Home for the Holidays,
And How the West Really Is Best
I was lucky enough to travel back to the West Coast twice over the last two months, once for Thanksgiving and once for Christmas. This in itself is very unusual as I tend to travel back once a year if lucky. But this was a special year, when circumstance worked out just right and I was able to get some good quality time with some damn fine folk.
Our Thanksgiving adventure started with a trip to Seattle. My travel companion and I did the usual touristy things (his first trip to the Pacific Northwest, after all), then moved on to what I really wanted: a visit to Murray at Zig Zag. Before my trip, the boys I work with promised an introduction to the man, and so after various bi-coastal emails I had me a date. Naturally, I had to bring some nice bonded Lairds as a gift from New York. After a quick jaunt through Vessel – Mr. Boudreau wasn’t working, sadly, but our barman was quite good – we had some tasty West Coast Mexican food and then headed down to Zig Zag. After being treated like kings – enjoying Murray’s famous hospitality, trying my best to take note of his impressive control and skill as a bartender – we stumbled awkwardly out the door happy as could be. You are prince, sir.
Then down to Bend, Oregon for family fun and as much Deschutes Brewery beer as I could reasonably pour down my throat. I focus a lot on spirits, but when I go home to Bend, it’s all about the beer. Mirror Pond Pale Ale, Cascade Golden Ale, Black Butte Porter: these are the foundation of my first interest in quality drinking. As teenagers in Bend, we’d sneak beer from our parents’ fridges just like everyone else, but our choice was always the sweet, sweet deliciousness that is a Pacific Northwest microbrew. Ok, we drank plenty of Bud too, but when burnin’ stump in the woods, if you could shoulder-tap a sixer of Mirror Pond along with the case of Bud or some Beast, the night was lookin’ up – lookin’ up, indeed.
But enough of this potentially incriminating nostalgia, I’m here to talk about big-boy drinking.
My second trip back, this time for Christmas, got me thinking more critically about the differences in American drinking cultures and attitudes. New Yorkers like to say that they built the cocktail kingdom, that they have historically had such a high influence on the craft because, quite simply, the city’s culture is organically intertwined with social drinking. Mass transit, an enormous number of people living in a geographically small area, and a general attitude of work-hard-and-play-harder, all contribute to the proliferation of bars and many a health drinking habit. If you’re done with work, you don’t have to drive anywhere. When you’re home in that tiny studio in the East Village, wouldn’t you rather go downstairs to the bar or, god-forbid, walk a few blocks for a drink or two? It’s the reason why being a bartender in New York is a viable profession, and not necessarily the kind of temporary job that other locals may require.
But while out West I started thinking about the potential of other cities. Yes, New York is amazing and it’s hard to escape its appeal, but it is a city that exists only because it imports nearly everything. It is a massive economy all its own, built from the ground up not only by imported goods, but also by a constantly rotating cast of characters. In that way, it’s cultural perspective is always in flux, always evolving and changing – the symphony that is social assimilation.
There really isn’t much that is Made in New York, unless you count attitude and an inability to take shit from anyone. Sure, that’s a broad stroke, I know, but I generalize only to make a point about the West (and maybe areas I just haven’t been to yet). All up the West Coast, there are a lot of micro-distilleries cranking out some damn respectable stuff. Many people who pioneered the microbrewery movement have now begun experimenting with stills, and boy do I enjoy it. Fresh, seasonal ingredients and, frankly, a particularly fresh and active perspective on life dominate the West – you don’t have to sit in your apartment and watch TV. You can go biking, skiing, sailing, or get in your car and be in isolated nature within a few minutes, or at most an hour. Sure, you can do some of this in the East, but it’s much more difficult. Too many people, high density of metropolitan areas, and puny little hills they like to pretend are mountains. How cute, but ultimately pathetic.
I bring this up only because of my own New York-centered mentality. I’ve lived in the city for almost four years, thinking it to be the center of everything and anything I’d want to be a part of. As a professional bartender, that mentality got me feeling very stuck. As I think about leaving New York some day, it’s good to know that there are places outside New York (or London or Tokyo) that are doing incredible drink programs with unbelievable local spirits, beers, wines, and ingredients.
Two weeks ago a bar opened up in Bend called Decoy. I was meeting some old friends there for a drink, not more than two days after they opened, expecting the same kind of “Bar and Grill.” But alas, they had a cocktail list. And on that cocktail list? A Rye Manhattan, an Aviation, a Hemmingway, and a Sazerac! Granted, they were poorly executed (Manhattan shaken, Aviation sans maraschino, Hemmingway I-dunno-what-the-hell, and the Sazerac shaken, straight-up, with at least a quarter ounce of Pernod, and a large twist in the glass), but they were trying. That’s how popular cocktail culture has become: my hometown of lil’ ol’ Bend Oregon has a bar trying to make classic drinks!
And to my real point: Anyone wanna open the best cocktail bar ever in Northwest Portland? I’ll take investments starting…now.