I imagine back in the early days of Milk and Honey, when the term “craft cocktail” didn’t exist and the term “bar star” didn’t either, walking down a quiet residential street to get a drink in an unassuming building felt strange to New Yorkers who were used to the tony circumstance of the Odeon or Balthazar. But, with the exception of the Rainbow Room, you couldn’t find great cocktails at the big flashy places. Sasha Petraske’s temple to high standards put all its energy into building drinks, not building buzz, and you were lucky if someone tipped you off to its whereabouts.
We have now reached the other side of that coin. I’ve been to bars in the past few months that have all the press and awards today’s bar stars crave only to find drinks that were less than average despite breathless ingredient lists that promised the contrary. Even bars that blew me away a year ago have disappointed on more recent visits. And then my Instagram friend Jordan Hughes took me to an out-of-the-way bar in his out-of-the-way city and restored my faith in boundary-breaking drinks.
From the outside, Portland’s Deadshot does not look like a “craft cocktail” bar. It looks like a rock and roll bar that pays its rent with Rainer tallboys. It was a ten minute car ride from my downtown hotel, and the maple-dappled, porch-fronted houses across the street gave the feeling of a low-key neighborhood hang. Then I read the menu. Between the mustard, the seaweed and the centrifuge, I couldn’t wait to start tasting drinks. I wasn’t disappointed.
Who Is Jack Nance
All images by Jordan Hughes, @highproofpreacher
The first drink on the Deadshot menu lays down the gauntlet. The whiskey, sherry and citrus are a promising beginning, but the sesame, mustard and egg yolk could easily go off the rails. The first sip surprised me. The component ingredients were all apparent, but they came together with a harmony I hadn’t anticipated. I was even more surprised when I liked the last sip. As intense as the flavors were, they never overpowered my palette. I haven’t had a drink that fired me up this much in a long time.
After experiencing how bold a Deadshot drink could be with the Jack Nance, I expected the Diplomatic Prince’s combo of aquavit, gin, aperitivo, vermouth and cabbage to be equally roof-raising, but it was surprisingly subtle. I told my bartender, David, that it drank like an Old Fashioned, and he told me that it was built more like a Negroni. I was surprised at how creamy and rich the drink was given all the herb and spice of its ingredients. It’s wonderfully spirit forward with a light caraway finish and an absolutely beguiling purple hue.
The sherbet color of the Princess tripped a child-like craving for candy in me, and the drink delivered. While the nose was mainly juniper with a hint of citrus, the cocktail exploded on the palette with an all-out sweet/tart battle made novel by the seaweed note that emerges as the fruit flavors fade. Orange is a difficult ingredient to work with in cocktails because it lacks the intense acid of lemons and limes, but the Deadshot team clarifies and acidulates the juice here to create a powerful and satisfying confection that finishes with an unexpected complexity.
If I’d had this drink without reading the ingredient list, I would have guessed that it was a Vieux Carré made with sherry in place of the vermouth, but the ingredient list shows celery along with the whiskey, brandy and fortified wine, and subconsciously I’d hoped for the fresh vegetal blast that celery juice can give a cocktail. The North Star is a delicious and wonderfully balanced drink, but it’s also an example of how an ingredient list can create an expectation in the drinker’s mind that differs from the experience of the drink itself. Still, I mix Vieux Carrés quite a bit at home, and the North Star exceeds most of my efforts.
In addition to their house cocktails, Deadshot also offers a list of reinvented classics. I was excited to try the Toothfish because it’s a clarified Bloody Mary and I’ve always thought that drink had the potential to be good if it weren’t muted by the leaden viscosity of canned tomato juice. I like the direction this drink is going, but ultimately it was too salty for me. If I were ordering it again, I’d ask the bartender to make it with aquavit instead of gin (juniper isn’t my favorite botanical) and also if there were a way to tone down the saline.
Deadshot is open 7 days a week from 4 PM until 1 AM. The bar serves food, which I enjoyed along with my cocktails, and has a relaxed, open vibe. Everyone I talked to, from the staff to the patrons, was warm and welcoming and there were moments when the afternoon sun merged with the music to magical effect. I sincerely hope the Deadshot team stays focused on the bullseye in front of them. If they do, I’ll be looking for reasons to go to Portland for years to come.
2133 SE 11th Ave., Portland, OR 97214; 503-504-9448; deadshotpdx.com; @deadshotpdx
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