Celebrity Booze Updates

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I was at Petit Trois in Sherman Oaks today for lunch and I noticed that retired basketball superstar Dwayne Wade’s rosé was one of just two rose wines listed on the lunch menu. They must be cranking with D Wade Cellars right now because—if you’re never been to Petit Trois—they pour a shit ton of wine all day long. Seeing that it’s still hot in LA mid-September, I’m assuming they’re moving through quite a bit.

Wade isn’t the only former NBA basketball star making waves in the booze world this month. GOAT Michael Jordan just released Tequila Cincoro, a super luxury agave spirit clocking in at $130 for the Añejo and $1600 for the Extra Añejo. According to the quote in Shanken, Michael and other investors “were looking for a Tequila that was ultra smooth and didn’t have that agave burn.” I didn’t even know agave burn was a thing.

Wade, on the other hand, showed he gets the basics of the booze biz with his initial foray into the market. Not only is his rosé crisp, clean, and food-friendly, but according to one of the folks I was speaking with over steak frites, he was walking around Petit Trois last week and pouring a free glass of his rosé to everyone eating dinner there that evening. Now that D Wade has moved to Sherman Oaks, he’s starting with a small radius. Win over your neighborhood first, then expand.

Booze 101. Great start, D Wade.

-David Driscoll

No Borders

I caught up with an old booze industry friend of mine this past weekend, and was sad to learn that he had been phased out his long time position. We were discussing next steps, when he said:

“I don’t think I want to be in wine or spirits at this point. Food seems like the better choice.”

Why food? A number of reasons.

  1. How many new celebrity bartenders/sommeliers are being discovered today versus chefs? Netflix seems to have an endless appetite for cooking shows, yet booze reality TV never really caught hold (I would know, as I was on more than one failed pilot). Food culture seems to be where cocktail culture was ten years ago with no signs of slowing down.

  2. Everyone eats. Not everyone drinks. Premiumization is happening across genres as a younger generation is discovering they’re will to pay more for things like travel, gym memberships, wine, spirits, and food. Why not go after the larger market with more growth potential?

  3. The sale and shipping of booze is heavily regulated, while food is not. Booze requires a buyer to be 21 or older, and restrictions on interstate shipping have only tightened, not loosened, despite the pending court cases. A bottle of olive oil can be shipped anywhere in the country (and internationally). A bottle of whiskey, however, often can’t be shipped over state lines (despite the fact that some retailers do it).

My question is: why aren’t more wine and spirits retailers taking advantage of this trend? People who like high-end wine and spirits more often than not enjoy high-end food, therefore I would think more retailers might want to explore local/artisanal food products as a way to bolster their sales. It’s one way to tap into customers all over the country and expand your reputation, even if many of those customers can’t legally purchase alcohol.

-David Driscoll

Push vs. Pull

The number one question I get asked from suppliers and brand owners right now is: how I do I get more retail placements?

But if you’re a wine or spirits producer the first question you really need to be asking yourself is: how do I get more retail depletions?

As a booze professional with a decent rolodex, I can tell you that convincing my retail friends to pick up a new brand is the easy part of distribution. Incentivizing your sales reps to place more products is often a waste of time for that reason. Anyone can call in a favor when they need it. It’s getting retailers to buy the second and third case that’s difficult.

Influencing the modern retail consumer is just as hard. We’re well past the age of brand loyalty at this point, so the adventurous boutique consumer will rarely return to buy the same bottle more than once. With so many new options to try, and so many new brands coming to market, getting a customer to buy again and again is a real challenge.

Retailers agree. I spent yesterday traveling between five of the best wine and spirits stores in the LA area, asking them the same question over and over: can you name me one new brand that continues to sell, while building customer loyalty along the way?

…. (crickets) ….

“Angel’s Envy has actually picked up for us,” one store owner told me as we chatted on the sales floor, “but that’s partly because they allow their stock to run out from time to time, which in turn builds demand.” Beyond the Bacardi-owned Bourbon sensation, there were no other examples of new wines or spirits that had built and sustained momentum in 2019 in the eyes of my retail partners. “Eagle Rare still sells well for us, as does Willett,” another buyer told me when we discussed American whiskey trends; “but obviously those brands have sold well for years and years.”

Is it possible to drive retail sales in today’s ADHD marketplace, other than by becoming a cult icon to a legion of whiskey collectors? Certainly, but it has little to do with the number of accounts you’re working with, and everything to do with the quality of those accounts. In my experience, consistency comes from personal relationships and credibility. You can target key influencers and hot markets all you like, but unless your brand sells itself it’s nearly impossible to make any headway. Your retail partners must like you, trust you, and respect you before you’ll win their support—and that support is what moves cases.

