Champagne wishes and cocktail dreams

To say that Jeffrey Morgenthaler is an asset to the Portland bar scene would be an understatement. The current bar manager at renowned restaurant Clyde Common has been making a name for himself locally, nationally and internationally since mixing a good cocktail first sparked his interest.

To say that Jeffrey Morgenthaler is an asset to the Portland bar scene would be an understatement. The current bar manager at renowned restaurant Clyde Common has been making a name for himself locally, nationally and internationally since mixing a good cocktail first sparked his interest.

“I actually liked bartending before I became interested in it,” Morgenthaler said.

When he was an undergraduate studying architecture at the University of Oregon, Morgenthaler started bartending as a summer job at the Tiny Tavern in Eugene. Though he had every intention of leaving the bar when school started back up, the bar seemed keen to keep him.

“I tried to quit at the end of that summer because I was going back to school and they told me…they would give me nights if I would stay,” Morgenthaler said. “I really liked bartending. [Tiny Tavern] was just a beer bar, but I really dug bartending ’cause you get to meet people and talk to people and it’s just a super fun job.”

At the time, it was the late 1990s—the height of what Morgenthaler likes to refer to as the “cocktail renaissance,” a time when we saw a resurgence of interest in classic cocktails and vintage glassware.

 “I was really into it,” Morgenthaler said. “I was buying old cocktail books, and reading stuff online…I was still just slinging beer and I decided that I wanted to learn how to make cocktails and I begged some friends of mine that ran this big club—not really a dance club but just a big bar—to let me come work there. I moved over [there] and started making cocktails and slowly kind of phased out my real career. I’m supposed to be an architect.”

Continuing work as a bartender and honing his skills as a mixologist, Morgenthaler was soon traveling the world for bar-related conferences and lectures. He was even given the honor of speaking at the Berlin Bar Conference in 2008, an event put on by Mixology Magazine, a German magazine Morgenthaler had been contributing to for several months prior.

Morgenthaler was contacted by Clyde Common while still living in Eugene about an opening in their staff as bar manager. He interviewed and was subsequently offered the job.

“I really had no intention or desire to ever move to Portland. It’s not anything that’s Portland’s fault,” Morgenthaler said. “I was just perfectly happy in Eugene.”

He started his position at Clyde Common on Jan. 2, 2009, and has been working there ever since, creating new drinks and pouring old favorites for myriad customers that walk through his door.

“The street that we’re on is really kind of awesome,” Morgenthaler said. “I mean, it’s pretty cool cause Clyde just attracts everybody. It’s not like when you go to some places in Portland and you’re like oh, this is a bar for ‘insert group here.’ Clyde’s [is] just like everybody crammed in.”

This melting pot of customer and creative support from Clyde Common’s management has allowed Morgenthaler to pioneer new ground in cocktail making, mixing up some of the most balanced and tasty drinks to be found in Portland. Through his travels, he’s also managed to learn new techniques, discovered uncommon liquors and even created some completely new drinks.

“The great thing about being like me is I get to travel a ton,” Morgenthaler said. “I go to the best bars all over the world and steal their ideas.”

One of the ideas he happened upon was the inspiration for Clyde Common’s new foray into a barrel-aged cocktail program. While visiting London, Morgenthaler went to the famous and unofficially named bar “69 Colebrooke Row,” where he tasted a Manhattan that had been aged in a glass bottle for five years. Though he didn’t taste too much of a difference from the original thing, the technique got him thinking about the possibilities of barrel aging to add new flavors and depth.

Upon returning to the U.S., Morgenthaler pulled out a gallon-sized Madeira cask he’d gotten his hands on, filled it with a fully mixed Manhattan and let it sit for a month.

“We pulled it out, me and my boss, and we tried it and we’re like ‘holy shit! This is really good,'” Morgenthaler said. “It put a finish on it, like a whiskey bourbon wood finish. It’s so weird. The crazy thing is that we think we’re the first people to do this. Everybody I’ve shown this to is like ‘I’ve never heard of that, it’s super exciting.'”

Having sold out of their original Manhattan, Morgenthaler and his crew are working on making more of it and trying to age some other cocktails along the way. It’s creativity like this and small touches like his incredible hospitality and breadth of cocktail knowledge that make Morgenthaler a delightful man to have serve you, whatever your boozy fantasy might entail.

“I don’t really have [a favorite drink to make],” Morgenthaler said. “I don’t have a least favorite drink to make either…I like the really geeky stuff and I’m happy making a mojito. I just like making drinks. I don’t really see the difference…I like to make drinks the way I like to drink drinks so I try to make people’s drinks as they would taste good to me, because that’s really all I can go on. Then I just pray that I have good taste.”

 Over the course of his bartending career, he’s developed a knack for reaching out to customers and connecting on a deeper level than just “can I take your order?”

“As a bartender you know how to gauge if people want to talk to you or not,” Morgenthaler said. “Some people just want to be left alone and then you know, just based on professional experience, to just leave them alone and some people sit because they want to chat with you. I’ve been dealing with people for so long that it’s all kind of the same to me. I like people. They don’t really bother me.”

With time, Morgenthaler has seen bartending change into something more highly respected than the historical view of it as a dead-end job.

“For a long time, it’s always been kind of a deadbeat job,” Morgenthaler said. “But I think what I’ve seen is that people are taking more and more seriously over the years, which is nice. It’s nice to have the thing that I love so much be given a little bit more credibility, because other people are taking it more seriously. That makes me happy and it makes my parents happy too.”

With his creativity, preternatural instincts for gauging people and a heart that is truly in his work, Morgenthaler and Clyde Common are a must stop for any Portlander or those visiting from out of town. Sidle up to the bar, smile back and get ready to be wowed.

“When you come into my bar, I will be nice to you because you’re in my home,” Morgenthaler said. “Since you’re in my home, I would kind of hope that you would act the same way and then we’ll have just a really lovely time.”