The anniversary of Portland’s Rum Riot is cause to celebrate cocktail culture.
June 2—a Friday— may come and go with many Portlanders having no idea of the date’s history. But those who visit city cocktail bars will surely find drink specials referencing the day in 1855 when citizens angrily stormed City Hall, convinced that then-mayor Neal Dow was selling confiscated liquor he had stockpiled in the basement. The infamous Portland Rum Riot is a key chapter in the history of drinking and distilling in Maine. Four years ago, the 158th anniversary of the Rum Riot inspired local bar owner Briana Volk to create what is now called the New England Cocktail Conference, bringing together liquor company representatives from around the country, bartenders, and others in the industry for education and professional development.
Once primarily a beer-and-a-shot town, Portland’s growing cocktail culture is now on the national map. Portland Hunt and Alpine Club, a modern bar focused on craft cocktails, opened in 2013 by Volk and her husband Andrew, was a leader of the pack. A year later, Bon Appetit included it on a list of the five “Best New Cocktail Bars in America,” and in 2016, Andrew Volk was named one of 10 “Best New Mixologists” by Food and Wine. It has twice been a semifinalist for a James Beard Award in the category of Outstanding Bar Program. “We never came here with the idea of opening
a cocktail bar,” says Briana. “But we’d lived in Portland, Oregon [where Andrew worked at the celebrated bar Clyde Common], and watched it go from the red-headed stepchild of the West Coast to this city that now everyone talks about and wants to move to. We watched the food scene explode there, and we saw a lot of parallels here. We felt like this city was at the point where it would be the right time to do something like Hunt and Alpine.”
Volk’s reasons for launching the cocktail conference were twofold. “I think we have a great drink scene here and I wanted wider recognition of that, and I wanted the people who work in the industry here to further their education and get access to people they wouldn’t normally have access to outside of a major city,” she says. In previous years, the conference took place over a long weekend, with seminars like “High-Volume Bartending and Accuracy” and “Grandpa Drinks” held at various venues around Portland—many of them sponsored by national liquor brands—and a “Best Bartender” competition as the finale. For 2017, a gin and oysters event is in the works for June 2, with other events scheduled throughout the year, making it easier for more people to participate, Volk says.
The exploding interest in cocktails has created a demand for skilled and knowledgeable bartenders. “Even five or six years ago, it wasn’t commonplace to have a craft cocktail menu at every restaurant, and now it’s expected,” says Patrick McDonald, president of the Maine chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild (USBG). A 50-year-old nonprofit with chapters in 50 cities, the USBG defines its mission as “uniting the hospitality community to advance professional bartending.” In April, the Maine chapter hosted the USBG’s Northeast Regional Conference—the first time the event was held in Portland. “One of the biggest things I hope we’ve been able to help advance both through the cocktail conference and the USBG is that people realize that bartending can be a career for them, they can actually make a livelihood,” says Volk, the chapter’s vice president. “When I started in this industry 12 years ago in New York City, bartending was a way to make money,” says McDonald, the former bar manager at Central Provisions, who is now in charge of the bar program at Chaval and Piccolo. “It wasn’t until I came to Portland and discovered the restaurant and bar community here that I considered it as a career.”
A few blocks away from Portland Hunt and Alpine Club, a very different bar is making its mark on the city’s craft cocktail scene. From a bar stool at Liquid Riot on the Portland waterfront customers get a view through glass walls of the in-house brewing and distilling operations. Those who ask the bartender for a No Man’s an Island Iced Tea will get a version of the famous Long Island Iced Tea made entirely with Liquid Riot’s own products, including Well … Vodka, Rhum Blanc, Agave Spirit, Old Port White Oat Whiskey, Bierschnaps, house-made cola, and fresh juices pressed on premise. “The idea was that you could sit in the restaurant watching the chefs making your food right there in front of you, watching the brewers brewing the beer that you’re drinking right in front of you, watching the distiller run the still and make the booze that you’re going to be drinking in your cocktails,” says Eric Michaud, who owns Liquid Riot. His brother Ian is the head distiller.
Liquid Riot makes 12 different spirits, all of which are available at the bar and for sale in the on-premise retail shop. Maine’s liquor laws make it illegal for the Michauds to distill anything just for their own use at the bar; all of their spirits have to be bottled, labeled, and sold to the state-licensed distributor, Pine State, which then sells their products back to them. Among the 12 is Fernet Michaud—the only version of the botanical spirit made in New England—which recently earned a Double Gold medal from the American Distilling Institute.
While Maine-made spirits are in demand, craft distilling has not grown at nearly the same rate as craft brewing; there are currently just 14 distilleries in the state, including five in Portland. This is both because the distilling process is more complicated and expensive, and because state regulations are restrictive, Michaud says. His brother is the president of the nascent Maine Distillers Guild, whose members include all of the state’s licensed craft distilleries. “We’re trying to get a little more cohesive and to get a lobbyist, but it all comes down to all of us being tiny, and startups, and having no budget for it,” he says. Despite his frustrations, Liquid Riot is remarkably productive. Michaud has already released a two-year-old straight bourbon, and is aging bourbon, rye, and single-malt whiskey for future years. He has collaborated with Sebago Brewing Company to make Bonfire Spirit, distilled from the brewery’s Bonfire Rye Ale (which also won a national award), and is working on a similar beer-to-whiskey collaboration with Allagash Brewing Company. “Collaborations are great, and they abound in the brewing industry,” Michaud says. “In the distilling industry, it’s pretty rare.”
June 2, 2017, also happens to be the third anniversary of Liquid Riot’s opening. “Our name pays homage to the Rum Riot,” Michaud says. To celebrate, he will release another collaboration, this one with Luke Davidson of Maine Craft Distilling and Ned Wight of New England Distilling. “At the time we opened, they were the only two other distillers in Portland who made rum,” he says. “The three of us pulled our dark rum recipes together, and we distilled a special rum that day.” The rum has been aging in used whiskey barrels from each of the distilleries. “We’ve been making 60 gallons of it a year for the past three years, but it hasn’t been ready yet,” Michaud continues. “This year, we’ll finally release bottles. It will be called Portland Rum Riot Rum.” On June 2, the three distillers will be making more of their collaboration rum, and visitors to Liquid Riot will be able to taste the new white spirit right off the still. The weekend at the distillery will be “very much rum-themed,” says Michaud, with cocktails made from Liquid Riot’s Rhum Blanc, as well as a dark rum called Dow’s Demise, a reference to that long-ago mayor. Portland has certainly come a long way since Dow, nicknamed the Napoleon of Temperance, enacted the nation’s first Prohibition law in 1851. And thanks to the city’s creative distillers and bartenders, today’s Rum Riots are considerably more fun.