Portland Cocktail Week in Review
Our glasses empty, our livers bruised, we soldier on
The things we do for you readers! It was a long weekend of
boozing and schmoozing hard work covering Portland Cocktail Week, but I return triumphantly to distill (couldn’t help myself!) the best the week had to offer. However, my liver is going to need a vacation. Nothing stronger than Fresca for at least a fortnight.
Friday and Saturday was all about seminars, with attending bartenders filling up make-shift classrooms in the courtyard of the Jupiter Hotel and the basement of the Leftbank Annex. The classes offered the opportunity for working publicans to keep up on the latest innovations in the bartending world, while also emphasizing that it never hurts to catch up on the basics.
Elayne Duke, brand ambassador for Diageo, a leader in the spirits business, conducted a session focusing on the history of drinking rituals from around the world. While she covered the ancient traditions of toasting ranging from the Egyptians (to honor the dead), Romans (boozed up before battle) and Greeks (the gods apparently only paid attention during happy hour). I jotted down a few cocktail party-worthy tidbits for you to slip into conversation.
• Fernet (a bitter digestive) owns 75 percent of of the world’s saffron crop. Because of this Fernet actually controls the market price.
• San Francisco consumes 50 percent of Fernet in the world. It was also the only spirit legal during prohibition, as it was marketed as medicine.
• Argentina’s national drink? Fernet and Coke
• Canada consumes over 300,000 Bloody Caesars a year.
• Over 80,000 Pimms Cups are sold during the Wimbledon tournament each year.
The endless buffet-line of shots became an endless blur, but at least one taste left a serious impression on my mind; the bourbon pickle back. While Russians are known to mix a little pickle juice into their vodka shots, it appears our cocktail brethren on the East Coast have taken on the custom of chasing shots of bourbon with the brine at the bottom of the gherkin jars. Since I’m a fearless reporter who will live 10 lifetimes, I downed the neon green concoction to find…it kind of works. The first wave of salt and pickle brine hitting the tongue is off-putting, until you realize the burn of the bourbon vanished without a trace. The aftertaste isn’t even half bad. I probably won’t be repeating this stunt anytime soon, but it’s an experience worth trying.
Angus Winchester, founder of Alconomics, took a look at trends in the world of drink-making with a seminar entitled Global Bartrending. One of the most intriguing things I picked up during the hour was the introduction of the Perlini Cocktail Carbonating System. Think of it as a cocktail shaker on steroids, a pressurized system that increases aroma without the risk of diluting the cocktail.
Winchester also covered the cocktail as culinary inspiration, referring specifically to The Aviary in Chicago. All the bartenders on staff are former chefs, and the cocktail menu is replaced with a flavor-progression tasting menu. But their main creation of note is the "Porthole," a tea kettle-inspired system that locks multiple flavors and textures into a glass vessel of whiskey and vermouth. As the mixture ferments over a meal, the drink becomes a constantly evolving experience.
Representatives of Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails (LUPEC) held a seminar Saturday morning entitled Ladies Behind Bars, which examined the complicated history of female bar owners and bartenders, from Medieval England through Prohibition, and the social changes that evolved along the way. More thought-provoking fodder:
• By 1690, over half of the 45 issue liquor licenses in the city of Boston were owned by women.
• The Bunch of Grapes Tavern, owned by Rebecca Holmes, would become the central gathering point for revolutionary thought, and the birthplace of the Sons of Liberty.
• Women continued struggling to have the right to not only tend bar, but operate them as owners as late as the 1970s.
Misty Kalfoken of Drink in Boston treated us to an in-depth tutorial on one of the more misunderstood spirits, Mezcal. Guess what? It’s no longer the hangover nightmare of college freshman everywhere, and there’s nary a worm in sight. The rich history of spirit creation passed on from communities throughout Oaxaca, Mexico would make any micro-distiller’s heart melt. A recent agreement made with Gemini Wine & Spirits has brought Mezcal down to more wallet-friendly prices. For the cautious yet adventurous tequilla aficionado, try Tobala brand. Sweet, mango and cinnamon notes help cut through the heavy smoke flavor produced by the Mezcal . It’s a good starting point.
The much talked about Robots Vs. Humans bartender battle was held in a makeshift tent in the courtyard of the Jupiter Hotel on Saturday night. The challenge featured three mixed drinks from Cosmobot Drinkbot, Evil Mad Science, and Chasis: the Drink Serving Robot. These were countered by three specialty cocktails prepared by flesh-and-blood folks; Matt Mount, Alise Moffat, and Evan Kinkel of House Spirits Distiller, and Brooklyn-based Hal Wolin. For those preparing for the coming of our robotic overlords, you can breathe a sigh of relief. The human race continues to dominate the cocktail-making world, though it was still fun to see a dry-ice laden cocktail created by a rocket-shaped robot.
However, the unquestionable highlight of the weekend was the inaugural Portland Speed Rack—one can’t deny that Cocktail Week organizers really went out with a bang this time around.
What is Speed Rack you ask? It’s a pedal-to-the-metal battle royale of speed drink-making featuring the best female bartenders from the Pacific Northwest (and one New Orleans competitor). The competition is the brainchild of Ivy Mix and Lynnette Marrero of LUPEC New York, who wanted to find a fun way to celebrate not only the best barmaids in the country, but also raise money for breast cancer research.
After countless speed trials, the top eight fastest lady bartenders were paired off in a four semi-final tournament format. Each head to head bout saw both bartenders pumping out four cocktails hand picked by the all-star judges panel of Audrey Saunders (Pegu Club, NY), Misty Kalkofen (Drink, Boston), Charlotte Voisey (brand ambassador, William Grant and Sons) and Portland’s-own diva of drag, Poison Waters. While speed was the key, so was consistency, with judges giving time-based penalties for drinks deemed too warm, unbalanced or outright disgusting.
At the end of it all, it was a Cascadia Cup: Cocktail Edition as Portland’s Lacy Hawkins, who tends bar at the Courtyard Marriott, went one on one with Seattle’s Melissa "Missy" Cross. With lighting speed, the two pumped out a mojito, martini, Clover Club and Agave-style Old Fashioned with a raucous crowd cheering them on. When it was all said and done however, our neighbor to the north took the prize with Missy Cross claiming victory. The grand prize for the event is a free trip to New York sponsored by St. Germaine, where Cross will go on to compete in the Speed Rack Nationals in May.
In true Portland fashion, event organizers finished things off by taking several bartenders for karaoke and strippers at Devil’s Point for a final blow-out. We know how to keep it classy.