A municipal store manager in the metro area is an ace ‘spirits adviser’ to those in the know.
For 23 years, the Loch Whit Bear Wee Dram Club has set aside one night per year to taste-test the finest of single malt Scotch whiskies.
Meeting locales have ranged from country clubs to barrooms throughout the Washington County area, and club members have sipped and rated 500 Scotches through the years. As the search for varieties they’ve yet to try gets harder, they’ve turned to Larry Scott, manager of Top Valu Liquor in Columbia Heights, for insider expertise and good old-fashioned pull.
In 1973, when Scott turned legal drinking age, his father told him, “Now that you’re old enough, you’re going to drink Scotch.” The knowledge he has built in the decades since has served everyone from the neophyte to the connoisseur — as well as the taxpayers of Columbia Heights.
Scott, “the aficionado’s aficionado,” in the view of city Finance Director Joseph Kloiber, oversees a municipal liquor store operation that now is the sixth-largest in the Twin Cities area. A big reason for that is its 220 brands of Scotch, one of the largest selections in the state. Store profits are used to improve the city’s streets, among other purposes. Scott also is there to answer the call of local enthusiasts who prove — as he and others will tell you — that Scotch drinkers are Scotch drinkers for life.
“Trends change, but our club’s still single malt Scotch nuts,” said Paul Berger, founder of the Loch Whit Bear (White Bear Lake) Wee Dram Club.
Berger, who lives near “Loch Whit Bear” itself, formed the group after being fascinated by the many variations of Scotches created from the same basic ingredients. Each region has its own flavor profile, he said, from the strong smoky character of a Laphroaig in the Islay area to the thick richness of a Springbank out of Campbeltown to the sweetness of a Macallan from the Highlands — the latter a single malt aged in sherry casks.
Each fall, about 20 to 25 Wee Dram Club members and guests put their 20 or so bottles through blind tests. Members come from communities like White Bear Lake, Mahtomedi and Stillwater; some fly in from the coasts. Throughout the year, they’ve sought out unique single malts during business trips to Europe. Others might team to buy a bottle that is 40 years old and runs about $600, Berger said. The one who brings the winning bottle gets his name on a trophy, he said.
Berger has kept score sheets, and is confident anyone fortunate to find one of the club’s top-ranked Scotches will have something special on his or her hands. The tests are objective, Berger said. Best of all, it’s decided not by “just one person’s opinion,” he added, but by a group of astute people — some skilled enough to distinguish products from distilleries 3 miles apart. Often, at the events, he will hear: “Where did this come from? Wait, wait, let me guess,” he said.
Scott is happy to help with new selections.
“But it is getting harder, he said. “They try so many.”
Sip and savor
After Prohibition, cities that elected to get into the liquor store business often did so for public health reasons. They wanted to keep a handle on alcohol sales in the community. Police still run sting operations to ensure that stores refrain from selling to people who are underage or who appear intoxicated.
At Top Valu Liquor, the emphasis on Scotch, and quality bourbons, too, falls in line with Scott’s personal philosophy: “Drink better, drink less,” he said.
His father, Harold Scott, was a Scotsman/Englishman/Irishman who favored blended Scotch and Brandy Stingers. After being turned on to Scotch himself, Larry Scott began working at the former Liquor Depot on Washington Avenue S. in Minneapolis, ultimately abandoning a possible law-enforcement career for the liquor-store trade. He marks his 40th year in the business this month, and still recalls when Laphroaig — a single malt known for its peaty flavor — first arrived in Minnesota.
Typically, Scott said, he will cringe at the thought of paying $100 for a bottle of single malt Scotch. But he broke down recently when his store landed 54 bottles of Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition, a 16-year-old Scotch that, like Laphroaig, also is from the Islay region. Scott figures it’s the perfect nightcap for another passion: pheasant hunting in South Dakota. As of about a week ago, Top Valu had just four bottles left.
Paul Kaspszak, executive director of the Minnesota Municipal Beverage Association, said the business is a game of inches — no explosive gains brought about by revolutionary changes — and that Scott’s touch with Scotches is an example of “finding your niche and growing from there.” In 2013, Top Valu Liquor had $8.7 million in sales and $679,174 in net income, the latter of which was about $4,000 less than in the previous year — a victory in Kloiber’s view given the balmier, beer-friendly temperatures of March 2012.
Berger is impressed with Scott’s ability to find rare single malts from Scotland’s independent bottlers, who take barrels from established distilleries and age and bottle the Scotch on their own.
As for the Wee Dram Club’s top-ranked Scotches, Berger named three: a 35-year-old Springbank, a 40-year-old Laphroaig and a 50-year-old Macallan.
Familiar names each.
“At the end of the day, the greats rise to the top,” he said.
Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036