Southeast Portland’s Scotch Lodge is all about the whisky. Its name should give you your first clue. If you miss that, there are other signals. Saunter down the dimly lit stairs and through the heavy velvet drapes into the romantic, vintage-cued dining room and you’ll notice that the walls shimmer with whisky bottles, from familiar friends to ultra-collectible rarities. Flip open the menu, and you’ll see that every cocktail — even the Moneypenny, a savory riff on the gin martini — features whisky in some way.
Every cocktail, at least, except this one.
“This is the first time we’ve had a cocktail on the menu that doesn’t have whisky in it, so that’s a little weird,” says owner Tommy Klus, as bartender Aaron Zieske ambidextrously stirs a pair of cut crystal mixing glasses. They’re filled with a chiseled, herbaceous cocktail called Bad Company, which pairs Cognac with velvet falernum, Benedictine, centerba and mole bitters.
What prompted Scotch Lodge to branch out? The Portland Cognac Classic Crawl, a month-long event sponsored by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), the organization responsible for promoting France’s most famous brandy. Every year, the BNIC picks two American cities to stage their crawl. This year, Portland and Boston lucked out.
FROM COGNAC WITH LOVE
Here’s how it works: A $30 ticket (gratuities not included) gets you a passport. Pick it up at Deadshot, then visit six of Portland’s top cocktail bars during the month of October to enjoy a special drink featuring France’s most famous brandy. Plan your crawl however you wish — all in one boozy Saturday, one every evening for almost a whole week or spread across the entire month. Just be sure to check in at all six watering holes: Deadshot, La Moule, Scotch Lodge, Normandie, Botanist Bar and Stone Soup.
They’re all terrific places for a drink, but the last one is extra special. Stone Soup is a Portland-based nonprofit foodservice training enterprise that provides life skills and hands-on culinary expertise to people who are at risk of homelessness. In addition to serving Cognac Crawlers, it’s also the beneficiary of this year’s event. All of the proceeds from passport sales will be donated to Stone Soup (past events have raised up to $10,000).
“It’s a really important cause, especially in this city,” says Adam Robinson, co-owner and bartender at Deadshot and an organizer of this year’s event.
Cognac’s one of the world’s most famous spirits, but it’s relatively uncommon in American cocktails. Hailing exclusively from the Cognac region of Southwest France and typically made from the wine grape variety of Ugni Blanc, that wasn’t always the case. In the 1800s, Cognac was actually the spirit of choice for many barmen, and iconic drinks like the Sidecar, the Sazerac, and even the Mint Julep all originally called for Cognac.
But phylloxera — the plant house that destroys vines — practically wiped out the Cognac industry in the 1860s, and whisky stepped in to seize bartenders’ brown spirit shelf space. Cognac as a cocktail ingredient never totally recovered, to drinkers’ detriment.
DO THE CRAWL
Fortunately, the Portland Cognac Classic Crawl gives you an excellent chance to remedy any gaps in your Cognac education. Start at Deadshot, where Robinson pairs Cognac with clarified lemon juice, a house-made Champagne syrup and black lemon bitters for his Old 75, a tart, refreshing mash-up of a French 75 and an Old Fashioned. A few blocks east, Mariah Tatham takes things in a sweeter direction at La Moule with her Heart of Pomme, a blend of Cognac, spiced apple juice, house-made salted caramel and lemon juice. Sweet, nuanced and autumnal, it’s a perfect after-dinner drink but also pairs beautifully with cheese.
Francophile outpost Normandie mixes Cognac and Calvados as the base for its Just Another Corpse Reviver, a riff on the semi-obscure Corpse Reviver No. 1 (the No. 2 is much more famous). Macadamia nut milk, orgeat, cardamom bitters and pebbled ice take it in a subtle tiki direction.
Botanist Bar’s Big Trouble similarly turns to French ingredients for inspiration. Equal parts butter-washed Cognac, Bigallet China and Lillet Blanc produce an almost wine-like tipple with a rich grapiness and luscious silky texture. “The idea was almost like creating a chardonnay-style cocktail,” says Robbie Wilson, Botanist Bar co-owner and bartender.
But it’s Stone Soup that really builds the bridge between France’s remarkable brandy culture and our own homegrown version. Bartender Marco Dionysos’ Portland Parish #2 mixes Cognac with Clear Creek’s apple brandy, vermouth, velvet falernum and two kinds of bitters for a transatlantic homage to the wonders of distilled fruit.
That each cup benefits a worthy cause? It’s the icing on the cake — or, in this case, the expressed orange peel carefully draped over the pristine cube of crystal-clear ice.
Ready to crawl? Visit www.cognacclassiccrawl.com for tickets.