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Mixology Masters: Philadelphia's Top Craft Cocktail Bars

At these haunts loved by locals, Philly bartenders use herbs, bitters, flowers and fruits in their recipes. Drink up!

In Philadelphia, nobody would blame you for mistaking one of the city’s better bars for an old-timey apothecary. Even as the national cocktail zeitgeist is beginning to reflect a recent blowback against overly elaborate drinks, local bartenders like Keith Raimondi wouldn’t be caught dead without his arsenal of bitters, tinctures and drams.

Organized behind the cozy, candle-lit bar at Raimondi’s home base, Townsend on East Passyunk Avenue, the tiny vials with their eyedropper tops and masking-tape labels are to a bartender what spices and herbs are to a chef.

“We refer to them as seasoning,” said Raimondi, who’s been on the city’s bar circuit since 2007. In addition to Townsend, stints at Jose Garces’ Village Whiskey, Lemon Hill and the Yachtsman tiki bar in Fishtown have earned him that kind of industry following that makes Towsend’s bar packed on a Wednesday at one in the morning.

“They add what I like to call the ‘little bits and pieces,’ which take a cocktail from ordinary to very interesting without wrecking the balance,” said Raimondi. And cocktails at Townsend are all about balance: “When you start adding to a cocktail in order to add depth to the flavor profile, you have to take something away in order to rebalance. When you add something sweet, you need to add acid or something bitter to balance it back out.”

You get that expression in drinks like the Nickel City Sour, where bitter Zucca amaro, sharp Basque cider and lemon streamline maple syrup and Pedro Ximenez sherry. Always Misunderstood, a Venezuelan rum-based cocktail, finds balance with sloe gin and Sibona amaro.

Neuf restaurant and cocktail bar, Philadelphia
The Saz-Arak, a North African spin on the original, at Neuf (Courtesy of Neuf)

While dining and drinking in Philadelphia revolves around East Passyunk right now, the South Philly neighborhood isn’t the only place where you can find exquisite cocktails.

Heading north, the bar at shadowy, magnetic Neuf is where you’ll find bartender Jesse Cornell riffing on Joncarl Lachman’s French-accented North African menu with drinks like the Saz-Arak, “a shot for shot remake of a traditional Sazerac,” Cornell explains. “The difference is arak [a Middle Eastern anise liqueur] instead of the traditional absinthe.” Classic Peychaud’s bitters check the arak’s sweetness.

At Cypriot kitchen, Kanella, Ulisses Robles cocktail menu includes eastern Mediterranean ingredients like date molasses, fig-rosemary honey and rose preserves. Don’t miss the Greek Aviation, a lilac-hued elixir that gets its Hellenic tag from the introduction of masticha, a liqueur flavored with the piney, mapley sap of the mastic tree.

At A.Bar in Rittenhouse, bartender Paul MacDonald’s set-up includes lemon oil, mulled wine shrub and allspice oleo saccharum; he also serves a killer house-made nocino, an Italian walnut liqueur, made in-house with fruity green coriander.

Up the block, Sara Justice at Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co., Philly’s first serious bar, works barbecue spices, heirloom apple tinctures and peanut butter into sophisticated rhum agricole, single-barrel Bourbon, sherry and vermouth cocktails.

A.Bar in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia
Mix it up at A.Bar in Rittenhouse Square (©Jason Varney)

Philly’s best bars make many of their cocktail ingredients in-house.

“Obviously this allows us to use the best ingredients to make the best product,” said Raimondi. “It also allows us to make out cocktails consistently the same. If you have something like fresh strawberries, for example, and you make a drink by muddling, it’s very hard to make that drink taste exactly the same every time. But by making them into a syrup, you can guarantee the cocktail will test the same every time.”

Cheers to that.