So I know I had retired The Bartender’s List a few weeks ago as it was intended to be a summer series. And the fact that it is now dark at 4:30pm suggests we are well into fall. But sometimes you just have to bring a good thing out of retirement. Especially when someone like Jeffrey Morgenthaler begs you to do an interview with him…. I may have the details wrong on that one. But whatever. The details are secondary. Point is, someone begged someone for an interview and someone said yes and the other someone had an excitement-induced panic attack.
For those that don’t know who the man is, here’s the Cole’s Notes: Jeffrey Morgenthaler. The Bar Book. Clyde Common. Pepe Le Moko. Playboy Magazine (columnist, not centerfold…..that I know of). Grandaddy of the barrel aged cocktail. A quick google search will tell you that he is a highly accomplished and well-respected bartender.
But when you sit at Jeffrey’s bar, the magnitude of his achievements aren’t really in the foreground. It’s not that you’re not aware of them. His talent and success as a bartender is always clear, but when you are sitting in front of him having a conversation over one of his creations, Jeffrey just becomes a guy. He’s sarcastic, opinionated, crass and kinda loud. It’s clear that he takes what he does seriously but self-deprecating humour is very much a part of his repertoire.
Perhaps you’d imagine that sitting at his bar would involve a discussion about obscure cocktail recipes or long-lost ingredients. And I’m sure that happens. But that last time I sat across from Jeffrey, we had an in-depth conversation on the merits of Kelly Kapowski over one of the finest whiskey sours I’ve ever had. And that was just fine by me.
I went to Portland this past weekend to photograph for this article. On my way out of the Clyde, Jeffrey rather sarcastically said “I look forward to your scathing exposé.” Well, here you have it. I wouldn’t call it scathing, but it’s most definitely unedited, unabridged, unadulterated Jeffrey Morgenthaler at his finest.
1) What was your first sip of alcohol?
Oddly enough it was scotch whisky. I don’t remember which brand it was, but I remember that it looked pretty fancy. I was in high school and really loved the Beatles. I mean, they weren’t a group when I was in high school, let’s just get that straight. Anyway, I read that they drank scotch and Coke, and so I tried one. My parents had a lot of it in the liquor cabinet.
2) If you could only have a 5 bottle bar, what would they be?
One bottle of London dry gin, one bottle of really fucking nice silver tequila, and three bottles of cask strength Islay whisky.
3) What is your death-row drink?
Like, I’m on death row and they’re going to let me have one drink before they kill me? Is that what this question means? I mean, if I’m about to be killed, I guess I’d request a pint glass full of vodka. What do other people say to this question, like they’d want to sip on a Remember the Maine right before they get electrocuted? Fuck that. They can carry my black-out drunk ass to the chair.
4) Was there anything that you really wanted in your book that didn’t make the final cut?
I really wanted the whole thing to be illustrated. Tons of illustrations, sidebars with recommended tools, all that. But my publisher was like, no, we’re going to do photos. Fortunately Alanna is an incredible photographer and the book turned out great.
5) The album that captures the feel of your dream bar?
That changes often. Back when I was working in dive bars it was Small Change by Tom Waits. I think that’s the anthem album to pretty much every dive bar out there. Now, I don’t know. Know the soundtrack to Breakfast at Tiffany’s? The one by Henry Mancini? I think that sounds like a pretty classy bar.
6) The one cocktail book that should be behind every the bar?
Mine. No, just kidding. Honestly, you need a book that’s got great recipes that you can trust. It’s hard finding one book that’s good all around. I think Jim’s PDT Book is super reliable.
7) The one non-cocktail book that should be behind every bar?
The Guinness Book of World Records. That’s what it’s for.
8) Most unusual drink request?
We had a regular down in Eugene who would come in after work every day and have – ready for this? A Beefeater gin and Pepsi. I’ve heard of some weird drinks, but that is seriously fucked up. Gin and Pepsi? That’s like what you make when you’re under age and don’t know any better. But you don’t go around being a grown-ass man drinking that shit. This guy was like 50. I’ll bet he’d been drinking them since he was 11.
