I moved to Portland, Oregon, a couple of years ago, and I haven’t had a decent drink since. Here’s the problem. Every trendy restaurant and bar in town–of which there are many, as The New York Times never stops announcing–seems to consider it a point of pride to develop its own list of daring new cocktails. The Copper Penny: “Old Overholt rye, Clear Creek pear, Punt e Mes, apricot brandy, Angostura bitters, lemon peel.” The Gin Henson: “gin muddled basil and cucumber, lemon-lime and ginger infused simple syrup, served up with a cucumber garnish.” The Miss You: “Pretty young Lovejoy Hazelnut Vodka makes out with old Laird’s Applejack. Your record collection or mine?” You see the problem. It’s all just way too clever: too self-conscious, too “creative,” and too damn cute. But there are also two more problems with these drinks. They’re too sweet, and they’re too weak. In other words, they suck.
Thinking all this over one night–over a Tonga-Tonga, probably, or a Coco Chanel–I realized what the trouble is. The classic cocktail emerged from, and is uniquely suited to, a particular style of life, one that is quintessentially urban–quintessentially New York–and the very opposite of Portland’s today. It’s the ’20s, or the ’50s. A man in a business suit (let’s call him Don Draper, just to pick a name at random) gets through with a stressful day at the office and heads for a cool, dark establishment in the heart of the city to meet a glamorous woman for drinks. She’s had a stressful day herself. (Being glamorous is hard work, too.) They want something strong–they need to take the edge off–and they want something dry–they’re adults. They also want something simple and predictable. Classic, in other words. They don’t want to have to study the menu and choose among a dozen different things they’ve never seen before. They want a martini, or a gimlet, or a whiskey sour.
No wonder Portland can’t get it right. There is no edge to take off here. (Local bumper sticker: More Relaxed Than You, Dude.) The typical Portlander hasn’t spent the day at the office in a business suit, he’s been sitting in a coffee house in a pair of shorts, working on his website. They’re all kids here, and they should stick with what they know: beer.
But here’s the really frightening thing: they’re all kids everywhere. Brooklyn, Berkeley, it doesn’t matter. Now it’s all twentysomething hipsters who try to sell you drinks with names like For Esme or The Violent Bear, then hover over your table nattering on about locally sourced ingredients and how they “craft” their own “tinctures” and “infusions.” Craft this, boychik. Just bring me a whiskey.