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Wednesday
Dec062017

YUUUUUUUUUUUUUUM!

I don't know how I missed the boat on this one, but when I tasted the new Auchentoshan Bartender's Malt this week I grabbed a bottle from the freshly delivered cases, threw down my credit card, and rang myself up for one. I've always enjoyed Auchentoshan (as I think it's the great blue collar whisky of Glasgow and the American Oak is the most underrated malt in the business), but we always have a problem selling it at K&L because I think customers tend to find it a bit too ordinary. In a world where everyone's constantly looking for the next rare bottle opportunity, the value-oriented malts from the Beam/Suntory-owned Lowland producer are perhaps not exciting enough. I hope that changes, however, with the arrival of the Bartender's Malt because not only is it lip-smackingly, mouth-coatingly delicious, it's also quite an amazing value given the make-up of its cepage. 

Auchentoshan named this whisky the "Bartender's Malt" because it was designed and blended by a team of twelve different bartenders from all over the world who helped to select the barrels. Here's the really compelling part: they used single malt whisky from the 1970s, 80s, 90s, 2000s, and current decade in the blend, from ex-Bourbon, ex-Sherry, ex-wine, and even German oak barrels! I've said it before and I'll say it again: innovative blends like this are what's going to drive the business moving forward, in my opinion, especially in a market where single barrel pricing is proving to be cost prohibitive and access is getting more and more difficult. For the very affordable price of $42, this is a drinker's whisky. It is absolutely jam-packed with sweet barley flavor, loads of vanilla, spicy ginger, candied orange peel, and a symphony of oak and baking spices on the finish that light up your mouth for minutes with distinct and supple flavors of milk chocolate. Bottled at 47% ABV, it's got punch as well.

This is my new house single malt. I suspect it's going to stay that way for some time. My highest recommendation here for a sub-$50 malt. Bravo!

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
Dec062017

Financial Gains

I wouldn't say I get tons of emails from customers asking me about the collectability of our private casks and bespoke projects, but it's a topic that's come up quite a bit lately in my correspondance. Generally, I don't tackle that subject because I don't think about whisky as an investment first and foremost (it's only come up lately because of all the interest in Ardnahoe's private consumer barrel program). When I pick out a barrel from a warehouse or put together an exclusive deal with a company, my number one focus is value—pure and simple. That value is always immediate, mind you. Rarely do I tell customers: "If you buy this bottle now you can resell it down the line for twice as much." Investment opportunities as they pertain to bottles have never been my speciality, but more than a few people sent me this link yesterday, including John Glaser himself who was downright floored. It's an auction site in the UK that just sold a bottle of our limited edition Compass Box "5th and Harrison" blend for £1450, or roughly $2000. If you'll remember, we sold those bottles for about $170 back in the day, so that's a pretty staggering return on your investment if you're a K&L customer. 

Looking at that auction made me smile, not because I inherently like seeing whisky sell for those prices, but because it only legitimizes the value of the work we're doing here. I had a number of conversations with suppliers yesterday about the growing presence of bait and switch booze operations in California today—the retail stores that show you a really great price online, but when you actually drive over to the store itself they conveniently "just ran out." That's usually when a sales person appears out of thin air and says, "We don't have what you're looking for exactly, but I think you'll enjoy this bottle instead." It's called a bait and switch because they can't make any money selling you the brand name at that price. What they need to do is get you into the store, then switch you over to the house brand. That's how they make their money. A buddy of mine in the industry drove down to one such operation yesterday just to test drive that experience and it went down pretty much exactly as I just described. I bring that up only because at K&L we have the opposite mindset: our bait has become the house brand, not the other way around! Most people today come to K&L for the exclusives and the great pricing is just an added bonus. We don't need to convince anyone to buy what we're selling because, as you can see from the above auction, the value proposition of what we're selling speaks for itself.

However, just because we don't have to compete on price doesn't mean that we won't, or that I'm going to let some shady national operation move into our backyard and make customers think we've been gouging them for years. That's the frustrating part about the bait and switch: it's a strategy that attempts to sow distrust between consumers and their local retailer, but really offers nothing of value as an alternative. It's a chicken shit way of operating. The silver lining here, however, is that a rival always forces you to be more creative and on top of your game. I have to admit: my senses are heightened in these situations and I've got a current running through my spine at the moment that electrifies my soul with each scorching deal I put together. As much as it angers me at times to see such a sloppy attempt to sabotage our local market, it makes me a much better buyer and it brings out the best in our partners who have no stomach for it either.