Having hundreds of accounts might sound like the ideal, but they’re worthless if the product doesn’t move off the shelf. You can’t be everywhere at once, and the digital technology that allows you to reach more consumers is being bombarded with 10,000 other people just like you doing the exact same thing, thus getting more from your best accounts is key. Just remember: retailers size up suppliers like first dates. They’re asking themselves: is this person just interested in a one night stand, or are they going to call me next week to go out again?

If you’re only after retail placements, you’re probably the former and you’re off to the next account as fast as you can put your pants back on. That type of superficiality isn’t going to win you many friends. Commitment is much more important to building a relationship, and relationships are what build retail depletions. I know sales reps that have spent their entire careers in a handful of stores because they can do more business in those locations than 100+ corner stores and supermarkets.

Great retailers are consistent. New brands pop up every day, consumer trends change like fashion, but a great relationship with a great account is your best bet for continued success.

-David Driscoll

A Quick Trip to Willett

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I’ve always believed that great spirits are made by great people.

That’s not to say that great spirits can’t be made by rigid, difficult, and generally disagreeable people, or that truly wonderful people always succeed in their distilled ventures. I’ve had good booze made by tyrants, and terrible booze made by saints, but for me the best booze seems to always coincide with the best folk.

Without a personal connection to alcohol—the passion and the know-how of a particular individual or family—the hooch never tastes quite as good, in my opinion. Alcohol is not something I can disassociate from the people who make it, which is what makes drinking Willett Bourbon is so much damn fun. Not only is it delicious, it’s that Even, Martha, Britt, and Drew Kuslveen—the people behind Kentucky Bourbon Distillers—are passionate and principled producers who make me very excited about whiskey, putting heritage, tradition, and quality into delicious liquid form.

Over the last decade, the family’s operation in Bardstown, Kentucky has gone from private bottler to full-time distiller, and it’s been amazing to watch their passion for great American whiskey evolve and improve over that time. Juxtaposed against an increasingly corporate landscape, much of which is owned by multi-national conglomerates, Willett distillery stands out as one of the true family-owned Kentucky Bourbon distilleries of merit, every bit as quaint and romantic as you might imagine, and every bit as good as you might hope.

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What’s interesting about Kentucky Bourbon Distillers as a company is that, among the Bourbon intelligentsia, they’re often renowned for the whiskies they didn’t make rather than the ones they’re currently distilling today. Trophies like Black Maple Hill, Stitzel-Weller single casks, and a number of other cult classics like Kentucky Vintage have cemented KBD’s status as an iconic bottler within the genre, and for rarities that sell for hundreds if not thousands on the market today. For decades, the Kulsveens used their connections to contract and source Kentucky whiskey for a multitude of labels, including Noah’s Mill, Johnny Drum, and Old Bardstown—just to name a few—but today 100% of its labels are produced in-house. Having rebuilt the Willett distillery from the ground up, the company resumed distillation in 2012 and has now fully transitioned its portfolio over to estate juice.

I cannot even begin to tell you how happy that makes me.

In my retail days, a bottle of Rowan’s Creek was a blend of Bourbons from another Kentucky distiller, purchased, matured and bottled by the Kulsveens, but today it’s all Willett-distilled from beginning to end. And you should feel completely confident today buying a bottle of KBD whiskey because of how it tastes, not just because of the cachet it represents. The whiskies coming out of the new Willett distillery are far more than just cultural novelties from Bourbon’s new gilded age; they’re the best new American whiskies on the market in terms of their quality and character—hands down. Not having tasted much from the new editions since leaving the industry in the Spring of 2018, I flew out to Bardstown this past Thursday to reacquaint myself with the Kulsveens and select new casks for future California release.

They did not disappoint.

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Drew Kulsveen, the master distiller for Willett, met us in Bardstown for what was to be a day-long dive into several dozen single barrel whiskies, comprised of all six mash bills currently in production at Willett:

Bourbon #1. 79% Corn, 7% Rye, 14% Barley - 107 Entry Proof

Bourbon #2. 72% Corn, 13% Rye, 15% Barley - 125 Entry Proof

Bourbon #3. 65% Corn, 20% Wheat, 15% Barley - 115 Entry Proof

Bourbon #4. 52% Corn, 38% Rye, 10% Barley - 125 Entry Proof

Rye #1. 74% Rye, 11% Corn, 15% Barley - 110 Entry Proof

Rye #2. 51% Rye, 34% Corn, 15% Barley - 110 Entry Proof

Getting to know the mash bills is important to understanding the KBD whiskies because most of them are a marriage of more than one recipe. What’s more important to note for the time being is that all six of them are spectacular. They taste, smell, feel, and finish like traditional, flavorful, and familiar Kentucky whiskies. The profile of each one also completely matches the recipe description, allowing your ultimate senses to match your expectations. The high corn Bourbon #1 is by far the sweetest, and we were all oohing and ahhing over the creaminess on the finish. The high rye Bourbon #4 is spicy, bold, and peppery, like you would expect.

