Sometimes it takes a couple of days to recover from a cocktail event. Other times, it takes about 10 days. That’s the case for the recently-ended Portland Cocktail Week. But after some reflection and a pretty intense juice cleanse, I’m ready to share my story.
Portland Cocktail Week (PDXCW) is one of the largest bartender events in the country. I met people from Rhode Island and Seattle, Miami and Abilene, and just about everywhere between. And they all had one thing in common: unbridled excitement for the craft and for the opportunity to better themselves within the industry.
Too often, events like this are publicly viewed as thinly-veiled excuses to take time off work and get zozzled with a bunch of strangers who happen to work at bars. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Were there cocktails? Absolutely. Did we consume one too many? Of course. But PDXCW is primarily about education. This was an opportunity for the bartender community to meet their brethren and learn from the best.
The week began with the Bon Vivant’s Volunteer Day, where we all spent the day improving the Self Enhancement Center Charter School, followed by the Bon Vivant’s 2nd Annual Swig & Swine. It’s always an incredible feeling to spend time helping a community before going in to an event like PDXCW. We’re their guests and it was very fulfilling to dedicate our time, energy and money to benefiting this amazing city that would play our host for the next week.
Then it was on to the Portland Bartender Institute. This is the real reason that PDXCW is one of the best cocktail events I’ve been to. Yes, it’s very bartender centric, but it’s also an incredible way to see how this community is growing. There were four tracks – Advanced Craft Cocktail Bartending, Beyond the Bar, Bar Ownership and Product Development, and they were all created to help the purveyors of this craft create long term solutions to growing within their industry. There is no corporate ladder in the cocktail industry. All the best bartenders are, essentially, self-made entrepreneurs. It’s exciting stuff.
Those who were not accepted in to the bartender programs were able to audit classes and still enjoy the same level of training as those on “scholarship.” My personal favorite was “From Bartender to Supplier” where Ryan Magarian (Aviation Gin), Simon Ford (The 86 Company), Otis Florence (Campo de Encanto Pisco) and Neil Kopplin (Imbue Vermouth), told a room full of bartenders about their personal experiences in their transition from bartender to spirit owner. Not surprisingly, the main topic was how distillers are finally developing a trusting relationship with bartenders. It wasn’t too long ago that distillers looked at bartenders as adversaries who masked the flavor of their spirits. Not anymore.
Bartenders have become an ally to distillers, because they are the ones on the front lines, interacting with the public and learning their taste preferences. So these days, when a new spirit hits the market, most craft distillers put more effort into reaching bartenders than consumers, as the former heavily influences the latter. This bartender-to-consumer evangelism and education is a tremendous benefit to the distiller. Bartenders are not simply a vehicle for service, they are a vital element in the hierarchy of the creation and distribution of spirits.
But… don’t think that the entire week was academic. We were served drinks from every active USBG chapter in the country. The Bacardi masquerade ball had us scrambling through the thrift stores of Portland looking for masks, which we then donned in a room full of fire dancers and aerialists. And the Wild Turkey skeet shoot included guns, bourbon and a low-speed bus crash. So, yeah, highlight of the trip.
Beyond training, beyond the parties, beyond the limo rides and jello-shot-filled syringes, the Portland Cocktail Week and Portland Bartender Institute were about community. When they’re able to step out from their bars and congregate with others like them, learn from those who came before them, and inspire those who are next in line, the bartenders in this country aren’t just friends, they’re like-minded family. My biggest takeaway from this experience was the incredibly tight-knit nature of these professionals and the bonds created by this tribe. Events like Portland Cocktail Week are vital to creating a sustainable industry that we can enjoy now and in the future.
Photos courtesy of PDXCW