Drinking in Portland1

I mentioned in my Clyde Common review that Oregon has some weird liquor laws. It’s true, especially to one coming from California. CA doesn’t have the most relaxed liquor laws in the country but they’re pretty good compared to a number of states. In my experience, the award for most relaxed liquor laws has to go to Louisiana, or at least New Orleans, for the prevalence of bars with walk-up windows for ordering drinks to go. But I digress.

Here are some of the things I’m learning about since moving to Portland.

Clyde Common, Portland, Oregon

Oregon Liquor Control Commission

The OLCC has to top this list. This is the body that governs liquor sales within the state of Oregon. Distilled spirits are strictly controlled, with their sale only being allowed at state-licensed stores. This means that while you can buy wine and beer at a regular supermarket, anything stronger has to come from a licensed liquor store, which generally doesn’t sell beer/wine.

An interesting side effect of this liquor/wine separation is that fortified wines, such as vermouth and Lillet, are more readily available at wine stores and supermarkets than liquor stores, which often have a limited selection of these things.

The OLCC also controls inventory, with liquor stores buying from the state. I’ll admit that the selection is better than I expected, but there are still a number of things that just aren’t available here. The OLCC also sets prices, which are quite a bit higher than in California.

The strangest thing about liquor sales here is that most stores are closed on Sunday, which is actually not required by law. I’m not sure why this is.

The bars are all restaurants

The bars here are required to sell a certain amount of food so there’s a really fuzzy line between bars and restaurants. The bars all have lunch and dinner menus and a lot of restaurants have pretty nice bars. Most bars stick with the basic pub food but a number of places are differentiating themselves by having more creative and interesting menus.

On our first visit to Portland a couple years ago Jojo surprised us by taking us to a bar for lunch. We’ve since discovered that this is not at all uncommon, and that going out for drinks here often involves getting food as well.

Happy hour

I have a new found love for happy hours, which bars in SF and LA don’t really do. Some do, I suppose, but it’s not a widespread custom, at least not the way it is here in Portland. Drink prices reduced by a third or so combined with the high liquor store prices almost make it cheaper to just go out for a drink. Food is often discounted as well, making happy hour a good choice for low-key dinner and drinks.

In keeping with local tradition, there are laws governing happy hours too. Bars can have whatever happy hour specials they want but they’re not allowed to advertise them. Not even window signs or mentions on the bars’ web sites. This has resulted in a mountain of “happy hour guides” both on the web and as printed books. There’s even an iPhone app for them. One notable work-around can be seen on the FAQ page of the Victory bar web site: “The OLCC does not allow published happy hour info. Please come in at 5:00 to ask.”

I’m still looking for an Italian style aperitivo in the US. Cheap happy hour food is nice but not quite the same.

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