Who’s Doing Shots At J.R.’s?

Jim Rowson’s guided single-malt tour.

By Brian McManus
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 9, 2010

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There it is again: that laugh. Big. Hearty. Infectious. Ubiquitous. It’s coming from Jim “J.R.” Rowson, who’s sitting at the end of the bar he owns, J.R.’s Saloon (2663 E. Norris St.) in Fishtown. He bought the place—“lock, stock and barrel,” including the liquor license—31 years ago for 38 grand. He likes to joke he thinks it’s worth a dollar or two more than that today.

Cue laugh.

J.R’s stature is as big as his laugh. He sports a buzz cut at the peak of his six foot something frame, and he’s a tad thick around the middle. He’s got a few tattoos to match his outsized spirit: one’s of a duck carrying a hypodermic needle on his right forearm. The left arm features names of the women he’s dated over the years. Each is crossed out with the exception of the last one, Joanie, his wife of 23 years. She’s sitting next to him laughing along.

With each joke, each laugh, J.R. pokes me in the ribs with his elbow, and I’m starting to get sore. It’s a packed Saturday night at the Saloon and I’m here to be treated to a flight of J.R.’s many bottles of fine single-malt Scotch. He’s a connoisseur, and J.R.’s has as many bottles of the good stuff as the types of places you’d expect. And considering this is a neighborhood dive, as J.R. himself likes to call it, the prices are oftentimes cheaper (sometimes by as much as three times) than his fancy pants competitors.

That J.R. is such an affable, kind, big-hearted guy makes a lot of sense when you begin to look around at his regulars. He knows most of them, and announces their entry loudly, usually capping it with a high five. There’s Nick, he owns a pizzeria, Cassizzi, in the neighborhood on Clearfield Street. There’s Richie, he works for British Airways, but not really (it’s an inside joke). There’s Kate, the bartender at Paddy’s Pub in Old City. J.R.’s son Steven, is manning the bar tonight. (“It’s better to really know the person stealing your money from ya,” J.R. jokes.) Joining him is Ona, J.R.’s daughter-in-law, who is bringing out the bottles of single malt, lining them up per J.R.’s instruction. In front of the bottles, dozens of plastic cups.

Let the lesson begin.

John Barr, $5

So, “single malt” Scotch. “It’s a type of single malt whisky, distilled by a single distillery, in Scotland. ‘Single’ indicates that all the malts in the bottle come from a single distillery. Multi-distillery malts are usually called ‘blended.’” And yes, I did just copy paste that directly from Wikipedia. J.R.’s explanation was much the same, albeit with a few more expletives thrown in for color. John Barr isn’t a single malt Scotch whisky. Like Johnnie Walker (they stock the very expensive Blue at J.R.’s) or Dewars, it’s a blended malt. But it’s one of J.R.’s favorite—he discovered it while in a suburb of Glasgow—and he sells it for cheaper than anyone else, so fuck it. Cheers.

Laphroaig, $9

This Scotch is the mother of all those that come from the island of Islay off Scotland, which gives it its very distinct taste. Something about the water there, J.R. thinks. “It tastes of iodine,” he says. “You have to be a real Scotch drinker to appreciate this one. Most people don’t like it.” One of those people is bartender Ona, who frowns when she sees J.R. pouring it. His wife Joanie doesn’t like it either. I remember Philadelphia mag food editor Kirsten Henri once telling me Laphroaig and Scotch like it taste like you’re “sucking on a band-aid.” That’s pretty apt.

Buchanan’s De Luxe, 12 year, $5.50

Buchanan’s is smoky, but I don’t remember much of what J.R. had to say about it. Mostly because Kate was on the verge of exposing her boobs while he was talking.

Dalwhinnie, 15 year, $10

The water they make it with comes from the highest mountain source of any Scotch malt. That, and the fact that it’s blended with rosehips, gives this flavorful smoky Scotch its full-bodied appeal. Or, put another way: “Ahhhh, that’s fuckin’ good,” J.R. says as he slams his plastic cup.

Macallan, 12 year, $7.50

“You like Led Zeppelin?” J.R. asks. “Well this here is all Jon Bonham used to drink.” So this is what killed him, I say. “Nah. I think that was too much bad pussy,” says J.R. He also stocks the pricier 18-year.

Glenfiddich, 12 year, $10

Not distilled on the island of Islay, but in Islay casks, Glenfiddich has a hint of the band-aid taste going on like gangbusters in the Laphroaig. Laphroaig with training wheels, if you will. (You will!)

The Glenlivet, 12 year, $7

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