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Bread & Brew: Library provides education in spirits

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - One of the most striking visuals in the very popular Multnomah Whiskey Library is the vast collection of libations.Believe the hype. Multnomah Whiskey Library is a big deal.

There’s no more sophisticated place to get tipsy in Portland right now.

With all the trappings of a private club, it conjures a bygone era that is set vaguely in time, but recognizable in its details: a substantial fireplace, leather upholstery, dark wood paneling, and stained glass. It’s the kind of place where the working classes would not have been allowed. Now it’s full of them — ordering Dewar’s, mispronouncing Edinburgh, and sullying the burnished air with their thuggish talk of sport. It’s still a lot of fun, though.

The bar is a drinkable encyclopedia of distilled spirits. Row upon row of glowing amber bottles rise up along a high brick wall, accessed by three

sliding brass library ladders. It’s not quite as exciting as at Paddy’s, where the rickety old ladder always looks like it’s about to throw the bartender to his doom, but they’re still an inducement to order something from the top, top, top shelf.

All these bottles are listed in a leather-bound tome, and there also is a more concise menu with recommended pours. Somewhere in there the cocktail list is buried. It’s concise and brilliant, and a bartender mixes the drinks tableside, working from a heavy rolling cart. He works without flash or flame — this isn’t Huber’s — but with stoical precision.

The Library isn’t a fast-paced place. Plan to settle in, and take time to consider the food. The short menu is packed with rich dishes that pair up nicely with the cocktails.

At first I thought the Toronto cocktail was too bitter, with Fernet Branca dominating over bourbon, bitters and honey. But it was an

excellent foil for Devils on Horseback, the traditional British drinking snack of bacon-wrapped dates. Here, thick scrolls of bacon are enhanced with the sugary lushness of the dates, plus a tang of goat cheese, and a crunch from mellow diced almonds.

Hama Hama oysters are fresh and cleanly shucked, garnished with a flowery Champagne granita. They are the perfect mates for the Clubland, a vodka cocktail perfumed with white port and aromatic bitters.

Scallops are beautifully textured, expertly seared, and served alongside a chunk of pork belly, with a well-thought-out salad of fennel, carrot and cilantro. A hint of fish sauce ties it all together. The charcuterie board holds curls of mild pink ham, white cheddar, house-made pickles, chorizo and salami, with grilled triangles of textured dark brown spelt bread, all top-notch.

We moved on to a pitch-perfect Old Fashioned and a Scotch Lodge, the first and only Scotch-based cocktail that I’ve ever really enjoyed. Typically Scotch fights the other ingredients, or else it’s just an excuse to charge $50 for a cocktail. But the Scotch Lodge doesn’t mask the Scotch, and the other ingredients — Punt e Mes, Cynar, Combier Rouge, orange bitters — bolster and complement its peatiness for a fireside-appropriate drink that just gets better as the giant ice cube slowly melts.

They have those trendy giant ice cubes, along with all kinds of other accessories to enhance the drinking experience: embossed leather coasters, etched mixing glasses, fancy stemware. The only detail that was out of sync was the music, a mix of 1960s hits that sounded straight from oldies radio.

The mood is slightly different depending on where you sit: at library tables with green-shaded lamps, at the bar, buried in high-backed leather booths, or in armchairs arranged conversationally near the fire. But despite the many different kinds of whiskey here, this is all, ultimately, in the service of the style known as Scotch.

There are Scotches by the hundreds, from Teachers on up to rare collectible bottles from distilleries that no longer exist. No other spirit offers the variety — or the history of fetishization — that Scotch does. It’s the official beverage of white male privilege.

The Library can feel exclusive, particularly since instant success has meant very long waits to get in the door. In populist Portland, the fact that you can pay your way to the front of the line has rankled. A $500 membership gives you the right to make a reservation; higher membership tiers bring amenities including your own climate-controlled whiskey locker.

For us commoners, the wait on a Wednesday evening was about 40 minutes, spent pleasantly at Jake’s Grill. That’s part of the price you pay for an experience you can’t get anywhere else. For a special occasion, and if you know what you’re getting into, it’s well worth it.

4 p.m.-midnight Tuesday-Saturday, 1124 S.W. Alder St., 503-954-1381, www.mwlpdx.com

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