Jeffrey Morgenthaler intended on bartending for just the summer of 1996. Fortunately for the American drinks scene, things took a decidedly different turn for Morgenthaler; the University of Oregon grad has worked steadily behind the bar ever since. Well versed in the culinary arts and a master of all things potable, he challenges convention behind the bar on a nightly basis, so much so that he’s now attained celebrity status within the beverage industry — and rightly so.
Case in point: Last year Morgenthaler purchased several three-gallon, charred oak barrels used previously by the Tuthilltown Distillery to age its highly acclaimed bourbon. He proceeded to fill the casks with a large batch of Negronis and stored them in the basement of Portland’s Clyde Common, an ultra-popular restaurant where he has worked since 2009.
After six weeks, the cocktail emerged from the barrel a rare thing of beauty. The sweet vermouth had slightly oxidized imbuing the Negroni with a deep rosy hue. Savory whiskey notes were evident in the mid-palate and the lingering finish was gently laced with oak tannins. His signature cocktail was an unbridled success. He’s since repeated the experiment, this time filling the barrels with a batch of rye-based Manhattans. The results were again nothing short of phenomenal.
Morgenthaler is a born innovator and educator, and his insights into the business are well worth heeding. Many are shared at is popular blog, and he offered up a few choice nuggets for NCB Smart Bar. “I’m amazed when I see a manager or operator who doesn’t seem to understand their own space," he offers. "Trying to shoehorn a complicated cocktail program into a neighborhood tavern or an enormous Belgian beer list at an Italian restaurant are things that don’t usually want to work. If you find yourself struggling to make a beverage program work, it might be a sign that there’s a flaw in the concept.”
Just as concept matters, so do the tools of the trade, which can do much more than help create drinks. Morgenthaler believes operators can improve the working relationship they have with their bar staff by making sure the bartenders have the tools and knowledge they need to do the job. “People love to learn, and despite what you may have heard, people are very good at adapting to change. I frequently remind my bartending staff of where they were three, six or 12 months ago. We’re always evolving together.”
In fact, Morgenthaler believes that shortsightedness is the biggest mistake most bartenders make. “I think that we bartenders collectively have a sort of blindness to our own futures. We tend to think only as far as the next shift or the next paycheck and don’t seem to take our careers very seriously. I’d love to see us change that.”
Relationships also matter in this business, and Morgenthaler enjoys the kinship he has with his bartenders, especially those just beginning their tenure behind the bar. “I advise rookies to learn how to cook, how to throw a dinner party and how to clean up the messy kitchen before you go to bed. There aren’t enough bartenders out there who understand the art of entertaining. It makes a huge difference.”
Fame hasn’t gone to Morgenthaler’s head either. Rather than describing himself as a master mixologist, he considers himself a bartender who takes his job very seriously. “I love creating cocktails and the art and science of bartending. That said, I also deeply appreciate that bars are a sort of sacred social space, an environment that has helped define us as a civilization for millennia. I don’t know how long this mixology trend will be around, but if the whole thing goes belly-up next month, I’m going to be perfectly fine pouring beer somewhere.”