Inventive Opium cocktails light up the Portland nightlife

The bar at Opium

She had us at “Alice In Wonderland inspired.”

Bar manager Alexa Doyer of hours-old Opium tosses mysterious potions (from earl grey tea to hemp oil) into shakers. She pours spiced bitters and aged spirits into a glass hookah, with a handheld flame the mixologist torches spices into smoky tendrils. The concoction turns disco colored with the flip of a switch. Applause erupts. Who needs theater tickets?

Suddenly, Cirque du Soleil unfurls under The Danforth Inn big top, bedecked with peonies and poppies. Though catching flack earlier this spring for its name, Opium is more than a marketing gimmick. Opening Friday with complete cocktail service, such as a Chinese box that arrives with drink cards and two hidden aperitifs, the West End bar adjacent to the inn’s Tempo Dulu restaurant takes lounging to new heights.

Amid the mood lighting Doyer lights up a drink.

A few blocks from the neighborhood hang Ruski’s, Opium is a world away. The walls are dark, the seating low and intimate, and the experience is a slow reveal.

Amid cries of disapproval for what some addiction advocates saw as a tone-deaf name choice amid a statewide opiate crisis, owners Raymond Brunyanszki and Oscar Verest, both Netherlands natives, brushed off the criticism and forged ahead.

The result is an intoxicating trip to the Dutch East Indies behind a staid New England facade. And Doyer, a Lewiston native who has cocktailed in Hartford, Connecticut, is your tour guide. The East Meets West whiskey, ginger gin and bourbon drink is her signature. There are 20 elixirs in her playbook, each, like a ball player, comes with its own card listing stats such as ingredients, preparation method and potency meter.

The smoky Jakarta.

Add purple lighting, lemongrass straws and a bar menu of tasty lobster and pork spring rolls, chicken satay and papaya salads and a staycation in Portland may be all you ever wanted. Good thing you can book a room. Elevating the vibe is a battery of DJ’s from around the world who spin here regularly. Is this the start of a new cocktail wave?

A week ago Blyth and Burrows, the sea-captain-themed bar with a second watering hole tucked inside, opened on Exchange Street. Up on Congress Street the clandestine Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box has become a destination for well prepared artisan drinks. And soon the owners of Hunt and Alpine Club open a new spot a few blocks west of Opium on the same street. The summer of 2017 is set to intoxicate.  

Opium, 163 Danforth St., Portland. Hours are 4:30 p.m. to midnight.

Kathleen Pierce

About Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.