Bordered by lush farmland and the sweeping vineyards of the Willamette Valley, Portland, Ore. is perfectly situated for sourcing everything from its backyard. The city may be marked by plentiful green space for outdoor activities, but it is no idyllic country town. Rather, it is home to a growing number of urban amenities, particularly restaurants and bars.
Portland’s proximity to such a bounty of fresh products informs and inspires the beverage scene, tempting mixologists to forage in farmers markets and sommeliers to source local wines and showcase them among the world’s best. This is pushing Portland past its long-held Beervana reputation. Although beer geeks picked up on the local trend first and remain prominent—craft brewing began here in the 1850s and continues to thrive (see sidebar)—an inside peek at the drink scene today reveals that drinking local no longer just is about beer.
The Willamette River divides the city into East and West, while Burnside Street divides North and South. This division creates specific neighborhoods, each with its own local feel. In the northwest, the sprawling Pearl District is home to posh restaurants like Ten 01, ethnically-inspired hot spots like Peruvian restaurant Andina, as well as late night lounges such as Gilt Club.
Across the river, neighborhood bars and ethnic-inspired locales exude homey, down-to-earth vibes, while a scattering of elegant restaurants also host romantic evenings out. Downtown offers a mix of chain and independent concepts; scattered throughout the city are the big names shaping Portland’s food and drink culture, including Wildwood, Higgins Restaurant & Bar, Saucebox, Mint/820 and Genoa, each tapping the riches of the region and differentiating on an aspect of the local. This commitment to fresh ingredients is reflected in Mint/820 owner and mixologist Lucy Brennan’s book, Hip Sips (Chronical Books, 2006).
Since the wide availability of fresh produce lends Portlanders a heightened awareness of the benefits of eating local, the logical evolution is an increase in mixologists serving cocktails involving house-made products.
“Everyone is really taking the farm-to-bar approach. People are looking around the region and making seasonal cocktails from the products that surround us,” says Portland-based beverage consultant Ryan Magarian, founder of Liquid Relations.
Some have followed this approach from the start. When Portland restaurateur Bruce Carey and chef Chris Israel opened Saucebox downtown in 1995, they declared cocktails king of their seductive, smoke-hued lounge. Here, the cocktail list takes up many pages in a hefty binder. The remarkable element of Saucebox is not the length of the drink list, but that the founders set the bar high by serving inventive cocktails made primarily with house-made ingredients; they pioneered the DIY cocktail trend in the city.
The staff here spends hours each day making seasonally driven ingredients like blood orange syrup and pear-rosemary purée to continually invigorate a beverage program frequented by repeat clientele. “The bulk of our cocktail menu ranges from $8 to $11, and people most definitely do not have a problem with spending the extra $2. They know that they are getting a quality cocktail here,” says manager Kyle Billings.
That Saucebox set the standard was evident when Gilt Club owner Jamie Dunn arrived in Portland and noted that even dive bars were making their own infusions. The glam Gilt Club lounge embraced the DIY trend from day one. Now in its third year of business, it incorporates more than 40 house-made products in its cocktails. When we visited, we sipped a citrusy kumquat vodka infusion and a subtly spicy mole vodka made with guajillo pepper and locally sourced Dagoba Chocolate cacao nibs. Both were making their way toward inclusion on the cocktail list, where 17 such inventive creations range from $6.50 to $12.
Dunn also has discovered the DIY approach is profitable even for small, independent operators. In most cases, he says, house-made products cost at least 50 to 75 percent less and only require keen organization and the cost of labor to produce them. For Dunn and most big names in town, however, the appeal of house-made products truly lies in differentiating an establishment. Portland-based McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurants is one of the first national chains to implement a fresh bar program—all drinks at its 79 locations are hand-crafted with freshly squeezed juices.
Executive chef John Eisenhart at the elegant Italian eatery, Pazzo, began making his own products two years ago, beginning with a bitters recipe. Like his authentic cuisine, his beverage department now boasts an Italian theme with homemade limoncello and peach grappa. The challenge for Eisenhart is changing consumer perceptions that a large, hotel-based restaurant can’t embrace the use of inventive, house-made ingredients. Word is spreading, though; business is up 10 to 20 percent since he introduced house-made products.
Eat Local, Drink Local
In a city where produce for dishes and cocktails routinely is sourced from the farm down the road, it comes as no surprise that bartenders now are sourcing spirits locally, as well. “In general, there has been a move toward the 100-mile rule, and not just in spirits, but in food and wine also. People really like to support the local products,” says Christian Krogstad, co-owner of Portland’s House Spirits Distillery.
Where beer used to dominate the local scene, refined spirits quickly is becoming Portland’s new it alcohol. “Oregon, and especially Portland, is going to be the national leader in the craft distilling movement,” says Magarian, who also is a partner in the local Aviation Gin label. “Portlanders will support local distillers, but not just because they are local. They demand a good spirit. They’ll go nuts for you if you are local and create a great spirit.”
A handful of distilleries like House Spirits, Clear Creek Distillery and Indio Spirits are setting roots in town and peddling their products to bartenders looking to give their establishments a point of distinction. Oregon is a control state, so the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) is the exclusive source of packaged distilled spirits, which are dispensed state-wide from a distribution center in Portland and sold in 243 liquor stores operated by contracted agents. Fortunately, the OLCC supports local distilleries and gets their products on the shelves and into the hands of on-premise operators quickly and easily, according to Krogstad.
Beer points the way. Historically, approximately 11 percent of the beer consumed in Oregon comes from local craft brewers, according to the Oregon Brewers Guild, so Portland bartenders know their guests prefer drinking local products. In January, Heathman Restaurant & Bar, known for white tablecloth dining and award-winning French cuisine, began earning a reputation for serving local spirits in the adjacent Marble Bar.
