I was in Portland, Oregon for work last weekend. I took the opportunity to check out two cocktail bars that I’d heard good things about. I’ll just spit it out. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year putting forward the contention that Washington, DC is, per capita, probably the best craft cocktail town in the US. After this weekend, I’d say that Portland more than gives DC a run for our money.
My first visit was to Beaker & Flask, which was conveniently located a short walk from the hotel where I was staying. Situated on the corner of a larger building, the single room bar and restaurant had high ceilings and an airey feel. On the street side corner, floor to ceiling windows gave customers a view of the downtown Portland skyline (be that as it may). I got to Beaker & Flask around 6:30pm on a Friday, during their happy hour. The happy hour menu included four cocktails that were only $5 prior to 6pm and $7 afterwards. The going rate for the rest of the menu? $8, making this the most affordable, hardcore craft cocktail bar I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting.
Beaker & Flask is really shaped by the long, swooping bar that runs almost the full length of the space. To the right of the entrance is a series of rectangular booths for parties of four or so. To the left of the entrance, a series of larger round booths for bigger parties. In the space between the bar and the round booths there are a handful of standing round tables. Along the wall, there are a number of small libraries of bar and cocktail books.
The bar has a pretty great door policy. Reservations and the waiting list determine who get seats, but you can wait at one of the round standing tables and still receive waitress service, space permitting. When I arrived, the bar was full, so I had to wait at a standing table for a seat.
I was promptly given a menu and after some deliberation ordered The Cold Shoulder, made with gin, fresh grapefruit juice, Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur, and grapefruit bitters. Pictured left, it had the most delightful pink froth of tiny bubbles in an up cocktail glass. The Cold Shoulder was lighter and more refreshing than I’d expected. It was sweet, though the pine liqueur touch to it was lighter than I’d expected. The pink grapefruit is very clean and almost creamy. The gin isn’t dominant, leading me to think this is a pretty good cocktail to serve people who think they don’t like gin.
Shortly after The Cold Shoulder was delivered, a space opened for me at the bar and I was seated. The bar itself was a dark, slate colored slab of stone, thick and wide. The back bar was clean and packed with a great array of spirits and liqueurs, some hard to get, some (like Maraska Pelinkovac) completely unfamiliar to me.
In addition to being a great craft cocktail bar, I’d heard Beaker & Flask had a phenomenal menu. I started off with an order of Chanterelle Mushrooms, Parsley, Garlic, and Smoked Bone Marrow, which I topped with a squeeze of fresh lemon. I followed it with an order of Grilled Alaskan Spot Prawns, Millas, and Fall Vegetables. Both dishes were rich, fresh, and full of flavor. They didn’t overpower the cocktails, but instead drew out the range of my pallet, tantalizing me with more flavor than I had expected. One thing was clear in my visit to Portland, they get a lot more fresh produce than we do in urban Washington and it came out both in the food and in the cocktail.
My next drink was also from the menu and was most definitely not the sort of cocktail I’m in the habit of ordering. I was drawn to it, though, because of the inclusion of pears as an ingredient. With fall clearly moving forward in Oregon, I thought it could be fun. The Country Touch is made with Pisco, Pears, Yellow Chartruese, and fresh lime juice. The pear flavor in question comes from cooking pears with demarara sugar and then bottling them in a pear brandy. [NB: Due to a small water spill, I can’t read my notes on the precise process used to treat the pear or what spirit they mascerate in…] The result is a rich, poached pear flavor that plays a big role in the Country Touch. The cocktail starts with a heavy lime taste, but swiftly moves to pears and honey. The pear flavor is so like a poached pear that it has an almost carbonated taste. The Chartreuse is subtle and fades ahead of the pear. Likewise, the lime flavor steps back over time. I’m not sure that I’d say this is a well balanced cocktail, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.
The last original cocktail prepared for me by the barman Tim was a Negroni variation called a Viking Quest. It was made with Aquavit, Campari, and Marcarini Barolo Chinato, finished with a lemon peel. This was a great cocktail, right in line with the flavor profile I’ve lately liked the most. It’s similar to a Negroni, but has a lot more going on in the bitter/savory department. It also takes on a brilliant ruby color from the combination of Campari and chinato. It has a very bitter front taste and I got some taste of wormwood, though I think it’s more likely to be the quinine from China Calisaya bark in the chinato. What was most interesting to me, though, was that the chinato paired with the bitter orange Campari implied a rich chocolate taste, something chinato is often paired with.
I was really impressed with both the food and drinks at Beaker & Flask. The cocktails were quite well made. The menu was interesting. And the bartenders were professional and precise. I will definitely plan on returning the next time I’m in Portland and I’d certainly encourage any readers in the Portland area to check it out if you haven’t already.