It’s all about balance. A bartender should know this. One too many bitters and the drink takes a turn for the worse. Three olives for a garnish is fine, but any more than that spells disaster. And the sugar—it shouldn’t hit you over the head like a packet of Kool-Aid. Truth is, the best bartenders (see our Bartenders of the Year are models of restraint. They pour their whiskey and their bitters and their vermouth with a deft hand. And they see each cocktail as a creation that can uplift, transport and delight.
What you’re drinking: A Hot & Sour
Bartender Lucy Brennan sees more national print about her East Side bar than does any other drink jockey in town. That’s because in just a few years she’s transformed it into a place where you’re simply a square if you opt for a vodka-cran instead of the avocado daiquiri. Meaning, this is not your father’s timeless bar. But when the legion of connoisseur customers here finally retires, it most certainly will be. (820 N Russell St, 503-460-0820)
What you’re drinking: An Uptown manhattan
It’s a small West Coast chain restaurant. And once you step inside, that becomes entirely, sometimes crushingly, apparent. Which is why it’s utterly surprising that the cocktails are so good, especially when bar manager Bob Brunner has poured them. Indeed, every drink on the menu has been sharply refined by Brunner, each representing a scientifically researched, expertly rendered twist on a classic. No small feat in the face of such cookie-cutter surroundings, but one that makes Paragon stand out from the corporate pack. (1309 NW Hoyt St, 503-833-5060)
What you’re drinking: A Moscow Mule
Once seated in this dark red den, if you see a drink on the cocktail menu that involves “sweet onion, cracked pepper gin,” do not be afraid. Go with it. It’s called the Obscene; it includes olive juice and blue-cheese stuffed olives; and it’s delicious. (That Brigitte Bardot movie playing on the screen behind the curvy bar is pretty delicious, too.) Don’t shy away from the BLT, either—roma tomato vodka, muddled basil, lime juice and bacon salt actually do go together, and the combination constitutes the best liquid dinner around. In fact, there may well be no other mad mixologists in town who can pull off the sweet and savory cocktail better than those at Gilt. Part lab, part swanky James Bond hideaway, this bar has drinks that challenge every dull manhattan and cosmo in the city.
(306 NW Broadway, 503-222-4458)
What you’re drinking: A Truth Teller
A cocktail is 90 percent about the main liquor: the artisanal gin, the dark rum, whatever. But that last 10 percent—the bitters, the simple syrup, the lemon twist, the rinse—is what really matters. There are few bartenders in town who understand this as well as those behind the swank, circular bar at Ten 01. Potent drops of Fernet Branca, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and bitters move rye whiskey into the sublime realm of lovely, subtle bitterness with a hint of sugar at the end. In other words: sugar, spice and everything nice. (1001 NW Couch St, 503-226-3463)