Q&A: Dave Shenaut
Bartenders, brand reps, and liquor lovers are gearing up for the third annual Portland Cocktail Week, which begins on Sunday with the welcoming of visiting bartenders and industry folks to the Jupiter Hotel. Bartenders will have the opportunity to learn even more about their craft through a series of lectures during the week, as well as cocktail events where they can put all their newfound knowledge into practice. Renowned Portland bartender and one of the event’s founder’s Dave Shenaut took a break from his "crappy breakfast" of coffee and Jimmy Dean sausages to tell us about his future plans, what to expect next week, and how he manages to bartend, plan PDXCW, head the Oregon Bartender’s Guild, and still find time for family.
Q: How did you and PDXCW co-founder Lindsey Johnson create the initial concept of Portland Cocktail Week, and what do you think has made it so popular?
A: We were both in New Orleans for a festival and she had a blogger house during the event...In the wee hours of the morning we went and woke up them up and had an impromptu cocktail contest. I basically told her to come and draw people to Portland. We decided to do that through a series of parties to start with, and then those parties turned into Portland Cocktail week. We really focus on taking care of the trade and the bartenders. They all fly to come here and we put a number of them up at the Jupiter for five days and take care of them; we really show off what Portland has to offer to them... Then bartenders go back to their cities and talk about what a great time they had here. They're going and telling other people in their trade about how rad Portland is, and it has a great impact on us.
What do you hope bartenders will gain from the seminars and the overall event? What do you hope the public will gain from it?
It’s a conversation from peer to peer talking about how to become better. Better hospitality, better drink making, so that's a huge thing... I think the "On the Town" event is really pretty magical, and the one on Thursday under the tent at the Jupiter… [the public will] get to see and feel what our community is like across the country. You can taste drinks from Denver, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, and every little city in between. Also, all around town there's people putting on special drinks for Cocktail Week. The main focus though is on building the community. Our bartenders get to work alongside amazing, talented people from all over and get educated on how to bring different skills back to their bars. Portland gains twofold by getting more tourists for the drink and culinary side of the culture, and the bartenders come away with different professional skills.
What do you believe goes into making a great bartender?
Being able to set a vibe or a tone that makes people feel great, and creating an environment that is whatever the bar needs to be, whatever the bar feels like. The bartender is able to create something that's based on hospitality and engagement. It's different from being a chef and serving the same meals all night; as a bartender every drink is different. It's more on the craft side, but I think the main thing is that hospitality. There are some bartenders in this town at bars that people consider craft dive bars, but you walk in and you feel at home there because of the attitude the bartender is portraying across the bar.
What do you think goes into making a really great cocktail that people order again and again? Do you think the naming of a drink is as important as the taste and complexity?
I think it's a simple complexity and about making something refreshing and delicious. I think the drink that people will come and get again and again and again are generally the ones that are simple, but once you dive into them they warm a little bit and become more and more complex. They have to be able to kind of transcend time and place… The naming's the hardest thing. I've got a couple drinks that I've been serving for years that have kind of a weird, kitschy name, and I think the naming's definitely the hardest thing because people have to be able to recognize it. It's nice if the name can make somebody smile or can cause them to trigger a memory because that's the kind of thing that will help them remember it. That's one of the hardest things for me… It's a talent.
What are some bars where they're particularly crafty about their drinks?
I think [Beaker &] Flask puts out the most consistently well-executed cocktails in Portland. The whole bar team is well over the top. I think Riffle NW is also. These are both places that I've worked at in the past, but since I've left they've just gotten better and better. I think our manager over at Riffle, Brandon Josie, puts out really, really fascinating drinks, and he utilizes all the tools to make amazing things. Rum Club, Adam Robinson and the whole team over there... they're just killing it. It goes back to [those questions of] "Who's working behind the bar? Who's crafting the drink? How attentive are they to the guests and the environment?"
How do you deal with being so busy? You bartend, you put on Portland Cocktail Week... it seems like you have a lot on your plate.
It's a balance. The timing has actually been really perfect. I left Riffle about two months ago and have since gone into promoting Portland Cocktail Week. Raven & Rose [the restored Ladd Carriage House on SW Broadway] is going to open in December, so this year it's been almost convenient how it's all worked out. I've had plenty of time to focus on making Cocktail Week really awesome and taking care of the people who are coming to town. Balancing that and then family—I've got two young kids—becomes hard, it's got its ups and downs for sure… I think the only way to survive exactly the way I am is to ask for help and trust people to get things done.
Where can we expect to see you in the future? You mentioned Raven & Rose opening in December; what can we expect to see there?
Yup, that's the next spot. We are really excited about this project with an iconic Portland historical landmark and turning it into a restaurant. Our owner, Lisa Mygrant, is incredibly down-to-earth. I feel like she's got really good goals in mind. She's hired amazing people, like John Gorham to consult, and the chef is someone I incredibly respect… It's an interesting situation because there’s a restaurant downstairs and then there's an actual bar upstairs. Downstairs the cocktails will be geared toward complimenting the food, and then upstairs the cocktails are going to be meant to stand alone. The building was built in 1880, so I'm going to really work and do my due diligence to have a menu that reflects that time period. It was the heyday of the American cocktail, a time when the bartender was thought of as the cornerstone of the American society... There's a big glowing fire, leather couches, and a pool table up there, so you'll see a lot of cozy cocktails to start with since we're opening in the winter. [There will be] warmer hot punches and Spella Coffee will be there so I'm going to utilize the coffee in cocktails.