Not all whiskey bars need a ladder to access most bottles. At Multnomah Whiskey Library in Portland, however, they need three.
“We have around 940 bottles of whiskey here,” says Jordan Felix, Multnomah’s well-dressed Australian-born bar manager. They also have an impressive selection of tequila, gin, cognac, vodka and other premium spirits, he adds. But it’s the whiskey – as you can tell from the name of the bar – that is their mainstay.
Opened in 2013 by former designer and social worker-turned-bar owner Alan Davis, Multnomah is an upscale joint that’s sleek in every detail. It goes far beyond leather armchairs, fine woods, exposed brickwork and chandeliers. Cocktails are served in chilled glasses with perfectly cut luxury ice cubes. (Yes, deluxe ice cream does exist.) Food arrives from the kitchen through a discreet sliding wooden panel in the wall. Their flight decks are made from discarded barrel staves. Hanging on the wall are more than a dozen portraits of whiskey’s most important personalities, all by local artists. They include Jack Daniels, Mary the Jewess (“the Western world’s first true alchemist”), George Washington and Shinjiro Torii (the founder of Suntory whisky), to name a few. Most of the menu is fairly affordable, but their most expensive offering is a Macallan Royal Marriage single malt, with a price tag of $1,785 per shot.
But with a glut of trendy whiskey bars popping up in every major city, what makes the Multnomah Whiskey Library so special? Sure, they’re swanky and exclusive (1,200 people are on the waitlist for their $600 annual membership) and have a ton of great booze, but so does the Flatiron Room in New York and the Nihon Whiskey Lounge in San Francisco.
What sets Multnomah apart from the pack is its focus on pairing top-notch whiskey with top-notch food. Gabriel Pascuzzi, head chef at Multnomah, sources the lion’s share of his ingredients from local suppliers and farmers. All of their dishes should pair well with their liquor selection, emphasizes Pascuzzi, who has performed at noma.
“There are a number of basics that go well with bourbon, whiskey and Scotch,” the chef explains. “Obviously the smoke is fine – potting soil, anything charred, anything cast iron. We have a small Japanese grill that we put charcoal in and prepare things with in the back.
The bar menu — with dishes like elk tartare, carpaccio, Japanese Wagyu and New York prime (you want a full-bodied whiskey with steak, Felix says) — is heavy on the meat. This is because meat, especially game meat, goes very well with whiskey.
Their lamb tartare – served with shredded radishes, feta and a homemade oregano lavash cracker – soared when paired with the bar’s expertly calibrated Old Fashioned, which a waiter well dressed prepared with tumbler and tech looking tools on wheeled cart by table. The earthy citrus in the cocktail brought out the raw game meat even more.
“Food is what we want to highlight,” says Felix. “Whisky is a bit off. Whiskey enhances flavors, especially with meat. Different whiskeys do different things. Sherry scotches are very easy to pair with chocolate, for example.” A good smoked Scotch accompanied by oysters is one of the favorite combinations of the self-taught mixologist.
Félix is teaching me to really appreciate food and whiskey pairings. “You prepared your palate with the whisky,” he says with the careful assurance of an expert neurosurgeon. “Then you have the food, then you have the whiskey again. It’s almost like a sandwich.”
The Multnomah team puts serious thought into their menu. “Recently, we all sat down and tasted all the beefs, and had a roundtable discussion about what whiskey we wanted to drink with each one, and what fat and flavor notes they contain,” says Pascuzzi.
The Oregon-raised chef treats his food, especially meat, the way Felix treats whiskey: with careful scrutiny and keen attention to detail. “We know where the farm is, how the cows were fed. Was it pasture, grain, composted vegetables? How were they finished? What was their terroir, if you will?” said Pascuzzi. It does the same for each ingredient.
Felix and the rest of the bar staff certainly do the same with the whiskey. Just take a look at the catalog of spirits, which Felix calls “the Bible”. Each whiskey is marked with every detail of its origin, down to the barrel number. “We only offer products that we know 100% how they are made. We have to know the production process,” Felix explains.
And it’s not just limited to whisky. For the bar’s tequila and mezcal offerings, the individual agave type, extraction, cooking, and distillation method are listed next to each bottle. “We’re like detectives trying to find out what’s really going on with our products,” he says.
With its old-world charm, portraits of dead aristocrats and leather armchairs, you might very well feel very Sherlock Holmes if you go there. If you manage to get a reservation, grab a glass of whisky, sit in a comfy chair, and pretend it’s 1815. And be sure to order some food.