There's a reason they called it a library. "It's supposed to be an educational experience," bar manager Tommy Klus said of the recently opened Multnomah Whiskey Library on SW Alder in Portland.
The space has leather chairs and booths, reading lamps and walls of shelves reachable by rolling ladders. And those shelves are full of thousands of bottles of whiskey, along with a few other spirits.
Visitors can either order from the menu, a hardcover booklet listing suggested tasting flights, cocktails, and snacks, or from the full catalog, a bound book at least double the thickness of the menu that lists the entire stock of whiskeys, other spirits, and wines.
Klus says their clientele so far have been up to the challenge.
"That's been the biggest surprise—how adventurous people have been, open to trying new whiskeys and branching out from their comfort zones," he said. "We're still on our first bottle of some of our mainstream whiskeys from when we opened, but we're going through more obscure whiskeys, whiskeys people have never heard of. People come in and say, 'I want a bourbon I've never had before and I can't get anywhere else.'"
The Whiskey Library has table service, served from custom bar carts. Drawers on the left hold ice and bartending tools. The right side holds a trash can and a bin for scraps. Bartenders scale the ladders toting leather messenger bags for safe bottle transport.
"Coming from a cocktail background, we wanted to take it a step further by making cocktails tableside. Most of the bartenders have experience in fine dining and serving—that's something we were looking for," noted Klus.
Klus said that for each person, the library experience will be different. "Let's say you don't know anything about whiskey—that's ok. So we'll ask what you like," Klus said. "What kind of foods do you like? What's your favorite cocktail? What kind of wines do you like? If you can figure out their palate and what they like to eat, then we can think about what reminds us of that and make a suggestion that way. You can be very simple in the way that you describe and talk about a whiskey."
We sat down with Klus and asked him to tell us about a few of his favorite offerings at the Multnomah Whiskey Library.
Old Fashioned ($10)
Klus picked out the classic Old Fashioned as one of his favorites on the cocktail menu—the Library purchased bourbon by the barrel for it. "We picked out a barrel of Weller. We actually went to Kentucky in April and we tasted through a lot of whiskey barrels and we picked this one out. It's 107 proof bourbon. It's the same recipe as Pappy Van Winkle uses, but it's going to be aged younger than the Pappy—probably around 6-7 years—and it's a wheated bourbon."
Along with the Weller 107, listed as "library edition" on the menu, they use Angostura and orange bitters, and sweeten the drink with a housemade 2:1 cane syrup.
Klus said the Sazerac is a favorite because of its simplicity. "You're getting all the flavor you want from the rye. There's not too many ingredients in it," he said. In this case the rye is Rittenhouse.
"The Herbsaint, we put into an atomizer. Traditionally you're going to do a rinse and then dump the absinthe out. We spray it in the glass so it sticks to the walls, so that way you always get the aromatics from the absinthe," Klus said.
"I think traditionally you'd have a lemon peel in the Sazerac. We take it out because we don't want it to get over-lemony. It would if it stayed in there. So we like a little bit on top, a little on the glass."
Rabo de Galo ($9)
Finally, Klus recommended this non-whiskey cocktail, made with Novo Fogo barrel-aged cachaca, Zucca amaro, bittersweet Punt e Mes, and aromatic bitters. "It drinks like a whiskey cocktail with a little underlying tropical flavor," he explained. "For that reason I think this one is the most interesting. You hit that caramel and then you get bitter banana. You could change out the sweet vermouth to make it fruitier, but I don't think it needs it."
We also asked Klus to pick a couple of bottles of whiskey that he's most excited to have in the library's collection.
"That question is never an easy one to answer," he said. "I like a variety of whiskeys for different reasons. Contrary to what some might think, you don't have to spend a lot of cash to get a good quality whiskey."
When pushed for a recommendation, here's what he picked:
Stagg Jr. Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
"We're trying to stay up on allocations and new releases," said Klus, choosing this Buffalo Trace bottling. "This is pretty cool. It's based off of George T. Stagg, which is a high proof bourbon with a considerable amount of age. This one's going to be aged less but still that same proof, same style. It's like baby Stag."
"Yamazaki 18 tastes of oak, citrus, and orchard fruits with a slight floral character and a lengthy finish," Klus said. "Single is malt aged in three different types of oak. Spanish (red oak), American (used bourbon and new oak), and Japanese oak. This whisky is mostly Spanish oak with smaller portions of the other two—and Spanish oak is rare. Most whisky uses ex-sherry casks, while Yamazaki sources Spanish red oak."
Caperdonich 20 Year from Duncan Taylor
"This whiskey is a bit more expensive," noted Klus. Why? "It's made the endangered list as the distillery was mothballed in 2002 and then demolished in 2010." Klus continued: "Caperdonich wasn't as well known—its whiskey usually went into blends." It's too bad, said Klus about the rare bottling: "The 20 year is a peaty Speyside whiskey that won't disappoint."
About the Author: Rebekah Hubbard is a food writer and photographer living in Portland, Oregon. Check out her blog, PDXfoodlove, follow her on twitter at @rebekahahubbard or find her on Facebook at the PDXfoodlove fan page.