Cocktail Weeks. Yeah, these are a thing now. Bartenders, liquor brand sponsors, distillers, drink enthusiasts and journalists gathering together to celebrate the art and science of craft cocktails and discuss ways to make your experience on the other side of the bar better.
Packed with insightful seminars and epic hangovers, these “weeks” also draw is a bizarre community that feels like family. Some sport suspenders while others look like the road crew for a metal band on tour. Tattoos and bottles of Chartreuse at the ready, I sat down with several attendees of this weekend’s Portland Cocktail Week hosted by the Oregon Bartenders Guild. Now in its second year, PCW is definitely a force to be reckoned with. If it were jewelry, it’d be a set of brass knuckles (and man do I feel like I got punched in the face).
Like the city itself, Portland Cocktail Week is a bit of a tweaker. First off, it’s only three days. (I guess Portland Cocktail Three Day doesn’t have quite the same ring to it?)
Secondly, while it may look like booze-drenched mayhem to the casual observer, for those attending there is also serious business going on. “We as bartenders use these weeks as a forum to share ideas, vent frustrations, find solutions and really get back to the heart of why we do what we do,” offers Seattle-based bartender Jim Romdall, who will be opening a spot called Vessel later this year. “It’s about the love of the craft for us. Gathering together is a great reminder of that.”
Only in its second year this particular cocktail week has traction and a feisty personality that lured people from around America to the Pacific Northwest.
“Just at the [event’s home base] Jupiter Hotel we had 110 bartenders staying from 26 states and 39 cities,” explains Lindsey Johnson, co-founder of Portland Cocktail Week. “The bulk were from San Francisco, Boston, New York and Seattle, but we did have people from places like Big Sky, Montana and Boca Raton, Florida.”
Nightly events ranged from more serious expressions, such as Imbibe magazine toasting its fifth anniversary at a massive event on Sunday night, to celebrating the fact that Portland has more strip bars per capita than anywhere else on the planet. “We had parties in strip bars as well as regular venues, because we want to bring people what that city has to offer,” Johnson says. “It would be silly not to celebrate and showcase the eclectic side of this town.”
Bartenders sat down during the daylight hours for seminars like “The Lost Art of the Free Pour,” hosted by Las Vegas bartender Tobin Ellis, and “Banging Out Drinks Like a Maniac,” led by Dushan Zaric, owner of the legendary New York bars Employees Only and Macao Trading Company.
“To have someone who’s been as successful as Dushan has with his 1,200 square-foot venue come out here and give away trade secrets, well, that is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some of these younger bar owners,” Johnson says.
And at night brands like 42 Below Vodka kept guests laughing and drinking via events like Stripperoke (karaoke is so much better when you are surrounded by strippers on poles) and Robots Vs. Humans (where bartenders competed against machines).
“I love bartending and this community is the reason I come out for something like this,” says Jennifer Colliau. She’s been behind the stick at the San Francisco hotspot Slanted Door for years. For the past three and a half years, she’s also made a name for herself by producing pre–Prohibition era cocktail syrups under the label Small Hand Foods. “Of course this is a great way to sell my syrups. I make really great products and I want those products in the hands of these amazing bartenders making the world’s best drinks.”
I feel fortunate to have attended as well. Now it’s time to sign it off (with my bottle of Pepto Bismol at the ready, curled in a fetal position and thanking Christ that this thing won’t happen again for 365 days).
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