The city of Portland, straddling the Willamette River in the Pacific Northwest, is not a bad place to be a drinker. Around 70 breweries are located here, more than any other city in the world. About a dozen distilleries call ‘Stumptown’ home, with a similar amount of urban wineries. The food culture complements the drinking scene, with award-winning restaurants, 600 food trucks, and an almost religious belief by Portlanders in enjoying local products and the farm-to-table philosophy.
There are whisky and cocktail bars in almost every neighborhood, and a healthy respect for pairing good whisky with local craft beer (the two major food groups in the city). Add to this a walkable, vibrant downtown with efficient public transportation, and two days of hedonistic ramblings are easily filled.
Many of the bars don’t open until late afternoon, so take a distillery tour earlier in the day or pay a visit to a liquor store. Oregon is a control state, so all spirits are sold through state-controlled stores. The prices are set by the state, but the retailers are private, independent contractors. Retailers with an interest in whisky offer a nice variety, including their own private label single barrels. Browse a store’s selection in advance by visiting the Oregon Liquor Control Board’s website, oregonliquorsearch.com, which includes a reasonably-current list of the spirits carried by the individual stores. (See sidebar for a few suggested stores.)
There is an increasing multitude of whisky bars in the city, but the best are overseen by passionate owners and spiritual curators, and this is the journey to embark upon. Begin downtown, where a plethora of bars offers extensive whisky selections, a myriad of local beers, and beautifully crafted whisky cocktails. Multnomah Whiskey Library is a mecca for the serious whisky explorer. Over 950 whiskies and 600 other smartly-curated spirits are displayed. Servers arrive at your seat with carts replete with the fixings for an expertly made Old-Fashioned and the knowledge to steer you toward the perfect dram. Perhaps begin with a whisky cocktail, then settle back and explore the Library’s selection from around the globe. The lines can be long to gain entrance, but Monday evenings don’t require a reservation and arriving close to opening time early and mid-week should get you a table with less of a wait. There’s always the Library’s downstairs Green Room, a sophisticated cocktail bar where guests can contemplate the Library experience over a cocktail.
Multnomah Whiskey Library is in the West End of downtown Portland, a neighborhood of innovative bars and restaurants and live music. Three recommended hotels are in the heart of this bustling, late-night destination. The Ace Hotel is home to Clyde Common, a modern European-style tavern with communal tables and a well-appointed cocktail bar overseen by Jeffrey Morgenthaler. Clyde Common leans toward American whiskey, around 150 of them, cross-categorized by distillery and style. “Customers can have an interesting experience with a vertical tasting by distillery or a horizontal tasting by category,” says Morgenthaler.
A few blocks away is McMenamin’s Crystal Hotel. It’s across the street from McMenamin’s Crystal Ballroom and the rooms have rock ‘n’ roll themes influenced by the live music venue. Like all the McMenamin’s hotel properties, there are one or more eclectic bars tucked into corners and hidden in basements. The McMenamin’s empire includes close to 100 brewpubs, historic hotels, distilleries, breweries, wineries, and movie theaters. Their distilleries are just outside Portland. There’s Edgefield distillery in Troutdale and Cornelius Pass Roadhouse in Hillsboro. Other craft whiskey distillers that call Hillsboro home are Big Bottom and Tualatin Valley Distilling (they share a tasting room).
Across from the Crystal Hotel is the Pearl District, a neighborhood of upscale shops and bars that rose from the ashes of industrial Portland over the past 30 years. It has some fine brewpubs, a stellar cocktail bar (the Teardrop Cocktail Lounge), and an unassuming whisky bar, Paragon. Bob Brunner is the beverage director, and whisky comprises nearly half of the bar’s 323 spirits. “It’s not how many whiskies you carry,” explains Brunner, “it’s how well-chosen your selections are. This is what makes guests excited about their tasting experiences.” Your whisky experience can be elevated by his quality interpretation of classic whisky cocktails.
Take a ten-minute walk into Northwest Portland and you’ll be transported to the Bluegrass State via the Pope House Bourbon Lounge. They serve southern cuisine and over 150 bourbons and ryes. The friendly staff knows their American whiskeys and the Pope House specializes in limited-edition bottlings.
