If you live in the US and you’re a whisky geek then you probably know of K&L Wines which has one of the best selections of single malt whisky in the States. Another appeal of buying whisky at K&L is that they carry a bunch of single cask exclusives which is largely due to the hard work of buyers David Driscoll and David Othenin-Girard. I got a chance to interview these two titans of the US whisky retail scene. In Part I of the conversation the David’s discuss the ins and outs of how they bring K&L exclusive casks to the US market.
Do you have an annual budget for buying casks?
Othenin-Girard (OG): No (laughs). We buy what we can sell, that’s the theme.
Driscoll: There’s times when ownership looks at the orders we put on their desk then they roll their eyes and say, you better know what you’re doing.
OG: There’s a general inventory level that we’re supposed to be at, but that’s separate from our single barrel buying. Those purchases in the long-term are not that huge (money-wise) except for the older Glenfarclas’ and Port Ellens.
Driscoll: We have to clear everything out in a certain amount of time. So if we buy something that doesn’t move fast enough, then we start getting into trouble.
Can you buy whatever cask you want? Have your bosses ever said no to a certain cask?
Driscoll: No. The owners pretty much leave us alone unless we make a mistake. OG never makes mistakes, he’s perfect. (laughs)
What’s the worst you have picked?
Driscoll: You can look at the sales numbers like the ones that we had to offer pricing on. Like the 21 yr Linkwood – that wasn’t a cask that everyone gravitated to as much as we would have hoped. I don’t think there’s anything we bought that we wish we didn’t buy. But we do learn things about our customers based on how they respond to certain things. So when we go back to Scotland next year we wouldn’t choose something that tastes like the Linkwood 21yr again.
OG: Of course there was the old Bruichladdich that we had to recall.
Driscoll: That was their bad though, not us.
OG: We had a cask of Bruichladdich that was finished for a year or two in chenin blanc casks. We tasted it out of the cask it was gorgeous, fresh and beautiful. But in between that time and bottling there was something (maybe butyric acid) that got into the spirit. Whatever it was could’ve seeped in from the pipes during bottling, but who knows for sure? We had a couple of returns, tasted it out of the cask again and it was not good. So then we recalled it and gave everyone their money back. Bruichladdich made it up to us – later they gave us a fabulous peated 3D3 cask.
What is your dream cask to buy?
Driscoll: There are things that I’ve tasted that I wish I could buy, but they’re not in Scotland. For example there is a 1945 Camut Calvados (brandy) barrel sitting in Normandy that we ask to go look at everytime we go there. It’s in the barn behind their grandfather’s house. It’s black like coffee but it’s not oaked out. It still takes like apples.
OG: It’s agreed that it’s one of the most rare and special barrels. Last time we were there they kinda almost agreed to give it to us sometime in the future. But then again I kind of just want to keep it for Driscoll and I. laughs This cask represents a lot for the distiller. In Normandy they still talk about how Americans saved France. They’re still very serious about World War II because D-Day happened right there. So they tell us they would’ve never had this cask of Calvados if it weren’t for our grandfathers. It’s very emotional and moving.
Tell us about the Karuizawas which are likely the only two to ever make it to the US. How did you secure those two casks?
OG: I’ve been working on trying to get more Japanese whisky into the country since I started at K&L Wines. Karuizawa has always been the crown jewel. As soon as I saw that Karuizawa sold the last of their stock to Number One Drinks Company and that these guys were bottling I started a dialogue with their point guy in Japan. We got in at the right time. We had quite a bit of back and forth. Number One Drinks always hesitates to bring bottles to the US market because our government makes it incredibly difficult to bottle whisky from another country. There are issues with labeling and the standard of fills (US requires 750ML bottles while Scotland and Japan use 700ml). It’s a huge reason we don’t get a huge number of Japanese whisky and limited release Scotch whisky. Those rules are totally obsolete, but still in place. Basically they sent us samples and sent us two great casks. It was all luck and good timing. Our stocks of Karuizawa are completely sold out. We got lucky with the bottling since they were already using these decanter style bottles which they were filling at 720ml, but had room to be filled to 750ml.
We got some flak on the internet forums for being expensive, but I think we were well below current market prices. Obviously you can’t compare prices to previous bottlings from two to three years ago since we’re in a different market. You have to compare against what is being sold and bottled now.
Tell us more about why it’s so difficult for other countries to bring their whisky into the US?Driscoll: Bottle size is usually the number one barrier to anything coming into the US. For example the Bladnoch that we’re bottling this week – they didn’t even have 750ml bottles, we had to help them get the bottles. Most places are like: we don’t have the bottles, we don’t have the labels and we don’t have the desire to figure out all the exporting things. There are so many government checks to go through. It’s just a giant pain.
OG: The FDA makes them register so technically they’re signing things that say if an FDA inspector comes they have to open up the distillery to them. Not like that ever happens. Not to mention that they have to retool bottling lines which is extremely costly especially for a smaller producer.
Driscoll: That’s why most people just say no.
Do you see these rules being potentially altered in the future?
Driscoll: I have to say that I enjoy working within the confines of the law. Because they’re written in such a way that any retailer who doesn’t want to really push to work within those confines will get lazy. It’s great for us because OG and I like to do that work. Because it’s so difficult to get whisky into the country it weeds out hundreds of retailers who don’t feel like doing the work. If you’re willing to do the work you can get it done. We may seem really good because we get all these exclusives, but the reality is we’re just really hard workers.
That’s why we get the casks. Sometimes people will complain, “Why did K&L get that cask?” It’s a lot of work and most retailers don’t want to deal with it. We have to hold the hands of these distillers – we have to show them how to do label approval, we have to get an importer, get the importer to communicate with them to do pickup and delivery. We do almost everything except for putting the whisky in the bottles and slapping the labels on them.
See Part II here