One of the best places to find a glass of hard-to-find bourbon in Somerset County isn’t a rustic whiskey bar, a Southern-inspired saloon or a trendy lodge.
It’s an easygoing Irish pub on West Main Street in Somerville.
Mannion's Pub & Restaurant, a neighborhood hangout known for its Irish fare, live music, big wood bar and energetic St. Patrick’s Day celebration, offers over 65 types of bourbon.
Owner Pat Mannion said they’re selling 10 times more bourbon now than they have in their 23 years in business.
“People can’t get over the bourbon that we have – they absolutely love the list,” he said. “The last year’s demand for it has just been unbelievable."
According to Daniel Polise, co-founder of Roselle-based Penelope Bourbon, most New Jersey bars and restaurants have six to 10 types of bourbon.
Some of the bourbons that Mannion’s offers includes three types of W.L. Weller: a seven-year-aged bourbon, a 12-year aged bourbon, and a rare antique bourbon bottled at 107 proof; and Blanton’s Bourbon, which features collectible copper horses on each bottle that Mannion’s visitors ask if they can have “every week."
The collection began in late 2018 when Mannion's liquor distributor, the Sazerac Company, gave him a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year as a thank-you gift for purchasing so many of their products, especially Fireball Cinnamon Whisky. Mannion was shocked when he discovered how much the normally $120 amber bottle of bourbon was selling for on the secondary market due to its rarity.
“Back then it was $1,000 and when I saw that, I almost died,” Mannion said. “I showcased the bottle at the restaurant and everyone was talking about it. I started realizing people liked bourbon, so I bought more and more, and more people came in.”
That secondary market price of that bourbon has skyrocketed since then to $3,500. And just like the cost of bourbon, Mannion’s bourbon selection has continued to grow.
Although distribution is limited due to its growing demand and long aging time – it needs to be aged for at least two years to be considered straight bourbon – the pub’s collection has stayed ample due to its purchasing power with their distributor.
But it’s still surprising visitors. A friend texted Mannion and said he heard he sold the bar to someone else who turned it into a bourbon-focused bar. He couldn’t believe Mannion was behind the change the entire time.
Mannion’s isn’t the only place where bourbon demand is skyrocketing. According to Nielsen, bourbon sales rose nearly 30% from early 2019 to early 2020. The only spirits with greater sales totals than bourbon in 2019 were vodka and blended whiskey.
Polise has seen this growth firsthand. Since Penelope Bourbon started distributing in September 2019, sales have grown 500% year-over-year. The company now has seven types of bourbon, and they sell in 23 states, four countries and 400 New Jersey bars, restaurants and liquor stores.
“Our growth has been very fast,” Polise said. “Bourbon has boomed over the last few years. We started the company at just the right time."
So what has made bourbon, a type of whiskey made mostly with corn, so crazy-popular? It depends who you ask.
Mannion is now a bourbon fan himself, and he’s also in a group chat with people who visit liquor stores weekly to try and find rare bourbon bottles. He thinks the bourbon fad could be similar to what happened with craft beer.
“Everyone went crazy when craft beer came out and they wanted to try something different,” Mannion recalls. “Plus, during COVID-19, people were stuck at home and had more time to research things. During that time, I know I was Googling more and talking more about bourbon.”
Polise attributes the craft nature of some bourbons to its popularity, and the hunt for the “perfect bottle” that can ensue.
“People are ready to drink differently. They want to know more of a story behind what they’re drinking and how it’s made, and bourbon is perfect for that,” he said. “Bourbon is exciting because no two barrels are ever really the same. And I think when people realize that and they taste it, it gets them on this overall endeavor to find the perfect batch or the perfect bottle."
Rewards, bonuses, free trips: How NJ restaurants are battling the labor shortage
Going forward, Mannion plans to keep his bourbon customers thirsty for more by offering bourbon flights, which will be available by early February, and also hosting bourbon tastings. An upcoming tasting will be finalized shortly. To attend, people should head to the bar and ask to speak to Mannion.
“I’m just going with the trend,” Mannion said. “Bourbon is huge and I’m just going along with it right now.”
Go: 150 W Main St., Somerville; 908-203-0700, mannionsirishpub.com
Jenna Intersimone has been a staff member at the USA Today Network New Jersey since 2014, after becoming a blogger-turned-reporter following the creation of her award-winning travel blog. To get unlimited access to her stories about food, drink and fun, please subscribe or activate your digital account today. Contact: JIntersimone@Gannett.com or @JIntersimone.
This article originally appeared on MyCentralJersey.com: Mannion's Pub in Somerville is now a bourbon lover's paradise