5 Questions With Portland Penny Diner Barman Brandon Wise
The veteran Portland bartender continues his streak of winning cocktail programs with a new focus on fountain drinks and DIY concoctions.
After gaining a solid following behind the bars at Beaker & Flask and Irving Street Kitchen, Brandon Wise has returned to the West Side to spearhead the cocktail programs at Vitaly Paley's SW Broadway Imperial Restaurant and the just-debuted Portland Penny Diner next door.
We caught up with Wise days after the debut of his soda fountain-inspired cocktail list at the Portland Penny to chat about how he researched diner drink history, his favorite winter cocktails, and more.
1. How has crafting the drink menu at PPD been different than your previous bars?
Creating re-imagined fountain drinks for Penny Diner is the bartender's version of being a kid in a candy store, and the recipe testing phase was by far the most fun I've had behind a bar. It took a lot of hours of research but in the end, tasting all those milkshakes and egg creams was anything but a tough day at the office. We have a really amazing bar staff that all contributed to this menu and our secret weapon Tony Guardian makes some of the most incredible housemade syrups I've ever tasted.
2. Tell us a bit about the Spoon Cocktails and the flavors of those housemade tinctures.
Spoon Drinks are simple a chance to create your own cocktail. What defines a cocktail? Spirit, sugar, bitters, water. When a guest orders a Spoon Drink at the Diner, they pick a base spirit (anything we carry), served on the rocks with a demitasse spoon in the glass. We have a wide selection of different bitters flavors and tinctures to choose from, as well as a few different sugars. We leave it to the imbiber to mix and match flavors, like ginger/coriander/lime bitters with gin, or chocolate/mole/hibiscus rose with tequila. The idea of having an interactive experience is what I was going for, and so far people are really into it. It's kind of a 'choose your own adventure' cocktail experience.
3. How did you do your research for the historical side of your cocktails?
The first thing I reached for when doing research was Darcy O'Neil's book, Fix the Pumps, which was my guiding light in the Penny Diner concept. It's a comprehensive anthology of soda fountain culture, technique, and some amazing recipes. From there I found some old pharmaceutical journals, newspaper articles, and looked to what Russell Davis has put together at Ice Cream Bar in San Francisco. I'd also been hearing stories about soda fountains my whole life from my mother, who worked at one in Michigan when she was younger. I reached out to her and my uncle John, who also worked at a soda fountain when he was a kid, for stories and recipes to get a feeling for what people actually were ordering back then. That's got to be one of the most rewarding things about this project, that it's truly personal and I was able to include an element of my own family history.
4. What are your favorite kind of cocktails to serve (and drink) in the winter?
I like rich, spiritous cocktails on chilly days. I have a cocktail on tap called New Money, a bourbon-based Manhattan variation with a house smoked hickory vermouth and amaro served over a giant hand-carved chunk of ice. It was created for Imperial and is far and away our most popular drink there, and absolutely my style. It's got a comforting quality that warms you up despite the cold and the rain. I also took a good deal of care with regard to hot drinks, which we have on the menu as well. The Fifty-one (a slang term soda jerks used for Hot Chocolate) is a personal favorite with chartreuse, genever, and steamed hot chocolate made to order.
5. Portland Penny Diner is obviously participating in the celebration of non-alcoholic drinks. How did you craft sodas that are as complex as cocktails?
Making drinks that everyone can enjoy is the basis of what I've tried to capture with our fountain program. Taking my own childhood stories, the innumerable Chocolate Sodas and Boston Coolers I had growing up, and turn it into a place everyone can enjoy...it's beyond words how gratifying it is. We have such a diverse crowd downtown, especially now during holiday shopping season, so we get everything from the business crowd and foodies to kids and families. Just watching someone's reaction as they sip on our Broadway Joe (a strawberry and cream fountain drink), that pure and simple joy, is a pretty amazing experience.