While the shelves of any self-respecting drinking establishment will undoubtedly include bottles of Jack Daniel’s, Jameson and Jim Beam, fewer are the ones that feature the flavors of Booker’s 25th Anniversary, The Macallan 18 or Maker’s Mark 46.
Here are a few places in my travels throughout the Harrisburg region that take the art of the whiskey drink to its desired (and delectable) destination.
These are, of course, just three selections out of the many bars and restaurants serving the fruit of the barrel. Comment below and tell us where you go for an expertly crafted Manhattan, Sazerac or rare single malt Scotch.
The Old School
Stock’s On 2nd
For 16 years, Stock’s on 2nd (211 N. Second St., Hars was one of the biggest purveyors of fine dining in downtown Harrisburg. But in just a 72-hour span over the summer, it was transformed from a fine dining establishment into a gastropub with a farm-to-table menu and a specific emphasis on whiskey.
So while technically not an “old school” place in the truest sense, the remake of Stock’s has the feeling that it’s been around for years, successfully serving a host of whiskey drinks and some of the best bourbons made. It also helps when the walls are covered with old bourbon barrels and the bartenders are breaking ice cubes with a mallet while pounding a burlap bag.
Part of Stock’s recent success is the man behind the bar – Owen Byrnes. He’s been bartending around the world for 22 years – everywhere from San Francisco and New York to Dublin and Madrid. He takes particular pride in doing everything from scratch, creating a balanced drink with the proper ratio of ingredients. He says Stock’s is as good as any bar he’s worked at in terms of the quality of the drinks and the cocktails created – things like the Bourbon Bramble (Old Forester Bourbon, Chambord, Cointreau, lemon and simple syrup, mint and blackberry garnish).
“Everybody’s palate is going to interpret a drink differently, but it’s fun to find that niche for each individual,” Byrnes says.
A whiskey connoisseur, Byrnes says he’s enjoyed finding the new selection of craft rye whiskeys that have been popping up around the country. He says the Hudson Manhattan Rye is one of his new favorites, carrying a distinct style with multiple flavor levels that hit several different points of the palate.
Byrnes says it’s those unique flavors of whiskey that drinkers are looking for more and more, going back to simplistic drinks that don’t try to mask the whiskey flavor and instead bring it to the forefront.
Another trend Byrnes is experimenting with is barrel-aged cocktails, using small new oak-charred casks to slowly age the cocktail to achieve different levels of flavors. He says it’s interesting to see the way the flavors come together in the cocktail over three to five weeks, including creations like the Boulevardier (Old Forester Bourbon, Campari and martini sweet vermouth) and the Chocolate Revolver (Old Forester Bourbon, Kahlua and crème de cacao).
“You can find unique subtleties and other tastes highlighted that wouldn’t have been done if just made it in the moment,” Byrnes says.
The New School
Just a few blocks away in downtown Harrisburg sits the sleek interior, soft lighting and impressive back bar of Bricco (31 S. Third St., Harrisburg). With its focus on fine dining, the drink menu has not been forgotten, featuring Scotches like the Balvenie 21 Year Old PortWood, Highland Park 18 Year Old and the Oban 14 Year Old.
Restaurant manager Dominic DiFrancesco has been tasked with making Bricco one of the premier dining locales in Central PA, but his appreciation for all things whiskey also complements the food menu and wine list. There are bottles of Booker’s, Basil Hayden and Angel’s Envy bourbon, along with a list of craft cocktails – including seven that feature whiskey.
DiFrancesco says he’s enlisted the expertise of three full-time bartenders, crafting drinks like the popular Don Draper (Knob Creek, house-made root beer bitters and sarsaparilla simple syrup), the New Orleans-inspired Sazerac (Bulleit Rye, Peychaud’s Bitters, sugar, lemon and absinthe) and the Snow Globe (Maker’s Mark, Grand Marnier, heavy cream, cherry syrup, nutmeg and orange zest).
Besides craft cocktails, Bricco has also dabbled in the barrel-aged cocktail movement, creating its own aged Gentleman Jack to make the Barrel Aged Old Fashioned (Jack, orange, honey and Cointreau foam), the Barrel Aged Manhattan (Jack, Italian vermouth, bitters and bourbon cherries) and the Barrel Aged Blue Mountain (aged Jack Daniel’s Honey, ginger ale and mint cubes).
The front bar is not the only place whiskey is found at Bricco. Featuring an impressive chandelier made with old cooking utensils and a long dining table, the popular back dining room – Table at Bricco – is also the location of regular multiple-course meals paired with wine or whiskey. A Laphroaig dinner was held in November, and featured items like Highbourne Deer Farms venison ravioli and grilled diver scallop with golden raisin jam paired with Laphroaig Quarter Cask and Laphroaig 25 year.
“With the beverage dinners, it’s like, ‘OK. Here are the five Scotches we’re going to have,’” says DiFrancesco. “You give those to the kitchen. Now what are you going to do to complement the beverage?”
When Shady McGrady’s (204 Verbeke St., Harrisburg) was destroyed by arson more than three years ago, owner Scott Thomas went about turning the Midtown neighborhood bar into one of the best beer bars in Central PA. And with more than 40 taps of some of the best microbrews from around the world, it’s definitely held up as a beacon for beer connoisseurs – all while maintaining its blue-collar feel where smoking is still permitted inside and 40s of Bud are still in the take-out cooler.
About a year ago, Thomas says, he wanted to take the craft drink movement to its logical next step – hard liquor (and also as a challenge that he couldn’t sell high-end drinks to his customers). He recently built a shelving unit in an unused space behind the bar and started stocking it with the best craft bourbon, rye, Scotch and other whiskeys he could find.
Today, the shelf sits as a beacon for drinkers whose palates are constantly expanding. There’s bottles of Yamazaki and Hibiki 12 Year Old whiskeys from Japan. Shady’s offers $25 shots of The Macallan 18 on Fridays. They even have a bottle of Barterhouse 20 Year Old Kentucky Bourbon – a special whiskey blended from barrels forgotten in corners of warehouses for years.
But high-end whiskey is not the only feature. Thomas says he wanted to offer drinks for people of all incomes, and that is why he offers four different Jim Beam drinks for $4 apiece – including Red Stag, Jim Beam Maple and Jim Beam Fire.
“It’s what this bar has been about this whole time – it’s for everybody,” Thomas says. “You want bourbon and you come here with 20 bucks? Have four Jim Beams, leave a $4 tip and have a good time.”
Where do you go for your whiskey fix? Tell us below.