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.
I’ve enlisted the help of Ingrid Natale, division director for Southern Wine & Spirits. She’s agreed to allow me to ride along with her for a day throughout the region on a quest to find whiskey bars that are doing it right. Here are a few places in my travels throughout York County 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.
John Wright Restaurant
The history of Wrightsville is steeped in its proximity to the Susquehanna River. And from the River Room patio of John Wright Restaurant (234 N. Front St., Wrightsville), you can see evidence of that history – 25 stone piers that once held the Columbia-Wrightsville Covered Bridge that was burned during the Civil War.
But it’s a different burn that concerns Jim Switzenberg, director of operations at John Wright – the burn and bite of quality bourbon. Switzenberg says in recent years John Wright has turned into a go-to spot for whiskey connoisseurs looking for Old Fashioneds, Manhattans or high-end bourbons served neat or on the rocks.
Switzenberg is excited to pour drinks, pulling out a bottle of Jefferson’s Ocean – a bourbon aged for six extra months in barrels housed in a container ship. He talks about the restaurant’s special whiskey days, including Bourbon Bar Thursdays – featuring Old Forester barrel-aged Manhattans and a specialty cocktail menu – and Cider Saturdays – featuring Woodford Reserve and hot cider.
He points out one of the most popular whiskey cocktails – the Citrus Twist Manhattan. Made with Bärenjäger honey liqueur, Maker’s Mark, orange bitters and a lemon twist, the drink is sweet enough for the non-whiskey drinker but complex enough to intrigue a refined palate.
Then there are his infusion creations, including fresh, local organic blackberries thrown in Ezra Brooks whiskey to create 15 gallons of the earthy and sweet flavors to be used in the Blackberry & Ginger cocktail.
He also brings out his Wild Turkey Spiced bourbon, which he accidentally allowed to age for six months in a large aging barrel. The result is a bourbon that starts off with a vanilla flavor and finishes with hints of chocolate. It’s used in a Manhattan and Old Fashioned and also served neat.
Switzenberg has also created a barrel-aged Manhattan that features Old Forester whiskey pre-mixed with Woodford Reserve’s dry cherry bitters and sweet vermouth.
“We do our best to feed a whiskey palate with drinks that embrace someone who likes whiskey,” Switzenberg says. “But it’s balanced enough that it’s a palatable whiskey. So we try and introduce people to our whiskeys and our bourbons through well-balanced drinks.”
From the outside, The Cove (1500 S. George St., York) is not the most obvious place to feature a bounty of hard-to-find whiskeys. But venture inside to the back room, and you’ll discover a whiskey aficionado’s paradise.
When owner Eric Hewitt took over The Cove several years ago, he was looking to create a unique venue not found in the local York drinking scene. He decided to turn an existing martini bar into a full-fledged whiskey and cigar bar, expanding the room into a space large enough to also feature live bands.
As I walked through the door to the back room, I came upon a sign that read, “Keep calm and have some whiskey and a cigar.” It’s the kind of touch that takes the pretentiousness out of places like stuffy, big-city-esque whiskey bars, while still featuring all the same flavors.
There’s the Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select (made in honor of the famous crooner who helped popularize the drink in the ’40s) and the special Jameson Vintage. Hewitt also has a bottle of Charbay R5 Hop Flavored Whiskey – a California whiskey made from the distillation of 6,000 gallons of Bear Republic’s Racer Five IPA. And Hewitt says he’s always open to find and try new whiskeys if a customer is asking for something special.
“If we can educate the customer, then they can make a better decision,” Hewitt says. “The good news here is there’s over 100 bottles, so the chances are you haven’t tried at least one of them.”
As far as cocktails, the menu features several seasonal drinks like the Blueberry Honey Old Fashioned (muddled fresh blueberries, oranges and cherries, Angostura bitters and simple syrup all topped with Jim Beam Honey and a splash of club soda) and the Spicy Whiskey Sour (Jack Daniel’s Fire Whiskey, house-made simple syrup, fresh squeezed lemon juice, crushed ice and a lemon wheel garnish).
The whiskey bar also doubles as a cigar bar (with 25 different cigars to choose from), as well as a small arcade, featuring games like Skee-ball, Golden Tee and even the Beer Pong Master machine. And there aren’t many places where you can sip a glass of Johnny Walker Blue Label and play beer pong at the same time.
Holy Hound Taproom
Holy Hound Taproom (57 W. Market St., York) has built its reputation as one of the premier beer bars in the region since opening in 2012. Just look at the running total of kegs kicked from day one – 3,157 at the time of my visit – and its beer bona fides can’t be denied.
But pan your eyes just below the big board that lists craft beers like Rogue Shakespeare Oatmeal Stout and Southern Tier Warlock, and you’ll find even more unique drink selections. On one side are nearly a dozen different Scotches, and on the other side are the bourbons and ryes.
I look down the way to see bottles of The Macallan 12, The Balvenie and Oban 14 Year Old Whiskey. The bottle of Laphroaig has particularly caught Natale’s eye, but since she’s driving (and on the job), she shies away from buying a drink.
Me being more of a bourbon guy (and having a job where trying new drinks is encouraged), I examine the bourbon and rye selection. There are intriguing options like the Woodford Reserve Classic Malt, Angel’s Envy, Prichard’s Double Chocolate Bourbon and Booker’s 25th Anniversary.
I decide on a glass of the Knob Creek Single Barrel. Aged for nine years and carrying a hefty 120 proof, the whiskey carries complicate flavors of everything from mint, clove and black pepper to cinnamon and maple. I sip it slowly as the burn fills my mouth, but I’m surprised by its relative smoothness. It’s definitely a drink I’ll look to sip again.
And as I look at the painting hanging on the wall of Homer Simpson in a fedora holding a beer, I can envision him just as easily holding a glass of Knob Creek on the rocks instead.
Where do you go for your whiskey fix? Tell us below.