Alcohol Content Makes It Onto the Menu
At Portland, Oregon's new Pacific Standard, helmed by cocktail pro Jeffrey Morgenthaler
Jeffrey Morgenthaler, one of the country’s most influential bartenders, is now a bar and restaurant owner for the first time. He and fellow former Clyde Common bartender Benjamin Amberg opened Pacific Standard in the lobby of Portland, Oregon's KEX hotel almost four weeks ago. I’m sure there's lots to say about the place, which Morgenthaler told the Robb Report is a "love letter to the West Coast," but I personally haven't been there yet. I have seen the menu, though (thanks to Pathfinder's Chris Abbott, who initially sent me a photo), and something stood out: The percent of alcohol by volume (ABV) is listed under each drink. As I’m fascinated by menu design, I immediately called Morgenthaler to talk about it.
I see that alcohol-free cocktails are located at the top left of the page. Is this a kind of statement, or am I reading too much into it?
You're not reading too much into it at all. This discussion about alcohol has, like politics in America, become so polarized: You're either totally in this camp or totally in that camp. That's never been how I think about drinks. Nonalcoholic drinks have always been a big part of our programs, and I was just making...drinks. Some have alcohol, some don't, some have a little bit, and some have a lot, but they're all drinks. Rather than relegate the no- or low-alcohol drinks to the kids' section on the back and bottom of the menu, I wanted to announce to guests, right off the bat, that this is the kind of bar where we think about drinks as beverages. That's the only rule to them.
The late, great New York cocktail bar Existing Conditions comes to mind. Nonalcoholic drinks filled the first page of the leather-bound menu, followed by the rest.
That makes the most sense to me. It's like you're ramping up: Here's the intro and then the last page should be like over-proof scotch whiskey or something. Not vice versa.
That's interesting. Do you think amount of alcohol should be the organizing principle of cocktail menus?
No, I think that every bar should have its own organizing principle. There's never going to be one universal one, but I do think that makes sense.
I see that you use some regional alcohol-free products, Pathfinder and Wilderton, but in the Tiger Balm drink, you also list a house-made nonalcoholic spirit. Can you tell me about that?
The thing about these products is that they're very expensive, and while I'm seeing a lot of $18- or $20-dollar cocktails out there, this menu was designed to be affordable. So, we ginned up (no pun intended) this house nonalcoholic spirit that's meant to sit alongside the Wilderton and help it work better. Because another thing about those products is that they don't really have the bite of alcohol that you might miss. We make it with apple cider vinegar, black tea, some bay leaf... It's nothing too tricky, but it gives the Wilderton a little pop and brings the price down.
Why did you choose to put the alcohol content under every cocktail?
It's about giving everyone enough information to drink with more intentionality. I think, as someone who does have drinks from time to time still, that kind of information helps me map out my night. I might want to start with a strong one after a hard day of work, but I can't do two. I might want to put the breaks on a little bit and then have something at a lower alcohol content, and then switch to something that has none and kind of ride that out.
It also helps the bartender get a clearer picture of what someone's night looks like. As we aim to provide responsible service, having all of the information we can is important.
I feel strongly about bartenders having that tool. I put a calculator on my website early this year so people can punch in the ingredients and volumes and it will spit out the alcohol content, and I get so many messages from bartenders who are also putting % ABV on their menus. You know, the world of beer has always done this. You want to be aware if you're drinking a 13% imperial stout, so maybe your next drink can be a 4% American pilsner.
You have thought more about your relationship to alcohol over the past handful of years, and even took a break for a while. Did that influence this decision?
It probably brought maybe a more mature attitude, sure. I'm in a good place, having been a big drinker and then a total non-drinker and now an occasional drinker, and I do think that helped drive the menu design. At the end of the day, we want people to hang out and spend as much time with us as possible and we want to give them the tools to do that.
I know it's only been a month, but what has the response from customers been like so far?
Really good, and it's been fun to watch people use it. One of our regulars is an accountant, so it's pretty high-stress job, and usually when she comes to see us, it's an Old-Fashioned, immediately. You almost get it ready for her when you see her walking through the door. But the other night, she sat down and ordered the Wandering Path [alcohol-free cocktail]. Then she got some food. And then, after a while, she said, "Okay! I skipped lunch, so now that I have some food in my belly, I'm going to have the Old-Fashioned." She used the information on the menu exactly how it was meant to be used. We didn't have to have a long conversation. So often, when someone chooses not to drink in bars, the conversation can be weird. We didn't have that conversation. She just used the information, made choices, and we were all happy.
Morgenthaler, by the way, contributed a great summer drink recipe to my book, Good Drinks. Here it is.
1 1⁄2 ounces freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
1⁄2 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
1⁄2 ounce Rich Simple Syrup
1 ounce soda water
4–5 ounces nonalcoholic lager-style beer, such as Busch NA
1 lemon wedge, for garnish
Combine the juices, simple syrup, and soda water in a pint glass and fill with ice, then top with beer. Dump the mixture into either one half of a cocktail shaker or a fresh pint glass. Pour back into the first pint glass. Garnish with the lemon wedge.
Rich Simple Syrup
Makes 1 cup
In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine 1⁄2 cup water and 1 cup granulated sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves, 3 to 5 minutes, then remove from the heat and let cool before using. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
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