No New Stars – Part II

So much of the culture feels stuck. Social media creates a sense of eternal present; things that happened two weeks ago feel like half-forgotten history. Internet technology, once imbued with futuristic idealism, has become a source of destruction and dread. Fashion has turned back to the 1990s, which was itself a time of nostalgia for the 1970s. Cinemas are full of remakes. At least when the Sex Pistols screamed “No future,” they were sublimating nihilism into art. But now?

- Michelle Goldberg

Toxic nostalgia breeds derangement.

That’s not only a true statement, it’s the name of Michelle Goldberg’s recent op-ed in the New York Times, talking about the inability for society to move forward in the absence of objective facts. Without common agreement surrounding what’s actually true, Michelle argues, we revert into a “desperate longing” for the past because we’re no longer sure of how to progress.

The whole idea scared the shit out of me.

Because I’m very much unsure of where the booze market is headed right now (let alone our melting world), and I find myself clinging to the familiarities of the past as a result.

-David Driscoll

Secrets of the San Fernando Valley: Lido Pizza

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The beauty of the San Fernando Valley (yes, there is a beauty to it) lies in its nostalgic past, endless blocks of an era long-gone elsewhere, yet continuing forward unchanged in this magical stronghold. As an example, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was shot on location at Casa Vega in Sherman Oaks—one of the most seventies-retro Mexican restaurants still in operation anywhere—because much of the San Fernando Valley looks exactly like it did during that decade. Whereas gentrification and modernization have completely revamped much of old San Francisco and other iconic California cities, you can still find plenty of throwbacks in the valley that harken back to a time when things were simpler. Pizza was just pizza. And the pizza parlor was the happiest place on earth.

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Lido Pizza in Van Nuys has been making people happy since the 1950s, back when my colleague Dean lived just down the street. “This was our favorite place to get pizza,” he told me at lunch this week, in between bites of spinach ravioli with meat sauce; “My dad loved it, I loved it, and the crust is still unbeatable.” In 1958, the same year the Dodgers moved west from Brooklyn, it was taken over by a man named Frank Miccolis who operated a pizza chain in the valley called Chi-Chi’s, but Lido kept its name and its own identity. Still family-owned today, and having recently celebrated its 60th anniversary, it’s still a destination spot for Dean and I’ve been fortunate enough to tag along now and then.

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Lido doesn’t just look like an old school pizza parlor, it tastes like one, too. The crispy crust, the flour still look on the bottom, the thick, gooey cheese on top, and the texture in every bite. The more I eat, the more I’m transported back to my childhood, each flashback made more intense by the surroundings that resemble it.

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It’s not just pizza and pasta, either! Having stuffed my face with enough red sauce to feed a small country on our last visit, I decided to order one of Lido’s most popular dishes this time around: the hot roast beef sandwich with roasted bell peppers, served of course with a steaming bowl of au jus.

I did finish half of it.

-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

The Religion of Alcohol

“I’ve been hungering for the feeling of devotion. Like real, pure devotion,” said 30 year old New Yorker columnist Jia Tolentino, in a recent interview about the economic factors that shape millennial insecurity. Touching on a number of issues that have affected my generation and the “millennials” that followed—the lack of organized religion as the anchor of a community, the recreational use of mind-altering drugs, the fear surrounding technology and whether any of us will have a job in ten years—her most poignant words (the ones quoted above) captured the essence of what I believe drives the intense and often devout level of geekery in this day and age: the absence of God.

Not that I’m religious, mind you. Certainly not in the Christian sense. If anything, I think I subscribe to the tenets of Buddhism, believing that suffering is what unites us and peace is what will save us. But that casual communion to an offhand belief has never satiated that innate part of my humanity that longs to believe in something. And I don’t think I’m alone. The growing lack of allegiance to any spiritual philosophy in our modern society has left a hole in a number of hearts, and today people will cling to almost anything with a zeal generally reserved for…well…zealots. Adherence to a belief system is engrained in our DNA. Devotion is something we crave. Without religion, man will search for it elsewhere.

In order to be devout, however, one must fully commit to an ideal. In order for an ideal to exist, there must be a concept of perfection. Perfection is what wine and spirits enthusiasts are constantly seeking: sublimity in a glass. Therefore, you can see exactly why alcohol lends itself to such devotion. Like most religions, there is a great deal of opinion about the road one should take toward virtue, and it’s exactly that variance that allows for feelings of superiority or grandeur concerning the road we eventually choose. To sin is to stray from the righteous path, and despite the words of Jesus (something about casting the first stone) nothing makes religious people happier than pointing out the sins of others.

