Interview: Director of Drink Dave Shenaut (Riffle)

Bartender Portland

Dave Shenaut previously split time behind the bars at two of Portland’s better cocktail establishments, Rum Club and Kask, and founded Portland Cocktail Week, which has doubled in size each year. Now he’s taken the title of Director of Drink at Riffle, a new catch inspired, seafood focused restaurant in NW Portland where he oversees every ounce of liquid. On April 22, I met him across the river at Lloyd’s Coffee Shop, and Shenaut shared spirited insights that hinted at why he’s been successful.

What’s your fist cocktail memory, good or bad?

Kind of the groundbreaking one was at House Spirits here in town. Chris John and me were together at the time, and he invited me down. I was kind of running this place, bartending, called Roots restaurant, young and full of arrogance. I had all these different infusions on my back bar, all kinds of different infusions, and would do a lot of flair. I went down and met them, and they made a Pegu Club for me with salt and pepper and it absolutely blew me away, the level of balance and nuance in those cocktails. At the time, I was free-pouring and everything was basic Lemon Drop variants. Change the syrup a little bit, infuse the vodka a little bit, free-pour into a glass, do a lot of show, a lot of flair. My first sip of that Pegu Club, and watching them use these dirty, rusty tools, but the drink they gave me was just exquisite. I had a conversation with Chris John following that, and basically put down my flair bottles and picked up some jiggers.

At what point did you know that you would work with cocktails and spirits for a living?

Man that’s a tough one. I think at that point. It was always this fun, showmanship thing, and I really liked the people across the bar, and I liked making them feel good, but then I realized I could make amazing, great flavor, which was when I started to develop.

What was your very first bar job, and how did it come about?

My first bar job was in an Applebee’s. I was a server, and 20 years old, and the bartender at the time was having the most fun and making the most money, and having people come in and seeing him. The minute I turned 21, I got behind the bar and started making strawberry lemonades and margaritas at Applebee’s in Vancouver, Washington.

What do you remember about the very first night behind the bar?

I remember it was pretty important that I took care of everything I had to do as a server, and I would sneak in and make a few drinks, a Bahama Mama or an Oreo milkshake kind of thing, and the stuff they do there. I had to multi-task. I had to do my job very, very well, plus take on the role of someone else, this girl Amy, who let me come behind the bar and make her drinks so she could help other customers.

So leading up to Riffle, you were over at Kask?

Yeah, I was splitting my time between Kask and Rum Club, so basically I went to work at two small cocktail bars, both run by close friends of mine. One was Eastside, kind of walking that line between dive bar and cocktail bar, the Rum Club. It’s a really great space and Mike Shea’s done an awesome job. The other one is a very small place by Tommy Klus. It’s kind of a waiting room for Gruner, but it’s become its own thing. It’s got an incredible whiskey selection and Scotch selection. I think it’s probably the interesting spirits selection in the city. Rum Club’s got 35 or 40 rums on the back bar, so working at both places and getting to taste these premium whiskeys and premium rums at the same time, in both categories, it was a great opportunity.

How did the opportunity came about here at Riffle?

Actually, Katie Burnett. Portland Cocktail Week, I’m the founder. Katie worked with us for Portland Cocktail Week, working to promote with Lush Life. She introduced me to these guys, Ken and Jen Norris. It’s great. They’re so passionate, so driven, I’m really looking forward to working with those guys. They’re amazing. Their food is killer.

What does a cocktail have to be to go on the menu at Riffle?

That’s a tough question.

Any common threads?

Yeah. It’s easier for me to describe in terms of the wine program. We’re going to do an Old World style Loire Valley wine program with light, bright acidity, and fruity, sweet flavors, very approachable. Not a whole lot of wood, not a whole lot of oak anywhere. It’s a fish, fresh catch inspired restaurant, so I think the overwhelming feeling of Riffle is an unaged spirits program, nice French fruit liqueurs, with some other things.

Would you say that you’ve had any cocktail and spirit mentors over the years?

Daniel Shoemaker at Teardrop Lounge.

Did you work there?

Yeah. I worked there from opening for about three years. I go back to that story with Chris John. “How am I going to get involved in the craft side of things?” Basically, he put in a good word for me with Daniel, who was just opening Teardrop, and I got in there. After bartending for five years, I went in there and told him I’d bar back, whatever it took to get in the door. Daniel and I worked back to back on busy, busy nights for two-and-a-half solid years. We learned a lot together. He taught me all kinds of things.

As far as naming cocktails, what’s your approach?

Oh man, that’s one of the hardest things. I look up lists of horse names, of lines from movies. It’s tough. I think you end up being in an ongoing search for cocktail names, keep a list in the phone, anything that sounds interesting, you just type in a list for possible cocktail names. Sometimes a drink is named after somebody I’ve met. Sometimes, something that’s inspired by the ingredients. You want people to laugh and think something’s approachable. You want people to see something and have some recognition for it.

What would a Dave Shenaut cocktail be?


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Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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