Portlandia and Powell’s Books, breweries and Pacific Northwest cuisine, Portland (aka PDX) wears the mantle of hipster city… and that it is: a green city situated on the Willamette River, with charming cottages and homes on tree-lined streets and an endless stream of restaurants and bars. Despite the vibrant array of cuisines found in food carts lining downtown and neighborhoods, population diversity isn’t so vibrant, especially compared to major cities, which means you can find the hipster version of nearly everything but not always the deep demographics and legit holes-in-the-wall to undergird its global cuisines.
Still, PDX remains a food and drink lover’s destination, blessed with special restaurants, including Han Oak (like eating in a Korean friend’s home and yard, showing films like Dirty Dancing on the wall) or the Portland modern-day classic and James Beard Award-winning Le Pigeon. Other unusual spots include playful, hip Russian food, drink and music at Kachka, or the ice cream heaven of Fifty Licks with flavors like butterscotch whiskey or the vegan “Pirate” ice cream of roasted bananas, Barbados molasses and tropical spices, boldly boozy with flambéed Jamaican rum.
On the drink front, Portland has been a brewing hotbed since the 1980s, while the nearby Willamette Valley has been turning out globally-lauded wines even longer. Portland distilleries also have a storied history. Steve McCarthy launched Clear Creek Distillery in 1985 after being mentored by California/Bay Area distilling pioneer Jörg Rupf at St. George Spirits, while in 1983, Mike and Brian McMenamin founded the McMenamins empire of everything from breweries and music venues to distilleries.
Portland began to make even bigger craft-distilling waves in the era after Christian Krogstad (our PDX distiller interview this issue) opened House Spirits Distillery in 2004. In 2015, he opened a bigger House Spirits in Downtown PDX’s Distillery Row (www.distilleryrowpdx.com) with neighbors like Thomas & Sons Distillery and Eastside Distilling.
Distilleries abound across the state and—in keeping with the rest of the country—show no signs of slowing down. Famed for its wineries, the Willamette Valley is dotted with distilleries like the newer Trail Distilling in the countryside of Oregon City, where gracious husband-wife team Jerry and Sara Brennan play with aged gin (in French Pinot Noir barrels), rum, vodka and whiskey, alongside their Trillium Gin, using a wide range of botanicals: juniper, orange, lemon, grapefruit, lemon verbena for grassy notes, elderflower, coriander, orris root, cubeb pepper, angelica root and cinnamon.
One of the Willamette’s hidden gems is off a winding dirt road in Philomath, a remote “town” (or historic bridge and a few homes), about a 20-minute drive out of Corvallis. Harris Bridge Vineyard (www.harrisbridgevineyard.com) feels like stepping back in time, with a white light-strewn barn and tasting room, soothing music, surrounded by farm, vineyards and hills. Nathan Warren and Amanda Sever began Harris Bridge Vineyard in 1999 as winemakers producing Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir vermouth, aperitifs, dessert wines and brandy. Showcasing the terroir and botanicals of the region, their elegant, unique products gain further romance from stories associated with each bottle, penned by their resident writer.
As with a few U.S. cities like Chicago and L.A., Portland’s cocktail scene really started to blossom from 2007 on when bars like Clyde Common and Teardrop Lounge opened, putting the town’s bars on the national map. While the latter remains a destination bar with its dramatic round bar and elegant cocktails, during some of our visits over the years, aloof attitude and tourist stream mixed with locals can make it feel straight out of a Portlandia skit.
Bars from other PDX pioneers, like Beaker & Flask, have come and gone (although cozy, charming Rum Club next door is still going strong—http://rumclubpdx.com), but quality is so established that many restaurants also boast standout cocktails. Case in point: the aforementioned Kachka (http://kachkapdx.com) house-infuses vodkas (especially the popular, recently bottled horseradish vodka) and uses Russian ingredients (like kvass, a fermented rye-bread soda) in their cocktails, ideally paired with vareniki dumplings or sweet-and-sour cabbage rolls. Creative restaurants, like owner/chef Sarah Pliner’s Aviary (www.aviarypdx.com), pull from kitchen ingredients in their cocktails, whether rhubarb or tricky bitter melon. Another neighborhood treasure in the southeast part of the city is La Moule (http://lamoulepdx.com), a cozy bistro with gorgeous wallpaper, sidewalk seating and a European vibe. Refined but approachable cocktails go down beautifully with a menu of different mussels and frites.
