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Portland Bar Scene: The Spelling Bee at Clyde Common

The Spelling Bee
Hoke Harden

Wherein we cruise the bustling bar scene of Portland, and bar by bar, discover and explore the delicious concoctions the city has to offer. And if you’re looking for a reliable place for good cocktails, there’s no place better than Clyde Common.

Located downtown at 10th and SW Stark, and part of the hip Ace Hotel, Clyde Common is Portlandia itself, sharing the block with Stumptown Coffee and Kenny & Zuke’s, and less than half a block from the flagship of Powell’s Book Store on Burnside. Can’t get much cooler than that!

Well, wait, actually, you can. Put a restaurant in Clyde Common that brings them in by the droves, offering succulent, often pork themed, cuisine and dishing out some of the best fries in the city, cut to just the right thickness, piping hot and burn-the-fingers-to-the-touch-ooh-ooh perfection and lovely with the spiky harissa sauce. Which you can get at the bar…because you can get everything at the bar, as it should be in a good bar.

But it gets even cooler, when Jeffrey Morgenthaler, godfather of Portland craft bartending (and don’t call him a “mixologist” or he’ll say something rude and dismissive to you) is running the place, staffing it with some of the best talent behind the stick you’ll ever find, people like Junior Ryan, the imposing Ms. Beckaly Franks, and Banjo Amberg, who we’d call a polymath if we could figure out everything he did.

Plus, right now you can get Mr. Morgenthaler’s brand new hot-off-the-press book on bartending, The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique, It’s hot-off-the-press because it’s selling so well they can’t print them fast enough. Then go to Clyde Common, and he’ll sign it for you.

Okay, now that’s cool. Suffice to say Clyde Common is the first place to point visitors to in our fair city if they’re looking for a bar they can feel welcome in.

And it’s not just Portland saying so: it’s the entire bar community of the world saying so. At the just concluded annual fest and outright bacchanalia of bartending, Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, Clyde Common was chosen as the “Best American Hotel Bar.” Uh huh: pretty much the greatest congregation of bar-savvy people in the world just shouted out Clyde Common for being the best in the country at what it does.

But as good as it is, a bar has to be judged one cocktail at a time. This time it is the Spelling Bee.

The Spelling Bee is a fairly simple drink. But there’s the absolute beauty of it: most great cocktails are fairly simple drinks. For two reasons: first, because throwing in too many fussy ingredients blurs and confuses the flavors and focus of the drink, and second because in a real-world bar, the bartender is going to be busy and doesn’t want to spend ten minutes building some elaborate concoction for one person when he has about twenty impatient drinkers waiting in line.

So the genius isn’t in how many ingredients. The genius is in picking the right ingredients and putting them together in exactly the right proportions and exactly the right way. Quickly.

The Spelling Bee starts with reposada tequila, in this instance El Jimador Reposado from the valley of Tequila at the foot of the volcano. This is important because Jimador is a classic---maybe the classic---valley style of tequila, a powerful, potent agave spirit with an authoritative black pepper bite, only slightly gentled by a few months resting in a used oak barrel to bevel off the rough edges. Use a softer Highlands-style tequila and The Spelling Bee would be an entirely different cocktail. Add some agave syrup, the nectar of the agave plant that drips down when the piña begins to roast in the oven, to lightly sweeten while adding even more of the fresh herbal agave character to the drink. Add just a touch of absinthe---not too much; it’s powerful stuff and you don’t want to overdo it and unbalance the drink--- and a dash of bitters. Stir, pour over large ice cubes, and garnish with a hefty slice of pink grapefruit peel.

The result is a delicious boozy drink that’s so pretty it’s common to see one get ordered at Clyde, watch the other drinkers ogle it, then see several more pop up on request. It is sorta-kinda old fashioned in style and delivery with that perfect balance of what a cocktail is supposed to be---an assertive spirit, a flavor adjunct, light sweetness, and a refreshing, contrasting bitterness, chilled and only slightly diluted by ice.

This makes the Spelling Bee an outstanding cocktail. The thing is, all the cocktails at Clyde Common are outstanding. That’s how they roll. So the Spelling Bee is one among equals…but it’s good enough, you’ll order it again the next time you’re back. And you will be back.