Some bars are known for their impressive collection of bottles. Raven & Rose has an impressive collection of barrels.
Not content with simply amassing a wall of cult-status bottles, bar director Dave Shenaut went straight to the distilleries to source single-barrel spirits with specific flavor profiles. "It's been a cool learning experience for me," says Shenaut. "Two whiskeys that should be made the same way taste different in the barrel."
The barrel program was motivated, in large part, by the history of the 130-year-old Ladd Carriage House, where Raven & Rose is located.
"In the beginning I talked to (cocktail historian) David Wondrich," says Shenaut, "and he told me what a bar would have been like here in 1883. He said the whole bar would be based on the house whiskey, which they would buy by the barrel, with just a couple fancy things like vermouth or absinthe from France. So I dove head-long into trying to figure out who would sell me single barrels, and then going directly to those producers."
Shenaut either travels to the distillery to taste what's available, or the distillery will send samples, which he'll play around with in drinks in order to find the perfect fit. "The wheat whiskey from Bernheim stood out as having a honeyed quality, so I put it in a classic drink with honey, the Brown Derby. And I picked a Four Roses with a big high rye content. It has a spicy pepper quality and floral yeasty notes that I loved for the Manhattan."
In keeping with the bar's historical bent, the barrel collection is heavy on bourbons and whiskeys -- Eagle Rare, 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, Evan Williams, Four Roses, and Bernheim Kentucky Wheat whiskey. But Shenaut also traveled to Mexico to pick a reposado tequila from Casa Noble, and most recently bought a barrel of brandy from Germain Robin in Sonoma.
"It's their apple brandy, made with heritage apples and distilled in an alembic cognac still, then aged for eight years," he says. "It's the big exciting one right now. We have a section on the menu with four drinks using it." He's aiming to add Scotch, cognac, and rum to the lineup in the near future. "The Bourbons are easier. They're American companies doing single barrels. It gets harder when you start talking about the others. They have to travel so much further."
Lest you think the bartenders are siphoning spirits out of giant barrels behind the bar, everything gets bottled at the distillery. "They bottle it, and they ship the bottles in cases and they deliver the barrels to us," says Shenaut.
And that brings us to the program's other big bonus. "I've been partnering with the guys at Tin Bucket (beer shop) to find brewers to make specialty beer and age them in the barrels," Shenaut says. "We've gone through 14 barrels since we opened, and five are out to brewers. We're doing a mead in one barrel. Reverend Nat is doing a cider in one. The tequila barrel has a rhubarb sour from The Ale Apothecary, a super-geeky, super-small brewer in Bend. In about six to eight months we'll get the barrels back along with some cases of beer."
That means next spring, you can conceivably stop into Raven & Rose for a cocktail made with one of the bar's hand-picked single-barrel spirits, and follow it up with a locally made beer aged in the same barrel.
And, if you really like the spirit, you can buy a bottle for your home bar. "The distillers bottle it and they put our label on it, and any customer can go pick it up at Portland Center Liquor," says Shenaut. "They could ask for any of our single-barrel selections."