Spiritual Illumination

I’ve always looked at other businesses and hobbies to find parallels for my work in the booze industry, originally starting with professional wrestling and the similarities between the levels of fan involvement. The connections are truly uncanny! Today, however, I’m fixated on surfing analogies. I’ve never surfed in my life. I know little about it other than what I’ve seen in the Endless Summer movies (the first films that really inspired me to travel), but for some reason I’ve uncovered an incredible amount of correlations lately that have helped me better understand both my own field and my own values. I really relate to the philosophies involved with surfing if not so much the beach lifestyle. I’ve always had a vague interest in the sport, but my interest picked up again a little over two years ago after interviewing surfing hall of famer Taylor Knox for the D2D series. He was a man very in tune with himself and I was caught off guard by how much I related to his experiences. We talked for a while about finding balance in life without having to make drastic changes, a far cry from what I saw going on around me at that time in Silicon Valley, where everything is about creating huge, monumental shifts. One day you’re eating pasta and drinking wine, the next day you’re gluten free and training for a marathon. People where I live are constantly searching for ways to hack and dominate life, rather than find harmony with it. Surfing philosophy has a lot to do with the latter, which is what got me started in my research. 

It was around that same time that I started reading a magazine called The Surfer’s Journal, one that I still subscribe to today and wholly enjoy despite the fact I’ve never once had the desire to pick up a surfboard (although I did start skateboarding again last year as a result). After taking my nephews up and down the Las Vegas strip yesterday, pooping them out with endless activity and lessons on gambling, I finally got into bed and began reading the latest issue, including an interview with surfer Bobby Martinez who apparently hated surfing for much of the time he was a professional. Reading his account of life on the pro tour resonated with me in a very personal way. There was a time not so long ago where the business of wine and spirits was ruining the act of drinking for me, something I’ve enjoyed immensely since I was about fifteen years old. While turning your hobby into your job can remove all the pleasure derived for just about anyone, Bobby’s experience seemed to run close to my personal struggle. His words reassured me that I wasn't alone with my doubts or frustration:

“During my whole surfing career, there was no satisfaction the entire time,” he says in the interview with writer Jake Howard; “I hated it. I had the best waves of my life and it was all hate because I wasn’t surfing for the right reasons. Today it’s for pure enjoyment. You’re out in the water and you’re alone by yourself. There’s something beautiful about that. You leave all the bullshit behind.”

There seems to be something very spiritual about surfing, which is why I think it’s like a religion for many of the folks who do it. I see people getting religious about whiskey today as well, making pilgrimages to their favorite facilities, bowing down on the hallowed distillery grounds, sometimes even weeping as they take communion—a dram of their favorite malt—from an ordained master distiller. It’s not uncommon at all these days for a hobby to replace organized religion as the end all be all of existence, a new form of dogma for those who live and die by their interests. I was emailing with a customer this past week about the similarities between the modern church of whiskey and Christianity, both the good and the bad, when he responded with something quite profound. I’m posting it below with his permission:

“Your analogy of Christianity made me recall a conversation I had about twenty years ago with an older uncle who was a Protestant minister. We got along great and enjoyed having lunch from time to time and he asked me one day, “What made you choose to no longer attend church?" I laid out my case of intellectual grievances and when I was done he said to me, “All that stuff is about the hypocrisy of making the adherence to morality into a contest. What I wonder is: did anyone ever teach you that church is supposed to be an expression of joy and love?" I’ve never forgotten that. I still don't go to church, but from that day forward I stopped exclusively thinking of spirituality in terms of ideology. I learned that people attend services to find joy, not to do whatever I was sitting around grumbling about them doing.”

I was very moved by this experience (and the fact that this customer shared this with me) because again it’s an account of what happens when we become disheartened by the realities of humanity and lose both the meaning and the enjoyment of activities that were once important to us. Surfer Bobby Martinez lost his passion for wave riding when he began associating it with everything making him unhappy in his life. I know many people who have lost their interest for whiskey, much like my customer lost his interest for religion, for the same reasons. They begin obsessing over everything possibly related to whiskey—the prices, the production details, the scarcity, the reviews—and they completely lose touch with what interested them about whiskey in the first place. I’ve watched newcomers get seriously into the hobby and then burn out within a year, never to buy a bottle again. I’ve also seen hardcore collectors evolve into casual drinkers, having done a little self examination and realized that drinking is supposed to be something enjoyable not stressful or aggravating. Much like with any religion, everyone’s journey is different, but sometimes hearing about those journeys can help us tremendously in improving our own.

