Portland loves its booze. Between September 2020 and August 2021, Multnomah County alone reported more than $183 million in distilled spirits sales alone, and the city of Portland is home to numerous distilleries, cocktail bars, and liquor aficionados. It’s hard to find an area in Portland without a smart, creative bartender shaking and stirring nearby, be it at a hotel lounge or a dive.
But when it comes to making drinks at home, things get trickier. The sheer variety of different liqueurs and spirits available at local liquor stores and bars can be overwhelming, especially for the novice home bartender; many home bars stick to the work-horses, like gin, whiskey, and tequila. Thankfully, Portland is home to a number of incredibly talented and innovative bartenders, many of whom have a few secret weapon liqueurs, amari, fortified wines, and more they use to keep their cocktail menus interesting. We asked some of these bartenders for their favorite underrated spirits and liqueurs, so those of us barely stepping outside Old Fashioned territory can try something new. Want to track down some of these names? Use the OLCC’s liquor search engine to find a store near you with a bottle in stock. These responses have been edited and condensed.
“As far as underrated spirits go, I really wish I saw more cocktails on menus featuring brandy. I think it is an often overlooked category that has loads of potential. Personally speaking, I am a huge fan of Cognac — I think the price point can be a little inhibiting for some bars, as they don’t want to have cocktails on their menu above a certain price, which I totally understand. Locally, we have two pear-based brandies made by Clear Creek and New Deal that both are fantastic in cocktails. Sure, you run into the same issues as with Cognac, but with these, you don’t always need to use a full pour for that unique flavor profile to shine though. My first bar job in Portland had a pear brandy sidecar on their menu, and it was the first time I’d ever tried it in a cocktail; that’s a drink I still make for my guests. One brandy that you can almost always find featured on the menu at Deadshot is Singani 63. Singani is an unaged, grape-based brandy from Bolivia; it’s distilled at high altitudes, and the end product is extremely floral. In my experience, it works very well as a modifier in cocktails, as opposed to using it as the base or only liquor in a cocktail; I’ve had great success doing split-base drinks with it, usually paired with other unaged spirits such as gin, vodka, or rum. By itself, it can be a little intense or overpowering in a cocktail, but when you think of it in terms of using it as a modifier, it can be a fun and unique ingredient.” -Adam Robinson, Deadshot
“I know many would vote for more recent additions to the market, but I consider the most underrated spirit to be truly O.G: armagnac. I perpetually skew to the functionality of a spirit in cocktails, seeking ingredients that play an active role in developing flavor arcs. Armagnac is to Cognac as rye is to bourbon or mezcal to tequila; as opposed to the restraint and elegance in a good Cognac, armagnac, through its various shifts in production methodologies (broader grape profile, column stills, lower proof, greater freedom in the aging process), engineers more top notes, a sleek backbone, and a transformative dynamism. ‘Rustic’ is the descriptor most commonly applied, but this simply means more volatile, complex, and unbridled. Because Gascony has never been terribly interested in a broader commercial appeal, this means armagnac has always remained an underrepresented and elusive spirit in the U.S., but I believe more people would drink Cognac cocktails if we served more with armagnac.” -Daniel Shoemaker, Teardrop Lounge
Ancho Reyes Verde
“This delicious, layered in flavor, not too sweet, vegetal, smokey, moderately hot liqueur holds the keys to my heart. Even just a quarter ounce of this green goddess is enough to transform a cocktail into a journey of flavor.” -Natasha Mesa, Bit House Collective
“It always surprises me when people still haven’t had Becherovka, and it’s always a pleasure to introduce them to it. We’ve been serving it neat, chilled, and in cocktails for the eight years Expatriate’s been open, and it tends to be received with as much excitement as we pour it with. We usually describe it as ‘Christmas in a small glass.’” -Kyle Linden Webster, Expatriate
“So my favorite, underrated liqueur has got to be Bénédictine. I like it straight, after dinner; I like it on the rocks, and I love it in cocktails. I’ll be putting a Bénédictine drink on the menu at Dame in the next week that is absolutely delicious.” -Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bar consultant
“Chartreuse was not the only treasure perfected by the monks: This young thyme liqueur is my go-to secret ingredient for my summer and fall cocktails. A rinse or a healthy bar spoon full of this gentle giant is enough to transform any cocktail.” -Natasha Mesa, Bit House Collective
“I think the most underrated spirit is baijiu. I think a lot of us haven’t either discovered it or have had bad experiences with it akin to when tequila was first introduced. But from a production standpoint, it’s one of the coolest spirit categories in the world. It’s not defined by a single production method, aging method or even ingredient. It’s defined by having a “Qu” (pronounced chu) that is a blend of koji mold and yeast. Similar to the way the enzyme in barley works, koji is a mold that turns starch into sugar but imparts way more flavor. Vinn, a local distillery out of Wilsonville, uses rice for their baijiu. Others use sorghum; some use barley. While the flavor of most baijiu is very strong, I am excited to see bartenders play with it more for cocktails. It pairs well with spice, umami, vegetables, and other more savory flavors.” -Robbie Wilson, Botanist
Koji-fermented rice whisky
“Scotch Lodge is a love letter to whisky, so pretty much anything that is not whisky here may come across as underrated. Recently, I have been crushing on koji-fermented rice whiskies from Japan and these specifically are subject to debate on whether or not they can even be called Japanese whisky, which I think leads further to their dismissal or being underrated. To me, they are whisky and I do not think of them as aged Shochu, especially when I’m sipping on a heavily sherry-aged 14 year single cask. The raw materials employed here are a few varieties of rice that are polished, koji-fermented, pot-distilled and then aged in a variety of casks. To me, this is an authentic expression of whisky from Japan entirely based on the history of fermentation and distillation of the available grains within the region. It’s confusing to me that it’s not recognized as such, and therefore underrated.” -Tommy Klus, Scotch Lodge
“This is a spirit made from sugar cane and fermented red rice. It is bottled at elevated proof without aging. What I love about using this in most of my punches is that it combines smokey fruitiness with a vegetal funk. I like to layer flavors like a chef would, this ingredient helps me accomplish just that.” -Natasha Mesa, Bit House Collective
• Oregon Liquor Search [OLCC]