Portland, Maine’s Drinks Scene Comes of Age

portland-me-hunt&alpine-andrew volk--crdt Greta Rybus

Andrew Volk at Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, one of the city’s best cocktail bars.

Maine is a place that’s always been five years behind,” says Andrew Volk. “And we’re totally okay with that.”

With his wife, Briana, Volk opened the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club in the fall of 2013—by most accounts, the city’s first stand-alone craft-cocktail bar. Think about that—it’s like showing up to a dinner party not only after the meal has been served, but after the dishes are cleaned and put away.

While cities across the U.S. have been opening quality- minded cocktail bars for the past decade, Portland—a lovely port of bricks and seagulls and the scent of the sea— seemed content to remain a city of beer bars and highballs. Restaurants intermittently rolled out a clever cocktail or two, but the city had more or less ignored the modern cocktail revolution that was infiltrating nearby Boston and beyond.

“For the longest time it was like the Galapagos,” says John Myers, who moved to Portland from Washington, D.C. in 2001 and has been making excellent drinks at restaurant bars in the city ever since. “Chefs were coming and going, but bartenders didn’t really travel.”

Portland Hunt & Alpine, where Myers worked from its opening until recently, is a bright, sunny spot facing a small park in the city’s Old Port. It has the cheerful atmosphere of a Scandinavian outdoor club designed by a modernist architect, and a list of classic and modern cocktails that wouldn’t be out of place in, say, the other Portland.

Which the Volks also know something about, having met in that West Coast city before moving to Maine in 2011. Andrew tended bar at Clyde Common, and Briana had seen the Pacific Portland do remarkable things with local foods and wine before moving on to extraordinary cocktails. She figured the Atlantic Portland was on a similar trajectory—it had long maintained an outsized reputation in culinary circles, with a restaurant scene far out of proportion to its size. “I’m hard-pressed to think of a small town with as large of an impact on the country’s food scene,” food critic Andrew Zimmern opined not long ago in Food & Wine. And drinks appear to be catching up.

Brewed Beginnings
Portland hasn’t actually suffered from a lack of innovation in drinks, especially if your interests run to beer. Portland was an early responder when beer drinkers sent up a flare decades ago, asking to be rescued from the macrobrew sea. Three Dollar Dewey’s, an intimate and pubby bar, opened in the then-scruffy Old Port in 1981. A man named David Geary convinced the Maine legislature to change some laws, and in 1986 he launched Geary’s Ale, the first microbrewery east of the Rockies. Gritty McDuff’s, the city’s first brewpub, opened in 1988 (and remains a draw for beer pilgrims in the Old Port), and Shipyard Ale expanded Portland’s reputation for quality British-style ales in 1994. Maine now has the sixth largest number of craft breweries per capita among the 50 states.

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Allagash bartender Thaddeus St. John serves up a beer flight.

Of the second-wave brewers, none has attracted as much acclaim as Rob Tod, who founded Allagash Brewing in 1995. While hop-forward and British-style beers dominated, Tod was intrigued by Belgian beers that had a slightly sour flavor, which could be modified with ingredients like coriander and orange peel, or through barrel aging. Tod first produced a wit beer, and for nearly a dozen years, he struggled to get beer drinkers to notice it. “When it came out, it was very much an outlier,” says Jason Perkins, the current brewmaster, who has been with Allagash since 1999. “We’d take it to places and they’d say, ‘This beer smells funny,’ ” Perkins recalls. “But there was an awareness building, and consumers started to catch on. And then this spike happened around 2007.”

And there’s been no looking back. The brewery, located in a leafy industrial park about a 15-minute drive from downtown, now has 93 employees who produce upwards of a million cases each year. The gleaming state-of-the- art facility seems to be always on the cusp of another expansion, and the large tasting room overflows with tourists awaiting the next tour, or sidling up to the bar to try a sampler.

Allagash lies just across the street from what’s been described as a “beer incubator”—a nondescript, light-industrial warehouse building, where on agreeable days open garage doors expose the brewers of three start-ups: Austin St., Foundation and Bissell Brothers.

It doesn’t take much to figure out that Bissell Brothers, founded in 2013 by Peter and Noah Bissell, is the beer of the moment in Portland. On a summer weekday when the tap room opens at 1 p.m., a line spills out the door. What the place lacks in New England charm, it makes up for in consumer enthusiasm. Bissell Brothers has a counterculture vibe—a colorful poster designed as an homage to concert handbills circa 1968 outlines weekly beer releases, and “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” plays loudly, both inside and out, where visitors sit sipping beers.

