Driving down high street a few months back, i happened to notice a new bar/restaurant opening up, next to Surly Girl. It's called Barrel 44, and was somewhat of a refreshing surprise to see in the short north. For people who are more familiar with Columbus and the Short North, the Short North is basically poser central for restaurants and bars that are trying to emulate the food and drink scene of New York City. Essentially, a lot of restaurants have opened up lately that have the look of an NYC bar/restaurant, but yet somehow also have the actual food and drink of a diner - a diner with fancier ingredients, but a diner nonetheless.
Given this, it was interesting to see someone try to open a more upscale whiskey bar in the short north. Because of my earlier exposure to restaurants and bars in the short north, I was ready to whip out my mental pad and paper and write down as many flaws as i could find. As it happens, i didn't find another poser bar in the short north - i didn't find drink/food heaven either - but it was promising to see a place that had transcended it's peers in some significant ways.
The decor was nothing worth mentioning. Slightly upscale but not flamboyant. They had a list of what looked to be 50+ whiskeys. They have at least 3 whiskeys in each category - including straight rye whiskey. The bartender says that they are trying to increase their whiskey menu. Unfortunately, like all bars in Ohio, Barrell 44 has some difficulty in acquiring some of the more interesting whiskeys that you might find in other states. The bartender suggested that they are trying to get their hands on a few bottles of Japanese Suntory whiskey, and a few other single-malt scotches as well, but this is a process that takes time. Moreover, it's not likely that you'll find this many whiskeys at any other bar in Columbus, so this is understandable.
I ordered three drinks from two bartenders. Bartender A did a pretty good job. I asked for a Manhattan. I asked her what type of sweet vermouth they had - she said that it was Martini & Rossi - but it was not (I think it was Stock or Gallo) - fortunately her only mistake. The only fault on the menu's part, was that the menu suggests that the Manhattan is made with "a dash of sweet vermouth and bitters" - but any self-respecting person would want more than just a dash of sweet vermouth. In fact, i asked specifically for a Manhattan with 1 part sweet vermouth to 2 parts whiskey - and a healthy dose of bitters. What was nice about the experience was that i didn't have to ask for either of these three things: (a) bitters, (b) stirring the drink instead of shaking it, and (c) rye whiskey instead of bourbon. Their standard rye whiskey is Old Overholt - which made for a great drink. The drink was a good temperature, had no unsightly ice chips, and tasted quite good - a very balanced drink.
The second drink I ordered was their "new old fashioned" - a curious concoction that replaces the orange slice in the old-fashioned with peaches. The only problem with this drink was the inclusion of what looked to be canned peaches. Now, in actuality, the idea of the drink is pretty sound. Peach is a natural pair with whiskey (i.e., think Southern Comfort) - so it was definitely a good idea. However, the inclusion of canned peaches seemed a little cheap. The only problem is that using fresh peaches is a little problematic - i would think that even with a significant amount of muddling, getting peach flavor from fresh peaches would be difficult. Of course, one could simply muddle some fresh peaches and add a small amount of southern comfort. This is just a small quibble though. The drink was tasty. Not only tasty, but (this will sound odd) their choice of ice shape was nice, and added to the drink.
The third drink I ordered was one that they didn't offer on the menu - a plain old old fashioned. Speaking of which, one other small quibble would be that their menu didn't include enough whiskey drinks. (Think of them more as a WHISKEY bar, as opposed to a whiskey BAR). That said, even though they didn't have the old-fashioned on the menu, the second bartender was happy to oblige me. This drink was also quite tasty - in fact i liked it better than their other one. What really struck me most was that the bartender actually knew what was in a regular old-fashioned - and was willing to prepare it for me. In fact, this bartender (a guy instead of a girl) seemed to be pretty on the ball. While he wasn't quite what i would call an expert, he did demonstrate a passion for whiskey and bartending, and also a professionalism that i just don't see at bars anymore. In general, i would say kudos to the bartenders at Barrel 44.
Now, onto one last complaint. The last drink that i attempted to order was one that neither of the bartenders had even heard of - in fact it was a drink that the owner had never heard of - the Sazerac. In fact, they didn't have the ingredients for a Sazerac - which is not surprising, because there aren't too many drinks that you would ask for that contained Peychaud's bitters and pastis. While this might seem a horrendous oversight on their part, i'm not going to fault them too much for it. I take it they're more "whiskey" people than "mixology" people - and so their unfamiliarity with the history of cocktails is forgiveable. That said, the Sazerac is one of the oldest and most well-known drinks in the mixology community - and it would be interesting to see them pick it up - at laest for the sake of authenticity.
All in all, i would give them 7 1/2 out of 10. Given that they've just opened, i would expect that they'll continue to get better, and i sincerely hope that they succeed.