by Jenn Ladd, Philadelphia Inquirer
Remember going to the bar? Ponying up to a slab of polished marble or worn-down wood and ordering a cocktail, talking to your next-stool neighbor, exchanging pleasantries with the bartender?
That’s still out of reach. However, you can buy booze again in Pennsylvania, now that nearly all of its state-run liquor stores have reopened for curbside pickup. Call your state store to place an order (credit card payments only).
We asked Philly bartenders which six bottles — the daily order limit — they’d pick from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board catalog and how they’d enjoy them. Here are their answers:
Espolon Blanco: An affordable tequila for comforting margaritas.
Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon: Made with a relatively rye high mash bill, this 100-proof bourbon has spice that holds up even when mixed with other spirits.
Beefeater gin: A London dry gin perfect for martinis, gin and tonics, and other cocktails.
Cynar: A versatile amaro that can be sipped on its own or mixed into cocktails, often used as a substitute for (or in addition to) sweet vermouth and other amaros.
Vermouth: These fortified wines come in many brands and styles: dry, sweet, and blanc — a lighter style that is sweet but not bitter. They can be sipped straight and shaken or stirred into cocktails like martinis (dry) and Manhattans (sweet).
Campari: This bitter, bright-red aperitif from Italy is the key component in a negroni, but it’s great for spritzes and other vermouth cocktails. Some people like sipping it straight, but brace yourself if you haven’t had it before.
Garbinski has been at American Sardine Bar since it opened in 2011. She’s been there again now that the Point Breeze staple is back open for takeout Wednesday through Sunday, but her pandemic activities are plenty. Aside from taking on some home improvement projects — including installing dining room shelves for her mezcal collection — she’s also been rewatching The Wire, playing rummy, cooking, and sleeping more than she has in quite a while.
Dolin Rouge: The house sweet vermouth at many places.
Rittenhouse Rye: A great overproof rye that works in cocktails or on its own.
The Botanist Gin: It’s a pricier gin, but well worth it. The botanical blend is unique and complex, and it’s a beautiful bottle. Makes a great G&T or dry martini.
Espolon Blanco: For shots, margaritas, palomas, and all the drinks. I’ve been drinking it mixed with the Kalaya Pineapple soda.
Before the pandemic, Bustamante had been lead bartender at Jean-Georges Sky High cocktail lounge. “At the moment, I’m just lead bartender at home,” he says. Like many coronavirus shut-ins, this part-time DJ has been baking bread, “cooking and eating a ton, getting fat,” and listening to old vinyls.
Wigle Ginever Dry Gin, Campari, and Carpano Antica: This combo makes a great negroni, widely known to be equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. For a twist, add ¼ ounce of Cynar or a spoonful of mezcal. The Wigle gin has a nice maltiness to it.
Lillet blanc and Stateside vodka: Combine these two with Wigle (or any) gin to make a Vesper cocktail. I add more Lillet than usual: 1¼ to 1½ ounces of gin, ¾ ounce vodka, 1 ounce Lillet, stir with ice, pour in coupe, add a lemon twist.
La Marca prosecco: I’m not to picky about this brand — it’s just a decent sparkling wine for a cocktail I learned in Florence that I put a twist on: In a wide-mouthed wine glass, combine ½ ounce Campari, ½ ounce Carpano, and ½ ounce Cynar. Add ice, a slice of cucumber and orange. Top with prosecco and stir slightly.
One of the partners behind the Filipino lunch stand Lalo, in the Bourse, Mueller was recently bartending at Fishtown’s R&D and Pizzeria Beddia. Since the pandemic, she’s been chugging “unhealthy amounts of coffee” and channeling her energy into deep-cleaning her house, working out, and reading — “mostly books about booze and drinking booze.” Each of her picks, she notes, is excellent in shot form, which is her favorite way of drinking them.
Wray and Nephew overproof rum: Rum is one of my favorite spirit categories, and I love reaching for high-proof/overproof spirits for cocktailing, as they’re able to stand up to all the extra things that will be added in. My home go-to with this is a classic daiquiri: rum, lime, simple syrup (or sugar if you’re really lazy). Wray also forms a great base for bitters and tinctures; it adds a bit of extra flavor.
Beefeater gin: A great gin — cost-effective and an excellent example of a classic London dry style. My at-home go-to with this is a classic gin rickey: a highball of gin and club soda over ice, with half a lime squeezed in (drop the lime husk in, too).