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Due to the intensity of tasting dozens and dozens of single barrel selections, all at full proof, over the course of a single day, we had to space out the flights over the span of many, many hours—sandwiched between numerous walks, snacks, meals, and conversations. Just about everything we tasted was coming up on 7 years of age, making it the most extensive and evaluative overview of the current mature Willett inventory I’ve ever seen. We all had our favorites, and there were winners in every group. It also gave us a change to tinker with small batch blending, an exercise that resulted in a few stunning specimens.

While the most coveted Willett editions are the single barrel releases due to their rarity, when these puzzle pieces interlock to form a super whiskey it’s truly something special, which is why I think it’s important to reiterate the ancestry of the entire KBD portfolio. As an example, the sweet baking spices we loved in the Bourbon #2 cask samples are just as enticing in the standard 90 proof Old Bardstown release, and you can find that bottle in most retailers for $25 or so (and if you go to Kentucky, you can get the 100 proof bottled in bond edition, which I snagged before leaving). If you want to taste that same recipe at a higher proof and older age, grab a bottle of Noah’s Mill.

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Speaking of old Old Bardstown, getting to stay in America’s “most beautiful small town” for the first time was a treat. I’ve been to Kentucky more than a dozen times in my life, but I’ve always stayed in Lexington or Louisville. Getting to wake up in our tiny inn, go for a run through the hills, walk the streets at sunrise, and get a real sense of the historic community was a new experience for me. There are about 11,000 people in Bardstown and the town was officially founded in 1788, so there are some very old homes and cemetery plots, including a number of Civil War monuments.

The old brick houses are also a beautiful sight, something we don’t see too much of in earthquake country out west.

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What I really appreciate about Drew Kulsveen, beyond everything I’ve mentioned thus far, is that he has a taste for luxury and isn’t afraid to splurge when he’s passionate about a specific genre. I very much relate. I’ll drop serious coin on shoes, jackets, bags, and booze if I see something truly special, and for Drew that passion extends to cigars as well.

“These were hand-rolled in Havana in the 1930s,” he told me, opening an antique box of La Coronas that he had purchased from an auction.

“We can smoke these right now?” I asked in shock.

“Yeah, that’s why I brought them,” he answered in his typical calm demeanor; “We don’t make whiskey just so it can sit in the bottle, and I don’t buy cigars just to look at them.” It’s also important to point out that Drew is incredibly gracious and generous, which makes drinking his whiskey that much more enjoyable for me. Like I mentioned before, great booze tastes better when it’s made by great people, and Drew is one of my favorites in this business.

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Getting to spend the day drinking, talking, eating, walking, smoking cigars, and bonding with great people while drinking great booze is about as much as you can ask for in life, and behind that pleasure lies the intention of any true whiskey maker. Whiskey is meant to be consumed and enjoyed, so why not make it taste as good as possible? The people who stand by that creed, practice what they preach, and lead by example in this industry are what keep us alive and motivated as suppliers. The Kulsveens are as honest and authentic as it gets in Kentucky, and their Bourbon tastes pretty damn good to boot.

What else do you need beyond that?

-David Driscoll

Wolfburn Rises

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All that marketing fluff you see today about tradition, heritage, and hand-crafted quality when it comes to whisky wasn’t always just marketing fluff. About ten years ago, there was a genuine passion on behalf of real whisky fans to both understand the past traditions of whisky-making and create a more authentic future based on that history, hoping that a renewed focus on those now-ubiquitous buzzwords would result in something truly special. When I use the word “authentic,” I mean whiskey made in a manner before mass consumerism and global capitalistic desire; back when whisky was designed to taste as good as possible, not serve as many customers as possible. The goal wasn’t necessarily to sell more whisky. It was to drink better whisky.

That’s not to say that “authentically made” whisky is better by default, because you still have to know what you’re doing. When it comes to making classic single malt Scotch whisky, you just have to be willing to work inefficiently in the name of better flavor. That could mean floor malting your own barley by hand, or lengthening the time of both fermentation and distillation to achieve texture and character. In both cases, the cost effective decision is to streamline the processes based around potential alcohol volumes, not a specific flavor profile. However, to ignore the efficient process in favor of the more artisanal one is what gives the latter its definition. That’s what “hand-crafted” quality and “authentic” heritage meant at one point in time to whisky-making.

