Friday
Sep042015

New Limited Cointreau Expressions

The pride of Angers, France is expanding its repertoire state-side. Cointreau has decided to bring its limited edition expressions of Liqueur de Camomille and Guignolet and to the U.S. with gorgeous throwback labels and in the smaller 375ml size. I'm always surprised by how much Cointreau we sell here at K&L. We blow through about two cases a week just here in Redwood City, so I'm curious to see if that's because there's a local following for the brand, or if we just have a lot of Margarita parties happening nearby on a nightly basis. I've read that the master distiller for Cointreau—Bernadette Langlais—often finds inspiration from historic labels and classic cocktails, and these new liqueurs are perfect examples of that: classic French style and a pureness of flavor that we associate with the iconic brand.

Cointreau Liqueur de Camomille 375ml $26.99 - Soft and supple in mouthfeel with delicate hints of chamomile flowers and honey.

Cointreau Guignolet Liqueur 375ml $26.99 - Juicy red cherry flavor without any of the cloying sweetness that bogs down so many substitutes.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Sep032015

Pisco Redux

In a project that hits very close to home (and close to my heart), I'm happy to announce that Capurro Pisco's new vintage of 2012 single varietal expressions has arrived, with new labels, better information, and the highest quality of spirit I think the brand has ever produced. What is pisco, you might be asking yourself? Much like the Singani 63 we've been writing about over the past year, pisco is an unaged grape distillate produced mainly in Peru (but also in Chile) that is often consumed in refreshing cocktails like a Pisco Sour or Pisco Punch, but also drunk straight or poured into soda. While much of what makes it into the U.S. are the unexciting, big-brand options, Capurro is a small 100-year-old company with roots in San Mateo, CA (where I live). I've been working with Romina Puente-Arnao and her family for the last few years, helping to establish the brand's retail presence (those of you who attended this year's Brandyfest at Bar Agricole likely spoke with her). Romina's family, also in San Mateo, operates a Peruvian food and import business on B Street downtown, and they self-distribute their own pisco. It's literally a mom-and-pop operation.

I've always liked Romina, her family, and her family's pisco. The fruitiness of the spirit was always brighter than the other brands we carried, and the purity of the flavor always cleaner and more expressive. The only thing I didn't really love about Capurro was the old bottle. So when Romina came in last week to share the latest vintage releases, I about died when I saw the new labels. Not only were they sleek and colorful (much like the spirits themselves), they were also full of information and fun facts, designed to help educate the curious public. This new line of Capurro piscos is from the 2012 vintage in Peru and the spirits have been rested in stainless steel tanks for over three years. There are three single varietal expressions (Moscatel, Torontel, and Quebranta) and one acholado which means a blend of different grapes. They are made entirely from estate-grown fruit, with no additives and no filtration. All of them are outstanding and worth your time.

2012 Capurro Estate Grown Single Vintage Acholado Premium Pisco $34.99 -The acholado is the most robust and classic of the four expressions, toning down the brighter aromatics in favor of more earthy, agricultural flavors. The spirit is still clean and vibrant despite the robust profile and mixes beautifully into classic rum cocktails. This could easily substitute as a much milder agricole rhum.

2012 Capurro Estate Grown Single Vintage Moscatel Premium Pisco $34.99 -Moscatel is the Spanish word for Muscat, which is an incredibly fruity and aromatic grape varietal. The floral and vibrant qualities are therefore distilled into the spirit, creating an expressive and exotic flavor that adds an incredible versatility and pizazz to any cocktail bar.

2012 Capurro Estate Grown Single Vintage Torontel Premium Pisco $34.99 -Torontel is an aromatic grape varietal, so those aromatic qualities translate right over into the pisco. Floral and perfumy on the nose, the palate showcases violets and more of bright fruit flavors of the grape. Those flavors continue to pop in the glass when mixed into a cocktail.

2012 Capurro Estate Grown Single Vintage Quebranta Premium Pisco $34.99 -The Quebranta begins with a lovely note of exotic fruit and more of what almost takes like candied tamarind, before settling down into a clean and vibrant finish. It's incredible just on its own as an eau-de-vie, but also mixes into cocktails like a dream.

