The New Master's Keep

The second release in the Master's Keep series, the Wild Turkey "Decades" is a marriage of casks aged between 10 to 20 years that, in my opinion, is a huge step up from the previous 17 year old release for a number of reasons. The first: it's bottled at a higher 52% ABV that really adds lift and vigor to the richness and spice of the whiskey. Whereas the 17 year was quite mellow and soft having been aged in a brick warehouse off-site, the Decades is bold and quite lively. Second reason: whereas the 17 year was a marriage of similar casks, the Decades is a marriage of whiskies between 10 - 20 years old, carefully constructed so that the best parts of each barrel highlight one another. Think of this as Wild Turkey's version of the Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition - mature casks, blended with skill to create a whiskey greater than the simple sum of its components. Everything about the Decades tastes fantastic. There's plenty of sweetness, a roundness of fruit, loads of baking spices like clove and cinnamon, and a bold, mouthwatering finish. There's no need to add water, but you can if you like. Perhaps the whiskey's greatest strength is its immediate accessibility and gorgeous bottle, making it the perfect gift for any Bourbon lover. As someone who's tried pretty much every Bourbon in the book, I'm planning on adding the Decades to my collection. But I can just as easily imagine the casual whiskey drinker being absolutely wowed by this. 

As my collegue David Othenin-Girard pointed out to me, who visited the distillery recently and spoke with the Russells about the project: the Decades was originally going to be a blend of 20 and 15 year old - as these old stocks had been located at some offsite warehouses. Campari only managed to digitize their whisky inventory in 2010 and experimental batches where hidden all over Kentucky. The original blend would have been made up of these old casks but for the protests of Mr. Jimmy Russell. He likes his whisky at 10 years old and felt the older stocks lack the distinctive flavor profile he expected from his bourbon. So they added a bit of 10 year (apparently about as much 10 as 20), but most of the blend is 14-16 year old whiskies. 

In any case, it's here and it's pretty darn good.

Wild Turkey "Master's Keep - Decades" Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey $129.99

-David Driscoll


Hayman Family Distillers

Some of you savvy gin drinkers may be familiar with an expression of Beefeater's called "Burrough's Reserve," named after distillery founder James Burrough who started the company back in 1863. What you many not know is that Burrough's great-grandson, Christopher Hayman, sold the Beefeater's distillery in 1987 (today it's run by Pernod-Ricard), but he didn't take his family out of the gin game completely. With the money from the sale he was able to re-purchase the Burrough's plant in Essex that specialized in industrial production of grain neutral for other distillers and cosmetics alike, as well as bottling for producers who outsourced that part of the process. He continued to invest in gin, buying a piece of the Thames Distillery, the biggest contract gin distiller in England (a number of your favorite brands like Fifty Pounds, Oxley, Darnley's View, Ford's are made there), from where he eventually launched his own brand under the family name.

In 2013, the production of the Hayman's line was moved from Thames to the Essex distillery, where Hayman continues to make clean, fresh, and affordable classically-London style gins that are some of the best in the business. The problem with affordable booze at K&L is that it's often suspicious to our boutique-oriented clientele, used to (and, frankly, looking for) $30+ bottles of craft gin. We have the same issue with inexpensive Bourbon, but let me tell you: our well-versed customers and knowledgeable staff aren't complaining about plenty of delicious, bargain-priced hooch on the shelf! All of the Hayman's gins use juniper, orris, nutmeg, cinnamon, orange, lemon, liquorice, angelica, and coriander for their botanical recipes, just in different quantities depending on the expression. The Royal Dock in particular has to be one of the most amazing values in the gin world, weighing in at 57% navy strength ABV, with a vibrant and bright snapiness of flavor, yet with a sub-$30 price point. All are fantastic, however, and represent textbook examples of what English gin has become renowned for.

Those thinking the great value brands of the UK have all become corporatized just need to dig a bit deeper. Hayman's, with direct lineage to Beefeater, is a family-run and family-owned distillery making top-notch gins in an old school style for everyday prices. Don't overlook these next time you come in.

Royal Dock Navy Strength Gin $27.99

Hayman's London Dry Gin $26.99

Hayman's Old Tom Gin $26.99

-David Driscoll


...And a Few More!

I forgot to mention these as part of the previous post about new arrivals, but they came in with the recent gin release from Copper & Kings and they're only available at K&L in California. Both, like the in, in my opinion are must buys (so long as you like absinthe and brandy).

