McMenamins is a family-owned group of pubs and restaurants in Oregon and Washington state. It’s also a hotel group and a craft beverage juggernaut, making beer, wine, distilled spirits, cider, and house-roasted coffee. It runs two of the most popular music venues in Portland, Ore. It’s also a golf course operator, a game-changer in the movie theater industry, a patron of the arts, and a master of adaptive reuse of historic properties.Yet McMenamins doesn’t toot its own horn very often. It’s rarely covered in the buzzy beverage news, it has virtually no footprint in the market outside of the Pacific Northwest, and its founders, brothers Brian and Mike McMenamin, are a bit reclusive and press-shy. Still, it’s hard to overstate McMenamins impact in the Northwest craft beverage community. The company has anticipated virtually every single trend in the industry over the past three decades, and it’s grown to become a ubiquitous part of Northwest life without losing track of its lovable quirkiness—or its forward-thinking attitude.
The Beginning of McMenamins
The early days of McMenamins were humble. Mike got his start in the hospitality industry by helping open Produce Row in 1974, one of the first craft beer bars and pubs in Portland. From there, he and Brian launched a series of pubs that stuck with the proven formula of burgers and beer delivered in a casual setting evoking the freewheeling, countercultural days of the 1960s. The concept worked—hey, everybody likes burgers—but Brian and Mike had another, bigger idea.
Quickly, they ran up against a major barrier: In Oregon, it wasn’t legal to serve alcoholic beverages in the same place they were produced. Undeterred, Mike and Brian partnered with other craft beverage pioneers (including the Widmer brothers and Dick and Nancy Ponzi) to lobby the state legislature. After an unsuccessful first attempt, legislation was passed in 1985 that made brewpubs and winery tasting rooms legal in Oregon for the very first time.The change in laws breathed new wind into the McMenamins’ sails. They opened several additional brewpubs, each with its own small brewing system attached. In 1987, the company opened its first theater, the Mission Theater & Pub in downtown Portland. Here, they pioneered another innovation we take for granted today: the “brew and view,” a delightful pairing of low-cost films alongside beer and pub grub. Things were going well. And then came Edgefield, the property that would change everything for the McMenamins.
In 1990, Brian and Mike were presented with an opportunity. A 74-acre parcel in the Portland suburb of Troutdale was on the proverbial chopping block. The land had been used first as a “poor farm,” an institution where Portland’s destitute could live and farm. After the New Deal, poverty declined, and eventually the land was also the site of a county prison and, later, an assisted living home.
By the 1980s, the property had fallen into disrepair, and had been slated for demolition before the Troutdale Historical Society intervened in 1985, arguing the building’s historic significance was worth preserving. All it needed was a visionary new owner, somebody who could see potential in the dilapidated buildings and abandoned farm fields.“Edgefield was a huge jump,” says Clark McCool, general manager of McMenamins winery, distilleries, coffee roasting, and distribution and a more than 20-year employee of the company. “I couldn’t have done it; I wouldn’t have had it in me. But Mike and Brian had a vision, and it’s been incredible what we’ve been able to build here over the years.”
Today, locals lovingly describe Edgefield as “Disneyland for grown-ups.” The former manor where the impoverished were housed is now a 100-room hotel. None of the rooms have televisions or telephones, but guests don’t need them, because there’s plenty to do. The property features 32 holes of pitch-and-putt golf, a fine dining restaurant called the Black Rabbit, several pubs, a spa, soaking pool, concert and event venue, winery and vineyard, brewery, distillery, glass blowing studio, pottery studio, gardens, pool and game hall, and a sprawling park-like campus dotted with tiny atmospheric pubs just waiting to be discovered.
Edgefield, like all McMenamins properties, is built on a foundation of beverages. “The first thing they did when they bought the Edgefield property was put in a winery,” says McCool. It was the company’s first. Brother Mike had previously been involved in wine distribution, and while the Willamette Valley wasn’t anywhere close to achieving the kind of renown it enjoys today, the McMenamins had a hunch that the future of Oregon was a vinous one.
