We’ve gotten a ton of very positive feedback for our Top 5 Cocktail Bars in Las Vegas story, so we decided to follow it up with a list of the Top 5 Cocktail Bars in Portland, Oregon. Portland is either America’s biggest town or smallest city, with a tight knit community of bars and restaurants that often collaborate rather than compete. For such a small city, Portland has a fairly high concentration of extremely good cocktail bars (it also boasts of having the most strip clubs per capita of any city, but that’s another article).
Portland’s cocktail scene is extremely vibrant and dynamic. At the end of the summer of 2011, it saw the opening of no fewer than 5 new major bars, two of which managed to make our list of the Top 5 cocktail bars in Portland. But since it’s such a small town, you can actually connect all the dots to one epicenter, and it’s that epicenter which made our #1 spot.
#1 Teardrop Cocktail Lounge
If you were to play the Kevin Bacon game in Portland and instead of using Kevin Bacon you were to use a bar, Teardrop would be that bar. Teardrop is the epicenter for craft cocktails in Portland, and nearly every barman (or woman) behind the bar at the other four top cocktail bars on this list have spent some time behind the bar at Teardrop. Teardrop could be considered the ‘ultimate’ showcase cocktail bar – sitting anywhere but at the teardrop-shaped bar is like having obstructed view seats at a concert: you know you’re missing out on the show.
The menu here is vast, including a wide range of classic cocktails, original creations, and drinks made from cocktail luminaries from across the country. There is a very small food menu, mandated by Oregon law, but your appetizer, main course, and dessert at Teardrop are really the drinks. There are three standout bartenders who spend their time behind Teardrop’s bar, starting with bar owner Daniel Shoemaker. Shoemaker is a fairly understated bartender, but he prepares some of the most outstanding drinks we’ve had. Ricky Gomez, who has a strong reputation from his time in New Orleans, is a master of dilution and his Oaxaca Old Fashioned is one of the best tequila drinks we’ve had. Brian Gilbert is perhaps the most unlikely of the three standouts and probably would be the first to tell you he isn’t one, but his riffs on the classic Bijou cocktail and his understanding of hospitality are superb.
If there’s one gripe to be had about Teardrop, it’s that they are extremely serious about their drinks. This isn’t a grab a beer and hang out bar, it’s Portland’s Temple of the Cocktail, and worshipers are greatly rewarded.
Teardrop Cocktail Lounge – 1015 Northwest Everett Street, Portland, OR 97209-3117. Mon-Sat 4pm–2am
#2 Clyde Common
There’s a reason why Bar Manager Jeffrey Morgenthaler gets so much national attention: he runs one of the busiest and liveliest cocktail bars in Portland. While this isn’t the birth place for barrel aged cocktails, it is the spot where they really caught on. The roving selection of barrel aged cocktails, including the Negroni, Remember The Maine, El Presidente, and more, are superb.
Because it’s one of the highest volume craft cocktail bars in town, Clyde Common has an immense ability to snatch and stock up on hard to find and limited quantity releases of spirits in Portland (which is in a liquor control state) so it’s often the only bar in town with some of these spirits. Beyond barrel aged cocktails, the cocktail list at Clyde, which averages around 12-15 cocktails, is exceptional, with a wide range of riffs on classics and original drinks. Morgenthaler is a maestro behind the bar and is quite a charmer with his unique and often wry sense of humor. While Morgenthaler might get a lot of the attention, it’s worth it to go out of your way to also get a drink from the much more subdued (and heavily tattooed) Junior Ryan, one of the more underrated bartenders in town.
The food at Clyde is exceptional, so don’t be surprised if one or two cocktails doesn’t lead you into a full meal, even if you eat it right there at the bar.
Clyde Common – 1014 Southwest Stark Street, Portland, OR 97205. Sun 5–11pm; Mon-Thu 11:30–12am; Fri 11:30–1am; Sat 5pm–1am
Sometimes a place is more defined by who is behind the bar than the bar itself, and that couldn’t be more true than at Kask. This tiny bar is almost an asterix for the neighboring restaurant it’s connected to (which, oddly, has its own bar). If you stepped inside, you wouldn’t think you were inside one of Portland’s top cocktail bars, but it’s the quiet bar manager Tommy Klus who makes this place one of the best. Like any great bartender, Tommy Klus wouldn’t ever admit he’s one of the best, but he doesn’t have to – his drinks do all the talking for him.