Not far from the Pope House is Bull Run Distilling Company. They offer a variety of bourbon and other whiskey; their single malt will be released soon. Another craft distillery, Clear Creek, is a five-minute walk from Bull Run. They specialize in fruit brandies, but once or twice a year McCarthy’s Oregon single malt is released in very limited quantities.
Downtown Portland has several whiskey bars, all within walking distance of the Paramount Hotel in the heart of the city. These bars are within walking distance of the Mark Spencer Hotel and the Ace and Crystal hotels, too. The Swine Bar is in the Paramount Hotel and offers rare American whiskeys. Close to 300 whiskeys await the drinker at the Irish pub, Paddy’s, just a few blocks away. Raven & Rose is close by, serving well-above-average classic British and Irish-inspired farmhouse food in the historic Ladd Carriage House. The Rookery Bar, upstairs, pours some of the best cocktails in the city, many of them from their collection of private single barrels. Dave Shenaut, who oversees the bar program, prices his hard-to-find whiskies to sell. “We leave these whiskies off our printed menu, which has around 100 whiskies,” Shenaut says. “This allows our bartenders to hand-sell these bottles to people looking to engage in conversation, and our customers are pleased with the value.”
Portland’s Lower East Side Industrial District is home to urban distilleries, brewpubs, and bars. Distillery Row is in the thick of it, with eight distilleries producing a plethora of spirits; four are currently producing whiskey, most have tasting rooms and tours. Eastside Distilling offers a variety of bourbons and other whiskeys. House Spirits bottles Westward Oregon straight malt. New Deal sells their limited-edition whiskeys in their tasting room. Next door, Vinn Distillers distills a rice-based whiskey. Further south, Stone Barn is focusing on 100 percent rye whiskeys.
Scattered among the neighborhood’s produce warehouses is a handful of whisky bars that take whisky and beer pairings to another level. The Produce Row Café was the first bar in Portland to seriously pair different categories of whisky with specific beer styles. The Bit House Saloon has a Boilermaker menu, outstanding cocktails, sherry on tap, and innovative American cuisine. There are around 250 whiskeys, mostly American, and over 20 single and private-barrel bourbons and ryes. Bar manager Jesse Card put the program together. “I like that we have a large selection of whiskies priced $8-12 a pour,” says Jesse.
Affordability was the key when the owners of the Loyal Legion Pub, a few blocks from Bit House, decided to add whisky to the menu and appointed Tommy Klus as their whisky consultant. He put together a program that focuses primarily on regional single malt scotch, along with a healthy dose of American, Irish, and Japanese whiskies, around 130 bottles. Most drams cost between $6 and $20, with some one-ounce pours as low as $3. This contemporary pub also offers Oregon beers exclusively, up to 99 of them.
Head to North Portland for the next bunch of whisky bars. The much-gentrified Mississippi Avenue has its share of Portland hipsters and soaring rents, but it’s also home to eclectic shops and restaurants. It’s a great street to walk, explore, and experience a slice of Portlandia. The owner of Sidecar 11, John Cooper, is passionate about collecting and sharing whiskey with his customers. Sidecar has over 400 on offer, with a focus on bourbons and ryes. “The key to a good whiskey bar is continuous education for my staff,” explains John. “They in turn bring the golden liquid alive with stories and the taste. We have flights, special bottle openings, guest speakers, a whiskey club…all designed to have enough information for the whiskey connoisseur, but not so much to overwhelm the whiskey enthusiast.”
Interurban, a few blocks north on Mississippi, has a solid selection of American whiskey and craft beer. Just down the street, Stormbreaker Brewing pairs beers with local and world whiskies, as does The Old Gold, a neighborhood pub a few minutes away. The Old Gold’s sister bar, Paydirt, in Northeast Portland, has over 250 whiskies, with an emphasis on affordable American whiskey.
Artisanal pizza and 300 mostly rare whiskies? Welcome to Pinky’s. The pizza is eclectic and tasty. The backbar is lined with gems of bourbon, rye, Scotch, and Japanese whiskies. The owner will not carry overpriced novelty whiskies or those from non-distiller producers, concentrating on whiskies that build a reputation around quality, value, and transparency.
Some say that the best whisky bar is in Oregon City, down the Willamette River from Portland. Mick and Tammy Secor have recreated that rare beast: a Scottish Highland pub. Mick makes his own haggis and has gathered over 1,000 bottles of whisky, mostly Scotch single malts. There are lots of old and rare Islay whiskies and a diverse selection from the rest of Scotland and from around the world. Visiting Portland without an excursion to the Highland Stillhouse would not be a whisky trip.
