The most rewarding bar experiences confound and astonish in equal measure.
As Baltimore's evolving nightlife scene continues to make strides with thoughtful concepts, premium ingredients and eye-catching settings, new establishments have had to work harder than ever to stand out. Throw in execution and service, and that is a lot of forces working together, for better and worse.
In rare instances, all of these characteristics can align in near perfect symmetry. It occurred at Bookmakers Cocktail Club on a recent Saturday night, where I scanned the loud and lively first floor and saw a content clientele of different ages and backgrounds sipping attractive cocktails and engaging in conversation. The room — which was formerly the karaoke staple Nevin's until it closed in February — buzzed like a new hotspot but never felt obnoxiously crowded, despite a full bar of approximately 30 people and at least 25 more in the dining area. Some were eating, but this was not a dinner crowd — it was well after 9 p.m.
It was enough to ask no one in particular: "Is this really Federal Hill?"
Given Bookmakers' placement on the perpetually busy East Cross Street, it felt like a fair question. Surrounded by many bars offering well-worn experiences of cheap beer and Top 40 soundtracks, Bookmakers is a sophisticated gem located in the heart of the city's turn-down-for-what bar-hopping center. If you wrote Federal Hill off as a playground for young professionals devoid of couth — and as someone who once lived there, I do not blame you — then Bookmakers is ready to change your mind. It is that good.
The effectiveness of Bookmakers — which Ryan Perlberg (Stuggy's, Rye) opened with real estate developer Chris Janian in September — hinges on a patron's willingness to explore its large cocktail list. The 15 options offered on our visit all contained familiar ingredients, but many included unexpected twists and flavor combinations that ultimately rewarded our curiosity. Just as we often blindly entrust chefs to expand our taste in food, Bookmakers' beverage director, Ryan Sparks, (formerly of Jack's Bistro) asks for the same confidence. The smart ones will oblige.
Those suffering from pumpkin fatigue will be surprised by the Smashing Pumpkins ($13). The ingredients — Pig's Nose scotch, Strega liqueur, Southern Tier Pumking beer, Afghani chai tea and pumpkin butter — read like overloaded saccharine syrup, but the results are subtle and soft, two words rarely used to describe pumpkin-anything. The Federale ($11) was built on disparate flavors (Espolon blanco tequila mixed with Becherovka herbal liqueur, cinnamon, fresh grapefruit, lemon and mint) but found surprising harmony when served. Both cocktails looked gorgeous, and tasted better.
A fair test of any bar is its ability to craft an old fashioned. With its translucent sunburnt color, the Bookmakers Old Fashioned ($11) arrived looking ripped from a dictionary. Those who, like me, prefer bourbon to Irish whiskey or rye will applaud the use of the peppery-but-smooth 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, while the sweetness of the Pierre Ferrand dry curacao and Demerara sugar added balance without muting the bourbon. Minor but important details like the housemade bourbon-barrel-aged bitters illustrated how every element in a cocktail matters.
No drinks disappointed, but some were unable to match the heights of the aforementioned cocktails. The sweetness of the Last Word ($13) — courtesy of the green Chartreuse, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and lime — washed out the excellent Barr Hill raw honey gin more than I would have liked. Aviation ($12) was a likeable take on a classic — thanks to its Aviation Gin, Luxardo Maraschino, Creme de Violette and lemon — that made us long for a surprising spark or extra punch of flavor.
Others could argue Bookmakers' restrained and faithful interpretation of the recipe should be celebrated, and they would not be wrong. The beauty of the menu, beyond inherent satisfaction, is its potential to encourage debate and discussion.
While the cocktail menu's potency warrants a trip, the sterling service we encountered elevated Bookmakers to a rare class. Our pleasant server was knowledgeable and helpful, but not overly eager or too quick with an unsolicited opinion. She made sure an empty glass never sat in front of us too long, and earnestly thanked us multiple times for our patronage. She had recommendations when asked, and clearly knew the drink menu as well as its food counterpart. Service by the bar mirrored this standard. At one point, four bartenders vigorously shook cocktail makers in concert. In a neighborhood where many bartenders typically shake chilled shots of rail liquor and little else, the timeless art of cocktail construction was on full display at Bookmakers.
As I left, the answer to my initial question hit harder than any Old Fashioned could. Yes, Federal Hill is still ground zero for a still-maturing bar-hopping crowd, but in 2014, it also offers experiences that will blur and challenge preconceived notions of the neighborhood. On this recent Saturday night, Bookmakers appeared to be leading the charge.