Back in the heady days of 2010, when the legends of long ago were still within reach, some of us passionate retailers were so taken by the heritage of whisky that we would drive around Scotland in search of these lost casks, even visiting the abandoned facilities and forsaken sites no longer in operation. It was an homage of sorts, a pilgrimage to discover Scotch whisky’s past, and connect and commune with it in some way, hoping to somehow reach deeper into the intoxicating world of that tradition in order to channel it moving forward. We weren't alone, however, and there were a few other folks out there who were far more ambitious than us.

The Wolf Burn stream that runs through Thurso, Scotland

The Wolf Burn stream that runs through Thurso, Scotland

It was around that same time—circa 2011—that a group of very ambitious whisky fans went looking for the former site of Wolfburn, an old distillery established in 1821 that likely stopped operating at some point around 1872. It was built near the town of Thurso, a remote sea port along Scotland's northern coast that's known for quite a nice wave amongst surfers, and the name Wolfburn (like many Scottish distilleries) came from the water source nearby—a small stream with cold, clear water (the Wolf Burn) that flows all the way to the sea.

When the group finally located the verdant grounds they found little more than a pile of stones, but the stream was still there; and where water still flows in Scotland, whisky will soon follow. By 2012, a small parcel of land along the Wolf Burn stream was purchased and plans to rebuild the distillery began. Many of us had been monitoring the moves of Kilchoman to see if the general public would support the concept of a small, independently-owned single malt distillery making delicious, but somewhat pricy boutique whisky. After the tiny Islay producer was met with a huge fanfare, it seemed this whole Scotch renaissance had legs. By January of 2013, Wolfburn distillery was open and the stills were running once again. By 2016, we were selling the first edition of new Wolfburn here in the states; one of the most precocious young whiskies I had ever tasted.

In talking with Wolfburn’s Harry Tayler this week, looking to catch up on what I’d missed over the last year or so, I was excited to hear that Wolfburn had expanded to four full-time expressions since I’d left the industry: the standard Northland edition (now five years of age, instead of three), the sherry-matured Aurora, the cask strength Langskip, and the lightly-seated Morven. I’d recently tasted through all four whiskies and was utterly impressed with how dynamic they were in their youth, although as Harry would go on to tell me:

“Even the new make is delicious right off the still. When you nose the worts, it smells something like Juicy Fruit gum and bananas. That’s because when we distill, we run the stills at a lower temperature than normal to preserve those flavors, which means we have to run the stills longer. Because we run the stills longer, the spirit is in contact with the copper or longer, which strips out all the impurities. Our new make spirit is therefore very fine, very pure.”

That’s what I’m talking about when I use the word “inefficiencies”: being willing to be less cost-effective in order to produce a better flavor. That’s what artisanal distillation is supposed to be about.

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Part of the reason that Wolfburn’s wort, or fermented barley mash, is so fragrant is because they allow it to ferment 25-35 hours longer than most other distilleries. After about 40-50 hours, a fermenting vat (or washback) of barley wort has attained its 8-9% ABV of alcohol and is therefore ready to be distilled. That’s when most production efficient distilleries begin pumping their alcoholic wort into the first of two copper pot distillations. Not Wolfburn, however. “When you’re fermenting wine, the alcohol level eventually reaches a point where it kills the yeast and they stop working,” Harry explained during our conversation; “but that’s not the case with an 8-9% ABV wort.” While the yeast is no longer converting the sugar into alcohol, it does continue working on the wort and by leaving it in the fermenter for a 75-80 hours, it creates a lighter, sweeter whisky with incredibly fruity aromatics. “It’s vastly inefficient,” Harry added; “but the flavor differentiation is enormous!”

Flavor differentiation is exactly what Wolfburn is after, cutting no corners in the name of efficiency. “We said to ourselves: ‘If we’re going to do this, let’s do it as best as we can. Let’s not mess around. Let’s make the best whisky in the world,” Harry noted, when I asked what motivated the team to make such efforts. “There is zero automation in what we do,” he added; “Every drop is made by human hands. It’s how whisky would have been made in the original Wolfburn distillery.” That commitment to quality doesn’t stop once the whisky has been distilled either. Wolfburn’s close relationship with an independent Speyside cooperage has allowed them access to top quality casks as well. “We’ve always said: ‘If you put good spirit into good wood, you won’t go too far wrong,’” Harry noted.

Indeed that is the case.

Tasting the Langskip again this week, I’ve been utterly smitten by many of the attributes Harry mentioned during our chat: the fresh aromatics on the nose, the light and sweet character on the palate, the clean and fresh finish, and the whisky’s simple charm from front to back. At 58%, it’s a far cry from the bold, in-your-face approach that a number of overzealous producers seem driven towards in today’s market. It’s elegant, refined, and it tastes like its been fussed over. That’s probably what caught the attention of another elegant, refined gentleman who happened to drop by the distillery just yesterday: none other than Prince Charles.