If you want a great drink and bars stocking local spirits in Portland, there is a range of strong options. Here are eleven of the city’s best:
[ Expatriate ]
With its modern Chinese design, roomy booths and dim, candlelit appeal, Expatriate opened in 2013 feeling more like a bar in Hong Kong or London. Kyle Webster opened the bar across the street from his wife Naomi Pomeroy’s acclaimed Beast restaurant. An excellent vinyl collection, thoughtful cocktails and dreamy Pomeroy bites (like the simple-yet-decadent James Beard’s onion and butter sandwich or Chinese sausage corn dogs) make it an ideal place to linger over conversation late into the night.
What to Drink: Drinks change regularly but crowd-pleasers might include the tart, refreshing likes of Some Enchanted Evening (rye whiskey, Combier Creme de Mure, lemon, Tempus Fugit Creme de Menthe, honey, Suze, Angostura bitters) or the thoughtful, layered White Puma (gin, Amaro Montenegro, Cocchi Americano, orange liqueur).
[ BIBLE CLUB ]
The utterly transporting Bible Club is situated in PDX’s sleepy (but up-and-coming) Sellwood neighborhood, hidden in a neighborhood cottage. It is one of the city’s out-of-the-way gems, a haven of antiques—including antique barware that all predates the 1930s—and inspired cocktails, set to old jazz and dim lighting, feeling almost like a museum bar to an era, thanks to founders Ryk Maverick and Brandi Leigh. They are opening a second Bible Club in none other than Osaka, Japan.
What to Drink: Bar manager Jessica Braasch turns out balanced cocktails and local nods like Smoke on the River, a drink of smoked salmon-infused dry vermouth and fino sherry. If you want to splurge, ask for the secret Seven Deadly Sins menu, a decadent cocktail list featuring high-end spirits.
[ CLYDE COMMON and PEPE LE MOCO ]
Since opening in 2007 from Nate Tilden and Matt Piacentini, Clyde Common and its famed bar manager Jeffrey Morgenthaler have led the charge in putting Portland on the national drink map. Though in a hotel, busy and often packed with tourists, the cocktails walk a fine line of easy drinking but not dumbed down, while service generally remains unpretentious and friendly. Head downstairs in the hotel (through a separate entrance) to the delightful, intimate Pepe Le Moco for lush grasshoppers and Morgenthaler’s famed Amaretto Sour.
What to Drink: Since Morgenthaler drew attention to barrel-aged cocktails globally, it’s pretty obvious you’d find a few of them here, including a rotating special. There are also spritzes and other straightforward drinks but highlights often can be found in the bottled drinks, whether the lovely Broken Bike in years past (Cynar, white wine, water, lemon oil) or the more recent Fifth Quadrant (Irish whiskey, cold brew coffee, vanilla, water), both bottled and carbonated.
[ QUAINTRELLE ]
Camille Cavan (our bar manager interview this issue) ensures Quaintrelle, a Pacific Northwest restaurant in Portland’s Boise ’hood, is one of the neighborhood’s most welcoming bars—and worth going out of your way for in the city as a whole. Cavan’s refined yet approachable cocktails hail to her many years in the industry, including bartending with Jeffrey Morgenthaler over a decade ago in Eugene.
What to Drink: Her thoughtful drinks change seasonally and might run salty and crisp, as with a Keepsake (gin, Cocchi Americano, sea beans, lemon oil)—or philosophical and smoky-nutty in the Fall of Voltaire (mezcal, sherry, Cardamaro, allspice wash), paired with smoked almonds.
[ BAR CASA VALE ]
Though you have long been able to find its kind readily in cities like SF and NY, Bar Casa Vale, which Nate Tilden (Olympic Provisions) opened at the end of 2016, finally brought an extensive escape to Spain in PDX. From its industrial, brick-lined dining room and bar to cozy outdoor patio, dine on rounds of jamón Ibérico or black rice laden with chorizo, squid, shrimp and ham in Portland’s Buckman neighborhood.
What to Drink: Peruse a notable sherry and Spanish wine collection, sip an Amontillado Cobbler or order a proper Spanish-style gin and tonic from an array of gins and tonics. House drinks include the likes of the Aliados Cocktail (gin, white port, Cocchi Americano, Salers Aperitif) and the Argentine Cynar Julep (Cynar, mint, grapefruit, lemon juice).
[ MULTNOMAH WHISK(E)Y LIBRARY ]
Open since fall 2013, Multnomah Whisk(e)y Library certainly houses Portland’s biggest whisk(e)y collection—and an extensive selection of agave spirits to boot—in a striking, upstairs space where hundreds of bottles line lofty brick walls accessed by rolling ladders. But the lines wrapping around the block at its 4 p.m. opening hour would scare away most of us who frequent bars. You can make reservations if you’re a member, however. Oh, wait: That is full, too, so you have to be on a waiting list to be a member. Let’s just say for spirits geeks, this may be a little too much work for a drink, but when you do visit Multnomah, the setting is soothing, the bartenders are knowledgeable and friendly and the pour selection is excellent.