Closer to the seagulls of the city’s harbor is East Bayside, another neighborhood of considerable ferment. It’s also a charmless area of former light industry—until recently home to scrapyards, bus lots, plumbing supply warehouses, and all the aesthetic appeal that suggests. But such areas are also the natural habitat for young entrepreneurs drawn by a gritty charm and inexpensive rents—a half-dozen of whom in this neighborhood happen to be dabbling in adult beverages. The inevitable nickname? “Yeast Bayside.”

Since 2011, Bunker Brewing has occupied an erstwhile car-crushing building for its nano- brewery, which often collaborates with chefs, artisans and the folks at Tandem Coffee Roasters next door to produce creative beers on its three-and-a-half-barrel system. It is to traditional beer what freestyle skiing is to downhill.

Tandem Coffee’s roastery and retail shop opened three years ago, owned by Will Pratt and his wife, Kathleen. Kathleen has a strong coffee pedigree—she worked at Blue Bottle in San Francisco and moved to Brooklyn to open Blue Bottle’s first New York outpost, where she was the operations manager. “It was like free business school,” she says.

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Coffee perfection at Tandem Coffee.

Riding tandem bikes around Portland during their honeymoon, the couple liked what they saw, and they packed up and brought what they learned north—along with a Probat roaster they’d turned up on Craigslist. “We felt like there was room for us,” Kathleen says.

They initially planned to roast for wholesale in East Bayside, but so many people stopped by when they were building it that they added a small coffee shop, which turns out drinks from a La Marzocco GB5 espresso machine from the first Blue Bottle location. Not long after, they leased a midcentury gas station on busy Congress St. and opened a bakery and coffee shop. “We feel like we’ve got two of the coolest buildings in Portland,” Kathleen says.

Just around the corner is Rising Tide Brewing Company, launched in 2010 by Heather and Nathan Sanborn, who brew beers both traditional and not-so-much, such as Gose to which a bit of seawater is added for a subtle salinity. Also in the neighborhood: The Urban Farm Fermentory, which makes hopped and bourbon barrel–aged cider from Maine apples, along with chai and blueberry kombucha.

Perched above East Bayside on the western side of Munjoy Hill is Maine Mead Works, where founder Ben Alexander, a Portland native, was inspired by the first generation of Maine brewers. He launched in 2008 and now makes dry, wine-style meads bottled at 12.5 percent ABV, and a pair of carbonated and lower-ABV meads that are more beer-like, flavored with lavender-lemon and iced tea, and available on tap at a growing number of Portland bars.

“The idea was to use honey to showcase Maine agriculture,” Alexander says, and he offers seasonal flavored variants of his wine-style meads that include cranberry, strawberry, blueberry and lavender.

New England Spirit
As in other cities, craft distilleries are catching up with their craft-brew brethren. Since Cold River Vodka opened 15 miles north of Portland in Freeport in 2005, the state has seen nine other distilleries open, three within Portland city limits.

Ned Wight launched New England Distilling, the city’s first distillery, in 2012. It’s not far from Allagash Brewing (where Wight was the first employee and worked for six years), and inside the garage bay of his modern warehouse it’s anything but contemporary. Wight distills on a pair of 250-gallon Portuguese copper-pot stills with bases encased in brick and equipped with two thumpers—attachments that help boost the proof, and which shake as if possessed when operating. The design is a nod to both traditional Caribbean producers as well as to his family’s business. The Wights produced a traditional rye in a three-chamber still into the 1950s in Maryland. “I remember my father talking about distilling when I was in high school,” Wight says. Demand outstrips supply with his rye, and he’s also producing a gin and a two-year-aged rum.

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Luke Davidson at Maine Craft Distilling.

Luke Davidson opened Maine Craft Distilling in 2012 in East Bayside. One’s first impression may be of a go-kart scale distillery—it’s compact and crammed with stuff, including a 1,000 gallon stripping still he built himself, open fermenters made of Douglas fir, and a malting floor the size of a kid’s pool at a municipal recreational faculty. The building even houses a small silo (it’s now Davidson’s office).

