Knowing When to Geek Out: Cultivating Cocktail Culture in Maine’s Portland

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno
February 2014

Restaurant

Portland, Maine is thirsty. Thirsty enough for Andrew Volk to open Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, a watering hole of idiosyncrasies with a 50+ drink long cocktail list, into which Volk's increasingly loyal clientele willingly and delightedly take the plunge.

Chilton County: Elijah Craig, Lime Juice, Rich Simple Syrup, Peach Butter, Float of Smith + Cross Jamaican Rum, Lemon

Chilton County: Elijah Craig, Lime Juice, Rich Simple Syrup, Peach Butter, Float of Smith + Cross Jamaican Rum, Lemon

Barrel-Aged White Negroni: Beefeater Gin, Cocchi Americano, Dolin Blanc, Green Apple; Aged Six-weeks in Oak

Barrel-Aged White Negroni: Beefeater Gin, Cocchi Americano, Dolin Blanc, Green Apple; Aged Six-weeks in Oak

Firecracker: Cold River Vodka, Royal Rose Three Chile Simple Syrup, and Fresh Lime

Firecracker: Cold River Vodka, Royal Rose Three Chile Simple Syrup, and Fresh Lime

Mixologist Andrew Volk of Portland Hunt and Alpine Club - Portland, ME

Mixologist Andrew Volk of Portland Hunt and Alpine Club - Portland, ME

And why not? They've been waiting long enough. Already home to a raging restaurant and beer scene, Portland ran dryer when it came to the shaken and the stirred.  "When I returned to Maine a number of years back," remembers Volk, "there were many talented bartenders, but most of them were behind bars in small restaurants, not allowing them to flourish the way I had seen in other cities." Having come from the other Portland, where cocktails outnumber people and bartenders probably enjoy the same legal immunities as foreign diplomats, Volk had a lot to share.

When he opened Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, he didn't want to recreate that Portland. Instead, he wanted to help Maine develop its own cocktail and spirit culture. "In smaller markets in particular, it's important that owners pay very close attention to what their guests are looking for," he says—facilitating but never foisting, forcing, or otherwise (sometimes literally) funneling cocktail culture down local gullets. But with his nurturing and finesse, Portland Hunt + Alpine Club has received "an overwhelming positive response."

Like a gardener planting tried and true perennials alongside flamboyant annuals, Volk's spirits-organized menu gives drinkers a functional division of options: the "basics," and more esoteric drinks inspired by a stockpile of recipes that range from the historical or peer-generated, to the playful and sometimes masochistically labor-intensive. "We have quite an ambitious and encompassing menu," says Volk, "especially for Portland."

The "basics" option may be the most important component of the business. "We start everyone with our [basic] menu," says Volk. And The Firecracker, a comparatively basic offering at the Club, is one of Volk's favorites: vodka, lime juice, chile simple syrup, and soda. It's exactly the kind of drink that stokes intrigue, allowing the complexity of one or two marquee ingredients to (gently) make their impressions on a drinker. In this case it's a furrowed but tickling heat, courtesy of Royal Rose Three Chile Simple Syrup—a locally-produced organic syrup from a Brooklyn-born and now Maine-based line—playing on a bed of soda-buoyed Cold River vodka, made with 100 percent Maine potatoes. The drink delivers dual messages of intoxicating heat and local identity without asking too much from the guest.

Like any bartender worth his handshake, Volk is happiest when guest are happy with what they're drinking. But he's also a mixologist, or what have you, so when a guest makes that vital hopscotch from contentment to curiosity, he's excited—enter the esoteric option. "There are certainly guests who return and look for increasingly interesting drinks," says Volk.  One option, the Barrel-aged White Negroni, a callback to Volk's time at (the other Portland's)Clyde Common under barrel-ageing trailblazer Jeffrey Morgenthaler.  "I had the great fortune of working with Jeff … when he first started aging drinks," says Volk. "Guests [were] and still are very curious about the drink, how the barrel has changed it." Volk satiates (and stokes) that curiosity with a white version of the classic Negroni, made with the softer Tanqueray Malacca, Dolin Blanc, and Cocchi Americano—the barrel lends chocolaty notes and mellows the drink.

Volk knows there are a limits. "If you try to make a drink that out-geeks the next one, or is incredibly obscure, it becomes less about the drink," he says. "I much prefer drinks that taste good over ones that are intellectual exercises. I hope that restaurants and bars pay even more attention to their liquor programs, and each one carves out their own niche," he says. "I look forward to having several good options for every drinking mood [in the Porltand]."

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