Dry 85, 193B Main St., Annapolis. www.dry85.com. Opens Jan. 1 at 4 p.m.
Brian Bolter, the former Fox 5 news anchor turned Annapolis bar owner, tells me his new whiskey bar Dry 85 was inspired by a modern, industrial take on a speakeasy. Then he says it's nothing like "a theme-park speakeasy. Our staff's not in suspenders, there's no password [to get in], we have a phone."
Okay, so it's not a retro-modern speakeasy like PX or the Gibson. But it must have some old cocktails on the menu, then? "I feel like the cocktail connection [to Prohibition] is interesting," Bolter says. "They had awful liquor during Prohibition," so the cocktails weren't actually very good.
Fine. It's nothing like a speakeasy, so let's just toss Prohibition, bootlegging and Al Capone references out the window. (Well, there's one more: The name, Dry 85, comes from the number of days that Washington D.C. had to remain without alcohol after Prohibition ended for the rest of the country.)
Leave the theme behind and what you're left with is something downtown Annapolis needed: A cool, well-designed watering hole with a very good selection of whiskey. Bolter has the newsman's gift for introducing you to something you've never met before: There are 52 bourbons on the menu, each with an extended description of its history and flavor. Keep reading and you'll find descriptions of 60 more whiskeys, including sections of rye, Irish and single-malt Scotch.
Grab a seat at the long, curving countertop and order something nice off the menu: the uncut William Larue Weller, Old Forrester Birthday Bourbon, Colonel E.H. Taylor Single Barrel. Prices are good, with most bourbons $8-$12.
The dozen beers on tap feature some acclaimed locals (Brewer's Art, Port City, Devils Backbone) and heavyweights from Stone, Dogfish Head and Terrapin. If you've been to the neighboring Red Red Wine Bar, you know that Bolter likes wine on tap, and Dry 85 offers four: A red and white from the West Coast, a malbec from Argentina and a pinot grigio from Sicily. Then there are two whiskey taps, which show Dry 85's sense of humor: There's Jameson (for shots, of course) and, um, Fireball. As the menu notes: "Most bad decisions start with something like cinnamon-flavored whiskey."
So skip the Fireball and check out the cocktails, which include a Slow and Low, a house-aged mix of rye, orange peel and honey once known as a Rough and Rye, or a Negroni made with D.C.'s Green Hat Gin and topped with champagne. Mixed drinks are mostly $7 to $11, with one $12 concoction.
The menu is heavy on comfort food: burgers, po boy sliders, pork ossobuco, mac and cheese with shrimp and crab. The appetizer few people will order? A bowl of truffled fries with rosemary and sea salt, served with a half-bottle of Veuve Clicquot for $50.
Beyond the pages of individual whiskeys, there a several flights, including a Pappy Van Winkle sampler – small pours of the 10 year, 12 year and 15 year for $100 – and intros to rye and Scotch. But the most intriguing flight is dubbed Maker's Mistake. Bourbon fans know that, earlier this year, Maker's Mark decided to try and save money by lowering the ABV of its flagship whiskey from 45 percent to 42 percent. Fans revolted, and the alcohol level was restored. Bolter acquired the discontinued 84-proof version, and he's offering tastes alongside the standard Maker's and the aged Maker's 46. The catch is that the flight is offered blind, so you have to see if you can tell the difference between the three.
Deep, sturdy wooden booths and wooden accents give Dry 85 a clean, stylish look. The few decorations on the walls include lights made from old whiskey bottles and a framed prescription for medicinal whiskey, issued in Baltimore during Prohibition. There's a mural in the back, featuring Capone's mugshot and scenes of government agents smashing barrels of hooch, but I'm more inclined to let the Roaring '20s go, and just focus on the delicious liquids in my glass.