The Watering Hole: The BalMar, 5449 Ballard Ave. N.W., 297-0500.
The BalMar's Justin McClure, before he began playing with fire.
The Atmosphere: Two separate birthday parties are crowding the comfy black-leather sofas in the lounge and keeping the bartenders busy at Monday happy hour. Housed in what was once a department store, the BalMar is the epitome of Ballard's gradual shift from blue-collar to bourgeois. Not that there's anything wrong with that. The decor is pure class, with exposed bricks, hardwood floors, incandescent chandelier lighting, and an immaculate maroon-hued wooden bar. Just be glad it's a drinking establishment instead of a condo.
The Barkeep: Justin McClure, who has been a resident mixologist for four of the BalMar's five years. He calls the place a "classic cocktail bar," but on this occasion he uses some flashy technique and a bold substitution to put a unique twist on one of the old standbys.The Drink: When you tell a bartender to choose the drink and he replies "Is whiskey OK?" it's generally a good sign. But when he picks up a bottle of Jameson intent on mixing it with Cynar, an "Italian artichoke vermouth"--well, principled Irishmen have come to blows over less. I'm no purist, and Jameson cocktails in Ballard have been known to be delicious, but seriously, artichokes?
"It doesn't taste like artichoke," McClure insists. "It's just kind of spicy. It's something different." Along with the whiskey and Cynar, he adds a dash of orange bitters. He stirs the concoction, strains the amber-colored mixture into a martini glass, and uses a bit of orange peel to zest the rim. Then he digs a book of matches out of his pocket.
McClure holds the peel in one hand and strikes a match with his other. He teases the peel with the fire, causing it to spark and flame up just a bit. He calls this "flame zest" and explains that it imbues the citrus accent with an "oaky warmness." He plops the singed peel in the drink and slides the glass across the bar. It doesn't have an official name, he says, but the working title is a Dublin Manhattan.
The Verdict: The Jameson and Cynar (which tips the scales at 33 proof) make for a potent combination that warms my belly almost as well as if I'd swallowed a flaming orange peel. Seriously, though, orange is the dominant flavor, and behind that it's a slow burn of Jameson sweetness and that Cynar spice McClure promised. Thankfully, it does not taste anything like artichoke. As for the BalMar, with a solid happy hour that stretches from 5 to 7 p.m. (and all night on Mondays) and includes $3.50 micro/import drafts along with classy cocktails and tasty/affordable eats ($7 pulled pork sliders, FTW)--well, it fits right into the neighborhood after all.