Jeffrey Morgenthaler: The Man Behind the Bar

The legendary Clyde Common bartender reveals his slow rise to cocktail stardom (by way of dive bars and white collar ambitions).

By Kelly Clarke June 2, 2014 Published in the June 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

With his barrel-aged negronis, bottled café cocktails, and a chatty blog, Portland’s best-known bartender has made his mark on the global cocktail scene—training bartenders from Paris to Helsinki and landing a 2014 James Beard nomination for Outstanding Bar Program at Clyde Common. But the genial fellow from Monterey is still most comfortable right here in Portland, presiding over a bar. Recently, that bar has been Pepe le Moko (above), the swanky bomb shelter located underneath Clyde Common. His exacting new technique manual, The Bar Book, coauthored with Martha Holmberg, is a sharp, funny guide to the artful touches that vault a cocktail from a swig to an experience (things like his “MacGyver Centrifuge Method,” which turns a whole pineapple into puréed sunshine). In person, Morgenthaler rarely waxes poetic about his craft—he just wants to make you a drink. 

MY FIRST BARTENDING JOB was in a real dive bar, the Tiny Tavern in Eugene. I was 24, studying architecture at the University of Oregon, and broke. And I was the worst bartender ever-ever-ever. It took me 15 minutes to get one table four beers. I thought bartending would be fun, a good way to meet girls. Little did I know there were no women at the Tiny Tavern. It was just drunk old men. But I dug the whole scene. I liked working at night. The regulars, all my grandparents’ age, would bring me cookies. And I really liked telling people I was a bartender. 

IT WAS 1999 when I discovered Paul Harrington’s cocktail blog. I’d read it at work when I was supposed to be doing architecture. (I was still tending bar at night.) I started buying up old cocktail books and bar tools on eBay. Slowly, I rose in the bar business, and architecture started to fade away. Clyde Common offered me a job in 2008.  

YOUR AVERAGE PERSON thinks of a bartender as somebody who makes gin and tonics for a living—Sam from Cheers. Which is pretty close. I do wash dishes and make drinks. Now there’s this modern bartender, which is like that Portlandia sketch: a dude with droppers and tinctures and all these weird potions. Granted, I think I helped contribute to that myth in some small way, but I don’t really like it.  

THE SIDECAR WAS the first drink that really made an impression on me. It was romantic, and from Paris...it had cognac in it! And it has these really beautiful proportions—something called the Golden Ratio of Cocktails: that’s two parts strong, one sweet, one sour. You really can make half the drinks in the world with that formula. In fact, the Bourbon Renewal, which is the biggest-selling drink at Clyde (it’s been on the menu for five years), is the exact same formula as the old sidecar, just sort of broken up a little bit.

MY DAD WAS A BANKER, his dad was a banker, my mom was a teacher. It was understood that I’d go into a white-collar field—architect, doctor, lawyer. In my head there’s something that says, “I’m a slacker, I should be working in an office somewhere.” So, I have always tried very hard to get as high up as possible in the business. I still haven’t hit that point where my shame level is satisfied.

TECHNIQUE IS MY THING. There are three things that make a great drink: the recipe that you choose, the ingredients, and the third, which nobody really talks about, is technique. Which is everything, and that’s what we talk about in the book: How do you juice your citrus? How do you make simple syrups? How do you cut ice? Store ice? Make ice? How do you shake? How do you garnish? All those little things. If you’re not paying attention to technique, your drink is not going to be as great. 

I DID A LITTLE CASE STUDY all over Portland. I grabbed cocktail menus and printed out the ingredients. It’s crazy, they’re all the same: base spirit, weird amaro, bitters ... a lot of barrel-aged cachaça, and mescals. I was like, who drinks like this all the time? For Pepe le Moko, I told my bosses I wanted to make daiquiris, Long Island iced teas, amaretto sours, espresso martinis. Their first reaction, I could tell, was, “Morgenthaler’s finally gone off the deep end.” But then I made them the drinks. They’re really good. I’m not being kitschy. Some people get it. Some don’t. So...can I make you one?

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