Regardless of whether you take it literally or not, the Bible is still a giant book of parables and experiences that are meant to help us understand and find meaning in our own lives. Many of us seek fellowship in shared experiences and wisdom from the trials of others. We rejoice in finding similarities between our struggles. While I don’t attend church today, I’m in constant need of that exact same therapy; it’s just that I search for it in comparative analytics rather than a communal cathedral with religious scripture. Lately I’ve found a lot of personal meaning in the accounts of both amateur and professional surfers, but next month it could be something else. It might even be professional wrestling again, even though I stopped following it years ago. However, I did spend Saturday night at the Rio hotel drinking California cabernet with some of my childhood heroes of the squared circle. I hardly said a word the entire time, taking it all in. After three hours of incredible stories, I found a deep communion with those giant men. The booze business and wrestling have so much in common it’s crazy! Sometimes listening is the best therapy. Through the tribulations of others we often better understand own joy and our passion.

-David Driscoll


...And Still More New Stuff

Yes, I'm running on overdrive right now. I'm buying spirits, domestic wine, Bordeaux, writing fifty blog posts an hour, managing this rag tag group of buyers, trying to get all my work caught up before I head to Vegas for the next five days. That's right; I'm going right out of this 105 degree oven and into the Vegas frying pan. But I'm going to get this store stocked, I'm going to get our marketing emails ready, I'm going to write up all these new whiskies, and I'm for damn sure going to tell you about these two news casks of Old Particular that just came in, plus a handful of other things.

Here we go!

1996 Tamdhu 20 Year Old K&L Exclusive Old Particular Single Barrel Single Malt Whisky $79.99 - Tamdhu is a classic Speyside distillery that has seen its stock rise over the last few years as its recent owners have rebranded the whisky and focused on the heritage of the facility. Originally founded in 1896, the Highland whisky has long be renowned for its classic Scotch whisky profile and that reputation is on full display in this single cask 20 year old expression from our Old Particular label. Light, fresh, clean, and sweetly aromatic with distinct cereal and honey notes, the finish is fully of toffee with cinnamon and clove spices that dance gingerly at cask strength. Those in search of value need look no further.

North British 25 Year Old "Old Particular" K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Grain Whisky $69.99 - Just outside of Edinburgh sits the North British grain distillery, a facility that uses unmalted grains like corn and wheat and distills them on a column still to produce grain whisky--one of the more misunderstood personalities of the whisky universe. Most of you have had grain whisky before, you've just had it in conjunction with single malt whisky in expressions like Johnnie Walker or Chivas. Grain whisky is what's ultimately combined with single malt whisky to create "blended" whisky (hence the name). What hasn't been clear to most drinkers until rather recently, however, is how wonderful grain whisky can be on its own, especially when aged twenty years or more. This 25 year North British is potently rich and full of vanilla, brimming with sweet oak, and punchy on the finish. It's like the buttery icing on a chocolate cake and then the oak takes over and the finish turns woody in the best possible way. This almost tastes like something in between Scotch and Bourbon. Oh....and it's 25 years old, full proof, from a single barrel, and less than $75. Swoop in quickly before the masses seal the fate of this hot deal.

For those of you on the High West wagon, we just got more of the Bourye and Yippee Ki-Yay into stock. Those are fun!

The Highland Park "Magnus" just came into stock for a cool $29.99. Hard to imagine something easier than that whisky for the money.

There's a bit of the new Machir Bay cask strength in LA right now. More coming to the north next week, plus the tasting in Redwood City on Friday. 

There are also a few bottles of 2005 Plantation 10 year old St. Lucia rum in each store. That's pretty outstanding stuff that was locked down on allocation all week, but finally arrived.

That inexpensive Shackleton Blended Malt is on the shelf now. It's lovely.

I'm getting out of here shortly. Then off to Vegas tomorrow to continue working on the new house. Hoping to chill out a bit with Big Daddy Cool Saturday night as he's in town, too. Gotta pack some red wine in the suitcase as the big man likes Cabernet. I'll be out of commission until Thursday of next week, so if you need help with an order make sure you get a hold of me tonight or tomorrow morning before I shutdown the Microsoft Outlook.

Have a great Labor Day Weekend! Drink something fun and enjoy yourselves. If you run out of booze, or you just need a break from your non-AC Bay Area house (because it's only hot two weeks a year here, YEAH RIGHT), come into the 55 degree Redwood City store and refresh yourself. Let's pray the power doesn't go out now.

