Down East 2013 ©
Photograph by Mark Fleming
Article By Wayne Curtis
John Myers is concocting a negroni cocktail behind the bar in the Corner Room in downtown Portland, pivoting efficiently as he does so. He had some say when the bar was being designed, and I notice that where he stands the stylish concrete bartop bulges out in a shallow arc that seems to fit his oversized self perfectly, as this were a bespoke bar — a coincidence, no doubt. He selects a bottle of Campari, then follows up with sweet vermouth and gin, stirring it in a metal shaker with ice, straining the lovely, garnet-red cocktail into a pair of glasses before delivering them to customers. The negroni has been around for decades and is revered almost to the point of veneration in Italy. It’s also been a supporting actor in the U.S. cocktail revival, appreciated for its full flavor and bracing bitterness, which serves up a pleasing jolt to American tastes long sedated by bland flavors. And a negroni, it turns out, is an ideal way to start a meal in this new restaurant, which serves classic Italian cuisine.
While he’s making another round of drinks, a man in a blue suit and carefully tousled hair walks in and says, “Hey, John.” Myers greets him with a hint of a smile and a nod of the head, then moves on to make the next drink. A few minutes later a round, balding man comes in and says “Hey, John,” and John returns a greeting by name without looking up — just the voice is enough. These causal interactions are not unusual, of course — something like this is no doubt happening in a bar near you right now — but it strikes me as a bit curious since the Corner Room opened just three days earlier. One gets the feeling Myers has been here for years.
“I tend to swim in the same waters,” explains Myers, who has worked behind the bar at five Portland restaurants. “It’s the same people. I’ve served them at Oolong and the Old Port Sea Grill.” And they appear to make an effort to search him out no matter where he ends up.
Myers is large and a bit shambling, and has something almost architectural occurring as regards to facial hair. One would be forgiven for thinking him the offspring of Grendel’s mother and Wyatt Earp. (In describing his appearance on stage last year during a national cocktail competition against well-groomed twentysomething bartenders, the Wall Street Journal’s Eric Felten wrote that Myers cultivated “a dour glower in keeping with his Wild Bill Hickok whiskers and locks. His demeanor also appeared to reflect some culture-clash discomfort, the awkwardness Leon Redbone might feel sharing the stage with Moby.”)
Myers is forty-three years old and has been behind the bar for two decades. He realized early on that his calling was to be a career bartender — that is, not someone between jobs, not someone biding his time until something better came along, but someone who has chosen to make a career out of crafting drinks. “For some, considering this as a profession never feels right, maybe because they’ve got a sister doing something important, like being a lawyer,” Myers says. “It can have this slackeresque, arrested development sort of twinge to it.” But he’s avoided that twinge — bartending, he believes, is an honorable, historic calling. And unlike those who insist on being called “bar chef” or “mixologist,” Myers refers to himself as a bartender, plain and simple. (He does not object, however, to being referred to as a “saloonist.”) And like a snowball descending a slope, Myers just seems to keep on accumulating customers, one drink at a time.
John was our first customer,” says Don Lindgren, who with his wife, Samantha, owns Rabelais Books in Portland, a rare bookstore specializing in food and wine. “Within minutes of pulling down the shop windows’ brown paper covers, John walked in to inquire about a cocktail book he’d spied through a tiny crack in our window paper, Charles Baker’s South American Gentleman’s Companion, an unusual two-volume cocktail book. We took it as a very good sign that our first customer could be so knowledgeable and discerning — and have such interesting facial hair.”
No surprise, here. Myers approaches cocktails as a matter of lifelong learning, having once discovered how intricate and intriguing spirits and their combinations can be. Brought up in a military family, he was born in Alabama, then lived variously in New Jersey (“It was second grade. We went to Catholic school that year”), Kansas, Virginia, and Tehran, Iran. He spent a decade — and his formative teen years — in Germany, where less-than-stringent attitudes regarding youthful consumption of spirits afforded him an early education in beverage alcohol. At a bar near his Stuttgart home, he was presented with a long menu of exotic liqueurs; Myers and a friend set themselves the lofty goal of working their way through them alphabetically. By the time they hit the “F”s, and came upon the face-twistingly bitter Italian liqueur called Fernet Branca, the hook was set. “We would drink it regularly, hating every minute of it,” he says. “But we understood there was something interesting going on there.”
He returned to the United States for college, attending Bennington for two years until concluding that college life didn’t agree with him. Myers supported himself with kitchen work in various restaurants in Vermont before making his way to Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s. While employed as a brunch cook at the Toledo Lounge, he asked the owners if he could tend bar after finishing his kitchen shift, since he was already there and weekend afternoons were slow, anyway. They agreed. Myers never looked back.
