Portland Whisky Wizard Tommy Klus Brings His Scotch Lodge to Life

Tommy Klus at La Moule, Portland, Oregon [dailyblender.com]
Tommy Klus at La Moule, Portland, Oregon [dailyblender.com]
Portland drink aficionados have long considered themselves lucky to find a seat at the bar of “Tommy Tweed.” A heartfelt moniker for a spirits explorer with an affinity for fine fabrics, the magnanimous Tommy Klus has held command at the city’s best bars and restaurants for the last two decades, building cocktails and bar programs at Bluehour, Teardrop, Kask, La Moule, and the Multnomah Whiskey Library.

This year, the whisky wizard will welcome an addition to his liquor legacy with the opening of Scotch Lodge, his first foray into sole proprietorship. Settling into the former basement space of beloved Biwa, the new bar will feature an extensive collection of spirits as well as a menu developed by Klus’s co-partner in La Moule, award-winning chef Aaron Barnett. Building on the history and spirits knowledge of its owner, guests will also have the opportunity to join the Scotch Lodge Whisky Club, for an additional level of connection and education.

“However, it won’t be tied to reservations,” Klus notes.

Doors are expected to open in mid-February.

I have a nine-month old daughter named Alice. She’s wonderful. I never thought I’d be a dad, and here I am. It’s a lot of work. But yeah, what am I doing opening a bar after just having a daughter?

Q: You’ve been in the industry for a while now. Where did you begin?

A: Even before I was 21, I was working in breweries. My dad worked at Henry Weinhard’s and was the chief engineer for twenty-something years. I have a lot of memories growing up, running around that brewery, being able to explore. That’s really my upbringing. I worked at Portland Brewing to start – my dad knew the brewmaster and got me the job.  I transitioned from the bottling hall into sales, and learned that I really liked working with people. I loved working the dock sales, helping people.

I left the brewery and took a barbacking job at a restaurant in the old Riverplace Hotel. It was my first behind-the-bar exposure. I didn’t know you could get cocktails published or that brands would fly you around the world. I just got into it because I liked working with people. I liked spirits and beer. Even then, I didn’t know what I was doing.

Bluehour was opening, and I was intrigued and wanted a change, so I applied for a bussing and barbacking position, and ended up working there for ten years. Bruce Carey taught me so much about hospitality and food, and that’s really where I fell in love with it. Food, and drink, and wine tasting. Bruce, and chef Kenny Giambalvo, were both very much inspired by Danny Meyer and his hospitality philosophy. Knowing your menu and the ingredients. I worked every front-of-the-house position I could – running food, parking cars, bussing tables, barbacking and bartending. I liked it. When I started I knew nothing about food. I grew up the way that most people in suburbs grew up – a lot of pizza and spaghetti. Things out of cans and jars.  There was just so much about food that I hadn’t been exposed to.

Learning those things for the first time, it was just a whole new world.

Breaking into the bar scene was really tough for me. It was so territorial. The bartenders didn’t want to teach their trade or let anyone in. As a barback, I wasn’t allowed to make drinks or talk to guests, but I still really loved it. I was able to keep my head down, keep the bartenders bartending by making sure they had what they needed before they knew they needed it. I took a lot of pride in it. Eyes on everything.

Q: You left Bluehour and headed to Teardrop, to work with Daniel Shoemaker.

A: I was excited about Teardrop because they were using ingredients you had never heard of. They had an extensive bitters collection. Few people were really thinking the way that Daniel Shoemaker and Ted Charak were – stirring cocktails, using bitters. It was a new thing that was inspired by an old thing. Daniel wasn’t necessary Prohibition-cocktail-minded then – he was experimenting, but incorporating elements of the classics as he knew them. They were making Amer Picon because you couldn’t find it in the United States. Vermouths, bitters. I was fascinated and I wanted to learn it all. I told him I’d drop everything I’d learned previous about cocktails to learn whatever I could, his way. I worked there for three years.

