Corporate Director of Beverage for the Sage Restaurant Group
Brandon Wise, the corporate director of beverage for Sage Restaurant Group (SRG), discovered early on that he had a knack for pairing flavors in new and surprising ways. His talent led to his rapid rise to prominence among Portland’s mixology elite during his five years in the city. As the opening bar manager at Irving Street Kitchen, Wise quickly became known for creating memorable beverage experiences that both helped enhance a meal and surprised the palate. His buzzed-about concoctions made Irving Street one of the city’s go-to cocktail bars and earned him the 2010 Eater PDX award for Bartender of the Year. Wise further cemented his reputation for excellence while serving as the founding bar manager of Imperial – one of Food & Wine’s “Best New Bars” in 2013 and People’s Choice “Best New Bar Northwest” in 2014, a 2013 Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Award finalist for “Best Restaurant Bar,” and one of Thrillist’s “Best Cocktail Bars in the U.S.” for 2014.
As corporate beverage director at SRG, Wise has the unique and exciting challenge of creating beverage experiences across eight distinct restaurant concepts – from farm-to-table steakhouses in Cleveland and Portland, to a beachside fish bar in Oceanside, California, to a Catalan-inspired tapas restaurant in Chicago – each catering to the local preferences of the different cities in which SRG operates.
Wise has served as president of the Oregon Bartenders Guild and is currently a member of the United States Bartenders Guild Nominating Committee. When not dreaming up delicious libations, Wise spends his time exploring the great outdoors, reading dusty cocktail books and writing.
ITM: Hi Brandon, and thanks for taking the time to talk a little bit about your work within the Sage Restaurant Group. There are ten different locations and concepts – I assume you work with the local beverage directors to implement programs and menus on a one-on-one basis?
BW: I work closely with the management team and the bar staff to provide the best quality offerings and experiences we can for each property. Each concept is so different, so I’m always conscious of staying true to the brand with each menu and each drink we put on the menu.
ITM: Let’s talk about a few of your outlets.
ITM: Let’s start with Urban Farmer in Cleveland. What kind of list do you have there?
BW: Urban Farmer’s beverage program is a nice mix of classic and original cocktails, a diverse wine list and a celebration of local craft beer. There’s a certain whimsy to the menu, such as a Gin Gin Mule served on crushed ice in a tin can. We offer a selection of barrel-aged cocktails such as the Homestead, which features Bols Genever, Averna, and a house-made root beer syrup, as well as bottled cocktails. The basis in classics allows us to offer our unique take on the standards by incorporating house-made ingredients, seasonality and culinary techniques. The cocktail list at Urban Farmer allows us to push the boundaries with creativity while staying rooted in fresh, local ingredients.
ITM: Departure, your restaurant in Portland, I’m sure is near to your heart. It’s an Asian-based menu and your cocktail list matches it well. What influences these unique cocktails?
I’ve listed a few of the selections for our readers to see the unique mixes.
• Xerxes’s Garden: Belvedere Vodka, Cynar, lemongrass, fresh citrus
• Bonsai: Bombay Sapphire East Gin, lemon, Prosecco, Douglas fir eau de vie, rosemary
• Hibiki Highball: Hibiki Japanese whisky, rhubarb bitters, mineral water
• Russell’s Reserve Bourbon, Stumptown Cold Brew, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, honey, whiskey barrel-aged bitters, Peychaud’s bitter
BW: We have a strong bar team at Departure and they offer recipe suggestions with each seasonal change. We’ve done our best to celebrate the talent we have by showcasing drinks created by the bar staff. We are working on seasonal menu changes at each of our restaurants, so expect to see some interesting new menu offerings this spring. Departure is one of the most exciting concepts to work with, and of course since I am a Portland transplant, it’s very close to my heart. Our executive chef, Gregory Gourdet, is such a powerhouse in the kitchen that it inspires everyone around him to be creative. It’s easy to see why he did so well as a competitor on this season of “Top Chef.” He’s able to take a traditional platform, such as bibimbap, and through the way he showcases unique ingredients and techniques, he is able to create a dish that is transcendent.
