Two of Philadelphia's best bourbon bars are also two of Philadelphia's best reigning barbecue restaurants: Percy Street Barbecue on South Street (left) and Fette Sau on Frankford Avenue in Fishtown (right). (Photos by J. Varney courtesy Percy Street and Fette Sau)
Few libations warm the belly, body and soul quite like a tumbler of good ol’ whiskey.
Brown spirits top many a tippler’s list of what to drink these days, and a solid array of Philadelphia bars offer wide selections of whiskey — be it single-barrel American whiskey, cask-aged bourbon or Kentucky straight rye.
If you’re a brown-spirits novice, know that whiskey is just a spirit distilled from a fermented mash of grains like barley, rye or corn. Whiskey (or whisky, as its generally written in Scotland and Canada) has jargon all its own, with many descriptors and labels to relay information about taste and quality, where the spirit was distilled and how it was barreled and aged.
In Philadelphia, the recent rise in local domestic microdistilling — look out for Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye, La Colombe Pennsylvania Rum and Philadelphia Distilling Company’s range of products — and the ever-growing availability of a extraordinary array of varieties encourages booze connoisseurs to explore the depth of offerings within the whiskey barrel.
Below, we spotlight our picks of bars in Philly with best collections of brown. We’re talking about places to go for a very wide, top-shelf selection of primarily bourbon or rye in a straight-up taste of the “water of life,” not necessarily mixed in a cocktail.
Read on for our picks of the best places to sip whiskey in Philadelphia.
• The Fat Ham: The second Philadelphia restaurant for Top Chef talent Kevin Sbraga, The Fat Ham opened this winter and has quietly amassed a collection of American bourbon and rye that rivals any bar in the city. More than a 100 bottles shine behind the intimate bar, including uncommon varieties like Koval Oat whiskey, Dad’s Hat Rye Vermouth Finish and more. With a pork-laden menu and its bourbon-fueled bar program, lovers of smoky meat and strong drink should report to the intimate 48-seat restaurant immediately.
• Village Whiskey: Philadelphia Iron Chef Jose Garces stocks a serious collection of brown at his saloon-style establishment, Village Whiskey. The cozy Rittenhouse Square spot definitely ranks among the spots offering the best selection, carrying more than 175 options for bourbon, rye, Scotch, blended and Irish whiskies including a classic Laphroaig 25-year single-malt Scotch and a Woodford Reserve selected especially for Village Whiskey. For those who don’t know where to begin, or can’t imagine choosing just one taste, ask one of the expert bartenders for a recommendation or go for one of the several curated whiskey flights.
• Ashton Cigar Bar: In terms of selection, Ashton Cigar Bar can’t be topped in Philadelphia. The second-floor bar stocks a mind-boggling more than 250 whiskies with more than 100 bourbons and ryes, nearly 100 varieties of single-malt scotch, as well as blended whiskies and international whiskies. The spirits list moves on from there, too, with rum, tequila and more. As the only public bar in Philadelphia that legally allows cigar smoking, all beverages are paired with smoky environs, though the ventilation system is top-notch.
Village Whiskey lives up to its name, with more than 100 options of bourbon, rye, Scotch, blended and Irish whiskies from which to choose. (Photo by Fanny Allie courtesy Village Whiskey)
• Fette Sau: Though most certainly arrive at Stephen Starr and Brooklyn restaurateur Joe Carroll’s Fishtown barbecue mecca for a meal of smoky meats, Fette Sau’s relaxed bar is a top spot for sipping bourbon, too. A whopping total of 120 North American bourbons and whiskeys — including a hand-picked single-barrel Four Roses poured only at Fette Sau — hang out behind the bar, just waiting for an oversized ice cube and a glass.
• The Trestle Inn: For a dependable whiskey bar experience, venture inside The Trestle Inn, a Callowhill-neighborhood haunt well-known for brown-liquor-fueled good times. The spot may look like a typical dive, but those who hang out in the groovy low-lit environs, get down with go-go dancers and pick from the long list of whiskey, 65 in all, soon realize this bar is far from commonplace. Pay particular attention to such bottles as the Mitcher’s Unblended American Kentucky bourbon and the so-hot-right-now Monkey Shoulder Scotch blend.
• Khyber Pass Pub: In a previous incarnation, the Khyber Pass Pub was known for a wild live-music scene, but now a far more civilized atmosphere reigns and a deep list of good whiskey and craft beer keep patrons rockin’. Lovers of suds look to the chalkboard menu for the drafts, but those at the bar for a stiff drink should ask for the printed menu of more than 40 American varietals, including such sip-worthy bourbons as the Blanton’s Single Barrel and Hirsch Small Batch.
Even more picks for where to drink whiskey, below.
