A Classic Crush

Jeff Morgenthaler on good service and great Sidecars


Jeffrey Morgenthaler makes drinks that tell stories, the witty kind, all sly jokes and twist endings. If you're having a cocktail at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon, you hardly need company beyond your own glass -- just let the Suicide Note (Amontillado sherry, Aperol, grapefruit), the Pyrrhic Victory (Nardini grappa, honey syrup, lemon, eggwhite) or a barrel-aged Manhattan do the talking. But don't let them tell you he's all about esoterica: Before the modern mixes, Morgenthaler was a boy with a bottle of Cognac, and a crush on a classic.

"The Sidecar. I will never forget it. This is what helped change my career. I had a bar at home, and was learning to mix drinks, and I went and got the ingredients...the minute I sipped it, I was just like, well. Oh, my God."

On the 14th anniversary of his first day behind the bar, Morgenthaler sat down with The Spirit to talk old-man dives, the loss of hospitality, and the importance of a vigorous shake.

The Spirit: What's the biggest difference between your first night, 14 years ago, and today?

Jeffrey Morgenthaler: Well, I sort of know what I'm doing now! You should have seen me on my first night. It was tragic. Part of the reason I wanted to get into bartending was that I was super awkward and shy, and I wanted to sort of be forced to go there. So, on my first night, I mean -- I could barely look people in the eye.

TS: Where were you tending bar?

JM: It was a place called The Tiny Tavern, in Eugene, Oregon. It was a dive, but a cool dive, a beautiful dive. It was a neighborhood bar, out on the other side of the tracks. It was an old man bar, which was awesome, because I learned how to really tend bar there. Which is the biggest difference, I guess, really between now and then. Now, bartending is all about "ooh, mixology!" but back then bartending was just: Could you tell a good joke? Were you funny? To this day, I still kind of love it when a cantankerous old guy comes into my bar and wants that routine. They really have more respect for you if you have a few good one liners, and can give them a little grief.

TS: What was the most popular drink at The Tiny Tavern?

JM: Beer! This place opened in 1933 -- right after Prohibition -- and the only beer that they had until a year or two before I started working there was Olympia. [Laughs] So good. So there were three bar taps, but each one of them had Olympia beer. By the time I started working there, they were trying to revamp, so they added, like, Bud Light ... but Olympia was still by far the number one. I remember this perfectly -- and this is 1996 -- a pint was $1.50, and a 8 oz glass was a $1. So people would just come in all night and get their dollar beer, or a dollar fifty if they wanted to go really crazy.

TS: Other than your old man one-liners, what did you take from your experience there?

JM: Well, the one-liner is a sign of a bigger thing. What I really learned there was how to tend bar. Somebody said to me once that you can teach any monkey how to make a gin and tonic (this was back when the most complicated thing you ever made was a gin and tonic), but you can't teach just anybody how to tend bar. It's true. It's basic hospitality. It's about being friendly, and having something to say other than just like ... "Smell my homemade bitters!" There so much bitters-smelling going on right now. It's a little insane.

TS: Are there other "mixology" trends like that, ones you feel have gotten out of hand?

JM: Oh, you know what I wish would go away? People being rude to their customers when they order something that isn't "cool." That infuriates me. I could go on about this for hours. Here's an example: I was at an event with a group of bartenders -- these are friends of mine ... and they're they're like, "Jeff, what do you do when someone orders a Cosmopolitan at your bar?"
I thought it was a trick question. So I say, "Well, first I ask them what vodka they want, then I like ... get the glass down. I mean ... are you asking me my recipe?" And they were like, "You actually make it for them?"

Come on. Why the fuck wouldn't I make it for them? I can't stand the attitude that's like, "How dare you come in and order that. I made my own bitters!" [Laughs] So that's the trend that drives me absolutely crazy. And I won't let my staff ever, ever do something like that. When people come to my bar, I want them to have what they want.

None of this existed 14 years ago, we were just taught like - somebody comes in the bar, and they order a drink, and you get it for them, and then you take their money, and you smile, and maybe tell them a joke or something. And I think alot of that is starting to get lost.