Bars & Restaurants
Bit House Saloon 727 SE Grand Ave.; 503-954-3913; bithousesaloon.com
Clyde Common 1014 SW Stark St.; 503-228-3333; clydecommon.com
Highland Stillhouse 201 S. 2nd St.; Oregon City; 503-723-6789; highlandstillhouse.com
Interurban 4057 N. Mississippi Ave.; 503-284-6669; interurbanpdx.com
Loyal Legion Pub 710 SE 6th Ave.; 503-235-8272; loyallegionpdx.com
Multnomah Whiskey Library 1124 SW Alder St.; 503-954-1381; mwlpdx.com
The Old Gold 2105 N Killingsworth St.; 503-894-8937; theoldgoldpdx.com
Paddy’s Bar & Grill 65 SW Yamhill St.; 503-224-5626; paddys.com
Paragon Restaurant & Bar 1309 NW Hoyt St.; 503-833-5060; paragonrestaurant.com
Paydirt 2724 NE Pacific St.; 503-233-3655; paydirtbar.com
Pinky’s Pizzeria 3990 N. Interstate Ave.; 503-282-1259; pinkyspizzeria.com
Pope House Bourbon Lounge 2075 NW Glisan St.; 503-222-1056; popehouselounge.com
Produce Row Café 204 SE Oak St.; 503-232-8355; producerowcafe.com
Raven & Rose/Rookery Bar 1331 SW Broadway; 503-222-7673; ravenandrosepdx.com
Sidecar 11 3955 N. Mississippi Ave.; 503-208-3798; sidecarpdx.wordpress.com
Stormbreaker Brewing 832 N. Beech St.; 971-703-4516; stormbreakerbrewing.com
Swine Bar 808 SW Taylor St.; 503-943-5844; swankandswine.com/swine-bar
Teardrop Cocktail Lounge 1015 NW Everett St.; 503-445-8109; teardroplounge.com
Big Bottom Distilling 21420 NW Nicholas Ct., Ste. D-9, Hillsboro; 503-608-7816; bigbottomdistilling.com
Bull Run Distilling Company 2259 NW Quimby St.; 503-224-3483; bullrundistillery.com
Clear Creek distillery 2389 NW Wilson St.; 503-248-9470; clearcreekdistillery.com
Cornelius Pass Roadhouse distillery 4045 N.W. Cornelius Pass Rd., Hillsboro; 503-640-6174; mcmenamins.com/CPRDistillery
Edgefield distillery 2126 S.W. Halsey St., Troutdale; 800-669-8610; mcmenamins.com/edgefielddistillery
Tualatin Valley Distilling 21420 NW Nicholas Ct., Ste. D-9, Hillsboro; 949-212-6900; tvdistilling.com
Distillery Row distilleries (those with whiskey currently available) distilleryrowpdx.com
Eastside Distilling 1512 SE 7th Ave.; 503-926-7060; eastsidedistilling.com
House Spirits distillery 65 SE Washington St.; 503-235-3174; housespirits.com
New Deal distillery 900 SE Salmon St.; 503-234-2513; newdealdistillery.com
Stone Barn Brandyworks 3315 SE 19th Ave.; 503-341-2227; stonebarnbrandyworks.com
Vinn distillery 222 SE 8th Ave.; 503-706-9299; vinndistillery.com
Ace Hotel 1022 SW Stark St.; 503-228-2277; acehotel.com/portland
Mark Spencer Hotel 409 SW 11th Ave.; 503-224-3293; markspencer.com
McMenamins Crystal Hotel 303 SW 12th Ave.; 503-972-2670; mcmenamins.com/crystalhotel
Paramount Hotel 808 SW Taylor St.; 503-223-9900; portlandparamount.com
Barbur Liquor Store 9875 SW Barbur Blvd.; 503-246-1760; barburliquor.com
Portland Center Liquor Store 2075 SW 1st Ave.; 503-241-9354; portlandcenterliquor.com
Hollywood Beverage 3028 NE Sandy Blvd.; 503-284-0987; hollywoodbeverage.com
Uptown Liquor 1 NW 23rd Place; 503-227-0338
Westmoreland Liquor 7207 SE Milwaukie Ave; 503-235-3635