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Bartender Brandon Wise on Leaving Portland to Take on a Big Role in Denver

The cocktail talent reflects on his time in the Rose City, as he works his last shift behind the bar at Imperial tonight.


When Brandon Wise arrived in Portland almost five years ago, he was a man without a plan.

"I showed up in Portland with no job. I just wanted to be here," he says. "I walked into Teardrop in a full suit and tie, resume in hand." But owner Daniel Shoemaker had just hired a bartender and didn't have room for another. He told Wise to check out a new restaurant called Irving Street Kitchen, set to open in just a couple weeks.

The rest, as they say, is history. Wise was hired on the spot, and two weeks later when the restaurant opened its doors, he quickly made a name for himself as one of the best bartenders in town, even earning Eater's 2010 Bartender of the Year.

Since then he's been president of the Oregon Bartenders Guild, and he's worked with Kevin Ludwig at Beaker & Flask. Most recently was the founding bar manager at Imperial, establishing it as a true Downtown destination.

But tonight is Wise's last night behind the bar at Imperial, and in a couple weeks he'll officially be a Denver resident. The guy who came to town with no plan, is leaving Portland with a very impressive plan indeed.

"My new title is Corporate Director of Beverage for Sage Hospitality Group," says Wise. "I'll be in charge of beverages at all their full-service restaurant properties. I'll be building programs and offering education and training, and working with their roster of bartenders, servers and managers."

It's a huge step — the Sage group has over 10 restaurants and over 50 hotels — and the new role is very different from tending bar. But Wise, a native Midwesterner, says he's excited about the chance to travel and collaborate with staff all over the country. "Sage has lots of hotel properties and each one is so different. It offers so much freedom to create," he says. "Opening new properties is something I enjoy, and cocktail development is near and dear to my heart. I can't tell you how excited I am to work with these bartenders and chefs and managers and build on something with them."

Stepping into Wise's shoes at Imperial is Tony Gurdian, who Wise says has big things in store for the city's cocktail scene. "He's been with us since Day One, and he's been a driving force creatively. He's been responsible for the house-made syrups and we've worked together on cocktail development. He's an excellent technician and he has ambition to push the boundaries and offer something completely different and new. He has some big ideas and he knows how to execute them."

Regulars at Imperial might now Gurdian from his occasional slight-of-hand tricks. "He's a man of many talents," says Wise. "He's a student of the trade, going back to the roots of bartending. It was important for many years for a bartender to stay up on current events, and know some matchbook or lighter tricks. Sitting at the bar can be a slow and introspective experience. Telling a joke and engaging with your guests can give them something they'll never forget. I admire that he's trying to honor that tradition."

As for Wise, he's hoping people will come in tonight for one last drink with him. "It's very bittersweet," he says. "It's been an emotional week. I'm excited for the new opportunity. But I Iove Portland. It felt like home from the moment I set foot in town. And I'm very grateful for all the support of the community during my time here. I got to work with so many great people."

Wise says he'll be back from time to time. Sage owns Departure, Urban Farmer and The Original restaurants, after all. And he wouldn't dare miss Portland Cocktail Week next fall.

"It's been interesting to reflect and appreciate what a great place this is. Portland continues to evolve and reinvent itself and stay at the forefront of cocktail trends. It was rewarding to be part of that for so long."