I used to be obsessed with these cinema books about directors back when I was a film major in college; a series where directors talked about their own work and analyzed their catalog of movies. There was "Lynch on Lynch", "Cronenberg on Cronenberg", and, of course, "Scorsese on Scorsese". My roommate and I used to joke about these titles, using a real dramatic film voice, and say things like: "Esteemed director David Cronenberg, in an extensive interview from the man who knows him best: David Cronenberg." We would erupt into laughter after that. There was also a great character in the Oliver Stone film Natural Born Killers played by Tom Sizemore; a renegade cop named Jack Scagnetti who had risen to fame by writing a tell-all auto-biography called "Scagnetti on Scagnetti". I think it's a funny thing when people interview or talk about themselves in a serious manner.
If you've been watching the last few episodes of Stephen Colbert lately, you'll have noticed he's taken to debating with himself; using a split screen to pepper his mirror image with questions. There is some function in that type of self-analyzation, in my opinion; especially when you've changed or evolved over the years into a different mindset. With that in mind, and based off a number of questions I've been asked lately by customers, I thought I'd let the 2009 version of myself interview the 2014 person I am today. It's been five years exactly since I took over the buying for K&L. Let's see what's changed.
2009 David: Single casks are definitely the way for retailers to differentiate their inventory from their competitors, don't you think? I think the best way to grow your department is to go around the world, visit every distillery that interests you, and try to get your own private barrel. Would you agree?
2014 David: Not in today's market, for a number of reasons. First off, every store has jumped into the private barrel game. It's not even a matter of visiting the distillery these days. Today you can get a sample in the mail, send them a PDF with your logo on it, and—BOOM!—you've got an exclusive single cask just for you. I've seen generic grocery stores with their own cask of Four Roses, department stores with their own version of Ridgemont Reserve, and corner store delis with private editions of Knob Creek. The novelty of a single cask is totally gone. Today, it's more of an expectation, simply because it offers a slight variant from the "normal" or "everyday" stuff. Some distilleries have been so overrun with requests for single casks that it's completely gutted their supply. When a producer is that busy with requests for private barrels, do you really think they're offering their best inventory to these chain outlets? I don't.
2009 David: Well, at K&L we've been able to use our discerning palates to choose what we think are really great barrels, so that gives us an advantage. Not everyone has good taste, right?
2014 David: I think that may have been possible in 2009. In 2014, however, it's more about who you know than how well you can taste. It's more about tasting from a particular set of samples than being able to choose the best cask from a selection of mediocre leftovers. I've found that our best single barrels often times came from producers who helped us do the choosing. I won't say who, but a number of companies we work with will actually go and do the selection for us, then allow us to taste from their sample pool before we commit. Do you think David OG and I know where the best barrels are in each warehouse? Are you such a good taster that you can sniff them out? When I go to the market I ask the people working there what's fresh. How would I know what their best stuff is?
2009 David: I think you can improve the single barrel selection by traveling to spirit-making regions that don't normally offer single casks—Cognac and Armagnac, for example—and try your hand at expanding the private cask market from there. Would you agree?
2014 David: No, I wouldn't agree. Five years ago I would have said yes, but today I don't think that's the answer. Ultimately, what we want and what consumers want is better booze. Whether it's from a single barrel or part of a larger blend, our customers want to be drinking higher quality stuff. One of the biggest realizations that David OG and I had over the past few years was that many spirits do not taste good at cask strength, from a single barrel, or unadulterated—which completely flew in the face of what our core values were. Many Cognac producers had single casks available for purchase that were just unexciting and non-profound. Dudognon, for example, makes perhaps the best Cognac in the business. Yet, when we tasted their single casks, we were completely unimpressed. Rum was another case where single barrels left more to the imagination. We tasted a number of barrels in Guyana that were just flat or uninspiring. We eventually realized we needed to work on a blend with DDL, and not simply pigeonhole ourselves into the single cask market.
2009 David: But buying more than a single cask means you have to commit to larger amounts of inventory. That's a lot to ask of a small retailer.
