Behind the Bar How They Got It Right

All the Ways in Which This Whiskey Bar Mastered the Magic of Drinking Whiskey

Dina Avila

Using the term library in a bar’s title might read as a heavy-handed branding tactic, but make no mistake about it: Multnomah Whiskey Library is aptly named. Visit this Victorian parlor, steps above the streets of central Portland, and you’ll be hard-pressed to come up with a more suitable term to describe it.

The drinking den is lined with 2,000 bottles, which stretch wall-to-wall, and a stack ladder is needed to access many of them. Yet for all its impressive inventory, Multnomah Whiskey Library stands out for its superior service. Tableside pourings, customized flights and expert custodianship are hallmarks of a typical experience there. When it comes to its winning formula, you need not read too much into the whys. It’s the hows that are worth checking out.

Dina Avila

Like so many great things in life, Multnomah evolved out of necessity. “There was no single moment that was the catalyst for the library,” says co-owner Alan Davis. “The concept spawned from aiming to create what I thought to be the ideal drinking/social environment in Portland.”

Indeed, when it opened in October of 2013, there was no drinking destination in the city offering comparable amenities, such as table service and unique glassware chosen to fit specific spirits. Such a place needed to be invented.

Of course, accoutrements are meaningless if they’re not presented properly. So Davis and crew placed a high priority on education. That meant hiring a staff with intimate knowledge, not just of what they were pouring but to whom they were pouring.

Dina Avila

This is where membership came into play. For $600 a year, along with a filled form (detailing pouring preferences), you get the keys to the castle—reservations at will. The waitlist to climb on board, however, currently involves more than a year’s worth of patience. Everyone else has to take their chances with first-come, first-served. An exception comes in the form of a $25 one-time-only Hall Pass, wherein placement is reserved up to 48 hours in advance. The bar staff will then catalog your curiosities prior to seating.

“It seemed the most efficient way to determine our target demographic,” Davis says of the controversial decision. “We then have the social and technological ability to develop a relationship based upon an acute understanding of our members’ tastes, wants and needs; the membership aspect is [for] optimal hospitality rather than for exclusivity.”

Dina Avila

In sync with the city it calls home, Multnomah welcomes enthusiasts of all shapes and sizes. The one common thread: a passion for enjoying great whiskey in a contemplative space.

And about that space: “It was originally a massive 6,000-square-foot piano store,” says Davis. “The back of the space—the least desirable to most—was that which I was most keen on, because it had the best stretch of brick walls and allowed for the most control of natural light.”

Into this space, Davis moved antique leather furnishing, wood paneling fashioned by local artisans to have a worn look, and actual library pieces, such as reading lamps and filing cabinets. It all comes together to create a place that feels lived in, far wiser in age than its three-year existence would suggest.

Dina Avila

The same characteristics appointing Multnomah with mystique run the risk of alienating the casual drinker. Skew too stodgy, and you could veer unavoidably into pretentiousness—a territory scorned by proper Portlanders.

But through thoughtful approach and assembly, a bar is born that suits its city well. It’s at once elegant and inviting. Much like the storied liquids lining its shelves, it strikes a proper balance. The word bar doesn’t tell the complete story. Multnomah Whiskey has earned it’s rightful regard as a library.