We sat down with Adam Robinson of Portland’s Deadshot to chat about his work, vermouth, Portland’s drinking culture, and his drink for April’s Vermouth: Never Uncouth Box, the Runaway Princess!
S&S: Have you spent time at the Oregon vineyards of Willamette Valley?
AR: Yes, I have—over the last decade of living in Oregon, I have visited many wineries and vineyards in the Willamette Valley. I have also worked a few events over the years and in 2018 I partook in the Oregon Truffle and went truffle hunting down in the valley, which was pretty cool.
S&S: Nice! What would you say is distinctive about Oregon’s wine industry?
AR: Oregon’s wine industry is extremely distinctive and unique in many ways. I think the thing I have noticed the most is how the wine industry here is really like a big family. The “community not competition” aspect is really great to see in action. There are multiple facilities in the valley where anyone can rent out space and wine-making equipment, which makes producing your own wine label much more of a possibility, given the high cost of the specialty equipment needed. So a particular winemaker might work for one particular brand or sometimes even multiple brands, but then also have their own personal label as well.
The Oregon Solidarity project is a great example of this. Last year, many growers who had contracts with wineries in California had their contracts canceled, citing smoke taint from wildfires as the reason. This left growers in a very difficult financial position, so several wineries got together and agreed to purchase the grapes, produce 3 wines from the grapes, and use the proceeds of those to support the growers. The industry in Oregon is extremely supportive of each other, and I think that is a rare thing in any business where everyone is essentially in competition with each other.
S&S: That is beautiful to hear. And how are the vermouths that come out of there? What would you say sets Imbue, for instance, apart?
AR: There are several vermouths that are produced locally. The biggest thing that sets Imbue apart for starters is that, as far as I know, it was the first Oregon vermouth to hit the mass market. I also think that of all the local vermouths, it might be the most traditional in style, making it perfect for use in classic cocktails. I have had some very tasty vermouths that by themselves are delicious, but might not always make the best cocktail.
S&S: Has the low-ABV, spritz-based aperitivo style of drinking made its way to Portland?
AR: Absolutely. The drinking and cocktail culture in Oregon is way ahead of the curve, in my opinion. Not only is it a city full of food and beverage professionals, but the general public is also a much more educated clientele than in other areas, a direct result of the Oregon wine scene.
S&S: What’s it like to work at Deadshot? How did your journey lead there?
AR: Deadshot is a dream come true for me. When I moved to Portland a decade ago, my plan was to open my own bar here. I knew it wouldn’t be easy and I was also in no rush, as I wanted to make sure I was ready for the challenge of owning my own business. So I made a point to learn as much as I could before that time came and a big part of that was traveling. I moved to the Caribbean for a long winter in 2013 and also to Asia in 2015 for close to two years. Over the last decade, I also participated in many cocktail competitions, as well as industry conferences and events. Traveling all over the US, as well as Europe, and becoming a certified Cognac Educator along the way as well after spending a couple of weeks in France over a few visits.
When I returned to living in Portland in 2016, I started Deadshot as a one-night-a-week pop-up with the goal of turning into a full-on seven-day-a-week brick-and-mortar business, which we eventually accomplished in the spring of 2018. It’s an amazing feeling to run a bar and cocktail program the way you want to without anyone telling you what to do. We serve very unique cocktails, but also have an amazing food menu and try to provide an all-encompassing experience. You can come in and get a cheap American lager, unique wine that only we sell, or a well thought-out cocktail unlike which you have ever had before.
S&S: Sounds amazing! We’d like to visit! What are some of your other favorite spots in Portland?
AR: This will come as a surprise to no one who knows me, but I love the Rum Club. I did work there for four years, but it has been and always will be one of my favorite bars in the whole world. Reel M Inn is an amazing dive bar that serves arguably the best fried chicken in town. Han Oak is one of my favorite restaurants. The list goes on and on: HaVL, Tusk, Apizza Scholls, Ataula, etc. The thing about Portland is that there are so many awesome places to eat and drink that I could make a list of my twenty favorite places and I would still be leaving off so many quality spots. Portland is the best eating and drinking city in America, in my opinion.
S&S: Before creating the Runaway Princess, had you featured vermouth in a cocktail in such a prominent role?
AR: Yes, I am a huge fan of low-ABV and vermouth-based cocktails, and have been featuring them on my menus for years.
