Cocktail of the Week: “Things Done Changed,” The Whey Bar, Portland, OR, Plus Other Portland Cocktail Notes
To close out the Portland reports on this Mardi Gras Tuesday, let’s celebrate with an exceptional riff on the classic Pisco Sour courtesy of the holdover room known as The Whey Bar, at NE Portland’s red hot Argentine-Portland inspired cuisine restaurant, Ox.
The “Things Done Changed” is a force, a glowing sunshine hue with a perfect frothy egg white shaken consistency. The key is the exchange between the smoked lemon and jalapenos with the Pisco, leading to a sensation akin to umami. I noticed some bacon on the palate, but also papaya salsa and bountiful fresh in season citrus without an ounce of bitterness. Unfortunately, the rest of the cocktails didn’t have the same fully locked-in balance or depth at Whey. I was underwhelmed by the “Shipwreck” with Bourbon, Rum, lime, and mint with a dash of Angostura Bitters, and the “Devil in a New Dress” with Tequila, Red Pepper, Combier Orange, Lime, and Mezcal, where the sugary orange notes commanded the proceedings, and more spice and smoke would have elevated everything much higher.
The standard-bearer of the Portland cocktail scene continues to by Clyde Common, anchored by one of the country’s definitive cocktails, the Barrel-Aged Negroni. It’s deservedly a legend, made poetic by fervent admirers such as yours truly. Beefeater Gin, Sweet Vermouth, and Campari, the classic holy trinity, are aged two months in Tuthilltown Whiskey barrels, then shaken with ice, served up in a coupe, and finished by an orange peel garnish. Somehow those two months of aging add vanilla and squeeze out the rosewater notes of Campari with the Juniper in the Gin, sharpening its focus while softening the edges, and together it soars every time.
Inexplicably, the Negroni was out one night. Hence, I was forced to sample a Boulevardier aged in the same manner, essentially the same drink with Bourbon swapped for the Gin. It’s enjoyable, but still just not the same. The Bourbon doesn’t click in harmony with the other elements as much.
After numerous visits to Clyde Common, itself also a terrific restaurant attached to the über-hip Ace Hotel, my most recent stop was the first time with Jeffrey Morgenthaler tending the bar. Morgenthaler is the mind behind Clyde Common’s game-changing cocktails and one of the country’s leading “mixologists,” a pioneer for championing barrel aged, bottled, and carbonated cocktails. None of the other cocktails reached the Negroni’s lofty heights, though a version of a Pisco Sour with Mezcal called “I Punched You in the Nut” was close. I asked about the name’s history. Fortunately, it’s only the drink’s name, not what is served as a garnish with it.Kask, the tiny bar around the corner from big brother destination restaurant Grüner continues to rival Clyde Common for top honors in the city. Last spring I raved about Tommy Klus’ terrific creations, especially the “Heaven’s Kickback” and the “Bootstrap Buck.” The classic crystalware and consummate service from waitresses and bartenders makes Kask a bar that should be studied be aspiring nightlife entrepreneurs. It’s a professional operation, so refreshing with its refined, but approachable style. This time around, the knockouts were actually off the menu. The first round was a clunker, everything with either too much Aperol or the “Heaven’s Kickback” that for some reason veered too far towards its celery bitters and didn’t provide enough of the floral notes that make St. Germain such a great mixer.
With only “Mezcal” as the requirement, the bartenders worked wonders with a cocktail of the smoky agave spirit, triumphant with anise and the bitter herbal notes of Amaro. Call it a Mezcal Negroni or whatever, it clicked. Best was a zesty Rum based number, with a touch of Aperol for brightness, then given the seductive notes of ginger from a ginger syrup, and finished with a “spicy” tincture. You don’t see Rum often with habanero type tinctures, but now you should. It’s a warrior of a drink, so brave and courageous. It’s daring and pulls it off without a hitch.
Vitaly Paley brought in Brandon Wise from the venerable Beaker & Flask to run the cocktail program at his new ambitious urban- contemporary restaurant, Imperial, in the Downtown Portland Hotel Imperial. It’s an intriguing cocktail list, with a Vieux Carré on draft, and the “Sleight of Hand” mixing Pisco with Lillet Rosé, Pamplemousse, and a flamed Negroni mist. Unfortunately the “Darjeeling Limited” didn’t inspire, out of balance with too much sugar hiding the Rye and tamarind in the egg white fortified drink. Unlike Kask’s “Heaven’s Kickback,” you would have no clue celery bitters were involved in this almost dessert-sweet offering. But, I’m keeping hope. Wise knows his craft cocktails and his team will follow his lead. If only they would get rid of the plasma televisions at the bar to be a real cocktail destination instead of a spot to watch the Blazers.
Let’s also again point out the terrific cocktail program at the exceptionally innovative Aviary, including the “Brix Layer,” a fruitier-Willamette Valley inspired Manhattan with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, house sour, cherry, Angostura Bitters, and a Cabernet Sauvignon float, and the “One Night in Bangkok” teaming Monopolowa Vodka with Kafir lime leaves, lemongrass, and lime.
Next time I’ll have to try some of the new cocktail leaders, including Woodsman Tavern and Bent Brick. In the meantime, I’ll have another “Things Done Changed” then a Barrel Aged Negroni please.