WHERE: Neat, 2637 SE Hawthorne Blvd., Portland, OR 97214
Sometimes, you just want a good whiskey. Not complicated cocktails, not pastel drinks, not funny or cute names.
You just want a place to be quiet, to relax, and to enjoy a goddamned whiskey. Walking down Hawthorne Boulevard in just such a mood, I was on my way to another bar that had an interesting name. I’d passed by it before, and thought it looked fascinating.
Neat is not that bar. It’s the bar that kept me from going there just after sticking my head in- everything I needed, and a shorter walk to boot.
By the way, I eventually did go to that other bar. Fun place, but not what I was wanting just then. As soon as my head pops in the open door, Robert Volz, the owner, grins and gestures me in. Immediately after the copper-topped bar and veritable wall of whiskey, I am struck by the word “COZY.”
Not literally, but certainly a physical manifestation of the word. Leather-topped stools, easy chairs and low couchs, deer heads on the wall- painted portraits of women and children, modified with handlebar mustaches. That one was a little odd, but everything else feels just about right. “Appropriately kitschy” might be the right description- a reminder to relax, and not take things too seriously.
Except for whiskey, of course. Treat that deadly serious- the owner does.
The list is extensive, intriguing, and- unlike some places- explicitly curated. Apparently, several people who work at the Multnomah Whisk(e)y Library came by and asked if Robert had a couple high-profile bottles.
“Are you kidding?! That’s top shelf stuff, why WOULDN’T you have them?!”
Robert shrugged, “I don’t buy stuff because it’s popular- I get it because it’s GOOD. I tried that stuff- it wasn’t good.”
No flavored crap. No Fireball. No Canadian whiskey (“Ugh, that stuff isn’t even whiskey.” A direct quote.) Not even top-shelf flavors. At Neat, whiskey is about corn, rye, grain, smoke, water, wood and time. All things I can get behind.
Take your time.
After 15 minutes, I’m one drink in and deep in conversation with Robert. Conversation and education for that matter. Robert started off his professional life as a sommelier, and turned his attentions to whiskey purely to open up Neat. Slowly draining two fingers of Famous Grouse (with one small rock, my preferred whiskey prep), Robert gives me an education on the distilling world- from trivia about the world’s distilleries to why an Old Fashioned in Wisconsin is different from anywhere else (it’s made with brandy rather than whiskey, the fruit is muddled, and no bitters. Yeah, sugar bomb.)
Over his head, the single TV in the bar is not showing the news- thank God- or sports. Robert is a classic TV and movie buff, and if he’s not pouring you can expect him on the stool next to you- or beating you at pool.
High West Whiskey’s “Campfire”- one of a number of excellent bottles I’ve helped put a dent in.
The scene of a few beatings, and at least one push-up wager.
Between the whiskey and Robert’s friendly company and conversation, Neat has quickly become a stop on my “regular” bar rotation. Like all good bartenders, the man knows his fans, remembers their likes and dislikes, and has a list of suggestions for when a weary man can’t make up his mind.
The other day was one such day for me- a grueling day in the shop left me in need of a spirit, a sit, and a sandwich… and I remembered that Neat not only had the whiskey I was tasting, but a small menu- made and curated by Robert, with whiskey pairing in mind.
I walk in and drop my bag.A grin, a scotch (Famous Grouse Smoked Black), a BBQ pulled pork sandwich with hot baked beans, and Star Trek TNG on the TV. Early in the series, too- Jonathan Frakes without a beard, and Denise Crosby as Tasha Yar. Apparently Robert smokes the BBQ pork on the roof of the building, and the hot baked beans are spiced up to give them a significant- but not unpleasant- kick.
In a minute, he’s sitting next to me grilling me on what Uhura’s job was on the original Enterprise, and why there didn’t seem to be a communications officer in TNG.This is how all days should be lucky enough to end.
WHEN: Neat is open 7 days from 4 to midnight. No reservations except for special functions.
WHY: Because you need a place to cool it for a while. It’s been a hell of a day, and you just need a whiskey and to sit for a bit- maybe catch some tv and forget the rest of the world for an afternoon.