Drinking in Philadelphia is a funny thing. We love to drink in this city, but the state seems to try to foil us at every turn, making it harder, more expensive, and less convenient to buy great drinks of all kinds. Perhaps nowhere is that clearer than in Philadelphia’s cocktail scene, which is still on the small side. But dig a little, and you’ll find a city full of unlikely watering holes to serve you.
Granted, the city’s drinking scene took a hit from the pandemic: Some of the city’s best cocktail bars, including Hop Sing Laundromat, Fiume, Southwark, and more closed permanently or haven’t yet reopened.
But there are more reasons why cocktail bars don’t abound here. Part of it is the staggering price of a liquor license, says Resa Mueller of Fishtown’s R&D Cocktail Bar. Pre-pandemic, she says, liquor licenses were averaging close to $175,000 — a staggeringly high barrier to entry. And the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s tight control on all things boozy makes it significantly more expensive for a bar to buy liquor — sometimes even driving the price of a bottle to twice that of other states.
Our government’s control over our drinks is a hangover from Prohibition, when the city fought hard against the influx of illegal stills and speakeasies. When Prohibition was lifted in 1933, the conservative governor decided the state should retain control of all alcohol sales — rather than allowing businesses to sell it directly — in order to try to reduce alcohol consumption. Philadelphia bars and restaurants are still dealing with those laws today. But, Mueller said, all is not lost.
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Instead of a host of cocktail-only bars, some of the best drinking experiences in the city are at restaurants, where selling food helps offset the cost of the license.
When you’re trying out a new spot, asking your bartender questions is a great way to get to know the program. If you’re new to cocktails, it’s totally OK to let your bartender know, says Barry Johnson, a bartender and cocktail consultant based in Philly. Tell them what you like to drink — wine, beer, even kombucha preferences can help suss out what else you might enjoy. Ask questions about how things are made. Find out what you like. Do you like something spirit-forward or lighter? Are you drawn to citrus, herbal, or floral drinks?
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And, he says, trust your bartender. “Sometimes people will ask me to make a drink stronger or tell me to use less ice,” Johnson says. “When you’re making a cocktail, there’s a certain balance that you’re trying to make. And adding less ice doesn’t mean you’re going to get more alcohol.”
Oh, and last tip: Tip well. Johnson recommends tipping at least a couple of dollars per cocktail. Well-made cocktails require more time, attention, and skill than opening a beer bottle or mixing a well cocktail.
Here are some of the best places to find cocktails in Philadelphia.
Friday Saturday Sunday is known for being one of the best restaurants in the city, but cocktail aficionados like Mueller and Johnson also recommend it as one of the best bars. Paul MacDonald heads up the menu, designing modern, creative drinks like a smoked eggplant spritz, made with a simple syrup infused with the vegetable. Don’t worry, you don’t have to commit to the tasting menu to enjoy the cocktails. Simply head to the bar to peruse the menu and sample a few snacks alongside.
In Resa Mueller’s cocktail program, every element is elevated, from the classic drinks to the cocktails made with R&D’s house blends of bourbon and sweet vermouth — which mean the drinks are a step above what you can execute yourself at home. R&D recently redesigned its menu to focus more descriptions of each drink’s flavor and vibe and less on ingredient lists. This approach, she says, encourages people to trust the bartenders and try new things. The team at R&D also oversees the cocktail programs at Suraya and El Techo, so if you like what you’re drinking at R&D, those are spots with tasty drinks as well.
This restaurant is vegan, which is mostly irrelevant if you’re getting drinks, but it is a spot where you can get a flip with vegan “egg white” if that’s your taste, like the Metamorphosis, with butterfly pea flower-infused gin, elderflower liqueur, “charlie’s egg white,” grapefruit, and lemon. The menu changes seasonally, and the moody, intimate space makes it a sexy place to grab a drink.
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Both Johnson and Mueller said Philadelphia Distilling is one of their favorite spots in the city to have someone else make them a cocktail. The magic is twofold: They make the spirits, including Bluecoat Gin and Vigo Amaro, and all the drinks are made with fresh produce, like citrus, strawberry, and kiwi. The cocktail menu is small, but has range, from a take on punch (with Bluecoat gin, citrus, bitters, and soda) to Dutch Courage #8, (with Bluecoat barrel-finished gin, citrus bitters, habanero honey, and amaro).
South is a restaurant, bar, and jazz club, which you don’t see a whole lot of in Philadelphia. Enjoy live music and its distinctly Southern cocktail menu, which includes a signature twist on a Boulevardier, cut with creole shrub for an added layer of bitter orange and spices, and an autumnal draft bourbon punch with orange tea, lemon, and ginger. Both might just convince you to get up and dance.
The Library Bar looks the part — the space is full of heavy leather furniture, built-in bookshelves, and cozy lighting that feels like a home office in a mansion, if that office happened to be incredibly well-stocked with whiskey, brandy, wine, and, of course, cocktails. Come for the old-school vibe; stay for the drinks. The menu has a short list of house favorites, including a margarita and an old-fashioned, and an ever-changing seasonal menu.
Serious whiskey drinkers will enjoy perusing the lengthy spirits list at Lloyd, and newbies can try flights of local whiskeys, bartender favorites, single malts, and Japanese bottles. It follows that the cocktails are designed to show off the best in the bar’s collection, with a handful of draft old-fashioneds, plenty of classics, and a nice selection of non-whiskey drinks if brown liquor isn’t your thing. The bar also has a happy hour Monday to Friday from 4-6 p.m., with a selection of cocktails for $6.
Yes, Sancho Pistola’s does basic (but strong) margaritas by the glass and by the pitcher, but the cocktail menu is more serious than you might expect for a neighborhood nacho joint. The drinks are, predictably, tequila-focused, with 32 blanco, reposado, and anejo options to choose from and 20-plus mezcals. The menu also includes a section called “But what if I don’t like tequila...,” with cocktails made with bourbon, gin, and house-made root beer (not in the same drink, fear not).
Booker’s is a neighborhood hangout where the cocktails are, just like the the vibe, friendly and approachable. This isn’t the type of place where the bartenders will have to explain the menu to you. Its bar program includes drinkable, refreshing options like a ginger-spiked manhattan, a spicy whiskey sour, and a summertime frosé.
Outside the city
Bartender Danny Childs’ menu at Cherry Hill’s Farm & Fisherman is based on locally grown and foraged ingredients, many of which he harvests himself and brews into seasonal amari, house kombuchas, and even a sassafras root beer. Try a savory-leaning mezcal and soda made with Childs’ celery soda, or a sazerac made seasonal with strawberry-infused rye.
The Goat’s Beard in Wayne and Manayunk offers simple twists on classics, with some infused spirits and syrups to kick the flavors up a notch. Their Ancho Old Fashioned adds a spicy ancho reyes poblano liqueur to the familiar favorite; the Smoke & Salt is a margarita made with jalapeno-infused tequila and smoky bitters; the Penny Lane combines gin, grilled peaches, rosemary simple syrup, lemon, and tonic.
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A lot of people go to The Ripplewood because of its burgers. But the restaurant also stocks more than 200 whiskeys, which makes this a great place to drink before, during, and after your meal. Try one of its bourbon flights, or stick to the cocktail menu of well-balanced, strong house cocktails and riffs on classics.
About the writer:
Maddy Sweitzer-Lammé is a food and restaurant writer based in Philadelphia with roots in the South. Her work spans restaurants, home cooking, and all the ways food is intertwined with community, politics, and pleasure. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Philadelphia Magazine.