Portland often receives attention for its innovative and delicious food scene. In fact, this year four of its chefs were nominated for a James Beard Award. However, something I wasn’t as familiar with was its innovative and very serious cocktail and spirits scene. Perhaps this is to help chase off the cool damp that seems to pervade the region throughout much of the year. Regardless, it’s an interesting way to partake in some of the area’s creativity both in the craft distilling process as well as the development of creative uses of those locally distilled spirits.
My first experience with what the Portland area offers in the form of spirits and cocktails was in our hotel bar, The Urban Farmer. I was fortunate to have Lance as my bartender, a fellow spirits lover and bourbon writer. After the usual small talk, we came to subject of spirits. This opened a whole avenue of conversation and provided me with an education both academic (history, distilling processes, etc.) and practical (tastings). I casually mentioned that gin is one of my favorite spirits and out came the tasting glasses with a selection of locally distilled varieties. Of the five gins that Lance poured for me, Small’s was my favorite. This interesting blend of botanicals imparts a distinct fruit (raspberry) and spice (cardamom) character both on the nose and palette. While many gins are harsh and abrasive in nature demanding to be mixed, Small’s and these other small-batch crafted spirits can be quaffed individually. Another gin by the same producer crafted in an old world style was Old Tom Gin. This gin is distilled in the style prevalent in the mid 1800’s. It’s a honey-amber in color and offers a hint of maltiness due to its base. Both of these fine gins are made by Ransom and unfortunately almost impossible to find outside the state.
Another interesting fact about The Urban Farmer is that it is only bar in the States to produce their own brand of whiskey. This is aged for 15 months behind the bar in small New American Oak barrels. The resulting whiskey is a fine drink, smooth and not the least bit harsh. I tried samples from two different barrels and there was a distinct difference between the two. The bar’s/hotel’s liquor license doesn’t permit them to do general bottles sales unless you buy it by the shot through room service resulting in a bottle of whiskey costing several hundred dollars. While good, not something I would recommend.
Two other interesting things Lance was generous enough to let me sample included two brandies and a highly unusual vodka. A distiller by the name of Clear Creek produces two quite well done spirits, one apple and one pear. The pear brandy is done in classic eau de vie style and made from bartlett fruit. The scent of fruit bursts from the bottle and provides an excellent olfactory experience. Taste is crisp and intensely pear. Lance and I discussed the use of this in Side Car variations. The apple brandy is so good that it can compete with some of the best Calvados Normandy produces. If you’re in the Oregon, don’t miss these two. The final tasting that was highly interesting was Apia Vodka. This vodka comes from a most unusual source, honey. Sweet without being sweet is the only way I can describe this spirit exhibiting the essential flavor of honey. Sadly, the distillery was so artisan that it couldn’t compete with the “easy way out” of doing “craft spirits” that they went out of business. However, I was fortunate to taste some of this fine fine vodka that may never again be produced.
Wrapping up our tasting, I put my cocktail fate in Lance’s hands and asked him to make me a drink that would be unusual – something I’ve probably never experienced. After a moment’s thought, he said “we’re having a Martinez”. Now, the Martinez is considered to be the fore bearer of the modern day Martini; however, looking at them at face value one would be hard pressed to agree. The Martinez uses sweet vermouth creating a cocktail that is dark amber in color. For my Martinez, Lance didn’t use just any sweet vermouth. No, he used the mac daddy version – Carpano Antica. This is considered to be the original formulation of sweet vermouth and often thought to be the “only choice” for your Manhattan. It worked well in the Martinez too. The combination of gin, sweet vermouth, bitters and maraschino was excellent. A small slice of orange peel was brought over and delicately squeezed so that the oils would mist the surface of the drink. Attention to detail at it’s best.
After collecting James from his afternoon nap and dressing for dinner, we left the hotel early to stop at one of the city’s newest watering holes, Beaker & Flask. I started with one of the house concoctions, a Sal’s Minion. This is a combination of aged rum, pineapple gomme, and coconut water ice cubes. As the ingredients would imply, this drink has a bit of a tropical bent to it. The gomme (a thick sugar syrup) adds a healthy dose of sweetness without being cloying. A single, round piece of ice made of the coconut water was included. Perfect ice, perhaps? James selected the Norwegian Negroni – Krogstad aquavit, cynar, and sweet vermouth. As a snack, we chose a plate of smoked trout deviled eggs – quite good.
Our bartender, with his deep radio voice, was a serious sort of fellow. Two days of scruff, a short sleeved batik print shirt, and army green cargo pants, he wasn’t the guy you’d see at a stiff New York bar. An air of intense casualness pervades the Pacific Northwest and Beaker & Flask was no exception. A few minutes after we seated ourselves at the bar, he made a quick dash to his car to retrieve a messenger bag full of bar implements.
After watching him work while sipping my first drink, I put my fate in his hands by giving him some guidance on what I typically drink and let him choose my next cocktail. With almost no hesitation, he said we’ll set you up with a “Between the Sheets”. This slight variation of my beloved Side Car adds light rum to the mix for a flavorful but more potent version of my go to cocktail.
Advance to Sunday and we were seated at the bar in Ten 01, a fantastic place for dinner that we’ll blog about later. Kelley, our bartender for the evening, took especially good care of us. We had heard of Kelley through Lance at Urban Farmer so we knew we would have a good experience with him. For my starter cocktail, I opted for one of his creations, the Portland Pimm’s. This was a mixture of Pimm’s, ginger ale, mint, with fruit and cucumber. Very nice with a tang from the ginger and the spiciness of the Pimms was a winning combination. James’ started and finished with a Stringer’s Bell – a mixture of bourbon, cherry herring, bitters, and lime zest.
Next I moved on to an Alabazam. Once again, a short distance from a Side Car. This time, the drink calls for bitters and a dash of sugar. While the drink was carefully and well mixed, the bitters proved too much for me. I could possibly drink one or two a year but this wouldn’t be a go to cocktail for me.
We could go on about a couple of other stops made along the way (Clyde Common, Departure, Yakuza Lounge) during our two days in Portland, but we think a couple of pages devoted to the subject is sufficient. Portland represents provides a venue to explore your creative cocktail side in a relaxed but passionate environment.