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Saturday
Dec312016

A Fond Farewell

What a year it's been! We've done a lot together, haven't we? Loads of single barrels, new rum casks, plenty of Faultline projects, and we even printed a few punk rock records! As we head into the final night of 2016, a year that's given us plenty of reasons to drink, what are you going to raise in your glass to honor those departed? What drink will fill you with hope, inspiration, and a desire to be better in the year ahead? I know what I'll be doing tonight. I'm going to order a pizza, drink a few Great King Street Highballs, pound a bottle of Champagne with my wife as we watch the rest of OA on Netflix, and finish the evening off with the most elegant of whiskies: Compass Box's "Three Year Old Deluxe"; a whisky that mocks the minimum age statement requirement by showcasing the maturity of the blend's youngest component. 

While John Glaser and the rest of the London gang are having a bit of fun with the law here (because 99% of the components in this heavenly elixir are much, much older than three years), it only takes one sip to understand what's going on inside this bottle. This is another Compass Box homage to Brora, that elusive and haunting bucket list dram that continues to inspire whisky drinkers today. If you're new to the single malt game, Brora is the original Clynelish distillery that was eventually closed in the early eighties once the new Clynelish facility made its operation irrelevant. While I was lucky enough to get into the whisky industry during a time when Brora was expensive, but not outrageous or unattainable; today a bottle will cost you four-figures. The recent Diageo 38 year release is now a whopping $2200, and while Brora is definitely delicious, there's no way I would ever pay that much personally to drink more of it. 

But having tasted a reasonable amount of Brora in my life, I can tell you that the new Compass Box "Three Year Deluxe" tastes more like Brora than some of the actual Broras I've been fortunate to sample and acquire in my career. It's like going to see a Led Zeppelin cover band that can at this point actually sing and play better than the real deal. There's a group called Heartbreaker that comes through the Bay Area and is absolutely unreal. They sound, look, and play exactly like Page and Plant, but I only have to pay twenty bucks to see them at the Fox in Redwood City. To me, that's what this Compass Box release achieves. It's a whisky (composed mostly of Clynelish, of course) that replicates an experience that's no longer within reach to most consumers. It's clear from the first whiff on the nose: wax, wax, wax, and more wax. The palate is richer and rounder than what you expect from Clynelish, however. There's lemon rind and sweet vanilla, but there's a heavier undertone. Perhaps a bit of sherry-like sweetness and dried fruits, then a whisper of smoke on the finish with more of that wax and lanolin character. It's a fucking home run from front to back, and it's what I plan on drinking later tonight as I contemplate what it is I like about whisky in the first place: nuance, depth, and romance with character and grace. There's an oily note that goes on for five minutes with traces of subtle peat from the Talisker. Wow. Just wow.

If you want to join me, come on down to Redwood City. I just snagged another few cases of this delight. It's one of the best whiskies I've tasted in 2016, and it should make for a fond experience this evening, alongside pizza, Champagne, and plenty of Scotch. It's not cheap, but it's a hell of a lot cheaper than this.

Happy new year, everyone. I'll see you on the other side of the calendar.

-David Driscoll

Friday
Dec302016

They

If you listen to cheesy, melodramatic pop music like I do, you'll notice there's a lot of talk about "they." Who are they, you ask? Well, you know. Them. Those guys. "They're" trying to hold us down. "They're" trying to keep us apart. "They" think we can't do it. "They" don't believe in us. In the realm of youth culture (and now even in the adult contemporary genre) there's always a mystical, oppressive, and vindictive force at work, lurking in the background, doing its all to suppress our iconic singers. But these courageous and creative voices won't go down without a fight! They're going to push forward anyway, in spite of what "they" say. "They" aren't going to win. "They" will ultimately fall to the all-encompassing power of art and love. Hearing those words tends to invigorate us in turn. It reminds us of our own struggles and our own hurdles in life, when people tended to doubt our abilities or our desire. Pop music is often just one big Horatio Alger story. It's Rocky. It's Hoosiers. It's selling people the fantasy they crave. It's marketing.

Today when I listen to modern hip-hop, "they" is a less vague concept. There's little allusion or metaphor at work in pop music at the moment. Everything's pretty straightforward, but the idea hasn't changed. "Haters" gonna hate. "Bitches" ain't loyal. There's still a malicious bully out there standing in our hero's way, it's just that now we know a little bit more about who "they" are. Trolls on Instagram. A rival pop star. The ex-girlfriend of her man. Becky with the good hair. Someone. In the whiskey world, deep in the heart of the geekiest part of drinking culture, there's a similar concept at play. There's always an evil empire to fight against in the name of fine drinking. Ironically enough, it's usually the whiskey companies themselves. How can whiskey drinkers simultaneously love whiskey, yet hate the people who make it? It's easy. It happens whenever a whiskey company chooses to make a decision based on business rather than continue the myth of pure craftsmanship. What are "they" doing?! "They" want to ruin whiskey! "They're" just a bunch of greedy fatcats. But isn't that why these companies make whiskey? To make money? That depends on who you ask. If you ask the people who own the business, the answer is yes. If you ask the people who support the business by handing over their money in an exchange of goods and services, the answer can often be nebulous.

