Evidently, Jefferson 25-year rye tastes like “an old shoe.” At least that’s what the bartender at Blue Pit BBQ (1601 Union Ave,  948-5590, bluepitbbq.com) said. I’m a big fan of the Jefferson two- and four-year ryes, so I thought the 25-year would be spectacular and was prepared to drop $25 on it in the name of science, but this description threw me off. My dad and his Coast Guard buddies always called Old Overholt, a bottom-shelf rye, Old Overshoe and I knew that whatever the top-shelf Jefferson objectively tasted like, in my mind, it would now be transubstantiated into Old Overholt at a considerable loss of value.
But Blue Pit’s super-extensive whiskey menu gave me plenty of other, far more reasonably priced options, so I ordered a Willet two-year rye ($9) and a Masterson ($12) instead, both of which were delicious and, together, came in cheaper than the Jefferson.
For a long time, whiskey was the main draw of Blue Pit, across from Union Brewery and beside the Bloody Bucket on Union Avenue, and it’s easy to see why. As the amber-colored bar reflected the light of the TV and we took in the dark woods and pool-felt greens all around us, I realized that sitting at Blue Pit’s bar feels like being beautifully submerged in whiskey, which is why we didn’t mind when we arrived at 4 p.m. on a Saturday and the kitchen didn’t open until 5. But when the smoky aroma of meat—which they call “craft barbecue”—began to infuse the air, the whiskey became a secondary attraction—which is really saying something.
So, we switched over to Union Stoop Sitter ($6), which is an Oktoberfest-style beer (without meeting all of the strict requirements to be officially called Oktoberfest), and ordered food: two two-meat platters ($15 each), each with two sides, which gave us a good sampling of the small-ish menu.
For me and my companion (who also happens to be my wife), the pulled pork was the main attraction. We grew up in South Carolina and the uncle who performed our wedding ceremony also spent the night before the rehearsal dinner cooking a whole hog on a smoker he pulled behind his truck in a motel parking lot. When it comes to barbecue, we’re not fucking around.
And Blue Pit really pulled through in a big way, mainly through minimalism and restraint. Blue Pit doesn’t load the meat down with a bunch of extra junk—it seems to be seasoned with a rub notably featuring black and red pepper—and it provides a nearly perfect Carolina-style vinegar sauce (there are also the thicker sweeter barbecue sauces and a mustard-based South Carolina style). We split everything, but we kind of fought over who got more of the pork.
The ribs, though, were also phenomenal, characterized by a thick charred skin and a subtle but strong dry rub. For us, the rib experience is all about the balance between the burn on the skin and the juice in the interior, with the lingering spice acting as a go-between. When it is right and your teeth break through the char into the white meet surrounding the bone, it is transcendent. Again, simplicity rules—who wants that gooey shit most people serve as ribs?—and these come out as some of the best ribs in town.
The brisket, for its part, was cooked so tenderly that it seemed to scatter in different directions when touched with a fork, as if made of Maryland Democrats faced with a challenge—except in this case, that is a good thing. For my tastes, though, it simply couldn’t hold up to the two pork dishes. It wasn’t bad, it just suffered in comparison to something I like much better. So did the barbecue chicken. It was far too smoky, as if someone accidentally dropped it in that wretched liquid smoke stuff. Well, not that bad, but it was difficult to taste any of the bird’s juices or the spices or pepper in the face of the overpowering smoke, which lingered there like a long-winded and boorish guest.
Of course, at a barbecue joint, the sides are as important as the meats. The baked beans, perfectly cooked with a bit of brisket to add to the flavor, rocked, while the collards had the perfect level of spice (and were even better with just a dash of the vinegar sauce). We went with the Red Chili slaw, which was Blue Pit’s mayo-based slaw, though there was also a pickleback slaw we’d like to try next time. The red chili provided the coolness of the mayo a nice kick—though, for my tastes, it could have used a bit more kick and a little less mayonnaise. The mac and cheese was by far the most disappointing of the sides, sitting in its bowl as a sort of milky conflagration of flavorless mush. The cheese was a bit too runny, with no hard, baked crust on top, and the noodles were slightly overcooked and soft. It was more like a botched fettuccine alfredo than a solid mac and cheese at a meat-and-three joint.
Overall, Blue Pit manages to pull off something quite remarkable. Like the fancy rye whiskeys behind the bar, it takes a really down-home style and make it a bit upscale, without losing the characteristics of the original.
Blue Pit BBQ’s kitchen is open Monday-Saturday 5 p.m.-10 p.m. The bar is open Monday-Saturday 4 p.m.-1 a.m. and Sunday 5 p.m.-1 a.m.