I think you'll see some hot pricing on the website today as a result of me channeling that vindictive energy into my work. I can't promise you a 1000% return on your investment like with the 5th and Harrison, but I can guarantee you one thing: we actually have the bottles.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Dec042017

All Things Ardnahoe with Jim McEwan

Jim McEwan (far right) with the Laing family in front of the new Ardnahoe pot stills

There are few things that get single malt drinkers more excited than word of a new whisky distillery in Scotland. When that new distillery happens to be on the isle of Islay—the spiritual home of peaty Scotch whisky and a mecca for die-hard drinkers around the globe—you can expect that enthusiasm to increase by two or even three-fold. That's definitely been the case thus far for Ardnahoe distillery, the first new facility on Islay since Kilchoman opened in 2005 and only the second established in the last 130+ years. When the Hunter Laing company announced plans to build on the north side of the island near Bunnahabhain, I let out a celebratory hoot! As if a new distillery on Islay wasn't exciting enough, it was going to be built by one of our closest partners and friends in the industry. We've been working with Stewart Laing, along with his sons Andrew and Scott, since our very first trip to Scotland and they invited me out to visit the site back in 2016 after making the announcement. 

Like any expansion team in professional sports, signing that first big free agent is an important step in building fan support. The Laings proved quickly that they were ready to play with the big boys, bringing in none other than Islay's most beloved son Jim McEwan, the former master distiller for Bowmore and Bruichladdich and an island native with more than fifty years of on-hand experience. Just like that, the excitement around the Ardnahoe project increased dramatically and since the company announced its private cask program recently, I've had all kinds of emails from American customers wondering if K&L might help them with the logistics of bottling and importation should they decide to purchase one. Not only were people interested in owning a piece of history, they were curious: for example, what would the whisky taste like? Not an unfair question for someone dropping thousands of dollars in advance for gallons and gallons of whisky yet unmade!

I hadn't talked to Jim McEwan in over two years, but if I was going to help Ardnahoe customers with their eventual cask transportation issues, I might as well help them get the scoop on the whisky itself. I sat down with Jim on Monday morning to talk about the new developments at Ardnahoe, his plans for the whisky, and what single malt fans can expect from Islay's newest distillery upon its opening in late May of 2018.

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David: So you’re back in the saddle again. How does it feel?

Jim: Well, I never actually got out of the saddle. After leaving Bruichladdich, I went down to Australia to make some gin. I opened a gin distillery in a place called Byron Bay and it’s going gangbusters. I was working with the indigenous people there in the rainforest, picking some of the botanicals for the gin. It was a treat. I thoroughly enjoyed it. So I was doing that and some other stuff as well, so I was never really out of the saddle, but certainly working with Ardnahoe has been fantastic. To be involved with a new distillery right from the get-go is wonderful. 

David: And now you’re back working on Islay, but I don’t know that you ever left, did you?

Jim: I never left Islay and I would never leave. Islay’s home. There’s no better place in the world for a whisky guy. That being said, the Ardnahoe offer was a surprise. I didn’t expect it. Obviously I was involved in the resurrection of Bruichladdich, and the resurrection of Bowmore if you want to call it that, but to be involved with a brand new distillery on a new site, to be involved with the planning and getting the choose the type of whisky, it was a dream come true. Plus, it’s a family business. I’m used to working with families. I worked with the Morrisons at Bowmore when that was a family business and that was great, so I’m enjoying every second of it. 

David: What are your plans for the whisky once the distillery gets up and running?

Jim: Obviously I’m going to be making a heavily heated malt; probably about 40 ppm. I would like to do an unpeated malt as well; not a lot of it, just enough so we can show people what we can do. There’s a big gap between an unpeated malt and a peated one of 40 ppm—that’s where the big boys are like at Laphroaig and Lagavulin. I feel there’s an opening in the middle there because for the folks coming into the category for the first time it’s quite a big leap. I’d like to create a stepping stone, something around 10 ppm, which would be a whisper. Then maybe one at 20 ppm, and then finally 40 ppm. That way we have different levels of peat for everyone and the customers can make their own decision about what they like. 

David: What are your fifty-plus years of experience telling you this time around? What are you most excited about?

Jim: To be part of a new distillery on Islay is tremendously exciting on a personal level as an Islander; the creation of new jobs is important as it’s all about community here. Hunter Laing is also a well-established company with a good track record. I’ve known Stewart for years; he and I are pretty good friends. It’s always nice to work with someone you’ve known for some time as you know exactly what you’re getting. We get along fine, likewise with his two boys, so I feel really comfortable in that environment. As you know, I worked for Suntory for a while at Bowmore and that was good, likewise I worked with Remy for a few years when they took over Bruichladdich. Now I get to come back to a similar situation as in those early Bruichladdich days where you’ve got freedom and that’s something I relish: having the freedom to produce whiskies that I think are going to be exceptional.

