Spilled peanuts, beers on draft and shoddy lighting — it’s what you’d expect from an Ellicott City pub born in the 1970s. But the Judge’s Bench, housed on 8385 Main St., wants to be different.

From the outside, the bar appears to be a large, at least three-bedroom home proudly decorated by someone’s alcoholic father. White-painted shingles line the space between the house’s red windowsills. A neon beer sign is plastered to each glass panel, commemorating nights of impulsive decisions like a series of bad tattoos. I love a good dive, so I thought I knew what to expect.

But when my co-worker John-John Williams and I walked in, we were directed up to a sleepy cocktail bar, ostensibly worlds away from the drunken, sports-crazed haze on the ground floor. The speakeasy is a new addition to the old Howard County stomping grounds, designed for the “cocktail nerds” among Ellicott City’s usual Friday night crowd, according to bar manager Elena Johnson. Guests trade in their downstairs bartender for an upstairs mixologist; a ‘70s dive for a West Elm catalog. The contrast made me feel like an adult hiding out with an expensive liquor cabinet, waiting for the kids below to tire themselves out.

This sanctuary is known as the 3rd Floor Cocktail Club, a “reservations strongly encouraged” space with an extensive list of pricey spirits and obscure ingredients. About 30 people are able to sit at a time, with the help of a lofty rooftop deck that opened in mid-April during Springfest, a countywide celebration. The menu is carefully designed by Johnson, who hopes the business will bring together those booze aficionados from across the state.

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“The [Judge’s Bench] owners knew cocktails have been on the come-up for quite a bit,” Johnson said. “The trend is to see more spirit-focused beverages and Ellicott City doesn’t have a ton of options for that.”

So Johnson got to work, opening the cozy, cabin-like space in late January with flavor combinations from rye and whipped coconut milk to Johnnie Walker Black and Honeybush tea. You don’t have to be an expert on liqueurs to grab a seat at the bar, but it does help.

Resident Banner expert Williams and I climbed flights of stairs before finding the speakeasy’s entrance: a door marked “secret.” Then we found more stairs. Each flight made me more convinced that we’d wind up in some older couple’s living room. By the time we made it to the bar, we were definitely in need of a drink.

The space was nearly empty. Miniature candles were scattered throughout the bar and den area. Any cheers for the NBA playoffs below were drowned out by a mix of George Michael and Wham! We looked at the menu, and to our surprise, each cocktail was named for a George Michael or Wham! classic.

Johnson said she wanted the bar to feel familiar and intimate, committed to only playing throwbacks and switching up the artist a few times per month. Later in May, she will ditch George Michael, likely for some other ‘80s crooner.

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I wanted something with a kick, but reminiscent of a Paper Plane, a drink made with equal parts lemon juice, Amaro Nonino, Aperol and whiskey. I was told to go for the “One More Try,” fit with Chairman’s Reserve spiced rum, Baltimore Spirits Co. 1904 apple brandy, Meletti Amaro and orange bitters. The concoction quickly became my favorite of the night for its smooth yet smoky taste and slightly bitter tang.

Williams had a different approach. He laid out a Venn diagram for our bartender with the circles “pretty” and “strong,” then urged her to find its center. She landed on the “Everything She Wants” cocktail for its pink, pomegranate-infused color and blanco tequila strength. The drink also used Baltimore Spirits Co. Baltamaro Chamomile Amaro, saline and ginger. In the loose words of a great writer, the center did not hold, and Williams eventually opted for a more herbal, citrus drink known as a classic Bijou, with gin, sweet vermouth, bitters and Chartreuse liqueur.

The “Everything She Wants” cocktail with pomegranate, ginger and tequila. (Matti Gellman)

A “Women’s History Month Cocktail” singled out in a box on the menu caught my eye, with Catoctin Creek distiller’s edition Roundstone Rye, Earl Grey tea, Cointreau liqueur, citrus, bitters and whipped coconut milk. But apparently too many women had come before me, so there were not enough resources to put together what was needed. I highly recommend getting to the cocktail bar early, especially next week, when Johnson plans to unveil a cocktail that celebrates her own Asian American Pacific Islander heritage and AAPI month.

More highlights of the night included a sweeter Aviation cocktail, with gin, maraschino liqueur, lemon juice and crème de violette liqueur — a first for me. But whether it’s your first fancy cocktail or your fiftieth, you’ll still find something to enjoy. Despite the clear separation between who was sitting in the beer-stained bar stools below and the candlelit sofas above, Johnson’s latest creation really is laid back enough for everyone, largely due to the George Michael serenades and incredibly kind staff.

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