"This is a cocktail city," a devilishly handsome bartender at the Heathman Restaurant's bar declared to me recently as he rattled a cocktail shaker over his head. "Even more so than in L.A., people here are beginning to know a good drink when they taste one." Just the sight of his perfectly tart and frothy Pisco Sour—poured into sexy stemware and adorned with a dash of bitters carefully streaked on top—had the girl to my right asking breathlessly, "What are you drinking?"
No doubt about it, Portland has arrived. Not only did Gourmet magazine and public-radio foodies Jane and Michael Stern declare Portland "the next Paris" thanks to our high per-capita restaurant numbers and high-quality foodstuffs, we're now on the map as a hot cocktail town, too. Food & Wine magazine recently featured local cocktail queen Lucy Brennan, owner of Mint and 820, in its January edition as one of the "leaders of the American cocktail revolution."
A decade ago, microbrews were king, with local wines coming in as a close second as Portlanders' drink of choice. Then came Cocktail Nation, with retro swingers clutching rotgut martinis for effect. These days, imbibers have shifted gears again. Suddenly you can't swing a swizzle stick without hitting a menu full of seven-dollar specialty drinks made from "house-infused" vodkas at high-end restaurants like Saucebox or Carlyle and hip bars like Vault and Aura. So are Portlanders just on a national trend bandwagon, or is there something more to our liquid revolution?
Brennan, who opened Mint five years ago, thinks of the resurgence of cocktail craft as the natural progression of people's culinary palates. "People live in Portland because they value the high quality of life," she says. "They have a passion for local produce and craftsmanship with food that translates into creativity with cocktails."
That creativity also translates to good business for Brennan, who hosts "spirit dinners" that pair multicourse meals with cocktails, as well as $50 cocktail classes that regularly sell out.
She's not the only cocktail believer. Echo Restaurant's principal owner and bar manager, Timothy Krawczuk, sees a well-done cocktail menu as a necessity. "There's so much competition in restaurants here, if you don't have a good, consistent drink list, you're behind the game," he explains. His tenure as the bar manager at ¡Oba! and long-gone P-town hotspot Bima has resulted in a passion for crafting old classics with the best possible ingredients, like his marionberry rickey, a puckery, addictive drink made with local marionberry purée (when in season, of course), Monopolowa vodka, freshly squeezed lime juice and seltzer. His passion for classic cocktails even translates to his barware: His fizzy and delicious gin-and-champagne French 75 cocktail is served in his grandmother's heirloom polka-dot glasses.
Perhaps the best proof that the cocktail hour has really arrived is the new pilot bar program started by monolith local restaurant corporation McCormick & Schmick's at its upscale bar in the Heathman Hotel. The company has taken such stock in the popularity of cocktails in Portland that it's hired beverage consultant Ryan Magarian of the Liquid Kitchen (part of Seattle's Kathy Casey Food Studios) to create a kind of booze boot camp for its bar employees, a program the company hopes to institute soon at all of its locations. To Portland native and fellow Bima alum Magarian, the key to a good bar isn't the number of flashy drinks it can make, but the quality. "As cocktails have become more popular, I see a lot of the 'running before you can walk' syndrome," he explains. "A lot of bars place their emphasis on the quantity of signature drinks rather than the quality of their execution. At 10 bucks a drink in some places, why shouldn't a guest expect the same quality and consistency they would with a glass of wine?"
Then there's the entertainment aspect of the craft: Magarian, who prefers to be called a "mixologist," eschews schmaltzy glass-flipping tricks. He keeps sippers mesmerized with his precisely measured pours and barside history lessons. "The Sazerac was one of the earliest American cocktails," he enthuses as he carefully measures rye whisky and sugar, adds several dashes of bitters, stirs for exactly 30 seconds and strains the results into a tumbler rinsed with Pernod. "It was developed in the French Quarter of New Orleans at the Sazerac Coffee House in 1859. It originally was made with brandy, sugar, water, Peychaud bitters and the not-so-subtle twist of a rinse of absinthe." Now that's a drink and a show.
Sadly, all bartenders aren't as serious about the craft; the presence of super-sweet, super-alcoholic drinks like the Snicker-tini, cherry cheesecake and Almond Joy are everywhere. More often than not, you'll pay upwards of eight bucks just to find out that your drink was a good idea on paper, but not on the palate or the pocketbook (see "The Price of the Pour," above).
So how do you find a trusty bartender who can make you a cocktail worth the rising price tag, innovative or no? Magarian suggests you keep a few things in mind:
First, "know the recipe of the drink you like. If you have a daiquiri that knocks your socks off, ask the mixologist exactly how they made it, then you can ask for it elsewhere." Second, ask the person making your drink to measure. "Too much salt in a dish in the kitchen would ruin it, why wouldn't too much sugar or ice in a cocktail? It's all about balance and consistency."
That's well and good for bossy souls, but Magarian's best advice is also his simplest: When you find a mixologist who has passion and an exacting approach, stick with him or her. "Finding a great bartender who can repeat a great drink over and over is like finding a perfect case of chablis under your bed."
There are a number of factors responsible for the rising price of cocktails. The state-run liquor monopoly, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, sells booze to bars for around a whopping 100 percent markup, which mean Portland boasts some of the priciest alcohol in the nation. Lucky us. Add to that the additional time and labor of squeezing juice, infusing liquors, muddling drinks and training bar staff, as well as overhead costs like liquor licenses and liability insurance plus top-shelf liquor for specialty drinks like avocado daiquiris and Sazeracs, and you're looking at one expensive bender. Check out the annotated marionberry rickey to the left (recipe courtesy of Echo Restaurant) for a breakdown of what that drink really costs the bar and its patrons. —Ivy Manning
1 1/2 oz. Monopolova vodka
Cost to bar $.57/oz. Total $.85
2 oz. Marionberry puree
Cost to bar $.31/oz. Total $.62
1 slice of lime
Cost to bar $.04Total $.04
1/2 oz. lime juice
Cost to bar $.04/oz.Total $.02
1 1/2 minutes labor
Cost to bar $.17/minuteTotal $.26
TOTAL COST FOR BAR: $1.79
COST TO YOU: $6.00
Heathman Hotel Restaurant and Bar, 1001 SW Broadway, 790-7752.
Echo Restaurant, 2225 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 460-3246.
Spirit dinners at Mint, 816 N Russell St, 284-5518. Hangar One Vodka dinner 7 pm Wednesday, Feb. 22. $45. Don Eduardo Tequila dinner 7 pm Wednesday, March 22. $45. Reservations required.