The Portland, Oregon membership-based bar’s revamped concept is driving diversity in the whiskey world
Written by Gabrielle Nicole Pharms
The beauty of the whiskey industry is that it’s made up of people from diverse backgrounds and palates. Whether a buddy, cocktail, or visit to a distillery served as your introduction to whiskey, there’s enough room at the bar for you. With enough appreciation of whiskey’s heritage coupled with keen curiosity, you might even find yourself an invaluable industry insider – such as Multnomah Whiskey Library’s marketing and community manager Kimiko Matsuda.
For Matsuda, the art of storytelling and a passionate interest in the community has long been her calling, even before joining the whiskey industry. “I think my entire career has been about curiosity. So, I find myself in really cool roles that I either didn’t know existed or were an odd fit, but knowing how to make it all work,” Matsuda says. Coming from a creative background, Matsuda spent most of her career in corporate at Nike, where she was responsible for global apparel initiatives and “understanding how to create an emotional connection to a consumer and a brand – where the magic happens,” she mentions.
After leaving Nike, Matsuda opened a Rose + Lincoln Juicery in Portland in September 2019. “That location was really the beta test. I wanted to see if I could bring an idea to life, create a beautiful product, a consumer experience, tell a brand story, and create with a community,” Matsuda says. “And although the pandemic kind of zapped a lot of opportunity out of my plan, at the end of the day, my brief was to create community and an emotional connection to a brand. So, as everybody was trying to pivot, I knew that storytelling and learning about Portland was still at the center of what I wanted to do.”
Fortunately, Matsuda’s brand resonated with the city, and she was able to make great partnerships with other businesses. She adds, “My thought was, if we celebrate what we all do, then we all win. I feel like I brought that from my corporate mindset. But I feel like most entrepreneurs don’t have the bandwidth to look for allies, and I was so preconditioned to that.” Although Matsuda created a great business and built a sterling reputation with Portland residents, the juice bar wasn’t as profitable as she hoped for it to be. So, in 2021, she closed the shop and 10 days later had a coffee date with longtime friends that would serve as a serendipitous shift in trajectory.
The fateful meet-up between Matsuda and her friends of more than 25 years, Ed and Marlys Hutson, became a reconnection that changed her life forever. The Hutsons had recently purchased Portland’s membership-based bar, Multnomah Whiskey Library (MWL). Before the Hutsons purchased MWL, the bar was notorious as an exclusive, predominately white whiskey club open to those who knew the proverbial handshake to become a member.
“So, when Ed and Marlys bought this business, I had known the former version of it, and I was like, ‘I thought I knew you guys, but I guess I don’t,’” Matsuda says. Matsuda – a half-Japanese and half-Black woman over 50 – recalls the lack of representation and inclusivity the MWL had in its early years. But the Hutsons’ mission was to present a totally different experience that celebrated hospitality, equipped with a beautiful space to hold vulnerable conversations based on curiousness – from loving a delicious cocktail to admiring the art of distillation.
Moreover, the Hutsons observed that the Library didn’t reflect who they were or the community they’d navigated. So, they wanted to be sharp on how they’d move their new concept forward. So, given Matsuda’s creative marketing background, they asked if she’d sign on as a consultant. “I was like, ‘Okay, first of all, I think this is B.S. And also, here are seven impossible things that I’m sure you’re not even interested in understanding. So, that’s my pitch to you, and by the way, how are your kids and your parents?’ So, I totally brushed it off,” Matsuda says with a chuckle. But this reaction didn’t prevent the Hutsons from partnering with Matsuda. She adds, “Ed was like, ‘Stop. The answer is yes. If you have seven ideas that you don’t think we’ll be able to pull off, and those are the seven ideas that I want to talk about.’”
The first six months of transition were challenging externally in welcoming new faces while protecting the then-current members and internally with the staff. “There were perspectives like, ‘How does this stranger named Kimiko even know anything?’ I didn’t even know if whiskey did or didn’t have an ‘e’. But I knew people, and I knew how to listen to people. I knew how to connect stories,” Matsuda states. “It took some time internally for folks to wrap their head around what I do. It didn’t stop us from innovating, putting ideas out there, and reaching out to different communities to start conversations and dialogues.”
The launch of MWL’s Behind the Rails series, spearheaded by Matsuda, was part of transforming the MWL into the welcoming space it is today. Behind the Rails consists of BIPOC community leaders, business owners, creatives, and allies, intending to build and maintain community through social events and whiskey. The first event took place in February 2022 with much success. Out of 85 invitees, 35 persons attended the inaugural event. “There were Black and brown creatives, business leaders, community leaders, allies, folks from the industry, folks with memberships, and people who had never even stepped foot into the Library space,” Matsuda says. “Every time you walk through that Library door, you see a room full of life. But imagine walking through that door, being in a room only half full, but everybody in that room looks like you. This is a space that essentially, historically, you’ve been told that exists, but you’re not invited. It really is just about creating community and celebrating the art of distillation and craft cocktails.” The event was intended to run for only two hours but concluded after four hours with much praise from guests and staff alike. Matsuda adds, “So, after that event, the mission became filling the room full of people that were never envisioned to be there.”
As the Multnomah Whiskey Library continues to evolve and blossom, its
story inspires the acceptance of all whiskey imbibers.
“What I love about the Library today is that we’ll have guests that have been longtime members, or maybe had come in with a past member pre-pandemic, and the feedback we get is, ‘Something’s different about this place,’” Matsuda adds. “And it doesn’t matter who you are, what your culture is, what your curiosities are, the place feels different. So maybe 80 per cent of the room will be white, but the difference today is that we’ve cultivated an environment where we’re not just catering to that. We’re telling stories through the cocktails and the spirits, the personalities and the staff, and our guiding principles. You have to throw away old playbooks, and you’ve got to reimagine what the future will be.”
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