The Toledo Lounge taught him not only the fundamentals of running a busy bar, but how to interact with customers, who here tended toward the political, the powerful, and the verbose. (He regularly served members of Congress, along with pundits Tim Russert and Christopher Hitchens.) He had bought his first vintage cocktail book while in college — Trader Vic’s 1947 bar guide — and now set about accumulating even more, devoting a portion of each paycheck to his library-building. When the attacks of September 2001 sent Washington’s downtown into an economic funk, he decided it was time to take his books and head to new environs. He set out for Maine, more or less on a whim, after an old friend living in Kennebunkport convinced him that this was the right thing to do. He landed a job behind the bar at the Old Port Sea Grill, where he worked for three years.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should report that it was during this period I first made Myers’s acquaintance, although not actually in Portland. We had flown independently to New Orleans in early 2005 for the opening of the Museum of the American Cocktail. Everyone I met kept asking me if I had met the “other guy from Maine.” I had not, but I soon corrected this oversight, and have since depended on Myers as a sort of mustachioed search engine of cocktail history and lore, a worthy first stop whenever I have a question involving drink. (We also paired up last summer at Tales of the Cocktail, the huge national cocktail convention, where we jointly taught a seminar entitled “Paying the Piper: Your Hangover and You.”) What’s more, I’ve been to his apartment to consult his library, where I saw an intriguing artifact hanging on his wall: a homemade banjo crafted out of a bedpan. Evidence of a sideline interest in folkloric music, I asked? “No,” Myers said, “I keep it as a reminder that drinking and eBay don’t mix.”
Cocktails have been around since the early nineteenth century, when a drink by this name was first defined as liquor mixed with sugar and bitters. Cocktails are regarded as an essentially American invention, like baseball and jazz. Cocktails went through an early golden age in the late nineteenth century, when drinks like the martini and manhattan were invented, then suffered a setback during the thirteen-year drought of Prohibition, when sweet displaced bitter in mixed drinks, all the better to hide the taste of nasty bootlegged booze. Cocktails have more or less wandered in the wilderness since (think: Tequila Sunrise, Harvey Wallbanger), but classic cocktails started undergoing a renaissance about a decade ago, with customers discovering the allure of century-old tastes much in the way explorers of American foodways have discovered long-lost species of apples and obscure heritage pork.
Myers tends to be something of a classicist when it comes to drink, borrowing and adapting from the ancients rather than blazing new trails in exotic directions. (Other recent trends in contemporary cocktails include “seasonal fresh market cocktails,” which depends more on the farmers’ market than the liquor store, and “molecular mixology,” which depend more on a chemistry lab than a bar.)
The classic approach works well at the Corner Room, which was opened in July by serial restaurateur Harding Lee Smith, who also founded the Front Room on Munjoy Hill and the Grill Room just down the block on Exchange Street. (Myers also worked at the Grill Room for a time.) Bitter tempered with sweet is a dominant flavor in many great drinks here, which might include Aperol, Averna, or Campari, all Italian liqueurs made by distilling complex herbs or macerating them in pure alcohol. “Italian drinks are really herbal, really clean,” says Myers, who’s lately been experimenting with cocktails using fresh basil. The emphasis tends to be on bright, fresh flavors, with citrus often juiced on the spot, and other ingredients made to order to keep them fresh.
While the drinks here tend toward the memorable, Myers insists that the cocktails themselves are not the end-all of a great bar. (One bar in Las Vegas, taking this to an extreme, has installed upward pointing spotlights into the bartop so drinks set upon them glow like exquisite jewels.) Myers doesn’t have much patience for the “precious cocktails” idolatry — “the whole minimalist thing baffles me,” he says — and says that while it’s great when a bar has good drinks, it’s more about the overall imbibing experience. “In some of my favorite bars, I can’t get a decent drink to save my life,” he says. “And some of the places where I’ve had some of the best drinks in my life, the guy behind the bar just can’t carry a conversation.” His goals have always been to merge good drinks with a friendly, intriguing experience. “There’s something great about a well-made whiskey sour in a workingman’s joint,” he says.
Tending bar in Portland has both rewards and challenges, he admits. The city is small enough that customers can find him when he moves to new pastures and seeks new challenges — all the bars he’s worked in here are within ten minutes walk of one another — and the city’s educated, reasonably affluent clientele is often curious about what he’s up to. Asked to compare bartending in Portland with Washington, D.C., he says only that both have “about the same saturation of lawyers per capita. But here they seem to be actually practicing law.”
Maine is not without its frustrations for the cocktail crusader, however. The distribution of liquor is restricted and controlled in Maine — bars can carry only products that are licensed by the state, and it’s not economical for liquor companies to pony up for licenses for each and every intriguing and obscure product, which might sell just a case or two a year. The result, Myers says, is that liquor available in Maine is skewed heavily toward big-selling, mainstream brands. There’s no shortage of Captain Morgan rum in Maine, for instance, but products like Fernet Branca and Strega aren’t available at any price. “We’re sequestered from a lot of the good liquors in Maine,” he says “and if you only have the eight crayon set, there are only so many colors you can use.”
While Portland is the recipient of considerable national press for being in the vanguard of the culinary arts, thanks to local talent, local seafood, and local produce, Maine’s cocktail scene is still striving to catch up to cities like Boston and “the other Portland.”
Of course, that may not be a wholly bad thing. In a time when food and drink tends to celebrate, if not worship, every new and untested trend, sitting at Myers’ current bar in Portland — and I’ve rested elbows at all five — seems more and more like sanctuary, where one can spend time in a spot where the past is comfortably at home.
Myers strikes me as a sort of itinerant nineteenth-century craftsman who has arrived in town with a buckboard of tradition, eager to share with those who stop by. And that, without doubt, is worth celebrating.