ON DECEMBER 14TH, 2016, after experiencing what some cities might consider a “dusting” of snow, I spent three hours in the car trying to get to the airport to pick up a visiting friend. At some point during that drive, a switch flipped in my brain. I wasn’t in my car on Columbia waiting for some Tercel a mile up to stop spinning its tires and get on its way, I was in a warm whiskey bar, cupping my hands around a glass of brown grain spirit.
Like a rogue Westworld robot, I lived in these reveries between spurts of action (feet or inches gained, passing a school bus at 3 mph, etc). As I passed a Car2Go on the curb, its hazards flashing and its driver screaming silently into the night, my dashboard shimmered and stretched into the glittery gold bartop at North Portland’s Pinky’s Bar Nowhere. I sipped a Campbeltown whiskey—say, the Springbank 16, finished in amontillado casks. Or I was at Paydirt in the Zipper Building on NE 28th and Sandy, warmed by a rare bourbon and a Fernet Branca on draft.
But where I really wanted to be was a neighborhood bar with a legitimate whiskey list, a TV or two, and at least some measure of comradely coziness. You can find this anywhere: a friend in the Brooklyn neighborhood introduced me to the Brooklyn Park Pub, which fits the bill to a tee. Like my own neighborhood whiskey bar (Paydirt’s older sibling the Old Gold), the Brooklyn Park Pub has a chalkboard of available whiskeys and a whiskey club. Complete a certain number of tastings to earn access to the special reserve of rare bottles—and an everyday discount on whiskey.
Brooklyn Park Pub feels like the Old Gold might feel in 10 years: over itself, bored of its “Whiskey Land” (it’s on the sign) novelty and nestled into its shtick like an aging tomcat in a pile of worn out shoes. Where OG’s chalkboard is meticulously clean and organized, a high contrast white on black, the Brooklyn Park Pub’s whiskey list is chicken scratched onto an apparently castaway schoolroom board the color of questionable gravy. On a recent night, a handful of modest HDTVs played various local basketball games while one very old screen showed Groundhog Day on a loop—perfect for a snow day.
Back in reality, supposedly still driving—if you could call waiting for a friendly pickup truck driver to tow a fellow adult’s sedan up a highway off-ramp “driving”—I added the Brooklyn Park Pub to the list of whiskey bars I would visit if I didn’t grow old, marry, raise children, and eventually die, sober in the driver’s seat of my Ford Escape. With that sweet thought of escape on my mind, I once again astral projected myself south, past Brooklyn down to Sellwood-Moreland, where I could again sink into a trusted friend’s go-to whiskey den: Kay’s at Milwaukee and Bybee.
Kay’s is a classic: a big, simple neon sign over glass block windows and old school pub awnings; a long bar along one wall with what looks like a second interior roof over it; and a strangely open floor plan ringed by booths you can fall into and not surface from for months. A bar where, my friend points out, they pour the wells straight from unwieldy 1.5 gallon bottles. The whiskey list isn’t mind-bogglingly extensive, but it’s thoughtful and has something for every whiskey drinker.
It seems a whiskey bar is always close at hand. Even some of the breweries low-key pride themselves on whiskey—just check Ex Novo. Under the lofted second floor seating are a handful of tables and booths intimate enough—and a whiskey menu impressive enough—to make you forget you’re in a working brewery.
There is, however, one place you can go in Portland where you won’t be a stone’s throw from a warm, welcoming whiskey bar: trapped in the snow on Columbia Boulevard, between 47th and 60th or Cully and 82nd. (Don’t think I didn’t consider abandoning my car and scrambling over the railroad tracks to down one or two at the Railside Pub. But face it, if you have two at the Railside, you’re gonna have 10.) When I finally did reach the airport literally three hours later—haggard, cold, hopelessly sober—I’d learned my lesson: Next time someone’s flying into town to see me—snowy winter night or clear summer day—I’m buying them a cab. And when they show up, there will be a glass of whiskey waiting.