The first three years after brothers Marc and Andrew Unger opened their Timonium comedy club — Magooby’s Joke House — inside the former Lorenzo’s Dinner Theatre, the old dressing room space sat empty.
In 2013, they transformed the 600-square-foot area into a whiskey-focused bar called Wits End Saloon. The goal, Marc Unger explained recently, was to provide a quieter alternative to nearby sports bars like Hightopps Backstage Grille and the since-closed Padonia Ale House. They also didn’t want Wits End to feel like an afterthought.
“What we didn’t want was, ‘Hey, there’s that bar at Magooby’s,’” Unger said. “We wanted it to have its own identity. That’s why it’s not called the Joke Bar.”
On a recent Saturday night, Wits End appeared to serve two functions — first, as a quaint and relaxing bar with a surprising collection of whiskey, and second, as a companion to Magooby’s. Both worked well. Consider it a testament to the Ungers’ execution and to their attentive staff.
Just after 8 p.m. I grabbed one of the bar’s 15 seats, as two people sat a few seats down and another couple chatted at a nearby high-top table. As Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” played over the speakers, the bartender switched one of the two TVs in the bar to the NBA game, per my request. I settled in, expecting a relatively quiet night of slow sips, good music and a tight game between the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Warriors’ 16-point blowout denied the trifecta, but the rest made up for it, resulting in a nice evening in the county.
Above everything else, I liked Wits End’s commitment to its concept. The bar boasts online about having more than 50 kinds of whiskey, and Unger said that number is now closer to 75. They focus mainly on bourbons, Scotches and ryes, and charge reasonable prices for 2-ounce pours — like Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon for $11 and Filibuster Dual Cask Rye for $9.
Wits End also carries rare and high-end whiskeys, including Pappy Van Winkle Special Reserve 12-Year bourbon and WhistlePig The Boss Hog – The Independent, a straight rye aged 14 years.
For a tiny Timonium bar attached to a comedy club, that kind of dedication to a spirit is commendable. Even better is the pricing: The elusive Pappy costs $27, while the WhistlePig (which can retail at $300 per bottle) is Wits End’s most expensive pour at $52. Given the rarity and hype surrounding these products, ownership could have gauged prices, like other whiskey bars. But Unger said they don’t agree with the practice.
While it’s nice for a whiskey bar to be discerning in how it stocks its shelves, it also requires a genuine enthusiasm from the staff to deliver a full experience.
From chatting with a couple of bartenders that night, they made it clear they love whiskey, without ever seeming overzealous or pretentious. They had no problem answering questions on what they liked, what they didn’t and what they hadn’t tried yet. At no point did I feel I was being convinced to order a particular (read: expensive) product.
Instead, as Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died” played, a bartender casually pointed out a recent arrival he really enjoyed — the James E. Pepper 1776 Straight Rye Whiskey from Indiana. After discussing our experiences with Pappy Van Winkle, I expected him to suggest something pricey, but a pour of the 1776 was only $7, and it was a steal. With more than 90 percent rye in the whiskey’s mash, the result is a bold, spice-forward whiskey that local rye enthusiasts should appreciate.
Wits End also features cocktails (five winter options, and 11 “exclusive” offerings, though much of the latter was common items like a Moscow mule, negroni and a dark and stormy). A New York sour ($8) was made with Bulleit Rye whiskey, egg white, simple syrup, lemon juice and topped with red wine, and while the tartness stood out, other elements didn’t. The Old Fashioned Wit ($9) fared better, though it was essentially a standard, Bulleit Bourbon-based old fashioned with some extra cherries.
I didn’t regret the choices — the cocktails were finished, don’t you worry — but I would have been better off exploring more whiskeys. Maybe I just ordered the wrong cocktails.
With the second half of the game underway, the Magooby’s rush arrived. It was a mix of patrons grabbing a nightcap after the first show, and an influx of visitors fitting in a drink before the second performance, at 9:45 p.m., began.
For most of the visit, the crowd — which seemed to be all young and middle-aged couples — hovered around 15 to 20 people, but now it had more than doubled. In a small space like Wits End, it felt packed, but the staff handled it with a calm confidence that said, “We’re used to this.”
Thirty minutes later, as the crowd mostly dispersed to either head home or find their seats next door, the bar felt more like the place I entered hours earlier. I walked away thinking Wits End easily could have been the afterthought the brothers wanted to avoid — a quick way to sell some beer and rail drinks before and after gigs.
But it’s not, and I appreciated that the Ungers were striving for, and achieving, more. Over the next couple days, I mentioned to a few whiskey fans I had a bar for them to check out the next time they were in Baltimore County. They seemed surprised, just like I was.