged in French Limousin oak for at least ten years. They are unadulterated, have no added caramel or sugar, and are like fuller, richer, more interesting versions of their French cousins. I was absolutely smitten with the ten and twenty-one year old brandies the first time I tasted them; so much so that I immediately requested barrel samples to hopefully purchase older, higher proof selections directly for K&L in the future. Guido was excited about working with us on a project and provided us with an incredible 1991 vintage 24 year old brandy at cask strength, combining the richness and the finesse of great Cognac with the power and depth of a fine single malt Scotch. It's not only one of the best brandies I've ever tasted, it's one of the most reasonably-priced spirits I've ever tasted for the quality involved. At nearly 60% ABV, there's a lot of heat so a drop or two of water really helps open up the fruit. Underneath all that power is plenty of rich vanilla, sweet oak, lush stonefruit, and Cognac-like finesse, but without all the sticky additives. What you get here is almost like a Glenmorangie version of brandy.

-David Driscoll


Ickle Me, Pickle Me....

....Dickel me, too! Anyone else remember that poem and song by Shel Silverstein? I think about it every time someone says the name "Dickel." I think I have both Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic completely memorized still to this day from non-stop elementary school listening, so it's almost like second nature to start spouting off that classic intro. I'm constantly referencing pop culture when I work at the store, replacing the words in famous movie lines or hit singles with names of booze brands. When the Dickel rye whiskey came out and it tasted a bit like dill, you can bet the Dickel and pickle rhymes began flying around the sales floor. 

In any case, enough of my silliness. We've got three new K&L exclusive casks of George Dickel 9 year old 51.5% Tennessee whiskey to talk about! Single cask selections from George Dickel have become some of the most coveted bottles among K&L's American whiskey customers, mainly because the sweetness and the richness of the Tennessee whiskey seems to come through like a laser beam at the higher proof; taking what is normally a mellow, creamy, and drinkable sour mash whiskey and dialing the intensity up to full speed. We're also not able to secure K&L single cask selections with the frequency that we're able to choose barrels from other distilleries, making the Dickel releases that much rarer in the eyes of our customers. People tend to load up when we get them, securing reserves for later on down the road.

Here's the latest (also to note: Diageo does not put cask number indicators on the label, only on the case boxes that the bottles come in. Therefore we've added the bottle ID code in the description of each whiskey, which is lasered on to the glass just underneath the barcode on the back):

George Dickel K&L Exclusive 9 Year Old Single Barrel #04L28N54410 Tennessee Whiskey $46.99 - Barrel #04L28N54410 begins with hints of dark cocoa and rich wood flavor, but quickly brings in the baking spices and the charred oak goodness. The finish is a Bourbon-esque explosion of pencil shavings, baking spice, and sweet vanilla. A triumph of pure Tennessee whiskey heaven! (Bottle ID code is L6169K1003)

George Dickel K&L Exclusive 9 Year Old Single Barrel #04L30N55310 Tennessee Whiskey $46.99 - Barrel #04L30N55310 is all oak right off the bat and that oak turns into richer, stewier notes of candy corn and charred oak before finishing with a mix of savory and sweet spices. This is like a more friend Four Roses single cask for about $20 less per bottle. A hot deal! (Bottle ID code is L6168K1001)

George Dickel K&L Exclusive 9 Year Old Single Barrel #05A04B1212 Tennessee Whiskey $46.99 - Barrel #05A04B1212 has the most sweet corn flavor on the entry, starting with that classic Dickel mellowness that quickly dials into bold spices, pepper, creme brulee, and charred oak. It continues to crescendo long on the finish with more sweet oak flavors coming through minutes after the last sip. (Bottle ID code is L6169K1001)

Now it's time to ickle me, pickle me, tickle me, and Dickel me, too! May the late, great Shel Silverstein rest in peace!

-David Driscoll


The Way We Drink – Part II

There's a long history of American stars reviving their careers overseas. Jerry Lewis in France. David Hasselhoff in Germany. Nicholas Cage in China. Sometimes what is considered stale, antiquated, and passé at home is considered rustic, traditional, and romantic abroad and that foreign interest can often spark a new renaissance of appreciation. In the booze world, there's no better example of this than the new American fascination with Italian spirits and amari. A genre of drinking that is associated with older, conservative generations in Italy is finding new life with the modern, cocktail-drinking youth of the U.S. Take Campari, for example, a brand with absolutely flat growth for decades that has seen annual double-digit sales growth over the past four years in the states. Business is booming all of a sudden for a segment of the industry that was once struggling to remain relevant and these guys couldn't be more excited. I was emailing with Orietta Varnelli, the head of the eponymous Marche producer, this week and she had just returned from Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. Imagine that: an old Italian family that's been making old school, traditional herbal liqueurs since 1868 flying out to Louisiana to party with a bunch of tattooed bartenders and hipster mixologists. It's incredible! She wrote to me:

What American trade and media are doing about Italian traditional spirits is amazing and all producers have to be sincerely grateful. It is crazy to say, but only thanks to the wind which comes from the U.S. there is an evident revival of Amaro also in Italy and more generally in Europe.

