Appetite: Portland cocktailing

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Potent in Portland: Cocktails from Teardrop Lounge
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY VIRGINIA MILLER

More than 50 places in one week…  I may not have covered all of Portland this May, but I certainly made a dent. So much so that my Portland reviews are broken up in a four part series. Soaking wet half the week, I biked out to neighborhoods East, West, and North with my usual (if grumpy, cold, and irritable) tenacity to dig in and taste the soul and breadth of a place rather than its veneer. Join me as I drink, and eat, my way through the rainy town up north.

As cocktail bars are required to serve food in Portland, cocktails and food are intertwined – and strong – at many a locale. Though I separate out cocktails and restaurants, there are numerous places where both are worth making your way to so you’ll see some restaurants listed here and in next issue’s Portland restaurant article.

Brendan Wise of Beaker & Flask filled me in on a couple cocktail projects launching just after my visit: Corazon from Chris Israel (chef-owner at Gruner, which I review next issue), and the Beaker & Flask team created a drink menu for popular PIX Patisserie http://www.pixpatisserie.com/ featuring cocktails and sherries to go with their sweets.

RIFFLE NW

Visiting Riffle NW in its opening week, I was struck immediately with fresh seafood, friendly service and some of the best drinks of my Portland week. It was opened by Dave Shenaut (former president of the Oregon Bartender’s Guild) with bartenders Emily Baker (formerly of Rum Club), and Ricky Gomez (formerly of Teardrop Lounge) – SF bartender Brandon Josie of Bloodhound recently moved to Portland to take over as bar manager for Gomez who is moving on to a new project. Riffle’s spare, modern decor displays seafaring inspiration in wood ceiling panels made of reclaimed shipping docks, while the name refers to a rocky shoal or sandbar below the surface of a waterway.

I came for the drinks but was not disappointed in the food. Black bass tartare ($10) is punctuated with dill, squid Carbonara ($17) is meaty with guanciale, while an overflowing, fresh crab roll ($21), and a huge cut of rare Copper River sockeye salmon ($32) is grilled, its salty skin subtly sweet with a bourbon maple glaze.

Emily Baker offered the best service of my entire time in Portland. After I was there a couple hours, we began talking industry connections and drink, but long before she knew I was a writer, she went out of her way to ascertain our taste preferences and make sure we were comfortable at the bar.

On the menu, a Riffle Collins ($11), made of gin, lemon, lime, celery, absinthe, salt, is the perfect starter, garden bright, light and appropriately savory with celery and salt. Room D ($9) delighted with rye whiskey, the spice of Becherovka, while quinine and citrus imparted punch.

Off menu, Baker suggested and created just what I was craving: Art of Choke (a Violet Hour creation by Kyle Davidson), mixing Cynar, mint, Bacardi white rum, and Green Chartreuse. Herbaceous, bitter, and vibrant, it hit all the right notes. Similarly, a Self Starter (a Jamie Boudreau drink) balanced Lillet with Old Tom gin, absinthe and Orchard apricot. Not too musky but crisp, sweet, boozy. All around, hand cut ice perfects each drink.

It was a treat sampling Jack Rudy Tonic from Charleston, a bottle I noticed on ice behind the bar and had to inquire about. A small batch syrup (available in SF at Bi-Rite Market), it makes a lovely tonic, set apart with lemongrass and orange peel.

CLYDE COMMON

So much has been said about Clyde Common and Jeffrey Morgenthaler since opening that it’s almost needless to point it out as a Portland “best”. In fact, for one who almost never repeats places in the same trip (ever with an aggressive agenda), I returned to Clyde Common three times in one week. Morgenthaler was only there one of three stops, offering cheeky, impeccable service. But service was warm and accommodating both evenings I dropped in – only during a weekday visit did I experience lackluster, abrupt service from one bartender.

Cocktails are a reasonable $7-9. Morgenthaler’s famed barrel aged cocktails ($10)  – his Negroni and one of my all time favorite cocktails, an Old Pal – rotate but were completely out all three visits. What pleased most were his bottled and carbonated cocktails ($8).

Though I’ve seen a lot of these the past year  – one was a basic Americano (Campari, Dolin Sweet vermouth, water and orange oil) – the Broken Bike was possibly my top drink on the menu, fizzy and vivaciously bitter with Cynar, white wine, water, lemon oil. Both were well balanced, refreshing and more importantly, fun.

Elsewhere on the menu, a Kingston Club exhibited subtle balance of fruit and herbaceous notes with Drambuie, pineapple, lime, Fernet, Angostura, and orange peel. The Nasturtium cocktail was unexpectedly too sweet for me, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur hitting heavier than the Dolin Blanc vermouth and Bonal. A Spiced Dark & Stormy is a brilliant idea – and went down all too easy. Rum (Gosling’s dark, in this case) infused with Chinese five-spice, a spicy, house-brewed ginger beer, finished with lime, made for another winning drink.

Clyde Common was the Portland bar that for me most upheld its reputation: centrally located, serving understated drinks, strong on precision.

BEAKER & FLASK

It goes without saying that Beaker & Flask, opened by Kevin Ludwig of Park Kitchen, has been one of Portland’s hottest cocktail bars since debuting in 2009. Despite large groups in the spacious restaurant, bar seats free up often, even on a weekend, and we were able to chat, unhurried, with the bartenders, lingering over drinks.

Menu cocktails ($9) like a soft, woody Walk in the Woods (Old Tom Gin, Stone Pine liqueur, lemon, sage syrup, egg white) and elegant Cricket Club (Pimm’s, rose port, Bonal, amargo bitters, cucumber soda) please but going off menu in the hands of talented Chicago transplant Brandon Wise (now President of Oregon Bartenders Guild) and Neil Kopplin, who also makes Imbue Vermouth, is where the real action is.