2014 David: Absolutely, it is. But ultimately it means you have to have more faith and confidence in what you're doing. It's easy to pull the trigger on a single Bourbon barrel because you're only talking about 150 or so bottles. Even if it's a total stinker, you can probably get rid of that number eventually. When you're talking 1500 bottles per batch, like with our Glenfarclas expressions that just landed, or 6,000 bottles, like with our DDL blend that's coming, then there's no room for error. It has to be good, or else you're fucked. But that ultimately weeds out the people who shouldn't be doing this, right?
2009 David: But if you make 6,000 bottles of something, don't you think that people will get tired of it eventually? Single casks are so much better because they allow you to buy smaller amounts of a variety of different things. They allow for an ever-changing, eclectic inventory. That's exciting, don't you think? As soon as one thing sells out—BOOM!—you've got another new cask.
2014 David: I think it's exciting as long as the quality remains consistent or consistently improves. The problem with that game is that you're constantly under the gun to keep outdoing yourself. We've had a great run for the last five years—and I hope we can keep it up—but I see two problems with this model at the moment. 1) I don't think there's enough mature inventory available to keep this up—and as we continue to grow as a company we're in need of more and more booze. 2) We're creating customer ADHD. One of the biggest issues I've seen over the last six to eight months is a lack of interest in anything that isn't limited or a single barrel selection. When we introduced our Glenfarclas expressions I had customers wondering if they would be as good as our single barrel offerings.
"Why wouldn't they be?" I asked.
"Because they're not single barrels and they're not as limited," they said.
I realized then that, because we were choosing single barrels for 90% of our exclusive K&L spirits, we had created the perception that single casks were inherently superior.
2009 David: You don't think single barrel whiskies are better than batched whiskies?
2014 David: Not inherently, I don't. What's the best whisky you've ever tasted, 2009 David?
2009 David: I don't know. Maybe some Pappy Van Winkle.
2014 David: OK, well that's not a single barrel whiskey. And let me tell you something: over the next five years you're going to taste some incredible whiskies; some of them from single barrels and some of them from small batches. You're going to taste incredible single casks of Ladyburn and Glenlochy, but you're also going to taste jaw-dropping marriages of barrels from Port Ellen and Brora. There are going to be some wonderful barrels from Four Roses, but none of them will hold a candle to the Limited Edition Small Batch expressions that Jim creates by blending his barrels together. Ultimately, there's nothing superior about a single cask. What single barrels do allow for, however, is variation and raw beauty. For example, we currently have a single barrel of Laphroaig 15 in refill sherry. There isn't currently a distillery-direct 15 year old expression from Laphroaig available in the U.S., so single casks help us to fill a niche.
2009 David: So you're not against single barrel booze?
2014 David: Not at all. I am against perpetuating the myth that they're inherently better, however, and I'm worried about that idea permeating the whisky community to the point that anything that isn't a single barrel gets ignored. I think we're getting dangerously close to a situation in the industry where brands create limited edition expressions simply because that's all certain people are willing to buy. In the past, single casks were a way to offer an exception to the mass-market. Now, they've been co-opted into the mass market. Limited editions are now so coveted that they've become passe, in my opinion. I don't ever want anything we do at K&L to become stale or clichéd. I definitely don't want to buy single casks just because our customers expect more single casks. I want to buy them because we think the spirit inside of them tastes delicious and offers either value or quality (or both). When you stray from that path you start flirting with disaster.
2009 David: Don't you think it's exciting to buy new things though?
2014 David: Hell yes, I do. But what happens when people are only willing to buy one of everything because they're constantly waiting for something new? That would be a huge problem for the industry. No company, large or small, has the ability to create that many quality products on that frequent of a schedule. Eventually, it becomes a decision between quality and quantity. The question I'll be asking myself and my customers in 2015 is: would you rather have something new or rare, or would you rather have something good? We'll have to see how that goes. I think the future involves us creating more batches of great things—like our Faultline Bourbon, Faultline gin, and Fuenteseca tequila—and not just picking off casks. We've got to step it up to a new level.