IN MY EXPERIENCE: JEFFREY MORGENTHALER

by Paul Clarke

“In My Experience” is drawn from conversations with veteran bartenders across the country, covering matters of significance to those pursuing a long-term career behind the bar. These industry veterans are sharing their experiences on practical issues such as money and how to save it; health, and how to keep fit both mentally and physically; how to find a good balance between the bartending life and spouses, partners and family; and how to maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol.

Jeffrey Morgenthaler is one of the most familiar faces in bartending today. With more than 15 years of experience behind the bar, Morgenthaler has inspired bartenders and drinkers around the world to experiment with barrel-aged cocktails and to mix his seemingly addictive eggnog via his eponymous blog, picking up more than a little media attention along the way. Morgenthaler’s ongoing interest in cocktail ingredients and techniques will be the focus of his upcoming book, to be released in 2014 from Chronicle Books. Jeffrey Morgenthaler is bar manager at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon.

First bartending gig: 1996, the Tiny Tavern in Eugene, Oregon. It was just a beer bar, there were no cocktails or liquor; we had one big bottle of red, and one big bottle of white, and we poured about one bottle of each a week. The rest of it was an Olympia bar; for the first 50 or 60 years it was open, they only served Olympia Beer, because they had a contract a long time ago, like right after Prohibition—they opened in 1933—and I think it was the first Olympia Beer account in the state. That’s all we did—schlepped beers. It was supposed to be a summer job, and I stayed there for four years.

In your experience as a bartender, what have you learned about:

Money—having, saving and spending it

It’s pretty organic. As I started to take the job more seriously, it was about the same time I was taking my life more seriously. It’s not like I woke up one day and decided, “I’m going to start saving money for a down-payment on a house.” It just happened as I got older.

There’s this thing that I have: I wasn’t supposed to be a bartender, I was supposed to be an architect—I have a degree in architecture. When I made the decision not to do that, and to be a bartender, there was a certain amount of almost shame that came along with it. I was turning my back on this fairly expensive education I’d received, and was going into uncharted territory at that point. This was the early 2000s, in Oregon – to become a career bartender, there were only a few people out there who were doing it, like Dale and Gary. Because of that shame, I tried to approach it with the attitude, “I’m going to approach this like a real career, and I’m going to prove to myself and the world that I’m not a giant slacker. I’m not just going to get drunk every night, I’m going to make money at it and make a difference doing it.” That’s what drove me to give up that level of immaturity that’s inherent in this – but, c’mon, I didn’t give it up entirely; if you saw me during Portland Cocktail Week, you’d know that, but that was a big part of it.

Staying healthy

I realized pretty quickly that my body was falling apart. I’d only been doing it for 6 or so years before I developed plantar fasciitis [a painful tissue inflammation in the foot], and it makes it nearly impossible to stand, not to mention walk or stand for 10 hours at a time; I had to change my footwear to those god-awful hideous Danskos that I wear.

I think the bigger picture is that it’s a really physically intense job. You have to be in some kind of fighting shape. I work out four times a week, just to keep myself fit. I’m 41 years old – I’d be a disaster if I didn’t go running or swimming three or four times a week. That’s really key; you’re almost like an athlete at this point. When you’re on your feet 12 hours a day, and moving kegs — I spent two hours yesterday reorganizing my cooler and moving kegs around, and you’re taking the recycling down at the end of the night, and carrying cases of beer up two flights of stairs – if you want to have any longevity at all, when you get up in the morning, you have to do something with your body. You can’t just get wasted every night and lie in bed until 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

Dealing with the intensity of working behind the bar

I wish I knew. By trying to develop as much mental acumen and stamina as possible, I suppose, but it’s tough.

Right now, I’ve been talking to my boss about developing a kind of exit strategy for me, because I can’t mentally handle people screaming at me all night – it’s really, really tough. I want to get to a place where I’m doing more admin stuff before that, so I’m not just a f*cking dick when that happens. That’s what I’m grappling with right now.

I look at my younger bartenders, and they’re so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but having drunk people scream at me for 16 years is getting a little old. Going out and getting drunk every night is definitely not the answer, because nothing makes it worse than coming into work with a hangover, and then having those people scream at me.

Developing an appropriate relationship with alcohol

Part of it’s just old age – I just don’t want to get wasted every night. But a lot of it is approaching the job as a career, and you can’t keep living that way. I talk to a lot of bartenders who are my age or a little younger, and some are a little envious of my position around town, and I tell them, “The key is, like, going home and going to bed and getting up at 8 am and getting to work, and you can’t do that if you’re drunk all the time. You can do it some of the time, but…” I think you have to learn to appreciate sobriety, or at least sobriety most of the time. I’m in my apartment right now, and I’m surrounded by 20 cases of hard liquor, but I don’t come home and chug it. People ask me how I do it and, I dunno, I suppose not being a raging alcoholic helps.

Maintaining a balance between work and relationships

You are asking the wrong guy. I wish I knew.

That’s the one drawback for me about this business; I’ve had a really hard time holding down a relationship, and I don’t know if it’s the bartending, or if it’s me. This is so important to me, I put it above everything, and that’s kind of the tradeoff. I am where I am today because I haven’t settled down; but I haven’t made both work. I keep thinking that a time will come when I’ll be happy with what I’ve done, and I’ll settle down a bit. It’s kind of sad, but that’s the way it is — that’s the life I’ve chosen.

Back when you started your first shift, is there anything you wish you’d known that you know now, that would have made your life and career a little bit easier?

I don’t think I’d do anything different. I wouldn’t want anything to change, I’m so happy with the way it’s ended up. I’ve got what I think is the best job in Portland at what I think is the best restaurant in the universe, I’ve got a book coming out, and every bit of it has been super fun. Even the terrible things, I learned a lot from every single thing I did, so I wouldn’t change a goddamn thing.

Any advice for younger bartenders looking to follow a similar path?

Read as many books as possible.



Read more from In My Experience.