Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bartender extraordinaire.
More like Jeffrey the Grouch when I first met him in the Denver airport years ago. The name rang a bell as the shuttle driver rattled off the list of weary travelers waiting for a ride to the Beaver Creek Wine & Spirits Festival in Vail. “I think I follow you on Twitter,” I mumbled to the tall, graying mixer as we walked to the van. “Where are you based?” I asked like a common cocktail newbie.
“Portland,” he answered before climbing into the single jump seat, pulling his hat over his eyes while the rest of us chattered on the drive.
Hrmph. Well then.
Now I know, of course, that he’s the cantankerous chief figure behind the long silver bar of Clyde Common, his name regularly appearing in the pages of Playboy and Imbibe. I’ve seen “The Morgenthaler Method” on the Small Screen Network, read over his various award nominations. Since that unremarkable first meeting, it seems like he’s everywhere, from bookstores to shoe websites. You’d think he was the only bartender in Portland.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler, barrel-aged god.
The truth is he’s a cocktail crusader of sorts, following in the footsteps of folks like Daniel Shoemaker of Teardrop Lounge and Lucy Brennan of Mint/820. Bartenders who have put Portland on the map of drinking capitals. A pillar of the Stumptown scene, Morgenthaler is forever associated with barrel aging, thanks to his spirits work at Clyde. And with a shiny new bar to tend to and a new book nearly off the presses, it’s hard to avoid the fact that he might be worthy of the accolades. He might actually be charming when you start asking the right questions – and he might know a few things about the business of bartending.
Q: Where did you begin?
A: I was in college in Eugene and I applied to two jobs at the same time – one was washing dishes and one was tending bar, pulling drafts. In a shitty, terrible little dive bar over in the bad part of town. This bar was divey. It was a real institution, been since ’33. It was just dying. The neighborhood had gone into such decline that it was a wreck. But I got offered both jobs on the same day, so I flipped a coin, essentially. Decided to take the bartending job because I figured it would help me with public speaking, which I was really bad at.
I took the job, and I was just terrible. I got better eventually and I was headed back to school in the fall, and they said Hey, we’ll keep you and just move you to evenings. I was in school for architecture, and back then, you were down at the store every day buying paper or pencils or paints. Every day you’re dropping $50. So I switched to nights so I could keep making money. I kept bartending, maybe two or three nights a week. Slowly, I realized that I was more interested in bartending. I would be at my day job, on the computer, at my desk, and it killed me. I would just sit on the web reading Paul Harrington’s HotWired cocktail website. I was way more interested in reading about cocktails than architecture. Reading about Jerry Thomas and the Savoy cocktail book. Dale DeGroff, Audrey Saunders. It was what I was more interested in. And then one day, I realized I could just bartend full time. I was getting some notoriety around Eugene. I was starting to make more money running pretty successful bar programs. I thought, I could make this a career, even though back then, people didn’t really think that way. Most people weren’t giving up their professional degrees to bartend, unless you were in New York, where some of the greats have been doing it that long. Not in Eugene. But I did.
Q: How did you get up to Portland?
A: Clyde Common recruited me. My right hand man and I had been trying to open our own place back in 2007-2008, when nobody was really anxious to write us a check. No one was going to take a gamble on a new place.
So, then Clyde called. I didn’t really want to move to Portland. I liked Eugene. I had lived there for seventeen years at that point. I was a big fish in a small pond. I didn’t want to compete with people like Daniel Shoemaker. But I knew it was the only smart thing to do if I wanted to pursue this career.
Q: And you’ve stayed at Clyde…which is unusual.
A: I get a lot of younger bartenders in town that will want to have lunch and ask how they can get to that next level, but my advice is always the same: Quit fucking quitting your job! I’ve been at Clyde for five and a half years now. Stop quitting. I understand – I’ve had shitty jobs – but they can’t all be shitty. You can’t build a solid bar program in four months.
Q: So you think you can really evolve more by staying in the same spot long term? What about Clyde has really kept you there?