Q: Did you develop a love of scotch and whisky while you were there?

A: Scotch, yes. And tequila. I still love scotch and tequila, probably more than I did back then. There was a time when Laphroig smelled awful to me. Smells of ash and dirt, tastes like it too. Someone would drink it and I would think, I don’t know what you see in this. And now, I love everything that we love about it.

Daniel introduced me to Glenfarcalas. I had only been exposed to Macallan, Laphroig, Balvenie. Scotland – scotch in general – has always been romantic to me. You just imagine high crests and low rain. Very Game of Thrones-like.

In the cocktail realm, it was a little more punk rock back then, not really focused on hospitality. Having that fine dining and hospitality background, I think I was able to incorporate that into my work at Teardrop. Even though it felt like I was starting from scratch.

I was still very passionate about food and service and hospitality, and I ended up going back to Bluehour. I wanted to revamp their program. They were still making the same drinks. I was able to take over the program. I was ambitious. I didn’t really know how to manage, and I made some mistakes. I also made cocktails that I’ll never make again. But it was a really good learning experience for me.

Q: How did you end up going over to Scotland to pursue the scotch?

A: Just being romanced by the idea of Scotland was really what got me over there. Wanting a sense of connection. It’s so transformational when traveling. So I had the idea of going over there, because I felt like I couldn’t fully embrace it without actually going there, seeing it, and smelling it. Eating there, drinking there, sleeping there.

So, I wrote a proposal for a grant. I had already done a few Tales of the Cocktail apprenticeships, and they were offering scholarships to back your ideas, and mine was to connect the bridge between distilling and bartending by interning at a distillery in Scotland. I had Bruichladdich in mind. With globalization and consolidation, a lot of brands had been absorbed into bigger companies, and here was one that was progressive and fiercely independent. They were the punk rock guys. What BrewDog did for beer, Bruichladdich did for scotch.

I was really inspired. The master distiller at that time, Jim McEwan, had spent years in the area. Born in Islay, lived on Islay. He did a lot with Bowmore before joining Bruichladdich. He had done so much for scotch. Distillers were just starting to explore terroir, which was a new conversation back then in regards to spirits. He said no a couple of times, but I kept at it, and stayed persistent.

I wanted to start distilling. To make things on a larger scale. To make the products with cocktails in mind. I love bartending, and I’ve certainly returned to it, but I connected with scotch in a much bigger way than I thought was possible.

Tommy Klus at La Moule, Portland, Oregon [dailyblender.com]Q: What was involved in the internship?

A: I lived at the distillery for a month and a half. They let me stay in the distiller’s house, a little cottage behind the distillery, and I’d walk to work every day. I rotated through positions. Working the mash, the stills, the warehouse. I ended up going over to another favorite whisky maker, Springbank, to do the same for an additional two weeks.

There were so many parallels to the work that my father did back in the brewery. It really felt like I had come full circle.

Q: And you returned to Portland!

A: Yes, I had been working at St. Jack before I left, and when I returned, I started working with the launch of Kask. The general manager had come from San Francisco, and had so much enthusiasm. I was hired to set up the bar program the way I wanted to, and cultivate the team. Dave Shenaut eventually came over from Teardrop. But that’s really where the idea of the Scotch Lodge started, where the Black Lodge – its predecessor – started. Before that, it was the Log Lady. I was going through a Twin Peaks phase of drink making.

Q: You began your work on Multnomah Whiskey Library after leaving Kask?

A: I actually met Greg Goodman (owner of MWL) at Kask. Oddly enough, he was a tequila guy, so we’d always talk about tequila. Kask was kind of a whisky club, too. We liked using all the spirits there, but we had a nice whisky collection, a nice scotch collection. The whole Americana vibe.

