Daniel Shoemaker grew up as a traveling preacher's kid, so he was never able to put down real roots and call a place home. At least not until he found himself in the Bay Area in the early 1990s. For 10 of the 13 years he lived there, he ran the bar, and then the cocktail program, at Thirsty Bear Brewing in San Francisco.
He pulled up roots once again and moved north to Portland in 2006. By 2007 he had opened the doors to Teardrop Lounge, one of the city's pioneering craft cocktail bars. It's known locally -- and nationally -- for its painstaking prepping processes, its impeccably professional (yet never stuffy) staff and, of course, its library of cocktails. (Shoemaker estimates that Teardrop's cocktail rolodex comprises more than 400 recipes that are considered either classic, signature or borrowed, with permission, from bartender friends in other cities).
But for all the attention, Shoemaker is careful to direct his own praise where it matters most. He says that long before his arrival, Mint/820's Lucy Brennan almost single-handedly changed Portland's cocktail scene in the 1990s, and he credits his friend Jeffrey Morgenthaler (Clyde Common, Pepe Le Moko, and author of the recently published "The Bar Book") with putting Portland's cocktail scene on the map.
A lot has changed over the years, and Shoemaker has been both a driving force and a witness.
In April, he branched out and started up The Commissary, a juicing and syrup-making business, with Sean Hoard, Teardrop's former bar manager. Each day, their team bottles gommes and fresh, unpasteurized citrus juices that get delivered to a growing list of local restaurants and bars (they're planning a website and retail component by year's end). The idea behind the service, Shoemaker says, is to free bartenders from the tedium of prepping, while at the same time ensuring that today's drinks will be as efficiently made and taste as consistent as tomorrow's drinks.
Recently Shoemaker let us into The Commissary's kitchen to get a glimpse of the work in progress. And he took a break from batching up tonic water and gomme syrups to tell us where Portland's cocktail scene has been, where it is now and where it's going.
How did you get into craft cocktails?
On the way out the door from San Francisco, I had drinks with several friends, who were -- unbeknownst to me -- pioneering the sea change in the cocktail scene down there. I ridiculed them loudly for taking it way too seriously, and said my good-byes. In the yearlong delay in getting Teardrop open, I began to explore what exactly they were doing, and why it fascinated them as the next step. Needless to say, I fell face-first down the rabbit-hole, and began to approach every cocktail I constructed as penance for an unwitting career in ignorance.
And when those friends caught up with me at our annual Tales of the Cocktail (conference in New Orleans), they each pulled up a picture on their phones of my bitters and tinctures rail at the bar, just to rub it in my face.
What drew you to Portland?
I was drawn, like a lot of people, by the number of owner-operated bars and restaurants here, the sheer passion you experience in every aspect of food and beverage. There's a geek for every field here, so I felt right at home.
What was the cocktail scene like at the time?
Well, when I first moved here, cocktail programs had kind of stalled out. We were stuck in a place where we had a lot of infusions and a handful of house-made mixes, but that was about it. We had craft beer down and we're surrounded by wine country, but cocktails had yet to be really explored. Now, with the cocktail renaissance in full swing -- and Portland as one of the most respected cities in the mix -- guests have risen up to demand more, and cocktails are no longer the afterthought in a decent program, but frequently the driving force.
How has Portland's cocktail scene progressed since you arrived?
The thing I'm most excited about is that you're seeing a lot more of what I call middle-tier bar programs. The gap is closing between bars with a seriously driven cocktail program and your average neighborhood bar. The lines are truly blurring these days, as the average consumer becomes incredibly well-informed, forcing the average bartender to operate at a higher level than ever before. Fresh citrus is becoming de rigueur, as is a competent Old Fashioned. Not universal, of course, but enough so that people can realistically expect a solid drink at a much wider swath of establishments.
Are there any trends that you're noticing that you think are going to have some staying power?
I'm naturally weary of cocktail trends. That said, good trends don't reverse. Take Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. Nobody was really thinking of sourcing and making food the way she did then, but now it's the defining moment of American cuisine.
I'm glad to see trends like molecular mixology go. But overall, trends are taking a backseat to things like training and technique. We're getting back to the basics of what makes a really good drink.
Do you have any advice for aspiring bartenders?
Yes. Make a Whiskey Sour 5,000 times before you start worrying about the definition of amaro.