Longtime and famed bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler has some advice for you about drinking. Also, Morgenthaler has absolutely no advice for you.
Welcome to the Morgenthaler Paradox. I’ll get to that in a moment.
In the meantime, this month marks twenty-two years since Morgenthaler has been tending bar—since 2009 as head barman at the award-winning Clyde Common in Portland, Ore., which is inside the Ace Hotel. Today, also marks the publication of his new book, Drinking Distilled, into which he’s decanted much of what he’s learned during those late nights of slinging drinks.
Unlike his previous book, The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique, which was aimed squarely at professional bartenders looking to step up their game, this new work is aimed at those who sit on the other side of the mahogany.
And it’s really aimed at two class of drinkers—first, the novice, who has heard about craft cocktails and is curious, but is also a little intimidated by the lingo, bewildering choices, and the prospect of being judged for mispronouncing “cachaça” or placing a stupid drink order. “It’s like ten years ago when people were nervous about what coffee they ordered in a fancy coffee shop.” Morgenthaler says. “I hope I can strip some of the myth away.”
But it’s equally aimed at self-important cocktail nerds who can increasingly make life unpleasant for both bartenders and the people seated within earshot—people who know a lot about spirits and drinks and want everybody to know it. “I hope people say to their friends”—Morgenthaler here hoists his book and taps the cover—“hey, that’s you. Knock it off.”
Drinking Distilled covers a lot of ground in concise, koan-like sections. It’s divided into four parts as simple as food groups: after some “general instructions,” he takes on what to drink, when to drink and where to drink. The overall goal is to improve the imbibing experience for both drinkers and those around them.
Many of his observations were adapted from pieces he’s written over the years for Food Republic and Playboy magazine. He includes riffs on gender and drinking—he finds it sad when manly men refuse drinks in stemmed glassware. “Listen, using a stemmed wine glass or cocktail glass is the sign of a real grown-up, male or female,” he writes. If you can’t use one “without feeling emasculated or spilling your drink everywhere, you should go home and practice.”
This is a book that can be read in about 45 minutes—or maybe an hour if you are slowed by having a cocktail in hand. It’s breezy and to the point when taking on topics like diluting drinks, shaking vs. stirring, and pre-made ingredients. (“Store-bought Bloody Mary mix will… suck.”).
He efficiently dispenses with hoary debates that have occupied long evenings: “The Scottish spell [of whisky] without an ‘e’—it’s not a big deal.” End of discussion. And he salutes the Irish goodbye as “so elegant, so subtle, so brilliant” and encourages its broader use. Morgenthaler writes of hangovers somewhat dismissively, but also as one who evidently has more than a passing familiarity with them: “I think we’ve all had hangovers that have been so brutally aggressive that we’ve named them and remember them like they were our high school bullies.”
He’s somewhat more discursive on topics that rank as pet peeves, like people insisting that gin can be bruised—“it’s not a real thing,” he notes. He encourages you to shake your Martini, if you like a shaken Martini. Also: “‘Cheers’ is not a verb, it’s a type of toast,” he writes. “Please stop demanding that people ‘cheers’ you.”
It’s mildly alarming that someone had to write a manual for how to drink in a modern cocktail lounge. But these are our times and they have changed from those of our tavern-drinking forebears. Morgenthaler also has a section on privacy—cell phone cameras are everywhere in every bar these days!—which naturally leads to some talk about the ubiquity of smartphones in bars.
Morgenthaler hears a lot of people grouse that the smartphone is single-handedly destroying convivial bars—these people detest the barstool hunchbacks hovering over tiny blue glowing screens, mashing fingertips in search of human connection as they utterly ignore the humans on either side of them. Morgenthaler doesn’t buy it. “You were in Clyde Common last night,” he says to me. “You heard the din.” (It’s true—the place was packed and full of racket.) Phones may be a symptom rather than a disease.
He believes there’s also a lot of misplaced nostalgia for bars that existed only on television, full of banter and Cheers-like camaraderie. “It wasn’t like bars were think tanks before smartphones came along,” he says. “It used to be a couple of people reading a newspaper, a couple of people talking loudly, a couple of people talking softly, and someone talking to the bartender. Some people like to read in a bar, whether it’s on their phones, a book, or a newspaper.”
In short, if you want to spend your time in a bar thumb-scrolling through your Twitter feed, that’s exactly what you should do—while you sip your shaken Martini in a tumbler. Morgenthaler has lots of advice, but his chief advice is that you ignore him and others who tell you how you should order and behave.
Which brings us to the Morgenthaler Paradox: the more you learn about drinks in order to demystify them, the less you should talk about drinks because the more insufferable you become.
“It’s not the smartphone that’s ruining the bar,” Morgenthaler says. “It’s the cocktail.”
The recent obsession about cocktail ingredients and techniques is sapping the whole point of the bar. “Seems like 90-percent now order a drink and then want to talk about the drink for an hour,” Morgenthaler says. “The drink used to be this vehicle that the guest would enjoy. Now, it’s all: ‘I’m picking up some dill notes on that vodka.’” In contrast, he cites a regular—a 75-year-old former bartender—who comes in, orders his drink, and then they just talk: about what’s going on in the neighborhood, about mutual friends. Anything, that is, other than the drink in front of him. Morgenthaler feels that sort of interaction is in eclipse. “It wasn’t all fun and roses,” he says, “but at least it wasn’t the same goddam conversation every night.”
So here’s my advice on approaching Morgenthaler’s book: Read it. Enjoy it. Learn from it. Then forget everything in it. Go find a bar, order a drink, and talk to the bartender about anything you want, with the sole exception of the drink you just ordered.
Then hoist your drink, and announce to everybody or nobody that you would like to cheers Jeffrey Morgenthaler for encouraging bars and drinkers to return to their roots.