Copper & Kings "Zmaj" Serbian Juniper Barrel Aged Absinthe $69.99 - Named after the mythical Balkan dragon Zmaj, this Serbian juniper barrel-aged absinthe is an absolute thing of beauty. Typically the leaky, difficult-to-cooper Balkan wood is used for aging balsamic vinegar, but in this case it adds pepper, spice, and lift to all the botanicals present in the spirit. Using a pot-distilled muscat brandy base, classic botanicals like wormwood and fennel are used to add bold flavors of anise and licorice, bolstered by a Chartreuse VEP-like herbaceous backbone. At 65%, the absinthe is massive in its intensity, but never does the alcohol overpower the intricate flavors. Put simply, this is one of the best American absinthes we've tasted since the ban was lifted a number of years back.

And, by popular demand, we have the Blue Sky Mining muscat brandy. I must have received 100 emails asking me if we were going to bring this in. Now it's finally here so jump on it!

Copper & Kings "Blue Sky Mining" Brandy (375ml) $39.99 - A special edition of pot-distilled muscat brandy aged in reconditioned wine casks and finished in an American oak hogshead from the acclaimed Kentucky distiller. Packed with the richness, weight, and fruitiness of the expressive varietal with the oak spice and wood influence of barrel aging, this is a rare treat indeed.

-David Driscoll


A Few New Arrivals

While I still plan on talking about gin for the rest of the week, I do have a duty to keep everyone up to speed about new arrivals! Let's take a look at what just showed up, including our last cask from the most recent container of Old Particular casks (new container is due in July):

1991 Cambus 25 Year Old "Old Particular" K&L Exclusive Single Barrel Cask Strength Grain Scotch Whisky $79.99 - The final cask from our most recent shipment of Old Particular single casks is this lovely little number from Cambus, one of Diageo's top grain distilleries until it was closed forever in 1993. That means every bottle of Cambus that gets consumed from this point out moves the whisky a step closer to total extinction! This 25 year old single cask, originally distilled in September of 1991, is a glorious example of both Cambus and grain whisky at its most splendid. The nose is a hedonistic wave of butterscotch and vanilla, followed by tropical notes on the palate with plenty of oak spice and syrup. Those who love the banana element that can be found in Bourbon should go gaga for this. It's difficult to believe the whisky is bottled at 62% ABV, mainly because of how rich and wonderful it is. While offering spice and plenty of heft, the power is still masked by the symphony of vanilla and syrup on the finish. For collectors who enjoy drinking whisky made at now-defunct facilities, a bottle of 25 year old Cambus represents quite an affordable luxury at $79.99. For fans of Scotch or even American whiskies who enjoy drinking delicious, cask strength, single barrel expressions, this is a must have.

A la what we've seen with Douglas Laing over the last year, David Stirk, the man behind the Exclusive Malts independent bottlings, has put together a new regional series of 100 proof whiskies meant to highlight the distinct characters of Scotland's regional styles. Unlike the Laing editions, however, these are all single cask expressions. All are bottled at 100 proof, as well. They're quite striking and well-priced, to boot. I jumped all over them after tasting through the line-up.

Exclusive Malts "Regional Series" 12 Year Old Single Grain Whiskey $49.99 - This Port Dundas 12 year edition showcases the simple pleasure of great grain whisky with exotic macaroon coconut flavors, rich oak, barrel spice, and plenty of punch from the higher proof. It drinks like a bolder and rounder version of the Nikka Coffey grain for a better price.

Exclusive Malts "Regional Series" 8 Year Old Peated Highland Single Malt Whiskey $49.99 - This 8 year old peated Ardmore showcases the difference between Island peat and Highland peat, with a lighter, fruitier smoke influence that tastes more like a campfire than a the medicinal phenols of Islay. Lovely richness and creaminess accent the finish.

Exclusive Malts "Regional Series" 8 Year Old Speyside Single Malt Whiskey $49.99 -  This 8 year old Glentauchers is a chewy and unctuous sherry-aged delight with an extra kick from the 100 proof ABV.

Exclusive Malts "Regional Series" Islay Single Malt Whiskey $49.99 - While not labeled as such, this is an all-Laphroaig bottling that drinks like a softer, more lush version of the standard 10 year, albeit at a higher proof.

While normally I'm not excited by new distilleries selling whiskey from other distilleries, this little Irish number really jumped out at me. Much like the Jameson Cooper's Croze and the Midleton "Dair Ghaelich," there's a heavy amount of exotic oak spice in this whiskey, which leads me again to the realization that you can't judge a whiskey solely by where it was made. You must taste each one, as the specs will never tell the entire story. This is delicious!