A: Well, I have a great situation here. I think that anybody in a creative position requires two things. The first thing is freedom, and I have that Clyde Common. My boss trusts me explicitly, and has put a lot of trust into me from day one. I remember when we put our first cocktail into a barrel. I had been there for a year, but only managing for six months, and I took a bunch of his liquor and poured it into a barrel. He looked at me kind of crazy, but I thought, Well, if this is terrible, I’ve just wasted $300 worth of spirits. But it obviously worked out. [laugh] But I’ve built that trust. You can’t build that sort of trust in a few months. I have freedom to do what I want.
The other thing a creative person requires, and I don’t think most people realize it, is boundaries. When you don’t have any boundaries, there’s nothing to work with. If I didn’t have any boundaries at Clyde, I’d be off in every direction, but we have very strict set of guidelines about what Clyde is and isn’t, we do this, we don’t do this. So everything we do has to be very Clyde Common. To have those boundaries in place is really critical. I’ve worked with chefs without boundaries and they’re just all over the place. To have that sort of ethos at Clyde is very helpful. That’s what keeps me going. Once you have that box, and you have to stay inside that box, then you go vertically.
I remember early on when I took over the program, I wasn’t flipping the drink menu often enough. I remember my staff was frustrated – why aren’t we creating new cocktails every week – but I felt like that wasn’t what Clyde was about. We have two very particular groups of clientele – the Portland regulars and the out-of-town visitors – and I felt like an ever-rotating menu was Clyde. To not have that regular consistency, I think it’s bad for business.
Q: And you’re also quite the writer outside of the bar…
A: It’s so funny. I hate writing. It’s the worst. I never wanted to be a writer. And I’m very vocal about this – that I absolutely hate writing. I don’t think I’m a good writer at all, and I tell people that, and they think I’m fishing for compliments, but I’m serious. I’m terrible. I read a lot, and I’ve read some really great writers, and then I read my stuff, and I think, This is fucking shit.
Q: Who are some of the writers you admire?
A: I mainly read for homework these days. I haven’t read a book that wasn’t related to booze, restaurants, bars in a long time. There are three books – two I’ve read, and one that comes out soon. The first is “The History of the World in Six Glasses” by Tom Standage, and it’s amazing. It’s really cool because it doesn’t just talk about drinks, it talks about the evolution – the six key moments in human civilization – starting with the creation of beer and ending with Coca Cola and globalization. It’s a great book and he’s a great writer. The second one would be Wayne Curtis’s “And a Bottle of Rum”. Wayne Curtis is just the best writer ever. So good, so funny. I wish I could write like him. He’s just fucking fantastic. And then this one that’s coming out, by Adam Rogers, the science editor of Wired magazine, he wrote a book called “Proof: The Science of Booze”, and it’s a lot like Wayne Curtis’s writing and Tom Sandage’s writing. It’s really funny and smart. Super in-depth with the research, but also fun and engaging. I got an advanced copy, and I’m sort of pissed because it’s so much better than my book.
Q: Tell me about the new book [“The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique”, Chronicle Books].
A: I was approached a few years ago by a literary agent, who said, ‘I like your writing, and I’m wondering if you’ve ever thought about writing a book.’ I said, sure, but here’s the deal, it’s not a book of recipes. No coffee table books, no glossy sexy photos. Just a book about technique, in that “Cook’s Illustrated” sort of way. When I train bartenders, there are always three things I tell them to keep in mind: One, is the recipe you choose, because there are a million different recipes out there. Ingredients would be the second thing to make it great. You have a selection of ingredients to choose from, and you have to pick the best ones. But the third thing that people don’t really talk about is technique. You can have a great daiquiri recipe, you can have all the great ingredients, but if your technique isn’t up to par, you won’t make a great drink. So, the literary agent said, well, you can’t really do that for your first book. You have to do a coffee table book full of recipes. Well, fuck that, I said. I don’t need to be a book writer so badly that I’m going to do a book I don’t want to do.
Not a month later, Martha Holmberg approached me. She said she wanted to do a book, and I told her about my idea. She thought it would be a hard sell the way I envisioned it. So we decided to write a book together. We pitched it and they wrote right back and agreed. Martha really guided me through the process – I don’t know how to write a book – and I wrote hundreds of pages. We worked on the outline, I had assignments, and I handed them into her as I wrote them. It was great.
Q: How long was that process?
