Smile Politely

Barrelhouse 34: Champaign’s bar we didn’t know we needed

Barrelhouse 34 has only been open for a few months, but it already has one of the most innacurately recalled names of any place in town. Is it Barrelhouse 19? Barrelhouse 62? If it helps with committing the name to memory, know that the “34” in Barrelhouse 34 refers plainly to its address, at 34 East Main Street in Downtown Champaign. Or, just call it Barrelhouse.

Barrelhouse 34 is one of several recent additions to downtown Champaign, and, like others (I’m looking at you, Watson’s), seems calculated to be universally appealing and completely unobjectionable. It gives me what I didn’t know I wanted: another bar in downtown Champaign, this time algorithmically computed from the raw content of my dreams. Just like Netflix’s addictive and wildly successful original shows, Barrelhouse 34 seems crafted from big data, curated and focus group tested to within an inch of its existence. It’s almost embarrassing to see my desires reflected back at me in this manner.

This is a bar that attempts to find the gaps in other local drinking venues and fill them. Like Quality for the beer, but wish they had an attractive cocktail menu, too? Barrelhouse. Like Big Grove’s attractive cocktail and beer menu but wish the prices were just slightly lower? Barrelhouse. Like the Blind Pig’s dark all-wood interior, but wish it smelled like it probably did decades ago? Barrelhouse. Like the Piglet’s outdoor seating, but wish it was ON A ROOF? Barrelhouse. Like watching sports? Esquire. Barrelhouse 34 certainly doesn’t have it all, but it makes quite an effort. (I know and love all of these bars, and will continue to spend my hard-earned cash at them, by the way, so please don’t think I’m trying to throw shade.)

Over the past several weeks I have visited Barrelhouse 34 to get a better sense of their offerings. Some cocktails and beers I ordered and drank myself. Others were friends’ selections that I sampled. Here are my thoughts, in the briefest format possible:

Cocktails I finished:

Moscow Mule, $7 – The Official Taste of Summer™ in a super-conductive and extremely cold regulation copper mug. It’s hard to see how anyone could not find this addictively delicious. Nearly every engaged couple I’ve known in the past year or so has registered for mule mugs at Crate and Barrel, so this is very on-trend. With three distinct mules on the cocktail menu, and all priced at $7, Barrelhouse is a mule enthusiast’s paradise.

Negroni, $8– Poisonously bitter, spirit-forward. I made the mistake of drinking this on a nearly empty stomach. It packs a walloping punch. I am not studied in the art of Negronis, so I’d love to hear from someone else who has tried Barrelhouse’s, but I’m inclined to say that it was a competent rendition.

Dark and Stormy, $7 – Dark spicy lime bubbles. Just perfect; totally my kind of cocktail. Zesty, bubbly, and acidic, but with a dark spiciness to balance things out. I liked it so much that I had another.

Rye Old Fashioned, $8 – I was two beers in by the time I ordered this, and am not sure I was able to appreciate the nuances of a Rye Old Fashioned compared with my friend’s standard Barrelhouse Old Fashioned. Same goes for the mules – from what I recall, the differences are subtle. That said, this and the Barrelhouse Old Fashioned are among the best in town, and the price point is very accommodating.

Cocktails I sampled:

Sazerac, $8 – Cold syrupy decadence. Again, not my area of expertise, but my friend ordered a Sazerac and I thought it was fantastic. Perfect balance of sweet and bitter flavors, very spirit-forward but that is the point. Boozy cocktails should be extremely cold, and Barrelhouse does not overlook this basic but essential detail. Side note: This is not Barrelhouse’s fault, but I always find the Sazerac’s presentation to be a bit goofy because it comes in a hefty rocks glass, which only serves to highlight how little cocktail there is to sip. The glass does not properly celebrate its contents. I like it better than those slosh-y martini glasses, though, which need to be held so damn still.

Texas Mule, $7 – Indistinguishable from its Moscow counterpart, in my memory. Still, very tasty. 

Midwest Gin and Tonic, $5 – At first glance, it is not clear what makes this gin and tonic of the Midwest, unless you happen to know that the gin (Oppidan) is from a Chicago-based microdistillery. I couldn’t taste the flavors of Illinois, per se, but found it to be a perfectly decent gin and tonic. My friend who ordered it was a big fan.

Barrelhouse Old Fashioned, $7 – This is an all-around great cocktail at an excellent price, and the most representative of Barrelhouse’s whole schtick. My friend gave up beer for Lent and drank three of these instead on a recent night out. He’s really got the whole Lent thing figured out.

In addition to cocktails, Barrelhouse has a nicely curated draft list that showcases the best craft beers in the region and beyond. Their rotating tap selection is similar to Quality, with interesting outliers. On one visit in February Barrelhouse was serving Triptych’s delicious wild ale, and just last week they were offering the funky Shorts Soft Parade berry rye ale from Michigan. On the current draft list (as of last week) you’ll find a “funky dark Belgian” — the Against the Grain No Rebretts from Kentucky — and an “oak-aged wee heavy” — The Boulevard Snow and Tell, from Missouri. Whatever the rotating selection, Barrelhouse keeps the ever-reliable Hamm’s on the menu. I would love to see a wider selection of saisons, sours, and wild ales, and hopefully more will show up on draft as the weather warms up. Most of the draft beers are $5 or $6, with some priced as low as $3 and one or two priced at $7. It remains to be seen whether they will institute any beer specials in the near future. Interestingly, Barrelhouse’s beer menu tells you each beer’s ABV and IBU, or International Bitterness Units. IBU scores go from 0-100 and the score tells you the concentration of bitter hop acids in a beer. Whether you love or hate hops, you can use this information to make a wise selection. A small but significant detail that makes for a better drinking experience.

Are there any downsides to Barrelhouse 34? Sure. They don’t have any kind of house brewing situation going on, nor do they appear to have any house-made mixers or accoutrement. If you’re going for an artisanal vibe, why not go all the way? Having something unique to Barrelhouse 34 might give them a more distinct brand identity. Barrelhouse is also annoyingly busy. I’ve twice tried to go but was unable to get a table. Off-peak hours are best. There are a few other less-positive details: the Main Street entrance to the bar is a double-door trap, which can be confusing on first visit, the chairs are beautiful but can be uncomfortable (a friend remarked that the hard edge of the seat bottom pressed into her leg), and one particular table is positioned directly over the freezer downstairs and trembles disconcertingly. I consider these to be minor inconveniences. Oh, and here’s a secret: I was told that the parking lot directly adjacent to Barrelhouse is free and not permit-only starting at 5 p.m., with the exception of the three spots closest to the front door.

As you probably guessed from my review, it was a total pleasure reviewing Barrelhouse 34. I can’t wait until it warms up enough to try the rooftop deck, and I know the bar will be a go-to summer destination. I honestly didn’t think that another bar was totally necessary, but I think soon we won’t want or be able to imagine downtown Champaign without Barrelhouse 34 among our list of great options. As always, I’d love to know about your experiences, so don’t hesitate to chime in. Cheers!

Barrelhouse 34 is located at 34 E Main Street, Champiagn, and is open Monday through Friday, 3 p.m. to 2 a.m., and Saturday and Sunday noon to 2 a.m.

Drink photos by Pamela Saunders and Jessica Hammie. Bar photos by Sam Logan. 

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