Return to Regionality

As many of you know, we’ve been working directly with Douglas Laing for many years now to do our independently-bottled Old Particular casks. What you may not have known is that Douglas Laing was and has always been primarily a blending house and Fred Laing one hell of a blender. In Compass Box style, Fred has put together a series of artisinal blended malts that showcase the regional styles of Scotland. Not only are the whiskies seriously tasty, they’re indicative of an era that is beginning to fade in Scotch whisky. Because Scotland’s focus with modern connoisseurs has shifted to single malts over the last decade and because each producer is now its own brand, the distilleries are less motivated to create one singular style anymore. The corporations have decided they must offer everything to every customer, so as not to lose a sale elsewhere. At this point there are dozens of distilleries that make both light and heavy whiskies, peated and unpeated whiskies, and both sherried and unsherried malts. There was a time, however, when Scotland’s main regions were very specific. Highland’s were lithe and elegant, Speysides were sherried and rich, Lowlands were light and fruity, Islands were salty, and Islay malts were peaty. Back when blending houses were still contracting their whiskies (today they outright own their means of production), they would put together recipes for blends based on these styles. You still find old recipes that say things like: two parts Speyside, one part Lowland, one part Islay, like the one pictured above from Alfred Barnard's old book. It’s from Scotch whisky’s history of blending and from the lessons taught to Fred by his father Douglas that the DL regional malts were born. 

I have to say there is one saving grace for me in the new age of NAS single malt whisky: the recent drop in quality will serve as an important lesson. When I was in the Paris duty free this past week, I just sat there stupified looking at all the junk that's piling up there—five different versions of Talisker that aren't even close to as good as the ten year, eight different Highland Parks that have no explanation other than some mythical Viking nonsense, that type of stuff. There's a reason K&L switched over to a single malt specialty store about fifteen years ago. It WASN'T because single malts are inherently better than blends, but rather because the blends had become too big for their own good. Single malts aren't better whiskies than blended whiskies, in my opinion; it's just that for years they were made in smaller batches. Quality with anything comes from tight-knit control. The more you expand, the less you can provide that same level of attention. I'm prime example number one. When my job at K&L was solely to buy spirits, I was putting on tastings, dinners, and educational events non-stop and I was in the store all the time talking to people about booze. Now that I'm managing ten different buyers, putting together marketing emails, working on outside projects, and working heavily with Bordeaux/Burgundy, I no longer am capable of giving whisky customers the same level of attention as previously. That's a fact.

It's the volume game that put blended Scotch in the toilet, not something inherent in the whiskies themselves. The same phenomena is going to happen to a number of fine single malt brands very soon and then the proof will be in the pudding. If you're someone who thinks that blends are inferior to straight single malts because there's something purer or higher in quality about one whisky from one distillery, I present to you the whiskies below. Not only are they better than many of the fifty to sixty dollar single malts we currently carry, they're a lot more fun. I really have to hand it to Fred and the team over at Douglas Laing. This is exactly what Scotch whisky needs right now: small batch, meticulously-blended expressions that prove to the public Scotch whisky is more like Voltron than the Transformers (Google it if that reference is lost on you). The Epicurean, for me, was like a potent blast of fresh Scotch fruitiness of a style I haven't tasted in years. Bravo.

Douglas Laing's Epicurean Lowland Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $46.99 - Our friends at Douglas Laing in Glasgow, with whom we do the Old Particular bottlings, have put together a series of regional malt blends that wonderfully showcase the stylistic flavor profiles of Scotlands main whisky producing sectors. Not only are the whiskies accurate reflections of a dying era in Scotch whisky production, they're some of the tastiest and most enjoyable whiskies we've discovered in ages. The Epicurean is the "Lowland" expression that absolutely brims with fresh fruit, sweet barley, and hard candy. It's a barley-rich malt that is likely a mix of Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie (or maybe even Bladnoch), but while we can't say for sure, we can say with absolute certainty that this is a must try whisky for those looking for something fun and delicious.

Douglas Laing's Rock Oyster Island Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $54.99 - The Rock Oyster is an Island blend that uses whisky from the Arran and Jura distilleries, along with other malts from the islands of Islay and Orkney. The whisky is an explosion of sea salt, wave soaked rocks, smoke, honey, peat, ash, and pepper. It's a textural malt as well, one that envelops the palate under all that potent island flavor.