If you're still confused as to when you would ever use a pisco, I strongly suggest substituting one of these Capurros into your next rum cocktail. Make a Daiquiri with pisco (which is pretty much a Pisco Sour), or make a Mai Tai. Make a pisco and coke. In all of these cases, you're substituting something made from grapes and distilled in a copper pot still with real inherent flavor, for something likely made from cheap molasses and distilled to an almost neutral state on an industrial-grade column still. I almost never use generic white rum anymore because spirits like these make my cocktails so much more exciting.

Pisco is so delicious and versatile as is, but having a local brand like Capurro all to ourselves is a true luxury. They're small enough to focus solely on the highest possible quality of spirit, and savvy enough to share all of the specifics with spirits and cocktail geeks everywhere. Working with them has been always been pleasure, but I want to thank them for making my job easier. With the new bottles and new packaging, these vibrant labels jump right off the shelf.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
Sep012015

Cultural Ambassadors

I grew up in Modesto, California; not necessarily a mecca of cultural cuisine. As a kid, my parents cooked dinner just about every night, making what my dad loves to call "just the basics". We would dine on steak and starch, plenty of soups, and the various vintage recipes that both my mom and dad each had up their individual sleeves. We travelled when I was young, so there were always cultural imports that eventually made it onto our mainstay menu. My parents had friends in Italy and Germany, so new variations on pasta and potatoes would find their way into the evolution of our collective family taste, but most of these influences were Mediterranean. What never made it onto our table was anything remotely French. My parents were not risk takers in the kitchen, and most of our meats were straightforward: chicken, fish, pork, and beef. Always a standard fillet cut. Never anything out of the ordinary. Shanks, livers, sweetbreads, and kidneys? These so-called delicacies were not part of my childhood, nor were they part of my twenties. The first time I experienced classic, traditional, old school French cuisine was in 2012—at the age of thirty-two—when I made my first voyage to Gascony with Charles Neal, and I had decided before that trip that I was going to eat whatever was put in front of me—familiar, or not. I knew it was going to be a trial by fire.

I had never even heard of coq au vin until I started working at K&L in 2007, and even when I did hear my colleagues refer to the French dish, I still had no idea what they were talking about. Foie gras? What was that? As a young twenty-two year old I had moved to Europe and backpacked my way through the former Eastern Bloc, stuffed my face during a short stay in Italy, and consumed enough bratwurst and beer in Germany to fortify a small army. I did manage a quick jaunt to Paris during those years, but only for a few days on the cheap. Nothing was really learned or comprehended during that whirlwind of a visit. I was ignorant of anything west of Stuttgart. Considering I had just landed a gig at the nation's premier Bordeaux retailer, I was incredibly lacking in my French cultural education. I listened quietly as my co-workers discussed their meals of rilletes and pâte, saucisson and confit, or cassoulet and bouillabaisse. I had absolutely no clue what any of these things were, but they seemed important. It would be another five years, however, until I experienced them first hand. I arrived in the Gascogne at around 11 PM on a cold winter evening, and we proceeded to drink wine at the local caviste while we waited for Charles's brother-in-law Bernard—a famous local chef—to make us a snack.

It's funny now to think back to my original jet-lagged state at the time, and how completely alien everything seemed. I didn't speak a word of French, I didn't know what anyone was saying or doing, and I had no idea what Bernard was cutting on the giant cleaving machine located in the middle of his Montreal-du-Gers establishment: Chez Simone. Nothing in my life had prepared me for this moment, not my college education, my previous travels overseas, or my years of experience on the K&L sales floor. I was completely out of my element, yet surrounded by people who felt completely at home. 

A plate was placed in front of me. Upon it were a few slices of fresh baguette and some sort of fancy meatloaf. This was terrine, I was told: a mixture of local wild boar and coarsely chopped ingredients, served cold with a glass of sparkling wine. I had eaten plenty of meatloaf as a kid, so this was no problem. It was absolutely delicious.

Next came a plate of steamed artichoke hearts covered with a creamy black truffle sauce. The only time I had ever even heard of truffles at that point was while watching the Smurfs as a kid. There were a few different episodes devoted to truffle hunting with Papa Smurf and puppy leading the way, but I had no idea they were actually real tangible things. Again, this wasn't so strange. What was the big fuss about? Bernard was just getting started, however.

