Portland Handbook 2018
Welcome to Portland. Now let’s get you fixed up with a drink! There are a TON of bars in this town, from the top of the Big Pink to the secret speakeasy submarine at the bottom of the Willamette (which doesn’t currently exist, but might by the time this article goes to press). The sheer number of potential watering holes can be difficult to navigate at first, and you may find that our version of “best drinking practices” differs from that in your hometown, but hit the bricks with this gold-standard guide in hand and we’ll have you stumbling back home in no time.
First, some basics: A lot of what determines how bars operate comes from a state agency called the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (or OLCC, as everyone refers to it). The OLCC can levy hefty fines against bartenders who over-serve patrons or sell booze to minors. This can be a bit daunting for newcomers, according to Tanya Frantzen, owner of the Basement Pub and author of Happy 21st Birthday: A Field Guide for Bar Patrons of All Ages.
“The number of times a person can have their ID checked in a night always flusters people who aren’t used to it,” she said. “The fines we can get for failing to check ID are really steep. Locals just have their IDs ready pretty much every time they step up to the bar.”
And while we’re on the subject, don’t try to buy the bartender a shot. First of all, you can’t. It’s against OLCC regulations. Secondly, it’s weird. You wouldn’t try to hook your waiter up with a club sandwich, and you REALLY wouldn’t expect them to eat it in front of you. None of the bartenders I talked to expressed any affection for the practice, and a few who’d worked in states where they could drink on the job told me they’d kept a bottle of apple juice under the bar for placebo shots.
On the plus side, don’t bother ordering a double when it comes to mixed drinks. I mean, you can, but the single pours here can be upwards of two ounces to begin with. AdaZoe Freeman, co-owner and head bartender of Tryst, told me the so-called “Portland pour” can surprise folks who are used to more miserly proportions. If you’re looking for a longer-lasting drink, just order a tall, which doubles the mixer and shouldn’t cost extra. According to Freeman, you can’t go wrong with tequila, soda, and a splash of grapefruit.
And this wouldn’t be an article on PDX drinking habits without a word on the noble beer back. It’s not exactly a revelatory experience, but it is a Portland regional idiosyncrasy, according to nearly everyone I asked.
“Beer backs are surprising to newcomers,” Frantzen explained. “Many Portland bars offer a small beer to accompany shots. We bartenders spend a lot of time explaining what that means.”
For an Old Portland vibe just go with whatever’s cheap and whiskey-colored, followed by a frothy golden glass of Rainier (or Rainier-like beer) to cut the burn. For a slightly more sophisticated Boilermaker-adjacent experience, Rachel Krom, a bartender at Baby Doll Pizza, suggests you just move up the shelf a bit.
“A decent beer and a liquor from the middle of the shelf are what people usually order,” she told me.
And speaking of beer, drink the cheap stuff with pride. A brewpub is bound to be a bit snobby about serving pisswater, but most of your regular type bars will have a cheap option near the bottom of the tap list. This can be anything from a-slightly-less-bougie-by-comparison lager, to the old standby PBR, and everyone here has an opinion about which is better. “Rainier. Period,” said Disenchantment writer and Instagram food critic Bill Oakley, while the Mercury’s Arts & Culture editor Suzette Smith noted, “Why is everyone talking about PBR when it’s obviously Rainier and Olympia?” I’m a Rainier guy myself, although that’s probably because that’s what they serve at my regular joint.
And that, at the end of the day, is all that really matters in Portland: Find a place that suits your look, a drink order that agrees with your tastes, and a bar seat that fits your ass, and you’ll be a seasoned veteran of the drinking scene in no time.