Olmeca Altos Plata tequila: Really lovely and nuanced and, equally if not more important, made in a way that respects the agave. I’ll gladly sip this baby neat, on the rocks, or next to a cold Tecate. I usually don’t do much cocktailing at home with tequila, if only because it never lasts long enough. It’s great as a rickey, too.
Green Chartreuse: A little on the pricey side, but well worth it to sip neat or swap in for dry vermouth in a martini or the sweetener in a spicy rye old fashioned. It’s pleasantly sweet and immensely complex, and it’s got hundreds of years of history behind it!
Becherovka: This one is a bit tricky; it’s often out of stock. When I can get it, though, it’s one of my absolute favorites. A Czech herbal liqueur, it’s got awesome notes of spicy cinnamon. Think of it as a really dry, spicy Fireball. Sip it neat after dinner as a digestif, or use it to modify an old fashioned or a daiquiri.
Rumple Minze: Go ahead and judge me. It’s delicious. Keep it in the freezer, shoot it, and revel in all its pepperminty glory.
MacDonald, head bartender at Friday Saturday Sunday, has been cooking and drinking at home during the pandemic; a recent Instagram post included a pairing of oloroso sherry and potato chips.
Beefeater gin: One of the most underrated bottles on the shelf.
Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon: Another of the most underrated products. Uses a relatively high proportion of rye in its mash bill which lends it an assertive, spicy profile that works well in cocktails or straight. Just make sure to get the bottled-in-bond, because the 80 proof just doesn’t hit that sweet spot.
Cynar: A very versatile amaro which can fill in for Campari or Aperol in an aperitivo (a negroni or spritz, for example), or be taken straight as a digestivo.
Dolin blanc vermouth: Light, sweet, floral, and delicious. Mixes well in clear or dark spirits with or without citrus. Blanc vermouth is sweeter than dry, and lacks the bitterness of most red vermouths. Also delicious by itself on ice with a simple twist of lemon peel. Refrigerate after opening.
Tio Pepe fino sherry: Those who frequent my bar know how much I love sherry. This fino is sharp and bracingly dry — delicious chilled, especially during the warmer months and as an accompaniment to shrimp cocktail or oysters. It also mixes well either as a low-alcohol base or as a substitute for dry vermouth in a martini and other cocktails.
Fernando di Castilla oloroso sherry: I’ve tried to give you good bargains for the first five items here, but I have to throw in a splurge. This one is especially pricey for 500 milliliters, but it is worth every penny. Delicate flavors of toffee, raisin, and toasted almond and a full-bodied texture make for an unbelievably delicious glass of sherry. Drink it with cheese and charcuterie or by itself. Finish or refrigerate within a week of opening.
Reed may be familiar from Fairmount spots like McCrossen’s Tavern and Bar Hygge (also open for takeout). He’s been hosting Facebook Live cocktail classes during the pandemic “to pad the virtual tip jar.”
Del Maguey Single Village Vida mezcal: I’m either drinking it straight in a champagne flute or subbing it as a base liquor in any number of classic drinks.
Plymouth gin: Every bar should have a solid English gin. Makes a fantastic martini.
Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon: The essential partner to a homemade citywide. Pairs excellently with Miller High Life.
Averna amaro: Great to sip on after dinner. Add some to Dr. Pepper with dash of Angostura bitters for a fantastic sessionable highball.
Managing bartender at East Passyunk’s In The Valley, Shannon has been enjoying long walks (with a mask on), reading a John Waters biography, and sculpting mezcal sipping cups. She’s also been playing after-dinner board games: “Turns out I kick ass at Scrabble,” she says.
Espolon Reposado: Go-to for margs, frozen drinks (avocado and tropical smoothie mix works great), or
— let’s face it — quarantine shots.
Plantation five-year Barbados rum: I really loved aged rums and often sip them neat. Plantation is a staple at the stores, and is great in an old fashioned variation that’s super-easy to make: Start with 2 ounces rum in a short glass, add 1 teaspoon honey and a few dashes of Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate or Angostura bitters. Stir a bit, then add ice, and stir until cold. Finish with an expressed orange peel.
Avinyo Cava Brut Reserva Pendes (NV): I love Cava. Avinyo uses the three classic grapes for Cava. It’s dry and crisp, but has layers of citrus and subtle toasty notes, much like champagne.