Tipperary "Watershed" Irish Single Malt Whiskey $64.99 - Tipperary is a new Irish distillery making whiskey from their own barley, grown on Ballindoney farm in County Tipperary. As the production is still underway, the group searched Ireland for a mature whiskey which would reflect the style of the spirit they eventually wanted to make in Tipperary, The "Watershed," sourced partially from West Cork distillery, is an extremely striking Irish single malt with a strong oak influence, heavy with exotic spices and richness. Try this for a bolder, more mouthcoating style of Irish whiskey. 

-David Driscoll


North Shore Gin

If there was ever an example to demonstrate just how competitive the gin market has become today (and the spirits market in general), North Shore is it. Back in 2009, when I took over the spirits at K&L, North Shore was my first real addition to our selection. I had spent some time hanging out with bartenders Erik Ellestad, Jennifer Colliau, Craig Lane, and Erik Adkins over at the now-defunct Heaven's Dog on Mission Street—at one point easily the best bar in San Francisco. We were discussing the exciting new world of "craft" gin (there were maybe three or four new ones back then!) and Ellestad told me he thought the North Shore 11 was his favorite. We sat at the bar tasting small pours of various gins side by side, and there was no doubt: the North Shore was the clear winner. I ordered a few bottles for the store the next day, opened them for the staff, and watched the madness take hold.

From that point on we were all huge North Shore fanboys at K&L. The staff was amazed, we were selling bottles by the case, and Sonja Kassebaum—the distillery owner—was making regular trips out from Chicago to do events with us. That momentum lasted for about two years until the gin world absolutely exploded and began pickling itself in a veritable sea of saturation. All of a sudden our customers wanted new gins—non stop—every single time they came to visit. The shelf became a revolving door of boozy experiments, wild concoctions, haphazard distillates, and transitory faces. Years later, North Shore's dominance had all but been forgotten. 

The pendulum is now swinging back the other way, however. After years of tasting through bizarre recipes and amateurish adventures, I see a lot of customers returning home to the basics. It's no different than being young and wide-eyed. You want to see the world and know what's out there—to date all kinds of people and understand what's possible in life—but eventually you settle down and gravitate back to the basics. That's happened to me recently with gin, which is why I've been drinking gallons of North Shore recently—the gin that originally brought me to the dance. The gin that made me love gin because it tastes like really good gin! You know who else loves gin? Sonja Kassebaum, which is why she and her husband Derek started North Shore distillery in the first place back in 2004; not because they eventually wanted to make whiskey, but because they wanted to make gin. They were pioneers of the American craft gin movement, focusing on the botanical spirit long before it was cool again. 

The opportunity to be artistic with the botanicals and creative with the recipes was what drove Sonja and Derek to open their own distillery. Wanting to create something different from what was available on the market, they released the North Shore #6 gin back in 2005, one of the first American gins to use cardamom and lavender—a standard practice today among many small producers. Not only did they want a new gin, they wanted clean gin. Fresh gin. Bright gin. Gin that tasted more vibrant than the standard pour. What they quickly learned, however, was just how picky gin drinkers can be (as I also learned after sending various bottles to my grandmother, the ultimate gin connoisseur). It turns out that gin's focal point—the juniper—was pretty important to a number of classic enthusiasts, who had a hard time coming over to the North Shore #6. Thus, the North Shore #11 was born with a heavy juniper recipe (because it goes to eleven—yes, they named it after Spinal Tap). 

"As that point, there were few distilleries that were making multiple styles of gin," Sonja told me recently. "We were the first distillery making different gins to play differently in cocktails." People were totally confused. "Why is that bottle white and the other one green?" customers would ask all the time. Two gins? Why two? Today, it's common for a distillery to have more than two gins and to make a navy strength, an Old Tom, and a sloe gin, to boot! But it wasn't always that way. These days there are plenty of new and bright-eyed gin customers who don't even know about North Shore and their early dominance. They think this modern movement began with Bruichladdich's Botanist or Monkey 47 (just like Nirvana fans who had never heard of the Pixies). 

Maybe, now that you're all grown up, you can go back and revisit some of the classics to give yourself a better perspective. Like an old Motorhead song, these gins still kick major ass.

North Shore #6 Gin $31.99

North Shore #11 Gin $31.99

-David Driscoll