Enthusiasts reach across communities to savor single malt Scotch

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

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