Douglas Laing's Scallywag Speyside Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $64.99 - The Scallywag is the Speyside entry in the series and uses whiskies from Macallan, Mortlach, and Glenrothes to create a sherry-matured delight. It's full of rich vanilla, chocolate, fudge, and orange zest with a bit of tobacco and fruit cake on the finish. A classic Speyside malt if there ever was one!

Douglas Laing's Timorous Beastie Highland Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $54.99 - The Timorous Beastie is the Highland edition that uses whiskies from Blair Athol, Glen Garioch, Dalmore, and Glengoyne to compose an elegant and finely-tuned Highland expressions. There are flavors of sweet barley, honey, sweet fruit, and cereal grains on both the palate and finish. The texture is also as soft as silk.

This one we all know already as it's been available in the U.S. for years: 

Douglas Laing's Big Peat Islay Blended Malt Scotch Whisky $64.99 - The Big Peat is a blend of Islay's finest distilleries: Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore and the rare Port Ellen, it is exactly what you expect when you taste it. The aromas are of smoke, and salty seaweed with a slight medicinal note, and the palate shows more campfire smoke with a saline and herbal character. The finish is rockin' and the length on it is incredible. It lingers in your mouth for minutes as hints of fresh chopped spearmint and pepper start to appear. This is an aptly named whisky that is very much a big and peaty drink.

-David Driscoll


Self-Induced Coma

Bear with me here on the spirits blog over the next few days. I've got one of the worst colds I've had in decades and the virus is currently ravaging our entire Redwood City store. All I can do to alleviate the symptoms thus far is to sleep, so I've been going to bed around 7 PM for the last few days and trying to stay in bed for as long as possible. The crazy thing is that each time I wake up I feel exactly as terrible. Normally resting for ten to twelve hours at a time results in some progress, but this is the damnedest bug I've gone up against in some time. It's a serious son of a bitch. If you start to feel sick this week, I highly advise you to prepare for war.

In the meantime, we'll have some fun things coming this weekend and early next week. A new batch of peated Couvreur (our heavily sherried and smoky malt), the regional blends from Douglas Laing, Wyoming whiskey, and more.

Hang with me! I'm going down for the count again today, hoping to return in better spirits tomorrow.

-David Driscoll


Worlds Inside of Worlds

I've been lucky in my time here at K&L to have some pretty amazing collectors as customers. When I say "amazing," I'm referring both to their collections and to their generosity in sharing those exploits with me personally. While I'm sure you're all immediately thinking wine and whiskey, it's actually the lesser-known stuff that draws in the most passionate devotees. Sure, the whiskey guys are willing to jump through serious hoops to get their fix, but that dedication pales in comparison to the things I've seen in other alcoholic areas. It's always the sub-genres, the worlds inside of worlds, that get the geekiest. 

An example? Chartreuse. 

One of our best customers here at K&L happens to be one of the world's great collectors of old Chartreuse, and I was texting him photos from Burgundy this past week because I ended up getting invited to a private club that had a gigantic collection of old bottles to taste. Sitting there with that glass in my hand, a 1970's era Tarragona edition, tasting what was without a doubt one of the most complex and crazy spirits I've ever had, made me think about all the rabbit holes you can end up getting pulled into with drinking. If you think I'm talking about a forty-something year old bottle of a simple old sweet liqueur, there's a bit more to Chartreuse you might want to know about. I'll give you the five minute explanation below.

When you go to a fine spirits shop like K&L or a reasonably fancy bar, you'll probably see two bottles that say Chartreuse in the liqueur sections: a green one and a yellow one. But if you look a bit higher on the shelf (like in the jewel rack in Redwood City), you'll see two wooden boxes that also carry the name. These two Chartreuse expressions are also distinguished by their green and yellow color, but they're referred to as VEP: Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé. While I'm sure many of you have heard the old stories and probably thought it was just marketing baloney, the truth is that both of these spirits are still made by the order of Chartreuse monks who have guarded and produced the recipe for centuries. What are these versions of Chartreuse, you ask? Most likely not what's in your Last Word cocktail. The VEP Verte is a high-proof maceration made with a special recipe of 130 different herbs and plants that was formulated from a manuscript dating back to the early 1600s. It's aged in gigantic oak vats and clocks in at a whopping 54%. Only two monks at any given time know the recipe and can create the blend of botanicals. While the preparation of the blend is a heavily-guarded secret, you can actually visit the historic cellars located in between Lyon and Grenoble going towards the Swiss border (I've never been there, but it's on my list). While all that may sound romantic and mysterious already, here's where it gets really interesting (and geeky). 

