It all started with Prohibition. I went to Philadelphia to explore that wild time of bootleggers and flappers (via American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, on exhibit at the National Constitution Center ), and soon found myself tippling my way through town. It's not a difficult thing to fall into. The affair with liquor is alive and well in the City of Brotherly Love, and bespoke cocktails—often served in modern renditions of old-timey settings—reign supreme. I sampled the wares at a variety of institutions (all in the name of research, of course), and hereby present the best Philadelphia cocktail bars. The Modern Speakeasy Named for the company that fronted the largest alcohol ring of the Prohibition era, The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. is speakeasy in tribute only (the ever-present line outside precludes any pretense of secrecy). Still, the trendy hotspot does what it does, and does it well. You'll wait, but then you'll savor: low lighting, leather banquettes, drinking as art form. At this homage to the "the golden age of bar rooms" it's hand-chipped ice, freshly squeezed juices, and a drink list divided into categories like "Required Reading," "Rebellious Spirits," and (my favorite) "I Asked Her for Water and She Brought Me Gasoline." My drink, the "Sideways in Reverse," combined apple brandy, Campari, St. Germain, and lime juice—and, while I'm not the type to wait in line, I didn't regret it. The "Not a Speakeasy" (But Really a Speakeasy) The Hop Sing Laundromat is everything I wanted my "speakeasy experience" to be. It blends right in with the anonymous facades on an anonymous Chinatown Street—the only thing that told us we were in the right place were the three people standing outside, as casually as if they were waiting to be buzzed into a friend's apartment. But you don't ring the bell here (we learned this when, once inside, we saw the doorman open the door acknowledge someone who had rung, and then close it again in their faces). Upon being allowed entry, we waited some more in a dimly lit antechamber, done up with books, vintage etchings, and a shelf of Campbell's Soup cans. We sat, eager, upright, and on our best behavior (perhaps it was the church pew?), until Lee, the proprietor, sauntered in and delivered, in broken English, the rules: "No cameras. Texting is allowed but phone calls are not…" He also apologized for the drinks—it's just a "humble bar" after all (just take a look at the one-page website)—before leading us to a table in a swanky room, where dark red walls are hung with gilded mirrors and oil paintings. Behind the bar is a boozers dream: every spirit imaginable on built-in shelving, replete with rolling ladder. Cocktails are listed by liquor. Drink specials come with stories. I opted for the "Railroad Judah," named for the poor sap who conceived of the Transcontinental Railroad and then died before he could see it happen. Our server raised an eyebrow and asked if I'd ever tried laphroaig before. I hadn't, and was more interested in the green and yellow Chartreuse. He smirked, said nothing else, and walked away. My drink arrived in what looked like a tiny martini glass. It was pale brown in color and tasted like smoked wood chips. When the waiter came by and I said I was enjoying it, he looked confused but impressed. I felt I'd just gained initiation into some secret drinkers' club. Where Speakeasies go to… Prison Lest you think I spent my entire visit to Philly sauced, a Prohibition-related daytime activity. Eastern State Penitentiary (2027 Fairmount Avenue) is an imposing structure that is even more haunting within than without. Abandoned in the '70s, the structure, much of which was built in the 19th century, still feels like ruins, with chipping walls and rotting cells. Until you reach the Park Avenue Block, where one snazzy cell has been decked out in period furnishings to resemble the schmancy digs it provided for one Al "Scarface" Capone. Rumor has it that Capone, who spent eight months here from 1929 to 1930, was caught with a concealed weapon on purpose so he could wait out the fervor from the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Whether or not that's true, one thing is certain: Mr. Scarface did his time in style, in a cell he outfitted with lavish decor, from oriental rugs to a richly polished desk. The Garden of Delight There's a palpable buzz at Talula's Garden (210 W Washington Square), a whimsical spot that feels fresh off the pages of an Anthropologie catalog (in the best of ways). Outside, the garden twinkles, while inside all is aglow, with candles in mason jars and repurposed decor, including windows that were discarded from M Night Shyamalan's The Village. Here, the focus is more on the seasonal menu, but the cocktails are every bit as lovely, with breezy names like "The Treehugger." I sampled "The Dreamer," a "scented gin and tonic" made with cucumber and garden herb syrup. Old Dogs, New Drinks The grandfather clock that guards the entryway of the Morris House Hotel bears the scars of revolution: bullet holes from when Revolutionary War soldiers literally "killed time" by shooting at the pendulum. Today, it's the cocktail revolution that's underway at the hotel's M Restaurant (231 S 8th St.), and leading the charge is Theo, the hip resident bartender who concocts wild and wondrous elixirs with names like "The Death of Marie Antoinette" (gin, drambuie, and luxardo) and "The Electrified Fence" (house-infused rye, apple, and ginger beer). Theo came explained his process: "I sometimes come up with the names first," he said. Then he uses in-season produce to create and mimic flavors via "infusions, consumes, or jellies."
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