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Bartender Lidia Fernandes (left) and bar manager Paul Benkert make cocktails at Woodberry Kitchen on a recent Friday night.
Bartender Lidia Fernandes (left) and bar manager Paul Benkert make cocktails at Woodberry Kitchen on a recent Friday night. (Chiaki Kawajiri for The Baltimore Sun)

The diner to my left, mouth slightly agape, fixed her eyes on the bartender, whose hands became blurs as she vigorously shook a couple silver shakers. Once, she shot a glance my way as if to say, "Are you seeing this, too?" At some point, she couldn't contain her awe.

"You must be so tired at the end of the night!" the patron said. Smiling to downplay the compliment, the staff member replied, "You get used to it."

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From the bartender's perspective, sure. But from mine — and the other 10 or so patrons seated at Woodberry Kitchen's bar on a recent Friday night — it was still worth appreciating the feat, that the restaurant still maintains the standards it opened with in 2007 and led to owner Spike Gjerde's James Beard Award last year. While the food has been rightfully lauded, the less-celebrated bar showed, again and again on a recent visit, it is worthy of glowing praise, too.

The El Bandito cocktail at Woodberry Kitchen.
The El Bandito cocktail at Woodberry Kitchen. (Chiaki Kawajiri for The Baltimore Sun)

The night began on a good note — arriving at 8 p.m. on a Friday, I was surprised to immediately find a seat at the bar — and from there stayed true to its path.

The most striking aspect of Woodberry Kitchen is the constant motion of its staff, including the bar's happy-to-help workers, who weaved in and out of one another's ways with ease. A cheery tornado of plaid, employees worked diligently to pump out well-crafted cocktails, one after the other. All the while, best practices like smacking herb garnishes to wake up aromas and taste-testing cocktails mid-mix were followed with no exceptions.

During my visit, there were no lulls, just constant orders and patrons to appease. The fact they worked this hard with such an inviting spirit — even singing along to old pop songs playing over the speakers — made it even more impressive.

These good vibrations were not only palpable, but infectious. I quickly made friends with strangers on both sides of me simply because we were all eager to discuss the menu and what was placed in front of us. The promise of good food and drink — mixed with anticipation and expectation — makes people happy, and it's a big reason why going out should still feel like a social event. Woodberry Kitchen delivers this feeling consistently.

Woodberry Kitchen's bar program is driven by experimentation, said Paul Benkert, who took over as bar manager last July. The results were equally surprising and delicious. (I stuck to cocktails, but there are also thoughtful selections of craft beer, wine*, hard cider, mead and even nonalcoholic drinks that still reflect the bar's creativity.)

The El Bandito ($12) was created with a "refreshing patio drink" in mind, Benkert said, which make sense after the first sip. It expertly plays with sweet and spicy, using a strained puree of preserved red grapes and a touch of maple syrup to balance the subtle spiciness from the Journeyman Humdinger Jalapeno spirit. Best of all, it utilizes the Baltimore Whiskey Co.'s Charles Street apple brandy, which elevates it to a warm-weather thirst-quencher. The brandy works well because its smoky flavor profile reminded Benkert of a mezcal. It also falls in line with Woodberry's emphasis on local, new ingredients.

My other cocktail, the 2nd Amendment ($13), was even more surprising. The staff has been tinkering with it for a year, but Benkert believes the current iteration finishes best, which was hard to argue.

The Roundstone Rye whiskey-based drink checks a lot of boxes: acidity from the Keepwell maple vinegar, nuttiness from the nocino walnut liqueur, sweetness from smoked maple syrup and a salty kick from dashes of Woodberry's Snake Oil hot sauce. It's a cocktail worth savoring, as each sip reveals these details in different ways.

Finally, in place of dessert, I tried the Irish coffee ($14), a standard on the menu that Benkert completely reimagined six months ago. The previous version was "deconstructed," and he wanted to replace it with "a showstopper," similar in stature to the restaurant's famous C.M.P. dessert. He's on the right track: This freshly pressed final note, made with Smooth Ambler Old Scout bourbon and Counter Culture coffee, was plenty sweet to satisfy any end-of-meal cravings, while maintaining its appealing booze-y kick. The Demerara sugar on top, torched as in a creme brulee, made it feel less like an after-dinner drink and something more special instead.

Woodberry Kitchen's cocktails are expensive, but unlike many similarly priced offerings around the city, they deliver a true experience that tantalizes and shocks, while often showcasing local and regional products. Also notable is what this domestic-minded bar doesn't have: spirits like tequila and scotch, and garnishes like lemon and lime. You won't find sugar behind the bar either. The parameters are all self-imposed in the names of ingenuity and excellent cocktails. They could bend the rules with exceptions, but when it works this well, why bother?

You have probably heard people say, "We should feel lucky to have a place like Woodberry Kitchen here in Baltimore." Those people are still right, even when you're just getting a drink at the bar.

*Correction: Woodberry Kitchen offers wine by half and full bottles, and also by the glass. This review originally did not include full bottles. The Sun regrets the error.

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