It’s no surprise that writers have long taken inspiration from bars. At bars, stories flow freely. And with his latest book, drinks expert Brad Thomas Parsons, author of Bitters and Amaro, shifts his focus from the drinks to the bartenders that tell some of these stories.
In Last Call: Bartenders on Their Final Drink and the Wisdom and Rituals of Closing Time, Parsons visits 23 American cities with a specific conceit: He wants to know what bartenders would choose as their final cocktails. He solicits death row drinks from bar professionals like Guido Martelli at Philadelphia’s Palizzi Social Club; James MacWilliams at fine-dining institution Canlis in Seattle; and Karen Brownlee at Earnestine and Hazel’s in Memphis Tennessee, considered the most haunted bar in America. Their answers (a dry martini, a margarita and a beer, and a Bud Light, respectively) appear among recipes, interviews, and of course, the stories of bartenders and their bars.
In this excerpt from Last Call, Parsons goes to Idle Hour, a South Baltimore dive with a surprising penchant for the green French liqueur, Chartreuse. — Monica Burton
The maroon-colored door of Idle Hour, a neighborhood corner bar in South Baltimore, is layered with a patina of dozens of stickers (“Patchouli Stinks,” “Ithaca Is Gorges,” “Choose Rockabilly,” “Fuck 2016,” “Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?”) slapped on by those who’ve come before me, and when I walk in, that awkward moment from the movies when the needle scratches across the record and silences everyone in the room seems to play out in real time. A cast of all-male regulars, whose median age is in the late fifties, look up in unison from their barstools to see who just walked into their bar. It seems fitting that I’m here on Open Vinyl Night, when anyone with a crate of records can take a spin at the turntables at the end of the bar for a brief set.
It’s an intimate room, and I quickly spot at the bar Brendan Finnerty, who owns the place with his business partner, Randal Etheridge. My travels have taught me that neighborhood bars, especially those some might categorize on the dive spectrum, have their own unspoken codes of conduct, and after we shake hands but before we really get talking, Finnerty sizes me up. “How’d you hear about us?” he asks, less out of suspicion and more out of genuine curiosity. “There’s not a lot written about us out there. Who hipped you to us?” He then motioned to the bartender, J.D., a glam rock–looking cat with a flip phone, who was wearing silver rings on each finger, a shirt unbuttoned to the middle of his chest, and a hint of black eyeliner. He came back with a bottle of green Chartreuse, the bar’s spirit animal, and a round of shots was poured out. “Let’s talk, but can we do a shot first?” When in Rome (or South Baltimore)... We raise our glasses as J.D. offers his standard house toast, words I’ll hear repeated throughout the night with every shot poured: “Always merry and bright.”
“I like to think Idle Hour is a very casual place,” says Finnerty. “One of my favorite compliments we’ll ever get is that people always feel comfortable here. If you come here, you can get your fancy mixology drinks to a degree. We have a drink list. We do barrel-aged stuff. We have a nice wine list. But we’re best known for offering Chartreuse shots at a reasonable price. I just want people to come, feel comfortable, and hang out. These barstools are well worn.” In 2014, Finnerty and Etheridge had to close the bar unexpectedly when a buckling wall behind the backbar presented major structural issues to the building. They assumed they’d have to close down for good, and the year and a half they were shut down only made the local community realize how much they missed their favorite neighborhood bar. Ultimately, supporters helped raise more than $50,000 to help with repairs and renovations, and the bar has been going strong ever since.
“This was a very working-class, blue-collar neighborhood,” Finnerty says. “All the steel mills and docks were around here. It’s changed dramatically from when we first started. You rarely saw kids walking up and down the street back then, and now at the end of the night when school is in session, there are about thirty thousand kids around here. It’s changed, man.”
Finnerty tells me that Idle Hour is the last stop of the night for many of their friends and regulars. “They rush here to get in before last call, which is 1:45 a.m., but sometimes we push it. It depends. If there’s a ton of people in here on the weekend, we’ve got to get people out. But typically we have a hard stop at 2:00 a.m. Come on, you made me a promise, now it’s time to go.” The old-school regulars at the bar are often overcome with an influx of younger drinkers who flood the neighborhood, resulting in a distinctly different vibe on weekends compared to the more laidback weeknights. “For the most part, I think this place self-regulates,” says Finnerty. “We’ve been around for so long the reputation is out there. It’s a great place not to get fucked up. It’s one of those places, too, that if you do get fucked up, you might not know that everybody around here knows everybody. You might think you know somebody and it’s all cool, but the rest of the bar will stand up and say, ‘You’ve got to go.’ It’s a community.”