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“He overstayed his scheduled time, so clearly he was enjoying himself,” Harry said as he described the visit; “He filled his own bottle by hand and was in no hurry to get away. He genuinely likes the whisky, which is why he agreed to come and visit in the first place.” It’s interesting to think about the juxtaposition of Wolfburn’s location (along Scotland’s rugged, windswept northern coast) with the style of whisky it produces. Surrounded by open moors and brooding wetlands, one might expect a bold, aggressive, and manly style of whisky, strong to the taste and intense on the palate. To the contrary, however. Tasting the lightly peated Morven again this week, it’s incredible just how soft, concentrated, and lithe it is on the palate, brimming with clean peat and sweet smoke as you exhale. The finish lasts for a solid two minutes as the flavors casually dissipate in a long, slow dissolve.

When I asked how many casks Wolfburn has laying down in its traditional dunnage warehouses, Harry answered: “As we talk now, we have 5,000 casks laid down, which is enough to make 2 million bottles.” I was completely taken aback by that number, but as Harry added: “We are fully committed. We don’t have a plan B, so this has to work.”

It’s certainly working so far. There are few—if any—single malt upstarts that have captured the tradition, the romanticism, and the quality associated with Scotland’s whisky-making heritage as well as Wolfburn. On top of that, they’ve managed to match the quality of their whisky with the sleekness of their packaging. The wood block seawolf that adorns each bottle is by far the coolest distillery logo in the business, and when you read the words “hand-crafted” just above the crest on each box, rest assured that’s not marketing fluff. With Wolfburn, the proof of that commitment is palpable in each sip.

-David Driscoll

The Best Scottish Distillery You've Never Heard Of

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There are few secrets left in the whisky world these days, with social media driving awareness of even the most micro of distillates and a relentless thirst for new blood among consumers. Despite what our speakeasy culture may convey, there are no more underground brands or clandestine gems being guarded by insiders in-the-know. It’s somewhat sad, as hidden knowledge is always an exciting discovery, but we’re living in the age of information. The internet has exposed every dark corner of our planet. What’s worth searching out has been discovered, and what was once lost has already been found. Hoping to capitalize on our inherent desire to be special, many brands still attempt to “unearth” something profound from the vault, but there’s little truth to those gimmicks. The market has never been more crowded with one-of-a-kind opportunities as it is today.

That being said, with so many different brands available and retail shelf space expanding like a supernova ready to burst, it’s easy to miss what’s right in front of you. But that’s exactly where you’ll find the real treasures, buried in between the 700+ whiskies at your local retailer, unassuming and completely overlooked. Today’s modern secrets are hiding in plain sight, tucked in between the fifty different Johnnie Walker variations, and the rainbow of Macallans. They are covert only because they’ve gone unnoticed, inconspicuous by their lack of bravado, but they’re visible to those who know where to look.

Glengyle is one of those secrets.

Producing a rich, unctuous, and creamy style of whisky, its malts are well worth seeking out for those on the hunt. You just need a few key pieces of information. For example, don’t look for the name Glengyle. Look for Kilkerran.

A Kilkerran delivery truck making a stop in downtown Campbeltown

A Kilkerran delivery truck making a stop in downtown Campbeltown

The Glengyle Distillery in Campbeltown, a tiny facility that only operates for three months a year, makes a very, very small quantity of single malt known as Kilkerran, a brand that few will recognize. Along with Springbank and Glen Scotia, Glengyle is one of three distilleries left in the area, still recognized as one of Scotland’s five main whisky regions along with the Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, and Islay/Islands. That being said, it’s only because of Glengyle that Campbeltown retains its status as one of Scotland’s distinctive malt whiskies. In the late nineties, with only two remaining distilleries, the Scotch Whisky Association thought it was time to retire the regional distinction of Campbeltown, much to the protest of its remaining producers. After pointing out that the Lowlands only had three working distilleries, the SWA responded with an ultimatum: either open a third distillery in Campbeltown, or lose the classification.

So they did.

In November of 2000, 75 years after its closing, Headley Wright announced that he was reopening the Glengyle Distillery in downtown Campbeltown, right next door to his other iconic distillery: Springbank. Wright is the eccentric chairman of J&A Mitchell and Co Ltd, and the great-great nephew of William Mitchell, the original founder of Glengyle, so it made sense to keep the family lineage alive along with the Campbeltown distinction. It also made sense from a practical stance. Despite its dormancy, Glengyle’s campus had remained in relatively constant use over the years. In the 1920s the facility was rented out to Campbeltown Miniature Rifle Club, and the buildings were later used a depot and sales office for an agricultural company, therefore it remained the best preserved of all the former Campbeltown distilleries. All it needed was a little love and some new equipment.

