Once in a while, you like a place so much you are ready to book a flight back before you’ve even left. Upon arrival, the plane descends below grey, pregnant clouds, skimming the tops of majestic pines, then unloads passengers into an aroma of baked goods wafting through the airport. As I strode past Powell’s Books toward baggage claim, I envisioned sipping hot buttered rum under a fuzzy blanket, curled up with a fascinating employee-recommended tome. The rain and autumn chill were not deterrents, as some might expect. Simply upon breathing Oregonian air, I knew I’d love this place.
I arrived at the Jupiter Hotel around 10 am, just after the blurry-eyed bartenders in attendance had boarded the yellow bus and departed for the Kennedy School, where seminars on topics such as barrels, speed, marketing, vermouth, cordials, and more, took place. I hopped a cab to attend an in-depth Cognac seminar and tasting led by spirits expert Steve Olson.
Portland Cocktail Week touts itself as an event by bartenders for bartenders, and lived up to just that. Within hours, I saw friends from at least 10 different states – bartenders taking time away from their bars to volunteer and take part. Its led by Lush Life Productions and the Oregon Bartenders Guild.
San Francisco-based scribe Camper English lined up the Drink.Write seminars which drew writers with a penchant for drinking, and bartenders with a fondness for the written word. I joined fellow authors Dave Stolte and Fred Yarm to lead a panel describing the processes of writing cocktail books (self-publish versus traditional publisher route).
Other highlights, for me, included visiting the fabulous women at Imbibe Magazine (hello, office bar! Move over Mad Men!); sipping Portland with some of my favorite L.A. bar peeps; and volunteering to co-lead the Cognac Tour with Rocky Yeh on a double decker bus toting happy people to 3 wonderful bars where we were absolutely spoiled with luscious cognac-based libations and stuffed with charcuterie, cheeses and other fancy foods, then dropped off at Pig & Punch, a pig-roast and punch-fueled fundraiser created by the Bon Vivants.
I’ve visited many of the world’s major culinary destinations from London to Sydney to Hong Kong. Per capita, I’d put Portland up against any of them for its diversity, use of local ingredients and the general conviviality of the people. Never mind that Oregon has mountains and ocean providing a cornucopia of seafood, seasonal veggies and slopes for wine growing, the easy-going way of life of this mid-sized city has attracted talent from around the country to work with it all. I was only there 4 days, and indulged in fare from 2 James Beard Award-winning chefs. The best part is that none of these “heavy hitters” was arrogant and neither eatery was overpriced. Try finding that in a gastronomic destination!
The people in Portland are downright nice, both the general public and the supportive bar community. Heck, Portland is even touted as having the “friendliest strippers in America” – so, yay, hospitality industry. Next visit, I’m also going to the Rose Garden, the Falls, wineries and craft breweries, and about a dozen more eating and drinking spots. However, for now, I will leave you with my impressions from the places that impressed me the most. And, then I’m going to go for a run to work off my indulgences. And, then I’m gonna figure out when I can go back to Portland.
- Kask: Tequila is one of my favorite spirits and Kask’s agave-based cocktails blew me away. The mezcal strawberry shrub drink will certainly inspire me behind my bar as I have been playing with homemade shrubs recently. And the Tequila Improved was impeccable. Ask for Nathan Gerdes, who just won the Bombay Sapphire cocktail contest with a pho-inspired recipe and will appear on the cover of December’s GQ Magazine. He’s kind of a rockstar.
- Imperial: Only open a month, at the time I’m writing this, Imperial is a must. Its modern-yet-classic, stylish, airy, busy, eclectic and comfortable. Vitaly Paley, a James Beard honoree and the winner of Iron Chef (a wildly popular TV show) serves classic American bistro-type delights. The gorgeous bar program is led by Brandon Wise, formerly of the respected bar Beaker & Flask. Wise is also the president of the Oregon Bartenders Guild / USBG. Imperial the first place I’d book for a special dining / drinking experience in Portland. (Plus, they have another establishment opening by the end of the year -Go in and ask them about it!)
- Clyde Common: If you follow the bar blog-o-sphere, you’ve certainly encountered Jeffery Morgenthaler’s popular sounding ground. He is also the bar manager at this bustling bar and restaurant which boasts lovely, seasonal, sophisticated dishes with Jeffrey’s cutting edge cocktails from barrel-aged Negronis to the reinvented Amaretto Sour.
- Central: You know how garage bands are awesome because they are authentic and watching your talented buddies wail in the comfort of someone’s “back yard” is way cooler than going to a large concert? Translate that to a bar and you have Central. Its one-part gritty mixed with uber-modern “deconstructed” style, largely built by hand by barman Dustin Knox. One of my favorite things is that they serve stellar cocktails in miss-matched vintage glassware. I’ve always envisioned doing that if I have my own bar one day. For now, I have Central.
- Clark Lewis: The first thing that hits you when you walk into Clark Lewis is the smell of smoke, which comes from a roaring hearth fueled by the pile of chopped wood next to the door. Given that I love mezcal, scotch, smoked meats and fish… I knew I’d fit in just fine in this open-kitchen, hipster-meets-industrial style space.
- Tear Drop: Finally, after years of hearing raves, I wandered into Tear Drop and sipped a cocktail from the hands of Daniel Shoemaker, himself. The intimate, round (tear drop) shaped bar, a dazzling array of bitters, and cocktails to make one swoon meant the place lives up to its hype. A must-do on your Portland list.
- Pok Pok: I met Andy Ricker on a barstool at Clyde Common. Being both a James Beard honored chef and a gentleman (he offered his seat before we even met) make for a pretty cool dude. So, of course, a meal at Pok Pok was in order. Now, I’ve been to Thailand, and I think I ate better in his place in Portland. Fresh. Full of flavor. Friendly atmosphere. Go. Lunch or dinner. Just go. (I didn’t get a pic of Andy but this is our enjoyment of the place.)
- Voodoo Doughnut: Look, the place is packed, and with all the restaurants and bars to see, I couldn’t justify standing in line. However, at the Pig & Punch event, Voo Doo’s Chartreuse doughnuts were available, and hell yes, I scoffed one down. It was amazing. Next visit, I will probably stand in line at Voodoo itself. Just cuz.