“When I first started at the Heathman, we had a bottle of Crater Lake Vodka that sat half full on the shelf for months. It didn’t move at all, so I discontinued it,” says bar manager Dustin Dickson. “Since putting it back on the menu in January and giving the employees the information to sell the local vodka in cocktails, I’m going through four bottles a week.”
Dickson partnered with several local distilleries such as Clear Creek and Bendistillery to incorporate their products into a host of new house-made cocktails. He also uses them to update classic cocktails like The Immortal French 75, priced at $9.50, which now employs Cricket Club Gin from Indio Spirits. He’s also used local spirits to take the bar’s Smokey Martini ($9.25) to new heights by mixing 10-year-old Ardbeg Islay Single Malt Scotch with the imbiber’s choice of Crater Lake Vodka from Bendistillery or Spruce Gin from Rogue Spirits. “I wouldn’t say they outsell the existing drinks, but the amount of increase in the number of drinks using local spirits we’ve sold has been huge,” he says.
As for major label spirits, the OLCC reports premiums such as Jack Daniels, Jose Cuervo and Absolut to be popular, with super-premiums including Grey Goose Vodka and Patrón also making the top 10 selling spirits in the state.
For Portland consumers, a need to know where the operator sources products goes along with a desire to delve deeper into every aspect of imbibing. But some operators believe that winemaker dinners may now be passé as the primary form of consumer wine education for this market. Individuals such as Heathman sommelier Jeff Groh say consumers today are looking for a less traditional approach to engage them.
Groh created Portland’s Dueling Sommelier series in 2007 for this very reason. The four-part dinner series priced at $125 per ticket per event features a rotating cast of guest chefs and four sommeliers who select what they think is the best wine to pair with each of four courses. After tasting the mystery choices, the 40 to 60 attendees then vote on their favorite.
Envisioned as a way to get guests interacting and sharing their opinions about food and wine pairing, the event has proven educational for the sommeliers as well. “It’s almost like a focus group that helps me understand what people gravitate toward in food and wine pairings, and I’ve learned it’s not always in sync with what I think,” says Groh.
In December, Ten 01 sommelier Erica Landon introduced a wine club as a guest education vehicle; the club features tastings and two wine dinners each month, as well as seminars about wines from different regions of the world. While pinot noir, especially local pinot noir, remains the hot varietal in Portland, local consumers actively are seeking out more obscure varietals like tannant and torrontes, as well as Old World and Italian wines, says Timothy Nishimoto, owner of the Pearl District’s three-year-old Vino Paradiso wine bar.
Further proof that although Portlanders may be locally-focused, they’re also interested in global offerings is available across the river at Biwa, where sake is highlighted.
Biwa, which menus Japanese street food like ramen and schools guests in sake appreciation, offers 12 sakes that take sake sipping to a connoisseur level. To keep it fresh, Biwa presents Sake Thursday. “Every Thursday, we bring in one new bottle of sake, print up an information card about it and run a couple of dinner specials from that region to accompany it,” says chef-owner Gabe Rosen. The event debuted in January and already is attracting weekly regulars.
Rosen’s experience speaks to the overall trend in Portland, where operators have learned that educating guests about the source of products—be they of local or foreign origin—is the key to engaging diners. Once diners understand the nuances, Portland operators are discovering, they gladly will make the jump to premium offerings. l
Ashley Griffin writes about food, drinks and lifestyle of the Pacific Northwest from Portland, Ore.
Made with locally-sourced spirits, the Mai Thai (left) and Bistro Martini (center) are popular libations at the Marble Bar (right), adjacent to Heathman Restaurant & Bar.
McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurants was founded in Portland; its 79 locations now offer hand-crafted cocktails that feature fresh ingredients.
Biwa educates guests with its weekly Sake Thursday menu specials (left), while the Dueling Sommelier series, created by Heathman sommelier Jeff Groh last year, challenges Portland chefs, sommeliers and diners to find the best food and wine pairings (right).
Saucebox pioneered Portland’s DIY cocktail scene when it opened in 1995 and began offering an extensive cocktail list of drinks involving house-made ingredients.
Trends in Beervana
Portlanders have been enjoying local craft brews since German brewer Henry Saxer opened Liberty Brewery in 1852. Today, they flock to brewpubs both old and new to sample local craft and import brews, always on the lookout for something new. What’s hot in the Portland beer scene?
IPA. IPA is a hot style, especially those from Bridgeport Brewery, opened since 1984 and Oregon’s oldest existing craft brewery. It boasts an adjacent brewpub and bakery in its Pearl District location.
German and Belgian styles. New locales such as the East Side’s Green Dragon Bistro & Brewpub highlight Belgian brews, while local craft brewer Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen remains a perennial favorite.
Brewpubs with depth. The soaring, two-story Henry’s 12th Street Tavern in the Pearl District, which draws young, hip crowds with its more than 100 draft beers and nearly 60 craft brews from around the country, is a prime example.
Beer sommeliers. Upscale restaurants like Higgins, a French-inspired bistro serving fresh farm-to-table cuisine, and the Red Star Tavern and Roast House, a convivial, 200-seat gathering place, put beer offerings on par with wine by offering customers the services and suggestions of beer sommeliers.
Craft brews. Not so much the trend as the norm, local craft brews even have a presence at the airport, where the artisan Rogue Brewery opened its 10th meeting hall concept in January. With this latest addition, the Portland Airport now offers more craft beer than any other airport in the world, also playing home to local craft beer purveyors including Laurelwood Public House & Brewery, Stanford’s, Pizzicato, Gustav’s and Rose City Café. Whether Portlanders are coming or going, there’s always a beer to be had.
Portland International Airport now boasts 10 Rogue Ales Public Houses and numerous other craft-beer-focused concepts.