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.
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.
"When we all sat down and put our heads together, there was a small population of us doing craft cocktails, with actual menus, putting it out there for our customers," he recalls. "We wanted to see more of that out there."
He founded the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild to change that. The guild now numbers 60 bartenders.
The D.C. guild also spreads awareness by teaching classes at individual bars and through two big events, a month dedicated to the rickey, a cocktail native to Washington, and by holding a Repeal Day ball every December commemorating the end of Prohibition.
"Now that everyone's interested, our goal is to switch to bring the basic skill of everyone up," Thompson says. "Now that there are 20 or 30 places where you can get a good cocktail, we want to see people be able to get a good drink everywhere."
In Baltimore, there are only a few places dedicated to craft cocktails.
Reusing opened Bad Decisions in Fells Point four years ago. Woodberry Kitchen opened around the same time, and Mr. Rain's Fun House at the American Visionary Art Museum opened a year after. Though Dorr has been a professional bartender for nearly a decade, he's been at B&O since 2009. Some of the other members of the guild are newbies — Connor Rasmussen has been a professional bartender at Woodberry for a year, and Barri Yanowitz joined Mr. Rain's a year and a half ago, the first time she's bartended professionally.
Rye's Atwell, 33, becomes animated when talking about drinks. He started his education in cocktails about six years ago by going with friends to cutting-edge bars in New York like Sasha Petraske's Milk & Honey.
"We'd try out lots of drinks," Atwell says. "I'd take notes and admire the way they were designed and decorated. And I thought, 'This is so cool. I wish we had something like this back home.'"
At the Waterfront Hotel, where he was the head bartender until September, he started experimenting with cocktails.
The guild was born out of a desire to see the craft scene in Baltimore grow, says Dorr, sitting at Ryleigh's Oyster in Federal Hill with Reusing and Rasmussen after one of the guild's regular meetings. Dorr, a 32-year-old who talks with the nonchalance of a veteran, founded the guild about a year ago with Corey Polyoka, head mixologist at Woodberry Kitchen, to try to replicate some of the success that bars experienced in Washington.
"I'd like to see Baltimore get some of that recognition," he says. "Getting a guild together definitely helps. It says, 'This is who we are, and we're serious about it.' It gets our names out there."
The guild has slowly been gathering members for the last year. Its members see the guild is an opportunity to talk shop, see what other bartenders are working on and hear liquor vendors present new products.
"The guild is the most enjoyable part of my month, just being in a room with like-minded people who all want to push quality cocktails," Atwell says.
Dorr says the guild is also a chance for bartenders who don't use a craft approach at their bars to learn proper technique and improve their game.
"I really want to see the craft scene grow so we can get to that next level. But I want to open it up to anybody who wants to learn and improve as a bartender," he says. "I don't want people to join who'll just be pouring Jack [Daniel]-and-cokes. I want people who'll join with the intent to learn something from us and take their programs to a whole new level."
Raising the bar for local bartenders will help the guild accomplish its most important goal — namely, changing the city's attitude toward craft cocktails.
Thompson says that's how the craft scene has grown in D.C.
"The guests are changing it more than we are," he says. "People get accustomed to a certain level of drink, and demand it at other places."
Reusing has developed a following at his bar using this approach. He doesn't carry wine and offers only a handful of beers.
"Most people, every time they sit at a bar, they get a fill-in-in-the-blank cocktail or a fill-in-the-blank beer," Reusing says. "But if you don't have that, maybe they'll look at your cocktail list."
Says Dorr, "If you start introducing things to your clientele, you might be surprised at what they end up ordering."
To teach people about craft cocktails, individual bartenders are also hosting their own mixology classes.
Polyoka gave lessons on Prohibition-era cocktails and how to entertain with drinks at the Creative Alliance in January. And Atwell is going to teach a class that some 350 people have signed up for at Rye. Over the next eight or nine months, groups of 18 will pack the intimate, cramped bar to learn simple lessons on at-home bartending and how to make classic Baltimore cocktails like the Diamondback.
Atwell says he came up with the idea for the class because he needed something to do on Sundays after football season ended. But he now sees it as part of a larger mission.
"If you make people active participants in something, they're more likely to embrace it," he says.
by Rye's Doug Atwell
11/2 ounces Bulleit Rye
3/4 ounce Blood Orange gastrique
3/4 ounce cider reduction
1/2 ounce Yellow Chartreuse
A dash of Bittermens Boston Bittahs
To make the Blood Orange gastrique:
11/2 cups fresh-squeezed blood orange juice
11/2 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup red wine vinegar
Combine ingredients in small sauce pan and bring to a light boil. Simmer over low heat until mixture reduces by one-third. Let cool, then strain into a heat-proof jar.
To make the cider reduction:
Pour one 32-ounce container of unfiltered apple juice into large sauce pan over medium heat. Stir occasionally until liquid reduces by half. Let cool, then pour into a heat-proof jar.
To make the cocktail:
Once the gastrique and reduction are finished, combine the rest of the ingredients into a shaker. Add a dash of the bitters. Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Serve.
Five tips for the at-home bartender
By Rye's Doug Atwell and B&O's Brendan Dorr
Use freshly squeezed juices (lemon, lime and orange).
Use quality tools. Dorr says to keep around a mixing glass, strainers, a long bar spoon for stirring, a Boston shaker and a peeler.
Vary your selection of spirits — don't just stick to favorites.
If the cocktail is purely spirits, it's usually best to stir before pouring. When you use juices or cloudy ingredients, shake. And don't try to cut costs. "What you put into the recipe you will get back in result," Atwell says.
"Larger surface area per [ice] cube dilutes your cocktail less and chills the most," says Atwell. Dorr likes to use Tovolo ice trays for solid cubes.
Appletini. Few words make bartender Doug Atwell shudder as much as that one.