Last month we were on the phone with George Randall talking booze, and there was a tinge of relief in his voice. He'd invested nearly $100,000 transforming an old warehouse into a retail destination at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Interstate 44, and the city had been jerking him around. Imagine that! All he wanted to do was open a jumbo wine-and-spirits store in St. Louis city, and The Man seemed to be having none of it. Ever since downtown's 905 Liquors shuttered sometime in the 1980s, we St. Louisans have had to settle for Schnucks or have had to hoof it to the county when we wanted to get drunk on decent drink. And some downtown asshole was standing in our way.
Ultimately, the civil servants backed off, and the most solid evidence yet of St. Louis' revival sits on the west end of the beautiful McKinley Heights neighborhood. For the past few weeks, Randall's Wine and Spirits has been in soft-opening mode, quietly unveiling its shop to the wide-eyed few who have ambled in. The store celebrated its grand opening this past Sunday.
Drink of the Week is an unapologetic cheerleader for things we consider great, and Randall's Wine and Spirits is how to put it? fricking awesome. Walk in and all you see are shelves and bottles 12,000 square feet of them, in fact. It's like you've snuck into a booze wholesaler and someone will soon shoo you away. On that first glimpse, you see the forest. Start browsing, however, and the trees reveal themselves. Rows and rows of every spirit imaginable. Huge islands of wines from all over the world. Thirty-two feet of beer two shelves of British ales, and twice that many American microbeers. Germany, Austria, Japan hell, even Canada is represented. Curious about Belgian lambic beers? Yes. They've got a dozen different varieties.
We don't even know if we like true-blue lambics, so on our second visit we grabbed a few based on New York Times wine/spirit/beer expert Eric Asimov's recommendation. He featured them in a column last year, and we've been intrigued ever since. Wrote Asimov: "It's perhaps the most unusual beer around, truly made in the old-fashioned way. It is not at all easy to find. You will most likely have to seek out a shop specializing in great beers of the world, but I assure you it is worth the effort."
Bingo Randall's carries a handful of them, including Asimov's favorite, Cantillon Classic Gueuze, as well as four varieties of the more ubiquitous (and arguably less authentic) Lindemans, including framboise (raspberry) and kriek (black cherry). Feeling adventurous, we grabbed the Cantillon Classic and the Cantillon Gran Cru; as a backup we also bought the two Lindemans.
What did we learn? That traditional lambic is a very odd creation, sour and dry almost cidery and has more the character of an oddball Champagne than a beer. It takes a long time to get used to, and it's much easier if, before you take your first sip, you absolutely remove any thought that what you are about to drink is "beer." This owes in large part to the method of making lambic, a process called spontaneous fermentation. Whereas most ales and lagers are infused with specific, handpicked yeasts, lambics invite Mother Nature in, and use as their yeast whichever is floating around the Senne valley of Belgium. Once the fermentation begins, the beer is poured into barrels and aged.
Cantillon Classic Gueuze is less shocking than the Gran Cru, mainly because the former is carbonated, and the latter is flat. ("Gueuze" refers to a blended lambic; a pure lambic contains only one vintage.) Both share that shocking sourness, and for that reason we're not sure if we'll be drinking much lambic in the future.
At the risk of sounding like beer-chugging Missourians, we couldn't appreciate the tasting notes that Asimov describes "pure, tart, almost smoky dry flavors" because we were overwhelmed by the oddity. With time and patience, we're sure we'd get used to it (or learn how to fake it). But the mere fact that all of a sudden, a few blocks from our house, there's a place that sells something we've never tried before (and so much more) is worthy of celebration.
Sambuca, ouzo, a wide array of Italian grappas, French eaux-de-vie (many). Randall's sells bottom-shelf rot-gut bourbon and very pricey bottles including one we've been itching to taste since we first read about it: Charbay Double Barrel Release One Whiskey. (It's $339.) Cheap single-malt Scotches sit next to a $450 Highland Park 25-year-old. Mescals and tequilas, top-shelf rums, vodkas and gins.
We've been to Randall's three times now and haven't even started diving into their wine selection. But the owner's philosophy bides well. "I don't need to show off," George Randall says. "If you want to be a wine seller that sells $200, $500 bottles of wine, that's cool, but that is such a small part of what I think the wine and liquor business is about."
Randall, whose flagship location is in Fairview Heights, Illinois, calls the new location "a heck of a wine shop like Sam's or Costco as far as pricing."
He says he plans to stock "a couple hundred thousand dollars'" worth of Bordeaux, and last month he ordered a half-million dollars' worth of Burgundy. Randall just returned from Europe, where he scoured the wineries of southern France and Spain for good deals As an importer, he'll sell his wine at prices just above wholesale.
Sounds like a plan.