Going 10 Rounds With Top Bartender Michael Neff
Michael Neff, the veteran bartender and co-owner of the new Cottonmouth Club in Houston, tackles our speed round of questions.
What do you like to drink after a shift? “I’m definitely a creature of habit when it comes to after-shift drinking. Generally, it’s a pilsner with a shot of Fernet-Branca on the side to sip. Sometimes I’ll make it a bourbon neat with a few drops of water. The cheaper the bourbon, the better.”
What is the all-time best dive bar jukebox song? “A good dive bar jukebox song is one that gets the whole crowd going. ‘Livin’ On a Prayer’ by Bon Jovi does this. ‘Africa,’ by Toto (obviously). ‘Wagon Wheel’ by Old Crow Medicine Show. ‘Ebony Eyes’ by Stevie Wonder. That list barely scratches the surface. Too many choices.”
What drink should be banished and why? “I don’t think anything should be banished. Judging down a cocktail is a roundabout way of judging the people who drink it, which is unacceptable. There are plenty of things I don’t like and plenty of things I won’t drink, but that doesn’t give me the right to cast aspersions on people who haven’t been exposed to things that I think taste better.”
Name the first good drink you ever drank and where you had it. “I was a young and very cocky bartender in 1995 when I sat across the bar from the great Murray Stenson at Il Bistro in Seattle. He made my first stirred Manhattan, and watching how he worked his bar while making cocktails was a revelation. Names like Murray Stenson and Jim German, as well as places like Il Bistro, Campagne, Capital Club and many others, deserve a much bigger place in people’s understanding of the modern cocktail revival.”
What book on cocktails, spirits or food is your go-to resource? “The Joy of Cooking and The Joy of Mixology pretty much do it for me. But I have a new staff, and the books I bought for them to reference are as follows: the aforementioned Joy of Mixology by Gary Regan, The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler, Speakeasy by Jay Kosmas and Dushan Zaric, and The Waldorf Astoria Bar Book by Frank Caiafa. Not a complete list by any means, but a fine cross-section.”
What’s your favorite bottle of booze that costs less than $25? “I’m a pretty big believer in the idea that good bourbon should be cheap. One of the best values in bourbon, IMHO, is Jim Beam Black. Good body, definitional character, and very affordable.”
What’s your favorite cocktail and food pairing? “That would be a toss-up between street tacos with mezcal & sangrita, or any sour variation with dive-bar Chex Mix. If I have to be fancy, I’ll say a stirred Agricole Rhum Martini with fresh oysters.”
What drink are you most proud of creating? “Woof. Tough call. Whatever the last one I made up that changed someone’s mind about what a cocktail can be.”
What’s your favorite shot-and-a-beer combination? “Sierra Nevada Pale and Fernet-Branca. Yellow Rose IPA and Ilegal Joven Mezcal. Amaro Montenegro and anything.”
What is the one tool that you always make sure to pack when you’re traveling for business? “A flashlight. I’m currently rocking the Stream Light Stylus Pro, which fits well clipped in the side of my pocket and goes with me wherever I go. A good and accessible flashlight is one of the most important tools a bartender can carry, and essential when you’re on the road, hopping behind strange bars where you don’t know where anything lives.”
Michael Neff is co-owner of The Cottonmouth Club in Houston, Texas.
Interview has been condensed and edited.