Booze, Breasts, & Bartenders: Welcome to Portland Cocktail Week

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Imagine being a huge sports fan, and Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, and Wayne Gretzky all walked into a bar together (which actually could happen in Portland thanks to Nike’s headquarters nearby). The bartender equivalent of this is how Portland Cocktail Week began, with Dale DeGroff (the Granddaddy of the craft cocktail), Simon Ford (top international brand ambassador), Misty Kalkofen (one of the top female bartenders in the world), Jason Littrel (New York’s finest from Death & Co), Ali Tahsini (San Francisco powerhouse from Bourbon & Branch), and Tony Conigliaro (the best mixologist in the world) all ponying up to a little Portland bar called Rum Club.

Why Portland? How did this little city draw some of the biggest bartenders in the world for a weekend of seminars, parties, and imbibing? Portland is like a good friend who never manages to keep down a job, but always manages to leave at the end of the night with the hottest girl in the bar. Some places just seem to have that kind of mojo, and Portland, for one reason or another, has it.

image (Jeffrey Morgenthaler Bartending at Mary’s Strip Club)

Portland Cocktail Week isn’t anywhere close to the scale of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic or the standard-setting Tales of the Cocktail, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in enthusiasm. There’s just something about Portland that drives people to drink, and the intermingling of bartenders from around the country for spirits, seminars, parties, and strippers, seems like it’s always been pre-ordained. And yes, we said strippers. Portland has more strip clubs per capita than any other state in America, and they are as big a part of the drinking scene as craft cocktail bars, dive bars, and pubs (but more on that later).

Less than ten years ago, it would have been almost unfathomable for someone to say they wanted to be a career bartender. Bartending was something you did to pay your way through school, or because you couldn’t get a job in your chosen field. With the craft cocktail revival, bartending has re-emerged as a culinary career and has gained some of the same kind of respect and support we give to great chefs. As such, modern bartenders are very interested in expanding their knowledge base through learning new crafts and better techniques, and one of the reasons they go to events like Portland Cocktail Week is to hone their craft.

Some of the topics covered at Portland Cocktail Week included understanding how taste and smell work with an Absolut Vodka Sensory Experience; deconstructing one of the most iconic of cocktails, the Martini, with Tony Conigliaro; making beer cocktails with Jacob Grier, the guru of beer cocktails; and, technical freepouring with 22-year bartending vet Tobin Ellis.

The blockbuster session of Portland Cocktail Week was one called "Half Way To Bar Smarts." Bar Smarts is a national bartender education program that travels to cities across the country to help educate and train bartenders. It’s staffed by some of the biggest names in the industry, and for this session in Portland it featured Dale DeGroff (legendary Rainbow Room bartender), Misty Kalkofen (Drink, Boston), Eric Alperin (LA’s The Varnish), and Jacques Bezuidenhout (Partida Tequila Brand Ambassador). The session covered some of the basics of identifying and tasting spirits as well as techniques, including Dale DeGroff making one of his famous Bloody Bulls, a riff on the Bloody Mary using beef broth.

image (Denver bartender Michelle Baldwin performing as Vivienne VaVoom)

With the learning done, Portland Cocktail Week focused on what bartenders do better than almost anyone in the world—party. I’ve had the opportunity to party with movie stars, rock stars, and bartenders, and of the three no one parties harder, better, or longer than bartenders. Portland Cocktail Week’s signature event was the DonQ Rum Yacht Rocking party, which was an odd fusion of nautical theme and 80’s culture with a live karaoke band and burlesque. Breasts pop up everywhere at Portland Cocktail Week.

Another Portland Cocktail Week party pitted bartenders against drink-making robots in a mano-y-mechanico smackdown. While the robots made a fairly good showing, it was the bartenders who showed that they have the finesse (and sense of taste) to outmatch a drink-making robot.

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The final day of Portland Cocktail Week could easily have been labeled "Rack Day". They key event of the day was Speed Rack, a head-to-head competition of the top female bartenders in the region. Speed Rack pitted them in timed heats where they were scored both on speed and on the quality of their drinks. The judges panel included such luminaries as Audrey Saunders (Pegu Club), Charlotte Voisey (Company Mixologist with William Grant & Sons), Misty Kalkofen, and Portland celebrity drag queen Poison Waters. In addition to being a competition, Speed Rack was charity event to raise money for local breast cancer charities.

Breasts were center stage at Portland Cocktail Week’s closing party "Stripperoke". Hosted at Portland’s Devil’s Point strip club, Stripperoke had top bartenders serenading the intoxicated crowd on a stage accompanied by strippers doing what they do best. Stripperoke was an event that showed that no matter what Portland Cocktail Week’s ambitions are, it didn’t take itself too seriously.

Portland Cocktail Week may not be the biggest cocktail week nationally, but in its second year it showed why Portland tends to achieve things that should generally be beyond its reach, and why this Cocktail Week is one to watch.