The Philadelphia region has become a hub of brewing and distilling, and Martha, the fine, chill bar tucked away in Kensington, is where it all gets together. Bottles of more than 120 local spirits line the shelves, and — says veteran barman and co-owner Jon Medlinsky — it’s 80 percent to 90 percent of what he serves, along with hyperlocal foods, such as meats from Kensington Quarters and Bobolink cave-aged cheddar. There’s also a cool collection of tequila and mezcal, because Medlinsky is a fan of David Suro, who owns Tequila’s restaurant in Center City as well as Siembra Azul, a Mexican bottler. “We also have a real healthy amaro shelf just because we really enjoy amaro,” Medlinsky says.
We chatted one afternoon last week as he set up the bar.
When or how did you get into the spirits?
I think I started with beer. I worked at Eulogy [in Old City], and loved sour beer. I remember going to Monks when I was first new to the city, and just being super-blown away by it. Working in bars and restaurants certainly developed an appreciation of a good cocktail from a consumer point of view. I’ve always been more on the side of appreciating the spirit for what it is. I certainly enjoy cocktails, and our bar is certainly focused on cocktails, but I also just have a kind of a deep appreciation for the production of the spirit, and the nature of the spirit itself.
Tell me about your program at Martha, and what it entails.
When we were opening up Martha, it was sort of an extension of these classes that I had done at the Khyber on microbial terroir — this idea that you could have a regional fermented flavor, if you will, and we tried to source things for those classes that were all naturally or spontaneously fermented from within the Philadelphia region. Wines, beers, cheeses, and charcuterie that were all natural, as well. We started to see the emergence of this local spirit scene, and so when I was putting together this bar and thinking about what I would do here, we were just doing everything local. We had a local music playlist, and we had local wines and local food, and it just made sense with this emergence of this scene to tap into it. A big part of it, too, was just our location. We’re on the same block as Rowhouse Spirits. We’re three blocks down on Martha Street from Red Brick Distillery. We have New Liberties, and Kinsey from Rob Cassell, who’s a longtime friend from the Bluecoat days, and certainly the forefather of our local spirit scene, not too far away. We have La Colombe doing their rum. It was just around us and part of this kind of Kensington and Fishtown community already, and it just didn’t make sense to stock the shelves with a bunch of commercial stuff that we had no connection to.
Wait. Microbial terroir?
The idea of terroir, of expressing the place where something is made and adding on the layer of microbial or yeast fermentation and bacteria fermentation as the source or main genesis of that flavor. Some people think that you get terroir from the soil, which is possible and true, or from the water or things like that. My idea is that it happens mostly with the yeast and bacteria that do the fermentation. I believe in yeast and bacteria as the dominant flavor component in most of the things that I enjoy. There certainly is malt, and I’ve learned a lot actually about local malt in this year and a half that we’ve been doing stuff here, specifically Deer Creek, and Double Eagle. When you use good malt in something, it actually has a big influence, but most of the commercial products in the world use pretty bland, normal malt, and then, certainly, yeast is a big factor in flavor, and then in blending. The person who blends the barrels, or creates the product from there, is also a big factor. What we were saying is, like, wouldn’t it be cool to get things that were all just spontaneously fermented to see if you could find some commonality between all the products, whether they’re cheese, or wine, or beer, and find that microbial terroir that is unique to Philadelphia?
What kinds of classes do you do at Martha?
Every Monday, we do a happy hour with a different featured producer, where they do a sort of sampling and people get to put a face to the name for the products that we serve. Then we engage the products ourselves by cooking with it and passing around a free snack with it. We do half-price cocktails that Mike Landers puts together, which are brilliant and incredible, that he makes every week. We get people a chance to meet and sample and talk about it on a very smaller scale. Sometimes in really cool ways we get to do more nerdy, like those old classes, more intense classes, during the afternoons.
I know you like to joke about the geek aspect of it. Are there a lot of geeks here?
Absolutely. The words are tough. I don’t want to insult anyone, but food and beverage nerds are really our people. That’s who works here. That’s who comes here. That’s who we communicate with, and there’s a specific genre of food and beverage nerds that are socially acceptable, friendly types. There’s a whole bunch of people who don’t do well in public, and they’re cool at home, but there’s a subset of food and beverage nerds who come in here and make this place special. Every now and then, I just look down the bar and I smile, because it’s our baker who does our sourdough bread who is nerding out on the natural wine that we just got, or a brewer from the brewery down the street who’s been really enjoying the cheese that he’s having. There’s a lot of cross energy like that. Add to that the community of vegetable-focused people. We get a lot of vegan and vegetarian customers, and it’s this really nice mashup of nerdy food people.