Davidson makes nine spirits, including a molasses-based rum, a gin, and a whiskey made with Maine barley malt that’s smoked with both peat and a touch of Casco Bay seaweed. His most unique offering? A gin-like spirit distilled from carrots, and then infused with mint, basil, juniper, cucumber peel, coriander and cardamom.

Like Ned Wight, Eric Michaud also got his start in beer— although as a retailer, not a producer. He opened the much-lauded basement beer hall Novare Res Bier Cafe in 2008, opening his taps to international beers—serving well over 100—and introducing local palates to global flavors.

Two years ago, he decided to venture into the production side, launching Liquid Riot, a brew pub, distillery and restaurant situated in a sprawling former waterfront warehouse. You get a glimpse of the harbor from the bar, but the main attraction is a set of soaring glass windows looking into the brewery and adjacent distillery. Customers sit at the bar and sample a changing roster of fresh beers and spirits, including an unaged oat whiskey, white rum, bierschapps and a splendidly named “Well…. Vodka.” (Michaud is also barrel-aging rum, bourbon, and oat whiskey in 30-gallon barrels for later release.)

Tracking down local spirits in cocktails in Portland venues is a seductive challenge. A good place to start a search are where craft cocktails started—in the city’s outstanding restaurants, like Eventide, Central Provisions and Sur Lie, all of which serve well-crafted mixed drinks, many featuring local craft spirits. Of note: Sam Babcock, bartender at the excellent Sur Lie (he learned his trade in part in Washington D.C. at José Andrés’s Cafe Atlantico), who is offering delicious barrel-aged cocktails and other inviting liquid treats like the Swizzle Me Timbers, made with rum, charred pineapple, orange cardamom shrub and a touch of coconut and nutmeg.

Beyond restaurants, Portland got its own speakeasy-inspired bar last year on a hipsterly stretch of Congress St. The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box grew out of an actual speakeasy—for several years, Nathaniel Meiklejohn held an informal salon in his apartment, drawing small crowds who came for the drinks. “Then my landlord’s son moved into the building, and I knew that was over,” he said.

Aiming to go legit, he turned to Kickstarter, and more than 400 fans kicked in, raising more than $23,000. The space, set in an old storefront with only a sheet of paper in the window to identify it, graciously melds the spare and the baroque—it’s uncluttered, but with a striking midcentury- style oak case on the back wall, installed next to a 10-foot painting of two bearded ladies in Louis XIV-style gowns beneath an elaborate chandelier.

One thing you don’t see here: liquor bottles. Meiklejohn encourages customers to order off the menu, which changes weekly. “We’d like to encourage more purposeful drinking,” he says. “We’d like to get people to trust us, like it’s a party.”

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Vena’s Fizz House serves up creative mocktails and delicious boozy drinks as well.

Perhaps the most intriguing experiment in Portland is at Vena’s Fizz House in the Old Port. It’s a two-room cocktail storefront—the shelves are crowded with 165 different bitters, along with Japanese mixing glasses, a range of bar books and infusion kits.

But in the back, customers enter a dim bar with low ceilings, embossed Victorian wallpaper and the persistent “chukka-chukka-chukka” of shakers deployed in an intimate space. A bartender behind the copper-topped bar compounds drinks with a pharmacist’s precision, and customers peruse a long and involved drinks menu.

But there’s this: several of the customers are under the age of 12. Launched in 2013 by Johanna and Steve Corman (and named after Johanna’s great-grandmother, who was involved in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the 1920s), the bar began with an elaborate “Fizzes and Mocktails” menu that’s as complicated as anything you’ll find on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, with soft drinks made with as many as six ingredients. Among the selections: the “Dim and Stormy,” made with muddled ginger, lime and spiced tonic.

The Cormans got their liquor license earlier this year, and they’re now serving world-class cocktails alongside elaborate mocktails. A red light over the front door lights up to indicate when the (adult) bar is open, and kids can remain under their restaurant license.

In part, Vena’s is a godsend for parents on a family vacation. But it’s also a valuable training camp, one in which savage brutes are forged into sophisticated sippers, where complex adult rituals are demystified. On a recent visit, I noticed a young girl trot down the bar to watch Steve Corman pop a chunk of ice into in a copper Japanese ice press. It seems like an entirely new kind of place, where a generation of the underaged learn early on that tippling doesn’t mean keggers and shots. It’s a way to make life more interesting.

Maybe Portland isn’t behind the curve at all. Maybe it’s quietly forging ahead of everybody else.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2015 print edition.