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Lane Harlan’s Libationary Empire

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It’s a six-minute walk in a straight line, but it took five years to get there. 

At the entrance to the tiny Fawcett neighborhood, where 23rd street bends toward the recessed alcove of rowhomes, stands the famed bar, W.C. Harlan est. 2013. From there, it’s 500 feet to Clavel est. 2015. and another 528 feet to Fadensonnen est. 2018. 

If you have the courage, you could grab a pre-dinner cocktail du jour, a mezcal flight alongside tremendous Mexican fare, then a mug of Kolch, a bottle of storied wine, or even a tiny nip of sake. In 0.2 miles, you could travel the world in a single spirit-filled evening.

For decades, Fawcett was home to longstanding craft businesses Ibello Upholstery, Uptown Press, and Thomas Brown Woodwright but there was nowhere to get a cocktail—that is until partners Matthew Pierce and Lane Harlan transformed a defunct bar into Baltimore’s premiere libation destination.

Often found draped in a wistful yet wise wardrobe, Lane Harlan’s presence evokes the reincarnation of Simone de Beauvoir and the existentialists loitering in Paris cafes in the 20th century. But when she speaks, she’s an all-American girl.

Born in the Philippines to her Filipino mother whose first language is Tagalog, Harlan’s cadence incorporates the melodic, rhythmic nature of her mother’s native tongue. Yet, with her Texas-born father and years of moving around the US, the southern drawl wafts its way into her voice. The result is a linguistic tropism that eases away preconceptions where, all at once, you fall into the ease of speaking with someone you’ve known all along. And who hasn’t known Lane Harlan all along? She is, after all, the darling of Baltimore’s restaurant world.

We were very low-key about it. We said if what we do is good enough, people will come. If what we’re doing is quality enough and we give them the experience… they will come back again and they’ll tell their friends.
Lane Harlan

It’s been eleven years since Harlan and husband/co-conspirator Matthew Pierce opened W.C. Harlan. Today, the duo and a stunning team of Baltimore’s most creative bartenders operate four unique bars and one award-winning restaurant. 

Each bar has a signature menu centered around a different spirit, but one element stays consistent at every location: there is no sign. I ask if that’s deliberate. 

“Part of it is intentional, and part of it was, at the time, about resources,” Harlan shares. They started looking to open WC Harlan in 2011, but with little to no money, bad credit, and accumulating student loans, bringing the idea into reality took a passion and maneuvering that, for many, would simply be unfathomable. 

“I was DJing, writing poetry, and bartending. My husband was a full-time musician and was touring and writing songs… we didn’t have a big chunk of family money. We had bad credit. We hadn’t paid our student loans… We just didn’t have a lot and were kinda just roughing it,” she remembers aloud. 

The couple found a foreclosed dive that had lost its liquor license and acquired the building from a loan shark on a handshake deal, inheriting its mahogany Art Deco bar. Harlan had been bartering her labor for antiques and had accumulated a collection of early 2oth century pieces that made their way into the bar’s decor. “I was like, I’ll take that Victorian mirror and I’ll work eight hours,” she says.

In order to reinstate the bar’s liquor license and regain the respect of its neighbors, Harlan and Pierce  knocked on every door in the three-block neighborhood and lobbied for support. “We knew the neighbors were very concerned… so we were very careful. We were just being respectful.” 

When they opened in January 2013, they decided not to use the front door, which faced residents, but instead employed the side door, which faced an industrial building that was often empty after 5 p.m. They tapped their most talented artist friend, Meaghan Carpenter (co-founder of Hex Ferments), to paint “Enter” on the door so people knew where to enter. 

“We were very low-key about it. We said if what we do is good enough, people will come. If what we’re doing is quality enough and we give them the experience… they will come back again and they’ll tell their friends,” Harlan says of their business plan.

“That’s why we didn’t have a sign—we never wanted to be a speakeasy,” she explains. “The reason it looks the way it looks is because we didn’t have a contractor. We didn’t have money.”

“We didn’t expect people would come in [prohibition era] outfits.” She says the media took the whole speakeasy angle and ran with it. “Even today when people say it’s a speakeasy, I feel a little”—she groans—”It’s fine… I’m not gonna fight anyone, but we never wanted it to be a themed speakeasy.”

I learned from the five senses. If you haven’t been to Oaxaca, you don’t know every single part of the smells in the production and the sounds, but let’s just get to know one mezcal today and tomorrow I’ll give you two. We do things that are based on senses because I want people to build their own sense library.
Lane Harlan

Two years into the success of their unintentional speakeasy, Corky’s, a neighboring cafeteria-style restaurant, was listed for sale on Craigslist. “It had kelly green carpet soiled with grease of 20 years, Keno machines, cigarette machines,” Harlan recalls the decor. “But Corky’s was a restaurant and had a huge open kitchen,” she says. “I never wanted to open a restaurant.”