Next came a bowl of homemade ravioli, stuffed with foie gras and smothered in a creamy pumpkin sauce. Then a pan-seared slab of foie gras on toast, then a pâte of foie gras with a bottle of Sauternes. I was going from zero to a hundred, real quick. We ended up eating nothing but organ meat, cream, and fat for the next two hours and I didn't make it to bed until around 2 AM. I can't say I was savoring every bite of that incredible introductory meal—mainly because it was all so new—but I was indeed relishing the experience. I think that it's still the most memorable meal of my life; a moment that I will never forget as long as I live because of what it elucidated. On this year's trip to Chez Simone—my fourth visit at this point—I couldn't have felt more nostalgic about the place. Having finally learned enough French to communicate, as well as having developed my palate along the way, I was no longer intimidated or scared by a culture that at one point felt completely incongruous. It's amazing the difference that a few years can make when you make a concerted effort to improve your understanding.

I'm bringing up this experience for a number of reasons; one being that I'm heading back to France this weekend and I plan on posting a series of articles about foods that I never would have ordered five years ago. Now that I'm brave enough to order with abandon, I wanted to get back in touch with that original sense of complete naivete. Another reason is that I'm still constantly meeting people who feel intimidated by wine or whiskey because they feel like everyone around them knows more than they do. They don't know the difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy, or between a single malt and a single barrel, and they're embarrassed to ask. Let me tell you all something: you probably know a lot more than I did when I started out in this business. I was a complete novice. If I can learn about all this stuff, you can too.

It's partially because I was so green to French culture that I developed an interest in understanding it. I wanted to know more about it, so I started learning the language and began asking questions. All the answers are out there if you want them. Don't ever be afraid to put yourself out there and inquire about what you don't know (and don't ever be afraid to send me an anonymous email if you are). That's how we all start, ultimately.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Aug312015

Checking Off Boxes

I read a fair amount of fashion magazines these days. Partly because my wife has them scattered all over the house and there's easy access, and partly because there are so many similarities between the way liquor and clothing are advertised, so I enjoy looking for patterns. The latest issue of Elle had a few different covers featuring Keira Knightley and this one happened to catch my eye. The British-born starlet recently turned thirty and had this to say: 

"It took me a lot of years to stop pleasing people and allow myself to have fun."

Ain't that the truth. I think I was almost thirty-one before I figured out that doing things to impress other people was not only exhausting, but it didn't necessarily make me any happier of a person. When we base our lives on our perceived perception to others, I think we're often clueless as to how transparent our actions really are, and also how insincere the praise we seek truly is. For example, if you spend all your time trying to get others to "like" your photos on Instagram, and you think that getting a certain amount of "likes" means other people literally like what you're doing, then you might be disappointed when you find out that isn't really the case. Not only do many of these people not care about what you're doing, they're often not even paying attention to you—too busy trying to get other people to focus on what they're doing. When you see that game for what it is and you learn that many instances in life fall under this same metaphor, it can be liberating when you break free from those shackles, stop caring about what other people are doing, and start worrying about pleasing yourself. We're all susceptible to societal pressure and the quick hit of satisfaction that comes from people-pleasing—even someone as glamorous as Keira Knightley—but we're also capable of detoxing ourselves from that potent and suffocating drug.

It's amazing how easy it is to turn life into nothing but a checklist of experiences—the top ten attractions in New York, the ten best restaurants in London, or even the five best whiskies in the world. Once society dictates what it is we're supposed to want, it's up to us to make sure we've checked those boxes off the list. Did you see the Statue of Liberty? The Empire State Building? Central Park? The Brooklyn Bridge? Yes...(gasp)...I only had two days, but I made sure I saw everything that's worth seeing. But did you enjoy your experience? That's the question you have to ask yourself. Because checking something off your list and actually experiencing it are two different things. Did you go to New York just to do the things that other people said you should do, or did you go to do what you wanted to do? Maybe what society says we should want and what you want are one in the same. Maybe not. Only you can answer that question. 

When you do something just for the sake of having done it, you don't always get the real experience either. For example, a lot of whiskey fans like to brag about having tasted Pappy 23. But have you actually savored a glass of Pappy 23 slowly over the course of an evening, or did you just get a quick taste after waiting in line at WhiskyFest? Because they're not the same thing. They're not even close to the same thing. There's a wine called DRC La Tache: a very high-end Burgundy that usually sells for $1000 a bottle. I've tasted it, yes. I had a tiny sip out of a customer's bottle four years ago. Have I experienced it after aging it for the appropriate amount of time, decanting it for an hour, and indulging in its supreme flavor while dining on roasted chicken? No, I've never done that. Those are two completely different things. So maybe I can go around bragging to people that I've "tasted" DRC La Tache, but I've never really experienced it like it was meant to be experienced. That's what context is as it pertains to an experience.

