Ask a Bartender: How Do I Stock My Bar Cart With Local Booze?
The Pennsylvania-made spirits you should be drinking at home.
Pete Adams is the bar manager at Mission Taqueria. He wants to help you find your own path to booze nerdom, or at least enjoy your drinks a little more than you currently do.
In the 1700s, immigrant farmers from Germany, Scotland and Ireland found that rye grew most effectively in the rocky Pennsylvania soil. So, come harvest time, they’d use the grain to make bread and the rest of the stalk for brewing beer. Eventually, those settlers would end up distilling the beer, and creating the first batches of rye whiskey made in America. Fast forward a few hundred years and Pennsylvania is still a hub for distillers. Not only is our beloved PA a standout whiskey state, you can find stellar vodka, gin, rum, and bourbon as well.
But, since we now live in the 21st century, the logistics of distilling are a bit more complex than they used to be: Legal loopholes, corporate production, and big-money operations have both hurt and helped the production and distribution of booze in Pennsylvania. If you purchase any single bottle from this list, you won’t just be supporting businesses that are making spectacular products; you’ll be supporting members of your own community. This list is composed entirely of options obtainable by using the Philadelphia public transportation system and through the mail. There’s no driving necessary, which means accepting tastes from bartenders and sales reps is highly encouraged. And, yes, for the pedants among us, some bottles on this list come with descriptive caveats, but are worth mentioning because they’re “technically” made in PA and are exemplary spirits in their respective categories.
If you haven’t yet descended into the rabbit hole of booze-buying, some of the terms below might be new to you. Here’s some quick housekeeping: “Core” describes a primary bottle, meaning I’d advocate for you to use this bottle most frequently in its respective spirits category. I also list the proof, otherwise known as twice the alcohol content by volume (a gin that has 40 percent ABV is 80 proof, for example). That information can be helpful to better understand your own drinking preferences as you try new bottles. Enjoy!
Core Whiskey: Manatawny Select Four Grain American Whiskey
Where to buy: All Manatawny Still Works locations; shipped within PA
Manatawny’s Select Four Grain is the PA whiskey I reach for most behind my home bar. This whiskey is made with Manatawny’s classic four-grain blend and aged for three to six years in new French oak. I get lots of vanilla from this, a touch of salinity, a nice dry finish, and a medium-thin texture. This whiskey is perfect for stirred cocktails and sipping by itself. And, for $58, you’re getting a high-end bottle for a mid-range price. Try it in an old fashioned.
Few Spirits’ distillery is in Evanston, Illinois. But, due to their parent company’s joint ownership of Bluecoat Gin, their whiskeys get bottled at Philadelphia Distilling and can be distributed as a PA product at their bottle shop next to Brooklyn Bowl in Fishtown. The subtle spiciness of rye paired with the texture and sweetness you get from distilling corn makes Few an ideal, catch-all bourbon. Try it in a hot toddy.
Resurgent’s Young American Bourbon is best used for shaken drinks due to its higher proof. When you dilute this whiskey, either in a cocktail or on its own, the earthy flavors really open up. Try it in a whiskey sour.
Kinsey Rye is quite possibly the most underrated product at New Liberty. This rye is influenced by the European distilling methods that inspired some of the first Pennsylvania ryes. The result tastes spicy, woodsy, and full of vanilla flavor gathered from aging in new white oak barrels. Try it in a Sazerac.
This gin, which strikes first with citrus and then develops into a long, juniper-filled finish, put Philly on the map as a legit distilling town. And it’s worth all the critical acclaim. Drink Bluecoat’s gin on its own, in a stirred and shaken cocktail, or mixed in a highball. This should be your go-to for a gin and tonic.
Revivalist’s Equinox gin might not necessarily be the crowdpleaser everyone who comes to your home knows and loves (yet). But this gin was executed masterfully, and deserves a spot in the sun with all the other beautiful PA botanical spirits. Revivalist’s Equinox gin spirit has a subtle florality and a pop of peppermint that I’ve personally never tasted in a bottle of gin before and have yet to see elsewhere. Try it with honey syrup and lemon in a Bee’s Knees.
Core Vodka: Stateside Vodka
Where to buy: Stateside distillery; shipping within PA
Price: $30 – $40
Stateside vodka is distilled six times to neutralize all plant material, it’s blessed by a rabbi, and it comes in a cool swing-top bottle. Bing, bang, boom, what more could you ask for? Try this in a dirty martini at night and a bloody mary in the morning.
As a bartender who was trained during an age of booze snobbery, I’m hard-wired to hate on flavored vodkas outside of a select few applications. However, Thistle Finch is taking the concept of flavored vodka and pushing past the artificial additives that have become synonymous with the subcategory. The hibiscus, rose, and lavender vodkas are thoughtful expressions that demonstrate what flavored vodka can become when given the proper TLC. Try them with some soda.
Fermented and distilled from turbinado sugar sourced in Louisiana, this white rum is the perfect workhorse for your bar. It’s full-bodied like a hearty Caribbean rum and has a grassy, ever-so-slightly funky flavor profile that makes it perfect in almost all classic white rum applications. Use this for your next mojito.
