If you’re looking for a bar in Portland where you can have a great drink while learning more about an interesting part of Maine’s history, have I got a place for you.
Billed as “an honest-to-goodness whiskey experience for honest-to-goodness people,” the Independent Ice Co. is much more than “just” an incredible whiskey bar. Celebrating the history of the 25,000 ice harvesters who worked on the frozen Kennebec River, bringing in more income from 1870 to 1890 than California gold did, the bar is decorated with old photos of the harvesters, and the menus are adorned with their tools. The overall atmosphere is classy, with leather-backed barstools, dark wood and navy. There are even purse hooks and USB chargers under the bar.
Purists go for the extensive selection of whiskeys (more on that later), but I, of course, went for the cocktails (creature of habit). The cocktail menu is strong, featuring nine specialty cocktails so enticing that it was hard to choose. I started with the Cold Harvest chocolate bourbon martini (a mixture of bourbon, chocolate liqueur and happiness for $12), and my drinking companion went for the Knickerbocker ice boulevardier (the usual bourbon, sweet vermouth, Campari and orange peel for $11). Both were delicious but mine was too messy; the bartender had drizzled some sort of chocolate syrup on the rim of the glass which had spilled over and kept getting my fingers sticky. Had it been served with a finger bowl, it would have been fine; alternatively, just order it without the goo.
I then ordered the Rufus Page black walnut Old Fashioned (featuring black walnut bitters, $15), while my friend got the Frederic Tudor’s Manhattan with Aperol ($12). Both were excellent, but mine was next-level delicious – the kind of cocktail you know is going to be special just by sniffing it. We were then joined by two other friends, one of whom ordered the Clark and Chaplin lemon rosemary sour (bourbon, lemon juice, rosemary simple syrup for $14). It was like a hard lemonade with an herby twist that evolves as you drink it – another winner.
I suppose I should also spend a bit of time discussing the impressive whiskey list. Containing approximately 300 bottles at the time of our visit (and the collection is constantly growing), it ranges from entry-level whiskeys to rare finds. The bartenders are phenomenal, with an inspirational knowledge and understanding of their liquid offerings. The menu is divided into bourbon (with a separate list of Tennessee bourbons), Canadian, cognac, cordials, Irish, Japanese, Maine (who knew that there were at least nine Maine whiskeys), rye and, of course, Scotch, a category that the menu subdivides into Speyside, Islay, Highlands, Lowlands, single grain, island and blend. With prices ranging from $6 to $123, there’s something for every budget and palate. They even have a few wine and beer options for the party poopers.
The Independent Ice Co. also serves food, but the items we ordered (an $11 burger with a $3 side of fries, as well as $10 meatball sliders with bourbon ketchup, not as exciting as it sounds) were mediocre, so I wouldn’t order food again if I returned. I don’t know why I’m saying “if,” though; overall, it was a great experience, and I’ll definitely be back.
WHERE: 52 Wharf St., Portland
PHONE: (207) 956-7150
HOURS: 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. daily
AMENITIES: Whiskey, whiskey and more whiskey. What more do you need? (Happy hour is 4-6 p.m., but only for beer. Bah humbug.)
BOTTOM LINE: Perfect location for a group of whiskey lovers with different incomes and preferences.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No