S&S: Is there a technique or ingredient you’re currently fascinated with?
AR: Toasted rice powder is one of my favorite ingredients to use in cocktails; it has a very unique flavor that can be incorporated into cocktails in several different ways. At Deadshot, we are a very technique-driven cocktail bar; we focus on the more modern approaches when creating drinks. Our centrifuge has been an awesome tool for us to use when creating cocktails for our menu.
S&S: The Fentimans Mandarin & Seville Orange is such an interesting, off-the-beaten-path soda. How did you land on that one for your drink?
AR: For the very reason that you mentioned, I have always enjoyed using unique and interesting flavors and products in our drinks. I have always been a fan of the Fentimans line of products and this one in particular does not disappoint. The flavor combination of those two citruses makes for a wonderful cocktail mixer.
S&S: Is there any specific food you would recommend pairing with the Runaway Princess?
AR: Spicy food and/or BBQ would be a great pairing for a refreshing cocktail such as the Runaway Princess.
S&S: Of the classic cocktails that feature vermouth, which is your favorite?
AR: Probably the Adonis cocktail—lesser known for sure, but has been a favorite of mine for years. Nothing more than vermouth and sherry, but given all the different types of each of those products, the possibilities are almost endless.
S&S: What’s your preferred spirit-to-vermouth ratio for a martini?
AR: 5:1 for my guests, 2:1 or 1:1 if I’m drinking it, but to completely honest, I don’t really drink many martinis. I don’t have anything against them, I just tend to lean more to brown spirits when drinking cocktails, brandy and rum being my favorites.
S&S: What’s the strangest drink request you’ve ever gotten?
AR: That’s a tough one, but maybe the drink order that had me scratching my head the most was when a customer ordered a thirty-year-old Japanese whisky with Coke. He was paying for it, so although I thought it was strange, I gave him what he wanted. But I served him the Coke on the side so he could mix the two himself.
S&S: What would you say has been your biggest hit?
AR: Currently at Deadshot, we have been doing a few drinks that at this point will probably never come off of the menu. First is the Casper’s Ghost, which is a mezcal and rhum agricole sour with pineapple, lime, bitter melon, and tarragon. The second is our cocktail called Who is Jack Nance?, which is a whisky sour riff with egg yolk, sherry, lemon, sesame orgeat, and mustard—it’s bizarre and delicious.
When I was at the Rum Club, I came up with a cocktail called the Fino Countdown which consists of two different rums, two sherries, two kinds of bitters, citrus, and Don’s Mix #2. I created it over six years ago and they still serve it on their summer menu, and it was proclaimed by Portland Monthly magazine as a “Portland Classic Cocktail.”
S&S: How about the weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted?
AR: That’s a tough one because I’ve always embraced weird and unique ingredients. I’ve experimented with cattails in the past with no luck. But in the past we have successfully made cocktails with ingredients like nettles, fish sauce, several types of mushroom, foie gras, bone marrow, and seaweed.
S&S: Wow! And what’s the best drink you’ve ever had?
AR: Such a tough question. There is one drink that I had years ago that still stands out from the crowd. It was a delicious drink, maybe not the best I’ve ever had, but it was eye-opening to the possibilities of what a cocktail could be. That drink is the Corn Star that was served at Booker & Dax in NYC. It was a rum sour with corn, butter, and black pepper. It blew my mind and to this day still stands out.
S&S: What do you do when you’re not working?
AR: In the winter I like to bowl a lot and in the summer I enjoy being out on the golf course. I also like to hike, fish, enjoy all the awesome bars and restaurants that we have in Portland. We also have Mt. Hood and the Oregon coast both just about an hour away, and there are many activities to do at both of those. I also really like to go camping in the summer and look forward to doing more of that this year. I also really enjoy a great movie or book, I work a lot these days so I don’t have a ton of free time, so the little time I do have off I like to make the most of it.
S&S: What’s your go-to drink order when trying out at a new place?
AR: When trying out a new spot, my go-to drink order is off of their cocktail menu. If they have a specialty drink menu, chances are there has been a lot of time and effort put into it, so for me I think it’s weird to go off-menu on a first visit. I see no reason to test a bar or bartender by ordering a specific cocktail like a daiquiri or old fashioned. The cocktails are on there for a reason, in theory, so might as well give them a shot.
S&S: Might as well! Cheers!