The large wood storage shed next to the much-buzzed-about Argentinian-inspired Ox Restaurant on Portland's NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was originally meant to be a private dining room. Halfway through construction, Ox's owners changed course and decided to use it as a casual drinking space for sipping cocktails while you wait (and wait) for your table to be ready next door. Chopped firewood lines parts of the walls, lit by Edison lightbulbs. Outdoor seating and a creative cocktail menu from bar manager Jamal Hassan have made Whey Bar a cocktail destination in itself.
The goal is clean, fresh, and simple cocktails that pair well with food, but are balanced enough to stand on their own. The Dirty Agnes, for example, has just three ingredients: vodka, dry vermouth, and pickle juice from Chef Greg Denton's grandmother's recipe. The Things Done Changed cocktail includes smoked lemon zest and jalapeno oil, but the final cocktail is comprised of only 5 ingredients—6 if you count the pinch of salt. "I like to season my cocktails," says Hassan. "In very small amounts it can augment the flavors without anyone realizing there is salt in the drink."
"I wanted to make cocktails the are non-pretentious but good enough to stand out in a city that takes cocktails very seriously," says Hassan. "Many people get intimidated by cocktail menus that include drinks with twelve ingredients that require a glossary to understand. That can turn many people away from experimenting. It's not that I'm diametrically opposed to twelve ingredient cocktails, but I'm not in favor if it's muddying the drink. Every ingredient has to actually be adding something to make the drink better as a whole."
When we asked Hassan how he selected his spirits he replied, "This is the kind of bar I would want in my house. We don't have every spirit that's out there, but every spirit we have serves a purpose." His stash is ever-expanding as the kitchen inspires and often creates many ingredients soon destined for cocktails. Bartender Eva Pelczer said that the free-flowing ideas and culinary expertise of the kitchen is invaluable for creating new drinks. "I wanted to create a hibiscus sugar for a cocktail I was developing, and could ask the chefs for the best method to extract the flavor I wanted. It's like a college campus of food and booze freaks," says Pelczer. Hassan agreed, "The entire environment of Ox is very collaborative in a very natural and organic way."
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