The State of Philly's Cocktail Scene

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Mar. 9, 2011

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A Little More Trust: Gin, rye whiskey, orange liqueur, housemade ginger syrup, fresh lime and pineapple juice.

Photo by Ryan Strand

My own revelatory moment happened, like it did for so many Philadelphians, at Southwark. I met a friend there late on a Saturday night, not in the mood to drink all that much but needing to get out of the apartment, and agreed to have a glass of whatever he’d ordered.

Several minutes later, I was presented with a miracle in a martini glass, a saffron-perfumed Gibson made with the Cadenhead’s Old Raj gin, sweet from onions, spicy from the Noilly Prat vermouth. It had been stirred with ice that took the edge off the gin, and was as balanced and complete as any cocktail I’d ever sipped.

That night, I fell in love again with booze.

In the years since Southwark opened in 2004, our city’s drinking culture has seen its share of change, as have towns all over the country: Carrie Bradshaw and the ridiculous “-tini” times have thankfully passed us by, and a saner, more grown-up sensibility seems to have prevailed. But lately, I’ve found myself wondering where we really are these days as a city, how we’ve evolved since those first heady days of rediscovering the beauty of the tipple.

“If you’re talking about cocktails, a lot has changed,” says Al Sotack, head bartender at Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. Since Southwark’s opening, Sotack says, “Philly’s basically just catching back up, as it rightly should, to cities like New York and San Francisco. Traditionally, pre-Prohibition, there were like five or six cities where cocktails were taken really seriously, and Philadelphia was one of them. Unfortunately, we’ve been a little bit reluctant to take our proper spot in the 21st century, but I think that’s changing.”

And it’s changing with a real sense of purpose. All over town, in what seems like the entire gamut of neighborhoods and drinking establishments, what we drink is given far more care and consideration than it was in the past.

“Every bar is putting much more emphasis on cocktails, be it classic cocktails or gourmet takes on classics, or more modern [drinks],” says Kip Waide, co-owner of Southwark.

According to Sotack, there has not only been a progression in the city in general, but also in how customers drink.

Used to be, says Sotack, “there were a lot of dudes, drinking a lot of boozy brown stirred cocktails. They were drinking Old Fashioneds, and they were drinking Manhattans, and that’s pretty much what we all cut our teeth on. I learned to bartend in 2003 in New York, [and] those things were in full swing at that point.”

Since then, Sotack says, Philadelphians are more willing to drink what they want on any given night, and not necessarily what they assume they’re supposed to.

Now, he says, “You’re starting to see guys not afraid to order a daiquiri at the bar, you’re starting to see people be a little bit more experimental in ordering off of the menu. I think in general, people are starting to challenge their palates and their preconceptions about cocktails a little bit more, which is always, I think, a great thing.”

For all the progress we’ve made, however, we’re still not quite in the top-tier of American cocktail cities. According to Jason Wilson, the Philadelphia-based spirits columnist for The Washington Post and author of Boozehound, recently published by Ten Speed Press, we still have a way to go.

“As much as I wish it weren’t so, Philly has definitely lagged behind the cocktail trend of the past few years,” Wilson writes in an email. “We still have some great bars and bartenders that make great cocktails, but there’s too few of them. In places like New York and San Francisco and Portland, you can get interesting, well-made cocktails in plenty of bars that aren’t, you know, focused ‘cocktail bars.’ In those cities, the drinking public just demands better cocktails. Too many places in Philly—including places that should know better—make bad cocktails, and too few people demand differently.”

Not so with beer, however, which everyone seems to agree is where our town has made its name and set a national standard.

“It’s a totally different story with beer,” Wilson writes. “I mean, everyone knows this is one of the best beer cities in the U.S. But you have drinkers here who demand better beer. So most bars have to stock more than just Bud Light and PBR—even places that aren’t specifically ‘craft beer’ bars.”

Southwark’s Waide agrees, and says you can find craft brands like Bell’s or Founders or Belgian beer in most bars now, including some dives.

The grape is doing well, too. From wine bars like Tria and Vintage to smaller restaurants with ambitious wine programs (Zavino and Barbuzzo come to mind), oenophiles are faced with an embarrassment of riches these days. The major area of evolution is the range of options on wine lists, no matter what their size. It’s rare that you’ll be presented with a choice of merlot, cab or shiraz and nothing else. Originality, it seems, has become the motivating factor.

Much of the reason for this, Waide thinks, is that Philadelphia is such a BYOB-focused city that oenophiles often do much of their serious wine-drinking at places where they can bring their own bottles. As a result, he says, “We can keep our wine list really simple these days.”

Of course, that understates Southwark’s list. It lacks the depth and breadth of, say, Le Bec-Fin’s, but is studded with enough interesting bottles to keep even passionate wine drinkers happy and surprised. Most wine collectors, in my experience, don’t necessarily stock, say, Pineau des Charentes in their home wine racks or cellars, but it’s on the list at Southwark. Even Village Whiskey, whose intentions are right there in its name, maintains a tight wine list that makes the most of its selections, and always features something that will surprise even serious wine-lovers.

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1. Jersey John said... on Mar 9, 2011 at 04:08PM

“Southwark is a beacon of light in the darkness of Philly bars.

“Too much of anything is bad, but too much of good whisky is barely enough.” – Mark Twain


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