Takes a Village to raise a glass

The art of the cocktail, with the finest bourbons and rye, is revived at Village Whiskey.

Bartender Keith Raimondi at the Village Whiskey.

Now let us toast Village Whiskey, a wall of hard stuff, shaded rich amber and rosy copper, rising behind the bar, more bourbons here (54 and counting), and rye, Canadian, Irish and Scotch than you'll likely find - well, maybe you can find a few more at Bourbon, the bar (now two bars), in D.C., but that pretty much covers it.

Liquor reps gasp at the sight. Some of this stuff was thought extinct, or at least in hiding, as skittish about appearing in public as a wild turkey in hunting season.

Serious drinkers go weak in the knees. They say they'll pass. Then you see them with a toot of Tuthilltown Manhattan Rye, Pappy Van Winkle 23 Yr., or The Macallan (12 Yr., Cask Strength, 18 Yr., or 1841 Replica, priced from $11 to $28! a one-ounce shot).

Village Whiskey - lazy ceiling fans, hanging acorn lights, octagonal floor tile - is at the corner of 20th and Sansom, a click off the center of Center City. It is the latest, and most Norte-Americanized space of hot Latino hand Jose Garces, Iron Chef star. It is appended, in fact, to Tinto, Garces' dark, Basque-themed wine bar, with which it shares a subterranean (bicultural) kitchen.

We shall visit the food menu momentarily, and one crosses one's fingers that another rarity - the elegant, mildly creamy and briny Cape May salt oyster - will keep its place on it.

But first, a word on the silly-tini fad that by the mid-'90s coursed throgh Old City, then bled into Manayunk, threatening to redefine the drinking life of this old city as surely as German lagers did - but in a stouter way - more than a century ago.

In Victorian barrooms, ceilings of pressed tin, and in corner tappies, shots and beers never left. But good bourbon disappeared, as did rye, and the muscle memory, in more refined digs, required to mix honest and old-school cocktails of the grown-up persuasion.

At the Continental, the yuppified diner at Second and Market, you could get yourself a best-selling Astronaut martini (Tang, yes, the space program's powdered orange drink, and peach vodka). But try to get a decent Manhattan or Old Fashioned or, heaven forfend, a proper Negroni! ("Negroni? Isn't that gin and . . . ?" Well, yes, it's gin and Campari, sweet vermouth, and twist of orange.)

"Retro" was just another word for Tony Bennett on the sound system. If it hadn't been for the barkeeps at Southwark and a few other keepers of the flame, the art of the cocktail might have died in the city.

So it is understating it to observe that a smile has attended the reviving fortunes of the adult cocktail evident at Apothecary Bar at 13th and Sansom, and Franklin Mortgage at 18th and Sansom, and now Village Whiskey.

Suddenly ice, yes, ice, is being treated with reverence (cube size matters; some chip it off grand blocks). Bitters are being made in house. Village Whiskey has signed on with Hudson Beach, the custom glassblower in Old City, for sexy, grooved whiskey glasses modeled after the antique glass insulators railroads once used on communication wires.

Yes, there is food - an 8-ounce beef burger, "farm-raised Angus from Maine," loosely packed on a gentle puff of a toasted sesame bun with homemade Thousand Island dressing, tomato, and Boston bibb lettuce that - speaking of retro - reminds you of what burgers commonly were before the Big Mac. (Note: This Village Burger gets my vote for the best of the city's new-wave burgers. Forget the foie gras-topped version. Skip the "duck-fat fries," too, given as they are to arrive mealy and sodden. Get the snacks instead; deviled eggs, $3; lush Tater Tots, $3.)

So there is food, an abbreviated raw bar, a fabulous Cobb salad, a good pulled-pork sandwich with whiskey (of course) barbecue sauce.

But this is a place, especially on a quieter weeknight evening, to reunite with the well-made cocktail. Bartender Keith Raimondi will be happy to oblige, fashioning a proper Old Fashioned (dousing the sugar cubes first with house-made bitters), a moody Vieux Carre (rye, cognac, sweet vermouth and two kinds of bitters), or for a sip of the city's roots (and provided you are not about operate heavy machinery), a sneaks-up-on-you Philadelphia Fish House Punch, which involves peach brandy, cognac, dark rum, and other accents, peels and spices that mask those initial ingredients.

Please then, won't you raise your glass. . .


Village Whiskey

20th and Sansom Streets




Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.