A: By the time the book comes out, it will have been two and a half years, which is so crazy, because I feel like everything is so different from the original pitch.
Q: And when does it come out?
May 28. And then we go on a book tour.
Q: Tell me about Pepe Le Moko.
A: It’s a joint venture between Clyde Common and the Ace Hotel. One of the Ace owners, Jack, really wanted a speakeasy feel, with pre-Prohibition cocktails, but we got here, and I just felt that wasn’t the way to go. So I had to pitch this whole idea: We’re just going to do these great drinks. We’re going to do the best versions of the classics, but our list is going to be a little more fun than just brown, bittered, and stirred.
I think that’s what’s hot in cocktails these days is being driven by bartenders, not by consumers. And I think it’s this “Emperor’s New Clothes” thing. People go to a cocktail bar, and they almost enjoy the intimidation. The abuse. They go to a bar, they don’t recognize the ingredients in the cocktails, but the bartenders are like, here, you’re going to drink this because I’m smarter than you. I did a little case study, grabbed menus from bars all over town, and put them into a slideshow, and you know what? They’re all the same. Some sort of weird liquor, one or two types of amaro, maybe some housemade syrup or something, and some strange bitter you’ve never heard of, and they’re all stirred. And they’re all poured over a big ice cube. You know, I know a few things about bars, I like to think I’m a bit of an expert, and even I don’t recognize some of the ingredients people are using these days, which is kind of sad.
It’s almost like a fetishizing of cocktails and spirits these days, and I don’t think it’s going to last too much longer. I don’t think it’s what consumers want. I think they want something that’s enjoyable and fun to drink.
You know, for those people who want the classics, we’ve got the book. We can do a Remember the Maine and the Vieux Carrés, but this place is more about our favorites. They’re fun classics that we love drinking. We spent a lot of time developing these recipes. The bartenders were skeptical at first, but I was like, But mojitos are amazing! And the only people telling you that mojitos aren’t cool are bartenders! Everybody loves a mojito! You know, a couple of bartenders came in and asked what they should drink, and I said, “Have you had a mojito lately?” And one of the younger guys says, “What do I look like? A 50-year-old lady?” That’s how bartenders think! So bartenders are telling you that mojitos aren’t cool, but I’m here to tell you that they are, and we make the best fucking mojito in the city.
I think the sea of change is that people start going to bars to have fun again and not to bathe in the intimidation.
Q: What are you going to do once you’re done working behind the bar? It’s such a physically demanding job.
A: I’m trying to do as much as possible now, because I know I can’t do this forever. Right now, I’m active, I swim multiple days a week. I’m really trying to expand my platform as much as possible. I mean, I work five nights a week for ten to twelve hours a shift. It’s hard to get up some mornings – I’m a little creaky. I’m doing everything I can to take care of my body when I’m not at work, and just expanding my platform, so that when the day does come, I can still participate in the industry with writing, teaching. As long as I can still get the message out to as many people as possible, that’s really what I’m in it for. My mother was a teacher, so teaching is just in my blood. The book and the blog are part of that.
Q: When you go out, what are you drinking and where?
A: I like pretty simple drinks. I don’t really go out much to learn or stay relevant. I do all of that on my own. If I go out, it’s for real, simple, classic cocktails. I drink daiquiris and margaritas in the summer. I drink Manhattans before I eat steak at Ringside Steakhouse. I go to Teardrop Lounge a lot, because I think those guys are some of the best bartenders in the city. Not just because they make great drinks, but because they’re also amazing guys. Daniel’s just done an amazing job keeping that place super relevant. He and I are very similar even though we’re very different. Daniel knows that just making great housemade ingredients isn’t going to keep a bar open for twenty years. What’s going to do it is the people, and he’s got some amazing people. They’re just so warm and funny. So many successful bartenders have come out of Teardrop, because the training program is so intense. You just can’t say enough nice things about Teardrop. It’s one of those Ground Zero places for Portland.
That’s what we want to do at Clyde, too. Just keep putting out that great talent. I think that’s the mark of a truly great restaurant or bar. It helps drive that next evolution of food and drinks.
*Photo Credit: Jennifer Heigl / Daily Blender