In the holy world of boutique alcohol, devout bartenders are priests. A passionate retailer is the shaman. A pious producer can be the messiah. The purer the intentions, the more hallowed the hooch. Once we flagellate ourselves for the cheap booze we’ve consumed in our youth, we can be born again—baptized under a shot of sustainably-farmed, ancestrally-produced wild agave mezcal. I christen thee: agave nerd. Now go forth and dedicate yourself to the cause. Educate the world of its swill-suckling evils. Stand on thy soapbox and preach of the pot still, of the 53 gallon barrel, and allow no man to dilute thy vessel with ice nor water. Deliver the sermon from the mount, and speaketh of how that mount has the absolute best fucking terroir in the region. Superb drainage. Dry farmed with no irrigation.

Are you still hungry for devotion? Or have you now found your true calling?

-David Driscoll

Old Town

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I lived in San Diego from 1997 to 2001 and during those heady collegiate years I probably visited Old Town a grand total of three times. It was quaint, touristic, and not all that interesting to a chain-smoking undergrad who mostly just wanted to make movies and play video games all night. It seemed more like Disneyland than a fun place to eat and drink.

Now that I’m importing and distributing spirits all over California, I’ve been spending more time in my old stomping grounds and I have to say: out of anywhere I’ve been over the last few months, Old Town is where I look forward to going back most frequently. Not because of the history, mind you, or the snapshot at life in California as it might have been back in 1821. But because of the food, the drinks, and the shops. The main drag in Old Town provides some serious Mexican culinary choices at your fingertips and the amount of agave spirits flowing from its cantinas is staggering. As someone who continues to be both enthralled and overwhelmed by the amount of new Tequila, mezcal, racilla, sotol, and bacanora on the market, it’s an amazing experience to stroll down one small San Diego street and see that explosion first hand in the bars, restaurants, and retailers.

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There’s definitely a trend when it comes to agave spirits right now, beyond the tendency for black pen ink murals on top of thick, fibrous paper labels. It’s information. More and more people today want to understand how something is made (and the rest want to argue about it), especially in a vast and oft-misunderstood category like agave spirits. You might think this level of transparency to be overkill, but I get it. Having spent many years traveling through both Jalisco and Oaxaca, there’s a world of difference between large scale industrial agave spirits and the ancestral, agricultural spirits driving the craft market. Small producers and suppliers are doing whatever they can to distinguish themselves from those giants, turning what was once a kitschy, anachronism of a bottle into a canvas for artistic expression and integrity. It’s been incredible to watch.

In a sense, that same transformation has occurred in Old Town, driven by similar passions and that same desire for sincerity. Rather than cater to the lowest common touristic denominator, the neighborhood is making the most out of the current culinary renaissance and devotion for traditional Mexican heritage, distinguishing itself from the more thematic city centers like Fisherman’s Wharf or Chinatown in San Francisco. Hand-made flour tortillas, mezcal bars with diverse and eclectic selections, traditional restaurants with regional specialties, and retail options with hundreds of different agave spirits at your fingertips.

There’s a focus on how things are made, why they’re made that way, and—most importantly—why they taste better as a result. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon.

-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

No New Stars

Stone Cold Steve Austin at this past Monday’s Raw Reunion

Stone Cold Steve Austin at this past Monday’s Raw Reunion

What do rock music, whiskey, and professional wrestling all have in common? They’re unable to create new superstars that can capture the imagination of a consumer base desperate for new blood.

What are rock music, whiskey, and professional wrestling all doing as a result? They’re looking to cash in on nostalgia—a quick fix—going back to the past as much as necessary in order to generate revenue while scrambling for a permanent solution.

Look at the WWE’s Raw Reunion this past Monday as exhibit A.

In the face of terrible Q1 earnings and general apathy from wrestling fans as a whole, the WWE went back to the nostalgia well for the umpteenth time and paraded out as many former superstars as possible in search of ratings gold. It worked, of course. For now.

It worked just like bringing out old bottles of Pappy Van Winkle and Black Maple Hill works for any retailer who can’t sell whiskey these days now that their supply of Weller is drying up. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of other great whiskies out there on the market people can drink instead; because there are, just like there are plenty of exciting young wrestling superstars ready for their moment in the spotlight. Ditto for rock bands.

The problem isn’t the quality of the product. The problem is the creative laziness and general marketing malaise that inevitably comes on the tail end of any big boom. People get used to making lots of money for doing less work and they forget what it means to build consumer interest from the ground up. They get used to sold-out stadiums and fifty-case orders on the regular, and they forget to sure up their foundation. The WWE apparently thought Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Brock Lesnar could carry them forever, much like whiskey retailers thought Sazerac would be able to pump out limitless amounts of wheated Bourbon. Large venue owners are hoping Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger can continue into their eighties because, other than the occasional reunion of a long disbanded rock group, they don’t have any other way of filling the seats.

