Portland gets a lot of attention for its impressive lineup of serious bar programs. Pepe Le Moko, Imperial, Multnomah Whiskey Library and Expatriate -- they've been in the news lately more often than we can count.
But you might have noticed that all of these programs are run by men -- talented and clever men deserving of the praises they've earned ... but yeah, we don't hear much about women running their own show.
Sure, women bartenders are still a minority in this town, but that's changing. At present, there's a growing class of women who are perfecting the standards and re-imagining what a good cocktail can taste like, right along with their brothers-in-arms. So today we're kicking off an occasional series of profiles to get to know them better.
First up is one of Portland's original cocktail pioneers. Long before the craft cocktail renaissance was even gathering steam, one woman was reinventing the way Portland drank: Lucy Brennan. (In our recent profile on Teardrop's Daniel Shoemaker, he said it was Brennan who almost single-handedly changed the scene when she made her debut here in the 1990s.)
Born in the southeast London borough of Bromely, Brennan immigrated to the states 30 years ago, and spent five years in New York and another five in San Francisco, before deciding, after a very good visit, that Portland was her place.
Having cut her bartending teeth with the bow-tied old-guard in San Francisco, she started tending bar here, first at now shuttered (and sorely missed) spots like Zefiro and Casa U Betcha, before managing the program at Saucebox (where you can still see, and taste, her influence on the menu).After leaving Saucebox, Brennan opened Mint/820, and then authored the cocktail book "Hip Sips: Modern Cocktails to Raise Your Spirits" in 2007.
Brennan recently took some time to chat with us about how she got her start, what makes a good drink good, and how the industry is changing.
Tell us about Mint's bar program.
I first opened Mint in 2001, and at the time I only had five house cocktails. As time has gone by, I've just added cocktails, depending what I felt was fun to play around with. Now we serve over 40 house cocktails, some are twists on other popular cocktails, both new and old school.
What drinks are you known for?
I think I'm know for fruit-forward cocktails. And the Avocado Daiquiri. And the Ad Lib, which is a cilantro lemon drop.
How'd you get your first break at running the whole show?
The first place where I got free rein to play around behind the bar was at Saucebox. I was a kid in a candy store. I was very lucky because there was already an amazing foundation of great cocktails there, I just added to the list. [Some of those drinks -- her Mai Tai Me Up, Mirrorball and Pimm's Martini -- remain on the menu.]
There are a lot of talented bartenders in Portland, and it seems like a lot more of them are women. Do you see the scene changing and evolving for them?
I've absolutely loved watching my craft grow to where it is now. I feel like twenty-plus years ago people looked at bartending as something you did while in college to pay bills and meet ladies! And 99 percent of bartenders then were men. It's been pretty much a male-dominated craft, but I'm glad to say that those days are gone.
There are so many amazing bartenders here, both female and male. I actually feel we're seeing a huge force of amazing talented female bartenders who aren't drawing on their looks, or bodies, to get noticed -- and by the way, there isn't anything wrong with that. [She winks.]
Which female bartenders have you been following lately?
Ataula's Angel Teta is knowledgable and passionate, and her approach is serious, but still playful. And Kami Kenna at Church is doing great things with tequila and mezcal.
What makes a good drink good?
I think a cocktail needs to be well-balanced. It shouldn't be over-ambitious. Not too many ingredients. And you should always respect the spirit you're using. Well, except for vodka: vodka's neutral. But I say that with love.
Any advice for the next generation of bartenders dreaming of running their own programs?
It's sort of the same answer when it comes to making a drink: Don't be over-ambitious. Give respect for the craft's foundation. Know how to make all those classic drinks. Make sure that even an inventive list will be easy to execute on a busy night, so be realistic. But really, just have fun with it.
Lucy Brennan's Avocado Daiquiri
Makes 1 serving
2 oz. silver rum
2 oz. gold rum
½ oz. half and half
¼ oz. fresh lemon juice
¼ oz. fresh lime juice
2 oz. simple syrup [Brennan admits that 3 oz. will work, as will 4 oz., depending on how sweet you want it.]
¼ of an avocado
Blend all ingredients with ice until it's smooth as silk. Pour into a goblet or a big, wide wine glass. If you want to -- and you should -- drizzle some pomegranate purée on top. Or better, make a pomegranate molasses at home. Sip through a fat straw.