David: And cask selection as well, right? That’s always been your specialty.

Jim: Right, the spirit is like the child and the cask is the mother. If the whisky goes to a good mother then it’s the best possible outcome. At Bruichladdich I was using all sorts of casks and it worked really well; not just Bourbon, not just sherry, but all sorts of wine casks, bringing different flavor profiles in, and widening the knowledge of the consumer. That way it’s not just a one trick pony. To have that freedom and for the Laing family to have the faith in me to create the spirit, that’s a great honor. Not many people have that chance. When I set out to make Octomore, people said you couldn’t make a whisky that peaty, but we did it. People told me that we couldn’t make gin on Islay, but we did that, too. To have that freedom again with a brand new distillery is really exciting.

David: Do you have a plan for the house style or character of the whisky?

Jim: Most certainly the majority of the casks we’ll be using—as much as 60%—will be fresh Bourbon barrels from Kentucky. I’m a big fan of ex-Bourbon and as a former cooper I enjoy the American oak with the sweetness and the spiciness it gives to the whisky. I’ll be using wine casks again. Sherry casks are very hard to get today and they’re very expensive because no one is drinking sherry now. It will be a mixture, for sure. It’s nice to have as many options as possible on the menu for the consumer today. You don’t always eat the same food every day and whisky is no different. In the end, the consumer is king and I’d like to reach as wide of an audience as possible. 

David: Speaking of consumers, I’ve received a lot of consumer interest about the single barrel futures you’re currently offering to private clients. What would you say to anyone currently pondering the purchase of a private Ardnahoe barrel right now?

Jim: Buying an entire cask of whisky direct from a brand new distillery, it’s quite rare to get that opportunity. Particularly an Islay distillery because, whether you like it or not, Islay whisky is on fire right now. It’s a good investment. We sold casks at Bruichladdich originally that are now fetching quite a sum. In terms of value for money, I think it’s a wise choice. You could put your money in a savings account and collect your interest, but the value of whisky is still increasing by the minute. You can keep it for ten years and the value will only go up. I can assure your customers that I’ll be doing the very best I can to produce a spirit of tremendous quality. I’ve got a pretty good track record, I think. 

David: I don’t think anyone will question the quality of your spirits from Bowmore and Bruichladdich, that’s for sure!

Jim: We sold a lot of private casks early on at Bruichladdich and we made a lot of people very happy. We also made a lot of friends. The fact of the matter is: I’m getting on now and it will probably be the last spirit I’ll ever make. This will be my swan song. To leave a mark on the island and to have the chance to create something wonderful, it’s been quite an adventure. I’ve always been adventurous in terms of distillation and cask types, while adhering to tried and tested methods. The other thing to mention is that Ardnahoe will be putting in worm tubs and they will be the first worm tubs used on Islay in some time, rather than shell condensers. It will be a very slow distillation because with worm tubs you have to wait for the vapor to go down and cool. The lyne arm extending to the worm tubs has got to be one of the longest in the world, I would think, so there will be a lot of copper contact. The worm itself will be made from copper, so it should be a clean spirit and easy to drink. I believe it will mature quickly as well. When a whisky is fine the influence of the oak will appear much more quickly. I’m hoping to create one of the purest spirits ever made. 

David: And the first runs will be done by you specifically, right?

Jim: Yes, and like I said this likely will be the last whisky I ever make. I’ll be seventy years old next year, but I’m not going to screw this up. I can't wait to get started, plus the location of the distillery has to be one of the best in the world. Sitting high on the hill, looking down the Sound of Islay toward the islands to the north with Jura across the way. The water supply is Loch Ardnahoe, which is just across the street from us. It’s about a quarter of a mile away from the distillery and the water is perfect. There’s nothing near this loch at all, not a house or a car. It’s just a pure island loch and it’s very deep. Everything is right about this site, even just to come and sit. They're going to put a balcony out there where you can sit and look out with a dram in your hand. It’s an everchanging picture, too. One minute the clouds are flying over with winds coming up the sound and on other nights you can go out there and look at the moon shining down. It will be a must-visit distillery.

David: They’re going to put in a café, too?