Chateau Graville Lacoste Graves Blanc: I’ve sworn by this wine for years. Every vintage is solid, a great Bordeaux value. A blend of semillion, sauvignon blanc, and muscadelle, it’s aromatic and lush with florals and citrus, plus nice minerals. Great with light seafood or spicy dishes, and perfect for Indian food!
Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County: The man behind these has been pioneering natural winemaking in California for decades. This pinot noir is full of dark fruits, herbs, and light touches of baking spice. It’s got great acidity, with subtle but grippy tannins, so you can drink it on its own or pair with an array of foods.
Thrash bartended at Vedge and Townsend between 2016 and 2018, and was recently behind the bar at Prohibition Taproom. Since the pandemic struck, he’s been driving for Caviar, pushing city and state officials to legalize takeout and delivery cocktails, and starting more fermentation projects than he could hope to finish.
Brenne French single-malt whiskey: Made from malted barley grown in France, this is a lighter expression than your typical single-malt Scotch. It’s beautiful, floral, and perfect for a spring evening.
Bluebird Distilling Sugarcane rum: Made similarly to sugarcane-distilled Rhum Agricole, this rum profiles with more floral and green notes than your typical molasses distilled rum. It’s perfect in a classic daiquiri or a ti’ punch.
Boyd & Blair vodka: One of my favorite vodkas anywhere, made from 100% Pennsylvania potatoes. It’s got a creaminess and perceived sweetness only found in the highest-quality vodkas. Perfect for a classic martini or just a refreshing vodka and soda.
Caledonia Spirits Barr Hill gin: This Vermont-based distiller sources locally and integrates local honey into their products. Each batch of gin is balanced with honey from their family farm. It’s beautiful in citrus-based gin cocktails such as a bee’s knees or last word.
Dad’s Hat rye whiskey four-year old: A high rye mash bill packs a punch in this locally produced whiskey, which supports Pennsylvania agriculture. The power in this 94-proof spirit makes for a great base in an old fashioned or Manhattan. But with a higher price point, maybe savor it on a single ice cube.
Tres Agave tequila blanco: Although not exactly small-batch, Tres Agave is grown organically, gives back to their community, and is more affordable. Great for your margarita fix.
Rodkey is director of operations for Sojourn Restaurant Group (Rex 1516, Jet Wine Bar, and Cafe Ynez). She’s kept busy by drawing birds, sewing slipcovers and masks, and “attempting to grind the pittance of happy chemicals out of my brain with exercise.” Her go-to drink is a Sidecar made with 50/50 whiskey and cognac, lemon juice, and bitters, topped with sparkling wine. “It’s not a traditional Sidecar, but it’s my house.”
Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Black Label Tennessee Whiskey: I’ve been loyal to this brand long before I should have been drinking whiskey. The charcoal filtering makes it incredibly smooth, and I love the cedar, banana, caramel bouquet.
Martell Cognac V.S.: There is no comfort like a glass of slightly warmed cognac in a big snifter, and it will never not feel regal.
Angostura bitters: Why waste one of your slots on a bottle of bitters? Because it makes everything taste better: whiskey, gin, rum. Angostura is much more an aromatic to me, and the cinnamon / clove / pepper profile is like the A.S.M.R. of a crackling fire to my nose.
Hendrick’s Gin Midsummer Solstice: No other gin combines astringent herbs and heady florals like this one. It lends itself so well to a good magical realism book.
Weller Special Reserve Straight Bourbon: There is simply no better bang for your buck. It’s Pappy Van Winkle’s younger brother.
Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum: Mount Gay and tonic has been a favorite since one of my old regulars at Happy Rooster suggested it. Squeeze half a lime into that and it’s a tropical island without the sunburn.
Harkness, a bartender at Grace Tavern, has been making lots of chicken and chicken soup in quarantine, which he has spent mostly in the kitchen. “There are a lot of great cooking programs on Hulu. I’m not being paid to say that. They also have Seinfeld.”
Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon: Straight, or in shaken or stirred cocktails.
Espolon Blanco tequila: Buy lots of citrus at the store, make simple syrup, and you’re set up for lots of important scientific research from the comfort of your own home.
Tanqueray gin: A great all-around gin.
Carpano Antica sweet vermouth: Manhattans, negronis, or just with seltzer.
Campari: Mixes really well with all of the above. Tequila and soda? With all those limes?
Boxed dry rose: For all around food pairing — cheese, meat, fruit, scrambled eggs, there are no more rules. Cheers, brave scientists!