Weekend!Nightlife: On the Rocks
For reasons unknown, a calumny has been spread far and wide, that the Irish people are immoderate in their drinking habits. Things have come to such a sorry pass that Americans, when we undertake to celebrate our Irish heritage on St. Patrick's Day, do so primarily by getting drunk.
However, if you're looking for a lesson in quality, rather than quantity, pop in to the The Leaky Roof.
Owner Séamus Blaney, a native of Belfast, stocks every type of Irish whiskey available in the state of Oregon - that's more than 25 different bottles.
'A lot of people come here and say, 'Give me a nice scotch,' and I say, 'No!' ' Blaney jokes. As a matter of fact, he does stock Scotch whisky.
He'll even order a special bottle if a customer requests it. But he will insist that you give the Irish a fair shake. 'When someone orders a nice scotch, I'll give them a little taste of Irish,' he says, 'and I have won many, many people over.'
We're tucked into a back booth at the small restaurant, which Blaney and his wife, Christina, bought in December 2005.
The place has a long history. The oldest known liquor license for the Leaky Roof dates to 1947. 'It was a little dive bar, a little out of the city,' Blaney says. 'You had to know it was here.'
That's still partially true. It's hidden in a mostly residential area adjacent to Goose Hollow and cut off from downtown by Interstate 405, but it's now more bistro than roadhouse.
One whiskey's $95 a shot
Blaney has lined up some of his favorite whiskeys for me to try.
At the top of the list is Bushmills 16 Year Old, a warm, rich, smooth single malt that derives some of its complexity from being aged in three different types of barrels.
He says: 'If someone would say to me, 'What do you drink?' I tell them, 'Bushmills 16.' I seemingly can smell it from 6 feet away. I just love it.'
He notes that actually, in taste tests, the Bushmills 10 Year Old tends to beat the 16 Year. However, Blaney says: 'Whiskey for me is like wine. It's a very personal choice, a very personal taste.'
Locke's, Redbreast and Midleton also are favorites of Blaney's. Each has a different character, but all have a bright, true quality flecked with subtle notes of fruits or spices.
These are fine whiskeys, meant to be sipped straight up - 'If people want rocks in their whiskey, especially if they buy an expensive whiskey, I'm appalled,' Blaney confesses.
Some of his finer bottles run to $20 or more a shot; a 1951 Knappogue has just become available. It's almost as old as the bar itself, and will go for $95 a shot.
Malted barley gives Irish and Scotch whiskeys their backbone, while North American whiskeys use corn and rye.
In Scotland, the grain is dried with peat smoke, which gives scotch its renowned smokiness. Scotch generally is distilled twice, while Irish whiskey is distilled three times, Blaney explains, adding, 'So, in my humble Irish opinion, Irish whiskey's always going to be a little smoother.'
Good drink dates to 1608
Bushmills was the first registered whiskey distillery in the world.
Blaney proudly points out the year, 1608, on the label. 'The Irish claim we gave whiskey to the world,' he says. He grew up less than an hour's drive from the historic distillery, which may be why he loves it so much. 'My brother would fight me over that,' he says, his brother being a Jameson 12 Year Old man.
It used to be that Bushmills, from Northern Ireland, was considered a Protestant drink, while Jameson, from the south, was identified with Catholics. 'The stereotypes are disappearing,' Blaney says. 'It's gone, it's no more.'
He grew up during a turbulent time - 'A lot of that old footage that you see happened at the end of my street,' he says, referring to the riot scenes that appeared on the news then.
These days, he's presiding over a fairly quiet bit of turf. 'I can probably count on one hand the amount of people under 30 who come in here. It's a sensible crowd, slightly older,' says 38-year-old Blaney, who has lived in the United States for less than a decade.
He met his future wife, an American chef, while he was on vacation. After moving several times, they found the Leaky Roof on Craigslist.org, fell in love, and settled in Portland.
Christina Blaney's cooking has brought the spot notice for its dinners and brunches. The menu has Irish influences - porridge in the morning, Irish stew at lunch and Jamesy King's stuffed pork, an old family recipe, for dinner.
There's traditional Irish music every Tuesday night, as there will be all afternoon and evening this St. Patrick's Day.
Corned beef and cabbage probably will be on the menu, too, despite Blaney's misgivings. 'I'm Irish,' he says. 'I've had corned beef and cabbage - but never together. And never on St. Patrick's Day.'
He has to bow to American misconceptions sometimes, but not when it comes to drinking. He's made it his mission to preach the Irish appreciation and love of whiskey - in moderation.