Diffusing the Artisanal Fantasy

I read an article recently about "post-racial" America in which the author discussed how the election of Obama seemed to imply we had moved beyond bigotry as a country, making it difficult to acknowledge or come to terms with the racism that continued during and after his two terms. I won't go into the nitty gritty of it all, but it did make me think about the spirits industry (and really the food industry as a whole) and how its current obsession with artisanal products has blinded many folks from a glaring reality. I think living in a "post-branded" booze industry, in which consumers no longer form loyalties or personal associations with any one particular product, has somehow implied that the philosophy of spirits production itself has changed as well. Artisanal goods are instantly given the benefit of the doubt, from pretzels and popcorn to IPAs and spirits—the smaller it looks, the better it must be. Artisanal terms are plastered on everything from "small batch" whiskey to "handcrafted" meats and cheeses. Find me an oatmeal today that doesn't highlight its "steel cut oats." I challenge you!

Many consumers today, believing that these new artisanal or "craft" labels are providing a higher quality spirit, are more than willing to pay more for better product. However, when you explain to them that the $40 bottle of "craft" rye they just purchased is the exact same whiskey that's in the $20 branded bottle they turned up their nose at, things can get uncomfortable (like explaining to some Amercians that racism is very much alive and well in the "post-racial" era). There's a reason Amazon just paid more than thirteen billion dollars to acquire Whole Foods and it goes well beyond simple brick and mortar strategy. The plain truth is: if you can make a product with big brand efficiency, but sell it for a craft brand price, you can make a lot of money. Just don't tell that to those people living in post-branded America.

While it's easy to point at "craft" producers in Iowa, Vermont, and elsewhere selling their "hand-crafted" whiskies that were actually contracted from a large distillery in Indiana, they're probably the least egregious examples I can think of in terms of today's misleading marketing. In the case of MGP, the distillery that actually makes the whiskies you find in High West, Whistle Pig, Templeton, Bulleit, and numerous other rye products on the market, at least the consumer is getting a high quality product. The distillery formerly known as LDI makes delicious juice. It's when you start to look at "craft" vodkas or gins, however, that it becomes hard to know what you're paying for. The same goes for the large majority of Cognacs out there that are often more caramel and sugar than actual brandy. But the worst offender, by far, is the tequila industry whose ever-growing reliance on the diffuser is perhaps the dirtiest secret in the entire drinks business. There are plenty of other articles that go into detail about how this process works, but I'll give you the simple breakdown of why distillers in Mexico use diffusers here:

1) With the agave shortage in full swing, producers want to get the most potential alcohol from every single piña harvested.

2) Tradtionally in tequila production, the piñas are cooked, crushed, and pressed to extract the sugary agave juice eventually fermented, much like with winemaking (although without the subsequent distillation). In both cases, the process requires healthy produce with ripeness and flavor because one needs sugar to start a healthy fermentation. I've always said that tequila and mezcal are much more like wine than whiskey for that reason.

3) With the invention of the agave diffuser, the need to cook and crush the agave has been completely eliminated from the process. Instead, the uncooked agave is fed into a shredder and the resulting chunks are moved onto a conveyor belt into the diffuser. 

4) The diffuser sprays the agave pieces with hot water that extracts the starch from the pulpy plant and collects it in a tank. Now rather than having to cook the actual agave to create the sugars, the distilleries can instead boil the starch water and add an enzyme to convert that starch into sugar much like whiskey is made (and not at all like wine).

5) While the diffuser results in a more efficient use of manpower and potential alcohol, it results in an inferior product. But, much like with processed food, all that "agave" flavor can be re-added later on the back end (kind of like boise in Cognac). 

6) Because the resulting diffuser tequila is still entirely a product of agave, the labels continue to tout their "100% agave" classification and market the liquid as a top quality tequila, rather than a mixto or blended agave product.

As many people before me have asked: what's the point of even using agave as a base material for distillation if you're not going to cook and extract the actual flavor of the plant itself? Why not just make tequila from raw grains and do the same flavor enhancements with a cheaper and more plentiful foundation? 


Because then it wouldn't be "artisanal." You can't market corn-based, artificially-flavored tequila to true tequila aficionados! They won't hear of such an abomination. Instead, you have to sell them industrially-produced, artificially-flavored tequila made from 100% agave and call it "craft". That way they feel better about their purchase. Better yet, put it in a traditional bottle, talk about heritage, and charge them double. In the end, how many tequila customers really care about or understand what a diffuser is anyway? 

I can tell you: not many. We sell boatloads of diffuser brands at K&L. They fly off the shelf faster than I can often reorder them. If I even try to explain to a customer why they might prefer a non-diffuser brand, or why they might want to pay more for a truly artisanal tequila, they generally look at me with distrust and disdain. Over my decade in the retail spirits industry, I've found that the perception of quality is often more important than the reality of it—even (and especially) in post-branded America. 

-David Driscoll


Extra Kelpie

Just in case you missed it....

We snagged a few extra bottles to satiate those still thirsty for Ardbeg's peated splendor:

Ardbeg "Kelpie" Islay Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - A limited Ardbeg release named for the mythical shape shifting spirit of the deep and aged in virgin oak casks from the republic of Adygea, this experimental edition of Ardbeg gives a nod to the influence of the Black Sea.

-David Driscoll


It's Baking

Oh man, do I love it when my purposefully instigative and incendiary words get picked up by industry news feeds and emailed to tens of thousands of other people who don't normally read the blog. It really drives the message home that much faster, raising the temperature to hot, hot, hot like a catalyst in a boiling vat of industry stew! My weekend was great: emails, phones calls, text messages, and deals, deals, deals! As predicted, of course.

