Our recipes and stories, delivered.

Behind the Backbar at Portland’s Multnomah Whiskey Library

In "Anatomy of a Backbar" we get to know the world's most notable spirits programs in five bottles. This round, the extensive, 1,800-bottle collection of spirits at Multnomah Whiskey Library.

When Alan Davis and Greg Goodman opened Multnomah Whiskey Library in 2013 in downtown Portland, Oregon, there were two things people buzzed about: the commanding spirits collection, and the notoriously long wait to get through the door.

Securing a seat at the clubby, wood- and leather-clad bar still takes around one to three hours, and the wait list to become a member—a perk of which is the ability to make reservations—currently stands at two-years. But drinkers who’ve put in the time insist its worth the wait; widely regarded as one of the city’s best bars, Multnomah is known both for its cocktails as well as its mammoth collection of spirits.

Currently at 1,800-plus offerings, that collection—the majority of which is, unsurprisingly, whiskey—is well on display at the bar. Lit with stained-glass spotlights and organized along bar-to-ceiling, brass-lined shelves, it’s accessible via three tall, rolling ladders used by bartenders; along the walls, rows of portraits showcase significant figures in whiskey history, including Jimmy Russell, Shinjiro Torii, Aeneas Coffey and even a tuxedo-clad Phylloxera beetle.

“Whiskey is a particular passion for the ownership and staff,” explains the bar’s education manager, Colin Howard. “It’s how many of us got in to spirits and is simply an inspiring spirit to work with.”

Building the collection, however, came with a very specific set of challenges. As Oregon is a control state, securing new bottles can be difficult due to lack of availability. What’s more, many spirits within the state are distributed in limited quantities due to allocation, meaning that securing rare or limited releases requires plenty of research, frequent contact with brand representatives and, more surprisingly, relationships with local liquor stores.

To that latter point, Multnomah’s bar manager, Kyle Sanders, notes that 90 percent of the original lineup of bottles came through select liquor stores, whereas the rare and vintage bottles came from private collections. “While we’ve got great relationships with a lot of brands, sometimes the relationship with the liquor stores can be even more important and determine how much or if we get any of certain allocated items,” says Sanders.

Today, the collection skews toward Scotch (both single-malt and blends), but also offers a comprehensive selection of American whiskey, plus rum, Cognac, tequila and mezcal, among others. As far as age is concerned, Howard explains, “We certainly have a lot of older whiskies, but in the end, our focus is on the balance between vintage and newer, innovative releases.”

With offerings that range from $5 to $800 a pour, the list can be intimidating to navigate for novice and seasoned drinkers alike, but there are a number of ways to approach it, including in flights or cocktails, in addition to single pours.

“Most commonly, people will start out with something like an Old-Fashioned and then maybe after that they’ll do a flight or something neat or on the rocks,” says Howard. “There’s really no wrong way to do it.” Whereas cocktails skew towards the classic, the team has been expanding the menu to include a “Scholar’s List” of high-end vintage cocktails; a vintage Vieux Carré, for example, is made from a 1960s-era bottling of Rittenhouse rye whiskey, plus 1970s-era Armagnac, 1970s-era Punt e Mes and 1950s-era Bénédictine.

Still, the spirits collection remains the main focus. Bound in a leather-bound volume and affectionately referred to in-house as “the Bible,” the catalog is arranged in the exact way the spirits are on the shelves—by category of spirit, style or region, then alphabetically within those categories by distillery.

Though Howard emphasizes the importance of meeting guests “at their level of education,” both he and Sanders stress a path of continued education on their ever-expanding inventory for the bar team, through weekly staff tastings, guest talks from master distillers and a library (of books, not booze) for further reading on history and production methods.

“It’s crucial to keep the staff up to date with what’s coming in, what’s gone and what things are and why they’re here,” says Sanders. “We like transparency from our brands, we want to know what’s in the bottle, where it comes from and what the history and story of it is so we can pass that along.”

Multnomah in Five Bottles

WhistlePig 10-Year Single Barrel Rye MWL

When the Multnomah team wanted to select a single-barrel whiskey exclusively for the bar, three team members—education manager Colin Howard, the chef and one of the bartenders—flew across the country to visit the WhistlePig distillery in Middlebury, Vermont. Sanders says, “They specifically chose this one because it was a lot different than the normal WhistlePig 10 Year—it has a bit more sweetness and some richer stone fruit qualities.” WhistlePig is a favorite of Sanders and he is especially proud of the fact that three different team members with diverse backgrounds and different palates worked together to hand-select the bar’s most recent single-barrel whiskey offering.

  • ABV: 58.2 percent

Very Very Old Fitzgerald Bonded 12-Year-Old Bourbon Whiskey

Sanders likes to describe this mid-century bottle of Very Very Old Fitzgerald 12-Year-Old bourbon that was acquired from a private seller as “super rare, old and just plain cool.” Produced at the storied Stitzel-Weller distillery in Shively, Kentucky, under the supervision of Julian P. Van Winkle, the whiskey was distilled in 1955 and bottled in 1967.

  • ABV: 43 percent

Compass Box The Lost Blend Blended Malt Scotch Whisky

“Compass Box makes some of my favorite blends and the company ethos is very similar to ours,” says Sanders, who was inspired after meeting Compass Box founder, John Glasser. “Hearing his perspective on whisky, the industry, transparency and understanding what he’s seeking to accomplish through each bottle was very influential for me.” Sanders is especially taken with Lost Blend’s “notes of sweet heather and cereal grain and a touch of apple and a bit of peat.”

  • ABV: 46 percent

Black Tot Last Consignment British Royal Naval Rum

“I really like the story that goes along with the rum and the hundreds of years of history,” says Sanders, noting the significance of this bottling in the history of the British Royal Navy. “July 31, 1970, was the last time the British Navy issued the daily rum ration,” he says, adding that this extremely limited offering was bottled from the last consignment of Royal Naval Rum Tot. Says Sanders, “It is dark, rich and delicious. It’s such a cool way to draw the connection between the bar and spirit scene today and the past.”

  • ABV: 54.3 percent

Mezcalero Special Bottling No. 2

“We could just stick to whiskey and not really focus on anything else and it would probably be fine. However, that’s just not the kind of people we are here,” says Sanders, defending his second non-whiskey pick for a bar with “whiskey” in its name. The Mezcalero series from Craft Distillers is one in a series of limited-edition bottlings of wild and semi-wild agave varietals that spotlight the artisanal nature of the spirit. “The Mezcalero, and our mezcal selection in general, illustrates how each of us here is personally vested in exploring spirits in general and broadening our knowledge and understanding.”

  • ABV: 47.4 percent

Related Articles