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March 30, 2020 | °F in Baltimore

WC Harlan impresses with unique cocktail creations

By FRANK GUERRIERO | February 13, 2020

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WC Harlan offers a wide variety of drinks close to campus on W 23rd St.

Baltimore isn’t exactly teeming with craft cocktail bars. There are a few overpriced hotel-adjacent spots with decent execution down near the Inner Harbor, but if we’re being honest, they usually aren’t worth the trip out of shuttle range.

To be clear, I’m not shaming this town by any means. After all, we wouldn’t expect a cityfolk that so deeply cherishes its signature 30-rack to flock to establishments stirring down obscure Negroni variations. But when a friend or classmate honors me by asking to recommend a bar that’s more than an aqueduct (beer-duct? I don’t know) flowing with Natty Boh, I want to name a spot that I know will invariably, well, not suck.

WC Harlan, the Remington bar that celebrated its seventh birthday this past weekend, reminds us that even if our city isn’t known for bros in vests waxing poetic about boutique bitters while conspicuously showing off their barspoon tattoo, there are some serious cocktails to enjoy not far from the Homewood Campus.

This spot bills itself as a speakeasy, which I would usually quip means it’s simply a bar with a hallway, but W.C. Harlan takes the theme seriously without resorting to gimmicks and trends. The furniture and decor reflect what must have been months of scouring thrift stores and artisan craft fairs. Candlelight suffices at tiny tables (one fixed with an antique Singer sewing machine) and the drums of 1920s-era lounge music ping around the pleasantly dusty room (which, I should note, is about the size of a Commons double).

Best of all, there isn’t a sleeve garter or handlebar mustache in sight. The folks behind the bar are professional but accessible — they’re eager to answer questions on the range of somewhat obscure ingredients on the menu without making you feel either that you’re unforgivably ignorant or that they’re unassailably enlightened. They’re also impressively efficient service pros, which would normally constitute the bare minimum but becomes remarkable given the complexity of WC Harlan’s concoctions.

Speaking of which, the cocktail team splits their efforts between reimagined, “interpreted” classics and signature drinks. Their attention seems to be divided pretty evenly, since the two camps show the same strengths and share one modest drawback.

Shaken drinks dominate the signature section of their winter menu, so much so that stirred options are explicitly noted as such. To be totally honest, I don’t typically gravitate toward this genre of cocktail, especially not those with sour builds (i.e., based on citrus and egg white), but they’re exceedingly pleasant here. For instance, the Loup Garou, with a base of aged tequila, pairs tarragon and wildflower honey is a prime example of the WC Harlan’s mastery of aromatics.

The only drawbacks come through when the cocktails attempt to force the flavors of too many especially distinctive spirits into harmony. Take the Yellow Parrot from the bar’s autumn menu. This relatively obscure Prohibition-era drink is typically a combination of apricot brandy, yellow Chartreuse and absinthe. That’s a plenty crowded field already, but WC Harlan’s version also incorporates the notorious Chicago favorite Malört. The resulting flavor profile isn’t totally disjointed, but it’s so busy that individual notes are nearly impossible to tease out.

Otherwise, I’m happy to report that WC Harlan is a seriously satisfying bar for two main reasons: their impressive collection of American-made, small-batch spirits and their flawless cocktail execution. I treat every visit as an occasion to take advantage of the bartenders’ encyclopedic knowledge and sample some hard-to-find bottles at reasonable prices (Tempus Fugit’s Fernet Angelico is notably a night-maker at $13 a pour).

It’s also the perfect place to give a less ubiquitous classic you stumbled upon in your recent alcohol-legality a try. You can order that Last Word you saw on Youtube with confidence that it’ll come your way complete with a respectable gin and the care that comes with a bar of this level of craftsmanship. From Scofflaws to Sazeracs, WC Harlan churns out bartender favorites with impressive consistency. 

So the next time you feel like a drink — no, an actual drink — but don’t feel like venturing past Penn Station, I’d suggest giving WC Harlan a try. It’s an ideal spot for Hopkins students and locals alike to begin committing themselves to imbibing a bit more seriously.

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