First Look: Cocktails at Riffle in Portland, OR

[Photo: AJ Simpson]

Dave Shenaut, former president of the Oregon Bartender's Guild, has bounced around for brief stints at almost all of Portland's greatest craft cocktail bars. But he told us that he won't be leaving Riffle anytime soon—he has finally found the perfect home to create the bar program of his dreams. Riffle is set to open on May 15th, and will feature cuisine and architecture that is inspired by the sea. The wood panels on the ceiling around the bar were made from reclaimed shipping docks, and the backing of the seats are made from fabric repurposed from sailboat sails.

While Riffle is primarily a restaurant, there's plenty to lure a lover of drinks. The beer list features a wide range of styles, including farmhouse ales, Belgian sours, pilsners, and the nostalgic canned Churchkey beer. The wine program is led by Dan Beekley, who will directly import light, bright and approachable wines from small producers, and the offerings will be arranged on the menu sorted by the body of water closest to their origins.

Shenaut recruited some of the best bartenders in town, including Emily Baker (formerly of Rum Club), and Ricky Gomez (formerly of Teardrop Lounge) to bring their talents to Riffle.

While water inspires the cuisine, ice inspires the cocktails at Riffle. They've installed an ice machine that creates 400-pound blocks of crystal clear ice that are traditionally used for creating ice sculptures. After 3 months of extensive testing, these giant blocks are destined for your drinks, whether carefully carved into crystal-clear spears to fit into a Collins glass for the Riffle Collins made with fresh celery juice, or shaped into a hand-cut sphere for the old-fashioned inspired Mayor Rock cocktail, comprised of mezcal, applejack, agave, and bitters.

The giant block of ice takes 4 days of careful monitoring to ensure perfect clarity, and is then "harvested", and chopped with a chainsaw into smaller pieces. They have even retrofit a woodchipper to rapidly crush massive amounts of ice for use in the kitchen and bar. Shenaut is already brainstorming more creative uses for the giant ice including serving raw fish on ice plates, creating blocks to hold shot glasses for vodka flights, and other secret plans.

Riffle has also installed a custom CO2 system to create carbonated and non-carbonated cocktails on draft—a first in Portland, as far as we know. The initial cocktails include a carbonated Chrysanthemum and a non-carbonated Negroni, and there are plans to expand draft cocktail offerings in the near future.

Vodka is often shunned in trendy craft cocktail bars these days, but Riffle has selected more than 10 artisanal vodkas to accompany raw fish preparations. "Cold vodka with food is amazing, and works to cleanse the palate. I've really changed my thinking when it comes to vodka, and have been paying a lot more attention to location and base ingredients, which has given me a new appreciation of the spirit," Shenaut told us. Innovation, exploration, and accessibility are key themes behind the cocktail program at Riffle and we can't wait to see what they come up with next.

Want to see what they're serving up? You can check out a few of the cocktails in the slideshow above.


333 NW 13th, Portland OR 97209 (map) 503-894-8978;

About the Author: Greg Harned lives in Portland, OR, where he enjoys cocktails, drinking and general mischief-making in candlelit speakeasies, swanky cocktail lounges and dingy dive bars. He manages Portland Craft Cocktails where he writes about his various exploits and also dabbles in the spirits trade. You can follow him on Twitter @craftcocktails.