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Food & Drink

The Spirits Move Him

A recent whiskey tasting at Maggie O'Neill's. From left: Steve and Carol Pester, Shaun Griffin and Eastern Pennsylvania Whiskey Society presider Kevin Quinn.

A recent whiskey tasting at Maggie O'Neill's. From left: Steve and Carol Pester, Shaun Griffin and Eastern Pennsylvania Whiskey Society presider Kevin Quinn.

Kevin Quinn does not claim to be “a professor of whiskey-ology,” but he does know a fair bit more than the average imbiber about the aromatic amber spirit revered by kings and commoners alike as “the water of life.”

As a professed “enthusiast,” this private school teacher of physics and computer science and former part-time bartender at Maggie O’Neill’s in Drexel Hill collects obscure and intricate details about the process of Irish whiskey making, from the distilling process to the casks in which the whiskeys are aged. He can quote chapter and verse on the history of whiskey in Ireland. He speaks about Irish whiskey with the reverence and erudition more commonly associated with lovers of great wines.

Actually, some experience with wine helped him along on the path to whiskey appreciation. When Quinn was a senior at Bucknell, the president of the university hosted wine tastings. Quinn attended them, and learned the ropes. At about the same time, he came under the influence of two uncles who know and love Irish whiskey, and he discovered that tasting whiskey requires many of the same sensory skills.

“The production of whiskey and wine is similar,” he says. “The way you grade them and drink them is similar. You judge things like color, viscosity, finish, and nose. As with wine, there are things on the label that tell you what to expect. The only real difference is in some of the stages of production. Wine ages in the bottle; whiskey doesn’t. Once it gets bottled, it is what it is.”

Like many, Quinn was not overly enamored of the taste of whiskey when he first tried it. But at some point, something about Irish whiskey began to appeal to him. Now he loves Irish whiskey in the way gearheads adore Lambos. “The thing I like most about Irish whiskey is how smooth it is,” he says. “Often, people take a whole shot of whiskey and toss it back, but Irish whiskey is meant to be sipped. If you really sip it, you get a smooth finish. (“Finish” refers to how long the taste lingers on your taste buds after you sip it.) I like them to have a long finish. I can take a glass of whiskey and sip it over an hour, and not even finish it, and yet still taste it the entire time. A better whiskey should stick with you.”

Along with its finish, Quinn also takes time to appreciate a whiskey’s aroma, or nose, which can be very different from one whiskey to the next. Whiskies can be complex: malty, fruity, sweet like cake, honey or sherry, spicy, nutty, even peppery. It takes time to appreciate all of the subtle notes, but Quinn says it’s worth the effort. “When you nose whiskey, you don’t take a big, deep inhale and you don’t stick your nose in the glass, like with wine. With whiskey, you keep your nose above the glass and take a short, sustained sniff. Then you take another one. Then, on the third one, you can pick up the subtle notes. You really taste with your nose a lot. It gives you a preview of what you’re in for.”

At this point in Quinn’s whiskey tasting career, he’s nosed quite a few varieties, probably more than 20 whiskeys. Getting to that level can be hard. First, you have to cope with Pennsylvania’s antiquated liquor sales establishment. Usually, the state stores stock are no more than four or five whiskeys—the usual suspects like Jameson’s, Bushmills and Tullamore Dew, all very good but really just a fraction of the Irish whiskeys available. And more than a few whiskeys, he says, are not available in the United States at all.

His favorite is Redbreast Pure Pot Still Irish Whiskey, described by the Web site Epicurious as the “ne plus ultra of spirits.” Says Quinn, “It is the most characteristically Irish whiskey you can get. It’s very rich, and incredibly smooth.

Jameson 12 year is another good Irish whiskey. It’s very good, but it’s also affordable. I also have a bottle of Black Bushmills. It’s not super expensive but it’s very good.”

There are many more Irish whiskies, though, many of them quite costly.

