If you like whiskey, hop on a plane right now and head to Portland, Oregon. While Portland is known for being home to more breweries than any other city in the country and being within driving distance of the Wakeema Valley with its abundant wineries, there is now a new player in town unlike anything else in the city — or possibly the world: Multnomah Whisk(e)y Library.
There’s no denying Portland is a culinary-focused city, home to tastemakers like mixologist Jeff Morgenthaler and Chef Andy Ricker as well as endless options for farm-to-table dining, innovative dishes and drinks made locally with care. This isn’t just because Portlanders like to eat and drink (who doesn’t?), but because Portland is a city of innovators. They love technology, breaking the limits of the imagination and working with other local businesses to create a progressive and successful community.
“Hospitality that is genuine and passionate [is our goal],” explains Jennifer Quist, Brand, Events & Operations at Multnomah Whiskey Library. “Operationally the special service of the Library is seated service. We are not a bar with standing room but rather we host all our seating very much like a restaurant.We bring bar-tending to the table with custom built carts that act as mini bars. This allows guests to truly enjoy their own space with the people they’ve come with.”
Opened in October 2013, Multnomah Whisk(e)y Library is certainly innovative. Let’s start with the ambiance. The scene feels like British Gentleman’s Club-meets-library-meets-”Clue” as you walk into an enormous library space. Only, instead of leather-bound books and paperbacks you’ll find over 1,700 bottles of spirits. Portraits done by local artists adorn the dark wood square panel walls and introduce guests to people significant in the history of whiskey, like George Smith, the creator of Glenliver malt whiskey and the first distiller to take out a license under the 1823 Excise Act (which made legal distillation practical), and Aeneas Coffey, inventor of the Coffey still in 1830.
The room is dimly lit, although not completely dark with candles, reading lights, vintage lamps and fluorescent bulbs illuminating the extensive spirit collection and bouncing of the bottles into the room. Custom-made leather couches, ornate candle chandeliers, a giant fireplace, antiques and a sliding staircase that allows mixologists to reach any bottle of the five-level shelf help set the scene.
There is one book worth reading in Multnomah: the menu. Not only will you find the biographies of the people whose portraits decorate the space — which also helps to give it a library feel through exhibition — but also the spirits, cocktails, beers, wines and nibbles available to order. Mixologists all take part in ongoing training, with a focus on understanding the bottles and being creative every step of the way, from neat pour to the stir.
I’ll admit the menu can be overwhelming at first glance. The spirits are neatly organized by type; however, the sheer number of choices can cause even the most ardent whiskey drinker’s head to spin (or explode with excitement). The easiest way to go about ordering is to ask your server for help. If it’s a cocktail you want, tell your server what your tastes are and how you like your drink balanced to have something made for you. Just make sure someone at your table orders a cocktail that is stirred instead of shaken, as these types of drinks are typically prepared tableside. For example, during my Multnomah Whisk(e)y Library experience I told my server that I typically liked rye whiskey drinks with lime and ginger flavors, and he crafted a delicious rye-infused Moscow Mule-style drink, perfectly balanced with the whiskey pronounced enough that I could savor its flavors.
If you’d rather simply order a cocktail off the menu, some drink options include a “Scotch Lodge” made with Bowmore Legend, Punt a Mes, Cynar, Combier Rouge and orange bitters; “Toronto” crafted with Forty Creek Barrel Select, Fernet Branca, clover honey and aromatic bitters; and a “Tipperary” with Black Bush Irish Whiskey, Carpano Antica and green chartreuse. While not all add-ons are made in house as the venue team is “careful not to get distracted,” there are some special homemade offerings, like a house vermouth blend and a selection of complementary cocktail bitters.
Of course, in a venue with almost 2,000 bottles of liquor you know there will be some rare options worth sampling — or at least inquiring about, as it might not be financially feasible for most. One notable bottle they have is a John Walker, Blended Scotch Whisky — 1 of 330 bottles. There’s also a Macallan Royal Marriage 1948 and 1961, a Scottish single malt commemorating the marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles. And an exclusive Pappy Van Winkle comes in 15yr, 20yr and 23yr versions.
Tastings are also part of the experience, and offer guests the chance to really get to know a whiskey or spirit in its pure form. While prices run the gamut, some worthwhile budget-friendly options include the Bank Note 5-year blended Scottish Whisky ($6), a Bastille Whisky from France ($7) and a Weller 107 Antique Wheated Buffalo Trace Kentucky Bourbon ($6).