In short, no one likes feeling like they're a piece of capitalistic meat. That's why when a decision is made to raise the price of a popular product or change a treasured formula due to economics, there's often an outcry in response. Whiskey drinkers, much like professional wrestling fans, tend to feel like they're in on the game. They pride themselves on understanding the business—how whiskey is made, who made it, where it comes from—but when you get down to the actual business of making money, things can get contentious. You'd be surprised by the number of people out there who think spirits is a non-profit sport. I had a conversation with a guy in the store a few weeks back about our lack of available shochu. He asked me quite aggressively why we didn't carry more selections and I said to him: "It doesn't sell, unfortunately. I can't carry a bunch of products that no one here wants to buy. I'd be out of a job!" He scoffed, shook his head, and said to me: "Not everything is about money," and then walked out of the store. I stood there for a minute in a daze, thinking to myself: "Did I just get told?" Then I thought about it some more and I realized my faux pas: I had spoken about spirits in economic terms. I had revealed a decision about our purchasing that had been based on economics rather a commitment to fine curation. That's a big no-no today. You need to be all about the integrity of booze itself, or you're just another "them."

The continued death of big brand name spirits is rooted in this concept. Brands are seen by many as capitalistic forces dedicated to profit and corporate takeover rather than purveyors of inexpensive and drinkable alcohol. "They" are the oppressive force looking to ruin the experience of everyday whiskey drinkers who just want to drink something good. It's an odd situation to be in because, at the same time, "they" are the same people making all the "hand-crafted" spirits these whiskey-loving people adore. What's the difference, you ask? How can some for-profit whiskey companies be seen as righteous, while others are demonized for their avariciousness? It comes down to how you talk about what you do. We won't let "them" ruin whiskey! "They" want to raise their prices, but we're going fight on in the name of the everyday drinker! Ultimately, it's about separating yourself between "we" and "them". In reality, however?

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Dec292016

Last Minute Rush

Anyone need any last minute, normally-allocated booze for the New Year's Eve party? I just pulled a few strings and moved a few mountains because—hey—it was getting boring not being pummeled to death by an endless wave of holiday shoppers! It's funny; when you're moving 200 mph to get your job done and suddenly it stops, life can suddenly seem rather drab. That's why I decided to offer you all a little gift. No limits, full stocks, and complete access to a few whiskies we'd been selling in tiny increments earlier this year. No price gouging either (that's why you like shopping here, right?) Have at it (while it lasts):

Sazerac 90-Proof Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey $29.99 

Blanton's Original Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey $49.99

Laphroaig 2016 "Cairdeas" Madeira Cask Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky $79.99

Michter's 10 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon $119.99

High West "A Midwinter Night's Dram" Limited Edition Whiskey $89.99

W. L. Weller Special Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey $21.99

-David Driscoll

Monday
Dec262016

You Will Not Break Us, 2016

I don't care what you throw at me, 2016. You can give me more business than I can handle. You can overload my schedule with madness. You can kill off all my childhood idols if you want, but you will not break me. I will not bow and do a tearful memorial to the great George Michael with "Careless Whisper" or "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me," tragic allusions to the sad and untimely death of both the talented singer and what's left of my youth. I will put on what is undoubtedly George Michael's most impactful and lasting hit and fucking rock out in defiance of you and all the music you have taken from us.  

A man has his patience, 2016. Here's where mine ends. 

-David Driscoll

Sunday
Dec252016

White Christmas

We gave it everything we had on Friday. We showed up early, we filled the shelves, we opened the doors to an already crowded parking lot, and then we proceeded to get run over by a critical mass of holiday shoppers. I've never seen K&L as busy in my nine-plus years working there. At one point there was a fifty person line that wrapped all the way around the store into the spirits aisle. It was thrilling and we were running on pure adrenaline at that point. I blew off my lunch break, put on my game face, and powered through. There was only one problem: we were open on Saturday, too. I was pretty much running on fumes by the time we opened yesterday. I felt like an NBA player who had spent his energy reserve winning game six of the finals, yet still had to show up for a game seven. When I finally left the store at 4 PM to make the trek east towards Modesto, I saw my colleague Ralph in the parking lot putting some wine in his car. We just looked at each other, embraced wholeheartedly, and let out two huge sighs of relief. It felt like we had won a championship. We had survived.