-David Driscoll


The New Nobility

I was having a conversation this week with one of the more entrenched brand ambassadors in the Scotch business about the rise of a nobility class in the world of single malt. "Macallan has become something beyond other distilleries at this point," I said while sipping on a sample of the upcoming Edition No. 3 release; "It's like Château Latour or Prada," with a gigantic following outside of the enthusiast world that dwarfs the customer base responsible for its initial success. When you reach those lofty heights as a brand, price no longer becomes a barrier. Luxury brands aren't here to provide value. They exist to provide both inspiration and aspiration. If you told me Prada shoes aren't worth the money, I'd probably respond by saying there are a number of less expensive brands that also provide style and comfort. But...they're not Prada. Just like there are many single malt whiskies out there in the world today, there is only one Macallan.

"I think Balvenie is well on its way into that group," my ambassador friend said. 

"Very good point," I answered, thinking more about the Speyside producer. Balvenie has definitely grown into something of a darling with both staunch enthusiasts who drool over the distillery's Tun series, as well as the general public that endlessly thirsts for the 14 year old Caribbean rum release, as well as the 21 year old Port Wood expression. Both whiskies are big sellers at K&L and for good reason: they're soft, supple, rich, smooth, enticing, unique, and memorable. They're exactly the type of malts that impact casual drinkers, who later ask their friends to remind them, "What was that whisky we had after dinner last weekend?" Balvenie's adherence to both age-stated malts and transparent production details, along with what is clearly a crowd-pleasing style, has put the brand into a unique position: it's equally popular with those in-the-know and those who really don't care about knowing. That's definitely a great place to be in today's market. Plus, they've got Anthony Bourdain on board with the marketing!

That being said, I'm curious to see how the distillery's latest limited release does in the netherworld between hardcore fans and general enthusiasts. The 2002 Balvenie 14 Year Old "Peat Week" is the kind of whisky that really excites me personally, but I can see where it might fall between the cracks of these two expanding poles. Do Balvenie fans want peat? I'm not sure. Do peat fans want Balvenie? Again, I don't know. While the whisky is described by Balvenie as "heavily peated," I can assure you after numerous tastes that it is not all that smoky. For Balvenie—yes—it's quite potent, but Islay fans will hardly bat an eye at these peat levels. To make an overtly peaty whisky would be out of character for the brand, so I'm relieved they didn't go that route. Staying true to oneself is more important than ever today. What David Stewart and the gang have produced, however, is a vintage-dated whisky entirely from the initial week of peated whisky distillation at Balvenie back in 2002 (the first peated run in more than fifty years at the distillery) that perfectly expresses the ease, grace, and utter drinkability of the Balvenie house style. After spending more than an hour with my sample, I'm pretty smitten. 

Personally, I'm long over big, bold, full proof, heavy sherry, heavy peat, massive intensity and gung-ho bravado when it comes to Scotch. Maybe it's my age, but I don't drink whiskies like that very often anymore. What attracted me immediately to the 2002 Balvenie was the subtle and haunting nose. Aged entirely in American oak barrels, there's no sherry to be had here. Instead you get a noseful of lush golden grains, honey with sweet barley, peaches in syrup, and vanilla extract. Faintly, underneath all those lovely aromas, is just the tiniest hint of peat. 

The second thing that I loved about the whisky is that it's all finish. The mid-palate flavors are where the peat picks up (30 ppm) and remember we're dealing with Highland peat here, not Islay peat. There's a compositional difference between the two and the resulting flavors are profoundly different (if you remember the old Glenmorangie Finealta). There's no brine or medicinal character here, just soft brush and faint campfire smoke in low levels, hanging onto the underbelly of the malty core. Everything about the drinking experience is understated until you get to the end, and then: whoooooosh! A wave of rich vanilla and sweet smoke comes racing through your nostrils and over the roof of your mouth, lingering for a solid five minutes after lapping up onto the shore of your lips. With the 2002 Peat Week, Balvenie has proven to me yet again that it can excite experienced drinkers while still maintaining a big tent approach. Nothing about this whisky is difficult to understand, but there's so much to unlock for those who enjoy the analysis.

Even ten minutes after finishing my last sip I'm still getting new readings from my taste buds. I can smell and taste fresh peated barley, hints of smoky earth, toasted vanilla, and more. If Balvenie is ready to take its seat in the Pantheon of single malt first growths, this is yet another step on that journey. But will others feel the same way? It's not overtly creamy, or mouthcoating, or sweet and supple like many of the distillery's most popular expressions. Will that still attract the Balvenie masses?

I hope so. Because to miss out on the beauty and nuance of the new 2002 Peat Week would be tragic. We're witnessing the ascension of a great distillery in peak form. 

