After a brutal winter, a still spring night means a little more. Recent memories of bitter wind chills and injury-inducing ice can make something as simple as sitting outside with a drink on the cusp of June seem revelatory.
A few friends and I were reminded of this on a recent Saturday night in Hampden. In the backyard of Blue Pit BBQ — a new whiskey bar across the street from Artifact Coffee — six wooden, beer-garden style tables sit under an intersection of stringed lights. As a second-level deck overlooks the scene, the area is framed by a wooden fence and potted plants. There was nowhere else to be in that moment.
Just like its interior, Blue Pit's backyard is nothing fancy but instantly comfortable, and that is for the best. We can thank co-owners Cara Bruce and David Newman, the latter of whom was recently the executive chef at the Brewer's Art, for addressing the neighborhood's needs. West 36th Street — with its boutique shopping and adventurous dining — remains Hampden's most appealing consumer strip, but a quietly appealing bar like Blue Pit provides necessary balance away from the Avenue.
But outdoor seating, no matter how wonderful, should be an asset, and not the sole reason to visit a bar. We were still here to drink after all.
Blue Pit, which has not yet unveiled its food menu but has ambitious plans to serve several regional styles of barbecue this summer, takes whiskey and its various styles — including bourbon, rye and others — seriously. (Blue Pit is not alone: The International Business Times recently reported a 20 percent annual growth for brands of premium bourbon, “one of the hottest spirits in the United States,” which has distillers struggling to meet rising demands.)
A friend asked the bartender, who was easygoing but always attentive, for a whiskey recommendation. The requirements were “something smooth” and on the rocks. In return, he received a glass tumbler of Templeton Rye ($8), a small-batch liquor with strong rye flavor that finishes smooth because of its sweet, almost caramel-like notes. An open-minded consumer set wide boundaries for a knowledgeable bartender, who in turn, guided him to a sound decision. It was a simple interaction that ended with both parties satisfied.
Blue Pit serves more than 60 types of whiskey, which illustrates the owners' dedication to the spirit. (It lacks the volume of the impressively stocked Fells Point Scotch bar Birds of a Feather, but Blue Pit has a larger variety of whiskey styles.) But do not miss the cocktails, which all use homemade syrups and fresh juices and were consistently refreshing.
The Union Crusta ($10), with its fruity Four Roses Yellow Label bourbon base, was brightened just enough by the carbonated Elderflower cordial, lemon, port wine and Peychaud's Bitters. A twist on the classic cocktail Bee's Knees, Uncle Val's Business ($10) works well because its use of Uncle Val's Botanical Gin packs a citrus punch along with a simple combination of honey syrup, lemon juice and lavender bitters. Most surprising was the night's special, the Asian-inspired Oaxaca Arigato ($7), which cleverly combined Espolon Blanco tequila with lime juice, orange juice and puree of the East Asian fruit yuzu. A dash of Fee Brothers whiskey barrel-aged bitters was an appropriate accent and a nice reminder of our location.
Perhaps it is because carnivores are fickle creatures, but barbecue joints often come with high expectations, and the eventual addition of food will likely have a significant impact on Blue Pit's reputation. But as a bar, Blue Pit offered more than enough reasons to return — a spacious, dog-friendly interior, an idyllic patio, inventive drinks and a thoughtful staff. For the laid-back patron Blue Pit is seemingly aiming to attract, it could be hard to ask for more.