For all its exalted stature in the foodie press, Portland, Maine, has never had a dedicated craft cocktail bar. You can always get a solidly made drink at one of the better restaurants (Fore Street, The Front Room), but bar-wise it’s always been more of beer town.
Happily, that's changed. Andrew Volk swapped Portlands a couple of years back — Oregon for Maine. (He worked with Jeffery Morgenthaler at Clyde Common). Then this past summer he opened the Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, right in the middle of the quaint and tidy Old Port. Yes, it’s got an ironic Brooklynesque name given the distance from any place to actually hunt or ski (see: Union Pool, Bushwick Country Club), but Volk carries it off well — it’s irony without the air quotes. The space is beautiful, bright and welcoming.
Volk tends bar along with craft cocktail pioneer John Myers, who moved from the Grill Room just across the park. Myers started out behind the stick in Washington, D.C., and moved to Maine in 2001. He’s a more or less a classicist when it comes to drink, which is good since in Maine the range of liquors is limited by the state-decreed nanny-distribution system. If you buy me a drink, I’ll tell you about the time Myers came out to my house when I lived on Peaks Island to help me drain bottles that were less than half full prior to my move to New Orleans. It was a long night; I took Myers to three ferries to send him home, one of which we missed and two of which evidently never existed. I believe we got rid of more liquor in the coffee the next morning.
The cocktail list will keep both strict cocktail constructionists and the general public slaked and entertained. Classics are well represented (Clover Club, El Presidente, La Louisiane, Tommy’s Margarita), but so too are modern adaptations, like Volk’s own gin and tonic variation made with Cocchi and quinine syrup. Fernet Branca is spread around the menu like lobster buoys around a harbor.
A private lodge exists within the lounge here — it’s reserved for lodge “members” (buffalo horns optional) who pony up $2,500 (which includes a $2,000 bar tab and access to the private space, which is sort of like a ski hut come to the city for a little urban getaway). Nobody was in residence when I visited, but it seems like it would be a good place to entertain friends and clients.
Food is second to the drink here but well considered. It’s vaguely Nordic in inspiration, with options like gravlax and pickled beet salad.
If I still lived in Portland — and I lived here for nearly twenty years, or as I remember it, twenty winters — this would be my regular haunt. I have fond memories of spending long winter days at another (now gone) bar a few blocks away, sitting at a corner table that was flooded with late afternoon sunlight. Add a handful of friends, a Scrabble board, popcorn with Siracha, and endless pints of beer, and the stage was set for lazy afternoons punctuated by physical altercations, game board over-flipping, and out-storming following arguments of how to pluralize certain obscure nouns.
I already have a table picked out at Portland Hunt + Alpine for winter afternoons. Now I just need a plane ticket and a new Scrabble board. Well that, and getting over lingering frostbite-related PTSD from walking home into knifing wind after getting off the ferry near midnight on February nights.
Or maybe I'll just go back next summer.
Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, 75 Market St., Portland, ME. 207-747-4754. huntandalpineclub.com