When Multnomah Whiskey Library opened its doors last fall, Portland had never seen anything quite like this handsome downtown den of whiskey excess, with its old-money refinement, boggling bottle collection, and dashing vest-clad bartenders mixing tableside drinks via vintage cocktail carts.
Word spread, waits ballooned, and the library's memberships sold out in a snap. A year later, the waits are still long, the bartenders are still dashing, and memberships are still as hard to come by as a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle. It's official: MWL is a firm fixture on the discerning drinker's spirits circuit.
Eater retired to the Library's Tasting Room with general manager Jake Heil and events manager Jen Quist to discuss the challenges of a seated bar, the nuances of genteel bribery, $15,000 bar tabs, and exactly who has to dust all those bottles.
Why this particular space for the library?
Jake: The owners, Alan (Davis) and Greg (Goodman) wanted to create a room that felt very, very special, something that really surprised you when you walked in. Something unexpected based on any kind of façade. And the space and history of this building perfectly matched the aesthetic they wanted to create. As far as why Downtown, this is an extremely fun neighborhood that has been developing itself in a pretty amazing way, so it was an intuitive choice.
How'd the buildout go?
Jake: In terms of the construction itself, for being in a historical building, it worked very well, despite all kinds of hurdles. The finish work was when things started to get very complicated, just because of the details and equipment involved, the setup that we needed based on the type of service we provide, the detail in the flooring and the authenticity of everything. All in all it took about seven months, right up until we opened. The waiting was hard -- waiting for things to come in, waiting for a chandelier or the bar top to arrive. Those were things that happened right at the end. At our soft opening we didn't even have barstools.
How did opening day go?
Jen: The crew was really ready to go. We knew what we wanted it to feel like, we'd done staff education for months leading up to opening, but there were pieces we weren't sure about. You just don't know what it's going to be like when you're bringing a completely new concept to a city. That's what I remember more than anything, standing at the door and fielding so many questions. There was a lot of interest in what we were doing, and while we all understood that was going to happen, it was surprising too, and it polished us quickly.
Jake: Opening this place was an absolute exercise in ‘Have we thought of everything?' I remember having this moment, sitting back to myself thinking, ‘It does work, awesome.' I was so excited, almost speechless, then I went right back to the huge reel of things we still needed. From serving every spirit on a tray, to what gets made on a cart and what doesn't, to timing the service so our shaken cocktails arrive at the same time as stirred cocktails. There were the ladders, which alter how long it takes to get to a bottle. Timing is everything and it was a concern for months prior to our opening, and it's still the thing we're always chasing. But in those opening days, it was nerve-wracking.
Did you run drills?
Jake: We absolutely ran drills. There was no way we could figure out the kinks without rehearsals with the carts, and there were never enough rehearsals. Everything was so dependent on the skill and instincts and standards that everyone on this crew has.
What was the initial reception like?
Jen: We forget because we're here every day, but it's overwhelming when you walk in and see a wall of 1,500 bottles. It's shocking to people. There were just so many questions about what goes on in here, and how it behaves, and what are the carts like -- everyone was so curious about all the moving pieces. I'm trying to think of what the main questions were...
Jake: Probably, ‘How did you get that collection?' It's amazing how many people believe that what's on our wall is every whiskey you can get in the world, which is pretty funny because it barely scratches the surface. People were like, ‘I didn't even know this many whiskeys existed,' and we were like you have no idea. The most special thing was watching people take in the wall, then sit down, settle in and let the hospitality take over. People began to realize why we chose to have seated service, why we designed our door program the way that we did, so we could emphasize a reverence for our spirit and cocktail service, which allows people to really enjoy the space in the company of who they came with.
You took a lot of flak for the wait, has it gotten better? Or have people gotten used to it?
Jen: The wait. The wait. It was so magnified because we're a bar and that's not normal, that's not what people are used to at a bar. We're a seated bar for a reason, so that our carts can move freely on the floor. When a restaurant's full, it's full, and if you have to wait nobody really thinks about it. But when you tell people at a bar that they have to wait, they say, ‘Why can't I just go stand right there and wait?' So that was tricky at first. Then there was understanding the way this place operated. You don't know if people are coming in for a cocktail, or for two hours, or for dinner or whatever the case is, so there's no rhyme or reason or algorithm, like with a restaurant where it's appetizer, dinner, dessert. We had to really figure out how all those pieces worked together to handle the wait better. We've really worked on verbiage. The team would sit in this room and literally run every single scenario.
What was the most common one?
Jake: The most common challenging question was, ‘Why can't we sit in that open seat right there?'
Jen: Which launches a whole other dialogue. We have a membership program, so when there's a seat open, we're waiting on a reservation. That goes into ‘Why can't I make reservation?' So we say, ‘Well, we have a membership program.'
Jake: Which leads to, ‘What does it take to be in the membership program?'
Jen: So it's a real back and forth.
Jake: We practiced to get things down to a trainable idea, a nugget of information that wasn't scripted, that we could hand to a new host and say, 'Here, take this, use it, put your own spin on it.'
So is it hard to find just the right hosts? How many applicants make the cut?
Jake: With respect to those who've been interested, we don't call back very many applicants. It takes a very interesting combination of character, personality, and experience in a resume. Because we can't follow algorithms that a restaurant has, so even a host with a lot of restaurant experience might not be the right candidate.