It's Monday morning in America. How about some Baker's Bourbon for $33.99? Cheapest price I can find is $40. 

Keep it up whiskey industry! Let's race to the bottom (of the barrel).

-David Driscoll


Farewell to a Friend

This past week the K&L Redwood City store lost its head of security after a battle with illness. If you ever checked in with our staff directory in the past, you might have noticed that it contained a number of canine friends, each with their own title and position within the company (we've since taken down these listings in favor of....professionalism?). Billy was for many years the upstairs enforcer who reported to one man only, our customer service agent Sal Rodriquez. I walked by a barking Billy on many a morning, hoping to make it to my desk without interrogation, no snacks on hand to bribe my way past his intimidating force. Sadly, however, his presence is no longer with us. I'm turning the blog over to Sal today who penned this touching tribute to his friend:

I remember when you picked me out of many other possible human parents ten years ago. I remember the warnings they gave me. They told me that if I went home with you that I would have to enroll you in doggy behavioral classes. They told me that you had just gotten in a fight with a toothless old dog. You were about two years old, or so they thought. I smiled and thought, that's just the thing I would do: fight with a toothless older person! I knew we were meant to be together. We went to classes. You graduated with honors because you loved the treats.

Ever since the first day we went for that ride home, you've been my little shadow. We've gone on trips, we've been to the ocean, and you've charmed your way into many people's hearts. Whenever I had the opportunity to introduce you to my human friends, I had to warn them that you were the fastest kisser in the west. That you would be kissing them right on the mouth when they were least expecting it. I was always right. They got kissed! You went to work with me and became security of the office, making sure that everyone passing through was a friend—barking only if there was a foe or someone with an awful beard. When you weren't protecting the office from dangerous thugs, you managed to wiggle your way into being Shaun's lap dog. Probably because he had the best supply of snacks. You guys were bestest buds. There was no-one in the office that didn't like you. I won't "out" the people who you didn't like. Let's just say, you knew how to read whether or not a human was a good person.

At home there was a constant flow of "good job, Billy" because you always knew how to do the coolest tricks. You could dance, shake, turn circles, lay down, roll over, fetch, and accept treats. Treats were where you excelled. You would do anything necessary for a human snack.

We moved recently, so I had plenty of pieces of furniture to put together and you tirelessly watched me put it all together. I don't know what you got out of it, but I loved the company. I would talk to you about what I was going to do next. I said things like, "this bolt goes here" and "I have to place this panel here next", and you would look at me very curiously, like you were trying to get a grasp on how it all worked. If I was changing oil, or brakes, in the garage, you were just as curious. I think you just enjoyed being around me: your faithful buddy. There were no dogs I loved more than you. I trusted you. I was never alone when I was cussing out a tool or instruction that was getting on my nerves. You let me tell you all of my secrets and no-one knows more about me than you.

All of the fun times we had, restful moments we took together, and kind energy you exuded, could not stop you from aging and becoming sick in your old age. It hurt me to watch you helpless. After all you helped me through it was the least I could do to make your passing a safe and peaceful one.

Yesterday, when I watched you take your last breath, my hands on your shoulder and my face next to yours, so I could be the last person you saw in this world, I hope you know that the tears I had were because you made an incredible, loving, lasting impression upon my life. I hope you know it was because I loved being your friend. I hope you know it was because I knew it was going to be hard to do this without your silent comforting gestures. I don't have the same relationship with anyone else and I will miss you like no-one else.

The end has come for this part of our journey. I can only hope that you felt every bit as loved and safe as I felt when you were with me. I will always have our friendship to remember you by and just remember, when you see me cry, when I have thoughts of you, you can know that it hurts like hell to be without you, but I would do it all over again exactly the same. Thank you for being part of my world and accepting me the way I am. I could never in ten lifetimes show you how much you've meant to me.

-Sal Rodriguez


Prime Burgundy Time

I don't want to toot my own horn, or anything, but let me distract you from spirits for a moment to tell you: never in our store's history have we had as much good Burgundy for affordable prices as we do right now. Alex, Trey, and I have been hard at work behind the scenes, working with new producers and expanding allocations with some of our favorite imports to bring you—for the first time I can remember—more red Burgundy that you can handle.

Seriously. There's almost too much. There's so much delicious new Bourgogne rouge in stock we can't fit it all on the shelf. You can go check out the On the Trail blog where I've been posting about this, or you can click on the links below, but if you even remotely care about wine this is a rare moment in history. It's made that much more exciting (and desperate) by the fact that 2016 is pretty much dead as a vintage in Burgundy. Frost and hail wiped out most of the fruit, so 2014 and 15 will be vintages to grab while they're here. 

As if the new Giboulot, Charriére, and Bart values weren't exciting enough (these are a few of our best direct imports), we just got in a batch of closeouts from Diageo that are half-priced and seriously serious. My colleagues and I are currently scrambling to see how much each of us can afford before we send out the big email next week. Again, I stress, this is a rare time at K&L. I remember back in the day during our previous Burgundy era when finding a drinkable, exciting, and character-driven red Burgundy was difficult. Today I don't even know where to start!

2015 is the best red Burgundy vintage I've tasted in my career, so I'm doing whatever I can to alert people to our current surplus of riches. Go over to Pronto down the street on El Camino, get a roasted chicken combination dinner, pop a bottle of $20 Bourgogne rouge, and find out what the fuss is about.

That's most definitely what I'll be doing tonight.

-David Driscoll