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Ask A Bartender: Why Are Craft Cocktails So Big In Portland?

Monday, August 31, 2015


The Naked and Famous. Just one of many follow- ups to The Last Word.

The Last Word cocktail probably holds the title for most ironically named cocktail on the planet. Since its reintroduction into the world of craft cocktail bars – and it is arguably one of the more important cocktails whose rediscovery helped to usher craft cocktails back from the dark ages- thanks in large part to Murray Stenson during his tenure at the Zig Zag café in Seattle, the recipe has been deconstructed and reconstructed time and time again. 

Cocktails are like Legos in that way (which may explain the profession’s attraction to perpetual adolescents, which may in turn solve the question: why are craft cocktails so big in Portland?), once you understand what each piece is for, you can deviate from the blueprint ever so slightly at first and become more and more audacious as you gain experience. 

There is something liberating about working with limitations. Without them, you simply have too many options to produce anything of worth out of it. In the case of mixology in general, it is having a set amount of ingredients to draw from and a convention and formula based on some of the cocktails that predate us. In the case of mimicking a drink like The Last Word, it’s having a concrete ratio that you must follow – in this case four ingredients in equal parts, one of them being a sour, one of them being a sweet liqueur, then an herbal liqueur and a strong base liquor (respectively, lime, maraschino, green chartreuse, and gin). What happens when you have all of these ingredients and then some, until you run completely out of gin? Let’s also say that it’s Saturday night and everybody at the bar is demanding a cocktail made within this mold. This represents a simple problem (though an incredibly unlikely one) and a fun problem to solve. This is where the mixology component of being a bartender takes place. 

It’s not enough to substitute gin for another strong liquor such as, whiskey. Vodka might be passable, but people that like drinks with the complexity and depth of the Last Word would be likely to notice the absence of juniper. If you sub out the gin for something like whiskey, you’ll have to consider the other ingredients as well. Gin and lime go together in some cocktails (usually when there is ginger involved) but not many. The other sour, lemon, plays off of the brown liquor much better. This may have been what was going through the mind of New York based bartender, Phil Ward when he replaced the gin with rye whiskey, and the lime juice with lemon juice to create the most famous rendition of the Last Word, the Final Ward. Both of the cocktails work in part because gin and whiskey, for all their differences, both pair exceedingly well with green chartreuse and maraschino liqueur. 

Try a different base, mezcal for instance, and you’ll have to do some more rearranging. Mezcal is a relatively new spirit to our part of the world. Although technically tequila is a mezcal, the broader category of mezcal liquor is famous for its smoky notes (the agave plant is typically roasted and smoldered in a hole in the earth to give it that characteristic) and cannot be so easily subbed in for tequila. Yellow chartreuse, as green chartreuses, milder, less intense cousin will not cancel out the mezcal’s smokiness. Lime juice still works as well with mezcal as it does for gin so that is okay. Cherry liqueur is not as good with mezcals but orange and mezcal are a match made in heaven. So it would make sense to sub out maraschino liquor for an equally mild and sweet orange liqueur like aperol. And there you have the Naked and Famous, an equal parts cocktail fitting the blueprint of the Last Word while deviating from every single ingredient. The formula is the same, the result is only slightly reminiscent. Both versions of the original are decent, honest deviations of the original formula. 

There are more cocktails that pay homage to the original Last Word, some more notable than others. The formula, any time-tested formula, is a bartender’s friend, though. It prevents us from wandering into the wilderness where the obscure and disgusting lurk around every bend. It helps us to not waste our time and our money (and our costumer’s time and money). And it still allows us to be creative, to work with what we have to good effect. At this time in human history, everything we do plays off of something else. Cocktails are no different. 

This is especially important to remember now when new ingredients are being made and new liquors are being put on the market every day. Maybe the biggest game-changing introduction to the bartending world is rapid infusion. I’ll go into this more in depth in a future article, but rapid infusion involves a whipped cream canister, nitrous oxide, a base liquor and whatever else you can imagine that would fit into said whipped cream canister, anything from habanero peppers to a half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The result is a liquid that takes on the taste of the solid and a solid that takes on the liquid. People have been infusing for centuries but a process that once took us weeks now takes minutes. Our ingredients to work with keep getting bigger and bigger. It can be quite overwhelming. It’s important to remember what things work and to question why they work. 

This process elevates mixology to, if not an art, a delicate craft. This is why Portland with its’ DIY obsession, is one of the great cocktail meccas. If you are a practitioner, though, bear in mind that it’s not enough to simply make changes to make something unique. Don’t just “put a bird on it”. You have to have a legitimate reason for doing so. Running out of gin is certainly one of them. However, if you’re doing the liquor order for a place that runs out of gin on a Saturday night, you should probably consider changing professions as well. 


