Published March 16th, 2022 at 6:00 AM6 minute read
Spirits are high at Browne’s Irish Marketplace at 3300 Pennsylvania Ave. on the Friday before St. Patrick’s Day.
Surrounded by a horseshoe of Irish whiskey, fiddler Peter LaFond appears barely able to arc his bow for fear of toppling bottles off the shelves when Ian Browne-McClain, 18, suddenly enters the frame to add the grace notes of an Irish tin whistle.
Browne’s is known for its famous Reuben sandwiches, shelves lined with grocery items missed by new Irish immigrants referred to as “just-overs” and fine imported artisan handcrafts — ranging from Peaky Blinders-style caps to elegant crochet lace, tooled leather and traditional pottery.
Over the past decade, George Vial has been growing what he believes to be the Midwest’s most diverse selection of Irish whiskies. He’s the wine, beer and spirits sales manager for Agforce Transport Services, and an Irish whiskey educator for Browne’s.
Even as the St. Patrick’s Day parade takes to the streets after a two-year pandemic hiatus, hybrid virtual Irish whiskey tastings led by Vial remain a draw for both the in-store guest or the whiskey lover who prefers to sip from the comfort of their own couch.
“The reason the Irish whiskey tastings are so successful is because George is an entertainer who studies up on his subject and is able to weave Irish humor and history into each,” says Kerry Browne, who is the fifth generation to run Browne’s Irish Marketplace, a family owned business founded in 1887.
Vial is a native of Donegal. He was trained in food and beverage and worked as a chef before arriving in the United States to attend Park University.
After more than two decades in America, his smiling eyes and the poetic lilt in his voice speak to a sense of community the Irish refer to as “The Craic,” an Irish word pronounced crack.
“The Craic is a sacred name for the fun,” Vial says. “It’s a word for our way of experiencing everything that happens in a night.”
A locally designated historic landmark, Browne’s is also the oldest Irish business outside of Ireland in the world, a recent upgrade from “oldest Irish business in North America.”
The honor can be verified by Enterprise Ireland, a government agency responsible for supporting Irish businesses both at home and abroad.
“Over COVID we figure they had time to update,” Browne jokes one morning before the marketplace opens, then launches into the physical improvements her husband and partner John McClain made throughout the lockdown.
To be sure, no one is complaining that the new title arrived just in time to kick off the first event in a yearlong celebration marking Browne’s 135th anniversary.
After the musicians exit the stage, Vial introduces special guest Padraic Coll, a founder of Clonakilty Distillery. The distillery is located in a tiny Irish seaside town located in County Cork, but Coll connects from Florida.
For the next two hours, Coll leads the hybrid group through a tasting of four whiskies, the star which is Browne’s own private single barrel malt whiskey matured in bourbon barrels and finished in 2013 vintage cognac casks.
When a question pops into the virtual chat box, Coll winds up sharing the tale of Tojo, a rum-loving monkey.
Local legend says a plane went down on the outskirts of Clonakilty with a cargo of rum and a monkey for a mascot. The crew was thrilled to survive the landing. Naturally, a party ensued. Sadly, dear Tojo over-imbibed. Eventually, the townspeople erected a statue to commemorate his passing.
Or, so the story goes.
“At first I thought, ‘Right, how’s that going to work?’” McClain recalls when Vial and Browne first proposed a virtual tasting. “But with the first one, I bet you we could have sold 150 spots. The technology geniuses of our youth figured it out, and we had the funnest night you could imagine.”
The past two years have been more hard than fun, but as Browne and McClain perch on stools in the “whiskey corner,” they insist they banished the thought that they might ever be forced to close.
After all, they consoled themselves, Browne’s had already survived a 1918 influenza pandemic, two World Wars, the Great Depression, the dislocation of 450 Irish families from the neighborhood to make way for Penn Valley Community College and an ugly incident of anti-immigrant graffiti scrawled on the side of the building that made the headlines.
“When we were closed, people would just stop in, or call or write … and the day we opened some of those people were at the door saying, ‘We’re going to do whatever it takes to keep you open,’” Browne says.
Generations of Irish Kansas Citians return to the marketplace and are steeped in its history.
Edward and Mary Flavin, immigrants from County Kerry, originally opened Flavin Grocery at 27th and Jefferson streets, which included the Flavin residence upstairs. By 1901, the business needed more space, so they moved the operation to 33rd and Pennsylvania, which was then considered the outskirts of Kansas City.
“Just think, this was dirt roads and horses. There was no electricity, no water, and so they had a much rougher job than we do here coming in and flipping on the lights,” says Browne, who is a fan of time travel in books and movies. “I’d love to just look at it and thank them for the bigger struggles they went through and what they did for us.”
The Flavins’ daughter Margaret and her husband James R. (Jim) Browne continued the family business as J.R. Browne Grocery. Jim and his wife had 11 children. Their eldest son James R. Browne Jr., married Marjorie and in 1957 took over the store. The couple had three daughters: Margo, Deb and Kerry.
Kerry Browne and John McClain were fresh out of college when her father died in 1981. They took over for what they thought would be a short while and renamed it Browne’s Irish Marketplace, an aspect of the business the immigrants who came before them had never emphasized.
As the couple raised their two sons, they built an extended family and witnessed how their business touched lives and created a sense of community with each new generation.
As community gatherings moved outdoors, they offered out-of-work musicians the opportunity to play on a weedy lot behind the building, now a formal patio space that has been spruced up with a fence, a stage and a pass-through window for food and drink orders.
“We saved them, but more they saved us,” Browne says. “How many great things like that happened, things that probably we never would have thought of without the last couple of years?”
Jameson is the largest producer of Irish whiskey, and the best known name in the United States.
The expansion of their “whiskey corner” happened to coincide with the huge growth of the Irish whiskey category, which is currently the third-fastest spirit by volume in the United States, up 17.8% since 2020.
“We put our minds to it and decided we were going to have every Irish whiskey out there and be the resource. We weren’t going to try and dilute it with trying to carry everything, like bourbons and Scotch,” Vial says.
Increasing inventory was a big commitment, but the result is “what we consider to be the best Irish whiskey collection in the Midwest,” he adds.
Vial’s commitment to expanding Kansas City’s access and knowledge of Irish whiskey has attracted diehard customers, like Tom Oothoudt, twice retired from the U.S. Navy and Cerner Corp.
Oothoudt met Vial several years ago at a liquor store tasting event in the Northland. The two hit it off and stayed in touch through whiskey, as well as the occasional Saturday meetups for coffee and a chat.
When Oothoudt was looking for an off-campus location to gather his colleagues for quarterly whiskey tastings, Vial immediately suggested he check out Browne’s.
“They’re just such nice people. I can’t say enough about the atmosphere and culture within those four walls,” says Oothoudt, who held his retirement party on the patio and was off camera in the audience at Browne’s during the Clonakilty tasting.
Vial, who is paid in whiskey and groceries, thrives on the “big family atmosphere” and is happy to chip in wherever he can to keep the family’s market-slash-pub growing its offerings well into the future.
“When we come over and see Browne’s, it reminds us of what we grew up with but is something that doesn’t even exist anymore,” he says, pausing slightly, as if for dramatic effect, “and yet, we come here to Kansas City, and it’s thriving.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. You can follow Silva at @jillsilvafood.