Michael Jackson visits Sherlock's Home in Minnesota: he loves the bar, hates the pun
After a drink or three in a restful bar, I can find myself in deep philosophical thought. You know the sort of thing: ‘What chance encounters brought me to this point in my life? Why am I here? For that matter, why is this bar here?’I suppose I should thank the American writer Alex Haley for one of my favourite bars. His quest in the 1970s for his origins led to the best-selling book Roots, which made genealogy a less nerdy pursuit. ‘It was the Roots thing,’ laughs publican Bill Burdick, explaining his own journey. Burdick, from Rhode Island, was discouraged when he discovered that half of his forbears were horse thieves. Then he came upon a link, ‘cousins many times removed’, with Peter Maxwell Stuart, who had just inherited Traquair House, at Innerleithen, near Peebles.On succeeding to this border castle, Scotland’s oldest inhabited house, Peter Maxwell Stuart had found an abandoned brewery in one of the wings. Once, every manor house made its own beer, just as it baked its own bread and butchered its own meat. Maxwell Stuart had put the brewery back into operation, and it still works today, in the hands of his redoubtable daughter Catherine.From across the Atlantic, Burdick set his mind on a visit to Traquair. He was working for a restaurant chain, scouting for locations. On a business trip to Philadelphia for this purpose he was eating alone in a restaurant when he noticed the manageress. She was, he observed, very good at her job. They fell into conversation, at first about work, later about more personal matters. Soon they were dating. Before long they were married. The ceremony, in 1986, took place in the drawing room at Traquair House, though a Unitarian minister had to be summoned from Glasgow. It was the first time that Traquair had hosted a wedding from outside the immediate family, and the event made the front page of the local weekly. These days, the castle is a popular location for marriages.Before long, Bill and his new wife Carol were expecting their first bar-restaurant. They scouted a site in Minnetonka, on the edge of Minneapolis, and opened their doors in 1989. This prosperous suburb, the home of Tonka toys, is temptingly near (in American terms) to Minneapolis-St Paul airport. ‘Fifteen minutes by cab,’ insist seasoned travellers (it’s 15 miles, but freeway all the way). Many a road warrior leaves his Boeing at the airport and has a drink or two with Bill and Carol before taking a later-than-expected connection. It is the millennial equivalent of watering the horses.Inspired by Peter Maxwell Stuart, the Burdicks wanted their own in-house brewery. They bought a small brewhouse, on which Bill makes one of the maltiest Scotch ales I have ever tasted. He also produces an extremely hoppy bitter. Both are made from British malt and hops, though the Scottish ale also employs oats (malted in the kitchen, and kilned in the oven) and quassia (a bitter extract from a tropical tree). The use of quassia in beer was mentioned in Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary. Burdick’s specification for the ale is derived from William Younger’s brewhouse journals of 150 years ago. The beers led me to the Burdicks in the first place. Having heard about their brews, in 1990 I went to investigate. Over a beer, Bill pointed out to me that he also had 50 or 60 single malt Scotches, and was building his selection toward the 100 mark. Even then, the list stretched from Aberfeldy to Tomatin. There was also a surprisingly large selection of English gins. ‘If we were a French restaurant, we would have aperitifs and brandies, and no one would ask why,’ explained Bill, as though an explanation were required. ‘Our theme is British, inspired by places like the Café Royal, in Edinburgh.’ Bill also cites the 1890s edifices discussed by the social historian Mark Girouard, in his classic work Victorian Public Houses. I have a visceral dislike of fake British pubs, but the Burdicks’ has its own character. Whatever it is – and what it is I am not sure – it is itself. ‘We have a British allusion, but this is America, and we are not pretending otherwise,’ says Bill. Even the long bar is an American 42 inches high (to suit bar stools) rather than a British 45 (to suit standers and leaners like myself – though I still manage to slouch in Minnetonka). Bill and Carol wanted a British name for their pub, but nothing too Pig and Whistle-ish. Ideally, the name should also have a Scottish flavour. By chance, Bill saw a newspaper article saying the British name most recognized internationally was Sherlock Holmes. ‘I would have thought that Winston Churchill or William Shakespeare might be better known than a fictional character,’ recalls Bill. ‘I was pleased, though, about Sherlock, because his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a Scot.’ Bill and Carol came up with the name Sherlock’s Home. I wince at the pun, but they liked the notion of the place being a home to Sherlock. Although the decor includes the odd movie poster of Basil Rathbone, Bill and Carol deliberately held back from extreme Sherlockiana. The pub’s furnishings and fittings owe less to the character than to the period, and more to a home than to a pub. On their annual vacations in Britain, Bill and Carol have plundered Hay-on-Wye, a town with more secondhand bookshops than any other in Britain, for books to fill their shelves. An antique fly-fishing rod, creel and dipping net add a flourish among the prints. There are Queen Anne-style tables and Axminster carpets in the dining room – which is officially called Simpson’s, after one of the few non-fictional establishments mentioned in the Holmes stories. ‘Simpson’s’ has a full kitchen, offering a complete menu of British-accented dishes, from roast beef to fish-and-chips and the dubious delights of Scotch eggs. The pub is formally called Watson’s, though no one ever seems to use the name. Most people just call the whole place ‘Sherlock’s’. At the bar-counter, I have found myself in conversation with a maltster, a mathematics professor, a truck driver, an airline pilot, a stock-car racer, a tax collector, a man who always wears a cowboy hat, and more than my share of computer people. Minnesota-based actor David Fox-Brenton has been known to appear in full costume as Sherlock on special occasions, though he is at least equally celebrated for playing Shakespearean roles at Stratford, Ontario.I have missed visits by actress Ali McGraw, former US President Gerald Ford and the Mayor of Osaka – whose wife insisted on pulling a pint. I have never had wait more than a moment for a drink myself. Bar manager Phil Koch has that special attribute of publicans and schoolteachers: eyes at the back of his head. Now a genial word and a drink at the ready; now he has slipped away to comfort another thirsty soul. Since the beginning, only one member of the serving staff has left: Carol Burdick’s equally tireless assistant as manager and greeter/seater was recently offered the chance to run her own show elsewhere. ‘She thoroughly deserved the opportunity, but we were desperately sorry to lose a member of our founding crew,’ concedes Carol. In an industry notorious for its staff turnover, Sherlock’s record is astonishing, and provides regulars with a reassuring bolthole. Gene Baran has run the kitchen since day one. Bill Burdick still brews, though he is assisted by Bob Mackenzie, from Kirremuir, who trained in malty matters at Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh. Bob, who in his student days busked in Princes Street, still occasionally deserts the kettles for a blow on his bagpipes.The malts line the back-bar, and may be ordered as tasting samples: three tiny glasses for the price of a normal shot. ‘Malts are not cheap, and people are hesitant to order something unfamiliar that they may not like,’ explains Burdick. For the customer bewildered by the glens and Gaelic names, the malts are set out on a printed list. Inside the list is a form inviting people to join the pub’s mailing list to learn more about the mysteries of malt. Bill dared to hope that his invitation might eventually gather 500 names. In the ten years since, almost 3,000 have signed, and been invited to tastings, some hosted by whisky importers and distributors, others by... well, by me. Here, I should belatedly declare an interest, though my modest appearance fee is unlikely to be enhanced by this article.In the course of my first visit, Bill invited me back to present a tutored tasting of single malts. I happily agreed to give it a try, on my way home from the Great American Beer Festival, which takes place in Denver in early October. He announced the event through his mailing list, saying that reservations would open on a certain day at 9.00 am. Within half an hour of the appointed moment, all seats had been reserved, at $25 each. That first year, Bill held the tasting in the restaurant, which seats about 100. In the years since, a tent has been erected in the car park. Each year, a larger tent has been hired. Now, at almost 300 seats, the tent fills the car park. The event, which takes place on a Saturday afternoon, can grow no larger.This October, we will be doing it again. Bill Gilchrist, the third generation of a Minnesota-Scottish family, will signal the start of sampling with the skirl of his pipes. If there is snow, as there sometimes has been, the tent will be heated. If there is no snow, a party of golfers from Texas will play what they flatteringly call, each year, the Michael Jackson Classic. At the time of writing, I do not know what the whiskies
will be. We usually offer eight or nine, demonstrating a range of styles and regions, and highlighting malts newly available in Minnesota. Some years there has been a theme: unusual woods, rare malts, odd ages, cask-strengths and so forth. This year will be our tenth. We shall have to do something truly special.