But when we view these quixotic experiences simply as things to tell other people (with the hopes of pleasing them or garnering a positive response), we often lose the context for which they were meant—or at the very least, for what dictates an actual understanding of their pleasure. Sometimes we even try to convince ourselves that we've experienced things we really haven't. Like maybe we say that we've "been to" Paris (check that one off the list), but really we just had a layover at Charles de Gaulle. Or maybe we've "met" Jon Bon Jovi, but really we just bumped into him while waiting in line at Starbucks and then said "hello". The only reason to embellish such trivial experiences is to satiate the desire many of us have to say we've done things; that we understand things, or that we've experienced some of life's many great pleasures. But saying that doesn't make it true.

And when it comes down to the end, and we're on our death bed, were our lives any better because we managed to take a tiny sip of Brora, Port Ellen, and Black Bowmore and can then claim on our tombstone that we indeed did so? Maybe what we really wished we could have done was spend more time drinking for enjoyment, and less time trying to make the myths. When people tell you that the best wines or whiskies are the ones you like best, that's really what they're trying to say. They're not saying that a whisky's inherent quality is subjective, but rather that the quality of your experience is. You get to decide how much pleasure each experience gives you by being honest about what you actually like doing—about what's fun—regardless of whether it holds up to society's expectations. That's the conclusion that I came to a few years back, and I've never looked back since. 

Same with Keira. 

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Aug292015

Houston in Hollywood – Part III

After spending my morning at the Hollywood store and later indulging in a lovely dinner at Cleo—the Mediterranean hotspot located inside the Redbury Hotel—my wife and I caught a cab over to the east side of Hollywood and the home of La Descarga: the original Houston brothers creation. Previously home to a dive bar on a rather unsavory part of North Western Ave, the space now constitutes one of the most immaculate and romantic speakeasy-style locations in the country. What looks unassuming and rather ordinary on the outside is actually a full-scale, Cuban-inspired sensation on the interior. We pulled up to the lone doorman sitting casually next to a latino restaurant where men were cooking carne al pastor out in front. “We’ve been expecting you, David,” the man said with a smile as he opened the door. We ascended the stairs and walked squarely into another piece of Houston brothers kitsch—a gorgeous latina woman wearing a red dress and a rose in her hair greeted us in Havana-styled apartment circa 1920. “Welcome to La Descarga,” she said, before opening the armoire doors against the wall, pulling aside the hanging clothes, and leading us into the colonial era veranda via the surreptitious passage. 

As you enter into the main room of La Descarga and walk along the balcony, you get a stunning glimpse down at the bar stocked heavily with a well-curated selection of rum and tequila. By design, we were the first to arrive that evening, allowing us some private time to photograph the aesthetics and chat a bit with the bartenders. The boys were preparing some new drinks for an upcoming menu and asked if we’d like to sample some of the selections. A Flan-Flip immediately caught my wife’s attention, being the lover of custard that she is. I offered to be the guinea pig for a mango-flavored concoction using both gin and vodka as a base and featuring a variety of tropical ingredients. Both were delicious and forward-thinking in design. They were familiar, yet excitingly different. That’s all I can ask for these days.

I judge any establishment by how hospitable they are when they’re slow, rather than when they’re busy. I would hate to be reviewed for my customer service while under severe duress, facing a mob of queued-up customers while attempting to answer a flurry of casually-flung questions. We should all be at our best when the situation is calm and tranquil, and the bartenders at La Descarga did not disappoint. They were friendly, welcoming, and intent on bringing us into the environment. If you’re someone who wants to enjoy the low-lit, romantic environment of the small space, I’d recommend getting there right as they open. Very few people wandered in before nine, and the band doesn’t arrive to start playing until ten. If you stick around until later, however, you can indulge in the live music, salsa dancing, and festive atmosphere of the fiery Cuban night. You can dictate your own personal preference for chaos by simply planning your night around the crowd.

