The space on West Chase Street had been a classic Irish bar named Dougherty’s Pub since it opened in 1994. When I stopped by on one of its last days in December, Sherry Dougherty mentioned the new owners’ vision for the low-lit Mount Vernon favorite.
“It’s going to be the complete opposite of this,” she said. Dougherty did not exaggerate.
Wet City, the year’s most drastic 180-degree turn in Baltimore’s bar scene, opened in July, and it looks and operates nothing like its former occupant. It is strikingly bold in its minimalist design, and its owners — brothers, best friends and Bolton Hill roommates Peter (better known as PJ) and Josh Sullivan — are proudly fastidious about the beers and cocktails they choose to serve.
In the wrong hands, this approach could come off as showy and contrived, but in the Sullivans’, it’s a refreshing new entry in an increasingly varied nightlife scene. Not everyone is going to like Wet City — and the bar’s Facebook page acknowledges this — but the Sullivans believe in their execution. Based on a handful of visits over the past few months, I’m a believer, too.
Wet City should appeal most to adventurous beer drinkers. The owners are guided by a simple but crucial rule: If they don’t like it, they won’t pour it. (They’ve already refused to put a couple beers on tap because they didn’t live up to this standard, PJ Sullivan said.) They consider themselves discerning imbibers, and want you to trust that what they offer will be interesting, and most important, good.
Rather than appease customers with a populist approach to beer, Wet City aims to challenge them. That makes the establishment and its 20 taps not just a place to enjoy a cold beer, but an educational experience, too. (You won’t find the usual domestics, macro or micro, on tap, but cans and bottles of National Bohemian and Miller High Life are sold, so there are a few concessions.)
The brothers like their sours, and I’ve happily had two of the most intense takes I’ve come across at their bar.
In August, it was Bear Republic’s Tartare, the California company’s version of a Berliner Weisse that contorted my face into a Warhead-sucking grin. Last week came the Cuvee Freddy, a beer from Belgium’s Picobrouwerij Alvinne that resembled an egg cream but landed with a tart punch that finished, to my surprise, smoothly. The description provided on the menu explained it well: “Sour aged for one year [in] wine barrels and blended with a stout to soften the tannins.”
The beer menu ($6-$9) is transitioning from summer to fall, which means you’ll currently find dark beers mixed with sours and IPAs. Another cool feature: The menu has an “On Deck” section that previews what will hit draft lines next.
Wet City would be worth a visit for their beers alone, but its cocktails — created by Josh, a former bar manager at Dooby’s — hold their own. Thus Always to Tyrant ($10), a bourbon-and-rum cocktail made with cherry gastrique, dry vermouth and lemon bitters, cooled me down nicely on a hot summer night. Like the beer selection, the cocktails (with names like Berry Manilow and Let the Alpine Blast) change often.
The only aspect that reflects Wet City’s confidence in itself more than the bar program is its design. Gone are Dougherty's' pale green walls, the vintage wooden stools, the standard mirrors behind the bar. Now, Wet City — with its mostly white walls, open-floor plan and abundant negative space — looks something between an IKEA showroom and an Apple store. There are accents of cerulean and light pink, along with subtle woodworking details, but the overall effect feels like hanging out in a blank canvas. (PJ said the plan is to work with a local gallery to put art on the walls in the future.)
This is partially deliberate. PJ founded the local graphic design company Hardly Square, and has a penchant for minimalism. He was also inspired by Scandinavia’s beer and bar scenes, whose clean aesthetics can be described as less is more. Like their beer curation, Wet City’s design will excite some and turn off others. I can’t help but respect the conviction. (Playlists, including acts like Earth, Wind and Fire and Digable Planets, heard over the speakers added warmth to the bare setting, too.)
The only downside to my experiences has been not trying Wet City’s own beers. They’ve periodically had a keg or two of Josh’s award-winning homebrews on tap, but there’s been nothing new in months. Their focus on launching and operating the bar is partially to blame, but so is their adherence to quality control. A new IPA was in the works for weeks, only to get discarded because the taste didn't turn out exactly right, PJ said.
There was no reason to be disappointed, though. The same logic that had intrigued me earlier — we don’t serve beer we don’t enjoy — now ensured that Wet City’s decision was the right one. That’s confidence you don’t soon forget.