Bars and restaurants across the Portland area started selling bottled banana daiquiris, frozen margaritas, and more last week, when the Oregon Liquor Control Commission gave the industry the go-ahead to start selling takeout cocktails.
On December 21, Oregon legislators passed a bill that lets bars and restaurants sell mixed drinks for offsite consumption, something the industry has been seeking for nine months statewide. Some bartenders were deeply concerned that the new law wouldn’t go into effect before New Year’s Eve; however, Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill into law on Wednesday night. By Thursday, bars and restaurants had already started packaging drinks in mason jars and bottles, taking advantage of holiday business.
Westside cocktail bar Botanist House had planned to started serving cocktails to-go almost a month before the bill was signed into law. The bar posted an open letter to Oregonians saying that they would start selling mixed drinks by November 25, regardless of legislation, as “a civil disobedience protest of our state’s constitution,” in their words. “It has taken a lot of creative thinking, hard work, and determination for businesses to survive this far into the pandemic,” the letter reads. “But our already flooded ships cannot take on any more water from the final waves in the perfect storm of 2020.”
Soon afterward, the bar started selling cocktails made with things like vermouth and wine, within the legal boundaries set at that time; however, this week, Botanist House co-owner Robbie Wilson says the bar will begin serving liquor-based drinks to-go via the delivery site their company created, At Your Door. Wilson, like several other bar owners, does feel frustrated with some of the restrictions within the new law — for instance, customers are required to order one substantial food item per every two drinks. The food requirement is a big hurdle for some bars that laid off chefs and kitchen staff early in the pandemic. “It will be great for restaurants already selling takeout food, but many small cocktail bars won’t be able to take advantage of it,” Wilson says. “But next year, once the vaccine is more widely distributed, it’ll be a real boost.”
Still, some bars and restaurants have already begun selling cocktails for at-home imbibing. Thai barbecue bar Eem, known for its lively and tropical cocktails, began selling takeout drinks on Thursday, bottling its bourbon-hibiscus blend Acid Test and spiced rum cocktail A Night Off in plastic juice-style bottles. For months, the bar has been selling cocktail kits with detailed instructions for at-home mixing; however, the bar hadn’t been adding booze to those kits, per state law. On Thursday, the bar sold 17 takeout drinks; by Sunday, the bar had sold 50. “I imagine that, as more bars start to normalize to-go drinks, we’ll all start to sell more,” says co-owner Eric Nelson.
By the weekend, more restaurants had got on board. Cuban restaurant Pambiche started serving bottled banana daiquiris, mojitos, and hot toddies with takeout orders of ropa vieja by Saturday. On Sunday, Mexican restaurant Por Que No was handing out two-drink bottles of margaritas with orders of tacos. Like Wilson said, most of the places best suited to get the jump on takeout drinks were restaurants, who already had chefs in place to make those “substantial food items;” plus, all of these restaurants had substantial takeout drink menus in place, which made packaging less of a challenge.
Some bars will use the new legislation as an opportunity to sell large-format drinks to-go ahead of New Year’s Eve. Alfredo Climaco, the owner of the new cocktail bar Tropicale, has been serving mezcal and drink-filled pineapples on the patio of his Gilsan bar; starting December 29, however, the bar will sell fully spiked bottles of spicy mango and traditional margaritas, plus piña coladas. Because of their size, customers will need to buy three dishes to order one of Climaco’s bottles — at Tropicale, that might mean a plate of tacos, some empanadas, and pozole, a trio that makes a lot of sense given the beverage.
Ricky Gomez, the owner of Cuban cocktail bar Palomar, has been fighting for cocktails to-go for months, and had to temporarily close his bar once Gov. Kate Brown shut down indoor dining. Gomez is trying to pull everything together so he can start selling daiquiris and mixed drinks before the year ends. “I’m hoping to get everything up and running for New Year’s Eve, “ he says, “but it’s going to be tight.”
• Information on Oregon drinks to-go [OLCC]
• Oregon Legislators Pass Bill to Allow To-Go Cocktail Sales from Restaurants [EPDX]
• Botanist House States That It Will Start Selling Cocktails To Go This Month as a Protest of the State’s Liquor Laws [EPDX]
• For Some Portland Bar Owners, To-Go Cocktail Legislation Feels Like Too Little, Too Late [EPDX]