The Bar Code: Portland’s Drink Scene Compared to Seattle’s

With the start of Sounders season, it’s only natural that we Seattleites start comparing ourselves to our rivals to the south. I recently spent a few days in Portland, and came away with a few thoughts on how their bar scene is both similar to and different from our own.

• Portland is smaller. This means that the restaurant industry, and the bar scene in particular, is smaller. The smaller bartender pool means that basically everyone knows everyone else, which creates a fun, vibrant community that’s constantly examining and critiquing each other. In a lot of ways, Portland’s current state reminds me of Seattle’s five to 10 years ago, when the craft-cocktail scene was smaller. At Speed Rack (a female bartending competition) a month or so ago, I was shocked at how many people in the Seattle bar scene I didn’t know—a commentary both on me and on how large that scene has grown. Portland isn’t there yet, but that might be a good thing.

• Pretension is still big business. Mustaches and vests abound (as they do in Seattle, of course). Exclusivity and a massive list of whiskeys is part of the core concept at Multnomah Whiskey Library, arguably the hottest spot in Portland right now. To be fair, the service was spot-on, but it’s hard not to feel like 1,000-plus whiskeys is maybe a few too many.

• Their distilling scene is smaller, but less encumbered by regulation. Here in Washington, the craft distilling law means that to make a “craft spirit,” one must source at least 51 percent of their raw goods from within the state. While that’s certainly good for Washington grain producers, it does limit experimentation to some extent. Want to make rum? Too bad sugarcane doesn’t grow in our climate. There are ways around it, but Oregon doesn’t have nearly as many hoops to jump through.

• Hotel bars have made a comeback. One of Portland’s most unique bars is the Driftwood Room at the Hotel deLuxe. A true hotel bar with no attached restaurant (though there is one nearby), it serves both as an oasis for weary travelers and as a modern and creative craft-cocktail bar. Similarly, the Imperial at the Hotel Lucia has a contemporary bar that matches any in Portland. Both are worth checking out.

• Of course, Portland is also known for its beer scene, and for its proximity to the Willamette Valley. Local beers and wines abound, as they do here. Yet the differing climates put an emphasis on white wines and lighter reds, a definite contrast to Washington’s powerful, concentrated red wines.

Of course we fight like siblings, but it’s no surprise that among American cities, none feel more like Seattle than Portland does. Except you can drink at strip clubs. Score one for PDX!

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