That’s my goal with the bar at Departure: to create multi-sensory drinks that resonate with guests. One of my drinks that is slated for the spring menu is an adaptation of legendary bartender Katsuo Uyeda’s City Coral cocktail, which is one of the finest applications of color theory I’ve seen in the cocktail world. His use of blue curacao and grenadine to create a salt rim on the glass that resembles coral is as visually stunning as it is complementary to the flavor profile of the drink. That’s what I’m going for with Departure’s drink menu: an experience.
Coral Cityscape: Bombay Sapphire East gin, grapefruit juice, house-made “coral” liqueur, Commissary tonic
ITM: Mercat a la Planxa is a Michigan Avenue restaurant featuring a Spanish “Barcelona” theme. How fun is that!? What influenced the creation of the cocktail list?
A sampling from the cocktail list at La Planxa:
• Ginebra & Tonic: Hendrick’s Gin, orange blossom honey, fall spice, lemon, tonic
• Himica Sazerac: Templeton Rye, hibiscus syrup, hibiscus bitters, Fernet
• Granada Galicia: La Pinta Pomegranate Liqueur, Maestro Dobel Tequila, sweet vermouth, Licor 43
• Bebeme: Ginger-basil orange peel-infused pisco, sherry, fresh sour, ginger ale
BW: Mercat is very near and dear to my heart as a former Chicagoan. The concept is so strong – a chef-driven, Catalan-inspired tapas restaurant with Chef Jose Garces at the helm – that the beverage program presents an exciting opportunity. We’re introducing specialty ice to our cocktail menu this year with an Artichoke Old Fashioned featuring Cynar, rye whiskey, cardoon syrup and Old Fashioned bitters set on a 2-inch by 2-inch crystal clear Clinebell ice cube. Expect to see a lot more sherry incorporated as well and more savory cocktails on the menu this spring utilizing fresh produce.
ITM: I see the wine list at Mercat is 100 percent Spanish. That probably took some guts, not putting in comfort wines like California Chardonnay?
BW: I love our wine list at Mercat, which stays very true to the culture of the restaurant in such a comprehensive offering of Spanish wines. It presents an opportunity to engage with our guests and create an experience. By offering interesting Spanish wines by the glass, it allows guests to step outside of their comfort zone and try something new. More often than not, guests find new favorites from dining with us at Mercat. I’ve seen many a Pinot Grigio drinker fall in love with Albariño, and California Cab aficionados leave with a newfound appreciation for Tempranillo.
ITM: I didn’t see any sangria on the list. Do you offer any?
BW: We offer three types of sangria at Mercat: blanco, rose and tinto. Each sangria changes seasonally, incorporates fresh produce and herbs, and is offered as a flight where guests can try all three. We have three full-sized oak barrels showcased at the bar and can hardly keep up with demand during summer months.
ITM: “Hello Betty,” in Oceanside, California is an unusual name for a restaurant. How did it get the name?
BW: A “betty” is surfer slang for a pretty girl, and the name “Hello Betty” is a reflection of the local, eclectic characters of Oceanside’s beach life. The Baja SoCal theme makes for a fun environment in a beautiful location that lends well to citrus-forward cocktails and a diverse offering of local craft beer.
ITM: It seems like the cocktail list here is a bit of a SoCal and Mexican mix. I have listed a few again to show the readers the unique ingredients. What influenced this list?
A sampling of cocktails from Betty’s list:
• El Toro: Cazadores Silver, Licor 43, raspberry, cilantro, jalapeño, lime
• Myers Street Mai Tai: Bacardi, Myers’s, mango, pineapple, orange juice
• Pepino Fresco: Hendrick’s, St-Germain, cucumber, lime, Fentimans Ginger Beer
• Maverick’s Squeeze: Lemongrass-infused American Harvest Vodka, orange, lemon, lime
• Beach Break Therapy: Hangar 1 Kaffir Lime, Sugar Island Coconut Rum, pineapple, lime, bitters, egg whites
BW: The beverage offerings at Hello Betty are definitely driven by its beachside location. We have a scratch margarita on the menu that sells like crazy and a frozen drink that people absolutely love. I’m looking forward to introducing some fun concepts to Hello Betty this summer, such as a frozen Mai Tai variation called Last Mango in Paradise, featuring rum, orgeat, fresh citrus and mango puree.