When acclaimed Portland bartender Kyle Linden Webster opened his first solo project, Expatriate, a buddy handed him a scrap of paper — a postcard Webster had written him years ago while mixing well drinks at a Clackamas dive bar, declaring his resolve to someday open a bar of his own. This past July, Webster did just that, uniting his exceptional, cool-headed cocktails with partner/wife/Beast chef Naomi Pomeroy's sophisticated, hot-tempered drinking snacks, under the watchful gaze of a repurposed landmark moon gate. He added a Grace Jones song or two, nixed the lights, and almost instantly became a prominent fixture on discriminating cocktail connoisseurs' regular rounds.
Eater sat down with Webster to get the skinny on humble double Greyhound beginnings, the role hot water and negative ions play in cocktail recipe development, the proper way to handle would-be Marie Antoinette champagne flute purloiners, and why every good bartender needs jiggers, sound judgment, and Sade in his arsenal.
Where did your initial interest in cocktails come from?
Well, like most people in their early 20s, I drank gin and tonics. And in my mid 20s, I started drinking gin martinis, and in my late 20s I started making them. That was the progression for me. I wanted to work in bars, and so I developed an interest in cocktails. The first bar I ever worked in was a humble tavern in Clackamas, because they were the only place that would give me a shot without experience, and you've got to start somewhere. Then I got a job at the original Noble Rot on 28th and Ankeny, and I was studying lots of wine, so I became sort of a go-to person for wine knowledge on the floor there.
How'd you transition from wine into cocktails?
When Noble Rot moved up into their new space on Burnside and 11th, the former Rocket space, I had to give the bar manager a weekend, so I started bartending two days a week. That was my first exposure to jiggers and juice, to careful cocktails as opposed to the "double Greyhounds, don't be shy" call that I would always get in Clackamas.
Did you always want your own place?
Yes, in fact, one of my best friends from high school, as I was opening this place, gave me back a postcard that I'd written to him after having worked in the dive bar for two months, and in it, I announced my intentions to own my own place. I remember having those intentions, but I didn't remember writing them down on a postcard, so it was quite something to have him hand me back a piece of paper from five years ago that said XY and Z as I was finally getting to Z.
Is this exactly how you envisioned your bar, or did your concept evolve over time?
Yes and no. A lot of the things in this room are mine, I've had them for years. The Chinese-American moon gate was an accident but I saw that and knew I had to get it, even at the risk of being pigeonholed as Southeast Asian. That was never the intentional focus here, despite the fact that we have a lot of Southeast Asian food.
What's your creative process for developing a new cocktail?
It's always different. If you say, I'm going to go in and develop a drink today, sometimes it flows easily, and then sometimes it takes 10 tries, and you're frustrated and your palate is blown, and you have to walk away. One of my most popular drinks ever, I made up in the shower.
That always happens.
Because hot water and negative ions stimulate the brain and body and soul. Some of these I made up on the spot, one of them was a dealer's choice and it was just perfect. The Habitue. I actually tried to change it many times, but always went back to the original. And the No. 8 was something I've been playing around with in various forms for years. I probably first learned this flavor combination and profile at Noble Rot, before I was even a full-time bartender, and I've been playing with it every since.
What's the most popular drink on your menu right now?
The Replica. Because people love tequila, ginger, honey, lemon and mezcal. We can't make them fast enough.
What's the crowd like in here on a typical evening? Neighborhood folk, foodies that read about you, industry people?
It's all of those things, which is great. I love it so much. It's so important for me to be here for the neighborhood. There isn't a cocktail bar anywhere around, so that's why I'm here. I've been living on and off in this neighborhood for over 10 years. I moved up to Alberta and 23rd when there was just Joe's and Binks, and Binks didn't even have a liquor license, it was a beer bar.
Expatriate's still new, but do you have any devoted regulars already?
I have people who are in here three times a week. Some of them live across town and come anyway. I have a lot of friends from St. Jack who travel here, and lots of new people who aren't even necessarily cocktail nerds, who just want to come here for the atmosphere and experience. It feels really nice in here at night.
True, the lighting is great.
What lighting? The funny thing is, I actually had to toss my lighting design for this space. It's totally unfinished. These are my lights for cleaning. I was told I might get rejected by inspectors because what I wanted to do was something not yet in practice in commercial applications. So rather than risk losing thousands of dollars, I just did nothing. I will fix it, but it works for now.