“Bushmills 16 year old is a fantastic Irish whiskey; so is Jameson 18 year,” Quinn says. “Midleton Very Rare is about $140 a bottle, so I don’t get to drink that very much. Connemara is a single malt Irish whiskey. This is from the Cooley Distillery, the only Irish distillery (the other two are owned by Pernod Ricard). The nice thing about Connemara is that it’s peated, one of the steps in making Scotch whiskey. Usually, with Irish whiskey they put the malt in a closed kiln and heat it with coal. With Connemara, they put it in a kiln and leave it open and they heat it with peat. The smoky flavor gets into the grain and into the whiskey. Connemara tastes like Scotch because it’s very peaty, but it finishes like Irish whiskey. It’s very smooth.”

Most people who appreciate Irish whiskey nonetheless tend to stop at one or two brands that they prefer. But Quinn thinks they might be missing out: “There might be something better.”

Quinn hopes to open whiskey lovers’ eyes (and noses and taste buds) to something better through the Eastern Pennsylvania Whiskey Society—a new project sponsored by Maggie O’Neill’s. Maggie’s has held whiskey tastings before on about a quarterly basis, says owner Mike O’Kane. These are much more formal affairs usually paired with food. But the whiskey society will meet more frequently, and focus on tasting just one variety at a time. Quinn is the master of ceremonies. The next meeting is Tuesday, January 12, at 7 p.m., at the well-known Delaware County eatery. (Maggie O’Neill’s is in the Pilgrim Gardens Shopping Center, 1062 Pontiac Road, in Drexel Hill.)

“It’s pretty informal,” says O’Kane. “We shoot out an e-mail blast just to get a sense of who’s coming. They’re welcome to bring friends. We encourage that.”

O’Kane says the whiskey society was Quinn’s brainstorm: “We just thought it was a cool idea to sample some good whiskey and enjoy each other’s company.” For Maggie O’Neill’s, which stocks about 20 Irish whiskeys, the scheme seemed like a natural.

If you want to join in the good company and learn a thing or two about Irish whiskey, contact Maggie O’Neill’s at (610) 449-9889.

Food & Drink

Tea Story

Tea at the Merrion Hotel in Dublin, from Margaret M. Johnson's "Tea & Crumpets."

Tea at the Merrion Hotel in Dublin, from Margaret M. Johnson's "Tea & Crumpets."

You could just drink a cup of Tetley with a packet of Krimpets on the side. Or … you could settle down to a steaming china cup of oolong, accompanied by dainty sandwiches, lemon curd tartlettes and sweet, crumbly scones and strawberry jam.

Which sounds more relaxing to you?

Clearly, there’s more to the civilized repast called “tea” than just tea. Having tea, the meal, is an opportunity to sit and quietly exchange gossip with friends and to nosh on all the neat little treats at a leisurely pace.

All of which makes tea so very appealing, according to well-known cookbook author Margaret M. Johnson, whose latest offering, “Tea & Crumpets” (Chronicle Books, $13.57 on Amazon) documents the history and customs associated with the meal. She also serves up a treasure trove of recipes for tarts, breads, cakes, scones, sandwiches and savories, from many of Europe’s finest tea rooms.

There are recipes from England, of course, which claims to have invented tea. (As witness Johnson’s story about Anna Maria, seventh duchess of Bedford, who is said to have originated the custom in the 18th century.) But there are recipes, too, from France, Scotland, and, of course, Ireland. (Including a delicious recipe for Teatime Fruitcake, which she has generously consented to share.)

In her travels for “Tea & Crumpets,” Johnson visited many of the better-known spots, including London’s Savoy, the Merrion Hotel in Dublin, Le Jardin d’Hiver in Paris and Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel. (Where do we get a job like that?) A few of them stand out as favorites.

“The Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin has always served lovely tea in the Lord Mayor’s Lounge,” she says. The Merrion in Dublin is also quite lovely. (The hotel ‘lobby’ is really a series of three drawing rooms, so it’s quite special.) In London, Brown’s Hotel was just named ‘top tea spot’ for 2009.”

No matter where you have it, to share a tea is to indulge in a bit of quiet refinement that often is missing from other meals. “Participants share the food from the tea stand, so there’s a social aspect to that,” says Johnson. “And because everything is dainty, there’s lots of room for conversation—no cutting meat or asking people to pass the salt.”

No doubt, tea is a departure from our fast-food ways. It can also be something of a mystery, what with cream tea, high tea, afternoon tea and more. Maybe not knowing what to expect has kept you from enjoying one of the great gustatory pleasures.