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You can visit the Glengyle website for the full story of the rebuild, along with videos that document the process. It’s an incredible story. What’s important to know today is that you can easily purchase a bottle of the delicious 12 year old Kilkerran, distilled and matured at Glengyle in Campbeltown, from most specialty retailers. You don’t need a secret password, or a special code word. While many of the new distilleries we read about are busy allocating their young creations, Glengyle has been silently churning away in the background, preparing for this moment. With a tiny marketing budget, little to no social media, and a reliance upon word-of-mouth fanfare, Kilkerran has remained completely under the radar of most drinkers. Considering that Glengyle only runs for three months out of the year, that’s probably for the best. There isn’t much to go around, and the team at Kilkerran isn’t looking to expand. It’s meant to be small, insider’s brand; one that provides bang for the buck and expands on the classic Campbeltown profile.

What is the Campbeltown whisky style? A heavy, oily, mouth-coating malt that encompasses a little bit of everything. Personally, it’s my favorite style of Scottish single malt because I like creamy, full-bodied malts, but in order to understand how it came about it’s good to know a little more about Scotch whisky history.

Despite its quaint stature today and working class appearance, Campbeltown was once the whisky capital of Scotland, home to 22 thriving distilleries at the end of the 18th century. Scotland’s Kintyre Peninsula, which juts out to the south, was the landing place for settlers in 1300 and remained important as a trade outlet to England and also to the West. The city of Campbeltown was established in the early 1600's by the Dukes of Argyll to encourage farmers to practice agriculture in the region, so they planted barley. That barley would ultimately get distilled into Scotch whisky. 

At the end of the 17th century, the numerous distilleries in Campbeltown were pumping out millions of gallons a year and the town became one of the wealthiest in the UK. At one point, the demand was so high they were forced to import barley from the Baltic just to keep up. Yet, with the rise of blended whisky and the expansion of the industry, the bottom fell out. The heavy and oily whiskies of Campbeltown were ultimately passed over in favor of Speyside's lighter style, and the region fell into decline. Other factors such as the exhaustion of local coal supplies as well as the start of Prohibition in the U.S. played a role. The distilleries still selling directly to Canadian middlemen were forced to lower their costs, and in turn, lower the quality of their whisky. The introduction of low quality spirit was the end for Campbeltown, a region that had long been associated with quality.

That’s how Campbeltown went from 22 distilleries to only two, and almost lost its regional designation entirely.

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One thing you can always count on with any malt in the Mitchell’s portfolio, however, is supreme Campbeltown quality. Throughout all the tough times and the hard years, Springbank distillery survived because of its reputation as one of Scotland’s iconic whiskies, and that same commitment to excellence is palpable in the Kilkerran malts. Having recently revisited the 12 year old edition, I was taken aback by how salty and oily it was. It is a thick and lip-smacking whisky, utterly delicious and distinctive; everything I want from my Scottish malt. If you had to define the Scottish regional styles, Campbeltown would be the kitchen sink. It incorporates many of the best aspects of the other four regions and combines them into the perfect dram. There’s no smoke in the Kilkerran 12 year, but you can always go for the cask strength, heavily peated edition if you want that punch. Fat, resinous, and sooty, it’s nothing like an Islay whisky, if that’s what you’re thinking. Rather than the bright citrus and iodine you’d find in Laphroaig, the Kilkerran is more like a peat bog covered in butterscotch with a finish that oozes its way across your palate at a snail’s pace. It’s more earth than smoke.

With the popularity of Springbank and its other iconic labels, Longrow and Hazelburn, it’s easy to overlook what’s been happening right next-door at Glengyle: the resurrection of a once-great distillery, the rescue of Campbeltown’s century’s-old heritage, and the production of a delicious new label. And that’s the way the team at Kilkerran likes it. Rather than plaster its branding all over the web and hire a few brand ambassadors to conquer the world, Kilkerran is more than happy to quietly produce one of Scotch whisky’s few remaining secrets.

Unassuming, hidden in plain sight, it’s been right there in front of you the entire time. You probably just didn’t know it.

-David Driscoll

Sorry, Booze Professionals; It's No Longer About You

Joe Nicchi announces that social media influencers will now pay double at his ice cream truck in LA

Joe Nicchi announces that social media influencers will now pay double at his ice cream truck in LA

CVT Soft Serve owner Joe Nicchi isn’t the only person who’s over the era of influencers. Wine and spirits customers are as well.

For nearly the last two decades, the renaissance surrounding boutique alcohol has been led by professional tasters, influential writers, and outspoken personalities, looking to guide beginning and unsure consumers towards quality and taste and make a career out of doing so. Today, however, with so much information available online, an endless amount of new books on the subject, and social media content overflowing with thought and opinions, consumers are pretty well-versed, and rarely do they fret over making the wrong decision like many anxious customers once did. Today’s drinker is more headstrong, looking to exert his or her own experience into the equation. There’s a reason business leaders are calling this emerging consumer group the “hero generation.” Rather than defer to the “qualified expert” at this point, these drinkers are ready to write their own story, one in which they’re at the center.

