My second stop in Portland was the Teardrop Cocktail Lounge in the Pearl District. I realized I had a lot of choices for a second cocktail bar visit while in Portland — Laurelhurst Market, Ten01, Acadia, Secret Society Lounge, and others — but from the looks of things, Teardrop Lounge seemed like it would be best for my tastes. Actually, what really sold me was that in their menu online I saw that they had a cocktail containing a house-made Kina Lillet.
Lillet used to be more of a quinquina – a type of fortified wine that had a bitter quinine taste to it. Unfortunately, the recipe was changed and it became a sweeter, more citrus, less bitter aperitif in the 1980s. As such, many recipes that were crafted to have a bitter Kina Lillet just aren’t the same with today’s Lillet Blanc. You can’t get Kina Lillet any more, though many people have tried to make substitutes (Erik Ellestad being foremost in the spirit archaelogists). Naturally when I saw that Teardrop had their own version, I was curious to try it. After all, there are only so many bars where I can try lost ingredients at and I didn’t want to miss this opportunity.
Teardrop Cocktail Lounge’s appearance and decor is unlike any I’ve ever been to. It has a glass front and cement walls, with modern art hanging on them. It feels more like the kind of design you’d find in an Asian fusion restaurant in some regards. The bar is round and in the center of the room. In its center there is a teardrop shaped island with shelving and, suspended above it, a teardrop shaped glass platform shelf. The white spirits were stored on the glass high shelf, while the dark spirits were stored on the island itself. The bar’s counter is a marbled blue stone and, all in all, it comes across as clean and simple.
When I arrived, it was on the early side of the night. There was one small table near the window occupied and otherwise empty but for staff. I ordered the drink I’d came there for, the African Swallow, made with Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength Gin, house Kina Lillet, blood orange shrubb, chartreuse elixir, and a lemon peel. It was served in a tall, fluted cocktail glass. The 90.4 proof Westbourne gave the cocktail a very strong gin start, with a bitter orange background from the Kina Lillet and shrub. It finished with a subtle chartreuse profile. It was definitely a boozy cocktail (right up my alley) and in some ways reminded me of Bronx cocktail in terms of the level of citrus imparted on the cocktail on whole.
Shortly after I’d begun to enjoy the African Swallow, the bartender, David Shenaut, asked me how I was enjoying it. I said I thought it was great and that I’d decided to come into the bar on the basis of this cocktail to try their Kina Lillet. Without saying a word, David turned around at poured me a small glass of the house made Kina Lillet. It had a much lighter quinine flavor than I’d expected and instead came across more sweet and punchy. And so it began… David next cracked open a new bottle of their homemade tonic, which was in no way shy in the amount of quinine it contained. Then he poured a small shot of the blood orange shrubb, which was barrel aged and made with less vinegar than one would normally see in a creole shrubb, giving it a more mellow orange and spice taste. This was followed by a small glass of their decanter bitters. Yes, a small glass of bitters. Though the decanter bitters were very pepper and had a strong lavender flavor, they were just about quaffable (perhaps good with some of the aforementioned tonic?). David wasn’t done yet, bringing out a bottle of creme de cacao, which had an intense chocolate flavor. I didn’t have any cocktails with it, but I would have loved to play around and pair it with one of the house orange spirits. Then, in a move that could only be described as being driven from a desire to make me move to Portland, David poured me a sample of their house Amer Picon, a spirit that is not sold in the US, but is still available in Europe. It was quite subtle and smooth, something that David said was a goal for most of their house spirits and bitters. They want to keep their homemade products accessible and handy to work with. To my pallet, they succeed quite well.
By this time, as one should expect, David and I were geeking out over cocktails. He was telling me about his experiences guest bartending at PDT and working as a cocktail apprentice bartending at Tales of the Cocktail. I was telling him about my favorite bars, cocktails and spirits. It was a blast, with none of my subsequent cocktails coming from the menu.
He followed up my wide-ranging sample with a cocktail that was right up my alley. The Ephemeral is made with Ransom Old Tom Gin, a delicious product made in Oregon with a heavy cardamon flavor, Dolin Blanc, a quarter ounce of St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, and celery bitters, garnished with a lemon peel. As I said, this is the sort of cocktail that I always say does it for me — spirit based, boozy, slightly bitter sweet. It was light, sweet, and smooth, as well as incredibly well balanced. It retained a savory flavor, something that is often challenging when St. Germain is involved.
Next up was a Burrough Punch, which was a real adventure in mixing differing spirits: Amaro Nardini, El Tesoro Reposado tequila, Batavia Arrack, and Carpano Antica vermouth. The cocktail was served in a glass whose walls were lined with thin orange slices. It was simultaneously strong, creamy, bitter and had a really interesting layer of tequila flavor. There was real heat and spice from the combination of the Batavia Arrack and the tequila. This drink just overflowed with flavor and was by no means a shy cocktail.
After the donkey came Apres Les Chat (After the Cat), made with 100 proof Rittenhouse Rye, Fernet Branca, Cynar, Carpano Antica, and house grenadine. It was strong and sweet, like a much, much, much more complex Manhattan. It was boozy, but balanced and despite the combination of Fernet and Cynar, was not too bitter.
Staying in the classic, boozy, and savory family, next up was a Brooklyn. A real classic cocktail that, like the Liberal, has largely been made extinct due to the unavailability of Amer Picon, the David’s Brooklyn was made with both bourbon, rye, house Amer Picon, maraschino, dry vermouth, and garnished with an orange peel. I love cocktails that have a strong spirit and orange profile and this had it in spades. Interestingly, the intense orange flavors, paired with dark American spirits, gave me an almost chocolate flavor.
I finished with a drink whose name I don’t have written down, but was made with mescal, Aperol, maraschino, and lime juice. I imagined this as the landing place for a cocktail that may have started life as a mescal-based Papa Doble variation. It was served with a fair bit of ice chips floating in the drink and had a nice bitter taste from the maraschino, while retaining some sweetness and tart from the lime.
While at Teardrop Cocktail Lounge, I enjoyed their Tuna Tartare, served with avocado and grapefruit, as well as potato gnocchi with rabbit ragu and pecorino cheese. Both dishes were fantastic — great compliments to the quality of cocktail they were serving.
As you can probably tell, I loved my visit to Teardrop Cocktail Lounge. David was a phenomenal bartender and I had a great time talking with him about cocktails and spirits throughout the night. The drinks he served me were inventive, to be sure, but they were also cocktails that really were in the range that I like the most. He charted me through a range of base spirits and bitter spirits, but each drink was something I liked a lot. If pressed, I’d probably say that either the Ephemeral or the Apres Les Chat were my favorites, but who’s keeping score?
I said it yesterday but it bears repeating. Portland is a phenomenal cocktail town and one that I’d be more than happy to visit again soon.