A 50-50 split of Maggie’s farm’s proprietary turbinado distillate and an imported molasses-based rum from Central America — these rums are blended and set to age for six to nine months before bottling. The 50/50 is full of vanilla, caramel, toasted coconut, and just the lightest touch of funky grassiness — good in a dark and stormy.
This rum is made by blending unaged wild rums sourced from Trinidad, Barbados, Martinique, Guyana and Jamaica. It’s extremely funky, extremely flavorful, and the sort of thing you should be drinking all the time in daiquiris. A truly unique spirit that deserves the numerous accolades it earned in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition back in 2021.
At its core, this spiced rum is Maggie’s Farm’s white rum with the addition of some neat spices. Think orange zest, cinnamon, vanilla bean, allspice, clove, nutmeg, all the good stuff. Pick this up instead of drinking that other rum that has a pirate guy stomping on a barrel on the front. And then try it in some hot buttered rum.
These spirits are made entirely from beets and carrots, respectively. And if you’ve ever wanted a bottle of clarified, concentrated liquid carrots or if you want to own a bottle of booze that tastes more like beets than beets do, I can’t recommend these enough. Use these spirits sparingly, as their flavors are powerful. Add a few dashes of either to earthy and simple drinks (like an old fashioned) to give them a little more oomph. Adjust your measurements based on the cocktail. The sky is the limit.
Pennsylvania-Grown Apple Brandy: Manatawny Apple Brandy
Where to buy: All Manatawny locations; shipped within PA
Manatawny’s 2022 batch of apple brandy was produced using fresh-pressed cider from Big Hill Ciderworks. It’s then aged in second-use oak barrels and bottled in small batches. This is the perfect accompaniment for a quiet night, an open fire, and the first snow of the year.
Cordials, Amari, Liqueurs, Vermouth, and Other Alternative Spirits You Should Stock Up On
Boyd & Blair is primarily known for their high-quality potato vodka. However, in recent years, they’ve made a splash in the ready-to-drink cocktail and cordial world. This spirit is developed by infusing Boyd & Blair’s 105-proof rum with dried ancho chiles for a few days and then adding back simple syrup to reach the desired ABV. The result is a smoky, nutty, spicy and floral spirit that can cover a lot of bases in a cocktail. Try it in a whiskey-based espresso martini with Maggie’s Farm’s coffee liqueur. Tip: If you don’t have an espresso machine, you can always use a cold brew concentrate.
If you’re building out a bar, orange liqueur is one of those staples you should have stocked. And this Kinsey triple sec works as the perfect catch-all option for drinks like margaritas, cosmos and sidecars. Kinsey’s triple sec is dry without being cloying and plastic-y (like some other options). They use oranges with thinner flesh and sweeter-smelling oils paired with earthy spices to help round out the typically one-note spirit.
Philadelphia Distilling Vigo Amaro
Where to buy: Philadelphia Distilling; shipped within PA
Vigo Amaro is produced in the same facility where Bluecoat, Vieux Carre, and Few are produced. This amaro has notes of warming spices and ripe plums on the front, and bitter kola nuts on the back. The texture is rich and round, and the booze itself is slightly sweet with a dry finish. Try it as an Averna replacement in a Black Manhattan.
Philadelphia Distilling Vieux Carré Absinthe Supérieure
Where to buy: Philadelphia Distilling; shipped within PA
Vieux Carré absinthe fills the void of anise-flavored booze that’s produced in the City of Brotherly Love. This absinthe is made using a classic recipe inspired by the absinthes served in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It’s punchy, numbing, and great in a Sazerac as well as on its own.
Meet Philadephia’s first vermouthery, Fell to Earth. This company is owned by Tim Kweeder and Zach Morris of Bloomsday Cafe, and they recently released their first legally recognized bottle of sweet vermouth. Although I enjoy this vermouth over a little ice by itself, it’s also perfect in stirred cocktails. Make a Manhattan with it.
Mural City Cellars’ vermouth has a light body but it’s packed with wormwood, citrus, and earthy flavor. Drink this vermouth with some soda in the sunshine with the nicest people you know. MCC also released another vermouth called Phinato, which is available at Tiny’s Bottle Shop.
Maggie’s Farm combines their white rum (see above) with cold brew and just a smidge of vanilla to make this near-perfect coffee liqueur. Replace your Kahlua with this and serve some excellent espresso martinis.
Falernum is a rum-based liqueur made with lime, clove, and ginger that’s used primarily for tropical cocktails. It’s tart, herbal, and warming. Mix this with rum, bourbon, citrus juices, orgeat, and sunshine. I like it in an Iron Ranger.
Bonus: Bitters, Syrups, N/A Spirits, and Tools
If you’re looking for a place in Philly to buy bitters and syrups, or N/A spirits, head to Herman’s in South Philly for a one-stop shopping experience. For reliable bar tools, Art in the Age is best for anyone who wants a professional-grade collection Fante’s in the Italian Market is the perfect place to start if you don’t want to go high-end right away, because they have plenty of starter sets that won’t break the bank.
Looking for more local booze? Check out our guide to Pennsylvania wine.