In 1992, predating the current boom by more than 20 years, McMenamins started making cider. Today, it sells as much cider by volume as wine. In 1997, McMenamins began building its first distillery in an old root vegetable storage barn on the Edgefield campus. They’d begun dabbling in distillation in 1995 by having some brandy made under contract by Carneros Alembic, a California distillery owned by Remy-Martin. “Mike was smart enough to know well-made spirits take a long time to develop, so we got a jump on it,” says McCool. By the time the company opened the distillery in 1998, it already had 13 barrels of brandy aging—some of them are still aging today.“We try to focus on making spirits with locally sourced ingredients as much as possible—and made, fermented, and aged the right way, without taking any shortcuts and keeping traditional technologies and methods in mind,” says McCool. “The idea was we were going to make brandy because we have a winery, and whiskey because we have a brewery,” he says. “I think of it as the winery-brewery-distillery triangle. It’s pretty cool to have all three craft production facilities onsite, within walking distance.”
The Edgefield distillery uses a Holstein pot still, which the McMenamins selected based on its versatility. The head distiller at the time, Lee Medoff (now the owner and head distiller at Bull Run Distilling) developed a unique style of malt whiskey made with 100 percent malted barley, like traditional Scottish malt whisky, but aged in new charred American oak barrels like bourbon or rye. Hogshead Whiskey is still made that way today, and it’s the company’s most popular whiskey.This year marks the 20th anniversary of McMenamins distillery program (it also operates the Cornelius Pass Roadhouse Distillery in Hillsboro, to Portland’s west, running a 100-year-old Cognac alembic still in a barn built before Oregon was a state). To celebrate, it will be releasing a 20-year-old Pinot Noir brandy distilled at Edgefield during the distillery’s first year of production.
Want to find a bottle of McMenamins spirits or wine? Don’t look for it at your local liquor store. “All of our products are made by us and served and sold solely throughout our locations,” explains McCool. “We don’t distribute outside of our company. It’s a unique business model, but it’s proven to be very successful for us, and we’ve thrived on that.”
Art Ties Everything TogetherToday, there are 55 McMenamins locations, with more on the way; its newest, the Kalama Harbor Lodge in Kalama, Wash., opened in April, and the company is also readying the Tacoma Elk’s Lodge. Featuring a hotel, music venue, and brewery, the project will bring a much-needed dose of countercultural cool to downtown Tacoma, Wash.
Because the McMenamins concept is so expansive, it could easily start to feel fragmented and disconnected. Yet it doesn’t. Visitors always know when they’re in a McMenamins, and it’s not because of the Cajun tater tots on the menu. It’s the aesthetic.
Art and design are a lynchpin in the McMenamins concept. One part Grateful Dead liner notes, one part Dali-esque surrealism, and one part historic Americana, the McMenamins style is distinctive and unmistakable. A maximalist bent means the walls of every property are lined with original paintings, historic documents, textiles, concert posters, and sundry memorabilia, some walking the thin line between fact and fiction. Set against the backdrop of some of the Northwest’s most historic properties, it’s a heady mix of alternative lifestyle whimsy and Old West edge.That aesthetic plays out differently at different properties, informed by the buildings’ former lives and the knowledge of local historians. The Hotel Oregon in McMinnville, Ore., features a spaceship sculpture on its rooftop bar, riffing on reported UFO sightings in the valley over the past century. At the Kennedy School in Portland, the building’s past as an elementary school inspires art that features classroom tropes populated by photos and representations of the children that attended the school. The White Eagle Saloon, one of Portland’s oldest bars, takes inspiration for its Wild West-meets-the-occult theme from the property’s history with gambling, prostitution, and the rough-and-tumble characters of the Portland docks. The signature McMenamins look even extends to the design of its bottles and labels. “When you look at our labels when they’re all lined up, they have a certain look, a certain presence. It’s distinctive. You can see it,” says McCool. Like so much of what makes McMenamins special, that style can be traced back directly to the McMenamin brothers. “For the most part, our labels are made and designed by Mike McMenamin and our resident artist, Lyle Hehn. They work together,” he adds.
In a time when every decision seems made by committee and focus group, there’s something refreshing about a company with a personal vision and the courage to see it through.