For me, the original Houston brothers joint is another lesson in careful curation. I can’t believe that anyone is going to La Descarga because of their excellent rum selection, or because you can get a Margarita made with Cimarron tequila. They’re going to La Descarga because of the decor, the mood, and the atmosphere. It just so happens that you can sample a diverse variety of high-end rum and have a Cimarron Margarita while you’re there, which is—in essence—the exact same experience we’re striving to present to the customers at K&L. I don’t want people to come to the Redwood City store simply because we have the lowest price on Ardbeg, or a great deal on Grey Goose. I want them to come because we’re friendly, knowledgeable, and we provide an engaging selection of spirits along with a high level of customer service. If we also happen to have the best price on Ardbeg, that’s just an added bonus! Everything begins with curation, in my opinion. If you can add value to that equation, then you’re really doing your job well. La Descarga is a destination spot, in my book. I would make an effort to come here often if I lived in LA, just to bask in all the atmosphere and casually talk to friends.

We were loath to leave La Descarga as we were having such an intimate and enjoyable time, but we needed to visit the last stop on the Houston express before calling it a night. We hailed a cab and headed down to Break Room 86, located just a few miles directly south near Wilshire in Koreatown. Like many things in Los Angeles, the 80s-themed night club is positioned in an unsuspecting area; behind the Line Hotel with a completely unassuming entrance. Again, the only sign of life is the small huddle of folks waiting to get inside and the lone doorman guarding the way. Upon arrival, we were escorted through a narrow warehouse space, past wrapped pallets of boxed goods, and towards the back of an industrial hallway where our guide offered us the chance to grab something from the vending machine. I should have known better than to believe her, however. The vending machine was indeed the secret entrance into Break Room 86.

The nostalgic vibe inside the space isn't nearly as obvious or as clear-cut as the other Houston brothers locations. Only true devotees of the 80s nightlife (and those like me who watched Weekend at Bernies on repeat) will understand many of the design elements and inspirations, but there are plenty of fun little flashbacks hidden around each corner.

More than anything, Break 86 is a lounge. It's like something straight out of Leisure Suit Larry and the Land of the Lounge Lizards (that's me busting out my 80s chops), but with added accents from your favorite John Hughes film. How about a long hallway of lockers, just like you remember from Sixteen Candles?

Or a set of audio visual displays like Matthew Broderick commanded in War Games? I was half expecting to see Max Headroom make an appearance.

For all the right reasons, Break Room 86 skews the youngest of all the locations, so make sure you go looking for a party. The place doesn't get full until around10 PM, and the live performances start even later. If you wander towards the back of the bar, you'll find an old school phonebooth that is itself another secret entrance into a private karaoke lounge. Despite the lounge atmosphere and seemingly-Screwdriver-esque bar scene, the back bar is lined with top-notch booze—great tequilas, gins, single malts, and Bourbons. So even though you feel like you're in the 80s, you don't necessarily have to drink like you are. I don't think I saw my friend Harvey Wallbanger on the menu, at least.

Despite a thorough and detailed visit to six of the famed Houston brothers locales, I still didn't have time to visit them all. I'm going to have to schedule a second trip back down to Hollywood to take a look at Pour Vous—the French-themed brasserie, as well as the Piano Bar. I can't imagine I'll be anything less than amazed when I do find the time. There's an assumption in the spirits industry by the more savvy consumers that any liquid presented in an ornate and decorated bottle can't be good. The same goes for wine in a box, or the latest trend: wine in a can. There are pre-conceived notions about quality in the booze world that are based entirely on aesthetics, which is why many professionals feel they need to strip away these elements in order to prove their pure-intentioned devotion to flavor. 

But what the Houston brothers prove over and over again with their thematic replicas of historic splendor is that quality and—more importantly—integrity are not necessarily linked to aesthetics. There are no rules and no mandates that require you to lose your sense of wonder in the face of regalement. Seeing that Hollywood was once the epicenter of fantasy and fable—a place that inspired the imagination to new heights of cinematic wonder—it only makes sense that the Houston brothers have created an entirely new version of the storytelling genre right in the heart of it. They've take the theatrics and the romanticism of the silver screen and transferred them directly into their own vision for hospitality. Most importantly, there's something for everyone within the portfolio; whether you want to dance, drink casually, have a comfortable dinner with friends, or party until dawn at various points in the past. Rather than narrowly focusing on taste, it's a curation of drinking that caters to all of the senses and never sacrifices ingenuity or quality throughout the experience. 

I'm blown away. And I'm insanely jealous of my Hollywood co-workers who have a vast resource like this available to them on a nightly basis. I can't wait to come back down.

-David Driscoll