Robb Report Vices

A Library like No Other

  • Shaun Tolson

Upon entering the Multnomah Whiskey Library in Portland, Ore., and settling into one of the many leather-upholstered armchairs, a guest will be introduced to a highly knowledgeable server who will present two leather-bound menus—an eight-page abridged version and the full 50-page tome. The abridged version, as I was told, was designed for customers who would find 50 pages overwhelming; but even with the abridged version in hand, the Multnomah Whiskey Library can be intimidating—in the best way possible.

One full wall and half of another are lined with shelves and stocked with bottles (1,600, to be exact, about 1,000 of which are whiskey), and despite the library’s exposed wooden beams, the redbrick fireplace accented by a mantel lined with crystal decanters, and a wall that pays homage to whiskey’s rise to greatness (more on this later), the glass shelves of liquor—complete with rolling librarian ladders—are the focal point of the room. A minimalist menu that features classic cocktails, beer, wine, food, and two pages dedicated to sipping spirits might be approachable in any other environment, but here, with a wall of bottles towering above you, there’s no denying the options at your fingertips.

According to Jacob Heil, general manager, that abridged menu accomplishes another, more important purpose: “It serves as an educational tool for us and, in particular, for our regular guests.” He explains that the menu is updated every six weeks or so, which allows the entire team to closely study those specific spirits. When guests order a spirit from that menu, it often opens up a dialogue with the bartender. Those conversations not only allow the staff to learn more about their regular customers, they also pave the way for the customers to potentially educate the staff. “It’s really important that we stay honest about what we know and don’t know,” Heil says. “It makes the journey fun and it makes our service and hospitality more genuine.”

Everything about the library helps in some way to tell the story of whiskey. Take the portraits lining the wall opposite the bar. There’s a familiar head-and-shoulders shot of George Washington. Why Washington, you ask? Well, in addition to his love of rum (click here to learn more), Washington operated a distillery at Mt. Vernon and, at that time, produced the most rye whiskey in the country. Six portraits to the left, guests will find a caricature of the phylloxera louse, whimsically dressed in a suit and tie. Comical attire aside, the insect played a vital role in whiskey’s ascension: By decimating French vineyards and drastically reducing brandy production, it inadvertently made all varieties of whiskey more popular.

As for popular whiskeys offered at the library, the list is too long to print, and some rare examples are in short supply. That said, guests visiting the library this summer can savor any vintage of Macallan 18, request a pour from any bottle of the Pappy Van Winkle collection, sip on a 36-year-old Knappogue Castle Irish whiskey (distilled in 1951 and bottled in 1987), and have their pick of the library’s 62 different Single Oak Project distillations from Buffalo Trace.

Membership fees are currently $500 per year, with a waiting list about 200 names long. And while you don’t need to be a member to get in, membership does have its perks. For starters, it allows you to make reservations (and to guarantee prime seating in those leather armchairs). For those who want to feel like a member for a day, the library offers a hall-pass program where, for $25 per person, guests can make a reservation and fill out a questionnaire in advance of their visit, which enables the staff to better serve them. “It allows us to get to know people so well, so we can serve them to their tastes and the things that they appreciate,” says Heil. “That allows us to still be invisible in the way that we deliver the service, but it helps us to make sure that every experience is special.”

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