Single Malt: Innumerable Bottles
14640 10th Ave. S., Burnsville
4340 Central Ave. NE, Columbia Heights
1010 Washington Ave. S., Mpls
Not all winters are created equal. Some come in like a lion and go out like a lamb. Others come in like a lamb, and go out like two Romanians in a straightjacket. Still others come in like Mae West in a Mae West life jacket, and go out like the thing in The Thing, muttering, "Man is the warmest place to hide." Of course, this is cold comfort when you live in a world where they can put a man on the moon, but you can't find one really good holiday present for your dad. Your boss. Grandpa Evers. Or that one guy in IT who wears a derby, and on whom the whole world depends.
Unless he drinks single malt Scotch, of course, because then you can take advantage of this bit of hard-fought insider's knowledge: There are three depositories of mind-boggling quantities and mind-blowing qualities of single malt Scotch whisky in this metropolitan area, if only you know where to look.
First, look to Burnsville! On dear old County Road 42, real close to where 35E and 35W come together. There, in a strip mall that's about as nondescript as a point on a porcupine, you'll find Blue Max Liquors, a tiny, plain, family-run liquor store that's something like the Fort Knox of Scotch, were such a thing crammed into your spare bedroom.
The first thing you notice on walking into the place is what I'll call the Museum of Springbank. Springbank is a famous distillery, and certain bottles of particular vintage and particular cask number from that particular institution are treasured by collectors because they are about as rare as pink buffaloes--and presumably far more pleasant to encounter after dinner. I say presumably because I'll never know, and no one else probably will either: They're not for sale, and the Pilney family, which owns Blue Max, isn't going to drink them either.
What's the value of a drink that's not for drinking? If you have to ask, obviously you haven't been bitten by the single malt bug. The Pilneys worked long and hard to get these things into Minnesota; they came via Hawaii, through the intervention of angels and the calling in of favors. Like a Vermeer, the owning of these beauties is enough. That they are tucked in near the rafters in a dim corner is kind of like the way fine art dealers often check dummy luggage and simply carry works on paper tucked in between the pages of a magazine: Nobody looks for treasure in plain sight.
Though you could say that Blue Max has nothing but treasures in plain sight: Shelf after shelf of some 220 single malt Scotches. Most of the treasures are indeed for sale: a 30-year-old Laphroig for $205, a 30-year-old Macallan for $339. Or, here's my pick: Glenlivet's mind-blowing 21-year-old Archive, for $92. In this apricot-colored wonder, layered floral notes combine with hints of sage, heather, buttery caramel, peaches, and tanned sheepskin in such a way that makes you sort of feel like stammering and swooning in its presence. I mean, this stuff has perfume and strength the way a very beautiful, very rich woman has perfume and strength--it has perfume and strength to burn.
Which is to say that I wasn't at all surprised when, as I stood in the aisles, marveling at all of the single malts that Blue Max has that I had never heard of, an executive wife walked in, opened her cell phone, barked, "Put me through, I'm at Blue Max!" and proceeded to tell her husband what was on the shelves, so that he could guide her through the selection of $1,000 worth of specially targeted executive gifts.
It's worth noting here that if you have a beer hound on your holiday list, Blue Max has 1,100 types of beer. Yes, I said 1,100, and I'm not exaggerating at all. Belgian Ales, winter-spiced porters, beers in golden flagons, meads in ceramic jugs. If there's a home brewer on your list, you could blow her mind.
In fact, Tom and Diane Pilney, who run the place, say they've got a number of customers who drive in from Fort Riley, Kansas, or Omaha, Nebraska, fill up the truck with beer, and head home. It is the mother of all beer runs. They also have a number of specialty bourbons I've never seen, in case you want to stock up on something for yourself in addition to buying something for Dad. And the place is even running a sale through December 11.
Why do I assume that you probably drink bourbon, and it's your dad who drinks Scotch? Just demographic junk I've read, mostly. Something seems to have happened after the drinking age jumped to 21, something like drinking got moved out of the family, and kids started teaching one another to drink, and thus everyone gravitated to more accessible, sweeter drinks, like Grape Apes or bourbon. Of course, if you want to have something in common with your boss at Piper Jaffray, you probably should stop drinking Key lime pie shooters in public. But at $30-something a bottle and up, how could anyone ever start?
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.
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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