A Baltimore dive bar seems like an unlikely spot to sell through cases of Chartreuse, the high-proof, aromatic liqueur made since 1737 by Carthusian monks in the French Alps from a proprietary recipe based on a sixteenth-century alchemist’s formula for an herbal elixir. “At this point, we sell about a case a week. We go through more Chartreuse than we do vodka,” says Finnerty. “People say, ‘God, you look so young for forty-six.’ It’s because I’m pickled with Chartreuse. It’s the Green, man.” At one point, Idle Hour was the number-one account for Chartreuse sales in the entire United States, battling Boston and Chicago for the top spot. They’re still one of the better sellers of the historic brand on the East Coast and sit comfortably in the top ten for national sales. One of the secrets for its Chartreuse success is that its customers typically knock it back as a shot, rather than in a cocktail or as a more discreet sipper. “I know, we’re terrible, we shoot it,” says Finnerty, who does encourage first- timers to sip it neat on its own.
The evidence of this devotion to Charteuse is the display of spent bottles atop the shelves of the bar, serving as markers of hazy memories of nights well spent. In recent years, many bartenders and sommeliers have become enamored of Chartreuse, running up the price tag of rare and vintage bottlings and geeking out over vertical flights through the decades of production. But while Idle Hour is fixated on the emerald-green elixir, all pretensions are left at the door. “We started out doing $3 shots of Chartreuse like a bunch of idiots. Had we been a little bit smarter about things, it would’ve been wise of us to pull a bottle or two over the years. It’s one of these spirits where every batch is a little bit different.”
Due to the inordinate amount of Chartreuse sold at Idle Hour, the bar popped up on the radar of Jean-Marc Roget, the president of Chartreuse, who informed the local distributor that he wanted to come and visit the bar. “I remember to this day we thought we were hot shit,” says Finnerty. “He was in DC, and he came up here and the reps took him to all the fancy places. But he wanted to come to Idle Hour to see what was going on. He had his fancy dinner and came here later that night. He rolled in, impeccably dressed, and asked how this small bar in Baltimore was selling so much Chartreuse. Shots, we told him, pouring one out [they do a strong pour]. Knock it back.” You would think the distinguished keeper of this centuries-old spirit would balk at the sight of his elegant herbal liqueur being tossed back with abandon, but he was won over by the South Baltimore charm on display at Idle Hour and ended up spending the rest of his evening at the bar. “He bought the whole bar drinks and promised he’d take us to France to show us the full operation. And on our ten- year anniversary, he took us to France for ten days.”
It should come as no surprise then that a shot of green Chartreuse would be Finnerty’s choice for his one final drink. He’d take it with a no-nonsense American beer, like Schaefer, as a nod the blue-collar history of the neighborhood. “My partner, Randal, was introduced to Chartreuse through his closest friend, Dave, who was a pilot in the Marines and became hooked on it. Sadly, not too many years later, Dave died in a training accident, and I know Randal thinks of him often when toasting with the Green. We never intended to make it the bar shot, but with only a handful of initial introductions, its popularity grew exponentially.”
Drinking Chartreuse at Idle Hour is something the bar is known for and so deeply ingrained in tradition that when Finnerty and Etheridge go to other Baltimore bars, they are almost always immediately offered a shot of green Chartreuse. “I try not to think about my own mortality too much,” says Finnerty. “I know that it could happen at any minute— we are in Baltimore after all. But I don’t dwell on it. Chartreuse slows you down and warms and loosens you up. If you spend an entire evening sipping on the Green, you find yourself a little bit lighter and a little bit brighter. You tend to float. If I’m to enter the afterlife, what better way than that? I want to float right into that next chapter!” Finnerty contemplates the glass of Chartreuse in front of him and takes a sip of beer. “But if death is imminent, a shot of green Chartreuse backed by a cold can of Schaefer is the perfect companion. The Chartreuse relaxes your body, providing a serene physical state. Its complexity demands contemplation. Death may only come once, but you might as well be there to enjoy it.”
From the book Last Call: Bartenders on Their Final Drink and the Wisdom and Rituals of Closing Time, to be published on October 22 by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Brad Thomas Parsons. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.