Introducing the Barkeepers, a feature in which Eater meets the fine ladies and gentlemen behind the bar at some of Portland's hottest cocktail parlors.
As a student at NYU, Sean Hoard nursed dreams of someday opening his own music venue/bar. In an effort to get some — any — service-industry experience, Hoard inadvertently landed a gig bar-backing once a week at one of New York City's most famous cocktail bars: the exclusive East Village spot PDT. After two years of tutelage under PDT's bar manager (and cocktail legend) Jim Meehan, Hoard made the rise from barback to PDT bar manager and moved back to his hometown of Portland, where he picked up shifts under two more cocktail heavyweights: Teardrop Lounge's Daniel Shoemaker and Clyde Common's Jeffrey Morgenthaler.
"It was amazing," Hoard says. "I was so lucky to have worked under Daniel and Jeff simultaneously, because they come at what we do from such different places and end up in such similar places. I don't think I've ever met two people who respect each other so much and look at the world so differently. It's awesome." Now two years into his tenure as Teardrop's bar manager, Hoard chats with Eater about the hidden pop-culture references in drink names, how new bartenders are essentially staging for the regulars, and how best to cut off an already-drunk customer (with an assist from Dale DeGroff).
What is your busiest time of the week?
Fridays are the busiest. We do have a happy-hour crowd, and we have a great late-night crowd — what's been cool to see is that thanks to [the opening of] Oven & Shaker, thanks to Parish, thanks to Riffle, thanks to Clyde to a degree, we're kind of everybody's waiting room now. So, we're actually busy during that 7-9p.m. [window] where we used to be really really mellow.
How do the crowds shift from happy hour to late night?
It's two very different crowds, for sure. We're lucky enough to have a ton of great businesses around here, and people get off work at 4p.m., they come in here, maybe continue a meeting they were having, have a couple of drinks. It's busy both times, though. Perfect example: Thursday, half the crew from Raven & Rose came over, a couple guys from the Bye & Bye were in, couple guys from Dig A Pony. It was a lot of fun — everyone was blowing off steam, drinking beer. It was a lot of fun.
The menu changes often, but do you have a most popular drink?
For us, because the menu changes so seasonally, our house tonic water is popular because it's something you can always get. Even if we're crushed, I can always make you a gin and tonic. I think we're probably most well-known for our pina colada — it's sensational. I wish it wasn't because it's such a pain to make. The problem is, everything we do is as fresh as we can. So the coconuts, we crack 'em open using a chisel and mallet, and then you save all the water and grind out all the flesh and we cook all that together with a little bit of cream, sugar, pineapple juice. And we make a pineapple gum syrup. So it's all those — fresh lime juice, white rum, served on crushed juice, with our house brandy cherry and nutmeg. I'll go sit out on the patio, in the summertime, on my days off and have like three of them. They're so good.
Tell me about the menu-changing process. For those not familiar, it rotates seasonally and is broken up into sections like 'classics,' 'originals,' and recipes from friends.
It starts with our producers. We go to our producers and say, 'As best you can, map out the next six months.' And we look at what's going to be in season when — and then we go from there. Daniel and I finished the spring and summer menu this week — and this is the first year we've ever been that far ahead. Usually it's just this three-week terror of flipping through old cocktail books, calling friends. But it's a hard process. We do 27 drinks at once, whole new menu.
So how do drinks get named? There are some great names on the menu.
I recently earned the right to name my own drinks. Daniel's one of the smartest people I've ever met and consumes more popular culture than anyone — at a really high level. So Daniel is wonderful at naming. For me, it's more of like a knee-jerk reaction. I had a cocktail I made on the weekends a lot, a dealer's choice, and people on the weekend would love it and have two and three of them. And there's an R&B artist called the Weeknd, and he had an album called House of Balloons that I loved, and so this lady asked one time, 'What's this cocktail called?' And I was like, 'Uhhh... House of Balloons!' It was that really quick association. More often than not, that's how I do it. Daniel, it's a crazy process for him. There will be a Joyce reference, and a Star Wars reference, and a Stephen Colbert reference... they all have stories.
Tell us about some of your regulars.
They're the best. I didn't understand the concept of regulars until I started working at this bar; PDT was a hard door to get into. We have regulars who are like friends and invite you over for dinner. We have this one guy who comes in Thursdays and Saturdays, he's so polite, and all he drinks is Basil [Hayden's] on the rocks. And as soon as he walks in, we just grab a big cube, nice glass, good pour, serve it to him, we talk sports. But he just protects you from the chaos of interacting with 25 screaming bachelorettes.