The original Chartreuse recipe is known as Elixir Vegetal de la Grande-Chartreuse and it's a 69% ABV absinthe-like tonic that was originally created in 1737 to promote health and long life. The monks adapted that recipe in 1764 to a milder 110 proof expression that we know today as the VEP Verte. It was immediately a huge success and the monks began to peddle the liquid to neighboring towns and villages. But, as you probably know, France was a tumultuous place during that era. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, the monks were eventually forced to flee due to religious persecution. The recipe would get tossed around for the next twenty years, but it found its way back to the monks who were able to return in 1816 and begin production once again. They would release the first Yellow Chartreuse twenty-two years after that.

Now fast forward to the early 20th century. France decides to nationalize the Chartreuse distillery and the monks get kicked out once again. They head to Spain this time and build a new distillery in Tarragona. Twenty years after that they would return home and build a second distillery in Marseille. The new liqueurs are referred to as Une Tarragone and Tarragone as the French government holds the trademark to the name Chartreuse. That trademark is eventually sold to a company that winds up bankrupt in 1929. The trademark is repurchased by the monks and production is moved back to the distillery near the monastery in the town of Fourvoirie. If you're a true spirits geek, you can probably see where I'm going here (HINT: it means there are historic rare editions of Chartreuse out there made from "lost" or closed distilleries). All goes well for a few years, until the distillery is almost decimated by a landslide, which forces the monks to move production again to Voiron where it remains today. If you're reading very closely (which I'm sure you are), you'll probably notice no mention of the monks having closed their Terragona location in Spain. That's because it remained in operation until 1989. So let's recap:

Chartreuse is made at....

• 1737 - 1860 at the monestary

• 1860 - 1903 at Fourvoire, then again from 1930-1935

• 1903 - 1989 at Tarragona, Spain

• 1921 - 1929 at Marseille

• 1935 - Present day at Voiron

Now had I written this post ten years ago, I know what you'd be thinking: "There's no way these old bottles of Chartreuse from all these different distilleries can be kicking around still." But we live in the modern age of dusty hunting, auction houses, and extreme collecting. So, that being said, if you can still find bottles of Bourbon from the early 1900s, you can sure as hell bet there's a bunch of old Chartreuse still sitting in many a cellar. One such place? The private club I was drinking at in Burgundy this past week. I sat there in the lounge with a bunch of French guys smoking cigars, sipping on a glass of 1970s-era Tarragona and marveling at the complexity. The even crazier part about old Chatreuse is that it does age in the bottle. The herbs change, the sugar fades, and the spirit takes on a wild and savory component. Just for shits and giggles I did a little research into the European black market and found a few bottles for sale from a broker (the same guy who sold them to the club). You're looking at roughly $800-$1000 a bottle for what I was drinking. It's worth it, in my opinion. I've never tasted anything like what was in the glass and I'm itching now to try it again.

We've been drinking alcohol for many centuries at this point as a civilization. There are many stories out there still unknown to the general public, but they're waiting to be read and told if you're interested. It's just a matter of how deep you want to go. How many sub-worlds can your mind make room for within the great world of booze?

-David Driscoll


Intimate Grappa Dinner w/Jacopo Poli 

As much as I love grappa and as much as I wish we could carry every grappa known to man here at K&L, I faced facts with reality long ago. Grappa's popularity is at an all time low with today's youth and as a consumable spirit it's one of the most difficult to sell in volume. Why? Because grappa is the kind of thing you drink once a week at the end of a meal. It's not something you pour over the rocks after a long day at the office. It also doesn't work particularly well in cocktails, so even restaurants can sit on a bottle for years before they finally finish it. 