Let Margaret unravel the mysteries for you.

“Afternoon tea is simply what we all know of as a formal tea, with the three-tiered stand, a selection of sandwiches, pastries, and, of course, tea,” she says. “In many hotel rooms in London, Dublin and elsewhere (Philly, too), you can add a glass of champagne for even more elegance. It comes with an additional cost, naturally! High tea is often confused with afternoon tea and because of the word “high,” is usually thought of as even more elegant. Not so. (High tea is actually more sunstantial, like an early dinner, with savory pies and sausages. It’s also called “meat tea.”) Cream tea is usually simply tea and scones.”

For special occasions, like bridal and baby showers, you can also have it at home. (Which is where “Tea & Crumpets” comes in handy.) And don’t feel, Johnson says, like you need your best silver (assuming you have any). Even the three-tiered stand can be bought on the cheap at a store like Marshalls. Use your own dishes on it, she says—these stands usually are designed to take seven- or nine-inch plates.

Of course, tea is truly special when you have it out. Happily, the Philadelphia area is filled with places where you can indulge. See our tea guide.

Food & Drink

Margaret M. Johnson’s Teatime Fruitcake

This fruitcake comes from Dromoland Castle (Newmarket-on-Fergus).


1 cup water
1 cup (4 ounces) raisins
1 cup (4 ounces) sultanas (golden raisins)
2 ounces red glace cherries
1-1/2 Tablespoons dark rum
1-1/2 Tablespoons sherry
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing
1/2 cup superfine sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup self-rising flour
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice or mixed spice (see note)

The day before baking, in a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring the water to a boil.

Stir in the raisins, sultanas and cherries, and cook for 3 minutes.

Drain the fruit and transfer to a small bowl.

Stir in the rum, sherry and vanilla.

Let cool for 30 minutes, then cover and let stand for 24 hours at room temperature.

On the day of baking, preheat the over to 300 degrees.

Line a 9- by 5- by 3-inch loaf pan with waxed paper. Butter the paper.

Beat the 1/2 cup of butter and the sugar with an electric mixer until light an fluffy.

Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
With a wooden spoon, fold in the flour and spice.

Stir in the reserved fruit mixture.

Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and bake for 65 to 70 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.

Invert the cake onto the rack, peel off the waxed paper, and wrap the cake in aluminum foil.

Let sit overnight at room temperature before cutting into slices.

Serves 8 to 10.

Note: To make mixed spice, put 1 Tablespoon coriander seeds, 1 crushed cinnamon stick, 1 teaspoon whole cloves, and 1 teaspoon allspice berries in a spice or coffee grinder. Process until finely ground. Add 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg and 2 teaspoons ground ginger. Mix thoroughly, stirring by hand. Store in an airtight container.

Source: Tea & Crumpets, by Margaret M. Johnson (Chronicle Books, 2009). Reprinted with permission of the author.

Food & Drink

A Culinary Expert Serves Up Tips on Irish Breakfasts

We’re continuing our conversation about Irish breakfast with an expert interview. Margaret M. Johnson, author of numerous cookbooks on the Irish culinary arts—including the recent “Tea & Crumpets”—has had ample opportunity to sample Irish breakfasts. We asked her for her views on this distinctive meal.

Q. When you’re in Ireland, I’m guessing that if it comes down to the choice between the Weetabix and the fry-up, you’re going for the fry-up. What is there about this breakfast that is so appealing to you?

A. I think because it’s “the thing to do.” Let’s face it, when you’re on vacation, you tend to “splurge” and a fry-up is really something that most Americans thinks is a no-no on a regular basis (probably most Irish think so, too). Too much fat, cholesterol, etc.

Q. What are the essential elements?
Two eggs, bacon, sausage, black and white puddings, mushrooms and tomatoes.

Q. For tourists, sitting down to the “full Irish” seems obligatory. It’s probably how most of us have become familiar with it. But is it likely to be more popular among tourists than among native Irish?
Absolutely yes.

Q. Are they secretly starting their day with Pop Tarts or Carnation Instant Breakfast?
Probably not Pop Tarts, but perhaps yogurt, fresh fruit, and a bagel.

Q. Is the full Irish breakfast likely to be popular only in certain parts of Ireland—the North, for example—or is it more or less universal?
Universal. In the north they add fadge, a fried potato bread.

