On my second visit to Independent Ice Co., I turned the corner onto Wharf Street with one dish in mind: a salad. You may think stopping by a whiskey bar for greens is a little strange, but “The Independent” isn’t a normal brown-liquor bar.

If you’re in the mood for typical American bar food, it’s here. But among the burgers and salty nibbles, you’ll find three salads. They’re not hidden away to discourage people from ordering them, either. No, The Independent gives its greens prime menu real estate.

My first time in, I tried a Caesar salad topped with slices of still-steaming grilled chicken breast ($13). The chicken itself was gorgeous, but I couldn’t make it past the anchovy-heavy dressing; it smothered my tongue in a wet, wool blanket of umami and kept me from tasting anything else. And that experience didn’t jibe with the quality of the other dishes I ate that night. I figured The Independent could do better.

So I came back for salad.

Seated at a two-top on a plush, tufted banquette opposite the bar, I could clearly hear the party next to me. They, too had ordered salads, along with cocktails and a generous cone of terrific fresh-cut, double-cooked french fries ($6).

“This place makes me think of a fancy hotel bar,” one remarked. Her friend agreed, and between forkfuls of salad, replied, “Yep. Doesn’t seem like it belongs in the Old Port. But you know, sometimes you’re just not in the mood for a biker bar.”


She was kidding, but only halfway.

Portland’s Wharf Street has earned its reputation as a cobblestoned haven for rowdiness, paid for it in dry heaves and drunken brawls. But things are starting to change, and The Independent plans to be part of that. According to co-owner Larry Constantin, who along with business partner Brian Hanson, opened the whiskey bar last summer, anchoring the block with something “warm, cozy and sophisticated” is Wharf Street’s first step towards going legit.

A cone holds a generous helping of fresh-cut, double-cooked fries.

Hence the bar’s interior, with lush touches like cut-crystal chandeliers, polished copper sconces and wall-after-wall of exposed brick. But décor is only a small part of why the 45-seat bar/dining room feels intimate. More importantly, the gigantic space that recently housed Mark’s Sports Bar, The Iguana and Buck’s Naked BBQ was cleaved in two.

“Customers just did not like this space before. You could shoot a cannon through it, and that was part of the curse of this location,” Constantin said. “We wanted the whiskey bar to be inviting. Less is more. So we took the back and turned it into a private event space, the Rigby Yard Room. It’s 2,000 square feet with a 1,000-square-foot kitchen.”

In addition to lopping off the space’s rear half, Constantin and Hanson also reinforced a sense of intimacy by equalizing the height of every seat in the room to keep diners, drinkers and staff all at eye-level. They went further by banning televisions. “We wanted people to be social and enjoy themselves without having to listen to TVs. We wanted to keep things pure,” Constantin said.

Purity is also central to Independent Ice Co.’s approach to its titular product: ice. Staff even talk about it as their “triple-filtered ice program,” which consists of three shapes, each with a different application.


Immediately familiar, one-inch cubed ice dilutes significantly over time, which makes it the ice of choice for high-volume drinks like the Clark and Chaplin Rosemary Sour ($14), a vibrant riff on a whiskey sour featuring freshly squeezed lemon juice (no sour mix here) and aromatic sprigs of bruised rosemary.

Top-hat ice – shaped like a squared-off version of its namesake – melts slower and is ideal for the Cabernet Sauvignon-based Pike Pole Sangria ($12). With a Basil Hayden’s bourbon boost and an almost savory flavor profile, this punch plays well with food.

And for drinks that require chilling without much dilution, there’s low-surface-area sphere ice. The Independent plunks it into its Rufus Page Old Fashioned ($15), a classic drink made warming and autumnal by adding brown sugar and a dash or two of walnut bitters to top-shelf, small-batch bourbon.

Charcuterie board at Independent Ice Co. in Portland.

Despite a few twists to traditional drink recipes, you won’t find oddball flavor combinations, gels or emulsions here. Cocktails, just like the ryes, scotches, bourbons and whiskeys, are respectfully updated and upgraded takes on the classics. To further reinforce the drink list’s connection to history, each of the offerings is named for an entrepreneur from Maine’s once-lucrative ice trade – a sector that flourished here from the 19th century until electric refrigeration made hauling frozen ice floes up from the Kennebec River obsolete.

With an eye toward showcasing the state’s economic past, Independent Ice Co. could have easily turned tiresome and pedantic – picture grabbing a drink inside the local historical society. But its contemporary, American-casual menu offers customers another focus, one connected neither to corn mash nor commerce.

The majority of the succinct menu’s slots are taken up by sandwiches, and there are some solid options. The Independent Burger ($11), with its plump, certified-Angus patty, Abbot white cheddar and toasted brioche bun from Botto’s Bakery, is one. Although if you like your burger juicy, you’ll have to ask for it to be cooked medium-rare; for safety, the kitchen defaults to medium.


Cooking time matters less with the vegetarian burger ($12), a Blue Mango black-bean-and-corn patty re-invigorated by chunky slices of smoked gouda and a thick impasto of spicy mayo – a pair of unexpectedly delightful upgrades.

If a traditional burger doesn’t strike your fancy, try the oversized meatloaf sliders ($10), two bacon-wrapped, tomato-jam-slathered discs of excellent housemade meatloaf topped with caramelized onion and the kitchen’s own bourbon-infused ketchup. “Big, huh?” my server asked as she set them down. “I thought the owners had lost their minds the first time I saw them.”

Independent Ice Co. opened last summer on Wharf Street in Portland’s Old Port, featuring lush touches like cut-crystal chandeliers, polished copper sconces and walls of exposed brick.

I wondered the same thing when my Whiskey Chocolate Tasting ($15) arrived. The only one of The Independent’s three desserts prepared in-house, I ordered it expecting a plate of sweet nibbles and a flight of tiny whiskey samples. I was only half right. On what appeared to be a ceramic floor tile were mounds of dried fruits (apricots, dates, figs), candied nuts, and shavings of dark Belgian chocolate. Not much dessert for the price, and more to the point: no whiskey.

“Yeah, apparently you have to buy that separately,” my server replied when I asked. But, I wondered, how was I supposed to know which whiskeys pair well with sweet foods? “I don’t get it either,” she said with a shrug.

When I returned for a kale and arugula salad ($11) and an glass of citrusy, off-dry VinSpina Prosecco ($9) – one of a dozen lower-alcohol beverages on tap – I asked a different server about that strange dessert. She stood and chatted with me as I speared clusters of bright, cider-vinaigrette dressed leaves and semi-firm crumbles of blue cheese onto my fork. “It’s just fruit and chocolate, but I’ll walk you through the liquor to order with it. And if you had asked me before,” she said, gesturing at my nearly empty plate, “I could have even given you a whiskey that works with that salad.”

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at:


Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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