But, to be honest, it isn’t easy in today’s market to create new stars. In fact, I believe it’s the core marketing issue of our modern age. The world’s attention is no longer focused on five radio stations, three broadcast television networks, and a handful of national booze brands. It’s crowded, overpopulated, and spread out across numerous mediums, which makes it difficult to concentrate a marketing effort with any real force. As if that’s not a daunting enough challenge, finding the next big thing seems to be beyond anyone’s creative capacity.

Instead of Brock Lesnar (who was literally called “the next big thing” for years), we get Roman Reigns—the Keanu Reeves of wrestling. Instead of 12+ year old Bourbon for $30, we get 2 year old Bourbon that costs twice as much and tastes half as good. Instead of Nirvana or the Strokes, we get Ed Sheeran.

Thus, when we’re out of ideas and times get tough, we go back to what’s easy. What’s familiar. What still works as a sure-fire way to boost consumer interest with as little effort as possible: the past.

Look at our president’s famous tagline as exhibit B.

-David Driscoll

Secrets of the San Fernando Valley: El Pollo Sonora

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My wife’s Sonoran heritage was something of an anomaly in the Bay Area, but in Los Angeles her Northern Mexican culture seems to be everywhere. You’ve got Sonoratown in DTLA that is absolutely thriving (and Jen is the nicest person ever, so definitely make the effort to go there). El Cholo on Western, an LA institution since 1923, features an absolutely decadent Sonoran-style tortilla on its menu. The LA Times just ran a feature on dining in Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora where my mother-in-law is from. And you can even find Sonoran-style hotdogs at trucks all over the city. Even though we’re getting used to the awesome ubiquity of Sonoran culture in our new setting, it’s still incredibly exciting to find another outpost. Thus, when I was driving home from work this past week, taking a shortcut down Vanowen through Van Nuys, I pulled over once I saw the words “El Pollo Sonora” plastered on a strip mall marquee. If the pollo (chicken) was being made by a family from Sonora, I knew it was probably going to be darn good.

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Simplicity is a wonderful thing when it’s done well, and there’s nothing more exciting for me than seeing a restaurant focus on a specialty. One thing about Sonora: it’s known for its beef, not necessarily for its chicken, so I was stoked to see that tri-tip was the other option of the menu. Pollo Sonora is run by the Monrreal family, who purchased the restaurant almost five years ago from the previous owner who specialized in chicken. Clearly not wanting to shake things up with the local clientele, they kept the focus on chicken. But with Sammy Monrreal now running the kitchen, along with his son Leo and his daughter Vanessa at the counter, beef has been added to the agenda. It’s quite simple to order: you choose chicken or tri-tip; plate, taco, or burrito; then you choose your sides. Let’s start with the chicken.

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We try to eat somewhat healthy during the week, and in a pinch I’ll often stop by El Pollo Loco and grab a few breasts to chop up with a salad or eat with tortillas. That won’t be happening anymore, now that I’ve found Pollo Sonora. Moist, succulent, and roasted to perfection, the chicken here is a huge step up. I’ve ordered it three times to-go and it’s been top notch each time.

If you order the plate you get rice, pinto beans, salsa, a grilled jalapeño, and tortillas of your choosing. Seeing that it’s Sonoran-inspired food, I’m always going to opt for the Sonoran flour. The flour tortillas are thick and hearty, just what you need for your meal. Now let’s talk about the steak.

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The beauty of the tri-tip plate option is that it’s really just a classic BBQ dish with Mexican salsas and sides. The beef is served grilled and sliced along with the same sides as the chicken. What I love is the versatility. If I feel like popping a bottle of Bordeaux, or red wine in general, I can grab a beef plate from Pollo Sonora and be good to go. But if I feel like keeping it classically Mexican, I can put a few slices in my flour tortilla, pour on the salsa, and crack open a cold Modelo. I’ve had the beef three times and it’s aways choice, never fatty or chewy, flavorful and cooked medium.

I could probably eat here every day for the next two months and never get tired of it. There’s no alcohol license at Pollo Sonora, so if you want to drink with your dinner just order to-go. Vanessa and the gang are super nice, very helpful, and fun to chat with, so don’t worry about calling ahead. Dinner for two is less than twenty bucks.

Highly, highly, highly recommended.

-David Driscoll