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

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.

Boozy Dispatches from Tales of the Cocktail

From the outside, it looks like a fancy moustache convention. Many of the world’s best craft bartenders (and their wide array of fancy facial hair and clever tattoos) descend each year on New Orleans, Louisiana, for the week-long gathering of drinking, lecturing, networking, partying, and drinking some more known as Tales of the Cocktail. Most of the major spirit brands also attend the event in what ultimately becomes a Lolllapalooza of Booze.

No human being can manage to catch all of the events that surround this libation fest, and concurrent parties lure bartenders with bigger and more outrageous events. It’s sort of like watching Mumford and Sons only to find out that Arcade Fire is playing on the main stage. Here’s a roundup of what went down in NOLA—what we remember of it, anyway.

image Girl in A Ball at Beefeater’s Opening Party This year, the biggest and most outrageous parties were sponsored by Pernod Ricard, whose dueling gins (Beefeater and Plymouth) bookended the week with parties so jam-packed, you simply couldn’t see it all. The Beefeater party was a lavish masquerade ball complete with masks and ballerinas dancing inside bubbles. Along with the pomp and circumstance came some heavy-hitting bar tending. Audrey Saunders, owner of the Pegu Club in New York City, hit it out of the park with her Fir & Gin Fizz (Beefeater 24, fresh lime juice, ginger, simple syrup, club soda and Douglas Fir Eau De Vie). Saunders was joined by Eric Castro, who was the bar manager at Rickhouse in San Francisco before he became a brand ambassador for Beefeater, as well as a host of over 20 other bartenders each making their own drink.

image William Grant transforms the National WWII Museum into party central William Grant & Sons (the folks behind such brands such as Hendricks Gin and Sailor Jerry) blew the doors off the The National WWII Museum with a party that filled the mammoth museum with level after level of bars and drinks. In one of the most absurd moves we’ve ever seen in the business, the William Grant party had cows staged outside which were milked to make the famed New Orleans Ramous Gin Fizz.

image Andrew Bohrer chainsaws a monster block of ice in The Chainsaw Shift Like any great summer camp, Tales of The Cocktail isn’t just wall to wall partying. Ok, it is, but there’s more to it. Tales hosts a wide array of seminars presented by some of the most notable people in the industry. Want to learn about barrel aged cocktails from the master of barrel aged cocktails? From Jeffrey Morgenthaler (who bartends at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon) you can. How about learning to use lab equipment like rotovapors and centrifuges to make cocktails? Tony Conigliaro, owner of 69 Colebrooke Row in London, England, will teach you how.

Perhaps the coolest (quite literally) of the seminars was Andrew Bohrer’s The Chainsaw Shift. Bohrer, who owned the Nagal Lounge in Bellevue, Washington, and has managed the bar at the famed Mistral Kitchen in Seattle, is a pioneer in the field of booze and ice. Bohrer demonstrated how, with a Home Depot chainsaw, you can transform a three hundred pound block of ice into hand cut cubes that fill your glass and make your cocktail sing. Or was that us singing after too many cocktails? Hard to say, as every seminar had a cocktail or two attached. The one at The Chainsaw Shift was a Maker’s Mark Sazerac, with a great chunk of hand cut ice.

image Look out Patron. Don Julio has you in its sights Tales of the Cocktail is also a place where spirit companies introduce their new products to the bartenders, press, cocktail enthusiasts, and everyone in between. Don Julio showed off their new Don Julio 70, the first ever “Anejo Claro,” which is a clear aged tequila. The Don clearly has Patron in his sights, as the tequila is a lot sharper and spicier than their traditional Blanco, with a pepper kick Patron drinkers will love.

image Brooklyn Bitters leaves its mark William Grant & Sons showed off their superb Reyka Vodka, with bitters, made exclusively for them by buzz-worthy Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters. Jason Rowan, a frequent contributor with the New York Times, Out magazine, and writer of Embury Cocktails, runs the bitters company, which had a super-secret launch tasting at the event. Brooklyn Bitters has some out of this world flavors, including Rhubarb, Meyer Lemon, Black Mission Fig and Sriracha (yup, cock sauce bitters!). Although the bitters company kept things on the down low, it was one of the more impressive launches of the festival.

image Russian Standard Dinner at the Eiffel Society Booze wasn’t the only focus at Tales of The Cocktail. After gorging on po’ boys at Johnny’s, jambalaya at Coops, or fried chicken at Mother’s, festival goers could chose from over twenty Spirited Dinners, featuring copious amounts of food and cocktails. While most of the dinners featured cocktails, the Russian Standard Dinner at the Eiffel Society took a contrarian view, and poured straight spirits to accompany caviar, foie gras, and flatiron steak seasoned with $300 whiskey. Tough life, we know.

image Drew Levinson and Aisha Sharpe crash Jeffrey Morgenthaler and Bridget Albert’s dinner As highbrow as the spirited dinners sound, Tales is still a grouping of some of the greatest partiers in the world, typified by Aiesha Sharpe and Drew Levinson’s 3rd Annual Spirited Dinner Crawl. Aiesha Sharpe (founder of Contemporary Cocktails Inc. in New York) and Drew Levinson (mixologist at Wirtz Beverage in Las Vegas) buzzed around New Orleans in a bright green Leblon Cachaca van crashing seven of the twenty spirited dinners at Tales and kidnapping diners (along with this journalist) to join them. It’s this kind of spontaneous revelry that defines Tales.

image A rare bartending session with David Wondrich Tales of the Cocktail attracts a lot of luminaries to the event and provides a rare chance to catch a drink and a story. Notable bartenders behind the stick at Tales included: author and cocktail historian David Wondrich; King Cocktail and one of the legendary bartenders at the Rainbow Room in New York, Dale DeGroff; Steve Olson, owner of Aka Wine Geek in New York; Misty Kalkofen, owner of Drink in Boston, Massachusetts; Jason Littrell from Death & Co. in New York; Jim Romdall from Vessel in Seattle; and, Tommy Klus from Kask in Portland. Diageo seized on the opportunity and threw a happy hour party with forty of these mixologists and forty cocktails.

image The liquid equivalent of 2Pac vs. Notorious B.I.G. You can’t get this many bartenders together with this much ego and not have a competition, and the Bar Room Brawl was the centerpiece of all that bravado, pitting six bars against each other in a winner-take-all-or-at-least-get-us-all-drunk competition. The contenders were: Eastern Standard from Boston, Little Branch in New York, Sable in Chicago, The Roger Room in Los Angeles, and Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Oregon. It was an East Coast/West Coast brawl that was the liquid equivalent of 2Pac vs. The Notorious B.I.G. Teardrop Lounge and The Roger Room tied for fan favorite, and Eastern Standard picked up the judges award (although our cards had Teardrop with a TKO in the last round).

image R.I.P. Long Island Ice Tea Tales of the Cocktail begins with over-the-top parties, and it ends with a funeral. Each year, festival organizers and key bartenders decide which drink’s time has come and gone. This year, it was the get-trashed-in-a-glass Long Island Ice Tea, which was laid to rest, complete with a second line band and a march through the city of New Orleans. The funeral had its own wake in the form of Plymouth Gin’s Bartender’s Breakfast, a closing night party that starts late and goes even later.

Geoffrey Kleinman is the founder and author of Drink Spirits