• Percy Street Barbecue: The laid-back bar at Percy Street Barbecue on South Street satisfies not only canned-beer lovers, but also brown-liquor aficionados. The menu lists more than 65 varieties of bourbon, rye and American whiskey, including a custom Four Roses Percy Street Single Barrel bourbon. Though the whiskey can stand on its own, for those who want to chase libations with belly-warming fare, chef Erin O’Shea’s meaty, smoky dishes at Percy Street include pork belly, brisket and barbecue chicken and more Texas-style eats.
• The Twisted Tail: A lively South Street bar and restaurant styled after a Southern juke joint, guests to The Twisted Tail should pair its charcoal-grilled fare and ongoing live blues with a sample from the 70-deep menu of domestic whiskey, from standard Kentucky straight Bulleit bourbon to ryes from McKenzie, Whistle Pig and Willet. Those who are looking for an introduction to whiskey drinking can order up one of five flights — including “1 Bourbon, 1 Scotch, 1 Beer.”
• Lloyd: Unfussy and ever-chill, Lloyd whiskey bar and restaurant in Fishtown pours more than 80 whiskeys. The father-son owned room is an ideal spot to tuck in and sip a spicy Hudson Manhattan rye paired with chicken-liver mousse, a burger or gumbo.
Climb to the second floor Ashton Cigar Bar for a taste from the largest selection of high-end bourbons and Scotches in Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy Ashton Cigar Bar)
• Time: Capricious barflies can hold up in three separate atmospheric areas at Time, a live music, food and drink destination in Midtown Village. Whiskey seekers, though, should find a booth in the brick-walled lounge and settle in at a booth to sample from the nicely sectioned out menu of ryes, blended and single-malt Scotch, Irish whiskey and bourbons.
• Cooperage: Housed within the historic Curtis Center — don’t miss the Louis Comfort Tiffany-designed Dream Garden mural — Cooperage nods to the area’s historic American roots and stocks more than 75 varieties of America’s favorite spirit. From the list of both American and imported varieties, sip on smooth Jefferson’s Small Batch bourbon or a 25-year single-malt Laphroaig.
• Stateside: A stellar destination for all-American eats and drinks on the ever-growing restaurant row of East Passyunk Avenue, Stateside earns respect from bourbon aficionados as one of the few Philadelphia bars to regularly carry the celebrated Pappy Van Winkle. Beyond the hype, though, Stateside pours a substantial whiskey and spirits selection consisting of 80 American bourbons, ryes and whiskeys, including Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project, the lovely Elijah Craig 21 Year bourbon, and four bottlings of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, 12 to 23 years old.
• Bainbridge Street Barrel House: A handsome seven-days-a-week pub, Bainbridge Street Barrel House in Queen Village credits craft beer with its existence (with 25 brews on tap, 180-plus bottled options, plus wine and classic cocktails), but its deep selection of bourbon and rye — which includes Four Roses Small Batch, George Stagg and Pappy Van Winkle — should not be ignored.
• Bourbon & Branch: A newcomer to Philadelphia’s whiskey bar world, Bourbon & Branch stocks more than 80 bottles of the “water of life,” from American bourbon and rye to blended and single-malt Scotch. With a crowd-pleasing food menu, serious cocktails and live music on the second floor, this Northern Liberties spot is sure to become a seasoned staple before too long.
• Hop Sing Laundromat: The ever-enigmatic proprietor of Hop Sing Laundromat, Lêe, would have you think his Chinatown lounge is just a simple bar. But those in search of super-premium spirits should certainly seek out the unmarked door at 1029 Race Street for expertly mixed cocktails, yes, and for the likes of Johnny Drum Private Stock bourbon and Jameson Gold Reserve. Note that a dress code (no sneakers or baseball hats, guys) applies, but we think a couple rules are totally worth following if they allow for such a fine bar-going adventure.
• Rex 1516: From the owners of nearby Jet Wine Bar, Rex 1516 brings elevated Southern-inspired eats and finely tuned drinks to South Street. Plus, with a nice list of 37 bottles of whiskey, the spirit of the South is alive and well at the Belle Époque-style bar. With picks like Noah’s Mill, Lexington and John J. Bowman, we’d opt for a pour of bourbon with just a few cubes.
• Coming Soon Bonus! Bank and Bourbon: Aiming for an opening date this March, Bank & Bourbon will debut at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel after a complete renovation of the ground-floor dining room. As the name suggests, the bar plans to draw brown-liquor lovers with a remarkably extensive bourbon program run by a “bourbon master,” who will be on-hand to educate guests and host an array of events.
Philadelphia has more than a dozen fine bars at which to drink a wide selection of whiskey -- be it bourbon, rye, blended, cask-aged or beyond. (Photos from left courtesy Village Whiskey; by M. Edlow for Visit Philadelphia)