Single Malt: Innumerable Bottles

The rarest single malt scotches in all the world can be found in Minnesota, if you only know where to look

The very best way to start is to get onto the mailing list for an invite to one of Liquor Depot's free tastings. If you didn't know it, this sprawling, dingy liquor store on the edge of downtown has nearly a hundred offerings of single malts, and some legendary semi-annual tastings. The winter one is December 8 from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., timed to run concurrent with their annual sale. Drop on by! If you miss it, though, I have a few ideas for you: One, be sure to get on the Liquor Depot's mailing list. Two, my picks for a single malt Scotch to get started with would be the Port Wood Finish Glenmorangie, or the Dalwhinnie. What the heck is a port wood finish? Well, settle down there.

From this critic's perspective, real single malt whisky, from Scotland, has a few great points to it. One, it combines everything I like about fire with everything I like about water, and does it economically, in a single glass. Two, if you spend an hour shoveling out your driveway, and it's that god-awful wet March snow that weighs 30 pounds a shovelful, and you come inside and your fingers, legs, and neck are numb, what you want is not a nice Côtes-du-Rhône. No. That's like trying to warm yourself with a tea towel. A single finger of Scotch, though, will warm you from lips to belly, and keep you warm all the way till the plow finally comes by and restores your mission in life with the gift of knee-high black sludge. Scotch truly is the antidote to the indignities of the northern winter.

Then there's the taste. The different single malts from Scotland are terrifically various, as unique each to each as wine is, and just as subtle but along a different key. Some are as smoky as campfires; some are as lilting as silly melodies played on flutes.

Richard Fleischman

Location Info

Map

Blue Max Liquors

14640 10th Ave. S.
Burnsville, MN 55337

Category: Retail

Region: Burnsville

Liquor Depot

1010 Washinton Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55415

Category: Retail

Region: Minneapolis (Downtown)

If the taste, warmth, and having something to talk to your boss's boss about doesn't sell you on the stuff, let me tell you about the glorious ease of familiarizing yourself with single malt whisky. If mastering the world of wine is like memorizing the encyclopedia, mastering the world of Scotch is like getting to know a single exquisite Rembrandt. There's always more to discover, enjoy, and marvel at, but never so much that you fear drowning. Why? Because there's only one country (Scotland!), only four major styles (Island, Highland, Lowland, and Campletown), and fewer than a hundred distilleries. It's all made of one thing, barley. (That's the single malt. American whiskeys are usually finished with spirits made from another grain, corn.)

The only differences between the various bottlings is the age of the stuff (older tends to be mellower), the particular water it was made from, whether or not it's made by using peat fires, and, finally, the kind of cask the whisky is aged in. Usually it's aged in used simple oak casks, but sometimes they use casks that have been used to age other sorts of alcohol, like bourbon, sherry, Madeira, the Spanish dessert wine Pedro Ximenez, Bordeaux, or what have you. These various casks give different nuances of flavor to the whisky, and the port casks for the Glenmorangie Port Wood Finish version make the whisky mellow, sweet, and chocolatey, and give it a bit of the engaging caramel and burnt orange peel that bourbon lovers love so much.

If you don't come to single malt from a bourbon background, my pick would be the basic 15-year-old Dalwhinnie, because this clear, elegant, sweet, and herbal whisky is as gentle as the morning dew--if the morning dew was a little bit on fire. Did you know that Scotland is made from a land mass that drifted off from North America and smashed into England some 400 million years ago? Did you know that the distillery that Dalwhinnie comes from is in the coldest part of Scotland, where it's not uncommon to have six feet of snow on the ground during the long, deep winter? Sound familiar? Is that why taking a sip of this pure, clear distillation of snow and heat feels like coming home?

Maybe. In any event, "Whenever you lead a whisky tasting and you ask who likes the Dalwhinnie, every hand goes up," says Larry Scott, who manages the Top Valu Liquors on Central Avenue in Columbia Heights, a municipal liquor store that might just make you reevaluate your opinions about municipal liquor stores. Why? Not only does the place have just shy of a hundred sorts of single malt Scotch, not only does it have bottles on hand of the rare 21-year-old Springbank, not only is it staffed by Larry Scott, who has got to be one of the most knowledgeable single malt people in the state, but it is open till 10:00 every night!

Larry Scott's been drinking whisky since he was 18, back when that was the drinking age. "My dad said, 'You're old enough to drink now, so you'll drink Scotch,'" says Scott. Next thing you know, Scott was working in the Liquor Depot (he's responsible for developing the enormous selection there, though it was larger when he worked there) and was moving half of the single malt in the state. He led seminars and tastings for some 20 years before moving up to the Columbia Heights job, and says that the ever-growing popularity of single malt Scotch is attributable to one single thing: "Once a person starts drinking single malts, they'll never give it up. It's not a trend, or a taste you jump in and jump out of. You jump in, you're in for life."

Of course, the same could be said for the Minnesota winter. You don't jump in and out of it--it's a commitment, it's a joy, it's a test, and, if you know where to shop, it's a lovely opportunity to fight fire with fire.

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