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A glass of whisky sits on a wooden table outside Scotch Lodge
A glass of whisky at Scotch Lodge
Scotch Lodge / Official

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For Some Portland Bar Owners, To-Go Cocktail Legislation Feels Like Too Little, Too Late

Bars can now sell cocktails to-go in Oregon. While some owners are frustrated by how long it took to legalize takeout drinks, others are just excited to get started

Tommy Klus, the owner of Southeast Portland’s Scotch Lodge, temporarily closed down his bar in November. Oregon was starting a two-week shutdown of indoor and outdoor service, and he couldn’t figure out how to stay open with food takeout alone. A break-in at the bar didn’t help, either. He laid off his staff and swallowed the financial loss of closing down.

A little more than a month later, on December 21, the state legislature passed a bill allowing bars and restaurants to sell takeout cocktails, as long as they serve one substantial food item per every two drinks. For Klus and members of his team, it didn’t feel like enough. “Having to furlough the team was really hard for us, and it cost money. We had product, perishable product,” he says. “I think (to-go cocktails) could have been really helpful over the holidays. But we don’t have much of a team to pull it off.”

Klus is one of several bar owners in the Portland area who, while grateful that the to-go cocktail legislation eventually passed, feel like the damage has been too great to see the bill have a major impact — he’s not sure if it’s worth the additional cost of reopening after going through the ringer to close. The food requirement, the cost of materials and labor required to sell takeout drinks, and the already mounting debt many business owners are carrying make some bar owners feel cynical about its potential impact this late in the game. “It’s not a lifeline for a business, no business is going to survive on to-go cocktails,” says Colin Carroll, the owner of Foster-Powell cocktail bar FIve & Dime. “People are way more frugal than they were the first time around — people don’t have the stimulus money to blow at this point.”

For the last nine months, many bar owners and bartenders have fought for some form of takeout cocktail legislation. Because of the way Oregon’s legal code is written, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission couldn’t easily allow restaurants and bars to sell to-go mixed drinks; it had to come from the state legislature. So industry workers started social media campaigns and petitions to urge state leaders to call a special session, an opportunity to address the issue. State legislators like Rep. Rob Nosse drafted legislation to bring to the floor; it didn’t make the agenda for the first two special sessions. It wasn’t until December that a bill finally came to a vote.

When Nosse read his closing statements, he quoted Micah Anderson, a vocal proponent of cocktails to-go. When the news broke that a to-go cocktail bill passed, Anderson says he felt “kind of elated.”

“We’ve been working on it since March, so it was a relief to have some progress on this thing,” he says. “It’s the first step in a long list of things that we have to put together for people, but it is going to help quite a few folks limp through the next few months, until we can get something more substantial together.”

Now that the governor has signed the bill, bars can prepare to sell mixed drinks. Unfortunately, the bill goes into effect after countless Portland bars and restaurants permanently closed. “I’m grateful for the work that Rob Nosse did, that all the activists in our industry here, but it’s been nine months,” says Kyle Linden Webster, the owner of Northeast Portland cocktail bar Expatriate. “It’s going to be great; it’s going to add income. Is it going to save bars that have already closed? Not at all. I think it’s a bit of a glitch of the legislative process.”

Camille Cavan, the bar manager at North Mississippi cocktail bar Quaintrelle, also feels like it came too late, but generally appreciates that it hit the agenda at all. “It does hurt a little bit that it didn’t happen earlier,” she says. “I don’t think anyone is going to be rolling in dough now, but it shows that they’re caring about the service industry and restaurants. Especially in a Mecca of the food and beverage industry, a place with so much talent, it sucks that it happened a little later than it should have.”

Cavan, like others, is planning on jumping at the opportunity to sell takeout drinks, despite the additional cost of containers and labor. She has already started selling non-alcoholic cocktail kits out of the restaurant, but being able to actually sell spirits gives her a needed boost. “I can now ask someone to help me behind the bar again,” she says. “I’ve already had some regulars share how excited they are to get some cocktails to-go.”

A man lightly bounces a hollowed-out pineapple in his hand in the bar at Tropicale
Tropicale
Christine Dong / Official

Like Cavan, Alfredo Climaco, who owns the new Latin American cocktail lounge Tropicale, has already started coming up with ideas, including large-format bottles of piña coladas with accompanying taco kits. “This is going to be an opportunity to maintain those jobs,” Climaco says. “I’m not trying to make any profits right now; I’m just trying to break even and not lose more money. In the freeze, it really hurt my heart just telling people, ‘Okay, you can’t work.’”

Not-working was particularly hard for Natasha Mesa, who used to shake and stir at experimental cocktail bar Deadshot. Mesa, like thousands of other bartenders across the state, was furloughed in March, and has only worked for about a month and a half since then. For her, it wasn’t just about the money: she missed the artistic element of her work. “Being a bartender, it’s about creativity,” she says. “Not having that creative outlet to make things for people to enjoy, I think that might be one of the toughest parts.”

Adam Robinson, who owns Deadshot, sees the law as a “positive thing” for his team, but he doesn’t know how meaningful it will be for bars with less-involved cocktail programs. “From my standpoint, I think it will help my bar more than the local bar that I go to after work,” he says. “I could be wrong, but are people going to be getting to-go stuff from dive bars? Restaurants, absolutely, cocktail bars, absolutely, but there are certain bars where I wonder how much of a market there is when most of the clientele has a beer and a shot.”

For now, bar owners and bartenders are tentatively moving forward with plans, figuring out drinks and waiting for the go-ahead. Mesa has spent months at home working on cocktails and figuring out ways to package them, hoping that the state would eventually pass a bill. Soon, she’ll meet with Robinson to come up with a takeout drink menu. “At this point, it’s going to be about consumers embracing this new norm of supporting the bartenders they used to go love and see by buying these drinks,” she says. “Even though drinking is a social affair, I do think it’s about trying things outside the box. You love bartenders for the creativity they put into their drinks, just like you would any chef.”

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