I’ve met Glenlivet. I’ve partied with Rob Roy. But I’ve never tasted scotch like this: gnarly, burly, uncompromising, rocket-me-from-a-slingshot-and-shoot-fireballs-down-my-ear-canals scotch. That is, until I said hello to a 1990s-era, cask-strength Glenfarclas 105 at the new Scotch Lodge. Add a drop of water to release the flavor, and you’re in: straight to the land of angels and cataclysms, epic lurches and sensorial bombardments, a lot of reverb, and finally, a resting place. It’s “A Day in the Life,” in a glass.
Scotch Lodge opened in May, transforming the Southeast spot once home to hipster izakaya Biwa into something completely different. A hop down a stairway and through lacy curtains now leads to a dark, dreamy drinking den possessed by scotch, bourbon, and other whiskies.
That 105 isn’t even one of the rare treasures on a list that goes deep, wide, sideways, and very, very personal. But it hits on a house raison d’être: really good scotch for the money. For $20 I got a window on what extreme scotch people crave—a drink that can rock your soul and clean a Civil War wound. I promptly chased it with fried brie sticks, clad in fine pumpernickel crumbs and pistachios, set over delicate grape syrup and managing, somehow, to taste like elegant, cheese-oozing French toast.
Owner Tommy Klus, one of the original architects of Portland’s craft cocktail scene, works the room in a rumpled shirt and messenger cap. He’s the star of this show and is, like everything else here, smart, fiercely passionate, and ... unshowy. Klus masterminded some of the city’s most coveted bar lists (Kask to La Moule), but is best known for originally curating the massive collection at downtown’s Multnomah Whiskey Library. You might call Scotch Lodge the anti-Whiskey Library: fun, fresh, and geared for discovery at all price points. In a highly unusual move, to encourage sampling everything can be had in one-ounce “half pours”—hard-to-find W. L. Weller wheated bourbons to boundary-pushing bottles from Islay’s Octomore. You can drop $5 or $300 on a drink here; either will be well-chosen. Meanwhile, the list reads like a music freak’s playlist, juggling the iconic with insider picks, B-side finds, and rare cuts from exciting producers. Anybody can get a dram of 12-year Highland Park—it’s a good, off-the-shelf choice for $15. But Scotch Lodge stocks six more Highland Park releases, the interesting and the oddballs. Show a little curiosity and there’s no telling what Klus might pull out of the stacks. (He confesses to holding some 800 labels in the house.)
That’s not to shortchange Scotch Lodge’s food menu. First off, there’s actual cooking going on, not just Portland’s four bar food groups (wings, burgers, fried things, and ranch). St. Jack vet Tim Artale has crafted a small, appealing, neo-bistro list that helps make Scotch Lodge an essential destination. Not everything works, but I’d come just for the jumbo white asparagus and punchy ramps shrouded in house-made rice paper chips, or the fettuccine, a heap of creamy comfort with an undertow of heat and flinty fiore sardo cheese.
The best thing about Scotch Lodge? You can make your own world here. Every night, every table, is a different experience. The guy in the corner is having an epiphany over old Macallans and Japanese whiskey rarely seen outside collector cabals. Daters nearby are busy shoveling dill-pickle-flavored fries while toasting cocktails made by a crack team of veteran bartenders, beautiful weirdos who put coconut oolong tea and mustard flower infusions into scotch drinks and pull from a stash of little-known Scottish gins and Swedish potato vodka.
To my right, a buttoned-down dude wildly undulates his forearms to demonstrate the “art” of scotch-swirling for a wide-eyed friend. “You don’t want to agitate it,” he intones. I thought he might jump up and bust a move from Swan Lake. “I guarantee you he’s a wine drinker,” snorts my hard-core scotch friend Jon.
Turns out, the pretentious dandy is the outlier here, surrounded by folks in tees brimming with genuine curiosity. Scotch Lodge, for all its scholarly curations, has not an ounce of pretension. By any measure, this is the bar of the year.