PDX Cocktails: History and Recipes for Five Classic Cocktails

Old-Fashioned Cocktail, History, Recipe and the Best in Portland

Aptly named, the Old Fashioned is possibly the first cocktail on the books. In fact, the earliest documented definition of the word “cocktail” (dating back to 1806) states that a cocktail is a potent mix of spirits, bitters, water, and sugar—the basic ingredients of what we now know as an Old Fashioned.

Colonel James E. Pepper, a member of Louisville’s Pendennis Club and distiller of bourbon whiskey, allegedly coined the name “Old Fashioned” in the 1880s. Colonel Pepper has also been credited with popularizing the drink, in part by bringing it to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar in New York City where it became the favorite cocktail of President Truman.

Over the course of its long history, the Old Fashioned has changed significantly. Even the earliest recipes vary on the specifics and, with the increasing popularity of mixology, contemporary twists and variations are springing up.

One of the older recipes comes from George J. Kappeler’s “Modern American Drinks.” More than a century after its publication in 1895, this Old Fashioned recipe might not be considered “modern” anymore, but it certainly provides a great (and historically authentic) basis for this delicious cocktail:

“Dissolve a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey-glass; add two dashes Angostura bitters, small piece ice, a piece lemon-peel, one jigger whiskey. Mix with small bar-spoon and serve, leaving the spoon in glass.”

If you’re interested in the evolution of the Old Fashioned, you may want to check out this wonderful collection of Old Fashioned recipes ranging from Kappeler’s in 1895 to the early 1950s.

A great local variation on the Old Fashioned can be found at the Matchbox Lounge, which integrates succulent homemade maraschino cherries and a fresh orange into their version of this timeless drink.

Gin & Tonic and Where to Find a Great One in Portland

A popular summer cocktail, the gin, and tonic is a refreshing highball cocktail made of exactly that—gin and tonic. The ratio of gin to tonic varies (depending on how much of a lush you are) from 1:1 to 1:3. It is often garnished with a wedge of lime or lemon.

In contrast to the ordinariness of the gin and tonic, its origins are actually quite surprising. You might hazard that its advent came out of a need to dilute gin, making it a little less potent and a little more drinkable by adding tonic water. In fact, it’s the other way around.

The gin and tonic were initially developed by the army of the British East India Company in the 18th century as an unintended consequence of using tonic water to combat malaria. Quinine, the active antimalarial agent, was present in high concentrations in tonic water back then, making it extremely bitter. Gin was added to make tonic water more palatable.

And there you have it—a tasty, refreshing, anti-malarial concoction for the ages.

Modern variations include using cucumber, celery, various fruits, special tonic waters, and, of course, high-end gin. Aviation Gin, made by House Spirits here in Portland, is exceptional and many local bars offer Aviation gin and tonics. Try the new Jam Cafe on SE Hawthorne, where the newly minted nighttime location features Guy the bartender, a true mixologist capable of making gin sing.

The Classic Martini and Who Makes the Best in Portland

While its origins are unclear, the martini without a doubt owes its popularity to Prohibition and the comparative ease of gin distillation among other spirits. It quickly became the dominant cocktail of the mid-20th century. By the 70s and 80s, however, the martini fell out of fashion.

Recently, it has reemerged with the revival of mixology as an iconic American drink. The distinctive martini glass remains instantly recognizable, although its contents continue to be reinvented with the times. There are countless variations on the martini, but at its most basic, it’s as follows:

  • 2 ounces gin
  • 1/2 ounce dry vermouth

Shaken with ice, strained into a chilled martini glass, and served straight up with either an olive or a twist of lemon as garnish.

Exciting new variations can be found almost everywhere that serves liquor as the martini is continually reinvented. While you’ll find other fantastic cocktails and bartenders who know how to mix a magical drink, we recommend the Secret Society on NE Russell for a great martini (click the Urban Spoon logo below to learn more about the Secret Society)

Whiskey Sour Cocktail and Where to Find it in Portland

nother classic whiskey drink that can’t go without mention is the whiskey sour. The first documented mention of the whiskey sour was by a newspaper in Wisconsin in 1870 and it’s easy to see why the drink remains popular.

Simple, tasty, and exceedingly easy to make, the whiskey sour contains little more than whiskey (often bourbon), lemon juice, and sugar. The basic recipe is as follows:

  • 2 ounces bourbon
  • 2/3 ounce lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon superfine sugar

Shake ingredients well with cracked ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry if desired.

For an excellent local twist on the whiskey sour, you might try the fantastic Tamarind Whiskey Sour at Pok Pok and the Whiskey Soda Lounge.

The Margarita Cocktail and Where to Find it in Portland

This list would not be complete without the most popular tequila cocktail in the U.S. Composed of tequila, orange-flavored liqueur, and lemon or lime juice, the margarita is typically served on the rocks with salt on the rim of the glass.

The International Bartender’s Association’s standard margarita is a ratio of 7:4:3 tequila to Triple Sec to fresh lemon or lime juice, but there are countless variations on this classic drink. Margaritas often come blended with ice for frosty summer refreshment and fruit is commonly added.

The margarita definitely originated in Mexico sometime in the 20th century, but who invented it is disputed.

One of the first published recipes came from Esquire Magazine in 1953:

  • 1 ounce tequila
  • Dash of Triple Sec
  • Juice of 1/2 lime or lemon

Por Qué No Taqueria is the place to get margaritas in Portland, especially during their happy hour. Served in pint glasses with great fruit flavors like jamaica and pomegranate, their margaritas are hard to beat.

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