When you start working here, it's almost like you're staging for the regulars. If you get hired, we like you and we think you're going to be great. But you have this month period, if the regulars don't like you, you won't be here very long. It's not a weird mob mentality, but Daniel's creating such a family here... people don't come here because we make tasty cocktails. People like the interaction, they like the feeling. There are these wonderful people that are sort of that life vest — when you're in the middle of the weeds and you see them walk in, you know what they're going to have, you say your hellos, and it's that friendly face. It's what makes bars.
What about celebrities?
We do get a little of that? The one that got me — I grew up here a Blazer fan. I LOVE the Blazers. And Damon Stoudamire was in here, and he came in with a regular — and the next time I saw that regular, I was like, 'How are you not going to introduce me to Mighty Mouse?! What are you thinking?!' I was just like? [deep sigh] I was a little star-struck. There's very few people I get star-struck around, especially having worked at PDT. I will say, one of the most star-struck I've been, and to this day one of the coolest people I've ever met, was Rachel Maddow. She was a regular at PDT and is just a wonderful, cool woman. We had some cool regulars at PDT.
So to the awkward parts of your job: How do you cut off a customer?
Ugh, it's the worst. I got the best advice — there's this guy Dale DeGroff, who's an absolute legend. And I was doing this education program, right when I first started bartending, called BarSmarts, it was one of their very intro classes. And I raised my hand and asked, 'How do you cut somebody off?' And he was like, 'Honestly, just ignore them.' And to hear that from the master of masters? because most of the time, people who've had too much to drink didn't mean to. I think if you make them feel like they're still part of the party, that they're still included with everyone else, you keep topping off their water. If they ask you for something and it 'slips your mind,' most of the time they don't badger you for it.
There are times where you have to be very up-front, obviously with the Oregon laws, you have to take drinks away from people who even look intoxicated. There is that rare exception where you have to own the space ? the best thing you can do is be really direct; you don't want to embarrass them, you just lean in real close and say, 'I'm so sorry, I can't serve you.'
Have you ever had to throw anyone out?
Does it happen frequently here?
No, but when it does, it sort of sticks in your mind. Because you go from having a great time to having sort of a sour time? I mean, this is alcohol — people go out, they want to get a little loose, I get it. I'm more than happy to accommodate that. But the minute you start affecting someone else's experience, that's when we have to intervene. Actually last night, I had to ask this guy to stop talking to this woman, because it was like — I understand people come to bars to meet people, but man, she clearly isn't into it. And now you've made it my job to tell you that, and now it's awkward.
Any good fake ID stories?
I had a friend in New York who showed me that a lot of fakes will snap [if you bend them]. It's a quick way to check, to just bend it. And I didn't even look at the date on an ID — it was one of my first weeks here — and I just snapped it in half. I just handed it back to the girl and was like,' Get out.' She was like [makes a wide-eyed face], grabbed the pieces of the ID and ran. But I've been spoiled? most of my guests are 28 to 58. I'm totally spoiled.
What do you think is a necessary personality trait for someone with your job?
I think you have to be empathetic and compassionate. You have to be able to, for lack of a better word, know what that guest wants: If a guy sits down, opens his laptop, and asks for a Chardonnay, pour him the wine and leave him alone. If someone comes in, folds the menu up and has no idea what to do, it's, 'May I answer any questions about that? What do you feel like drinking?' I think you have to want to be around people. So often I see people making drinks who clearly don't want to talk to anybody; they really are engaged in the drink they're making and how delicious it is.
On a similar vein, what's the one bartending tool you can't live without?
I'm not the best free pourer in the world, so for me, the tool would have to be something to measure with. ? Bartending is a lot more like being a pastry chef than anyone wants to admit, where it's like, these little measurements, you cook it with ice, and it comes out of the oven.
And finally, where do you drink when you're not working?
This is a laundry list. I'm going to go by neighborhood — in no particular order — Clyde Common, Oven & Shaker, Rum Club, Dig a Pony. Spirit of '77 is one of my favorite bars in the world? what they're doing over at Kask is amazing and doesn't get enough attention. Riffle is great, too. We go to the Lowbrow a lot. If we can get off before 2a.m., we'll go get a pint of Vaporizer up there and get the little corn dogs, it's the best staff meal ever? North 45 is one of the best bars in town. Their whiskey selection is insane. And I'll say it on the record: Kell's pours an amazing Guiness.
· Teardrop Lounge [Official site]
· All Previous Teardrop Coverage [Eater PDX]