Note from the author: The team behind Portland Cocktail Week hosted my visit to PDX to check out the fourth year of the festival. Here are a few snapshots and impressions from my trip.
Dorms, classes, parties, and wicked hangovers. If that sounds a lot like a college experience, that's the idea. For the fourth year in a row, bartenders from across the country descended on Portland, Oregon for Portland Cocktail Week, to celebrate the art of the craft cocktail, and learn about the business from every angle. The conference's tagline is "for bartenders, by bartenders," and that's just what we found. Unlike Tales of the Cocktail, which is open to bartenders and enthusiasts alike, the majority of Portland Cocktail Week is intended for professionals in the field, with a strong focus on professional development and education.
"For a festival like this to be successful, I think we have to have our own identity," says cofounder Lindsey Johnson. "Tales of the Cocktail is fantastic...we don't need two of them." To that end, the Portland Bartender Institute has developed as the main feature of the week in Oregon. Consider it bartender college, crammed into just a few days. Although there are plenty of drinks to be found, the art of bartending itself is the main focus.
This year saw the 270 students, coming in from all over the country, split into four majors: Advanced Craft Cocktail Bartending, Beyond the Bar, Bar Ownership, and Product Development. Just like any college, each student is required to fulfill a core curriculum, classes in his or her major, and electives. Also like college, some of the students live in dorms: Portland Cocktail Week rents out the entirety of the Jupiter Hotel. Their dorm parties likely put yours to shame.
Johnson estimates that around 1,000 bartenders came into town for the week, with those not in an education track there to socialize, audit classes, and "connect with and build community." That last point was a theme we heard over and over again, from organizers, local bartenders, and attendees alike. Michael Moberly of Reno, Nevada's Biggest Little City Club told us: "It's interesting to get this many magnetic personalities in one room and see how much of a community this is."
Students and festival pass holders were treated to "after school activities" all week, ranging from the annual Swig 'n Swine pig roast to sponsored parties all around town. The Bar MashUPs brought bartenders from across the country in to work in Portland establishments, bringing their menus and techniques to an eager crowd. It's all capped off by the United States Bartenders Guild bash tonight. Even with all these parties, the emphasis is as designed to be more on education than the booze itself. "We're not the get you drunk festival, we're the get you excited festival," said Johnson.
Local cocktail fans weren't completely shut out of the fun. Five consumer classes were offered on Saturday and Sunday at $30 per person. They ran the gamut, from a basic introduction to cocktails and techniques with The Imperial's Brandon Wise to a ladies-only whiskey tasting, to a tour through five Manhattans with King Cocktail himself, Dale DeGroff.