First Look: New Old Classics at Interurban Tavern, Portland, OR
You will find no wild infusions at Interurban, a brand new bar in the sleepily trendy Mississippi neighborhood of north Portland; there is no dry ice, no fat transduction, and nary a tincture on display. Call it "back to basics" if you like, though that's somewhat disingenuous; there's nothing "basic" about a well-made cocktail, and the bar menu at Interurban is chocked full of fascinating classics—an argument-worthy Old Fashioned, the woozy Suffering Bastard, and Pisco Punch made from a recipe that's older than your Grandpa.
The newest bar in Portland almost wasn't. Just days before its official opening night, Interurban suffered a massive electrical fire, shuttering its kitchen until further notice and delaying the bar's opening push. Interurban is a collaboration between John Gorham (of Toro Bravo and Tasty n Sons), John Hart (of Portland's ur-German beer and pretzel haus, Prost), and Kurt Huffman (of ChefStable, the restaurant group behind St. Jack's, Wafu, Ping, and Grüner). A massive opening week electrical fire is exactly the sort of anti-serendipity that could fell a lesser collaboration, but the team of Gorham, Hart, and Huffman is about as prestigious as it gets in Portland. In particular, if you've ever waited for a weekend brunch table at Tasty n Sons, you know full well that stress and adversity are unlikely to faze Mr. Gorham and his staff.
As of today, they've re-opened the top floor kitchen, but don't pass by their impressive ground floor bar, where the focus is on beer, wine, and especially classic cocktails. Interurban's cocktail program is presided over by Jeremy Mielen, a bartender whose CV reads like a Portland bar nerd's dream diary, with stints at the Heathman Hotel, Red Star, Cassidy's, Paley's Place, and Tasty n Sons. Mr. Mielen's stated goal for Interurban is clear: "Very simple drinks with very good spirits."
To whit: the Old Fashioned at Interurban is achingly classic—a truly old fashioned Old Fashioned. Mr. Mielen starts with Eagle Rare 10 Year Kentucky Bourbon, a spirit Mr. Mielen was the first to serve in Oregon, back in his Red Star days. It's a rich Kentucky Bourbon, with lots of body, one that holds up well to a bit of jiggering. He then adds 1/2 oz of simple syrup and 4 precise dashes of Angostura bitters, finishing with a lemon twist.
When I ask about garnish, or lack thereof, Mr. Mielen treats me to 10 minutes on the history of Old Fashioned accoutrement (and so I learn that Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill once argued publicly on the matter, and Woodrow Wilson had precise garnish specifications for the drink during his tenure as America's 28th President). Mielen considers garnishing an Old Fashioned to be an affectation of the 20th century, and he prefers to present the Old Fashioned in its original form, with only a lemon twist and the expectation of a second round.
During a later service, one of Mr. Mielen's crack bartenders offered her own take on the question du garnish, serving me an Old Fashioned filigreed with one single rolled lemon rind. Evidently the argument rages on.
Similarly (and literally) old school is Mr. Mielen's Pisco Punch, a drink rich with pre-history prior to being rediscovered by Playboy Magazine in the 1950s. Mielen is something of a walking cocktail oral historian, and his oration on the Pisco Sour smacks of holy reverence.
He starts by making his own pineapple gum syrup, taking chunked fresh pineapple, leaving it in a jar of simple syrup for 24 hours, and then incorporating powdered gum arabic, resulting in a mixture with the consistency of thinned molasses and a remarkably unctuous pineapple body. From there it's as simple as can be: two ounces of Pisco brandy, 3/4 ounces of fresh lime juice, and 3/4 ounces of the pineapple gum, served up in a chilled coupe. The Pisco Punch at Interurban is clean, sweet, and tart, refreshing and beguiling and sunshine-bright.
There are plenty of other classics on the menu—a Seelbach Cocktail, invented at the Seelbach Hotel in 1916, then later popularized by Gary Regan (of Regan's Bitters fame), or a Boulevardier made to exact Harry's Bar specifications—but the menu's quiet stunner is the Suffering Bastard, a cocktail whose origins date back to the mid-1950s Cairo diplomat bar scene. (Such a thing existed, I have been assured.)
Interurban has adopted the Suffering Bastard as its emblematic mascot, and for obvious reasons, what with electrical fires and their attendant local media coverage making for delicious gallows humor. Mr. Mielen takes one ounce of Beefeater Gin, one ounce of Hardy VS Cognac, simple syrup and lime juice, which is then shaken and strained over ice with a float of spicy "Cock 'n Bull" brand ginger beer. The drink comes out a musty pink, its spirits swirling texturally within a roar of citrus and ginger heat. It's rare to find this cocktail on any list, but try one at Interurban and you'll wonder why.
There's other little details, of course—glass stirring pitchers from Japan, 15 ounce cork-topped bottled Negronis, the remarkably well-balanced Isle of Jura Scotch in Mr. Mielen's Blood and Sand—but to go on is to imply a complexity at Interurban that runs diametrically opposed to the bar's purpose. Interurban is an exercise in Classic Cocktail 101, a placid anathema to the arms race of infusions and alchemy writ large across Portland's (and America's) high-end cocktail scene, and perhaps the perfect place to take the curious (or newly-of-age) budding cocktail enthusiast.