The Kask menu isn’t huge and it often features a quick and easy, inexpensive punch. Punches can often be an afterthought for cocktail bars, but not at Kask, where it often stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the best drinks on the menu. Tommy Klus is somewhere between a cocktail historian and a cocktail nerd, and many of the drinks on the menu are a result of countless hours of research. But this extreme attention to history and detail are balanced with a fun, creative, and spontaneous element in his original drinks. The Bootstrap Buck is a perfect example of how classic cocktail sensibilities can collide with more creative and fun elements to create one of the most pleasing drinks we’ve had in Portland.
The spirits selection here isn’t vast, and if you want anything beyond charcuterie and cheese you’ll have to dash next door, but Tommy Klus’s cocktails are so good and his sense of hospitality is so strong, he could be doing what he does anywhere and it would make our top list.
Kask – 1215 SW Alder Street, Portland, OR 97205. Mon-Sat 5–11pm
You wouldn’t think by looking at it that Wafu would be one of the top cocktail bars in Portland. Wafu looks and feels like a hip, late night ramen shop (which it is), but it’s also home to the best ice program in Portland and some of the best cocktails. The key to Wafu is its absolute unpretentiousness. Whereas cocktails are put up on a pedestal and exhibited at Teardrop, here at Wafu they’re more like a hidden treasure or a nice surprise. The cocktail menu here is modest with only 9 cocktails featured, but the whisky and sake lists (which includes draft sake) are long and well crafted, and together it’s all quite an offering. The cocktails are a nice mix of classic, modern, and Asian inspired.
The cocktails at Wafu are distinctly different from the other bars we’ve listed on our top list, mainly because of the Japanese influenced bartending techniques employed by bar manager Alan Akwai. Akwai’s sense of hospitality is phenomenal, and although he’s no showman, his craftsmanship is fantastic to watch. Cocktails at Wafu are impeccably crafted and perfectly balanced. Akwai is exceptionally strong with classic cocktails, and his Sazerac and the Japanese re-imaging of the Improved Yamazaki Cocktail are both world class.
Added to Akwai’s craftsmanship is an amazingly impressive ice program. Where else in Portland can you get a handcut sphere of ice, cut to order for your glass of whisky? Things don’t just taste better with the best ice in town, the experience is even better. Pair all that with a bar that is truly cool, casual, and comfortable without being too cool or hip for its own good, and you’ve got a solid entry on our Top Bars of Portland list.
Wafu – 3113 SE Division Street, Portland, OR 97202 Sun, Tue-Sat 5pm–12am
#5 Rum Club
What happens when one of the most popular cocktail bars in Portland opens up another smaller bar in the same building? That little bar ends up bumping the other bar off a top cocktail bar list. I’m sure some bar owners might be bummed about that, but not Kevin Ludwig, who owns both Rum Club and Beaker and Flask. There are a lot of elements that go into making a great bar, and almost all those elements line up perfectly with Rum Club. Like Teardrop, Rum Club’s built around a large U-shaped bar, but unlike Teardrop the bar isn’t the center of the universe. No matter where you sit at Rum Club, you’ll feel like you are ‘part of the club’.
Rum is the main attraction on the cocktail list, with the Rum Club Old Fashioned, Rum Club Daiquiri and Ti Punch being the standout drinks. But the menu at Rum Club isn’t exclusively rum, and no matter where you venture on this modest cocktail list (around 12 drinks), you are bound to find a great drink.
Rum Club has become one of the key bars in Portland for other bartenders and restauranteurs to land at the end of their shifts, so late nights here can be wild.
Rum Club – 720 SE Sandy Blvd, Portland, OR 97214. Mon-Sat 4 pm – 2 am
Portland’s cocktail scene is pretty dynamic, and any top list will evolve over time, but these five currently represent the best cocktails you’ll find in Portland.