Jim: Yes, they’ll have a café where you can come get a bite to eat or a cup of coffee. We’ll also have a super tasting room because Hunter Laing has a great portfolio of whiskies from all around Scotland. You’ll be able to taste whiskies from all over, not just Ardnahoe, and you’ll be able to buy them in the gift shop. All in all, we’re hoping to pool our experience from decades in the business and put it all into this distillery. Stewart has been in the whisky business all his life, as have I. Plus, you’ve got the two sons as well and they’re just as excited about this. After working for multi-nationals, it’s great to be working with a family again. It’s a good feeling. I’ve got a good feeling about all of this. 

To reiterate: anyone wants help with logistics in purchasing an inagural cask from Ardnahoe should feel free to reach out to me for information. NOTE: Ardnahoe is only offering casks of their heavily peated formula, not the unpeated or lightly peated expressions.

-David Driscoll

Monday
Dec042017

Meet "Little Book" In SF This Wednesday

This Wednesday at 3 PM in our San Francisco store we'll have the newest generation of Beam distillers in the house when Freddie "Little Book" Noe comes to the tasting bar to sample you all on his latest creation: the Little Book Blended Straight Whiskey, one of the best new American products I've had the chance to sample this year. Freddie will be there to pour free samples of the Little Book Batch 1 (already sold out from distribution) and there will be free glassware, pictures, and other informational materials on hand. No RSVPs are necessary, just show up between 3 PM and 4 PM, flash your ID at the front counter, and head on back to the tasting bar for the experience. 

Hopefully some of you can ditch work for an hour or so to come take part! I'll see you there.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Dec022017

Opening Old Wine

On Friday after work, I decided to treat myself with a pre-birthday solo bash since my wife was working late and I was going to be home alone for most of the night. There are two things I instantly flock to when I know I'm going to be a bachelor for the evening (because they're two things my wife does not enjoy): beef and Bordeaux. I went right to the butcher and bought a nice cut of meat, then hit up the K&L old and rare department for a bottle of 1986 Château La Conseillante, Pomerol as I wanted something super fancy. I was stoked.

I've been teaching wine classes after work for the past two weeks as part of a promotional series I'm doing with a local business, so I've been answering loads of questions from participants who want to know simple things (like what does Cabernet mean?) to advanced technical issues concerning storage and cellar maintenance. However, the lesson I think that any and all budding enthusiasts need to know first and foremost is what happens to wine when it ages, as many people seem to be afraid of a little dust and dirt when they're stepping up the pricepoint for a bottle. A bottle of 1986 La Conseillante, for example, won't look the same way it originally did after thirty-plus years in the cellar. Neither will the cork. Nevertheless, I see people bring bottles back into the store like this all the time because there's mold underneath the foil, there's leakage, or the cork looks dirty and worn. 

That's supposed to happen. Don't let it scare you. The wine is most likely just fine!

However, in these situations a standard wine opener won't always do the trick because of just how old the cork itself is. If the bottle has been laying on its side like it's supposed to have been, then the cork will be wet, moist, and likely to dissolve as you turn your corkscrew into it. 

One of the best wine inventions I've ever come across in my career is the Durand, a super high-end opener that combines the Ah-So prong style puller with the standard corkscrew worm into one 100% failsafe device. It's not cheap, but it's a must-have in my opinion for anyone who wants to open older bottles of wine without making a mess or getting tons of old cork bits into your expensive claret (it's also a great Xmas present if you need a gift for the guy who has everything). All you have to do is screw in the worm piece like you would any other opener, then slide the Ah-So prongs into the guide on top of the corkscrew, wiggling them down into the bottle neck on either side of the cork itself.

The worm gives you the grip to pull the cork out and the Ah-So prongs keep the integrity of the cork inline so that it doesn't crumble apart as you're pulling it out. 

This cork certainly would have gone to bits had I simply used just the standard corkscrew to pull it out of the bottle. I was happy to say that I didn't need to use a fine mesh filter or anything else to get little chunks of cork out of my delicious wine because it came out with ease, intact and clean. Drinking older bottles of wine is a much more complicated process because they typically have weaker corks, lots of sediment (that's why you keep them standing up before you drink them so it all settles at the bottom), and a whole slew of other potential pitfalls that you have to watch out for. Just keep that in the back of your mind if you decide to splurge for something nice one day from our library or auction department. You can't necessarily just pop and pour like you can with younger, everyday bottles.

In the end, it's worth the extra attention though. I sat on the couch that night eating bite after bite of delicious beef with the silky texture of the Conseillante gliding over my tongue (I dusted that entire thing myself in under forty minutes because it was that damn good). We've still got another ten bottles of that wine as well if you want to see what old Merlot tastes like. Lots of iron and savory notes meandering with a refined mouthfeel. That was my present to myself. Like the Durand opener: not cheap, but worth every penny.

-David Driscoll