But grappa is a foundational spirit for me. It's what I cut my teeth on as a teenager learning about how to eat and drink the European way. It's the ultimate acquired taste and it can take years before you develop a palate for it. It's also the one spirit left in the world that hasn't been taken out of context by American culture and turned into an entirely new genre. Grappa is still grappa. It's still that same intensely-flavored and potent elixir it was before, it's just that we're finally getting our hands on the good stuff over here; the things the Italians normally held back for themselves while sending us the rocket fuel in the states. Grappa today in America is better than it's ever been. But you need to experience that for yourselves. Hence...I invite you to sit down with what is perhaps Italy's premier grappa producer for a small and intimate experience.

Jacopo Poli Grappa Dinner @ Donato in Redwood City - Monday, April 3rd @ 7 PM - $50 - Join as at Donato Enoteca in Redwood City on Monday evening April 3rd as we host Jacopo Poli for an intimate and exclusive dinner paired with a number of grappas and other distillates from Poli distillery, located in the heart of the Veneto region. We'll be joined by Jacopo Poli himself for a detailed breakdown on distillation practices and a walk through the diverse selection of expressions, alongside a multi course Italian meal prepared by Donato just for the event. Only 20 tickets are available for this incredibly rare opportunity. This is the first time Poli has visited our market in the last five years, so we're making sure we take advantage of the time we have! There are no paper tickets for this event. Your name will be put on a guest list at the restaurant. All ticket sales are final and there are no refunds, so please check your schedule and availability before committing to the date.

-David Driscoll


The Takeaway

Traveling to Burgundy this past week for me wasn't just about buying new wines or finding new producers (although I did do a lot of both those things). It wasn't just about expanding my knowledge or increasing my understanding either (although both of those goals were achieved as well). What I truly was looking forward to doing in Burgundy over the course of the last seven days was comparing the French experience with the American one; to observe the way the locals talk and think about their wines, versus the way the American audience presents them here at home. I'll be honest here and admit I wasn't going in without my own prejudices or pre-formed conclusions. In my experience in the American wine industry, Burgundy tends to bring out the worst in people. The chip-on-the-shoulder, insecure, pedantic wine academics flock to Burgundy because there's a lot to chew on. You can make an entire career out of that type of wine knowledge—knowing the specifics of each vineyard, the ins and outs of each producer, the micro-climates of each vintage. But like a professor who's forced to teach when he feels his brilliance would be better served in the field researching (we've all had one of those, right?), the Americans I've met who are forced to sell, peddle, and talk Burgundy for a living are the ones constantly trying to show you what they know, rather than simply tell you what will help you better understand the wines. 

The overwhelmingly good news for me this past week was that none of the producers I met were of this ilk, nor were their representatives or brokers. It was like a breath of fresh air! I got to taste, drink, and learn about Burgundy from knowledgeable winemakers whose only hope was that I enjoyed myself. No one ever broke out a map and began lecturing about soil types. No one gave a five minute speech before pouring a new glass. It reconfirmed my belief (one that I believe transcends wine and spirits into life in general) that when you go to the source and meet the people behind any cultural phenomenon, they're rarely interested in their own medium as much as the people consuming it. That can be wine, whiskey, movies, comic books, music—you name it. It reinvigorated my love of Burgundy because it removed the bitter taste these people have left in my mouth over the course of my career and replaced it with a sweeter one left by those who are far more important: the producers themselves, the real people who make Burgundy what it is. It's a lesson I needed to learn, not just so that I could get rid of the elitist stigma I feel Burgundy has represented lately (at least in my mind), but also because I'm someone who routinely lets a few bad apples spoil the bunch. I don't say this to a lot of people, but I've been pretty depressed over the last year about Bay Area living; mainly because I can't shake all the bullshit around me. I let it eat into my soul and overwhelm anything good with negativity. As a result, I tend to look for greener pastures abroad rather than recognize the great things around me here at home.

To give up on something great simply because you don't like the evolution of its culture makes you the asshole, however (or me, in this case). It's like letting Trump or Hillary supporters (depending on which side you fall on) ruin your opinion of America. You have to know: the worst of either base doesn't represent the majority. Those who speak the loudest don't speak for everyone. The real people in this existence are out there waiting for you to meet them and talk sensibly about real life, face to face, not via an anonymous message board or a Twitter account. You have to go and make the effort, however. In the case of Burgundy, I let the snooty American Francophile crowd overshadow the real world that exists outside that thickening cloud of smug. That was my fault. I should have known better. 

And now I do. It was a pretty great week. 

-David Driscoll