It’s summer, sort of. As we move from the braised meats and roasted root vegetables of winter to the BBQs and light salads that warmer weather demands, so too must our alcoholic choices change. I’ll leave summer beers to other experts on this blog who are better-equipped than I to assess the newest crop of Hefeweizens, and of course I can and will write at length about some of my favorite white and rosé wines for summer, but today I wanted to focus on cocktails. If, like David Sedaris’s family, you believe that “no amount of physical contact [can] match the healing powers of a well-made cocktail,” then you’re in good company. There are so many great variations on bright, crisp, refreshing cocktails, and these past few weeks I made it my mission to trawl through Portland’s well-regarded cocktail scene to try a few.
I was aided in this mission by my good friend Jacob Grier, who bartends at Carlyle and maintains a coffee- and cocktail-centric personal blog, Liquidity Preference. Friends are nice, but friends with connections to some of your city’s best bartenders are especially nice to have.
I started at Carlyle, which Willamette Week recently named “sexiest bar in town.” Most craft bartenders have a kind of latent hostility toward vodka-based cocktails and “fruit-bomb” cocktails, but in summer, judicious use of vodka and fruit can make a perfect concoction. Jake proved this to me by making good use of fresh Oregon berries in a delicious cocktail that he didn’t come up with a name for. Carlyle had introduced a new strawberry-rhubarb cobbler onto the dessert menu, and Jake used the leftover strawberry-rhubarb syrup in this drink. The recipe: In a tumbler, combine an egg white, 0.75 oz. of strawberry-rhubarb syrup (I think other fresh fruit syrups could work easily), 2 oz. of vodka, and 0.25 oz. of lime juice. Do a dry shake to foam up the egg whites; strain and serve up with an Oregon strawberry garnish. For all you locavores out there, modify with local ingredients as appropriate.
Jake also made my drinking companion a Cachaca-based sangria, but since I believe that combining high-proof spirits with red wine is the Devil’s handiwork, I won’t include the recipe here. OK, fine, fine. 3 strawberries, muddled + 2 oz. of Leblon Cachaca + 0.5 oz. lime juice + 0.25 rich simple syrup (2:1 ratio of sugar to water) + 1 oz. of good red wine = Pacific Northwest sangria.
Next up was 50 Plates, where bartender Lance Mayhew entertains and inebriates a grateful crowd. His first drink for me, the 50 Plates Cooler, is straight-up summer refreshment — 1 oz. Bombay Sapphire Gin + 1 oz. aperol + 3 oz. grapefruit juice, topped with tonic. This is the kind of cocktail that is so gulp-able that you might find yourself half in the bag if you don’t pay attention to how many you’ve had.
I then requested something more floral and less fruity, so he made me a champagne-based cocktail that was crisp, dry, and heady: 1 oz. St. Germain elderflower liquor + 2 dashes of orange bitters, shaken and topped with champagne. I think 50 Plates, with its American comfort-food focus, actually uses quite a bit of New Mexico’s Gruet sparkling wines, which, if you haven’t had them, are worth seeking.
I polled the bartending staff with this question: “What vodka should you request in a drink if you’re not a tool?” First answer? “Trick question. If you’re requesting a specific vodka in a drink, you are by definition a tool.” Second answer was more reasonable: “Monopolowa. It’s cheap, and in a blind taste test, none of those Ketel One-drinking bastards could tell the difference.” Wise words.
Next up (on a different night, concerned readers) was Ten01, which consistently ranks among Portland’s top restaurants/bars. Kelley Swenson is the bartender there, and he went in a bit of a different direction by making me a cocktail that featured tequila. I’ve always thought of tequila as a very un-cocktail-y spirit (except for margaritas, of course), because it’s so distinctive that it tends to drown out other flavors. Swenson’s drink, “Richard’s Return” (photo at the top of this post), incorporated dry vermouth, Campari, Cointreau, tequila, and a dash of Scotch. (Sorry, didn’t get the proportions on this one). That’s a brash group of spirits, but somehow it worked. The dash of Scotch gave it a bit of smoky depth, and the drink itself was unexpectedly subtle.
Before the Richard’s Return, Swenson started me off with a Gin Blossom, which, aside from recalling one of the 90s best/worst alternative bands, was incredible. It actually comes from Julie Reiner of the Clover Club in New York. Gin + martini bianco + apricot eau de vie + orange bitters = Summer evening on a Parisian terrace, or maybe just me sitting on a secondhand couch on my rickety front porch.
Jake and I rounded out that second night of cocktail “research” at Clyde Common, which has gotten a lot of praise of late for its inventive food and cocktail menus. It’s the kind of place where the tonic water is as homemade as the charcuterie plate. Bartender Neil Kopplin made what I considered one of the best drinks of that night, or any night: the Caipirinha Italiano. On my tattered bar coaster, I scribbled “Best! Ever! Win!”, so I’m pretty sure that this was a solid treat, despite me being a few drinks in already.
The specs: 1.5 oz. Cachaca + 0.75 oz. Aperol + 0.5 fresh lime juice + 0.25 simple syrup + dash of orange bitters. Shake, strain, and serve on the rocks. …But wait! Don’t forget to garnish the glass with some flamed orange zest. Since this involves fire, I recommend leaving it to the professionals. It did, however, add a special something to the drink.
This was a fun post to research, I won’t lie. There are a lot of great craft bartenders out there doing inventive reinterpretations of classic cocktails, and they’re worth seeking out in your city – perhaps my blogmates can chime in with some D.C.-based suggestions.
Readers, what are your favorite summer cocktails?