Thursday, March 12, 2015

Adventures: Duluth

I've been a little coy about discussing my location, and honestly, I'm not really sure why. It's not like anyone other than close friends reads this little booze-diary of mine, and it would take a lot more drinking to convince me I'm worthy of stalking. As in, hallucinogenic levels of alcohol.

Hence, this entire post is dedicated to our recent drive up to Duluth, a little jaunt that we mostly planned around teaching my wife to ski. However, as it turns out, skiing's kind of a daytime activity, which left the nighttime to wander around seeking out local watering holes. Fortunately we'd done a little scouting in advance and stayed down on Canal Street, a lively little part of downtown with many a brewpub in walking distance.

And a craft distillery to boot! One of the first places we visited was Vikre Distillery, whose products I've written about before. They've also got a neat little tasting room out front, outfitted in very chic Scandinavian style; think Bauhaus meets North Woods, which is funky but cool. It's tiny, with a small bar and a lounge area for maybe 20, separated from the actual distillery area only by large sliding-glass panels. This gave me ample opportunity to nerd out on stills while sipping on a couple nicely-executed cocktails and a neat little tasting flight of gins and aquavit. The whole place is homey and comfortable, and I was really surprised by the obvious skill of the bartender (whose name I didn't manage to catch) as he turned out drinks using house-made everything. (Apparently this is a legal requirement of the law that allowed such cocktail tasting rooms.) I also managed to spot a couple big casks stamped with port labels lined up along a wall; I'd bet that Vikre have a port-finished something-or-other in the works, and I'm pretty excited to see the end result! You heard it here first.

Right next to our hotel was the Canal Park Brewing Co., so we pretty much had to stop by and take home a growler. We tried most everything on tap over a couple of visits, and the Greedy Bastard Black IPA was our stand-out favorite. We also popped by the Bent Paddle taproom for an apres-ski beer (and additional growler) one afternoon. But perhaps the best pub we tried was the 7 West Taproom, a really basic-looking place with a surprisingly extensive beer list. They also have a neat sampling method: write your beers directly onto a paddle with dry-erase marker, receive tasting pours of said beer.

Still, nothing held a candle to our favorite place: a beautiful, historic basement bar called the Rathskeller.

I doubt you can appreciate how much I wish this place was located closer to home. We might get into a lot of trouble down there. A bit of explanation: the bar itself is located in the sub-basement of Tycoon's Alehouse, a restaurant situated in Duluth's 1890s-era town hall. The name is a German term for a drinking establishment located in the basement of a city hall (I love such fantastically precise German words) and, true to form, this one is about 20 feet below street level in an old cellar which was apparently once used as a temporary jailhouse. There's no signage; instead, you must weave your way back to an elevator at the back of Tycoon's, and hit the button ominously marked "-1". We only knew about the place thanks to a tip from one of our regular bartenders down at my favorite pub back home.

My god, but this place is cool. The shot above shows about half the lounge area, which is laid out with plush chairs in-between mortared columns with thick arches, with a bar laid out along a wall. On that bar is a well-curated selection of whiskeys, which I did my best to taste through.
No, seriously: I made a pretty good dent. Granted, it took two separate visits (or more accurately, after the first visit, we really wanted to come back for more) but I sampled just about every whiskey on that bar that I hadn't tried before.

Here's just a sample, the highlights of the first evening. First among these, to the left: Bushmills 1608, a blend created to commemorate the distillery's 400th anniversary (yeah). This, frankly, might be the absolute best Irish whiskey I've ever sampled. Rich, spicy, smooth, malty, slightly peaty; absolutely delicious sippin' whiskey, and a really unique Irish blend. In the center: Prichard's Double Chocolate Bourbon, a really nice, rich whiskey with a ton of chocolate on the nose. Despite that, it's very nicely balanced on the palate, with just some touches of bitter chocolate on the finish. On the right is something really cool: a custom Woodford Reserve blend developed specifically for Tycoon's. Apparently, the head brewer at Fitger's Brewhouse (who also has a stake in Rathskeller) regularly visits the Woodford distillery, and on his last trip developed a custom blend from different barrels! Not too far off from the base Woodford formula, but spicier, and not something you're going to find anywhere else.

Honestly, though, the best part of the whole adventure was the company we found. First, the bartender at Rathskeller, a knowledgeable and welcoming barman by the name of Cade. He knew his stuff inside and out, and was happy to accommodate my indecision. When we visited on the second evening, he not only remembered the bottles I'd tried, but my wife's whiskey preference too, and he was happy to pull down all of the bottles so that I could snap pictures. Now that's a good bartender.

Second, in a bizarre coincidence, we ran into the very same dude from the pub who recommended Rathskeller to us in the first place, in addition to our other regular bartender and their lady friends. Kudos to Jeff and Evan for their fine taste, as always. For once, I got to buy them a drink, and we had a hell of a time chilling out. That was most definitely a pleasant surprise!

Overall, it was a hell of a trip. I don't know when we'll make it up to Duluth again, but when we do, you'll very likely find us at one of these spots again.

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