Wise mixed a Rose Americano cocktail, bright with Martin Miller’s Westbourne Gin and grapefruit, earthy-sweet with Amontillado sherry. Kopplin goes with a recipe from neighboring Rum Club, the Begonia, utilizing his Imbue vermouth, aged Novo Fogo cachaca, Benedictine and velvet falernum. Sweet, spiced apple notes hit first, with a beautifully subtle bitter on the finish.

Seek out Neil’s new product, Petal & Thorn, a gorgeous gentian liqueur using homegrown beets for Campari color, cinnamon, menthol, and other intriguing elements.

RUM CLUB

Depending on which direction you’re approaching, enter Rum Club either on the front or back side of Beaker & Flask. The cozy bar is roughly one year old, conceived by Beaker & Flask’s Kevin Ludwig and Michael Shea of Doug Fir. Affordable $5-10 cocktails, chic wallpaper, low wood ceiling, the bar in the center, and a small patio you can smoke in if you’re nowhere near the door, make it an appealing place to gather with friends until the wee hours.

Though packed and noisy, I was won over by well-crafted drinks like the Hi-Lo Split ($8), vivid with Old Grand-Dad Bonded whiskey, Cynar, lemon, passion fruit syrup, grapefruit bitters – a stunner, actually. Also by Road to Ruin ($8), with a rye whiskey base, dry vermouth and bitters, set apart by cardamom notes from Cardamaro Amaro and texture from lemon oil.

TEARDROP LOUNGE

Despite the widespread respect garnered for this chic, centrally located bar in downtown Portland, Teardrop Lounge was the one disappointment of my bar excursions. It’s long hyped as being one of PDX’s best, and depending on the bartender, I’m sure it could be. The space centers around a dramatic round bar, open air windows ushering in a gentle breeze on a nice day. Even with well-prepared drinks, I found touristy clientele and disinterested bartenders during my visit soured the experience.

The menu reads well, including a glossary of terms educating non-cocktail geeks on terms like oleo-saccharum (a traditional punch base of lemon peels macerated in sugar to extract oils) and Batavia Arrack (an early 16th century, palm sugar-distilled spirit tasting of spice, citrus, anise – often used in punches).

There’s sections of House Cocktails, Classics (like Sky Rocket from 1919 or a Morning Glory Fizz – from the Savoy Cocktail Book, 1933), and one called Friends highlighting bartenders’ drinks from other cities, including SF locals: Kevin Diedrich’s Whiskey Wallbanger and Ryan Fitzgerald’s Rodriguez).

Though intriguing, a Wanderlust ($12), made of Banks white rum, a house sherry blend, Marolo chamomile grappa, medjool date bitters, orange bitters, and flamed absinthe was musky sweet without the hoped-for layers jumping out. However, Of Praise for Tulips ($9), was a brightly elegant aperitif, floral with Clear Creek pear brandy, dry and bitter with Cocchi Americano, Dolin Dry vermouth, Barenjager, Boston bitters and Pacifique absinthe.

THE DRIFTWOOD ROOM

They had me at ’70s wood-paneled walls, cocktails ($9-12) named after classic actors (e.g. Sydney Poitier, Elizabeth Taylor), and old school, Rat Pack bar vibe. When asking bartenders at “mixology” havens around Portland where they liked to drink off hours, more than one of them said The Driftwood Room. Granted, it’s in Hotel deLuxe (opened in 1912 – the bar opened in the ‘50s) and forget catching a cab from the hotel any time after 11:30pm when the train isn’t running (apparently, neither are cabs), but for a mellow, retro vibe with boozy-but-crafted drinks, Driftwood is a welcome respite.

Both Bittersweet Symphony ($10 – Temperance bourbon, Punt e Mes vermouth, Pelinkovac http://www.wineglobe.com/13047.html, Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters) and Old Tom Cocktail ($11 – Ransom gin, Agwa de Bolivia coca leaf liqueur, Krogstad Aquavit, lime juice, barrel aged bitters) pack a punch while maintaining balance.

CIRCA 33

Another bartender off-hours favorite is Circa 33 in Southeast Portland. For me, flat screens and sports interfered with a vaguely retro, laid back vibe. A library-like wall of American whiskey and bottles line the back wall with wood ladder for easy access. Easy-going bartenders can create cocktail classics, even if they don’t know them. I requested a simple but perfectly classic Old Pal, executed solidly per instruction. It’s the hidden back bar that draws industry folk, an intimate space ideal for conversation.

KASK

Though not overwhelmed with creative vision at Kask, the newer sister bar to neighboring Austrian restaurant Gruner, I enjoyed the corner casual chic in a small space with welcoming bartenders. Here can linger with friends, actually hear each other, and savor solid cocktails ($9-12).

Though my favorite drink was an off menu Del Maguey mezcal/citrus creation, I tasted the gamut, from Rabo de Galo, utilizing Novo Fogo’s barrel aged cachaca (a spirit popping up often on Portland menus), Gran Classico, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, and Brazilian coffee bitters. The Black Lodge covered the whiskey/vermouth/bitter side with Wild Turkey Rye, Punt E Mes sweet vermouth, Combier Rouge, Cynar, Regan’s orange bitters, while another off menu creation, Leather Canary (a Chevy Chase reference), mixed up that profile with tart/sour: Combier Pamplemousse  – a grapefruit liqueur, rye whiskey, Gran Classico, Punt E Mes vermouth.

Kask’s service and relaxed vibe make it one of the better hangouts for cocktailians in my downtown Portland explorations.

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