The best drink at Manatawny Still Works’ new East Passyunk tasting room is made with blue cheese and a butane torch.
Ok, so the two don’t ever come in contact with the drink itself — an alcoholic twist on fondue is not the next hot booze trend. But the “Italian Market,” which comes with a spoonful of funky cheese to offset the sweetness of Three Bitches Vodka mixed with local honey, black walnut bitters and smoke from a cinnamon stick, is definitely not your typical cocktail.
It fits, because the signature product from this Pennsylvania distillery, which opened in Pottstown just over three years ago, is not typical either.
Keystone Whiskey is not a bourbon (there’s no corn) and it’s not a rye, which makes up just 2 percent of its grain bill, along with malted barley, wheat and oats. It’s less sweet than Canadian whiskey, and unlike most Irish whiskey, is aged in new barrels that haven’t previously held fortified wine or rum. Tasting room general manager Art Etchells — who many may be familiar with from his decade at the helm of food and drink blog Foobooz — describes Keystone as tasting “like an unpeated scotch.”
Head distiller Max Pfeffer prefers to answer the question by saying simply, “It’s a Pennsylvania whiskey.”
Pfeffer’s background is in the beer industry, and the liquid that forms the base for Manatawny’s booze is brewed just down the road from the distillery by his former employers at Sly Fox. Which leads to another big difference between his spirits and most others: The grain is removed prior to fermentation.
It all adds up to drinks that are smooth but also extremely full of flavor. And while bottles have been on shelves at around a hundred Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores across the state, it’s now super easy for Philadelphians to get a taste.
Officially called the Manatawny Craft Spirits Shop & Tasting Room on Passyunk Avenue, the new spot is right across from the Singing Fountain, next to Izumi and around the corner from the forthcoming Rival Bros Coffee shop. During the day, it’s more of a retail store, but at night the stools come out, the lights dim and the copper bar begins to buzz.
The opening drink list was a collaborative effort from everyone but Pfeffer, who said he’s “better at deciding what goes in the bottle than comes out of it.” Right now it’s got six cocktails priced between $10 and $13, with names inspired by the neighborhood.
When you want your neighbors to pull an I’ll-have-what-she’s-having, order the eye-catching “I Got a Guy.” Manatawny’s T. Rutter Rum is shaken with fresh grapefruit juice, grenadine and egg whites, and the pink froth is topped off with an Amarena cherry.
Another standout is the “Goretti-Rita,” a whiskey-grapefruit-lime twist on the margarita. It’s not at all sweet and might even be more refreshing than the original.
If you’re interested in exploring the whole Manatawny line, which also includes gin, go for the tasting flight. Pick three for $5 or sample all six for $8 — the funds can be applied directly to the price of a bottle if you choose to purchase one.
Many of the products are also available in smaller, 200-ml bottles, which, Etchells pointed out, are pretty much the size of a flask. Which is why he plans to run specials on Eagles home game days — look for the Eagles flag flying next to the tasting room door and you’ll be able to scoop one of those minis up at a discounted price, the better to bring along for tailgating fun.
Other flag specials will also run on various days. If you see the colors of Amsterdam fluttering out front, for example, expect deals on gin (which was invented by the Dutch).
Right now, the bar uses only local products, for the most part. The same goes for the items on the retail shelves, which include co-branded Green Aisle Grocery Bloody Mary mix and chile-lime salt, and Brewscouts dog biscuits made with Mantawny’s spent grain.
Tasting room hours are currently noon to 11 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.