Jen: There are many different angles to the job, from having thick skin to understanding how a floor works, and through all of that, having a personality that delivers hospitality. I'll hear the hosts talking about an experience the night before, and they'll be saying, ‘But they were waiting for so long,' and I'm like, ‘Whoa, this was probably hundredth person that you've seen waiting for so long.' But there's such care every time they talk about it.
Jake: They aren't numb to it at all.
Jen: And that's why it takes a very special person.
How long did it take you to sell all your memberships, and what's the waiting list to get one now?
Jen: We sold our first round right way. It was important that this room is never filled with all members, and we balance our reservations system so half is always available for walk-ins. So we have to cut our membership base off at a certain point to keep that balance. We opened it up a little this summer after perfecting and understanding the timing of each evening. Now it's closed again and we'll probably evaluate it in a few months, but our wait list is at over 700 people.
Do people beg you to get a membership?
Jake: They do.
Do they try and bribe you?
Jake: They very carefully say, ‘What does it take to get a membership?' But we're not a private club, we're mixing two worlds, and we're trying to perfect that balance, always. We can't just decide to add members at any point, because we're not going to shoot ourselves in the foot, so bribery doesn't work.
Exactly how many bottles do you have right now?
Jake: It fluctuates. We ride around 1,500 labels, about 900 of which are whiskeys and we have about 1,900 bottles in inventory, so that's duplicates of labels. Of course, that changes month to month depending on what sells out and what we can get our hands on.
How often do you dust them?
Jake: We go through and do an independent bottle check in sections, so everything gets dusted in a rotation that takes several weeks. Every inventory, we do a bottle shelf dusting and the bottles themselves get wiped down periodically.
Who gets that job?
Jake: It's usually a new barback's job.
Jen: So they can learn where the bottles are.
Jake: Our wall is arranged so that it educates us as we work with it. It's arranged by region, and alphabetical by that region. Our rums are arranged by mainland to island, north to south, alphabetical within each. It gets really heady, so to have a dusting shift is extremely important for someone who's new, to have that hands-on contact. We create exercises out of it, where they're referencing the book and looking for facts while they dust, so it's killing two birds with one stone. It's the only way to make that job fair to anyone and luckily we have a crew that's so enthusiastic, they completely eat it up.
So they like dusting.
Jake: They say they do, at least. It's when we're short and we've got somebody who's been here six months to a year and they have to dust -- that's when we might hear something.
How has the menu evolved since you opened?
Jen: Food's been a huge thing for us. That's evolved tremendously and is now where we really wanted it to be. We wanted people to be able to come sit for a few hours and have a full meal that didn't just feel like bar snacks.
Jake: And we wanted the food served in a way that matches the standard of our beverage service. Chef Gabriel (Pascuzzi) joined us in late spring, and the feedback has been incredible.
What's been your most consistently popular drink, that's been with you since the beginning?
Jen: Our Old-Fashioned.
Jake: Hands down. Out of the gates we really wanted to focus on the Old-Fashioned. It's the perfect cocktail to switch out your spirit and emphasize how a cocktail can be different not based on a major change in proportions, but rather a change in the spirit. That was a very fun challenge for us, and it was kind of bold to just throw an Old-Fashioned religiously on our menu in a day when everyone's trying to innovate. We use traditional bitters for our Old-Fashioned and those might change a little bit -- two dashes of Angostura, maybe no Peychaud's, maybe a dash of orange -- but we really only use those three and we change out the whiskey seasonally. It's a delicious drink that gained a lot of popularity really fast, people say they never knew an Old-Fashioned could be like this.
Do you attract whiskey know-it-alls here?
Jake: Yes, but they are so fun. Our wall and collection and perhaps just the aesthetic of the place puts some people in a certain frame of mind, and attracts somebody who might want to prove something. It gives our bartenders a chance to talk shop with somebody and learn something, and really emphasize that we are enthusiasts as much as they are, we're not into wearing connoisseur clothes. We want to speak about what's exciting and interesting and culturally relevant, but there are a lot of ways to look at a bottle, so there's always a fun way to diffuse that and just show that person a good time.
What's the most expensive tab somebody's racked up?
Jake: $7,200 dollars, two nights in a row. Same people. So that should probably count as a $15,000 tab. They were some very heavy hitters who ordered some of our most expensive spirits, and they almost killed a bottle of The John Walker.
Jen: It was a fun weekend.
Any advice for someone else who's opening a 1,500-bottle bar, or just a normal bar?
Jake: Follow the inventory, and you can't achieve this without having the bartenders that we have. Jordan Felix and Michael Lorberbaum are our two leads and those guys are incredible with leading the crew, and tracking when bottles run out and when they come in. Anybody opening a bar with 1,500 bottles better have someone at the helm who can track that really well.
Jen: You need a crew of people who feel so strongly about what they do that they dedicate much of their time to understanding what those 1,500 bottles are, and what the stories are behind them.
Jake: The bottles we sell the least of are the ones that in other bars are the standard go-tos, and that is completely due to the self-driven and in-house education that our bartenders and our barbacks get.
Does it feel like it's been a year?
Jake: Every season has felt like a year to me. The only gauge that I have is that while we were opening this place, my son was born, so he's my reminder that it's only been a year since we opened, and almost two years since we began this whole journey.
Jen: It's been such a great learning experience and such an amazing crew of people to work with, but there have been definite challenges, so yeah it feels like longer than a year. It feels like it's been five.