An interview with the owner of Baltimore’s most beautiful cocktail bar

The first thing I noticed at The Bluebird cocktail bar was the colors of its walls. It’s not quite Navy Blue and not Pthalo either. It’s a matte Midnight Blue from floor to ceiling, accented by dusky tangerine velvet banquet seats. Chrystal chandeliers twinkle above and a giant mirror behind the bar accents a vast array of top-shelf liquor and bounces the daylight back from oversized warehouse windows. 

From your first step inside, The Bluebird, named for the Charles Bukowski poem, proclaims it is not a typical Baltimore bar. The experience is transformative. You could be in another city or country, a place that values every detail, every ingredient, every sip or taste. Lucky for us, the cocktail bar is located in Hampden, the brainchild of author and former pro soccer player Paul Benkert, who not only crafts every ingredient he serves but ‘harvests’ unique ice cubes for each type of drink. After sampling some of the menu’s highlights, Paul and I sat down for a serious conversation about his chosen profession. 

 

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Cara Ober: What is the difference between an excellent and a mediocre cocktail?  

Paul Benkert: The thoughtful hand of its creator. You also don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Take our Old Fashioned as an example: 

First you have the glass. We have crystal, hand-cut rocks glasses that you’d see Don Draper drinking a scotch out of. They’re very handsome, but they’re no good for the Old Fashioned. Instead, we use heavy, double rocks glasses, slightly rounded, without any design etched onto the glass. The design patterns on the crystal rocks glasses take away from what’s inside of it. We don’t want any distractions from the ice that’s inside of the glass.  

Second you have the cocktail. It’s stirred. There aren’t a bunch of fresh juices that need to be shaken up, gotten some air into them so they’re nice and frothy. That takes away from the ice. Our Old Fashioned is undisturbed. It has a beautiful amber color that’s deep, but you can see through it to the ice perfectly. And, of course, the orange and barrel-aged bitters we make in house round out the bonded bourbon very nicely.  

And finally, the garnish. 90 percent of the time a twist of citrus won’t do. It doesn’t always add to the drink. It looks unthoughtful, wasn’t there anything else you could have done to elevate this rather than drop a citrus peel on it? But in this case, there’s one thing that’s missing: there’s nothing fresh. The orange peel gives this drink its life.  

 So take this drink: You have the glass, the crafted ice, the undisturbed cocktail, the orange peel. Four elements. It shows restraint. It’s graceful. This drink is beautiful.  

Why does this matter so much? What is the purpose of getting every detail exactly right? 

 I have a Sicilian friend who has been in fine dining for nearly forty years. He’s always said, “Don’t do it if you don’t do it right.” It sounds more like a revelation when you imagine it said in a heavy Italian accent. But it’s exactly how I run the bar. Everything has to be perfect. Of course, nothing ever will be. But we certainly try. My guests deserve that.  

Can you talk about why you wanted to open a cocktail bar in Baltimore and the ideas behind The Bluebird?  

The short end of it is we were tired of working for other people. Turns out it’s harder to please myself than any boss I’ve ever had. The longer version is we wanted to open a bar that we wanted to go to, that we didn’t think Baltimore had, and in an aesthetic we were capable of delivering.  

My partners (wonderful wife Caroline, and bar manager Ben Poole) and I have over 25 years of collective experience in this business. My wife and I got into it, like nearly everyone else, as a way to make a couple of bucks while we were figuring out what else we could do/working on other endeavors. For three years I worked part-time while I wrote my first novel, An Ouroboros. The book did not bring financial freedom. Caroline and I hopped around a bit working in bars and restaurants wherever we landed. When we chose to return to the east coast we decided on Baltimore–close enough to family, but far enough from family. She enrolled in nursing school, I became the bar manager for Woodberry Kitchen. We weren’t happy. 

One day, after a couple of years living in Hampden, Caroline and I drove past a restaurant for lease. She looked at me and said, “You need to open your own bar.” That afternoon I went on Craigslist, found the listing, contacted the landlord. The rest is history. We don’t regret any of our experiences. They’ve taught us what we like, what we don’t like, and most importantly, how to become independent. I thank everyone who helped us along the way.  

Tell me about the ice! Why do you make specific shapes and sizes of ice cubes? How does it have no bubbles? 

