Photos by Julie Peña / The Star Ledger

March 15, 2002

source: Star Ledger

Harrison pub offers education on libation

Star-Ledger Staff

A night out at O'Donnell's Pub in Harrison can be a learning experience. Rather than simply pouring liquor and collecting tabs, owner Jim O'Donnell will teach you the history, customs associated with, and cultural significance of the drink you're sipping.

A new take on night school, the bar offers single malt and beer tastings weekly. In honor of St. Patrick's Day, they are hosting Irish whiskey nights every Wednesday throughout March, with lessons on what distinguishes one brand from the next. On Thursdays, they offer an introduction to Scotch, featuring a variety of samples. In April, the bar will resume its Wednesday night beer tutorials.

"If I'm going to be here, I want to make it a little more fun," O'Donnell said. "Rather than just a little side bar, I'd rather make it interesting."

Last week, connoisseurs and novices mingled at the Thursday night Scotch tasting. For $12, O'Donnell offered four selections. The opening round featured 15-year-old Dalwhinnie, a mountain malt from the loftiest distillery in Scotland. O'Donnell explained that the thin air and Alpine water helps shape the taste. For me, a Scotch newbie, the pungent rush of flavor caused extreme puckering. My co-taster Matt tried his, deliberated for a moment, and offered, "It's good. This is drinking with thought and appreciation."

Two Lowland libations, Glenkinchie and Scapa, followed. O'Donnell clarified the distinction between Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky. Though spelled differently, both are derived from the Gaelic term for "water of life," Uisce Bheatha. Scotch whisky is malted barley dried over peat fires, retaining a smoky flavor, while Irish whiskey grains are dried in ovens, making for a milder drink.

Scotch is traditionally sipped from a quaich, O'Donnell said, showing us an antique cup with two handles. (Sometimes the bottom of a quaich is made of glass so drinkers can keep watch over their female companions.) The single malt grand finale was Lagavulin, a dark concoction with a sharp, medicinal tang some compare with the healing sting of Anbesol.

"We never were into Scotch," said Stefanie Seskin, 33, of Jersey City, out with her husband Marco Accattatis, 35. Their band, Blue Number Nine, gigs at O'Donnell's monthly. "This isn't something I would normally do, but it's culturally interesting. They also have the best Guinness. I won't drink it anywhere else."

O'Donnell is as serious about his lager. His Guinness pints, with a baby shamrock etched in the foam, won an award from the brewery.

The secret to good Guinness is "the right mixture of nitrogen and CO2," O'Donnell said. "You've got to have 75 percent nitrogen and 25 percent CO2. Some places, they just push it with CO2, and the head of the beer doesn't get as creamy without the nitrogen. CO2 is a gas, and you start tasting the gas."

There's more to O'Donnell's than gourmet liquor. There are art exhibitions by local painters three times a year. Currently, Larisa Heckman's series of manic, abstract pieces with sexual-political undertones deck the walls.

On Fridays and some Saturdays, O'Donnell's hosts live bands, ranging from jazz to jigs to zydeco. Their regular acts include funk-rockers Blue Number Nine, six-string maestro Paul Clements and Seanchai & the Unity Squad, a Celtic hip-hop act featuring former members of Black 47. CD's by frequent performers are on sale at the bar.

"Jim is very supportive of artists," said Giovanni Arencieia, a Cuban jazz percussionist who plays O'Donnell's often. "He's very understanding and willing to work with you. The atmosphere is good and the crowd is magnificent."

A native of Edinburgh, Scotland, O'Donnell got into the bar biz as a second career, after spending a decade as an internal auditor with Walt Disney. He opened the pub in 1997, hoping to recreate the look and vibe of his favorite Scottish drinking spots. Stained glass greets visitors at the doorway, the seating along the walls is pews from a Newark church, and the jukebox is filled with pop and rock favorites from across the pond. The end result is an Anglo-flavored bar with an ethnically diverse clientele.

"You've got a good mix of people that come in here," said John Burnett, 59, of Harrison. "Regulars, weirdoes, not much different than life in general. In Harrison, bars used to be tailored for different ethnicities. But now you could be Italian going to an Irish place."

"We always say this is where the Catholics and Protestants unite," sad Steve Foster, 42, of Harrison.