Portland, Oregon has become a cradle to beverage innovation in many fields, from cocktails to coffee. It makes sense that there would constantly be new good things to drink here: it's a city full of folks who appreciate well-made and well-sourced food. Portland is home to a dizzying array of local distilleries and people crafting all sorts of delicious products to taste. But while there are plenty of Portland cocktail alchemists poised over fizzing beakers, the overwhelming trend I've noticed lately is a return to the basics of great bartending.
"The core of the industry is hospitality and building a balanced drink," Kyle Linden Webster, owner of Expatriate, said to me recently. "It's not about impressing people, and it's not a secret society." It works for me.
Whether you're looking for a great Manhattan or a tiki drink or something entirely original, my favorite Portland bars deliver. These spots range from elegant to kitschy, but what they all have in common is a quality so easily misplaced in the modern cocktail world: a solid sense of identity and a certain cleanness of execution. If you're wondering where to go for great cocktails in Portland, consider this your guide.
The Rookery at Raven & Rose
The Rookery, the upper portion of the now-renovated historic Ladd Carriage House, is one of my favorite places to drink a cocktail in Portland, for many reasons. The last remaining portion of the Ladd estate—originally built to house the estate's horses, carriages, and employees—the most recent incarnation of this beautiful building has captured the romantic essence of the English countryside while maintaining a Portland perspective on drinks.
High white ceilings girded with wooden beams soar above a worn floor that anchors a mix of Shaker-style details and classic English pub-style bar and leather chairs. The space is at once familiar and refreshing, like a breath of country air. The cocktails here are outstanding, as are the many spirits events and the food menu.
I love Portland's overcast weather, but even so, I get weary after weeks of rain and timid sun. Hale Pele is the perfect antidote to the rainy-day blues. From the staff's unashamed island style to the glowing pufferfish lights to the menu full of classic tiki drinks with just enough originality to be inspiring, Hale Pele deserves all its great press and more.
At my last visit, my bartender told me they had 237 bottlings of rums from around the world that week. The bar is home to The Loyal Order of Fire Drinkers, a club of dedicated rum-tasters who mark off a selection of 50 rums week by week as they go on special. Honoring this incredibly versatile spirit, many of the 42 cocktails on the Hale Pele incorporate one or more styles of rum and a wide variety of fresh juices, falernum, and spices. Come during happy hour (5 to 6 p.m. daily) for mind-blowing Puaa Pork Sliders ($5), a selection of delightful tiki drinks and a rotating rum special.
As smooth as the Pearl District neighborhood it anchors, the silver-and-white Teardrop Cocktail Lounge has been a destination for well-made drinks since it opened in 2007. Steel, glass, exposed concrete—these design elements have been overused in the restaurant biz, but the Teardrop steps past first impressions with a hospitality and swagger that reflects the Portland walking past its spacious windows.
The menu has a page for house cocktails, a page for classics, and a page for cocktails created by friends (including some delightful names—"Bankers are Wankers", anyone?) as well as a creative small plates menu. The spirits collection is presented with panache, giving room for drinking experimentation on all fronts, and the fanatical attention to detail that has bartenders crafting every possible ingredient in the seasonal menu by hand means you'll have to come back again and again to truly grasp Teardrop's offerings.
Pepe le Moko
Remember Corn Nuts? These salty, fried bits of corn are available at every gas station in America, and their Spanish cousin, Quicos, are the first taste to greet you at the long-anticipated, just-opened Jeff Morganthaler concept in downtown Portland, Pepe le Moko. The experience is a little disorienting, but that's part of the fun. From the Long Island Iced Tea ($13) to the Espresso Martini ($11), this menu is one to challenge preconceptions by re-imagining tired cliches in the cocktail world. (Morganthaler once boasted, "I make the best amaretto sour in the world!" Well, he might just be right.)
Votive candles make many-pointed stars on close-set tables, and the spot has an unfinished air that fits the eponymous Paris gangster flick of 1937, the leather couches, long bar, and banded curving ceiling seeming to set the scene for a sophisticated Parisienne to make her entrance, plop her purse on the bar, and down a Long Island Iced Tea while her golden hair slips down her back. (A scene pretty much possible only here, since most self-respecting bars in town refuse to serve the drink.)
The decor leaves something to the imagination, but the master hand of Morganthaler is evident in the drinks. They're delicious. It takes a supreme confidence to serve drinks like this, and smile in the face of most cocktail-aficiandos' confusion. That, and the best amaretto sour in the world.
Barwares at Smallwares
Adjoining NE Portland's excellent Smallwares, Barwares is a slick juxtaposition of East and West—Asian pottery (complete with a Hello Kitty figurine) under a chandelier straight from a vintage store, sake next to Regan's Orange Bitters, succulent planters next to water served in old Jim Beam bottles. The food reflects this mixed heritage (gleefully claiming to be "inauthentic Asian") but the drinks menu is more focused, consisting largely of some really delicious classic or classic-inspired cocktails.
