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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Jägermeister

Bartenders around Portland have been using spirits straight out of a college student’s liquor cabinet, and I don’t hate it

Two cocktails from the Houston Blacklight sit next to the Chinese sausage pull-apart rolls.
Many Things Cannot Fly, a cocktail from the Houston Blacklight with blackberry gin, coconut rum, black sesame orgeat, and Jägermeister.
Molly J. Smith/Eater Portland
Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

In modern psychology, some therapists have started using a technique known as imagery rescripting: A patient revisits an original, traumatic memory and gives it new context — essentially revising the events in a way that gives themselves what they believe they needed and didn’t receive in that moment.

Let’s say the bad memory in question involved a bottle of Jägermeister you chugged in a frat house basement and the propulsive aftermath: a previously consumed six-piece meal from Raising Cane’s vomited on the walk home to your dorm. What if you rewrote that memory — instead of drinking the Jägermeister straight from the bottle, it ended up in a cocktail with blackberry gin, coconut rum, and black sesame orgeat, as it does at the newly open Clinton cocktail bar the Houston Blacklight? What if the saccharine, nauseating, licorice-y note of straight Jäger instead became a little fennel hint behind something more overarchingly tropical? That’s growth, bestie. Let the healing begin.

Across Portland in the last year, I’ve been revisited by the ghosts of my college past. At Jojo, aquamarine Hpnotiq glowed in a lemon vodka drink with carrot juice and fortified wine. At Toyshop Ramen, creme de menthe and Ancho Reyes complemented a nutty undertone of Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey. The evil spirits of the discount liquor store in my old college neighborhood found me at buzzy new Portland restaurants and bars around town. “First-drink nightmares have evolved into adulting dreams,” read the description of the Hpnotiq cocktail at the Northwest Portland fried chicken shop. Could these genuinely strange, nostalgic spirits grow up?

I can understand the appeal to a bartender: Portland diners are wild for nostalgia, be it in the form of a Crunchwrap Supreme knockoff or some bespoke take on s’mores. Those trends don’t tend to show up in the beverage world, with some notable exceptions — the great espresso martini revival, for instance. But often, this nostalgia, while occasionally wistful, remains connected to some sort of positive memory or emotion: the feeling of eating your mother’s chicken pot pie or your grandmother’s dal.

The spirits peering from the top shelves of Portland bars aren’t evoking memories of comforting family dinners; for me, they revive memories of rapping “I Wish” by Skee-Lo at 2 a.m. in a bar populated by grizzled and understandably annoyed dock workers after finals week. So when a bartender says, “Yes, I am going to make something delicious and sophisticated out of this bottle of Fireball or Pinnacle Whipped,” that’s a risk. So far, it has worked out. Some of these drinks are a little sweet, or even a little silly — but they have added new dimension to the initial spirit, and thus, my initial memories of them.

Like the Crunchwrap wave in recent years, the use of the college kid spirit seems born out of a larger theme in Portland dining: the desire for a high-brow, low brow ethos on menus. The drinks walk the line between presumed approachability and creativity, reinventing liquors and spirits that have been dismissed as uncool for “adults” or of lesser value. The places leaning into these liquors demonstrate a certain level of irreverence: Toyshop Ramen celebrates the arrested development of its identity, serving its bowls of ramen in a room littered with toys and pinball machines; the Fireball-spiked cocktail with Licor 43 and dry vermouth may arrive alongside a katsu corndog and curry queso. And of course, anything Houston Blacklight and Oma’s Hideaway owners Thomas and Mariah Pisha-Duffly do will involve some sort of delightful, unconventional element, be it the popping boba in a Jell-O shot or a pile of fries drenched in salted egg yolk curry.

Often, when I look to memories of my nights as an early twentysomething in Boston, Massachusetts, I think of the end of the night — the emotional and physical queasiness felt after too many shots of creamsicle vodka and a galloping dance to “Gangnam Style.” I forget what drew me in first: the Red Hots tingle of a shot of Fireball, the balance of creamy sweetness and acid in neon green Midori. Maybe now we can just meet up with Jäger over a single drink, and let ourselves slow down enough to enjoy it. And if “Gangnam Style” ends up on the bar’s playlist, the past can beat inside you like a second heart.