She had become enthralled with the craft of mezcal after a visit to Oaxaca and wanted to share that passion with Baltimore. “I wanted to open a tiny mezcalería, like a 12-seater where I could just talk. I just wanted to talk,” she says. Clavel opened as a taquería and mezcalería in 2015, with brother-in-law Carlos Raba as chef and co-owner. 

When they expanded into the adjacent garage to extend Clavel’s dining room they added a tasting bar where the story of mezcal could be told to the depths it deserved. While the dining room never takes reservations, you have to book a seat at the tasting bar a month in advance. There, up to six people at a time can experience a curated menu of ancestral mezcals from small producers in an intimate session. 

Harlan’s passion becomes visceral as she speaks about the world of mezcal and the craft of the bar. “I learned from the five senses,” she says, increasing her tempo. “If you haven’t been to Oaxaca, you don’t know every single part of the smells in the production and the sounds, but let’s just get to know one mezcal today and tomorrow I’ll give you two. We do things that are based on senses because I want people to build their own sense library.”

There is a nuance in storytelling through food that is unlike any other. When a consumable like mezcal is ubiquitous but still so misunderstood in its origin, the desire to share that product’s craft and tell its story is a passion that knows no bounds. It’s like watching someone finish the last page of a book. They close the cover and peer toward the future in contemplationfor the first time, seeing the entirety of the story and being able to fully consider its odds and ends. And that face they wear, if you are the storyteller, is unparalleledas if staring into a gift. 

Harlan received news just this spring: Clavel advanced to the 2024 James Beard Award finalists position for Outstanding Barmaking it farther than any other Baltimore restaurant since Woodberry Kitchen. 

Harlan and Pierce discovered their next project while on a walk on 23rd street. “Up the street was a dirt lot filled with abandoned cars, and it [was surrounded by] a chain link fence. We’d look in and be like, what if this was just a beer garden?” Before the pandemic necessitated outdoor dining, the duo longed to create an outdoor gathering space. And so they began reverse engineering the parking lot to paradise. In 2018, Harlan and Pierce had transformed it into the beer garden, wine, and sake multiplex, Faddensonnen

The adjoining carriage house was storage for thousands of bikes. Upstairs, now the Tavern, was an office with a drop ceiling. What’s now the restaurant Chachis used to be a music studio filled with drug paraphernalia. The property had two apartments, one now houses the record shop E2-E4, and the other became a natural wine store, Angels Ate Lemons

During the pandemic, they acquired another garage next to Clavel and opened the Nixtamalería Clavel, where they produce masa. “We source our corn from Oaxaca and Puebla. It comes in by the pallet. We process the corn and make everything from scratch,” Harlan shares. The nixtamalization process utilizes indigenous methods of steeping corn in an alkaline environmentonce wood ash, now calcium hydroxide or slaked lime. This method of processing corn is vital to releasing its nutrients, skipping it can lead to malnutrition, a fate suffered by Spanish colonists who discarded the lengthy process when they first introduced the crop to Europe.

Above Clavel is the Bar Lab, full of jars of botanicals, raw ingredients, and equipment where they make shrubs, syrups, salts, tepache and other ferments for all of Harlan’s establishments. 

We became so big and so busy that we were just a monster. You’re a monster if you can’t understand how to recycle your waste. You just become a problem.
Lane Harlan

“The bar lab came out of absolute necessity because the kitchen was mad at me. I was making tres chili shrub in there and everyone was crying because I was cooking chillis with vinegar,” she recalls. “I was making tepache, which smelled. The fruit flies were coming in.”

The kitchen gave her an ultimatum: either start doing her experiments at 5am or in the middle of the night. She rejected their offer and made her own kitchen, the Bar Lab. The lab is equipped with a vitamix, dehydrator, stove, and Spinzall machine for making oils. “We dehydrate fig leaves and steep in mezcal and it makes the mezcal really coconutty and bright green,” Harlan says. “That’s our house mezcal now. I just love it.”

Beyond concocting potions that have undeniably cast a love spell on the city of Baltimore, Harlan adds, “The laboratory was not only experimental but was also a way to decrease the amount of waste.” 

“We became so big and so busy that we were just a monster. You’re a monster if you can’t understand how to recycle your waste. You just become a problem.”

Today, the limes that are juiced for ceviche and cocktails are either dried and used as bowls for salts, sliced for garnishes, or ground and dehydrated and turned into salt. The tepache fermentation is dehydrated, laid on screens, and turned into paper for Mezcal labels. The water used to steep masa is mixed with honey to make corn honey syrup.

“It’s just endless,” she says, overwhelmed. “All of these side projects with recycling things are helpful and creative but the biggest impact for us was composting… at the end of the year we ended up composting football fields… it was many, many tons.”

