The Rum Club is a quintessential Portland cocktail spot. It’s intimate, with a horseshoe-shaped bar flanked by a few tables in a small room: the type of place that’s perfect for a night out with a few close friends.
It’s also the type of place that’s impossible to operate during a pandemic.
“If we were to safely distance our tables apart, we would have about three tables inside,” said Rum Club bartender Micah Anderson. “If we were to pay someone to be there working, we wouldn’t even be making enough money to pay them; it just doesn’t make any sense financially.”
This is a paradox many bars and restaurants across the state are facing: They’re legally allowed to do business, but social distancing restrictions would make it impossible for them to bring in enough money to justify it. That’s why a lot of them are doing exactly what the Rum Club is, staying closed for now.
Anderson is one of a growing chorus of professional bartenders asking the state Legislature to give these businesses a lifeline by allowing them to sell cocktails to-go.
The Oregon Liquor Control Commission has already eased several restrictions on Oregon businesses, expanding beer and wine to-go and delivery options. But Oregon law requires mixed drinks served at bars and restaurants to be consumed on site.
Anderson says that rule change could be the difference between success and failure for scores of small, locally owned bars and restaurants.
“As we go from month to month on this thing we’ll get closer and closer to seeing bars go away,” he said, “because as each month passes, that’s just more bills adding up.”
The biggest opposition to this change has been concern for people who battle alcoholism and recovery and the risk they’d face from increased access to alcohol. Anderson said he takes this concern seriously — all bartenders in Oregon undergo training to protect customers from being over-served. He says he’s eager to work with the state to put sensible guidelines in place.
“Let’s figure out a way to make this work where it’s safe, it works for everyone and we can save some of these small businesses out here,” he said.
Anderson said ordering a to-go cocktail would be a different experience than having your bartender pass you a freshly made drink in a stemmed glass. Many bars would essentially sell a pre-made batched cocktail, for you to shake or stir over ice at home.
But he notes that Oregon has some of the most experienced and creative bartenders in the country. As he watches what’s happening in other states that have already permitted cocktails to-go, including Washington and California, he’s excited to imagine the innovations his local colleagues would create.
“I’m seeing everything from Capri Sun-type pouches that you can store in your fridge, frozen drinks that people are putting into containers that are sealable, little bottles of drinks that you can pour over ice yourself or shake yourself when you get home,” Anderson said. “We’re one of the best food and beverage markets in the country; we’re gonna figure out how to make really, really good drinks for people to be able to take home.”
Anderson says demand for to-go cocktails is absolutely there among his customers. A lot of people don’t feel safe going to bars that have reopened — justifiably so, he insists. And he says that as the pandemic wears on, a lot of his customers are eager for one thing.
Not a craft cocktail, necessarily. More like, something that’s easy.
“If I can walk to my neighborhood bar and pick up a couple cocktails and go home, it’s a lot more convenient for me than to have to find five different things, and then go to the grocery store and find lemons and limes and then go home and put it all together,” he said. “That’s what we do, and our bar is set up to do it.”
Anderson acknowledges that packaging and selling pre-made cocktails won’t be the same experience as a night out or hosting guests in his bar. But when asked the first drink he’s eager to get back in front of customers, his answer is immediate: the Rum Club Daquiri.
“It’s kind of like a Portland staple,” he said. “If we get this going and that first RCD that I pass across the bar to someone … ah, that’s gonna feel so, so good, for sure.”
In the meantime, we’re all left to our own devices, scouring stores to pick up six different ingredients, hauling them home and assembling the drink ourselves. If you’re brave, you can find a recipe here.