While the focus is on drinks, I recommend ordering something to eat just to see where it comes from. In the wood paneling, there is a secret window that only opens when someone’s food is up. In fact, if it didn’t open you would never know it was there. Some suggestions from the locally-sourced “Fare” menu include smoked gnocchi with pickles ramps, shitake mushrooms, house pancetta and poached egg; a scotch egg with fennel sausage and Coleman’s mustard; house-made focaccia with Ligurian olive oil and sea salt; and Wagyu steak bites with piperade, garlic whistle and duck fat potatoes.There is also a nightly rotating dessert, often sourced from a Portland-based bakery.
The Multnomah Whisk(e)y Library is open Monday through Thursday 4pm to midnight and Fridays and Saturdays 4pm to 1am. It is located at 1124 SW Alder in Portland. Keep in mind, the door attendant will only let in as many people as fill the seats — no more. Reservations are not accepted over the phone (although there is a trick to this if you keep reading); that is unless you’re a member. Additionally, members get exclusive invitations to educational and social events as well as their own private spirit locker in the library’s Private Tasting Room.
Another tip for snagging a table without having to wait is making use of their Hall Pass Program that reserves seats per individual while allowing the bar to get to know the reason a guest is visiting. With a Hall Pass the bar can learn what a person’s favorite drinks are, if the guest is having dinner and where one might like to sit, among other things. The Hall Pass is a way to make a reservation without membership while also enhancing the experience due to the information provided.
If you’re party is larger than eight people it’s recommended to arrive at opening, as later on it becomes difficult to find seating. And on Mondays no reservations at all are taken, allowing the whole room to available to walk-ins.
Multnomah Whisk(e)y Library is by far not the only place to grab a drink in Portland. Make sure to also check out Pepe Le Moko under the Ace Hotel, newly opened in February 2014 and named after the 1937 French film, an era that inspires the decor of this venue. Here, renowned mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler brings classic cocktails — many of which carry a certain stigma like the Long Island Iced Tea and the Grasshopper — and gives them a modern twist in a speakeasy setting. Jazz fills this dimly lit room, while vintage photographs line the walls. Some menu highlights include the “Hotel Nacional Special” made with aged rum, lime, apricot brandy, pineapple gomme and bitters; the “Espresso Martini” made with local Stumptown coffee extract, Kahlua, overproof vodka and lemon oil; and a playful “Grasshopper” crafted with Cremes de Menthe et Cacao, vanilla ice cream, Fernet Branca and sea salt for an adult version of a mint chip shake.
Another recommendation is Ned Ludd, named after the Luddites, textile workers in England who protested the introduction of special machinery during the Industrial Revolution. The focus of their cocktail menu is to craft classic and innovative drinks using seasonal, local ingredients for customers that still remain true to the classic cocktail technique (and also trying to inspire their chefs through innovative recipes and ingredients).
“My goal in curating a cocktail program is to appeal to and surprise lovers of classic cocktails, I enjoy introducing someone to a new spirit they may never have known, but now they love,” explains Bar Manager Jeremy Wilson. “Making everyone happy while maintaning the quality and integrity of a reputable cocktail program.”
They’re also known for their bottle cocktails, currently a trend in Portland.
After reading local cocktail expert Jeffrey Morganthaler’s “The Bar Book,” they learned the process on how to make these low-alcohol drinks, made using a tank of CO2, a regulator, a hose, and an attachment that screws on to your standard two liter bottle. They mix up large 2-liter batches of the cocktail they’re making and chill it over night before forcing carbonation into the liquid. From there, the drink is carbonated and portioned into 8-ounce drinks in clasp-topped bottles, where it will remain bubbly for about a month.
Some must-try drinks on the menu — both fizzy and not — include a “Ned Flanders” crafted with 10 white, orange shrub, aperol, bitters, bottled and fizzy; a “Cock ‘n Bull Special” featuring 10 bourbon, benedictine, cognac, combier, bitters; and a “Porch Swing” with 10 suze, combier orange, dolin dry, bottled and fizzy.
It’s clear nobody in Portland is going thirsty anytime soon.
Have you visited Portland, Oregon? What is your recommended drink experience?
Top photo credit: Photo courtesy of Dina Avila Photography.