Related Slideshow: 10 Great Mexican Food Spots in Portland

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Los Gorditos

Recent Californians, here’s looking at you: if you need a quick burrito fix, Los Gorditos is your go-to. The menu is nearly half meat and half vegetarian/vegan and one of the restaurant’s high points is their homemade orange salsa (which is so good that they actually market the stuff in take-home bottles for $5). Be warned: if you’re from San Diego and a recent transplant, you may enter a few unintended high school reunions. Just remember: this is because this place really is legit. Side-note: if you can, stick to the locations on the East side of the river, they are less expensive for mysterious reasons.  

1212 SE Division St, Portland, OR 97202

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Porque No?

What many Californians may label as “hipster Mexican” in contrast with the hole-in-the-wall linguistically Spanish taquerias that dominated their lives down south, Porque No? is still a keeper. Housed in an adorable building reminiscent of a Basque adobe, Porque No? offers truly flavorful street tacos and peculiar margarita blends. You won’t find crunchy tacos or even noteworthy burritos here, but if you’re trying to go on a cute first date, this is an authentically Portland starting point.

4635 SE Hawthorne Blvd, Portland, OR 97215

(Photo by: theportlandtaco.com)

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Cha Cha Cha

In Portland, everybody loves comfort food served in a vintage craftsman. Cha Cha Cha is a great option for those with a famished family on a Sunday afternoon. Cha Cha Cha has some of the best taquitos in town and also carries tasty margaritas. Again, burritos are not a huge draw here so stick with other items.

1605 SE Bybee Blvd, Portland, OR 97202

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Nuestra Cocina

Nuestra Cocina is Portland’s answer for those who prefer to see Mexican food as Mexican cuisine. Situated strategically in fine dining-rich SE Division, Nuestra Cocina makes its own handmade tortillas and was conceived by its owners in the “old peasant style,” creatively drawing on Mexican history. This place is great for people looking at performance as well as taste. 

2981 NE Alberta St, Portland, OR

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Stella Taco

Similar to the “hipster Mexican” aesthetic of Porque No?, Stella Taco is adorable inside and out. The food is kitschy but creative: order the quesadillas and it will look like you received a quesadilla/taco hybrid. This is especially gratifying if you were having issues choosing between those two subcategories of Mexican food to begin with. Again, the burritos are surprisingly not notable here, but the beer selection is solid and when you’re done, you’re free to roam Alberta. 

2981 NE Alberta St, Portland, OR

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Also a possible option if you are looking for something more aligned with fine dining, Autentica incorporates mostly locally sourced products into its menu. The taste here is rich and the vibe is classy: remember, this is a place that is more likely to serve you a glass of wine over a margarita. Still, if Nuestra Cocina is too busy, this is a suggestable backup. Note: you may still need a reservation. This is no burrito joint. 

5507 NE 30th Ave. Portland, OR 97211

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Mi Mero Mole

For the yuppie crowd (who are potentially situated in NW Portland already), stop by Mi Mero Mole for street food and lively cocktails during happy hour or after work. However, Mi Mero Mole also has some incredible daily specials: such as the burrito, beer, and a shot combo. Also, if you crave a burger with a hot green pepper in it, you're in for a treat.

32 NW 5th Ave, Portland, OR 97209

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La Cocina Restaurant

Looking for taquitos with potato filling? Tempting vegetarian tamales? La Cocina Restaurant has one of the most imaginative Mexican-inspired menus in Portland. The rice is even served in a pyramid. La Cocina is great for those looking for comfort food and also for those who aren't even in the mood for Mexican: there’s a noteworthy quinoa salad with tofu. 

3939 NE Martin Luther King Blvd Portland, OR 97212

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Tienda Santa Cruz

Tienda Santa Cruz is an affordable, homey, and nostalgic home base for all burrito-hungry southern Californians. The place is anchored by a landscape mural that is reminiscent of San Francisco’s the Mission District, and there is limited seating. To put things in perspective: you might actually encounter the Spanish language within these walls. 

8630 N Lombard St, Portland, OR 97203

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Mayas Taqueria

Perhaps less reminiscent of southern California and more likeminded with the taquerias from the bay area (namely San Francisco), Mayas is still a solid option if you’re traipsing through downtown and need some guacamole. Though you might think of the burrito building process here as a more honest interpretation of Chipotle, the restaurant has flowery tables outside with colorful umbrellas and nice people-watching views. Mayas' true claim to fame, however, is its horchata. If you don’t even like horchata, you’ll want to try theirs. You just might end up ordering it on your own sometime. 

1000 SW Morrison St, Portland, OR 97205


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