TS: So some of the bartenders' attitudes have changed, what about the clientele? Are people starting to order more complicated cocktails?

JM: Oh, yes. People are becoming so well-educated and interested in this sort of stuff, and I don't think that's a bad thing at all. Even when I was just sort of schlepping drinks at the club, when somebody knew just a little bit, and wanted to try something different -- that's definitely more fun then just cranking out Jack and Cokes all night. I mean, I can't complain about the other thing, when I was working in clubs you know cranking out jack and cokes all night and someone would come in and be like, hey, do you make a good Manhattan? I'd be like, oh my God! Yes! Sit down, this is awesome! But it doesn't make me want to treat the Jack and Coke people like dicks. They're paying the bills.

TS: Have your own tastes changed over the past 14 years?

JM: Not really that much! I mean, I don't really drink cocktails when I go out. Like most bartenders. Beer and a shot of whiskey. But I still make them at home, and there, I drink the classics. That's always been my taste.  I like Manhattans, and Sazeracs, and sours -- and a really well-made dacquiri. And, man. I still love the Sidecar.

TS: So what's the secret to a perfect sidecar?

JM: The secret to a really perfect Sidecar is the same thing that's the secret to any really great drink. There's there things that have to happen. I always tell this to my bartenders and other people. There are three things, and if all these three criteria aren't met, then it's never gonna be a *great* drink:

1.) The right recipe: The recipe I use for a Sidecar is very close to [author] Paul Harrington's classic recipe, except I sort of turned down the sour a little bit.

2.) The ingredients. Obviously, nobody would argue these days that not using fresh juice is something that you should do, so that's obvious. But, use really high quality Cognac. The better you can use, the better your drink will be.

3.) The technique. If you're gonna stir your sidecar, instead of shaking it with the right ice, or if you're not chilling the glass properly, that sort of stuff, it's not going to work. So: shake the living daylights out of it.

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: Mark Angelillo
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    2 5,324

    The bartender schtick from back in the day is so overlooked in New York. I'd appreciate a joke from some of the bartenders here!

    Jun 09, 2010 at 6:20 PM

  • Snooth User: Rossired
    451720 10

    Polar Bear walks in bar....
    Bartender: What'll you have?
    Polar Bear: Rum........................................................and coke.
    Bartender: Whats with the big pause?
    Polar Bear lifts arms looks at hands and replies: Hey-I'm a polar bear!!!

    Jun 11, 2010 at 3:22 PM

  • Snooth User: Mark Angelillo
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    2 5,324

    Haha - I actually laughed out loud a little at that one. Hope you're a bartender in NYC, Rossired.

    Jun 11, 2010 at 3:31 PM

  • Snooth User: redwine89
    503255 74

    I love this guy, He is the kinda Bartender I would so love to work with. not the prima donna that thinks that their shit doesn't stink and that they can do no wrong! I hate a know it all.

    Jun 15, 2010 at 5:37 PM

  • Snooth User: strofan23
    480607 45

    I love tossing beers across the length of the bar! The first time I did that it was freaking awesome!

    Jun 17, 2010 at 6:09 PM

  • Snooth User: pisco papa
    Hand of Snooth
    410160 4

    I agree with Jeffon the sidecar recipe's components, i.e. high quality
    cognac, fresh juice, etc.
    One "twist" on the original is to use Inca Gold Pisco, an acholado style
    pisco, instead of cognac.
    The crystal clear nature and aromatic properties of Inca Gold makes
    a delightful alternative. Walt Bauer---incaspirits.com

    Jun 19, 2010 at 12:13 PM

  • Snooth User: bobjag
    110806 22

    Amen brother. There are definetly not enough professional bartenders around. I f i wanted to sit by myself and drink a non professionally made drink I would sit at home. It is all about the experience and the no strings attached thing. Bartenders always seem too busy to teach a new drink, share a joke, or just acknowledge my being. It IS all about the experience.
    ps- i am a pretty good tipper-

    Jul 06, 2010 at 7:24 PM

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