Spring is here, a season of new arrivals: flowers gently blooming, birdsong in the air, and little baby cocktail bars popping up left and right. While early May should offer an opportunity to ease into the busier summer season, a stretch of temperatures in the mid-80s, like we experienced recently, was basically a simulated summer stress test for these new bars. And like one of those baby giraffes on Planet Earth—wobbly, blinking dazedly in the sunlight—they’ve had to get right up and all but hit the ground running.
True, our weather is fickle, and a 30-degree dip after those record highs gave these bars a breather, as well as a chance to evaluate their little summertime trial run, but it’s safe to say: The newest batch of cocktail bars are up to the sunny day challenge. Any new bar will have kinks to work out in terms of service and logistics, but if the drinks are good, the growing pains are worthwhile.
The biggest of these openings is Palomar, 2012 “Bartender of the Year” (according to corporate liquor giant Diageo) Ricky Gomez’s sleek haven for the daiquiri-obsessed on inner Division. The two-floor bar is airy and pleasant on a hot day, from the floor-to-ceiling windows facing the street pulled open, to the beautifully designed in Cuban Miami-leaning teals and pinks, down to its very fancy hardbound menu. But what matters is what’s on that menu.
Yes, there are a lot of daiquiris. From the old fashioned to the slightly surprising, the first page of the menu makes fruit and rum combos the star, and while the more traditional numbered daiquiris are excellent, options like the Abuelita Daiquiri stand out: Its cachaça and lime base, blended with plantain and coffee, is smooth, earthy, and mellow, ultimately coalescing into something with all the simple pleasure of a chocolate milkshake ($13).
The list is deep at Palomar, and goes far beyond daiquiris. And of the roughly 30 (!) cocktails on the menu, the one that had my head spinning—the real revelation that will change this summer and every summer to come—is the Jerez Highball. Only two ingredients (plus just a hint of absinthe) make it one of those forehead-slappingly easy cocktails you can’t believe hasn’t been invented yet: fino sherry and carbonated coconut water run through with that whispered mention of absinthe. Like a perfect summer sky, it’s mostly clear/slightly cloudy while the sherry is sharp and almost savory, buffeted by bubbles and coconut water’s inherently upbeat and healthful tropical flavors. Drinking it makes you feel like you’ve never had a hangover ($10).
For a more casual indoor/outdoor vibe, another new bar on Killingsworth features a great patio and disappearing walls: Keys, a bar from the Radio Room crew that’s located in an old locksmith shop. Still featuring the enormous “KEYS” signage above the door, this is the comfiest, most lived-in looking new build-out imaginable. With wall-to-wall vintage colors, deluxe red leather, and ultra-brown wood paneling, it’s all midcentury bent wood and busy, deep area rugs.
On sunny days, nothing beats the indoor-to-outdoor bar built into an exterior wall—an understandably rare feature in rainy Portland—and the whole bar benefits from any warm breeze outside. The bar top itself is amusingly adorned with the bar’s namesake keys, but it’s even prettier with an Acapulco Gold ($9) resting on it: a huge glass goblet of crushed ice, tequila, cream of coconut, grapefruit, and pineapple. This sort of light, compacted crushed ice, the kind that comes apart with a bite like a snow cone, makes it a goblet of pure nostalgia; coconut and pineapple “Tikify” the drink while the grapefruit gives it a little bitterness so you don’t entirely forget you’re a grown-up. (Also, you know, tequila.)
But even on these hot days, the sun eventually sets, and when it does, you could find worse places to head indoors than Canard, the new spot in the Le Pigeon family (and neighbor to that restaurant). By 10 pm, when their late-night happy hour starts, you should be ready to cozy up to the bar or slide into a booth under high ceilings and Frenchy decor, slurp down a dozen $1.50 oysters, and sip a $5 aperitif from the deep list of happy hour bitters. (I shouldn’t even have to tell you to check out the steamed burger sliders, obviously.)
Yes, there’s a foie gras-infused bourbon in the $15 Foie Turn and the dirtiest martini ever concocted (with caper brine, $13 with an oyster on the side), but not everything is so novel: Check out the $10 Poivrotte (a rummy strawberry chugger) or Great Pyrenees, featuring Californian aperitivo Bruto Americano, “fluffy grapefruit,” and tequila, though the menu suggests switching out the base spirit for any other well. Bruto Americano has a Campari-like show-stealing quality, and plays nice with almost every liquor you throw at it. I can’t imagine this drink not being a bittersweet beauty in any form.
We shouldn’t forget that we share our little microclimate with Vancouver, and that town also has no shortage of newly blooming cocktail bars. One of their newest also appears to be one of their finest: Amaro’s Table, a bar that unsurprisingly features an awful lot of international bitters, and a restaurant that, well, kind of makes everything. You can get sushi, a French dip, pork tenderloin, and house potato chips—but you’re here to drink.
The summeriest of these are classic party drinks hijacked by amaro flavors. The Poloma Amore sees tequila and grapefruit soda slide over to let Amaro Montenegro drive, giving it a deep, vanilla-spiced headiness with enough citrus bitterness not to lose the drink’s grapefruity spirit. Meanwhile, for the Tiki freaks, the I Dream of Tiki takes the pineapple, brown spirit (rye, in this case), and falernum combo and makes it a vehicle for Brovo’s Jammy Vermouth. Bonuses for drinking in Vancouver include cheap drinks (none of these cocktails are over $10) and service that lacks Portland bartenders’ trademark surliness.
No matter where you drink—but especially at these new bars—remember that everyone is trying to get back in the summer swing of things, and getting their legs under them is just as stressful as letting people see yours in shorts again. But the only way out is through. So dust off your shorts and throw back a few Jerez Highballs—spring is here, and you’ve got some growing up to do.