Portland has no shortage of bartenders, it’s true. And plenty with great bar acumen. But to find one who is experienced in spirits and cocktails and also exhibits exceptional service is not always so easy. Lucky for Portland, they have Camille Cavan, the bar manager of Quaintrelle (quaintrelle.co), an airy, seasonal restaurant in PDX’s Boise neighborhood. The knowledgeable Cavan is gracious and laid-back but can craft a refined, balanced cocktail.
Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, her parents exposed her to wide-ranging, excellent cuisines as far back as she can remember. They also introduced her to the world via travel, art and good wine. This open-minded, eclectic upbringing shaped her palate and her passions over the years.
After living in Boulder, Colorado, for her undergrad, she came home to Eugene and got a job at a Pacific Northwest/French restaurant working alongside none other than Jeffrey Morgenthaler. As the guy who put Portland on the map in the cocktail world (popularizing barrel-aged cocktails globally and opening the hit bar Clyde Common), he schooled Camille on cocktails, product knowledge, flavor profiles and on how to engage and care for guests.
Eventually, she moved to Portland to work in another passion: music licensing with new artists. But the service industry continued to call and when the music company divided, she jumped back in on the bar side, working with the likes of Aaron Zieske (former bar manager at Polite Provisions in San Diego, now at Little Bird in PDX). He taught Camille the nuances of making tinctures, bitters, sprays and flips, as well as how to achieve proper dilution or excel with garnishes. She recalls his “unprecedented calming nature behind the bar”—a soothing calm she likewise presents behind her own bar.
Over the years, as she ran her first bar program, she became self-taught in menu development and bar technique, all skills and experience that eventually led her to Quaintrelle, which opened mid-2016.
In her own words, Cavan talks more about her background, where she eats and drinks in her town and what advice she’d give to distillers looking to get placed in bars.
How did you get into food and drink?
After growing up in Eugene and moving to Boulder, I spent a good amount of time traveling. Ireland, Scotland, London, Germany, New Orleans, New York, Boston, all with everything food and drink on my mind. With every travel adventure, I became more enticed by the cocktail, wine and food world. I landed in Portland when I was 24, when the food and drink scene was beginning to really boom. It inevitably became the perfect place for me to accelerate my career.
What led you to bartending?
Intuition, opportunity and outstanding mentors. My creative nature, ability to adapt and the need to work with my hands and be on my feet solidified my love for this job. I often explain to guests that recipe development is more instinctual rather than a formulaic process. Creating a cocktail is much like cooking without a recipe. Take some of your favorite ingredients, think about their flavor profiles and anticipate what may work well together. With me, more often than not, things just seemed to fit. Of course, there are hits and misses but they all help develop who you are as a creator.
How does living in PDX influence your bar style?
Living in Portland is very inspiring. I am influenced daily by peers, our community and the amount of strong female bartenders. The great minds found around this city and within this industry do not philosophize on smoke and mirrors. The most influential parts of this city are stripped down, genuinely creative and just downright delicious. With the combination of talent, plethora of local produce, amount of local distilleries… all elevate our bars and restaurants, making them possible to thrive.
Portland also offers a chance for this industry to reach beyond what it may appear to be. People who help develop this industry have backgrounds full of depth—bachelor’s, master’s [degrees], in-depth hobbies, side projects, families—which all inspire and contribute to its authenticity.
What is your philosophy on deciding what brands/bottles to stock and invest in?
If when I first taste or experience a product, I immediately think, “This would go great with…” Then I know I am intrigued by it. If the product is also versatile and has a classic feel, then I’m nearly sold. Lastly and most importantly, who creates the product matters. Are they good people? Do they seem humble? And is the process in creating the product honest?
How do you and your team educate customers on new and quality spirits?
Tasting. Although important, the formality and foundation of the spirit (how much grain, the distillation process, which barrels it has been aged in, etc.) can be overwhelming or become lost on people. I believe how something makes you feel, how your palate reacts, is when people become intrigued and inspired alongside you. Also, if a spirit has a story, that will only help.
What advice would you give to distilleries looking to be represented in quality bars?
Use quality ingredients and do not rush the process. It takes time to create the spirit, wine or product, just like it takes time to create relationships with the people you’re trying to expose it to.
Being thankful, helpful, humble, non-intrusive and letting the product speak for itself will always make me look deeper and take a second look. For instance, I was recently thinking of pulling a local spirit due to simply wanting a change but the distiller happened to come and sit at my bar. He was genuine, unassuming, lovely and very gracious. After he left I immediately thought, “I’m never letting this product go.” I would rather work with individuals (whether distillers or otherwise), knowing they are compassionate, than someone who knows everyone, has a name and is a life of the party.
What are some micro-distillers/small-batch brands that are exciting you right now?
I love incorporating herbs, flowers, botanicals into my cocktails whenever possible and appreciate those who strive to incorporate the bounty of the Northwest. Portland Bitters Project (small-batch bitters) is something I love to work with right now. Creating everything naturally with no added sugar as well as hand-foraging all ingredients is something they strive to do. Another local distillery I like is Townshend’s [Tea Company that runs Thomas & Sons Distillery in Portland, producing tea spirits], [which] incorporates local ingredients in order to make products that are floral, feminine and strong… just like their tea. Their gin is representative of that, and I love their bold rebuttal to Fernet Branca. I am also continuously intrigued by Bull Run Distillery. They put out some quality whiskeys and spirits, like their 10-year American whiskey finished in Pinot Noir barrels.
Besides your bar, what do you think are some “can’t miss” or personal favorite food and drink spots when people are visiting your city?
I have a few “can’t miss” spots, but Portland offers a little of everything. For cocktails? Rum Club, Clyde Common, Multnomah Whiskey Library, Hale Pale, to name some big ones. For food, Katchka, Urdanetta (my favorite), Le Pigeon. I love smaller establishments. And I can’t get enough of Lovely’s Fifty or Proud Mary’s Coffee. I wouldn’t be a true Portlander if I didn’t throw in a dive bar: Mock Crest Tavern in Kenton has my heart.