I was already ready to smash the tip jar. Our dishwasher makes the same as your server. They’re all walking with the same amount of money.
Lane Harlan

As we are talking at Clavel, a worker walks by and Harlan squeezes “cómo estás?” with a smile between sentences.

“The most important people in the building are my co-workers; they’re number one,” she says. From operating W.C. daily to now employing 100+ co-workers, as Harlan refers to her staff, there are plenty of places and personalities to manage. “The customer is down the line…[because] the guest experience can only happen if [the people working] are happy,” she says confidently. 

Clavel bar manager Dre Levon sets up the tasting bar at the back of the room. He’s worked with Harlan for nine years. Pam Haner, general manager of W.C., swings by before her shift; she’s worked with Harlan for eleven years. The night kitchen crew is all women, Harlan shares with glee. “Have you noticed? They are Chingonas!” she exclaims, using the Mexican slang for bad-ass women. 

Both ambitious and uncompromising in her principals, Harlan is a badass in her own right. She says that pre-pandemic, “I was already ready to smash the tip jar.” Today, at all of their establishments there is a 20% auto-gratuity on all checks, and that gratuity is split evenly among all workers. “Our dishwasher makes the same as your server. They’re all walking with the same amount of money,” she says of the model that grew out of their mutual aid tip-sharing program during the height of COVID.  

During the first few weeks of the pandemic when Clavel turned into a to-go burrito restaurant, Harlan shares that, “Everyone was as scared as we are… all I thought was pay people.” The generous tips received during the pandemic were split and sent to staff via Venmo or Pierce would drive the cash to people’s homes.  “We just kept paying everybody off of the tips.” Today, everyone is paid from the tip pool based on hours worked. Even after lockdowns ended she says, “We never looked back.”

Post-pandemic, The Coral Wig began incubating in the alley attached to Hotel Ulysses in Mount Vernon. The bar is less than 500 square feet, their smallest yet. “Because everything is so small, it’s like a jewel box,” Harlan shares. 

They paneled the entire thing with affordable plywood, triple-stained, and finished with a glossy spray to make it look fancy. “It [was] like an art project,” she says, explaining the plywood transformation and hand-painted floor. Pierce hand-painted the floor because they didn’t have the budget for actual tile. The Coral Wig features a rum-heavy menu with a dimly lit interior that evokes the memory of Manilla officer clubs in the 1980s. 

Pam Haner now manages the Wig as well as W.C., leading what Harlan describes as a veteran team. “So it’s very Harlan-Style everything, but the drinks are more tropical.”

So far, it’s been a recipe for success. Bon Appétit recently named The Coral Wig one of the 11 Best New Bars in the US

Over the past decade of transforming ingredients and spaces, the guests and trends have also transformed. Adapting to those trends is another challenge Harlan confronts. “Dry January is a thing.” she says deadpan. “Our sales have been plummeting in January. This January was the worst.”

“People weren’t going to restaurants and getting a non-alcoholic drink.” She suspects many people weren’t going to restaurants as a way to stave off the temptation to have a drink with dinner.

Back when they opened W.C. in January of 2013, Dry January wasn’t a trend. Instead, Harlan shares, “The Sazerac was very popular. Everyone wanted Absinthe.” She says the Old Fashioned was in style and still is, but, “What’s popular now, that kind of drives me up the wall, is the espresso martini,” she shares. “Everyone wants an espresso martini everywhere.”

People often associate the espresso martini with real coffee, simple syrup, and vodka but since they don’t have an espresso machine at most of the bars and they do not use refined sugar or simple syrup, “We don’t use white sugar anywhere. We use raw honey or we use panela sugar that is fair trade, and we source it directly:”

Harlan shared her alternate Espresso Martini recipe:
Pandan-infused potato vodka
Coconut creme
Forthave Brown Coffee Liqueur
Touch of amaro
Shake hard and double-strain in a coupe.

Eleven years of building, hiring, painting, dehydrating, infusing, talking, and sharing herself with the city, there is not much that Lane Harlan has not transformed. So I have to ask, what has transformed inside of this powerhouse of a woman over the last decade.

“Having my daughter, Brune, was the biggest transformation I’ve ever had or probably will ever have,” she answers. “A lot of people think they need to get back to what [they were] before, but it’s not possible.” She has been a chatterbox, full of life and conversation but at this moment I can see something change in her. Her shoulders soften. Her cadence slows. 

“Before, I never thought about the time we had on Earth. Now, I’m constantly thinking about how what I’m doing will be left for other people.” She becomes teary-eyed and pauses to gain her composure. “[How do I] make something better and leave something better. Now that I’m a mother I see it in everyone I work with now. I see it in every decision I make. It’s just a different layer of empathy.” 

“I think I softened from being a mother,” she says. “And I think it’s a good thing.”

All photos created at Clavel

This story is from Issue 17: Transformation, available here.

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