photo by Eliza Sohn

WINTER MEANS WHISKEY. Well, technically anytime is a good time for whiskey, but winter allows a person to appreciate the smoke and fire of distilled grain mash. Luckily for Portland whiskey drinkers, two new bars have popped up on opposite sides of the river to help further distill our whiskey options into manageable, shot-sized doses. They'll also serve you a meal—one for better, the other for worse.

It might not be an old Kentucky home, but Pope House Bourbon Lounge is at least housed in an old Victorian house just off NW 21st. American whiskey dominates, with 39 Kentucky bourbons making up the bulk of their spirits list.

With such a Southern disposition, it's incongruous that their Manhattan would be so good—delicious and smooth with very little bite and just enough sweetness. Made with Maker's Mark, a soft touch with the vermouth, and a tiny powerful amarena cherry to finish it off, you may find yourself well into your third before realizing you're on your way to oblivion.

The same goes for the Pope House old-fashioned—these folks know their way around a bottle of bourbon. Buffalo Trace bourbon, a touch of bitters, muddled oranges, a bit of sugar, and some fizz, make a very solid cocktail to sip while soaking up the essential American-ness of the joint: sports on the flat screens, rock and blues on the stereo, and dishes inspired by the American South coming out of the kitchen.

And that's where Pope House breaks down like a spent thoroughbred. Their food is not very good at all. Consider the tiny deviled eggs—whites the consistency of hard rubber sporting an awful sweet, watery, deviled yolk mixture. Their description on the menu made it worse: "Everyone loves deviled eggs!" Well....

A fried chicken dinner was slightly better, but recalled the TV-dinner fried chicken of childhood past. The accompanying greens tasted like they'd been simply boiled and seasoned with Tabasco (with no consideration of salt), and the cornbread baked in a ramekin (I doubt to order) was hard and dry.

The Frito pie, strangely, bested the other options. The chili was a bit sweet and there wasn't enough sour cream and cheese to go around, but the Fritos were "fresh" and, God help me, I do love pickled canned jalapeños.

Best to stick with bourbon at Pope House, but if you want a truly delicious whiskey meal, hit the highway and head to Branch on NE Alberta. It's a casual neighborhood spot with a feel that's part stillhouse and part bistro. Not only do these folks know their whiskey and associated cocktails, they know how to feed a hungry whiskey lover.

Pork rillettes with house-made crostini are a great start—warm, hearty, with flavors of nutmeg and cinnamon. The pork's fat is easily cut with a solid Sazerac from the bar, the high notes from bitters and absinthe complementing the depth of the rillettes.

Bacon broccoli soup topped with cheddar croutons is spot on. Blended, but distinctly crisp, broccoli melds with subtle bacon saltiness; cheese croutons add melty richness and crunch. A peppery, wintry bowlful is a good accompaniment to a shot of Branch's Jim Beam well on the rocks.

The salted cod brandade is excellent for dreary winter evenings. The warming starter is studded with big chunks of roasted garlic that settle the slight fishiness of the cod. There is good balance here. The house-made crackers resembling elongated taco chips may be puzzling at first, but they lend a nice crunch to the affair. Unfortunately they were too few.

Branch's main entrées are excellent as well. Beside options like a house-made sausage plate, you'll find a decent hanger steak "French dip" sandwich. Cooked perfectly to temp, the steak is juicy and tender, dressed on an adequate roll with little more than horseradish. It needs nothing else, aside from a quick dunk in au jus, to make everything sing. However, resting beside the sandwich, the subtle Meyer lemon slaw is a bit lost.

Then, like a dream, perhaps one of the best whiskey drinking foods around: duck confit hash. Piled on the plate with onions, red peppers, large chunks of potato, and topped with a perfectly poached egg, the hash is super rich, satisfyingly fatty, and gone too soon. Paired with a Give Me Three Steps cocktail—made with Jack Daniels smoked with cabernet barrels and Mexican Coke—the experience is a smoky, salty/sweet wonderland of whiskey and food.

For all-around winter comfort, Branch is the complete package. Booze and some excellent rib-sticking fare are just what you need for long winter nights.

But don't count Pope House out. Their selection of Kentucky bourbon is perfect to send you into a warm Southern reverie. However, until something changes in their kitchen, I'd stick to the Manhattans.