Tommy Klus, native Oregonian, is considered one of our nation's top cocktail shakers. And to that end, Klus has been shaking things up. On the board of the Oregon Bartenders Guild and a 2010 apprentice at Tales of the Cocktail, Klus was, until recently, the bar manager at Bluehour. Eater PDX thought it might be cool to check in with Klus and see what 2011 holds for the savvy mixologist.
Have you always been involved in the business of cocktails?
My first job was at Portland Brewing Co. (now Pyramid) as a bottler. I took to bartending fairly early, putting in nine years at Bluehour before working on the opening of Departure and then moving on to Teardrop Cocktail Lounge. My work really changed after working under Daniel Shoemaker at Teardrop (and side by side with David Shenaut, Brian Gilbert, and Evan Zimmerman). It was there that I learned what it means to make a spirit-based cocktail, what classic cocktails are all about, and how to introduce housemades and seasonal ingredients into a menu. With a new philosophy, I came back to Bluehour in 2009 to restructure their cocktail program. Some elements of that program were so successful that Bluehour management asked me to revamp the program at 23 Hoyt as well, which was a pet project for me and Alan Akwai in the summer of 2010.
What have you have been up to?
My priority has been to keep learning. [...] December and January were pretty interesting — after I left Bluehour I was hoping to land on my feet somewhere, but I also knew that I had to wait for the right opportunity. It was difficult to wait, but I had to make sure I ended up somewhere that felt right.
So what did you do to keep busy?
I've been back at Teardrop as a bartender and Events Coordinator. I try to pack Daniel Shoemaker’s events schedule for him, and that included the Oregon Bartender’s Guild holiday party with Makers Mark, Repeal Day, the Belvedere Unfiltered release party, and a few private parties. I've started a small consulting operation, spearheaded by a collaboration with Timothy Nishimoto at Vino Paradiso.
And then St. Jack opened at the end of December, which ended up being a perfect fit. It’s really a tight modest little family of pros over there. GM Joel Gunderson likes to say that everyone at St Jack. is a nerd of some sort — a wine nerd, a cheese nerd, a pastry nerd, or me (cocktail nerd). Aaron Barnett is the chef-owner, Alissa Rozos makes the pastries, Joel does the wine, and Kyle Webster is running the bar, which gives me some room to experiment and the time to just relax and connect with my guests. The guests at St. Jack are terrific — most of them are neighborhood folks who happen to love good food, and plenty of them haven't had much exposure to craft cocktails, which gives me the chance to introduce them to what I love.
You've stayed clear from management since you left Bluehour. How has that worked out for you?
Refraining from bar management has also given me time for a rare opportunity that kind of fell into my lap — I'm now the house mixologist for Combier. Not sure if you’ve seen Combier around yet, but I’m really excited to work with them. Combier’s an all natural French triple sec (meaning triple distilled) that’s been produced for over 175 years by a family-owned distillery in France. It’s pretty well-loved in Europe, but up until now it hasn’t been under distribution in the states. [...] I’m going to be working pretty intensively on marketing, events, and recipes for Combier over the next year — it’s a handcrafted, artisanal product that I think craft bartenders will enjoy working with.
What is next for Tommy Klus?
I have to say, the project I’m most excited about is my Europe Invasion in the spring. My itinerary hasn’t yet been finalized, but the trip centers around an internship I landed at Bruichladdich, working under master distiller Jim McEwan (previously at Bowmore). While I’ll spend a lot of time learning about distilling on Islay, I’m also planning to focus my work around how whisky fits into the cultural history of the island. I’ll be on Islay for at least 3 weeks, but I’ll also be doing a little continental travel and some guest bartending slots, including Door 74 in Amsterdam.
Even though it might seem strange to go from running a bar program to working under someone else, it won't be long before I'm opening up my first bar. And when that happens, I want to bring a really full, well-rounded understanding of the industry to my bar top. I could say, well, I know the classics and I spice them up a little, so I’m good. But I think if I want to be successful I need a nice strong foundation of knowledge and experience, so the bottom doesn’t fall out from under me. I want to study history, absorb distilling technique, pay attention to international trends, gain marketing skills, and just really try to gain some wisdom from those who have been around longer than me, so that when I finally stand behind my bar you won’t get just one bartender — you’ll have yesterday’s bartenders with all their tradition, culture and expertise backing me up. So I’m like a bar towel right now. Just soaking it all up.
· All Previous Tommy Klus Coverage [Eater PDX]
Image of Tommy Klus courtesy Invisible Hour via Flickr