Jeffrey Morgenthaler is Food Republic’s new contributing cocktail editor and the author of the occasional column Easy Drinking. Jeffrey is an industry veteran, having worked at bars of many styles for the past two decades. He currently manages the bars Clyde Common and Pépé Le Moko in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique. In this space, he will talk about making excellent drinks at the home bar — which, as the column’s name suggests, does not need to be difficult — as well as suggest favorite products and gear and maybe tell you where you need to drink when you’re not perfecting the Blood and Sand at home.
A little knowledge is, as they say, a dangerous thing. And if there’s one thing I had lots of when I first stepped behind the bar, it was very little knowledge. There’s this funny thing that happens when many of us start tending bar: Almost immediately, we begin to see ourselves as experts. I’ve actually met bartenders who have been behind the stick for less than a month and already see themselves as authorities on all things bar-related. And as I listen to them condescending to my incredible staff of seasoned professionals, I can’t help but remember that I was once that young bartender.
In the beginning of 1997, I had been tending bar for less than a year. And, lest I forget to mention this, I had only worked in a beer bar. Three beers on tap, a couple of cans and bottles, and some really foul wine in a very large bottle. That’s it. No bourbon selection, no ice well, no vermouths and bitters located within arm’s reach, no cocktail menu, no fresh citrus, nothing. Just beer and a cash register.
But I wasn’t going to let my limited knowledge deter me from wildly lamenting to anyone within earshot about the sad state of cocktails in the small college town I resided in at the time. And so it was that I encountered another young idiot one night at the local sports bar, my old drinking buddy Timmy. Timmy was a great sounding board for this sort of drivel, because he himself was a young moron just like me. After spending the better part of an hour complaining that no bartender in the city knew how to make a proper martini, I declared that we should retire to my elegantly appointed basement apartment, where I would take matters into my own hands.
But Timmy had other plans. Portland was only an hour and a half away, and we would be driving up post-haste to one of the big city’s finer martini bars for a properly made drink. Minutes later we were in my 1988 Volkswagen Fox, blaring Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits from the cassette deck and discussing the current state of cocktails.
Upon arriving at the designated bar, we sidled up and rubbed our hands together like amateur gambling addicts at a Reno blackjack table. The bartender came over and rolled her eyes at us, which in Portland is a signal that someone is ready to take your order. Timmy took the lead on this one, and I happily obliged.
“Two Bombay Sapphire martinis, please. Bone-dry. With a twist.”
Her heavy sigh indicated that the order was received, and she set out to fulfill our request. Now, this was in the days before every bar had giant refrigerators or even freezers full of glassware, chilled and ready to go behind the bar. So she did what any bartender at the time would have done, something I certainly would have done if the bar I worked in had any need for stemware. She filled the martini glasses with ice to chill them.
Being one of the world’s foremost authorities on all things cocktail-related at the time, I quickly interjected. “Ahem. We’d prefer those up, please. No ice.”
Her look of utter disdain outweighed my look of misplaced arrogance, and I slunk away to the restroom while she finished making our drinks. Over the next 18 years, I would learn how to chill a glass, move to Portland to be a bartender and even write a book about how to make a martini. But that night I learned the most important lesson every bartender eventually grasps: The more you learn about this stuff, the more you realize how little you know.
I still prefer my martini at a 5:1 ratio of gin to vermouth, with a twist, served up —no ice.
The Classic Martini
2 1/2 ounces London dry gin
1/2 ounce dry vermouth
- Stir ingredients with ice.
- Strain into a pre-chilled cocktail glass.
- Garnish with a lemon twist.
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