Q. What they call bacon seems a lot more like what we call ham. It’s really salty and delicious. In what way is it different from our bacon? Seems like it would come maybe from a different part of the pig.
It definitely comes from the leg of the pig and is cured differently than American-style bacon. Also less fatty.

Q. I “get” everything about this breakfast except for one thing–the beans. I suspect I’m not alone. At the same time, I think beans on toast is a British and Irish standby, too. Where does this idea of beans as a breakfast food come from?
Most hotel breakfasts where tourists are likely to eat do not come with beans. I think beans are a more “home-style” part of a breakfast and come from the fact that these huge breakfasts were meant to serve the workers for a good part of the day—you know, hearty, hearty, hearty.

Q. What they call “puddings” can be a turnoff for some folks. At the same time, a lot of my fellow Philadelphians greatly relish their scrapple. Aren’t they in some ways similar?
I’m not too sure abut scrapple. I think the flavor might be similar, but the black pudding in Ireland is made with pig’s blood, oatmeal, and seasonings, which is a turn-off to a lot of people. The white pudding is milder.

Q. Is there one thing on that plate that is not your favorite?
I could skip the black pudding, but usually will allow a bite or two of the white. Brown bread, however, is always a winner.


Food & Drink

Where to Find – and Eat – a Full Irish Breakfast

The full Irish, as served at Ida Mae's.

The full Irish, as served at Ida Mae's.

Maybe it ought to come with a side of statins and a defibrillator. Fat and cholesterol content aside, is there anything that will take you back to Ireland (in your head and your stomach) more than a full Irish breakfast?

To review, a full Irish breakfast generally includes the following: numerous meats and things purporting to be meats, including bangers (sausage), rashers (a hammy kind of Irish bacon), and black and white puddings (also known as blood sausages, yum), together with a couple of eggs, grilled tomato and mushroom, beans and a slice of bread.

If you’re still hungry after all that, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Diner.

Maybe you thought that you could only get that kind of breakfast in Ireland. Well, you don’t have to wait for your next trip. There are numerous places in the Philadelphia area where you can get an Irish breakfast, often at any time of the day.

We’ve assembled a sampling of those places. If you know of any other places that serve the full fry-up, let us know:

Here’s the list of places and when they serve it:  

Black Sheep Pub
247 S 17th St, Philadelphia, PA – (215) 545-9473

Saturdays and Sundays during the day.

Dark Horse Pub
421 S. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA – (215) 928-9307

All day, every day.

Fado Irish Pub
1500 Locust St # 1, Philadelphia, PA – (215) 893-9700

All day, every day.

Hibernia Deli Coffee Shop
3711 Garrett Road, Drexel Hill, PA – (610) 626-7370

All day, every day

Ida Mae’s Bruncherie
2302 E Norris St, Philadelphia, PA – (215) 426-4209

All day, every day.

Irish Coffee Shop
8443 W Chester Pike, Upper Darby, PA – (610) 449-7449

All day, every day.

Irish Times
629 S. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA – (215) 923-1103

Saturdays and Sundays, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

18-22 West Gay Street, West Chester, PA – (610) 431-0770
4417 Main Street, Manayunk, PA –  (215) 482-7242  
45 East Main Street, Unit 200-202, Newark, DE – (302) 224-9330

All day, every day 

Shanachie Pub
111 East Butler Pike, Ambler, PA 19002 – (215) 283-4887

All day, every day.

Sligo Pub
113 W. State St., Media, PA, 19063 – (610) 566-5707

All day, every day.

Tir na Nog
1600 Arch St., Philadelphia, PA – (267) 514-1700

Saturdays and Sundays until 3.

Food & Drink, News, People

Irish Coffee Upset!

Bill Pergine, bartender at Screwball's, with his award and the not-so-secret ingredient for his winning Irish coffee recipe.

Bill Pergine, bartender at Screwball's, with his award and the not-so-secret ingredient for his winning Irish coffee recipe.

No hat trick for the ladies from the Bridgeport Rib House. The two-time winners of the AOH Notre Dame Division 1 in Swedesburg’s annual Irish Coffee Contest did not go home with the big prize this year.