For over a decade, I crafted retail marketing that focused on presenting a different level of expertise to our customers as part of a large California chain. We were more than just a booze shop. We were on the road, searching out new producers, traveling overseas to find the best possible wines and spirits. That was the differentiating factor between us and every other wine store. I spent years making sure consumers knew how dedicated we were to our craft by documenting those adventures, hoping that our experience would improve our credibility.

In the year 2019, however; this strategy is moot. Dead. Gone. Bye bye. It’s no longer about us. Customers don’t want to live vicariously through our experiences. They want to experience the adventure first hand. More importantly, consumers in 2019 don’t want to know what you drank over the weekend. They’re more concerned with what they are going to drink over the weekend and how you can best deliver it to them. If you think you’re influencing customers by humbly bragging about all the good stuff you consumed with last night’s dinner, check the likes on your Instagram page. That shit isn’t working. Consumers are too busy posting their own bottle shots to worry about yours. In today’s market, your job is to make them look good, not the other way around.

That’s not to say established influencers have completely lost their influence, mind you. Like an iconic rock band with a core base of fans, there will always be a certain amount of loyalty towards familiarity. It’s just to say that, moving forward, it’s going to be very difficult to cut through all the noise out there. When everyone considers themselves an influencer—posting photos, opinions, likes, and reviews online incessantly—it lessens the impact of any singular voice.

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To better understand the psychology behind this phenomenon, look at the backlash on Instagram against users who follow personal accounts without ever interacting, i.e. refusing to like or comment on photos, despite the fact they’re closely observing every post.

Why would someone follow you, look at all your stories, and keep tabs on everything that’s happening in your life without liking one of your photos? Because the people on social media who consider themselves influencers want to be doing the influencing! They certainly don’t want to give off the vibe that they too can be influenced. At the same time, they can’t exist in a vacuum, as an influencer without any followers, so they have to make nice for a short period of time. As soon as they establish themselves, the “social” relationship becomes one-sided, not unlike a teacher who considers himself above the student.

However, when everyone considers themselves the influencer and not the influencee—the teacher and not the student—it creates a wall of content creation without results. It’s all push, no pull. It leads to thousands—if not millions—of people who think they’re increasing awareness, when in reality they’re increasing the level of resentment against their “brand.” It’s like talking without ever listening.

Look at Joe Nicchi, who has been inundated by requests for free products, both online and face-to-face at his ice cream truck, by “influencers” asking him if they can have one of his $4 ice cream cones for free in exchange for a post or a tag.

"I'd stare at them like 'Are you out of your mind?' Nicchi said. "It's all the time, all the time. They love using the word exposure, they use it all the time."

They also love to use the words “I” and “me.” I ate this. I drank that. I was here. I went there. But in order to win over today’s consumer—to influence them without them knowing they’ve been influenced—you’re going to have to stop using first person pronouns and switch over to the second. You can eat this. You can drink that. You can be here. You can go there.

In short, you can be the hero.

But, of course, to convince a certain number of wine and spirits professionals to stop talking about their own exploits is to take away from them the whole reason they joined the industry in the first place. If they’re not doing the influencing, they’re not the hero of their own wine and spirits journey.

-David Driscoll

Organic Tequila

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I had never even heard of Don Abraham Tequila until I joined Pacific Edge as the director of sales this past December. Since then, I’ve consumed at least six bottles of the blanco expression on my own time and it’s become my go-to label for recommendations. So much so, that I haven’t strayed from the brand since the year started. With fruity aromatics, a soft and supple palate, and a clean finish loaded with baking spices and citrus, it’s pretty much everything I want from my Jalisco hooch. I’ve always advocated for agave spirits like I’ve advocated for wine over the years, letting consumers know that the real work is done in the vineyard/field, not the production facility. If you wanna pay $100 for a chemically-enhanced, manipulated, Frankensteinian bottle of booze, that’s your decision. But like a hand-beaded garment or a hand-rolled cigar, it’s the little details resulting from time-intensive labor that ultimately provide a luxury product with its value.

The faster, easier, and cheaper it is to make something, the cheaper it should be; not the other way around. Personally, if I’m paying $100 for a bottle of Tequila, it had better be made with the ripest, most expressive agave piñas, distilled and bottled with as little intervention as possible. Fortunately for me, the Don Abraham Blanco is exactly that and it only runs about $30-$35. Made with 100% organic blue agave, farmed organically by hand—free of pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals—by Alvaro Montes and his son Marco, those little details make all the difference. “Everyone loves our agave,” Marco told me over the phone this week; “Don Julio offered my father a contract to buy it all, but he said no. We’re going to keep it for ourselves and our own products.”

