A surprise twist at Manatawny Still Works' South Philly tasting room: Flair bartending meets craft cocktails

Ask anyone who’s ever been burned, figuratively or literally, by a flaming shot: alcohol and pyrotechnics do not, as a general rule, make a great combination.

And, yet, as I sit at the bar at Manatawny Still Works’ South Philly tasting room, here comes the bartender wielding a blowtorch.

Before I have a chance to rethink my order, he’s incinerating a hapless cinnamon stick before my eyes (no bar patrons are injured, to my relief) and capturing the smoke in an overturned rocks glass. Then, the whole thing is safely doused in a mix of house-made vodka, Chester County honey, and black walnut bitters, and served with a sidecar of Birchrun Hills Farm blue cheese.

I'm normally against all drinks involving an open flame, but this one at Manatawny Still Works was OK.

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It’s flair bartending meets the craft-cocktail movement at the Manatawny Still Works tasting room, the outpost of a four-year-old Pottstown distillery that took advantage of state liquor law reforms to expand onto Passyunk Avenue’s restaurant row in August. The narrow, brightly lighted space, vintage-ified with salvaged-wood accents, packs in a bottle shop, a boutique, and a long, copper-sheathed bar where a single, hardworking bartender/emcee offers a steady stream of patter alongside the complicated cocktails made with Manatawny’s house spirits and local ingredients, like Rival Bros. cold-brew coffee and Commonwealth Cider.

“My name is Mike. I’ll be your over-dramatic bartender,” he announces jovially after hurling a shaker into the sink with a thud. Later, he admonishes a cluster of bargoers: “Are you guys texting on a group chat? Act like you’re in a bar! Talk to each other.”

Camera icon STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Bartender Ben Spirk at Manatawny Craft Spirits Shop & Tasting Room in  South Philly.

The space, close quarters, doesn’t leave much room for private conversations. So it’s best to focus on the menu of cocktails and tasting flights. It’s varied, as the Manatawny crew will distill almost anything – whiskey, gin, vodka, white whiskey, and rum – and it changes with the arrival of new, not-found-in-State-Stores, small-batch releases, like the tequila-barrel-aged gin and the Batch14 Honey Whiskey currently on offer.

Camera icon STEVE M. FALK/Staff Photographer
An exterior view and a look at the bottle shop merchandise at Manatawny Craft Spirits Shop & Tasting Room.

Art Etchells, who manages the Philadelphia locations, including a new bottle shop in Suburban Station, said there were reasons for making so many spirits.

“We pride ourselves as being a whiskey house first and foremost, but whiskey takes time. You got to keep the lights on,” he said. “The big expense is putting the stills in, so I feel like: Why stop with one thing? You’ve gone through all the red tape of opening a distillery in Pennsylvania. That’s the hard part.”

The flagship is Keystone Whiskey, made with 80 percent malted barley; the rest is wheat, oats, and rye. Try it in a classy take on the citywide special ($8) with a can of Sly Fox Helles lager for a chaser, or in the house old-fashioned ($12). Or – and this would be ordering off-menu – request it in a tray of flaming shots. What’s the worst that could happen?

Manatawny Craft Spirits Shop & Tasting Room

1603 E. Passyunk Ave.,  267-519-2917, manatawnystillworks.com

When to go: It’s popular as an after-dinner stop on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays (though you can also order delivery and eat dinner at the bar). It’s open  5 to 11 p.m. Monday and Tuesday;  noon to 11 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday.

Bring: Your favorite South Philly hipster locavore jawn.

What to order: If you’re in it for the spectacle (or the cheese), go for the Italian Market ($13), that well-balanced concoction of vodka, honey, black walnut bitters, and smoked cinnamon. Otherwise, opt for the Raise the Cat ($11), made with Manatawny’s Odd Fellows gin, pomegranate, rosemary syrup, and chai spiced tea. Pennsylvania-made beer (Evil Genius, Sly Fox) and wine (Wayvine, from Nottingham) are also available.

Bathroom situation: The single-stall unit is the best-smelling bar bathroom in Philly, thanks to bunches of dried lavender on display and available for purchase from Mount Airy Lavender Farm.

Sounds like: A moderate 85 decibels of shaken cocktails, bartender banter, and the Weeknd on the sound system.