2002 Balvenie 14 Year Old "Peat Week" Vintage Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - Non-chillfiltered and bottled at 48.3%

-David Driscoll


The Right Bank in Redwood City

I love Hélène Garcin-Lévêque because no matter where she goes, no matter what's happening, the woman is always ready to party. After vacationing with her family for weeks in California, she and her husband Patrice (with son Louis in tow) rolled into Redwood City and put on a show last night for our customers. This wasn't your stuffy, note-taking, course-pairing Bordeaux dinner. This was just pure fun on a Thursday night.

We had a full house. Fifty people who paid a mere fifty bucks to eat and drink like kings. I'm not showing you these pictures to brag. I'm showing them to you so that next time you'll buy a ticket! Where else are you going to taste more than ten high-end wines and eat like this for that price? It was nice to see a combination of whiskey and wine guys last night. I like seeing spirits drinkers catch the wine bug, especially with Hélène as there are few people more infectious than her. 

We had a serious spread with vintages from 2000 to 2016, showcasing all four of Hélène's properties. At the end of the night she thanked everyone for coming out "even though we were pouring Right Bank Merlot." Merlot is back, people. The Sideways effect is over. Now it's the Pinot Noir market that's getting too saturated because all the growers ripped out their Merlot vines, replanted with Pinot, and tried to capitalize on that fad. See how these cycles work?

Patrice, who is the winemaker for all the estates, was blown away by the event. He kept saying, "C'est pas cher!" because he couldn't believe the service, the room, and the quality of the food could be had for the price of fifty bucks a head. This is how I plan on converting every single K&L customer into a Bordeaux fanatic. With under-priced parties that over-deliver in every way. 

Hopefully next time you'll join us!

-David Driscoll


The Silver Lining of the NAS Trend

You know what happens when you take the age statement off a whisky label, but don't lower the price per bottle as a result?

Well...sometimes nothing happens. In the case of Suntory's Hibiki, which went from a 12 year old to a "Harmony" blend, our sales haven't stalled one bit. It still blows off the shelf just as fast as it did two years ago—business as usual. In many cases, however, whisky fans have responded to NAS (no age statement) editions with a lackluster enthusiasm and a bitter online response. Like I've mentioned before, big whisky executives don't read internet blogs. What they do read, however, are sales reports and when customers vote with their dollars it's a far more effective method of protest than a Twitter rant. Global corporations answer to shareholders and the bottom line, not social media. The thing about about NAS whiskies, however, is that you don't need an iPhone or an Instagram account to notice what's happening. Where there used to be a number there's now a clever name or a description. Tech savvy millenials get that, as do the eighty year old grandpas I see in the store grumbling about the loss of the "12" on the Elijah Craig. When you start pissing off the brand loyalists and the life-long drinkers, to boot—the guys that buy dozens of the same bottle every year—that's when the shit really starts hitting the fan.

Nobody likes it when their favorite brand transitions from an age statement label to an NAS edition—period. That's pretty clear at this point.

I have to say, however, that in my conversations with the higher-ups at Beam-Suntory, Diageo, Pernod-Ricard, Remy, LVMH, and Edrington, it seems like that message has finally resonated. Not that it means they're going to put the age statements back on the bottle, mind you, it just means they've realized that customers are not taking whisky for granted anymore. You have to understand: these guys were riding an endless wave of sales, a long and effortless cash cow of a movement that saw bottles depleting at paces never previously seen. They got complacent. They thought they could put anything in a bottle and people would buy it (so did many craft distilleries). What they're learning, however, is that competition is a bitch. There are too many good options still on the market for even the most basic customer to buy a shitty bottle of NAS whisky. That's why a number of brands have been forced to work harder, smarter, and better with their NAS editions. As I've stated before: WORK is what's coming, not winter. And now WORK is here.

From what I've been tasting, many big companies are starting to put in the work. In the past week I've tasted some of the best new NAS whiskies in years: the Ardbeg An Oa, the Beam "Little Book," the Bladnoch "Samsara," the Macallan 3rd Edition, and the new Highland Park "Magnus," a $32 bottle of whisky that is absolutely delightful. In talking with the brand ambassadors and CEOs from these companies, it's clear they knew they needed to up their game. What we're seeing now is whisky that tastes like it's priced, which is ultimately what most people care about. The new Macallan Edition Three tastes like a hundred dollar bottle of whisky. The Ardbeg An Oa tastes like a sixty dollar whisky. The Magnus tastes like a really fucking good thirty dollar bottle of whisky. The question I have is: are we living in a whisky world still built on taste?

The answer will definitely be in those sales reports!

-David Driscoll