It seems the new twist that Americans are putting on Europe's traditional beverages has sparked renewed interest back at home. On the flip side of what I was talking about yesterday, the nontraditional American drinking culture—one based more on the drink itself rather than its accompaniment with food—is single-handedly reviving the remnants of another, albeit in an entirely new fashion. Once again, it's evolve with the times or potentially fade away. Take the enthusiasm and run with it while it lasts!

Right, Mr. Cage?

-David Driscoll


The Way We Drink

I had a long conversation with a customer yesterday about the meaning of “old world” versus “new world” when it comes to wine. It had been a while since I’d broken down the fundamentals of booze philosophy on the sales floor because I only work in the store on Saturdays now, but also because so few people these days have the courage to ask about the basics. We were looking for a gift for the gentleman’s friends in France, a pair of California wines that might please the palate of these inherent Bordeaux lovers. Before searching out the potential prospects, however, I wanted to cover a few general concepts. “The thing you have to remember about French wine,” I said, “is that it’s usually made in a style that complements food. Often times the wines won’t taste their best unless paired with the right dish, which speaks to their winemaking intentions as a culture.”

The man stared at me intently.

“California wines, on the other hand,” I continued, “are often wines you can drink with or without food. They’re usually made to taste good right out of the bottle because often times Americans drink a glass of wine like they would a beer or a cocktail—as a way to wind down the work day.” 

"You’re saying the French make wine to suit their own specific lifestyle and that Californians do the same?” the man asked with a quizzical look on his face. 

“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

“That would be the same for Italian wine, too; wouldn’t you say?” he added.

“I would.”

“That makes complete sense. Thank you for explaining that to me,” he said before heading to the register, shaking my hand in appreciation.

We often ignore the topic of our drinking intentions here in the States, most likely because many of us learned how to get drunk before we learned how to appreciate the custom itself. We barfed up buckets of Jaegermeister and hurled out heaps of vodka-cran before we understood how to enjoy the flavor of alcohol. I believe wholeheartedly that the American alcoholic chip on the shoulder stems from that very fact: that we feel inferior when faced with a real-deal drinking culture; one where kids enjoy wine at the table with their parents and learn at a more leisurely pace. I think it often reminds us of what we’re missing and it can bring out a certain defensiveness in people. Our food culture is no different. We eat dinner in front of the TV (I still do almost every night), power down a sandwich while driving between jobs, and skip breakfast to get an early start on the day or hit the morning spin class. As drinkers, we’re rarely looking at the big picture; we’re living moment to moment. When I talk about this subject with customers I don’t seek to criticize my own culture as much as I look to contrast it from the old world and attempt to explain why it’s so different. You can understand a lot about why a wine tastes the way it does by understanding the way a culture eats and lives. You can also better understand the market. 

“Why doesn’t anyone drink grappa anymore?” a friend of mine who works in the spirits business asked me last week. “Why don’t more people appreciate eaux-de-vie or proper digestivos these days? I can’t even find them in most liquor stores.”

“Think about how you’re supposed to enjoy grappa,” I said to her. “When are you supposed to drink it?”

“After dinner,” she replied.

“When’s the last time you sat down for a long dinner with friends?”

“It’s been a while,” she said.

“Think about how much grappa you consume when you do find the time to have that kind of a meal and then how long it would take you to finish a bottle in that manner. Now contrast that with the gallons of Bourbon and Scotch that are being consumed at happy hour each night like cheap beer." People are drinking whiskey in America like they eat tacos or doughnuts—as singular entities. They’re pouring glasses before, during, and after dinner. Sometimes the whiskey is the dinner! Imagine how much faster those bottles get consumed and how quickly those customers come back to get more.

She stared at me in silence for a few moments.

“That’s why no one sells grappa anymore,” I continued. “Because one bottle of grappa is enough for a lifetime in today’s American drinking culture. No one drinks after-dinner digestivos because that’s not the way we live. We’re too busy cutting carbs, doing yoga, and working twelve hour days to sit down for a two hour meal—especially the kind that involves eau-de-vie at the end. Our drinking intentions and therefore our drinking options revolve around that lifestyle.”

“I love the old world,” she said to me.

“I do, too,” I replied, “but that’s not where we live and that’s not who we are.” 

Most customers today think about context when buying a bottle: when would I actually drink this? I think Americans understand drinking as a social function—something you do with friends at a party. Few, however, see it as a daily construct, or as part of a balanced diet. I’m no different. I have to actually work to find time to drink Bordeaux or Burgundy. I struggle to create moments worthy of grappa. Ultimately, it’s for that reason that Armagnac, Cognac, Calvados, Italian amari, mezcal, and various other regional specialties have found a way to market themselves into cocktail recipes—as a way to increase consumption, awareness, and change historical drinking patterns. When long, multi-course meals were the norm, there was a place at the table for all of these beverages, but today we've gotta think about DUIs and LDLs. It’s evolve or die for many of these spirits. Look on the bright side, however: at least gout is on the decline.

-David Driscoll

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