That’s not surprising. It’s not easy to do what the Montes family does, taking care of over 500,000 organic agaves across Amatitán without the aid of weed killers and other time-saving short cuts, so it’s natural that other producers would want a piece of the action—after all the hard work is done, of course. “If you have a lot of weeds, they soak up nutrients in the soil and take them from the agave, so you have to get rid of them,” Marco explained; “If you use chemicals, one person alone can spray around 3,000 agaves per day. When we do it by hand, we can only get to around 300. It’s basically ten times the work if you do it the way we do.” With a team of sixteen workers in the fields every day (Alvaro and Marco included), tracking down the Montes family for a quick phone conversation is no easy task. Even during our FaceTime session, Marco was walking through rows of agave, grabbing weeds and grunting as he spoke to me about the process.

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Just because someone makes booze the old fashioned way, however, doesn’t necessarily entail quality (as we know from a priori vs. a posteriori reasoning). I can assure you: the proof of Don Abraham’s supreme quality is in the glass, but I still wanted to know more about how organic agave farming led to such clean and pronounced Tequila flavor. Marco was happy to oblige. “The first thing is to be free of chemicals,” he said; “because pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides can affect the flavor when we roast the agaves. They make it spicier. Compost is also important. We use 100 tons of compost per hectare. The cow manure helps the agave get the nutrients from the soil, which leads to healthier piñas. The CRT average right now is 19.5 kilos per agave. Our average is around 60 kilos.” That means Montes family’s organic piñas are three times the standard size, but are they ripe? “Other agaves are often harvested between 3-4 years of age, which is really tender. It doesn’t have enough sugar,” Marco added; “We wait until late in the fifth year to harvest, so ours have plenty. We’re not in a hurry.”

As with winemaking, sugar is necessary to begin fermentation. Unripe grapes from colder vintages tend to create wines with thin, vegetal flavors, and the same goes for Tequila. In order to increase production without having to wait for agave piñas to ripen, some producers have turned to a vile machine called a diffuser, which essentially strips the starch from the agave (in lieu of sugar), converts that starch into sugar with an enzyme, then ferments and distills that flavorless liquid into a spirit, allowing the producer to add flavor artificially on the backend. That loophole allows them to claim 100% blue agave on the label, despite the fact its a complete bastardization of the process. Clearly, that’s not happening with the Montes family. “If you have good agave, you’re going to have good sugar levels,” Marco told me; “Once the yeast does its job, you’re going to have better output with more Tequila per kilo of agave.”

More sugar in the agave equals more Tequila off the still, but what the flavors? “Right away, the nose is clean with our agave,” Marco said; “You don’t get the cooked agave smell or any vegetal notes. It’s more reminiscent of the field. It’s fresher, cleaner, and purer on the nose because it’s made from healthy piñas. In Amatitán, the soil is easier to grow in because of nutrients, as compared to the Highlands. In the valley, you have more herbal Tequilas. In the Highlands, they’re more fruity.”

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Given all the changes that have happened in Jalisco over the last decade, with corporate buyouts of small distilleries and manipulation of production methods to meet to demand, it was heartening to speak with Marco about old school tradition and a commitment to certain standards at his family’s distillery: NOM 1480, Tequilas Las Americas. “It started with my grandfather, then my uncles and father took over,” Marco explained; “I’m third generation, so we’ve spent about fifty years growing agave, even though we started the distillery twenty years ago. If you compare us with other Tequila houses like Sauza, Cuervo, Herradurra, we’re fairly new to this. We try to do our best always, putting quality first and foremost. We stand out in the crowd because of that quality. It’s working, so we must be doing something right.”

Like most serious winemakers I know, Marco is far more interested in farming than the process of creating the alcohol itself. No matter how much I tried to steer him towards production methods, he would always go right back to agricultural details. “Most of the agave growers in the region don’t pay as much attention to their campo,” he said, after I asked him what the biggest difference was between Don Abraham and other Tequilas; “We do a lot of research on organic fertilizing. We have a new one that was made in Spain and is doing well over there, so we’re going to try it over here in a few hectares. We do a lot of testing and experimentation to get better at farming. It’s trial and error.”

What ultimately makes Don Abraham Tequila taste better than others? Better agave.

“Our fields are always cleaner, no weeds, and other plants that take nutrients from the soil,” Marco summarized; “We pull out the weeds by hand, leave them to decay, and turn them into compost for the future. The roots of the agaves get all the nutrients. That’s the difference. As a result, the smell and the smoothness are unparalleled.”

I couldn’t argue with him.

-David Driscoll