Instead it went to relative newcomer, Screwball’s Sports Bar in King of Prussia, for its smooth-tasting recipe made with home made whipped cream and two secret ingredients that even experienced Irish coffee drinkers couldn’t guess—and Screwball’s isn’t sharing. “Ah,” said owner Tom McGrath, wincing. “I don’t think I want anyone to know because we want to win again next year.”

Bartender Bill Pergine said they came upon the winning recipe on Tuesday, after trying a few concoctions.

The Bridgeport Rib House did go home with the “crowd favorite” award, while Guppy’s, a Conshy post-parade hangout, came in second, and the Swedesburg Fire Company came in third at the event that happened Thursday night, March 12.

The winner gets to ride on a float in Saturday’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Conshohocken. Clearly, Screwball’s didn’t expect to win: As we left, we heard Screwball’s Tom McGrath on his cellphone saying, “Wow, I’m going to have to cancel everything I was going to do on Saturday.”

Food & Drink, People

Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin

Leah Mulholland, 12,at her first Irish potato rolling.

Leah Mulholland, 12,at her first Irish potato rolling.

Diane Driscoll warned me. “After breathing the cinnamon for a while, you get a little crazy,” she said, leaning across a table that was liberally dusted with the spice.

Donna Donnelly, her hands moving at light speed as she rolled the confectioner sugar and cream cheese concoction that would soon be an Irish potato, took no time to snap back, “It’s not the cinnamon, Diane!”

It might be the cinnamon. This was my second year with the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians Div. 87 in Port Richmond, helping make the 2,000 pounds of Irish potatoes they sell as their main fundraiser for the year. And it was as crazy and funny as the first time.

Many of the volunteers had been rolling potatoes all week, dropping into bed at night, their backs, necks, arms, and hands aching, with visions of tiny little balls plopped in a sea of cinnamon the last thing they saw when they closed their eyes. The goal was to make 2,000 pounds of the candies. That’s a ton. A person could be forgiven a little nuttiness.

Donna Donnelly, whom the rest of the women refer to as “the ball Nazi,” hustled, cajoled, bullied, threatened, and, occasionally even encouraged her workers to “just keep rolling.” At one point, she went from table to table with soft pretzels and let people take bites, exhorting them, “Don’t stop rolling! The only reason to stop is death. Yours.”

But it’s all for a good cause. In fact, it’s for lots of good causes, from the Columban priests and nuns to Providence House, a local organization that shelters abused women and children.

Check out our photos and video. Once you see how much fun it is, you’ll want to roll with the ladies (and a few gents!) next year. I know I do.

Food & Drink

Bragging Rights for Fishtown in Irish Stew Cookoff

Joe Kerrigan accepts his prize from Hibernian Hunger Project director Ed Dougherty.

Joe Kerrigan accepts his prize from Hibernian Hunger Project director Ed Dougherty.

There was something about Joe Kerrigan’s Irish stew. Maybe it was the tarragon. Possibly the Worcestershire sauce. Perhaps all the beer.

Whatever the secret—and there was, unquestionably, something mouth-wateringly different about Kerrigan’s stew—it was clearly the people’s choice for best stew by an amateur cook at the annual Irish Stew Cook-Off at Finnigan’s Wake, benefiting the Hibernian Hunger Project.

One key difference Kerrigan was willing to admit to: the meat. Most of the contestants went with American-style beef, a few with lamb in the Irish fashion—and one entry included both. Kerrigan, a Fishtown florist and member of AOH Division 87, used beef brisket, cooked long and slow until fork-tender.

Kerrigan, who looks a bit like John Goodman, says he and his buddy Tom Sullivan started Thursday morning (the event was Thursday night) in Sullivan’s kitchen. And it sounds like Kerrigan’s not a neat cook. “We both were working on it,” he says. “We started at 11:30, and it’s been cooking since 1. At 2, we realized we didn’t have enough meat so I had to send him (Tom) out for more … I really destroyed his kitchen.”

The recipe started out as a variation on Kerrigan’s chili, which, in his own very humble estimation is “awesome.” All of his buddies were telling him to give the competition a shot. The 2009 cook-off was his first.

Taking first place in the pro category was the Starboard Side Tavern, also in Fishtown.

We have photos from the night.