Some people will insist that any city is only as good as its cocktails. I’m one of those zealots – and in Portland, Oregon, you will find cocktails so good that you’ll wish you hadn’t passed out after the last one, mumbling, “Christ in a coupe,” because then maybe you could have drunk one more.
Portland has a new reputation as Beertown, Planet Earth – and I’m sick of it. Sure, the IPA’s are as varied as the goodies on the small-plate cuisine, but we also excel at beverages that come with little umbrellas sticking out of them. And maybe a maraschino cherry. And a slice of Satsuma. Or a half-pineapple held in place with a short-sword to fend off the bastards who are trying to get at my strawberry daiquiri (non-blended, you Spring-breaker heathens).
Portland’s cocktail scene has been refined over decades of trial and error. Here are the very best of Portland’s cocktails, and where to find them:
The Sapphire has one of the most extensive and playful cocktail menus in town (including a selection of each of the bartender’s favorite cocktails and a “dealer’s choice” option), so it is hard to pick a favorite, and when I can’t decide, usually go for something oddball. Start with the esoteric Lounge Singer, which combines two whiskey styles with fig-steeped vermouth and some witch’s brew named Zwack for a near-Old Fashioned that will wonderfully startle even the most jaded palate.
The Bar Spritzvah is the most on-the-nose cocktail in town, a heavenly combination of that kosher Concordia grape business, aperitif wine and bubbles. Good for a dessert after noshing on the hands-down best hummus and perhaps the only shakshuka in the whole city.
Pepe Le Moko
This chic underground oyster bar may be the only place bold (and French) enough to serve a Long Island Iced Tea with a hint of romanticism. I passed on it and went for the Grasshopper. For the less audacious, get the Espresso Martini.
Vietnamese cuisine calls for its own array of cocktails, and Luc Lac provides a nine-item list, including a Sassy Sour for darker souls in need of a fruity kick, while the Samba Zing delivers tequila in a blend to match with Vermicelli noodles and grilled shrimp.
The Secret Society is not just a place for modern jazz and “sex-positive” variety shows, this venue also has a tiny lounge that offers terrific absinthe mixes. Try the Society’s The Long Walk, which combines absinthe with tequila and green Chartreuse.
Try the bright-and-sweet Celeste Swizzle for its combination of Jamaican rums and absinthe over crushed ice, or the Old Quartermaster for its mix of rums, sherry and scotch. That’ll impress your date at the Rum Club. At least until you accidentally head-butt them as you pass out at the bar. Alib has been a mainstay in the Portland Tiki since the 40’s, Try the Banana Hammock. I hear it tastes utterly bananas and cream.
The Eastern Maid, with its hazel-nutty rosewater and yogurt blend, is one of the most refreshing and complex gin cocktails ever constructed, and it goes perfectly with just about any of the beautifully cooked and plated Eastern Mediterranean-leaning food served at Tusk.
This Spanish tapas bar’s Long Walk Home blends a non-carbonated cider hailing from the Basque country and that beloved Italian herbal liqueur. Order the lamb belly and wild boar-stuffed peppers to match. Maybe follow up with a glass of the Tempranillo. And an espresso with a single brown sugar cube.