By Kurt Maitland
Even with 20 plus years of living in New York, I still have links to Allentown, PA. I spent middle school, high school there. I have many fond years of digging in the bookstores, record shops and library of its downtown. I was sad to see the city drift into decline in the ’90s and I am thrilled that the city seems to have turned the corner.
Allentown was always better for beer than whiskey. Among those fond memories of my time in Allentown, there was no whisky bar could compete with what I’ve experienced in New York or DC. Until now, with the opening of The Hamilton. The Hamilton is the first of what I hope will not be the last, of quality whiskey establishments in Allentown. On one of my trips to Allentown, I got to speak to Jason Lonigro, the general manager of The Hamilton and the man that stocks the bar there so well.
KM: So tell me about how you got into the beverage industry?
JL: It was more of a “right place at the right time scenario”. When I was a server at the W New Orleans, they needed a part-time bartender that didn’t mind working the slower days. Being that I just turned 18 and really wanted to learn, it was kind of a perfect fit for me. I had the fortune of working under a gentleman named Marvin Allen who is now the bar manager at The Monteleone Carousel Bar in New Orleans. He was the first person to really take their time and teach me everything he knew about Scotch, which was one of his passions, Bourbon and other spirits.
KM: In the Hamilton, you are building what is undeniably a show piece bar in an area being revitalized after a long period of decline. With that in mind, what did you want to provide in the way of whiskeys and cocktails when the restaurant was being planned?
JL: We really wanted to give the area something they always wanted, but never knew they needed. Since our menu is focused on seasonal American cuisine we wanted the beverage program to reflect that. We are the first restaurant in our market to have a strong focus on American whiskey and craft spirits. The cocktail program I put together was a bit too out of the box for an area that is now only seeing the craft trends that are all over other major markets. We are really blessed with the bar team has embraced learning as much as they can to produce our house made syrups, cordials, and liqueurs and keep up with fresh squeezed juices and stirred drinks.
KM: What are the challenges of building a quality whiskey selection in a state such as Pennsylvania? How does that compare to other states you’ve worked in?
JL: Pennsylvania is one of the most challenging states I have worked in as a buyer, even more so than Mississippi, which I never thought I would say when I moved up here.
The first thing you need to wrap your head around is that the State of PA [the state government] is the biggest buyer of Wine and Spirits in the world. Their buying power is amazing, and is reflected in a lot of one time buys and featured products you find in their state run stores and online marketplace. The trouble with this is a lot of allocated items you would think be allocated by the purveyors in the state to licensees are actually given to the State to distribute however they see fit. A good example of this would be my Sazerac rep who represents bourbons such as Van Winkle line, EH Taylor, Weller, Elmer T Lee, etc. When the rarer offerings from Buffalo Trace get released on the states online site, like last year’s Buffalo Trace Antique Collection & Van Winkle Line, the state does not tell the reps from Sazerac so they can in turn relay this to their accounts. This can be said for the Booker’s 25th Anniversary release, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon and so on. In order for me to be able to get as many offering on our list as possible I have to constantly search the online store, sometimes 10 – 15 times a day, and search the states web search for any items that may have just gotten coded.
Unlike other states where licensees/accounts are able to purchase wine and spirits at wholesale pricing, PA is very much different. Licensees are allowed a 10% discount which is really negated by tax and per bottle shipping costs that can be as high as $3 a bottle. Due to this we have to operate at much higher costs than I ever had to run in the LA & MS markets I have worked in. Plus due to the expenses associated with licensing and coding, a lot of distilleries and wineries choose not to do business with PA.
KM: Having spent years building whiskey collections for eating establishments such as Emeril’s chain of restaurants and now The Hamilton, what do you focus on when you are building out your whiskey selection?
JL: There are certain labels you have to feature on your back bar, but it’s the unusual-off the beaten path ones that I really enjoy adding to the list. Whether it’s bringing in interesting independent bottlings of Scotch to American whiskey sourced from Little Rock and Santa Fe. Since I have been in PA I have really tried to have our state well represented on the back bar, from Hewn, Dad’s Hat Rye and Wigle. I also believe that building a selection of Whiskeys we have hand selected for the restaurant has really helped made our program more approachable. We currently have 6 house single barrels and small batches from Jefferson’s (small batch and reserve), Knob Creek, Four Roses Barrel Proof, Buffalo Trace and Dad’s Hat. By the Summer and early Fall we will also have single barrels of Russell’s Reserve, Kentucky Spirit, 1792, Jefferson’s Ocean and Woodford Double Oak.
KM: Now as native Louisianan, what can you tell us about the whiskey traditions of your home state?
JL: Cocktails like the Sazerac and the Vieux Carre are just a few things that will always pop into a bartender’s mind when asked to capture New Orleans in a glass. Louisiana originally was infatuated with cognac, being a French Colony that would be expected, but due to availability and price the taste for PA and Maryland Rye was a natural progression. You can see this with the Sazerac’s base spirit switching from Cognac (Sazerac Cognac to be exact) to Rye. Who’s to say that New Orleans’s love for Rye whiskey helped save the category during the dark days on the 80’s and 90’s. I remember when Sazerac first released its 6 year Rye, it was like a gift from the heavens!
KM: So what are your personal favorite whiskey cocktails? Favorite whiskeys?
JL: Due to being in PA there are a lot of things that are not available up here. I’m a huge fan of Buffalo Trace, especially Rock Hill Farms when I can find it at a bar when I’m traveling. I was a huge fan of Balcones when Chip was there, and Garrison Brothers as well. My favorite cocktails are the simplest ones, from a whiskey sour with Buffalo Trace on a summer day to a well-stirred Manhattan or Old Fashioned.