A 72-hour renovation later, and a whiskey-slinging, farm-to-table-serving gastropub is born.
For most nine-to-fivers who value their employment, 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon is an hour too early to turn the key on the happy hour engine.
Fortunately for this guy, hitting the bar at the same time the opening credits to The Dr. Oz Show are rolling is not only totally permissible, it’s actually part of the job. And in this particular case – visiting the newly renovated and conceptualized Stock’s On 2nd gastropub in downtown Harrisburg – arriving early was a crucial component in making the most of the drinking experience.
It’s no secret that this summer’s “parking meter-gate” has proven bad for business for the city’s bar and dining scene, lengthening the black hole of time between lunch and happy hour. Walking in to Stock’s just a week after owners Stephen and KJ Weinstock pulled off an impressive – if not unprecedented – 72-hour top-to-bottom makeover, I was taken aback by the fact that I was, well, the only customer in the place. (Check out the awesome time lapse video PennLive.com captured during the renovation.)
Anyone who’s worked in the service industry will tell you – the afternoon lull can be painful. So while my reporter’s mind wanted nothing more than to take my time to walk about and peruse Stock’s new look and design (I was smitten by aesthetic touches like the Edison bulbs dangling from wood slabs throughout the room, reclaimed wood tables and the whiskey barrel-adorned walls), I instead prioritized getting to the bar to sit and have a chat with the bartender. And to have a drink, of course.
Now there are bars that merely stock the necessary lot of whiskeys and bourbons (read: Jim Beam, Jack Daniel’s and Jameson) on their shelves to get through the evening’s standard mix of drinks and shots. And then there are whiskey bars. What differentiates the two is simple: while the former is more than capable of pouring you the cocktail you ordered, the latter will likely turn your drinking session into an educational experience.
There’s no denying that, with its wall of whiskeys, bourbons and Scotches, the new Stock’s on 2nd is a brown-liquor-lover’s oasis. But here’s the thing – merely loading up a wall with a wide spectrum of whiskey does not a whiskey bar make. You need a guide, someone who can help you wade through the hints of caramel, notes of citrus and smoky character of the 30-plus options in front of you.
Taking my seat at the bar, I was approached by bartender Owen Byrne. He welcomed me and asked if this was my first time in since the renovation (it was). We quickly navigated past the usual new-customer-greeting banter, however, and got down to business.
Over the course of Byrne’s eight-and-a-half years behind the bar at Stock’s, he’s made his fair share of drinks, most notably martinis, Cosmopolitans and other clear-liquor-dominant cocktails for which the formal dining hotspot has long been regarded. The restaurant’s regulars know him and, more importantly, trust him. But what the regular crowd may not have known is that while they sipped on their skillfully crafted dirty martinis, Byrne’s main area of expertise was yet untapped.
Byrne was offered his first sip of Scotch on a hunting trip in Western Pennsylvania with his dad. He was 8 years old. He wanted to fit in with the hunting pack as they prepared their internal sweaters for the cold outdoors. While that first experience didn’t go so smoothly, it did leave a lasting impression. By college, Byrne became accustomed to bringing a bottle of Scotch to parties, only to see it left there – unopened – at the end of the night. From there, he widened his palate to the extensive world of Irish whiskeys.
Glancing at the wall of whiskey behind Byrne, I asked what his take was on Stock’s new whiskey menu. And for a recommendation.
Byrne poured me a small taste of Old Forester from the bottle, pointing out its spicy, nutty character. “If you like that, you’ve got to try our barrel-aged Old Forester.”
As Byrne fixed me up a barrel-aged Old Forester Manhattan – complete with one giant ice cube and a real cherry (as opposed to those atomic-red maraschino jobbies) – he explained how Stock’s has five small charred-oak barrels dedicated to aging whiskeys and bourbons in-house. The process takes about five weeks. He also took a moment to outline his dedication to making drinks the way they’re supposed to be made.
Take the Old Fashion, for example. Order one at most bars, and you’ll likely bear witness to a fine display of mashing and muddling as the bartender has his way with the fruit. But, as Byrne point out, this commonly accepted preparation isn’t likely to have always been the way it was done.
“We don’t use any fruit in our Old Fashion,” he explains. “We use orange and cherry bitters instead. Back then, unless the bar was located in Florida, they wouldn’t have had ready access to fresh oranges.” Byrne also adds Stock’s signature maple-laced syrup to add an earthy sweetness to the drink.
Stock’s on 2nd keeps six varieties of bitters on hand. The bar staff prepares its own sour mix as well. I even witnessed one of the other bartenders crushing ice by hand with a small wooden mallet for a mint julep.
It’s this attention to detail that earns new Stock’s on 2nd the designation as a true whiskey bar. The Weinstocks have taken great care to reinvigorate their 16-year-old restaurant, injecting a healthy dose of Americana into the drinking and dining experience without sacrificing the sophistication that has long helped Stock’s stand out on Restaurant Row.
And when you go to experience the new Stock’s on 2nd for the first time, make time to get there early and have a chat with Byrne. Sure, it may cost you an extra dollar or two in the meter, but the payoff – learning about the heritage and tradition of whiskey in America and from around the world – is oh, so, worth it.
You should probably order some food, too.
• 211 North 2nd Street, Harrisburg; 233-6699
• Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m.