Crafting the ice is a technical procedure, and one that has little room for variance or subjective interpretation. I remove a 300lb block with a crane, place it on a stainless steel table, cut it with a chainsaw into four 10” rectangular blocks, chainsaw those blocks down into 2.5” sheets, run the sheets through the band saw creating a 2.5” column, then the column is run through the bandsaw to make 2.5”x2.5”x2.5” cubes. This is about as beautiful as the long, relentless explanations of whale hunting in Melville’s Moby Dick. However, the finished product is beautiful. 

For our stronger, sipping cocktails, like the Old Fashioned, we use one of the cubes described above. It’s crystal clear because of a water circulator in the ice machine. It keeps the water constantly moving so excess oxygen doesn’t become trapped in the water. Your standard home icemaker delivers white ice because there is so much air that becomes trapped into the ice. White ice melts much faster because there’s less ice in the actual ice cube. Our crystal clear ice is denser, which causes it to melt slower thus not diluting your drink.  

The Miss Isla, our current draft gin & tonic, is poured over a Collins cube. This is long and rectangular, fits perfectly into a collins glass. It allows you to enjoy the drink all the way through. Ever had a fountain soda? The last sip is nowhere near as good as the first. I think if you’re paying good money for a drink, we should deliver quality in every sip. The drink is also pretty as hell.  

And lastly, we have our sphere. There’s little difference in what the sphere achieves compared to the large Old Fashioned cube. For us, it’s about the aesthetic.  

There are a lot of people out there who think the ice is bullshit (their words not mine!). The fact is, it does make a difference in the quality of your drink. The drinks are beautiful.  Last Saturday we sold 197 drinks that utilize hand-carved ice. The process of creating it has long ago lost any romantic appeal. It’s hard work, that takes up several hours of the day 5-6 days a week. In addition to cutting ice, there’s constant maintenance to ensure the equipment is running properly. It’s expensive. It’s also dangerous—the second you lose concentration is the second the bandsaw takes your finger with it. This takes me back to “Don’t do it if you don’t do it right.” I’ve yet to find an adequate reason why we shouldn’t strive for perfection.

The space is conspicuously beautiful. Elegant, especially by Baltimore standards. Why was the appearance of the place important to you and does this kind of environmental beauty convey or impart or add to the experience? 

The bar is beautiful, I have my wife to thank for that. This kind of environmental beauty most certainly impacts the experience—I’ll never tire of watching people’s faces light up when they enter into the room. But, admittedly, this question has left me pondering. We had a clear and immediate idea of the bar’s aesthetic. It was always going to be elegant. We didn’t imagine it another way. You can often find me bellied up to any number of Hampden’s casual, neighborhood bars, but I simply didn’t want to open another one. Seeing our individual vision come to life has been an incredibly rewarding experience.  

In your opinion, what does beauty—in the form of decadent food or drink, or in a physical space—add to one’s lived experience? How does it impact the psyche, the spirit, the mood, or intellect? Why do we need beauty and why does it matter? 

In terms of food and drink, I can only speak of aesthetic beauty: a beauty that is not conscious of its viewer. To be beneath crystal chandeliers, in a soft, dimly lit room, next to a fireplace, seated on a velvet banquette at a marble table, lit candles all around, drinking something that has been thoughtfully crafted and presented . . . what can be said about beauty? We created our space to be physically beautiful, so the opportunity existed for the people inside of it to feel beautiful. But I cannot control that feeling, I cannot give that feeling to someone else. I’ve done my part: I’ve provided a beautiful space. The people inside of it determine, at that very moment, if the beauty will stay a physical one, or become something more.  

Of course, the idea of the creation of something physically beautiful can be beautiful in itself: the dedication to one’s craft, the discipline, the thought required to create something that is thought provoking. That is beauty of the soul, which must exist in order for a human to create a beautiful thing. But that does not mean the process itself is beautiful. The product resulting from almost any job can be something of beauty, but the job itself can be physically arduous, mentally exhaustive, unglamorous, and thankless. But in this process exists fulfillment.  

Beauty is grace, it is restraint, it is loveliness, it is moral, and, above all, it is a privilege because it can be destroyed. Without beauty the process of creating it would not exist. That would be a very sad day, indeed.  

 


 

Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published in the BmoreArt Journal of Art + Ideas, Issue 05: Beauty

Photos by Justin Tsucalas