9) If you could make a cocktail for anybody, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you make them?
I want to make a drink for the President. Doesn’t matter who it is at the time. I think that’s the top, when you go to the White House and make a cocktail for the president. That’s when you’re like officially the best bartender in America.
10) On nights when you’re totally in the weeds, what makes it worth being behind the bar?
Pretty girls. Oh, and money. Those are the only two reasons I got into this miserable line of work in the first place. I never wanted to be a bartender for the rest of my life – who on earth would? Standing on your feet for ten hours a day, listening to drunk people babble on, cleaning up puke and stuff. No, babes and cash. That’s what it’s all about.
11) The menu at Pepe seems to embrace a more maligned variety of cocktail like the Amaretto Sour and a shamrock green Grasshopper (which a lot of craft bartenders tend to shy away from). What is something your peers have embraced that you just can’t get behind?
Uh, probably a menu full of brown, bitter, and stirred drinks with ingredients even I have never heard of. That’s something I can’t get behind. When did you guys all get together and decide to make drinking in bars a really miserable experience? Because I missed that meeting. I’m not saying you need a menu full of dumb drinks like mine, but for the love of god, please stop it with this shit.
12) If your shifts behind the bar had a theme song, what would it be?
Carmina Burana. Just kidding. It would be like Baby Elephant Walk or something. Henry Mancini! I didn’t think I really liked his music but apparently it’s my theme music.
13) Best bar fight you’ve ever witnessed- GO!
I went to a regular haunt one night after work. It was kind of a fancy place. Anyway, I’m standing next to this weird dude. Young kid. I pay for my drink and leave a big tip, and this kid started telling me what a good tip that was, and how it’s really important to tip your bartender. I’m like, yeah yeah, please stop talking. Anyway, he’s super weird – I’m guessing meth, since this was in Eugene. So he’s really bugging me, still talking about tipping. He tells me that he works in a gas station, and that every day this old man comes in and gets like a newspaper or whatever, and gives this kid $20 and says “Keep the change”.
And I’m like, increasingly getting annoyed with this kid. So I tell him, “I hate to break it to you, but that old man is only doing that because he wants to get in your pants.”
Oops. With one punch to the chest, this kid laid me out flat on the floor. I wasn’t even mad, I thought it was hilarious. But instead of coming over and kicking my ass, as he was hoping to do, the entire bar jumped on this kid and literally threw him out onto the street. And he’s looking at me through the window, and I’m thinking, “Sorry man, I guess I should have told you that I’m pretty much the favorite regular here.”
14) Other than the recent incident with the finger, what is the worst injury you’ve endured behind the bar?
Why is my finger injury so well known? I was in Berlin a couple of weeks ago, and people I didn’t even know were like, “How’s the finger healing?” I took my fingernail off with a vegetable peeler, which was really horrible, but there’s like this Save Ferris thing happening. Still. When I was in LA, all the bartenders were bandaging their ring fingers in solidarity. I’m like, what is going on here. But yeah, that was probably my worst injury.
15) First bar you were ever thrown out of? Last bar you were ever thrown out of?
I’ve never been thrown out of a bar.
16) What is your favourite fictional bar from tv, movie or book?
Cheers. All the way.
17) What is the most enticing opportunity you’ve ever turned down?
I don’t really turn down a lot of good opportunities. If it seems like it’s good for my career and something I actually want to be associated with, I’ll do it. I want to contribute as much as I can to this industry, so I welcome anything that enables me to do that. The book was like that. I wasn’t actively seeking to write a book, but the opportunity came to me and I used it to contribute something I feel is valuable to the business. That’s why it’s not the Big Book of Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s Cocktail Recipes. Because I didn’t think that would be valuable.
18) What is your favourite three-ingredient cocktail and how do you make it?
Check out the “How to Not F@%& Up a Daiquiri” on Small Screen for Jeff’s recipe.