Baltimore Bartender's Guild

Doug Atwell, head mixologist at Rye in Fells Point, creates a Moneypenny cocktail, made with lavender, cinnamon and orange-infused Scotch. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / February 16, 2012)

Appletini. Few words make bartender Doug Atwell shudder as much as that one.

Atwell is part-owner and head mixologist at Rye, a new bar in Fells Point that specializes in craft cocktails, the bar equivalent of gourmet meals. These drinks are made with fresh and regional ingredients, homemade syrups and quality spirits. The appletini is the antithesis of that, more often than not made with a bottled mix. It is to cocktails what Rachael Ray is to fine dining and Skrillex is to music.

"It's something a chemist came up with," Atwell scoffs.

Still, cocktails like the appletini, cheap and easy to make, are the mainstream in Baltimore and most metropolitan areas. "Where in places like New York, it seems every corner bar has a little cocktail list, Baltimore is still kind of in its infancy for craft cocktails," Atwell says.

He and a handful of other Baltimore bartenders are slowly working to change that, to end, in other words, the hegemony of the appletini. They're serving a better class of cocktails at their bars, teaching mixology classes and, most significantly, they've organized the first Baltimore Bartenders' Guild.

They hope their efforts will make Baltimoreans expect more out of their libations and, along the way, make the city known for its cocktails.

"It's important for the city in general," said John Reusing, guild member and owner of Bad Decisions in Fells Point. "It's going to make us a better destination. It can still be a beer town with a great cocktail scene. There's no reason it can't be both."

The guild is itself the result of a growing number of bartenders in Baltimore committed to high-quality, freshly made craft cocktails — there's Reusing's bar, B&O American Brasserie and Woodberry Kitchen, and new bars like Rye and Wit & Wisdom at the Four Seasons. So far, the guild has 15 members from 11 bars, including one that hasn't even opened. On Sunday, it wrapped up its first event, a fundraiser and rye whiskey showcase that attracted over 150 guests, according to organizers.

The rules

Craft cocktails are separated from their average counterparts by a few rules: "Using fresh lemon and lime juices makes such a big difference," says guild founder Brendan Dorr, beverage director at B&O Brasserie. Craft mixologists also shun pre-made syrups, mixes or, says Atwell, "anything that comes from a [soda] gun."

Top-shelf ingredients are strongly recommended. "Just like food, what you put into the recipe you will get back in result," Atwell says.

At most bars, the 20th Century, a cocktail that dates to the 1920s, is made with a low-quality fortified wine. At Rye, it's made with Lillet Blanc, a fortified wine that has extra alcohol and sugar.

Craft mixologists also stick to classic formulas.

"Most Manhattans now use a 4-to-1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth," Atwell says. He uses two ounces of rye to an ounce of sweet vermouth.

Beyond these basic rules, craft mixologists are bound by a gourmet approach to drink-making, one where artistic license, unusual flavors and personal signatures stand out.

"It's mostly about making all the things you can make yourself, taking a little creativity and developing your own recipes," Atwell says.

This mind-set is relatively new. Serious mixologists have existed for generations; the United States Bartenders' Guild dates from the 1940s. But the idea of experimenting and making your own ingredients, garnishes and syrups came out of the rise of craft beer in the 1980s and '90s, and the influence of the locavore movement. It's an attitude that's slowly expanding — the national guild counts only about 30 chapters.

While New York and San Francisco are well-established cocktail destinations — many point to master mixologist Dale DeGroff's arrival at New York's Rainbow Room in the late 1980s as the start of the craft cocktail boom — other cities are not as developed.

Even four years ago, mixologist Owen Thompson can remember just about 10 bars in D.C. that fell under the craft category.