If someone says “Portland,” and “bar” together in the same sentence, there’s a good chance you immediately think of the largest city in Oregon. And that’s a shame, because 1) Portland, Maine, took the name first by a factor of 219 years, and 2) it hosts a vibrant, eclectic cocktail scene that can compete with towns 10 times its size.
From Old Port new-classics like Blyth & Burrows and the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club to the relentlessly experimental Bramhall and Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box, this city of just over 66,000 punches way above its weight. Throw in a handful of excellent restaurant bar programs and within-city-limits distilleries with bars of their own, and you’ve got an embarrassment of drinking riches within easy walking distance.
To be clear, this isn’t an ordered ranking of Portland’s best bars, but an alphabetical list of our favorite cocktail joints in the city. Now, off we go…
The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box
644 Congress Street // thebeardedladysjewelbox.com
The entrance to this West End bar is barely marked, and its website provides scant information. Despite those signs, The Bearded Lady is no dour neo-speakeasy. It’s a dimly lit, hard-to-classify joint with an aesthetic that lands somewhere between your grandma’s bedroom and a haunted house, with a cocktail menu heavy on amari, liqueur, and unexpected combinations of both. A tiny second floor offers additional seating and occasional exhibitions.
Blyth & Burrows
26 Exchange Street // blythandburrows.com
Named for two opposing ship captains who were killed in a naval battle off the coast of Maine during the War of 1812 and then interned together in Portland, this Old Port bar leans into its theme with wall-mounted ship maidens and a mural of dueling brigs. The drinks tend to be on the strong side, both in alcohol content and flavor, particularly the “Navy Strength” portion featuring cocktails that double-down on gins, whiskeys, and more.
769 Congress Street // bramhallme.com
Bramhall touts itself as a “modern speakeasy,” and it nails the entrance experience. Take the set of stairs below a sign for the Roma Café, (feel free to pop in for dinner or a drink there, too) and you’ll find a brick-walled, catacomb-like chamber marked by the occasional stained glass window and a mass of melted candles. It boasts a near-encyclopedic whiskey list and a cocktail menu that makes use of adventurous combinations (like the Shield Potion with Cynar and Cynar 70) that you hadn’t thought of, but wish you had.
58 Pine Street // chavalmaine.com
Chaval is first and foremost a French/Spanish small plates restaurant, but its small bar offers a cocktail menu that’s worth a visit on its own. It’s unsurprisingly heavy on sherry, gin, and aperitifs (plus one drink made with a Suze cube, The Flor Blanca), and offers a strong selection of French, Italian, and Spanish vermouths.
15 Chestnut Street // restaurantgrace.com
Spirits, holy and otherwise, co-exist at Grace. The bar and restaurant sits in a beautifully renovated Methodist Church built by renowned Portland architect Charles Alexander in 1856, and still retains many of the church’s original features. One of the few major changes was a circular bar that now sits in what would have been the center of the aisle, providing the perfect place to ponder the almighty with a Negroni in hand.
Hardshore Distilling Company
53 Washington Avenue // hardshoredistilling.com
Hardshore Distilling makes one thing—Hardshore Original Gin—and it’s damn good at it. The little Washington Avenue tasting room provides a small counter and a handful of leather chairs (plus a patio in warmer weather) just yards from the 1,200-liter still that makes it all possible. And while the menu is limited to the one spirit they produce, the underpriced Gin Rickey, Gimlet, and Tom Collins more than make up for the extra-focused selection.
211 Danforth Street // littlegiantmaine.com
This second venture from the team behind Portland Hunt & Alpine Club features the latter’s whitewashed Scandinavian-minimalist aesthetic and even offers the same Espresso Martini. But it’s no copy-and-paste job: Little Giant stands out with a menu that’s at once approachable and different, as evidenced by an eponymous Martini with filtered sea water (local, of course) and a Whiskey Sour with pineapple and pink peppercorns.
250 Commercial Street // liquidriot.com
Distillery, brewery, restaurant-bar: Liquid Riot is everything short of a winery, too. Its cocktail menu unsurprisingly makes use of their extensive range of house spirits, including rums, whiskeys, a fernet and an “agave spirit,” aka American tequila. If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary to sip on, ask for a glass of their Bierschnaps (distilled beer aged in whiskey barrels) or oat whiskey made from Maine oats. While there’s plenty of seating (and a shuffleboard table) inside, the best seats in the house are on the back patio picnic tables with harbor views.
Maine Craft Distilling
123 Washington Avenue // mainecraftdistilling.com
Maine Craft Distilling creates spirits that feel uniquely of The Pine Tree State, from a blueberry moonshine to a distilled-carrot juice “botanical spirit,” to a vodka made from Maine barley. There’s also a single malt whiskey, a gin, and two rums. All are available for tasting or mixing into cocktails, which range from house creations to their take on the Negroni and Jungle Bird.
Portland Hunt & Alpine Club
75 Market Street // huntandalpineclub.com
Hunt & Alpine Club put Maine on the cocktail map with a high-low sensibility that’s best expressed in its killer Espresso Martini and a penchant for using Allen’s Coffee Brandy, a bottom-shelf wonder with a local cult following. The menu’s chock-full of tempting originals, but don’t miss out on the always-changing $6 punch. Scandinavian influence is present in both the interior styling, as well as the food program touting gravlax and an impressive smorgasbord.
150 Park Street // sagamorehillmaine.com
Sagamore Hill is named for Teddy Roosevelt’s Long Island estate and decorated in a similar style—look for the imposing elk, moose, and other big-game animal heads on the walls. Its T.R. Julep is based on the 26th president’s own 1904 brandy-bourbon recipe, and served in a replica of the glass julep cups that would have been found at his White House. Its other easy-drinking cocktails, like the JFK Daiquiri with vanilla bean syrup a bourbon-triple sec-ginger Walker’s Point, pay homage to U.S. Presidents and their “Summer White Houses.”
Vena’s Fizz House
345 Fore Street // venasfizzhouse.com
Both retail shop and bar, Vena’s is the rare bird where you can buy locally made bitters, home infusion kits, and kitschy vintage barware before sitting down for a dram. The “Fizz” part of the equation is found in the bar menu, which makes liberal use of shrubs, tonics, bitters, and syrups. A well thought-out mocktail menu makes it an ideal retreat for anyone abstaining, or those who’re exhausted from visiting all the local watering holes above.