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Ask A Bartender: Should I Refrain From Using Expensive Spirits In Cocktails?

Monday, August 24, 2015


How to drink your scotch has more to do with your mood than arbitrary rules imposed by people you've never met.

Scotch and mezcal have in common an aura of distinction that they did not ask for. Maybe it’s the price point, maybe it’s the distinct flavor; i.e., smokiness that lends it this status as a spirit not to be compromised in a cocktail, but then we have to question why we are so concerned about being pure. If something works with something else, use it. Honor the sacrifices you make, sure, but make appropriate sacrifices. Nothing is so sophisticated that you can’t drink it with something else. A really good scotch opens up with tap water. That’s okay. First you have to understand that there are at least two types of cocktails. Push and pull. A push cocktail is a cocktail designed to push out the existing profile of a spirit, mask and defeat it. These are the types of drinks that gained popularity in the sixties and seventies and will forever be a part of competitive drinking and high school parties. Then there are the cocktails that pull certain flavors in by combining them with other flavors, these are the cocktails that embrace the base ingredient rather than try to hide it. And when people talk about craft cocktails, this is what they are referring to. 

Somehow the notion that things that taste delicious on their own should only be enjoyed on their own has become prevalent even and especially amongst bartenders. Why is this? Because no matter how the cocktail evolves, it is still seen as a vehicle for you to climb inside as you go for your drunken state. And in the final analysis, that’s what cocktails are (would we really make such a fuss over perfecting the Arnold Palmer or debate ad nauseam how much pulp orange juice should have?), but that doesn’t make them any less sophisticated than a good scotch or a good mezcal, alone or on the rocks. A good thing can always be better. More to the point though, a good thing can always be put to good use in the right hands. 
What is a cocktail? A mix breed, an abomination, there is no reason for it to exist except that somebody created it to improve his experience. No big deal, really. There is no such thing as sacrilege when it comes to booze. If you really want to get down to the nitty-gritty, making booze out of water in the first place would be the sacrilege. 

Mezcal, as scotch’s slightly more approachable sibling, is more apt to be mixed into a cocktail but it’s also relatively new in the Portland market so a lot of bartenders are just eager to do something new and exciting with it. A lot of mezcal cocktails are uninspired as a result. Namely the mezcal margarita takes a perfectly good drink and just, well, smokes it out.   

The rule with both spirits seems to be that a little bit goes a long way. A smoky aftertaste is sometimes just what you want. Too much of it and you’ll lament ever adding anything else to it in the first place. A smoke and a drink are so intricately tied together that if you imbibe in both, it’s almost impossible to give up one without – at least temporarily- easing up on the other. When I tried to give up smoking at the beginning of last year- right around the beginning of January as it happens- I spent a lot of time fussing with a concoction that tasted like a menthol cigarette. I gave up on quitting smoking before I ever made a concoction convincing enough to deliver nicotine to my nervous system but my first considered ingredient was mezcal- I got the smokiness part down at least. But I learned that you only want to use a little. 

With the exception of the Rob Roy- a Manhattan with scotch swapping out rye as the base and an orange peel standing in for a cherry as the garnish (orange flavor compliments scotch and mezcal exceedingly well for whatever reason), there are not many scotch cocktails of note that are heavy on the scotch. Probably the most exciting is the penicillin cocktail. This particular cocktail combines ginger, honey, lemon and scotch to a warming and soothing effect. Even the penicillin uses blended scotch-not notoriously peaty, with only a float of the smoky Islay scotch for good measure. Another (or the other) famous scotch cocktail, the Blood and Sand (an equal measured drink of orange juice, scotch, cherry heering and sweet vermouth) may just belong in the category of drinks that are famous for being not quite as awful as they look on paper.

So what’s the take home? Don’t listen to absolutists. There is no place for them in your drink. The reason for all the hoopla over subject matter as seemingly trivial as finding the newest and pleasantest way to get drunk, is because new things are happening; new ingredients are becoming available and new techniques are becoming known every day. Cocktails represent a last frontier for creative exploration -especially for those of us who don’t know how to put our degrees to any good use. But you have to be honest with yourself. You have to know what you like and be okay with admitting it. Obey your own intuition. Cocktails like the Stinger that call for a perfectly good cognac, then proceed to shake it up with crème de menthe are for the gaudy and obnoxiously rich. Ordering a stinger is the olden-day equivalent of using a hundred dollar bill to light your cigar. You kind of have to be a jerk or at least want to be a jerk to do it. That being said, it’s undeniably refreshing. Just as I’m sure lighting a cigar with a c-note is undeniably cathartic, provided you’ve had a sufficient amount of stingers before doing so. In short, do whatever you want. But remember before doing anything, self-doubt and frugality are your best friends. Bottoms up.     


Related Slideshow: 10 Innovative Ideas For A First Tinder Date

Looking to do something weird with someone you're attempting to swoon? Here are some unusual first date ideas. 

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Skidmore Bluffs

A classic first date idea, though not especially common at night, is having a picnic in the park. The Skidmore Bluffs are the ideal place for a nighttime feast: you’ve got an edgy industrial view, a hidden suburban environment for drinking carefully concealed (or not very carefully concealed) wine or beer, as well as a particularly radiant view of the sunset. For the picnic, try going French: buy a baguette (or vegan bread), goat cheese (or vegan cheese), and a bottle of imported red or white wine. Wine will fuel either a sentimental or an honest conversation, and you might get a real look at your potential partner very early on. Show up around sunset, preferably during the non-summer season because of the many added distractions (e.g. clowns with hula hoops). 