We saw an increase in foot traffic at our Redwood City store this December for two reasons: 1) we're still growing as a company, and 2) we had a large competitor down the street that closed its doors this past summer. A lot of that seasonal business came our way by default (as did some of its employees who now work for us), but a lot of frustration came along with it. These seasoned drinkers of white spirits found themselves dumbfounded by our selection: mostly gin, tequila, mezcal, a few rums, and a handful of vodkas. They were blindsided by our Christmas whiteout.

"Where's your grappa department?" an older gentleman asked me at one point.

"Department?" I thought to myself, "I think we only carry one single grappa at this point."

"What do you mean? How can you run a liquor store without a decent selection of grappa?"

Now imagine this exact same conversation, but replace the word "grappa" with aquavit, moonshine, schnapps, raki, ouzo, sambuca, kirschwasser, and any other regional white spirit I might be forgetting here. These are the tough discussions I had to have on a daily basis. I had to explain to people that the spirits they grew up drinking—the ones they thought were still just as popular today as they were back then—are being phased out by modern culture. There's been a generational shift in the market. Brown booze is hot. White goods are not. Unless you're selling to a bar where they make copious amounts of cocktails, selling white spirits is an issue right now for distributors. Cheap vodka still moves, and if you find the right tequila you can do some serious business, but the problem for most of these spirits is rooted in the way we eat today. Grappa usually comes at the end of a long meal. It's a traditional way to end a multi-course affair with a small cup of espresso. I'm not sure if you've looked at how the younger generations are living today, but I can tell you one thing I've noticed: long, slow, traditional meals aren't a part of the millennial lifestyle. Kids around the Bay Area today eat pre-packaged salads before heading to the gym, then they grab Indian food or Thai takeout to eat in front of the TV after work. The only way they're going to touch grappa is if it's part of a fancy cocktail.

If you think this is just a metropolitan issue, or the result of some gluten-free, yoga-induced Bay Area fad, I'm sorry to inform you: it isn't. I've had this same conversation for years with Calvados producers, Cognac distillers, and Armagnac-drinking farmers in France. They're desperately trying to create pre-dinner apperitifs with their spirits because of the impact that France's new blood-alcohol driving limit has had upon consumption. The French are still drinking Champagne to start the meal, and you'll have to pry the red wine from their cold, dead hands. But that final glass of Armagnac? The post-meal shot of Cognac? That's something a number of responsible and health-conscious Frenchmen have decided they can live without if need be. While that's probably a good thing for France's general public safety, it's going to have an effect on what the market can bare. I often think about Christelle Lasseignou from Domaine de Maouhum when this topic arises; the girl who gave up her Parisian life to head back out into the country and help her parents with their family farm. How many other generations of Norman, Charentes, and Gascogne youngsters will want to devote their lives to traditional and increasingly-outdated distilled spirits when there's an exciting new world out there made more accessible by the internet each day?

Here's the part no one thinks about though: who in the hell is going to keep importing this stuff to the U.S.? I don't mean the cheap stuff. There's always going to be a market for cheap booze. I'm talking about the good stuff. The high end shelf. The rare bottles people ask me for about once every two years. Who's going to take a large position on grappa in a frigid white spirits market when the public is clearly clammering for Scotch? Who's going to fill a whole container with premium Scandinavian aquavit, put into custom American 750ml bottles that can't be sold to any other market if they don't work out (because the rest of the world uses 700ml bottles), and put their financial livelihood into a huge stock of white goods that sell by the bottle rather than by the case? Anyone? Anyone want to loan me $50,000 to do this? I can probably sell it all by the year 2033, so you'll get a return on your money in about seventeen years, so long as I don't have to close any of it out. Don't forget the months of formula approval, label regulations, and various licensing that will have to be done. We'll have to pay an importer to do that as well, so that's going to eat into your already tiny margins.

The scary part about this development for me is that I love grappa. I like aquavit, too. Hell, I like to drink—period. I love the traditions, the heritage, and the festiveness that surround these elixirs. But despite my taste for digestive white spirits, I can't lie: I drink grappa maybe once or twice a month. A single bottle can last me an entire year, if not years. Ultimately, that's the biggest barrier for white spirits: consumption. Gin is thriving right now because a single bar can go through multiple cases in an evening's worth of gin and tonics. But a $75 bottle of artisinal Swiss eau-de-vie? We sell maybe two bottles a year. Usually around Christmas time when someone walks into the store and needs one for a gift. Unfortunately, unless you're a seasonal retail operation, you can't make a living on annual purchases.

Making next year's white Christmas a merry one is going to take some work. I'm going to think about this for a while.

-David Driscoll