Jeffrey Morgenthaler is the rarest kind of famous bartender, which is to say, the kind that actually works behind a bar.
Most of the celebrity figures of the cocktail renaissance have transitioned into bar owners or beverage directors or brand ambassadors, or in some other way have become bar adjacent. Tending bar is physical work, with hours that tend to be both long and late, and at a certain level of prominence, working actual bar shifts starts to feel like something you used to do.
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Morgenthaler’s been tending bar forever. He got his start at dive bars and sports bars, which means he knows how to be a bartender, not just how to make cocktails. I mean, he’s definitely a famous cocktail guy: He speaks on panels, wrote two books, serves as the lead judge for the San Francisco Spirits Competition, popularized both barrel-aged and bottled carbonated cocktails, we could go on and on. And he also co-owns a bar, Pacific Standard in Portland, but Morgenthaler is different in that he actually works regular shifts behind his own bar. He’s the type of guy who will do Late Night with Seth Meyers on a Tuesday and be back to work a couple days later, talking to guests and making drinks. He’s a bartender, through and through.
The Bourbon Renewal is his first cocktail to get wider purchase among the drinking public. Some of his other creations would get bigger and go farther (the re-invented Amaretto Sour comes to mind) but the Bourbon Renewal was first, made of bourbon, fresh lemon juice, creme de cassis, and bitters, invented in 2001 at a place called the Bel Ami Lounge in Eugene, Oregon. It’s worth lingering a moment on the timeframe here: In 2001, the whole world was captivated by what was happening at Milk & Honey in New York City. It was before PDT or Death & Co. opened, before the Red Hook or the Eastside were invented in New York or the Revolver or Chartreuse Swizzle were invented in San Francisco. It was before pretty much all of it that quietly, in a college town in the Pacific Northwest, Morgenthaler was using fresh lemon juice and the principles of proper balance to invent simple and elegant cocktails that would endure to this day.
A Bourbon Renewal is essentially a Whiskey Sour, punched up with a bit of creme de cassis and a dash of bitters. The cocktail is like a cross between Dick Bradsell’s Bramble and the eternal New York Sour, and is every bit as delicious as either. The charms of a Whiskey Sour are obvious and manifest, and the tart cassis shows up to give the whole thing a juicy and refreshing fullness, making it a worthy match for the glaring ferocity of high summer. The Bourbon Renewal is so simple and elegant, so easy to make using ingredients easy to source, it’s the kind of drink that you can tell was made by a real, honest-to-god bartender.
2 oz. bourbon
1 oz. lemon juice
0.5 oz. simple syrup
0.5 oz. creme de cassis
1 dash Angostura Bitters
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake hard for six to eight seconds. Strain over fresh ice into a rocks glass and garnish with a lemon wheel or a couple blackberries on a pick.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Bourbon: There isn’t any one bottle or type of bourbon that’s best here. I personally preferred the sweeter end (e.g. Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses Small Batch), but I think that’s because I prefer those in general. The spicier end (e.g. Old Forrester, Bulleit, Wild Turkey 101) also worked well but was, obviously, spicier. Use whatever bourbon you like.
Lemon Juice: Aside from our perennial recommendation to use fresh juice, the only thing to note here is that the measurements are a touch wonky. One ounce is usually bit more lemon juice than I’d recommend, and am only doing so because first, this is Morganthaler’s instruction (at least circa 2004), and second, to reduce it to a more standard 0.75 oz. would necessitate a corresponding reduction in sweetness to 0.375 oz. each of syrup and liqueur, and 0.375 oz. is an obnoxious measurement. You can choose your own way through, it’ll be delicious no matter what.
Simple Syrup: Equal parts sugar and water, please, and stir until your sugar dissolves. If you use hot water this will take about 30 seconds. If not, perhaps five minutes. Keep in the fridge and it’ll last a month.
Creme de Cassis: One of the many lovely differences between today and 2001 is that we have our pick of delicious brands of creme de cassis. Lejay is the one I tend to grab, but Mathilde, Giffard, and Massanez are all excellent, as I’m sure are others.
The only other thing to note is that in 2001, creme de cassis was frequently replaced with the thing you actually had around, which was the sweeter and less acidic berry liqueur Chambord. Chambord works okay, but I strongly recommend cassis, which has a tart edge and offers not just the fruit but also some acidic tension in the cocktail that things like creme de mure and Chambord simply lack.
Angostura Bitters: The bitters here are playing the role of spice and assisting in bridging the gap between the liqueurs fruit and the bourbon’s oak. Angostura is called for by name, and there’s really no good reason to deviate from that. I’d still make it if I didn’t have bitters—it would still be good—but honestly, you should own a bottle of Angostura Bitters.
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