Classic Cocktail Guide: Philly's Best Margarita, Manhattan & More

By Danya Henninger  |  March 19, 2014

Bartenders never tire of playing around with spirits, tinctures, shrubs, juices, bitters and herbs to create new and interesting concoctions, but true mixology masters will always extol the virtues of the classics. These are drinks so well-constructed that they’ve withstood the test of time, making their way to your lips from the minds of barkeeps a hundred years ago. Make it a mission to seek out the best of these sips from Philadelphia bars that do them exactly right.

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Best Daiquiri

    Basic Recipe: Light rum, lime juice, simple syrup

    Where to Try It: The deliciousness of this simple cocktail is entirely dependent on using just the right amount of sweet and sour to complement the booze, and the folks behind the stick at Jerry’s Bar in Northern Liberties have nailed the ratio. Try it with a dash of maraschino liqueur to walk in the footsteps of daiquiri aficionado Ernest Hemingway ($9).

    While You’re There: With a bar made from former Independence Hall marble and a mezzanine railing made from a balcony at the Divine Lorraine, this hideaway channels the essence of Philadelphia in the most inviting way. Test out the other cocktails on the menu as you snack on chef Marshall Green’s pickle-brined wings and housemade meatballs.

    129 W. Laurel St.; 267-273-1632

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Best Sazerac

    Basic Recipe: Rye, Peychaud’s bitters, sugar, lemon peel, absinthe rinse

    Where to Try It: The floral scent of Peychaud’s and the spiciness of rye exactly fit Rex 1516’s sexy-yet-comfortable Southern-mansion vibe. Plus, manager Heather Rodkey is a strict cocktail mistress, making sure ‘tenders at this South Street West dining room get this drink right, stirred (never shaken) and served simple and neat ($12).

    While You’re There: Sidle up to the marble bar and escape this era as vintage movies instead of the eye-pounding neon of contemporary shows play on the large-screen TV. After a drink or two, move on to the biscuit plate with chef Justin Swain’s unforgettable pimiento cheese.

    1516 South St.; 267-319-1366

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Best Margarita

    Basic Recipe: Tequila, lime juice, orange liqueur, salted rim (optional)

    Where to Try It: With three Mexican restaurants in his portfolio, it’s no surprise co-owner Brian Sirhal is a serious margarita buff. Of the endless variations of agave spirit and juice, his favorite is found on the menu at Fairmount’s La Calaca Feliz. Shaken together, El Tesoro reposado tequila, fresh lime juice and Patron Citronge liqueur make up “La Bestia Margarita” ($14).

    While You’re There: An evening turns into a fiesta when you sit below whimsical star lamps at the brightly colored bar and match your margs with a plate of ceviche or tacos (or ceviche tacos).

    2321 Fairmount Ave.; 215-787-9930

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Best Clover Club

    Basic Recipe: Gin, lemon juice, raspberry syrup, egg white

    Where to Try It: This warm weather classic is named after an 1880s Philadelphia lawyer’s club that met in the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. When you duck into the Ranstead Room, Stephen Starr's brocade-walled Rittenhouse speakeasy, you can almost imagine yourself in their time, whisked back by the poise and hospitality of the impeccably trained staff ($12).

    While You’re There: Once you’ve made your way down the alley into the hidden, double-R marked door, you won’t want to leave. For ultimate relaxation, settle into the leather banquettes and order “bartenders’ choice” as the night slips away.

    2013 Ranstead St.; 215-563-3330

  • Best Bloody Mary

    Basic Recipe: Vodka, tomato juice, spices, citrus (optional), veg garnish (optional)

    Where to Try It: There are so many variations on this brunch standard that it’s most fun to make your own. London Grill has one of the longest-running do-it-yourself Bloody bars in the city, and the weekend morning lineup includes multiple tomato-juice mixes, dozens of hot sauces, innumerable spices and garnishes that range from pickled carrots and peppers to classic celery ($12).

    While You’re There: Over 25 years at this Fairmount favorite, chef Michael McNally has perfected the neighborhood brunch. With a menu ranging from eggs with smoked salmon to shakshouka and huevos rancheros, you can easily return several Sundays in a row and get a totally different style of food to go with your evolving Bloody Mary creation.

    2301 Fairmount Ave.; 215-978-4545

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Best Manhattan

    Basic Recipe: Bourbon, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters

    Where to Try It: While Hop Sing Laundromat’s signature creations eschew bitters in favor of fresh juices squeezed à la minute, bartenders at this Chinatown retreat are also well-trained on the classics. Proprietor Lêe insists on nothing but top shelf, so his version uses Willett six-year bourbon and Carpano Antica vermouth ($12).

    While You’re There: Don’t be put off by the hype - the drinks here live up to their reputation - but also don’t expect to get in easily on a busy Saturday night, since Lêe simply doesn’t let his bar get crowded. Swing by on a Wednesday evening instead and you’ll get all the boozy pleasure with none of the hassle.

    1029 Race St.; no phone

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Best Pimm's Cup

    Basic Recipe: Pimm’s No. 1, mint, citrus, ginger ale

    Where to Try It: When warm weather hits, star barman Vincent Stipo can’t keep up with the orders for his version of this NOLA favorite at Vernick Food & Drink. Rittenhouse folks flock for the refreshing combo of the liqueur, lemon, orange juice, ginger ale and a ton of barely bruised mint ($13).

    While You’re There: This bar a must-hit destination for spring - there’s no need to leave the wide-open windows in the sunny front room when you can make a great meal from chef-owner Gregory Vernick’s famous toasts.

    2031 Walnut St.; 267-639-6644

  • Credit: Clay Williams

    Basic Negroni

    Basic Recipe: Gin, Campari, sweet vermouth, orange twist

    Where to Try It: Southwark was doing classic cocktails before they became cool again, and it’s still where you’ll find some of the city’s best. Made with equal parts of all three ingredients, this Italian refresher is the go-to drink of former Philadelphia Inquirer food columnist Rick Nichols - and his expert advice says this Queen Village bar does it right ($14).

    While You’re There: Since landing in the kitchen here several months ago, chef Sam Jacobson has let his British sensibilities inform the menu. Dine at the bar or in the hidden back dining room, but don’t miss your chance at corned beef tongue, real scotch eggs or a chicken liver mousse with apple jelly.

    701 S. Fourth St.; 215-238-1888