Chef/owner Johanna Ware has a long pedigree with names like Momofuku in it, and in her first proprietary spot she offers a unique and ultimately memorable experience. Come to Smallwares/Barwares to explore an array of tasty dishes and stay for an imaginative cocktail or three.
Stepping into Rum Club, I always feel a sense of warmth unrelated to the temperature. It's a quirky place—with a glowing wooden bar roughly the shape of a horseshoe that seems to embrace the bartender, a patio for those rare evenings when Portland isn't grim and wet, and a hummingbird motif that plays nicely with the tiki-esque figurines you'll find in odd places. A visit to Rum Club is like stepping into your eccentric neighbor's basement—if that neighborh had something of a rum fetish.
Drinks here are bright and balanced, and pack an unexpected punch—the off-menu Em's Rum Daiquiri had me swaying slightly as I left after my last visit. (Said Em's Rum is a house blend called The Blackhearted Blend from head bartender Emily Mistell, using rums from Jamaica, Bermuda, and Guyana.) Catch the happy hour from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 5 to midnight on Sundays for discounted cocktails and one of the best winter salads I've had at just $6.
Don't let the fighting cocks on the wall of Whey Bar in NE Portland disturb you—you are, after all, drinking a pickle cocktail in an Argentine-inspired bar. Come to Whey Bar at 4 p.m., before Ox—the almost obscenely-popular restaurant next door—fills up and overflows into the garage-turned bar space, and soak in the details surrounding you along with a creative seasonal cocktail.
Fresh dill on the oyster bar, a concrete floor under no-nonsense tables, a garage door painted a blue-grey so delightful I want to lick it, and lovely lightbulbs dangling overhead—the place is filled with delightful, un-fussy details. Definitely try the French Diplomat ($9) for a tactile experience reminiscent of the inner peel of a grapefruit, mediated by a honey sweetness and a chamomile aroma.
Enter through the curtained, sign-less door of Expatriate in NE Portland, and you are in another world. A world where famed Beast chef Naomi Pomeroy imagines a menu of riveting pan-Asian-inspired bar food, where owner and pedigreed bartender, world traveler, and DJ Kyle Linden Webster bends in total concentration over his spinning records, and where a Chinese moon gate inspires a moment of worship between sips.
The oft-neglected art of mixing a balanced cocktail is central here, and an unashamed focus on hospitality. Sit yourself at the long mahogany bar and soak in the sheer atmosphere of the place. Above your head, on the top shelf of the spirit library, is a round-bellied Blanton's Bourbon bottle that glows like molten gold next to a world globe. Know that wherever you are, at this moment you are an expatriate from your home scene. Your explorations end here, with a perfectly executed cocktail and some really great music.
Multnomah Whiskey Library
You may wait several hours in line to enter the sacred precincts of the Multnomah Whiskey Library, but for once in your life, the wait will be worth it. Respect—for you and your patience, for the over 1500 bottlings of spirits that line the walls, for the beverage ritual—will envelop you like a wave. Whoever you are, if you are willing to tender the same respect, your time in this famed refuge will be entirely memorable. Here is one place in Portland that offers that complete package: quality, attention to detail, delightful service, and a curated list of outstanding cocktails. The chance to taste rare whiskeys is a highlight, but the cocktails are also not to be missed.
Superlatives aside, what is the Multnomah Whiskey Library actually like? Oak paneling, classic leather couches, and library ladders guarding long rows of shining bottles. People of all shapes and sizes luxuriating in being part of an exclusive club: those who value this experience. Warm lighting—lamps and chandeliers under stained glass windows, and an attractive, happy staff. Wait in line if you have to. The experience will be more than worth the effort.
It's inevitable now that Pepe le Moko is open to compare it to Jeff Morgenthaler and the Ace Hotel's other Portland collaboration, Clyde Common. While Pepe le Moko seems designed to create nuggets of privacy clearly delineated by leather and chair rails, Clyde Common puts me in mind of a communal dining space and kitchen I once shared with about 30 complete strangers at a retreat center about 14,000 feet up a New Mexico mountain. Long tables of worn wood seat 8-20, practiced hands fly in an open kitchen, and (during daylight hours) tall windows encourage the exchange of a smile, or a glare, with passersby. In those same windows, as night falls, you can catch a mesmerizing reflection of the deft movements, striped aprons, and flickering flames reflected from the kitchen.
The bar program here is designed to be approachable and fun. The cocktails here are subtle, enjoyable, and pack a boozy wallop deceptively disguised by their balanced composition. Come by yourself during happy hour (3 to 6 p.m. daily) and try the Bourbon Renewal (Maker's Mark, Jacquin's Creme de Cassis, Angostura bitters, and lemon) along several plates of the Common's famous food. Or, bring a passel of friends and enjoy the night falling as you enjoy each other. Either way, you'll find Clyde Common encourages you out of Portland's funky rain-enforced solitude and into some conviviality.
Curious about what to order at each of these bars? Head over to the slideshow for our cocktail picks.
About the Author: Equally obsessed with cocktails and coffee, Emily McIntyre is a travel and beverages writer based in Portland, Oregon. Follow her at @mcintyrewrites.
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