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03.2005

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Angus O'Leary

Article By: Fred Bouchard

PROFILE Angus O'Leary arrived on these shores from Dublin in 1979, in the heyday of Boston's Irish bar scene, and a leg or two ahead of the meteoric rise of international Irish pubdom. Educated in the Irish language, O'Leary had studied medicine at Trinity College, Dublin, "but I couldn't get my oars in the water on that subject." His Bay State visit - originally just for a summer - launched his career as a publican, working in bars nights while earning an electrician's license. Today Angus contents himself pulling pints, not permits; the only wiring he does is for his Dorchester home and the cozy, amiable Beacon Street tavern that has borne his name since 1992.
IRISH WAVE
I worked at several pubs including The Blarney Stone in Fields Corner, Dorchester - it happened to be the first bar in the United States to serve Guinness on draft. The seeds of the Irish explosion were sown locally back in the sixties, triggered by the historic immigration to Boston and came into full bloom in the '8Os, when economic conditions in Ireland were such that a rush of new immigrants came over. That rush has slowed considerably, but the popularity remains, and it hasn't stemmed the tide of new establishments opening up. As to whether it has reached saturation point, my guess - with having my thumb on the pulse of the business and talking to salesmen - is that it probably has.
GLOBAL PINTS The fact that you can find Irish pubs from Singapore to Beijing to Capetown nowadays probably stems from the fact that there is a natural and well-founded expectation of hospitality to be found in Irish pubs. To me it just seems a natural thing, but many people are newfangled over it, and it certainly seems to be unique to Irish pubs, lending them a popularity worldwide. They may be a bit of an anomaly in Moscow and Prague, but they seem to work.
TOP PORTER Our most popular drink would be Guinness. I've never developed a taste for it myself. Other porters that have taken a shot at Guinness are Smithwick's (which we carry), Murphy's and Beamish (which we don't) - but none have dented it to any perceptible degree. We have just 14 taps. It's not realistic to expand. You see places not much bigger than this with 7O beers on draft. The rule of thumb in this business is that if a keg has been tapped for more than a week it becomes over-carbonated and loses character. Then you run a high risk of selling an inferior product.
WHITES and PINKS We're more of a beer place than one that serves these newfangled martinis. We sell many of the white spirits and of course whiskey, but not cognac, for example. We sell the more wholesome drinks. People do ask for vodka by name: Stoly products and Gray Goose, the new vodka of choice. There's been that explosion of late, especially with flavored vodkas. Each brand has its own litany of flavors; in a small place like this it's impossible to carry them all. One tends to go with those flavors that sell best: Stoly Raspberry has been the most enduring so far. I sometimes equate the spirits business with the perfume business: for every 1OO that are produced and marketed, only one or two will stick.
WHISKEY CHASE When I first started in this business, Scotch outsold Irish by a wide margin. My sense is that the gap has closed since. Jameson and Bushmill sell the best. The appearance of single-malts among the higher-end Irish whiskeys certainly made some inroads into the Scotch. Jameson, for example, makes a 12-year (formerly the '178O', an 18-year, and Redbreast, which may not yet be available in the States.) Each whiskey has a few people that drink them religiously. Yet, in the big picture, Scotch is to Irish whisky what Guinness is to other porters; I'd guess they dwarf all competition.
WINES in STOCK Purveyors tell me that while wine sales are holding steady, the higher-end ones have slacked off. People who'd think nothing of spending $3O to $4O a bottle retail a few years ago are more willing to compromise. I'm no sommelier, but I think people are realizing that the price of a wine is not all that important. Even though we have a decent list and sell our fair share of wine, people are just as likely to order beer with their meals.
MIX 'EM UP We have our fair share of mixed drinks ordered especially at certain times of the year, but we're hardly a cocktail lounge where people experiment with drinks. Mixed drinks may be fine in a hotel bar, but here we're multi-tasking all the time. It has been suggested to us many times that we put together a special, eclectic martini list - that's all well and good, but if you're in any way busy, it's going to take you five minutes to make any one of them. It looks fine, but when the chips are down and people are waiting for drinks, well, it just doesn't work. We get quite a few calls for our coffee drinks; they're pretty straightforward - as long as we can remember how to make them!
STRIKE the HARP Live music for us is an added feature, not our bread and butter. Some places depend on Friday and Saturday to roll around for the bulk of their business, but we're not structured that way. Our students are only here half the year, the Red Sox fans just eighty days. The day you make yourself dependent on any one clientele, you're jeopardizing your business. It's wiser to try to appeal to a broader clientele, and get a little bit of them all the time. But having performers here weekends does bolster business somewhat, especially in summer.
GOOD PUBLICAN Surely we Irish don't have a lock on running a good establishment. Any place worth its salt should take care of the fundamentals: quality food, quality drink, reasonably priced, in a handsome, welcoming and safe atmosphere. One can have all the good will and hospitability in the world, but without those things in place, it's not going to happen. Having an Irish staff may be icing on the cake! Once you've done those basics, then certainly it's best to make people feel welcome, accommodating their needs within reason or to the best of your ability, and doing things to everyone's satisfaction.

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