Old Port cocktail bar honors Portland’s seafaring heritage.
For Josh Miranda, Blyth and Burrows is the place he long dreamed of. Growing up on Munjoy Hill, he played in the Eastern Cemetery by the graves of two sea captains. In high school, he studied the Longfellow poem “My Lost Youth,” which mentions their great naval battle. Englishman Samuel Blyth and American William Burrows fought the only sea battle that could be seen from shore during the War of 1812. Both perished that fateful day in September of 1813, and were honored with a grand procession that carried their bodies through Portland to their final resting places in the cemetery. When the opportunity came to open his own bar, Miranda was ready to pay homage to the men, with their story and their names.
In the heart of the Old Port on lower Exchange Street, every corner, every detail at the cocktail bar commemorates captains Blyth and Burrows and the city’s seafaring heritage. From the stylized mural of the naval battle on the back wall painted by local artist Pat Corrigan, to the roping detail, the old-fashioned portraits of the men, and the antique bowsprits hung on the brick walls, the place is impeccably designed and curated, both historic and dashing, right down to the restrooms. A seat by the tall windows is good for Old Port people-watching. The narrow room has two levels and a secret. There’s a bookcase that, with a firm push, reveals a staircase leading down to another bar called the Broken Dram. It’s become a popular hideaway, with a distinctly different bar menu and a crowd that often includes business professionals when the workday is over.
At Blyth and Burrows, the cocktails are in command. Miranda has a lengthy resume of bar experience and he’s been smart enough to bring some of Portland’s best, and most creative, bartenders on board. “It takes more than one person to run a world-class place,” says Miranda. Michael Gatlin, creative director, has opened several other bars around town and previously owned a bar in New York City. They work together, riffing back and forth to come up with new ideas for drinks. “We all have different flavor profiles we’re fond of, and we experiment regularly,” Gatlin says. Discerning drinkers can find something unusual, like the Death Stalker, a cocktail that daringly blends cilantro-poblano infused tequila with mezcal, yellow Chartreuse, Strega, and mango-chili syrup. Top it off with a slice of dried mango, and you’ve got an adventurous but balanced cocktail. “We have offerings for the connoisseur but also more familiar and approachable flavors,” says Miranda. The team is currently in the process of sorting cocktails into categories based on old trade routes that Blyth and Burrow themselves sailed.
Chef Darci Pacewicz made the move from Napa Valley with her husband and sous chef, Nick, to join Blyth and Burrows. Although the place is admittedly cocktail-centric, the compact food menu is worthy of attention and as creative as the drinks. “The food matches the bar, not the other way around,” comments Gatlin. “The menu celebrates and complements the cocktails.” When she was hired, Miranda asked Pacewicz, “What do you do best?” Her reply: “Asian.” He said, “Let’s put our best food forward.” The menu is an enticing mix of small plates that leans toward the Far East, one of the sea captains’ trade destinations. Everything is made in-house, even the sourdough bread and butter. It’s heavy on seafood, of course, including plenty of Pemaquid oysters with original accompaniments such as chili lime granita and blueberry mignonette. Poke bao, steamed buns with tuna, are a dramatic and delicious offering. The soft buns are tinted black with squid ink and a spicy Napa cabbage slaw enhances the raw fish. Four fat charbroiled oysters are buttery underneath a blanket of crisp challah breadcrumbs, making an outstanding snack. “Oysters and cocktails just go together,” Miranda points out. But the chef ’s mushroom pâté, made from North Spore King Trumpet mushrooms, lentils, and walnuts, is as savory and earthy as foie gras, especially when spread on toast with whole grain kombucha mustard. The deep flavor would pair nicely with the Penny Cap cocktail—porcini-infused bourbon with maple syrup, PX sherry, and a house amaro blend. “Darci is so talented, and I’ve never seen someone so dedicated. She’s Portland’s best kept secret,” says Miranda.
Nattily attired in a tweed waistcoat, Miranda is a welcoming host at Blyth and Burrows. He tells the story of the sea captains enthusiastically to anyone wanting a bit of history. “I love being an ambassador for Portland. It took me years away to really appreciate it,” he says.
“Everyone, locals and visitors, wants to come here. Old Port spaces is a game of musical chairs that started a long time ago. Great locations are hard to come by, but I wanted to be right here. This is the bar that Portland was missing.”