I worked on the MWL project for almost a year before we even opened. It was intense. Putting it together, for me, I have mixed feelings about it. At the time, I wanted it to be my opus. I worked really hard. Hundred-hour weeks for fourteen months. I feel like I gave it everything that I had. I had a great staff, a great team I was fortunate to work with. We all learned from each other. Being able to create a bar program in such a beautiful environment. For a bartender, I think it was really a dream come true. There was a lot of myself that I was able to put into it. I hope we turned it into something that can be there for a long time. It came with a lot of complexity and stress and even heartache. It was one of the largest projects I’ve ever worked on. Always working for small bars, it was refreshing and scary. I remember proposing the first inventory, and having them say, This isn’t enough. You need to buy more. So I did.

There were a lot of questions to be answered along the way. How do you set up a service program to support such a huge selection of spirits? How do you train the bartenders to know what’s on the back bar? How do you come up with a map of where things are? We talked about setting up a Dewey Decimal System of sorts. What if you have a table of seven and everyone wants a different kind of whisky? How do you get all of those different whiskys down from the back bar and onto their table in a timely manner? It had to be seated. We had to encourage the seated experience so then everyone could get the same amount of attention, and we could deliver on what we were setting out to do.

I worked with the designer to create the cocktail carts. They needed to accommodate upwards of twenty bottles of liquor, so you could just load one up with everyone’s pick, along with glassware and ice. People are paying a lot for that type of experience, and they’re trying to learn from it. If I don’t bring the bottle and show it to you, I’m just bringing you a glass, and there’s a disconnect. I wanted to be able to show guests, so you get that extra knowledge out of it. Everyone was very passionate, and wanted to learn and taste as much as they could. That’s what we studied – what set spirits apart. Being able to share that experience with guests, to share the story of each bottle.

Q: How did the concept of Scotch Lodge come about?

A: I took a break when I left MWL and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I had worked with Aaron at St. Jack, and we always had these cool ideas. We love ideas and concepts. He loves to come up with menus. He’d send me a menu and we’d go back and forth. We had the opportunity to go back to Clinton Street, where St. Jack began, so we partnered up on it and opened La Moule. I think we wanted to do something simple and fun and unpretentious that had great ingredients and great service but wasn’t expensive or fussy.

When I left the Library, that part of me really didn’t turn off. I was very engaged in the whisky culture and the whisky industry and I really didn’t have an outlet for it. I kept collecting and building a collection with the idea of doing something with it. I have all these old bottles. I met a woman whose husband had passed away, and he had saved all these old bottles that he had always wanted to open a bar with – World War II-era bottles, old liqueurs, chartreuse. These things we don’t really get to see much of. I acquired that, and was able to taste all these old time capsules. We opened La Moule, but I couldn’t honor Phil, the gentleman who passed away. We weren’t a whisky bar, we didn’t have a whisky culture, and you can’t force a concept to be something it’s not. People in the neighborhood are in love with the food and the cocktails we have. Some appreciate it, but most aren’t there for that. A part of me, especially after becoming a dad, didn’t want to not do it. Scotch Lodge really reflects my time at Kask, my love of this industry, my love of cocktails. I really wanted to give back with this project.

The Scotch Lodge isn’t just scotch, though. Aaron and I went to France and ate at a lot of restaurants and were really inspired by this retro French-Modern movement. Going to Mexico, Scotland, Ireland – touching these spirits at their sources – has always been very inspiring to me. I wanted to bring these ideas back to Scotch Lodge. Just a celebration of food and drink.

It’s not a Scottish pub.

This is my Scotch Lodge.

Q: With your history here, and being a new dad, and the space, and your connection to whisky, it’s really your heart.

A: Yes. Which is terrifying. This is the one I feel like I’ve been waiting for, and it’s a scary time to be doing it, because there are so many concepts and so many great people doing so many great things. I hope it’s good. Just putting my heart out there.


~Jennifer Matthewson

Photo credit: Jennifer Matthewson / Daily Blender


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