There’s this drink you may have heard of called the Moscow Mule. It’s vodka and ginger beer, with lime juice. There was a time in the recent past when pretentious bartenders would sneer and say, “Ginger beer, not ginger ale”—referring with disdain to the ginger-flavored soda water that came in your mule at lesser establishments.
Nowadays, ginger beer, though harder to make and keep (being a fermented product more like kombucha than soda), is ubiquitous enough that plenty of bars feature a house version for mules.
There are even hip little interstate ginger beer chains like Seattle-based Rachel’s Ginger Beer, which recently opened a location in a prime spot on the corner of SE 37th and Hawthorne. In the ginger beer community (go with it), Rachel’s is apparently a destination: I overheard more than one customer celebrate how they no longer had to go to Seattle for the stuff.
They offer growlers and cups to go, but you’re also encouraged to drink there. After a few visits, it became obvious that this place is—or is at least trying to be—a bar. The posted hours are 11 am to 11 pm, so it’s open late enough to be a bar (although minors are allowed at all times). Inside, it’s comfortably designed, with a TV, tables, window seats, and—yes—bar seating.
There’s even a food window, though it’s a separate business. Until now it’s been fellow Seattle import Sunset Fried Chicken, but soon it will be yet another location for Boke Bowl spinoff Boke Dokie—still fried chicken (or tofu), but with a better Portland foothold.
Most importantly, there’s liquor. Slightly more than half the real estate on the chalkboard menu’s devoted to cocktails of some kind, most of which are $8, including some on tap alongside the ginger beers themselves.
Of course, there is a Moscow Mule available. Vodka is never the star of this cocktail, and neither is lime juice, so for it to truly stand out, it needs to be gingery, which RGB is. (If the regular ginger beer is too sweet or somehow not spicy enough, go for the Extra.)
But the cocktail list goes beyond that inevitable flagship drink and its cousins. Other classics do appear, bafflingly under different names: the Kentucky Mule—with bourbon—is labeled here as a “Montana Mule,” and the Dark and Stormy—rum—is called “Storm Clouds.”
The drinks on the menu, however, are just a jumping off point. It’s not enough that their ginger beer is good, but there’s a depth to the vibrant rainbow of flavors on offer: pink guava, blood orange, caramelized pineapple, passionfruit-vanilla, cucumber-tarragon, mango-maté—a personal favorite for its balance of sweet and slightly earthy flavors.
If the phrase “cucumber-tarragon ginger beer” lights up the gin quadrant of your brain/liver, you are not alone. My mouth watered from the moment I realized these mix-and-match options existed (at $9.50).
Unfortunately, one more reason this place might not be a bar is that its liquor shelf is heartbreakingly shallow. I’m happy to welcome Rachel’s to Portland, but Seattle can keep Citizen Gin. Vodka might as well be the only white spirit available if Citizen is going to be the gin and El Charro the tequila. These brands just can’t stand up to Rachel’s supercharged flavor profiles.
There are, however, some lifesavers here: namely Fernet-Branca and everyone’s favorite non-rosé pink drink, Aperol. The latter comes (along with gin) in the Porch Swing. Nothing with as much rambunctious acidity as Rachel’s Ginger Beer will ever feel quite as lazy-summer-day as the name implies, and there’s a neighborhood-appropriate twee energy behind this drink, like ultimate frisbee in a glass.
The fernet is in a Dark & Fernety, which makes the drink naming system here that much more inscrutable. It tastes—and more or less looks—just like one of those cola bottle gummy candies. By which I mean: It’s awesome.
Still, those drinks and a couple of fun blendies (try the Tropical Storm, with coconut and dark rums, $9.50) can’t save a bar from lackluster spirits. It just doesn’t make sense to mix well liquor with ginger beer that costs $21 a gallon to go.
Luckily, it is available to go. You can buy or fill half-gallon and one-gallon growlers of the classic ginger beer ($13 and $23 with growler, $8 and $15 for refills), any of the flavors ($16 and $29 with growler, $11 and $21 refills), or single-serve cups. So you can take that cucumber-tarragon ginger beer home and mix it with a gin you can actually taste, like Aviation (to stay local) with the cucumber-tarragon, or Letherbee (a favorite from Chicago) with the passionfruit-vanilla.
There’s a certain quality of service along SE Hawthorne that I’ll fairly or unfairly characterize the whole street with: bartenderless bars. In the kind of place where you only have one person in the front of the house, it’s not unlikely to walk in and not see anyone. Once, I walked in to find no bartender, and the guy frying the chicken told me the bartender was “down shaking the kegs.” Ginger beer problems, am I right?
The bartenders are all good at describing the product, but not great at communicating simple things, like, “I’m going to go shake the kegs,” or “It takes a while for this shandy to settle.” Or “Sir, you can’t come in here drunk and high and yell at the TV.”
Yet those problems prove that regardless of whether it wants to be one, it is a bar. And once the food feels a little more memorable and the staff gets their bartender legs under them, it will be a pretty good one. If they brought in some worthwhile spirits, it might even transcend the ginger beer community.