Story written by High Camp Flasks Ambassador Matthew Keating
Old Orchard Beach, Maine is often associated with carnival vibes. However, its incongruent restrictions on open containers on its beaches make it an ideal location for field testing Highcamp Flask’s Firelight 750. From most angles within ten or so blocks of the pier, passersby can see the spinning Ferris Wheel and the whirling, twisting lights of another such ride that draws crowds of sticky-fingered children herded by red Solo cup adults.
This is not my scene, but I don't begrudge those who seek it out at all. Give me the quiet cove of sand behind the family sun tents and castle-crushing waves where I recline unnoticed while taking it all in.
Memorial Day to Labor Day, Summer Vacation as the season is known - these are the months when I most appreciate my father in law’s home in OOB for its perfect stepping off point to Portland, Maine. A twenty minute Uber and I am traversing the cobblestone streets to fine seafood, great cocktails, one of my all-time favorite comic book stores, Casablanca Comics, and block and blocks of urban strolling where I can get my quarterly fix of culture before retreating back to our little home in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
With my going-to-the-city-bag slung over one shoulder, my wife and I poked into shops and waited for tables while making small talk with hosts and hostesses who broadcasted their apologies for being so understaffed. Then we Ubered back to the relative calm of Old Orchard Beach for an urban inspired cocktail on the sand. Before our retreat we dined well on tasty brunch tapas at Central Provisions.
I started with the Idle Gossip a, “Oaxacan white corn whiskey – mezcal – reposado – coconut – corn – ancho chili – lime,” cocktail. The baby corn garnish was a nice touch, and the flavor, though far too sweet for my palette, was enjoyable enough to have a second. Though, this cocktail felt like too-much, in the way of current trends—far too busy. If I’m tasting the rural, tropical region of Oaxaca, a part of Mexico with the highest concentration of speakers of indigenous languages, I want to taste the history, the culture, and the purity of their flavor profiles. Adding mezcal and reposado seems more like a bartender’s panic-move when they’ve run out of one bottle and need to substitute it for another in the hopes that the unsophisticated recipient never gets wise to the ruse.
I tasted the Bluefin Tuna Crudo and, given the option to “Make It Bougie,” by adding 6g of their featured caviar, I went ahead and made it bougie. I will say now that I had three cocktails and more than half a dozen small plates with varying degrees of delight, but the bougie bluefin paired with the Idle Gossip were the only one’s really worth writing about.
There was a Chicharon special that lacked all the crunch and crispness of the real thing, there was a beet salad that was nice, but still just a beet salad (though this one cost me $14), and a, “Foie Gras Parfait – custard – rhubarb hibiscus gelee,” that had a chance at innovation but fell short by offering the presentation and simplicity of a pudding snack straight out of my grandparents’ fridge. It came across as unfinished, possibly not daring enough, but as a good start that I very much hope the chef builds on.
The post pandemic feel of Portland was one of mixed relief and desperation. J’s Oyster Bar has long been a must-stop for my wife and I. Several years ago, we happened upon this waterfront seafood restaurant with a very diner-feel on a sleepy November afternoon. We ended up in a booth with waterfront views of the pier for several hours snacking on towers of raw seafood and downing complementary oyster shooters as we shot the shit with our servers and a super fun lady, that we think was the owner.
On this recent visit the wait was thirty-plus minutes so we bellied up to the bar, in the corner by the restrooms. We wanted to relive our fuzzy memories, and so ordered the raw Combo starter with a couple gin and tonics. J’s is a staple, an absolute must visit when in Portland, but on this occasion, likely due to business volume and the tourist crush from the weather being sunny and in the mid 70s, we ended up being served a briny puddle in which bathed three scallops, two shrimp, two oysters, and a teaspoon of crab particulate matter. I get it.
When a restaurant is slammed, especially after having endured two years of pandemic fears, shutdowns, and quarantines, it is going to take some time to get back to the good old ways of doing business. Suffice it to say, J’s is near and dear to my heart, and I look forward to heading back this November once they’ve had a successful season of recovery and the tourists have left the booths, leaving behind the quiet of seabird calls, the rocking of watercraft beside the pier, and the pace that allows our server to lean an arm on the back of our booth and tell us about themselves over an oyster shooter and a raw combo served with presentation in mind.
While the world recovers from the business loss of pandemic times it becomes clear to me that tourists will once again flock as tourists do, and the rest of us, the self-sufficient, self-reliant seekers of good food, good drink, and good times, are best off turning to the flask, the travel shaker, and the fun-to-combine ingredients that make our fondest mouth-memories.
Once back on our home sands of OOB, the wife and I pulled from my bag our Firelight 750, our Highball Shaker, and our Campfire Bitters. From our 750 we poured two fingers of Montelobos Espadin mezcal over three ice cubes. In our Highball Shaker we stirred plain seltzer, fresh squeezed lime, and a dot of sesame oil. After pouring this frothy, fun mixture over our chilled mezcal insulated within our Six Shooter Tumblers, we dropped a baby corn, inspired by the mixologists at Central Provisions, into each cup then added three shakes of Campfire bitters.
I call this drink, “A Quiet Moment.” The sea air on our lips, the beach sand between our toes, the lowering sunlight behind us, and the lapping of the waves combined with the smoky citrus flavor, the sesame oil umami, and the subtle campfire and herbs from the bitters to provide a unity of pleasure that titillated our senses and satisfied our need for a getaway. When the mind is inspired, the body well worked, and the senses stimulated, all that is needed is good company, fine surroundings, and the addition of food and drink to keep the experience going.
I was introduced to Highcamp products after two pandemic years of attending outdoor fires with a satchel in which I carried bottles, cutting boards, knives, mixers, shakers, glassware, and interesting ingredients. I became obsessed with packing up all my mixology accoutrements along with little jars or garnish and subtle flavor additions that would clink and weigh me down as I approached flickering flames through back yard and campground paths.
I still attend gatherings with a rucksack or city bag of signature drinks, but now I do it with the subtlety of stainless steel and the pizzaz of copper colored Highcamp presentation. While the bars, restaurants, and cafes readjust to normal, and work their way back into the black, I will continue to provide patronage to my old haunts and their new, intriguing menus and concepts, but I will maintain my covid era self-sufficiency and, for now, continue to retreat into my pack, produce my own conceptions of cocktail and flavor combinations while making every effort to snack, sip, sit, and observe the world around me in sophisticated comfort and style.