What's Really Good? (Updated 9/20/14)
I remember when the K&L spirits blog used to be just about updating customers on "what's really good" from our current selection. It was a way for David and I to carefully examine our spirits selection and come up with "the best" choices for discerning customers who wanted our personal opinion. But, of course, that was when you had "the best" selections available whenever you wanted them. That was when Black Maple Hill 16 and Vintage 17 Bourbons sat on the shelf all day long. Things are obviously different today, so I don't really see the point in writing that kind of blog anymore (nor am I really interested in that subject these days, anyway). Drinking "the best" spirits in today's market will require one or both of two things:
1) Time to call every store, scour every location, and troll every retailer website around the world.
2) Money to blow on the prices "the best" spirits are demanding (and "the so-so" ones, too).
If you asked me what "the best" Bourbons are—my personal favorites—I'd probably go in this order:
-Four Rose's Limited Edition Small Batch
-Weller 12 Year Old
-Any of the Pappy Van Winkles
Those are the four Bourbons I would choose to drink if I wanted to drink "the best" American whiskies. Telling that to customers, however, is pointless because none of those whiskies are currently available on my shelf, nor will they be any time soon (if ever again, because most of this stuff either needs to be raffled, or it sells off the web in seconds). So there's no point in talking about what "the best" whiskies are anymore. It's about what you can actually get, and what hasn't doubled in price. I think most of us know that at this point, but it's always good to remind people every now and again.
I stopped worrying about "the best" years ago. It's great to try the best, to know the best, and to understand what makes one spirit "better" than another, but it's often not worth the struggle in my opinion. There are so many interesting things going on with spirits these days that I find I'd rather drink something new, exciting, or different than a better version of something I've already had. I could grab a bottle of Pappy for myself if I wanted to, or build a bunker of great bottles, but the truth is I don't get off on that. I just need a sip to remind myself every now and again—that's it.
Enjoying "the best" whiskies available to man is a futile task in this current shortage. But the vacuum left in their absence is allowing for an entirely new wave of producers to try their hand at this whiskey thing. There's so much new stuff going on right now in the industry that you'd be crazy to sit on the sidelines and let it all pass you by (needless to say, I know plenty of grumpy grouches doing just that). With that philosophy in mind, I'll give you a list of a few things that I think are really fantastic right now and that I personally really enjoy:
1) Corbin Cash Rye Whiskey $46.99 - If you're going to compare this against that Van Winkle Reserve 13 year bottle you've got at home, then fuck off. This isn't for you. The Corbin rye is for people who think it's awesome that the liquid in this very interesting bottle comes from local rye grain, planted and harvested by David Souza in Atwater, CA as a cover crop for his sweet potato fields. The fact that it tastes great is an afterthought. It's all about the concept and the functionality. That's what makes drinking the Corbin rye enjoyable, in my opinion. If you're so pissed off about Templeton sourcing MGP whiskey, then go out and support someone like David doing everything from scratch simply because he loves it.
2) Westland Single Malt Whiskey $69.99 - I got to have lunch with Emerson Lamb from Westland Distillery a few weeks ago and I was very impressed with what he had to say. The guys at Westland in Seattle understand everything about this business in a very honest and positive way. They didn't jump into this adventure blindly. They dotted their i's and crossed their t's before investing in their infrastructure and it shows in their product. Their standard single malt whiskey is right there with Cut Spike as one of the best American versions on the market. Emerson brought me a sample of a new peated expression that was also stunning. Again, if you're going to compare this against Glendronach 12 or other older Scottish expressions, then you're missing the point. Those looking for price-performing comparisons need not apply. The Westland is for those of us who love trying new things from enterprising new producers. It transcends the abysmal craft scene, and extends to a new range of young new producers who respect their customers too much to offer them anything less than top-quality whiskey.
3) Kavalan King Car Conductor Taiwanese Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - Sherry, sherry, and more sherry. Get over the fact that it's young and from Taiwan, and revel in its spectacular flavor. Sure, you could get a bottle of Glenmorangie 18 instead, and maybe the Glenmo 18 is a better whisky. But I'm not going to eat pizza every night just because it's better and cheaper than sushi.
4) Nikka Coffey Still Japanese Grain Whisky $62.99 - YUM! Japanese grain whisky distilled on a Coffey column still, aged in sherry! Nope, there's no age statement. That's right—you don't know how old it is. Yes, it is more expensive than Aberlour 12 NCF, by about $13 per bottle. What would I choose? I think you know the answer. If you're hung up on the whole grain thing, then don't get one. No one's twisting your arm. There's not enough of it for those of us who love it, anyway. We had to slap an allocation on it a few weeks back. In fact, don't get a bottle. This whisky sucks. No one likes it but me.
5) Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Gin 375ml $44.99 - Our old German wine buyer Jeff Vierra emailed me this week to ask me if Christoph Keller was actually going to be in the SF store this Wednesday for the big Monkey 47 tasting. "Indeed, he will be," I replied. "That guy makes the best schnapps in the world, hands down," he answered back. Believe the hype. It's on another level. You want "the best" gin? It's here right now.