What to Drink: Bar manager Kyle Sanders and crew keep a rotating set of cocktails going, like lead bartender Nic Smith’s spirit-forward The Devil You Know: Ardbeg 10-year Scotch, rye whiskey, Compass Box Peat Monster, Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters and Scrappy’s Firewater bitters. But you’re first and foremost here to taste rare and interesting spirits.
[ The DRIFTWOOD ROOM ]
There is the hip and then there is the classic. The Driftwood Room opened in the 1950s in the Hotel deLuxe, which dates all the way back to 1912. It’s one of those rare bar gems in PDX that feels like stepping back in time, with history oozing from its wood-paneled walls and padded bar. As seems befitting the Rat Pack bar vibe, deviled eggs and a generous cheeseburger flow alongside local craft beers and classic cocktails.
What to Drink: As expected, Sazeracs and Old-Fashioneds are de rigueur, but there are also nods to Portland history, as with the Portland ’85, listed under the Champagne cocktail section, featuring Clear Creek pear brandy and pear liqueur with sparkling wine. They also might have their local twist on a classic Paloma on the menu: the Paloma Americana cocktail featuring Big Gin or Crater Lake Vodka, enlivened with a grapefruit-shishito pepper shrub and fresh basil.
[ BIT HOUSE SALOON ]
The building housing Bit House Saloon dates back to 1896, with two expansive rooms lined with booths, a cozy back room and a glowing back patio. While Bit House only opened in 2015, it feels as if it has been around for decades, with an Old World, lived-in vibe and a menu combining high-low in a way that would please any drink geek. Cheap beers, boozy popsicles and draft Moscow Mules accompany creative cocktails and even sherry and rancio wine menu sections.
What to Drink: Arizona Bay walks that fine high-low line with its rye whiskey, pamplemousse (grapefruit liqueur) and creme de peche base, balanced by honey, lemon and egg white, cheekily garnished with a boozy, Campari gummy bear.
[ THE BOX SOCIAL ]
In Portland’s Boise ‘hood, The Box Social is one of those ideal neighborhood bars that is intimate, candlelit and as good for dates as it is for a solo drink. Shannon and Erin McQuilkin keep the vibe friendly and classy, set to a mural of Portland, a taxidermy stuffed peacock and soothing green lamps. It’s also a welcome stop for bites like Parmesan popcorn and open-faced pastrami sandwiches.
What to Drink: The extensive cocktail menu is grouped by spirits with classics or plays on classics intermingling with vibrant house creations like One Night in Bangkok, an exotic mix of rhum Barbancourt, absinthe, Stroh 80, orgeat, lime, egg white and whiskey-barrel-aged bitters. The PDX Sour is the house play on a classic New York Sour featuring bourbon, lemon, egg white, maraschino liqueur, caramelized pineapple and a red wine float.
[ INTERURBAN ]
When you want a dive-esque bar that serves quality cocktails alongside beers and good pub food, Interurban is your place. Opened in 2011 by Dan Hart and Chris Navarra, both floors and a back patio allow for cozy drinking nooks (don’t worry, there are covered fire pits outside for the colder months) as you fill up on lox tartines or wild boar meatball sandwiches.
What to Drink: GM/lead bartender Jon Green keeps the cocktail menu short, sweet and rotating… but quality. Alongside whiskey-forward classics, you might sip the likes of Export Only (bourbon, rum and 10-year tawny port) or the tiki-influenced but gin-based Padang (gin, Batavia Arrack, house falernum, pineapple, lime, Angostura bitters, cinnamon syrup).
[ HALE PELE ]
Every drinking city worth its salt these days has to have at least one great tiki bar and Hale Pele has been Portland’s since Blair Reynolds (who many know from his BG Reynolds line of cocktail syrups and mixers—www.bgreynolds.com) opened the bar in 2012. There are bigger and certainly more dramatic tiki bars out there, but housed on a nondescript block behind darkened windows, this is your intimate, cozy tiki bar: full-on with the theme but low-key and unassuming.
What to Drink: You’ll find the usual volcano bowls and tiki classics like a Jet Pilot. But house drinks are likewise fun, whether Beth Harding’s Stroh with the Flow cocktail featuring Hamilton 151 rum, pineapple, coconut cream, banana and a “potent dose of Stroh 160,” or The Devil’s Throat, showcasing yerba mate-infused cachaca, tropical juices and a Coke float.