Things I’ve always loved about the St. Paul Grill: the chicken pot pie, the hand towel cubby in the men’s room, and the stately bar, replete with fine spirits, that climbs toward the restaurant’s ceiling.
The Scotch list is exceptional. While The Muddy Pig, Merlins Rest, and The Happy Gnome all boast fine selections, there is no place in the Twin Cities that can compete with this list. So it was with real enthusiasm that local Scotch enthusiasts like myself received word of the Grill’s Scotch Club, which debuted this February.
Becoming a member of the Club is simple: Merely fill out a form in person or online and you’re presented with a wallet card bearing your name. However, “The Quest” that accompanies membership offers a more involved journey. Those willing and driven to sample each of the 73 Scotches on the Grill’s extensive list (your card is swiped and tracked with each purchase) earn the privilege of a complimentary, nearly 2-ounce pour from one of the world’s rarest bottles — The Macallan 55-year.
The Grill’s display bottle of The Macallan 55 is a potent sight for the Scotch enthusiast, considering that for many, a pour is on par with a month’s rent. But at $750 a glass, the taster can sip with the knowledge that he or she is drinking a true rarity. Two years ago, in preparation for the Republican National Convention, the Grill received some publicity for being the only spot in Minnesota to claim a bottle, or rather, four bottles. Just 420 of them were produced worldwide, with 100 finding their way to the States and only eight traveling to the central part of the country. Today, just 1.9 bottles remain here in the capital city.
“Dare I say that it’s a spiritual experience for some people?” former* Grill General Manager Randall Kahn says of the Mac 55. “They’re focused on what it is: How to approach it. Will it be everything they expect and more? What is it going to consist of? There’s an anticipation, a build up. And then the taste; there’s a certain level of euphoria.”
Debate ranges in Scotch circles about the true taste quality of a whiskey so dated. Respected whiskey magazine Malt Advocate, for example, gave the 55 a mere rating of “74,” considered in the realm of “Average. No unique qualities. Flaws possible.” Detailing the measured grade, Malt Advocate’s review explains: “Deep, thick nose, with sappy oak, dried citrus, old leather, spearmint, and background leafy smoke. Nicely viscous on the palate, with similar notes as the aroma. But mid-palate the age gets the best of this whisky. The flavors flatten out and the wood dominates through the finish as the leather notes linger.”
But such opinion is in the minority. A truer gauge of the 55’s draw can be rated via the public’s ongoing curiosity, the growing cost, and diehard Scotch enthusiasts’ continued tracking of a product so rare and dwindling.
Like all rarities, tastings take on the feel of ritual occasion. Just follow the money: The 55’s $750 sticker was preceded by a tab of “just” $525 upon its arrival in St. Paul. On the coasts, the Scotch goes for four figures. Want to find a bottle online? Be ready to drop about $15,000 for the 55 and its 700-milliliter Lalique decanter. The French crystal itself is valued at about $750, although per custom, he who kills the bottle gets to keep the vessel. Explaining the Grill’s philosophy toward their celebrity Scotch, Kahn adds, “The thought process behind that is: When something like The Macallan 55 goes to bottle, with 420 bottles made, in an elite crystal decanter, it’s something that’s so esoteric to a degree that when you run out you don’t buy another bottle. So for us, we’re not overly committed to moving through the product. It’s more of having something here that has that much history.”
Although a dozen or so of the Club’s nearly 700 members (comprising an 80 / 20 male-to-female ratio) have already made it halfway to the destination, “The Quest” (and the approximately $1,600 in pre-tax Scotch purchases incurred along the way) is more about enjoying the stops along the journey.
“I am impressed by some of the folks who turn up at the events who are really devotees,” says Club member Terry O’Reilly. “The best of this is the educational piece. I’ve been to Scotland and to some distilleries, and I kind of get it and know what I like and what I don’t. But the depth of knowledge at these events is really interesting.”
At the Club events, O’Reilly most enjoys the opportunity to toast some private time with the experts, and he’d like to see more of it. “Typically, it’s very informal. There’s somebody there from the distillery or the distributor. You can find a way to side up with them and spend five or 10 minutes talking. At the most recent tasting, I had a relatively long conversation with one of the owners of Bruichladdich about the relative impact of the height of the still in a finished whiskey. The more that they [the Grill] can create opportunities for that informal learning, I think that’s marvelous.”
O’Reilly is only about a dozen Scotches into his own “Quest,” but adds that while a glass of the famed Macallan is far off, he’s still eying the bottle. “It’s a noble goal,” he says, as he stirs with a light straw. “It’s like anything that’s worth doing — it takes a little bit of application, time and effort… I’m going to continue my arduous trek toward the goal of getting the 55.”
For those particular to certain regions or tastes, members are awarded for completing segments of the list. For example, after tasting all single malts in the Highland category, card holders receive a complementary jigger’s worth of The Dalmore 21. Work your way through the Speyside Category and a Glenlivet 21 awaits.
Among Kahn’s favorites on the list are the Auchentoshan 10, the Lagavulin 16, and The Glenlivet 15 — all three of which are affordable and pair well with myriad items across the restaurant’s menu. For the more trained palate, Kahn offers a glass of both the Springbank 15 and the Glenfiddich 30. For what the Glenfiddich offers the palate in sweet caramel, the Springbank — from the Campbeltown region of Scotland — is unusual in its rounded, herbal, and somewhat nutty offering.
The Club’s monthly tasting schedule averages nearly 75 attendees per event.
“We’re always trying to come up with new, different, creative ways to bring different Scotches to people, Scotches that aren’t available anywhere else,” Kahn says, while adding three drops of water to his Springbank.
The gatherings are open to all, although it’s the Grill’s hope that attendees will ultimately sign up as Club members. Typically, five Scotches (some in the 30-year range) are tasted, with a speaker in attendance; hors d’oeuvres are offered to pair.
“Since we started that Club we’ve been very, very surprised in the amount of interest that it has generated in such a short time,” says Grill Food and Beverage Manager Justin Spano. “All of the events we’ve done since starting the Club, we’ve essentially sold them out.”
Spano sets the Grill’s Scotch list and arranges Club events. Among a recent event favorite, he touts an offering a nearly 50-year-old tasting from The Glenrothes. Of such unique pours, Spano continues: “What we’re really trying to do is get the members exposed certain Scotch houses, and their products, that don’t necessarily make in on the menu here at the Grill or even into the United States. Some are more limited production items or vintages.”
For those on ice about attending their first event, know that there’s no need to don an ascot or dangle a pipe. “We try to make it approachable to everybody,” Kahn says. “The tastings transcend all backgrounds and boundaries, so everybody can come down and have a good time. The idea around spirits is socialization, particularly when each Scotch bottling has its own story. When I think of some of the Scotches we’ve tried and sampled: I wasn’t even born yet.
“We find that people who come down and imbibe really have a sense of appreciation for the craftsmanship, the care, and the passion that went into manufacturing a Scotch,” Kahn says. “If you think that some of the distilleries aren’t even in existence anymore, or what was going in the world while that bottle was aging and evaporating and the angels were getting their share — it’s really mind boggling.”
This year, the St. Paul Hotel celebrates their centennial anniversary. Concurrently, the Grill within the ivy walls marks their own 20th birthday in October. Should you find occasion to make your own Quest to these warm environs as the autumn temps descend, don’t neglect the opportunity to dip into something brown, whatever your budget may be. The Macallan 55 may only be available to a few, but just knowing it’s there offers a proud, amber glow for all within these dimly lit rooms.
*In the brief time between our interview and the release of this article, Randall Kahn amicably concluded his time at the Grill.