When Brendan Dorr established the Baltimore Bartenders' Guild (BBG) in 2011, it started as an intimate conversation about how to elevate the local beverage scene. Now, the group has grown to include nearly 60 professionals who unite to host events, interact with similar societies in other cities, and promote the growth of the industry overall.
“One of my favorite things to do is go out for cocktails with bartenders from out of town,” says Dorr, BBG president and head bartender at B&O American Brasserie inside the Hotel Monaco. “It’s always fun to hear them say things like, ‘Wow, Baltimore has a lot of great bars. A lot of cool things are happening here.’”
To further showcase the city’s burgeoning beverage scene, the guild is bringing back its annual Ryes Up cocktail competition benefitting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation on Sunday, March 5 from 6-9 p.m. at the Hotel Monaco.
Now the fundraiser is being moved up to the hotel’s banquet rooms instead of the restaurant, showing just how far the event has come since its inception in 2012.
“At the time, rye wasn’t anywhere near where it is now, but it was just starting to make a bit of a comeback,” Dorr says. “Also with its history being such a close tie to Maryland and Pennsylvania, we figured it made sense for us.”
This year’s event will highlight eats from the likes of Loch Bar, La Cuchara, Barcocina, and The Outpost American Tavern, live music spun by DJ Tim, beers from Union Craft Brewing, and 19 rye cocktail samplings crafted by guild members from bars all over the city. Attendees will also be able to nominate their favorite drinks for the evening’s coveted People’s Choice award.
Dorr says that the evolution of the competition—which is expected to draw in nearly 400 guests this weekend—is indicative of the next-level thinking that the local bar scene has adapted over the past few years.
“We’ve gone from seeing simple, four-ingredient twists on classics to bartenders using some really esoteric ingredients,” he says. “This year is going to be interesting. We’re seeing everything from really obscure cordials and vermouths to ingredients like crickets and baked items.”
Among the creative elixirs to look forward to include a fig and honey cocktail topped with cricket bitters from Joe Aldridge of The Owl Bar, a coffee and date puree mixture garnished with a bacon beignet from Andrew Dissen of Sugarvale, a drink accompanied by a beer grain-infused cookie from Amie Ward of R. Bar, and a concoction using Chrysanthemum-infused gum syrup from Michael Egolf of Paulie Gees.
The drinks, which have no parameters other than being rye-based, will be submitted to a panel of judges including local sommelier Chris Coker, Kimpton Hotels’ national beverage director Mike Ryan, and Catherine Manning, president of the United States Bartenders Guild in Philadelphia. Judges will rate the drinks based on taste, aroma, visual appearance, and use of overall barmanship skills.
“Balance is definitely key,” Dorr says. “You don’t want there to be too much sugar or to have over-the-top bitters. It has to be really pleasing to the palate, and as visually appealing as it is taste-wise.”
The winner will be sent to represent the BBG at events hosted by national industry organizations including Tales of the Cocktail and Lush Life Productions. The hope, says Dorr, is that local bartenders can use the knowledge from networking with professionals in other cities to continue to propel the local beverage scene forward.
“Things in Baltimore have shifted,” he says. “For a while the scene started to feel a little bit stagnant, but there has been a lot of growth over the past few months. It’s neat to see it evolve.”