Marketing or Truth?
I'd be the first person to tell you that the alcohol industry is built on marketing necessity. When there's a glut of old whiskey to be sold, age matters. When there's a shortage, maybe flavor is more important. When Bordeaux has great weather for the year, it's the "vintage of a lifetime". When the weather isn't so great, they'll tell you "great producers can make great wine from any vintage." There's an endless supply of marketing spin in this business. I could keep going like this for hours. I could tell you how the only reason we even have single cask single malts at K&L is because the bottom dropped out of the blending market and all these guys didn't know what to do with the leftover barrels, but that would take all the fun out of drinking, wouldn't it?
When it comes to marketing, you play with the hand you're dealt. You try and turn something unique into something positive, or put a happy spin on circumstance. That's just the nature of the game. The goal is to tell a story and to make people feel excited about being a part of the process. Sometimes those stories are accurate, and other times they're a bit of a stretch. But there is one popular slogan making the rounds lately that isn't just ballyhoo, and deals with the truth of the situation staring all of us directly in the face: the quality of alcohol has never been better than it is today. That's not marketing; it's reality. There's so much good booze being produced today—from craft beer to craft whiskey, and from that little co-op in Napa Valley to the finest chateaux in Bordeaux—that we're running out of space at K&L. Five years ago I would taste maybe five new products a week. Now I'm tasting five new products every few hours. Where the hell is all this stuff coming from?! And how is it that so many of these new products are absolutely delicious?
Some whiskey drinkers have a hard time dealing with this issue because in their mind the retail shelves have never been barer. Where's the affordable Brora? Where's the Pappy? Where's all that old whiskey I used to be able to buy? Here's the thing: many of those whiskies we grew to love were also based on necessity, or simply the surplus of a stagnant economy. Most of these producers did not originally set out to make twenty or thirty year old whiskies back in the day. They just happened to make more than they could sell, so they sat on their inventory until the market came back around (and come back around it did). Now that the whiskey business is booming again they're no longer holding back—"let's sell while the sellin's good" is the mantra of the day. Sure, that comes at the expense of all the really old stuff. That's a given. But if you only drink really old whiskey and you think whiskey only tastes good when it's really old, then you're fucked. I don't know what else to tell you, other than there are 5,000,000 other delicious things out there to drink other than really old whiskey.
However, if you drink more than just old whiskey, and your interests span across all genres, then there's no doubt that we're living in a new renaissance of alcohol. When you look at the quality of what's being produced, and the amount that's being produced each day, I don't think anyone can argue the fact that there are more quality options of wine, beer, and spirits to choose from than ever before. Talk to our Bordeaux experts at K&L. They'll tell you they've never before tasted so much good wine from the region as they have recently. Winemaking practices have improved, smaller producers have taken the necessary steps to clean up their act, and the category has taken a huge step forward as a result. "Today you can get great Bordeaux for $20-$30, and there are so many small producers making excellent wines," our senior specialist Ralph Sands told me the other day. "That's what I'm filling my cellar with," he added. Not only are the wines better, but they're more approachable in their youth. Many of them don't need much maturity, which marks a huge change from the hugely-tannic wines of the past. If you need examples, there's no better proof than this bottle of St. Estephe—the 2009 Tronquoy de St. Anne—for $16.99. The property is located across the street from Chateau Montrose (a wine that sold for $300 that vintage), and is capable of aging for the next five to seven years. I honestly can't tell you if I've ever tasted a Bordeaux this good, for this cheap. Why is it so inexpensive? Because there's too much strong competition out there to justify charging more. When the market floods itself with quality products, then prices eventually go down.
If you need more evidence then look at the emergence of high-quality canned beer, or wine-in-a-box (hell, even wine in a can!). Every night, when we close the Redwood City store, I walk over to the cooler and I look at the 500+ beers we now stock (none of which we carried five years ago), and I choose one of many delicious, ice cold, aluminium cans to enjoy as I count the registers. Avery Brewing "Joe's Pilsner, or maybe the Ballast Point "Scuplin" IPA. Beer has never been as diverse or exciting of a category as it is right now, and there's a new label out there every thirty seconds. There's no way you can possibly keep up with the innovation currently being seen in the American brewing scene. It's growing at an unheard of rate and it doesn't look to be slowing down any time soon. I could drink a new beer every single day for the next year and never come close to working through our complete inventory. There are now more internet message boards about brewing than distilling, and beer geeks are far more die-hard about getting their Pliny than the Bourbon guys ever were about Pappy.
We have so much new gin at K&L that half of it doesn't even fit on the shelf. We found so much new Armagnac this year in Gascony, we might have to start recruiting college kids at parties to help drink it all. I've already been solicited with fourteen new agave spirits just this week. There's a sheet on my desk about ten new rums from the Caribbean. A guy from New Zealand just sent me an email about his latest single malt project, and another guy from the Central Valley just asked if I'd be interested in custom-made liqueurs. Come to one of our California wine tastings—you'd never believe this much good Chardonnay existed in the entire history of the state. Or talk to our New Zealand buyer Ryan Woodhouse—every day he finds a new pinot noir that beats out the one he found last week (which at that point was the best pinot noir we carried). It's absolutely crazy. I don't know how people keep up. And that's the point! There's so much good booze out there right now that you'll never even come close to tasting 1/1000th of it. In fact, it's so overwhelming at times that I often just pour myself a vodka on the rocks and try to numb myself to death. I have to just forget about it, or risk permanently floating my liver.
Of course, when you have this much good stuff, it means you have twice as much bad stuff. So in turn, I guess I would also have to say: there's never been as much bad booze as there is today. But you know how to read between the lines.