2206 N Skidmore Terrace

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Ground Kontrol

Who doesn’t want to sit back, play Mario kart and have a beer on a first date? Ground Kontrol is packed with 60 nostalgic video games, plenty of pinball machines, and even live DJs. There is something for everyone here: even if you don’t like video games, it’s still a catchy bar with a rare futuristic theme. This is a place recommended for adventurous daters who want an experience. Not that first dates aren’t always experiences. Also for those more frugal by nature: try Ground Kontrol on the 2nd Thursday or last Wednesday of the month when all games are free (5 pm to close). If you can correctly identify one of these two dates on the calendar, you should plan your date accordingly. 

511 NW Couch St. 

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Rimsky-Korsakoffee House

Probably the most absurd setting for a first date imaginable: the haunted Rimsky-Korsakoffee House is prone to both live piano as well as an upstairs bathroom with faux feet dangling out of the walls. Though located with much subtlety off to the side of East Burnside in an aged craftsman, the Rimsky-Korsakoffe House is open from 7 pm to midnight. These hours are absolutely ideal in terms of contributing to the ominous vibes.

The Rimsky-Korsakoffee house hosts a sizeable selection of delicious desserts and coffee drinks. Note: there is NO alcohol here. But if you are interested in a late night caffeine rush, your date may actually last longer (even if there isn't a second date). 

707 SE 12th Ave.

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Portland Aerial Tram

One of Portland’s most overlooked attractions, the Portland Aerial Tram might suffer from being a bit too romantic. Start by walking along the SW waterfront and for the price of a bus ticket (or literally just a bus ticket), you can ride the Portland Aerial Tram and get one of the most moving (literally) views of Portland. Also, make sure to bop around the fairly new, state of the art hospital before taking the aerial tram back down to the waterfront. The aerial tram is quick but it is effective: it is very likely that it’ll show you a side of Portland and maybe even your potential partner that you wouldn’t have otherwise witnessed. This one’s great for those with a childlike sense of wonder. 

3303 SW Bond Ave.

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Portland Japanese Garden

Even if your date goes sour, the Portland Japanese Garden guarantees you at least three solid Instagram photos. The Portland Japanese Garden occupies 5.5 acres and is widely considered to be one of the most authentic of its kind in the continental US. Be careful: the Portland Japanese Garden will also occupy your heart, and possibly the heart of your date. There is a strolling pond garden, a tea garden, and a sand and stone garden all within these grounds. The Portland Japanese Garden breeds a sense of exoticism, serenity, and yes – romance. Plus, when you’re done, you’re still in Washington Park! 

611 SW Kingston Ave.

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Helium Comedy Club

On most Tuesday nights, there is free standup involving some of the most noteworthy local comedians at the Helium Comedy Club off of SE Hawthorne. Drinks are especially cheap, comedians are expectedly ridiculous, and this is the perfect place to pick up inside jokes with any potential partner. In fact, comedians often crack jokes here about their own dating lives, many of which are rooted from the Internet. Suggestion: get dinner and talk first, then go to the show and get drinks. The Helium Comedy Club is a safe bet for a good date as laughter can produce endorphins, which could mean happiness. And truthfully, first dates are kind of funny; you might as well be more honest about it. 

1510 SE 9th Ave.

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Lone Fir Cemetery

It might seem a tad peculiar to want to experience a first date in a cemetery. But if you want a first date that you and your date will both remember, this is a logical option. Southeast Portland's Lone Fir Cemetery is not just any cemetery: it’s an antique that houses one of Portland’s largest concentrations of botanic gardens. Bring a coffee or a picnic basket and stroll through the graves before nesting on a bench or in an unoccupied area (e.g. unoccupied by a deceased person). One thing you can definitely count on here: some peace and quiet. Unlike at a noisy bar or club, conversation should be easy and accessible. 

SE 26th Ave.

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First Thursday

If you’re not so taken with the idea of a first date in a graveyard or a haunted house (even if it is October), you will probably enjoy the more traditional First Thursday. First Thursday combines wine, art, and music as part of a comprehensive grouping of art galleries all conveniently located near one another. First Thursday will familiarize you with local artists and the blend of art and alcohol could inspire abstract conversational topics that encourage deep conversation with your date. After all, you might as well get right into it.  

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OMSI After Dark

Do you remember field trips? Everybody loved those. A late night date at OMSI After Dark (a.k.a. the Portland natural science museum) is like going on a trip down memory lane – with booze in hand. Each month, there is an OMSI After Dark night with a novel theme and an exclusively 21+ crowd. You get to be the kid at the science museum without actually having to be around any kids. Also, when the science becomes too much, you can wander out into OMSI’s backyard and take in the tender view of the river. First kisses may ensue. And with a spot this romantic, the first kiss is unlikely to be the last. 

1945 SE Water Ave.

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Oregon Zoo

Sometimes the best dates are those that uncover some necessary nostalgia. The Oregon Zoo is a great bet for a first tinder date because you can be childish if you want to be (e.g. stuffing cotton candy into your mouth while mocking the less subtle movements of orangutans), distracted if you want to be; and also, romantic if you want to be. This first date will stand out because truthfully, how often does one go to the zoo without children or without being a child? Letting out your inner child can encourage a playful attitude that may eventually lead to more complex emotions. 

4001 SW Canyon Road


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