The speakeasy cocktail bar is back, so much it’s almost become cliché. The peepholes, the passwords, no outside signs, elaborate and secret entrances of all kinds. At some point we have to ask: is this a bar, or a remake of The Thin Man?
The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company in Philadelphia takes a more relaxed approach. Imagine a speakeasy in a city where every palm is greased, every cop is a happy drinker and the Prohibition agents are all cheerfully blind. The name comes from a front company used by Prohibition-era rum-runner Max “Boo Boo” Hoff, who ran his Philadelphia operation high and wide in just such a city.
The entrance isn’t obvious—it’s an unmarked walk-down under a hair salon (appropriately named “Liquid”)—but it isn’t hidden either. It’s a good thing, too: the late-night line of drinkers waiting to claim one of only 47 spots would be a bit of a giveaway.
“People call us a speakeasy,” says Mike Welsh, who owns the place, along with partners Christopher Doggett and Christopher Gali. “Our aim is not to be hokey or kitschy; we choose to define ourselves by our cocktails.”
After opening in June, 2009, the Franklin rapidly established a spot in the top tier of cocktail bars in the city. “In cocktail creativity? We’re second to none,” admits Welsh.
Classics Are a Focus
A lot of that creativity goes into their rum drinks. Rum is a great period spirit, given its easy plenitude during Prohibition, and it’s popular in this socially conservative city. “I wish we could thump our chests and say we’re a rye town,” Welsh laughs, “but I guess it’s a rum town. That’s okay, it’s a spirit with great versatility: there’s white, aged and agricole, and there’s regionality to it, too.”
Bar manager Colin Shearn and top bartender Al Sotack have plenty of rum (and whiskey, and gin, and tequila, but no vodka) drinks in their bar menu, the “little black book” of Franklin cocktails. They take the time to engage customers to find the perfect cocktail for their moment. My interview led to a rum invention with an intriguingly voodoo-inspired name, the Papa Ghede. The name evokes both the Haitian/Martinique origins of the spirits and the launch point for the drink: the Hemingway Daiquiri.
The idea, Shearn explains, was to land somewhere between a classic Daiquiri and a Hemingway Daiquiri. The drink is made with four year old Barbancourt Rum, Rhum J.M., a splash of absinthe, housemade blueberry-rooibos syrup and celery bitters, a dash of Peychaud bitters and fresh lime and grapefruit juices; served up in a Champagne coupe. The celery bitters and absinthe bring out the herbal qualities of the rhum agricole, while the fruit components work with the overall rum’s sweetness to make an easy-going but enchanting drink. The Papa Ghede, like most cocktails at the Franklin, is $12.
Shearn and Sotack are kept busy creating new cocktails; the menu changes about four times a year. There are easy-to-like drinks (the Papa Ghede fell in that category), punches and more challenging blends.
The variety—there are over twenty new cocktails in every iteration of the menu—is the main selling point here. The varied clientele—hipsters, lawyers, couples, groups—are like craft beer drinkers; they’re drawn by the new and the different. (There is a small menu of beer and wine, by the way, but it’s really all about the cocktails.)
The drinkers still like a classic. Welsh says the best-selling drink is the Old-Fashioned. “We sell about 40 in a week,” he notes. “We sold 44 last week.” They play it straight: bitters, ice, sugar and a good dose of Buffalo Trace, the house Bourbon (also $12).
The cocktail menu is about six times the size of the food menu, by the way! With only 960 square feet in the entire place—floor, bar, restrooms and storage—there’s just no room for a kitchen. There’s a relationship with nearby restaurant Supper to provide a simple bar menu: one big, awesome crab cake and a small assortment of snacks.
There’s an enthusiast vibe here, to be sure; people talk drinks and spirits. But the main buzz comes from the accessible exclusivity of a small, special place. When you’re at the Franklin, attention is centered on you and finding the perfect drink for your moment. People are happy to make that investment at the Franklin Bar.