Clyde Common’s bar manager, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, shakes up the local cocktail scene.
Photo by Corey Arnold
Touring Portland’s pioneering cocktail scene on two wheels.
It’s not uncommon to see patrons sitting along the bar at Portland’s Laurelhurst Market restaurant regarding the ice in their cocktails with mild consternation. Ice normally is clear and suggests purity. The ice in Laurelhurst’s signature drink does nothing of the sort. It’s a big, irregular slab. And it’s sort of sooty.
The cocktail, called Smoke Signals, is made with whisky, sherry, pecan syrup, lemon juice and – yes – smoked ice, created by placing blocks of ice over smoking embers, then refreezing the meltwater. One sip instantly brings to mind campfires and Weber grills.
“Oregon’s backwoods, pioneer mentality permeates life here,” Jeffrey Morgenthaler, one of the city’s pre-eminent mixologists and the bar manager at Clyde Common, explains to me. “If New York is known for classic cocktails, and San Francisco for fresh, market-inspired drinks, Portland would be about do-it-yourself cocktails.”
I arrived in Portland with what seemed like a simple idea: figure out if it belonged on the map of the international cocktail revolution. For a small city, it has an outsize reputation for libationary creativity. I began by renting a bicycle for my stay – judging by the bike traffic, a two-wheeler is mandatory for everyone within the city limits. It’s like Amsterdam, with hills and Gore-Tex.
First stop: Teardrop Cocktail Lounge, which opened in 2007 and is the place many Portlanders consider the headwaters of the local cocktail scene. Walking in, you’ll spot racks of antiquated blue eyedropper bottles filled with dozens of housemade tinctures and things like chipotle-chocolate bitters. (The bar also concocts its own digestifs and vermouths.) It’s a bit like wandering into a strip-mall chain drugstore and finding an apothecary’s assistant selling leeches and salves. My favourite drink was the Praise for Tulips, built around a local pear brandy and aperitif, which tasted like a dialogue between past and present.
Cities such as New Orleans and Oakland have designated official cocktails. Portland has not. No surprise, perhaps: An official cocktail suggests authority and, well, officialdom, both of which Portland seems allergic to. But if I might be so bold as to nominate one, it would be Clyde Common’s barrel-aged Negroni. The bar’s an agreeably short bike ride from the Teardrop, and feels more like a lively brewpub than an intimate craft-cocktail lounge. Morgenthaler, who’s often tending bar, is a noted trailblazer. He’d seen bottle-aged cocktails in London and decided to take the practice a half-step farther: He batched up a classic cocktail, put it in a whisky barrel and aged it a couple of months.
The result was a minor miracle. The Negroni I sipped was softer and rounder than its unaged cousin, having picked up the tannins and vanilla in the wood. Clyde Common often has the aged Negroni uncorked, with other cocktails working through a rotation – maybe martinis this month, or an El Presidente (rum, orange curaçao, dry vermouth and grenadine) the next.
Across the river from downtown, Whiskey Soda Lounge is a bit of a slog up a long hill, but well worth it. (Delayed gratification alert: Coasting back down to the river after dinner was one of the highlights of my trip.) Inside, it’s a funky and compact spot designed to accommodate the spillover traffic waiting for a table at sister restaurant Pok Pok, the cult Thai food emporium. But WSL is a destination in its own right. The food is inspired by Asian street food – the Vietnamese salty and spicy fish-sauce chicken wings I ordered matched up perfectly with the adventurous cocktail list.
And I mean adventurous: The specialty drinks here feature housemade sipping vinegars. It’s actually not a new idea but very old – using a mild acid to preserve flavours of berries and fruits goes back to the colonial era. Vinegar is essentially a souring agent, much like lemon or lime, and when used discreetly, it can make a drink step up and say, How d’you do! My favourite was the Lord Bergamot, made with tea-infused vodka and a honey vinegar. (What with the bike ride and all, I resisted a last round, but I’ll be back for the salted-plum Vodka Collins.)
Because Oregon has one of the least restrictive sets of state laws regarding distillation, nearly a dozen microdistillers have blossomed in and around the city, with enough within sipping distance of one another to form what they call Distillery Row. With my trusty rented bike, I spent a Saturday afternoon poking around the area. (For a designated driver, you can always hire a pedicab to shuttle you from one distillery to the next.)
At tiny Deco Distilling I sampled flavoured rums – including intriguing coffee and ginger varieties. At House Spirits down the block, in a garage-size showroom that fronts the distillery, I tried the stellar Krogstad Aquavit, a dry caraway-flavoured liquor that goes down smoothly on its own or adds a deftly complicating element to mixed drinks. “There’s no Portland style other than it’s individual,” distiller Christian Krogstad told me earlier. I was starting to understand what he meant.
The most memorable drink of my visit turned up at an improbable outdoor cocktail cart. It was more the novelty of it all than the cocktail itself (a sort of whisky sour made with Jameson Irish Whiskey). As you might imagine, some tricky licensing issues are involved, and this was a temporary, experimental cart, offering cocktails to the intrepid culinary crowd attracted to the Cartopia food trucks clustered on Hawthorne and SE 12th Streets. (The grouping is aptly described by one Yelp reviewer as being “like a hippie fairground with plenty of open seating.”)
With drink in hand, I sat at a picnic table while enjoying poutine from the nearby Potato Champion truck. Never mind my somewhat questionable food-drink pairing. I felt like a modern pioneer, taking in the night with the wagons circled around me.
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01 High above Pioneer Square, the Nines Hotel is housed in an impeccably retrofitted 1909 department store.
02 Portland Cocktail Week is held each fall to celebrate the local cocktail scene with four days of parties and seminars.
03 Two wheels are better than four for exploring Portland; get your alt transport on at Waterfront Bicycles (and be sure to ride responsibly).
04 Boutique spirits makers cluster in the several-block area dubbed Distillery Row and are open to visitors on weekends, including House Spirits Distillery (housespirits.com) and Deco Distilling (decodistilling.com).
05 Great drinks – and food – satisfy visitors to the informal gastropub Bent Brick; taste the whole menu for $48.
Air Canada offers the most daily non-stop service between Vancouver and Portland.