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John Myers On Neal Dow, Where the Monied Set Drinks Its Lunch and the Cocktail Bebop Era

John Myers has been tending bar in Portland for almost a dozen years. He's worked at The Old Port Sea Grill, Local 188, The Snug, the late Oolong (now Spread), The Grill Room, Corner Room and now can be found behind the bar at The Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, where he says he and owner/bartender Andrew Volk "speak the same language" when it comes to making drinks.

Myers, who takes a deep interest in booze and cocktail history, is perhaps Portland's most recognizable and written about bartender. He's been profiled in depth by Down East magazine and the Portland Phoenix. He's also been interviewed by Portland Monthly and Esquire. For a special Hangover Power Hour edition interview with Eater Maine, Myers talks about everything from former Portland mayor/hater of alcohol Neal Dow ("Almost from the moment he grew pubic hair, he was a walking contradiction"), the decline of boozy lunches, why "Dana Street does not like cocktails in his restaurants," and how cocktails are entering their bebop era.

As someone knowledgeable in cocktail history, are there are stories from Portland's past that you find interesting?
Short answer: No. Having said that, Neal Dow is one of my favorite people in the whole American history scene, not just Portland. He's a thoroughly modern man. Almost from the moment he grew pubic hair, he was a walking contradiction. He was a Quaker. But he went to war. He Forrest Gumped his way through history. He hung out with the the Suffragettes and General Sherman. He and Sherman rode together outside of New Orleans during the Civil War. Susan B. Anthony and he were corresponding buddies. Samuel Tilden and he hung out a bit. He was the highest ranking Union soldier to be captured by the Confederacy. When he was captured, there was no longer a prisoner exchange. They'd suspended that. So he wrote to his wife and said, "We've got to put pressure on Congress, we have to do something to get me exchanged so I can come home." He was eventually exchanged for Robert E. Lee's nephew. He's just amazing.

He railed against the state government being the lender of choice to the industrial barons of the age, then he and some partners borrowed money from the State of Maine and defaulted. If it wasn't for Prohibition, people would think that he was a modern anti-hero, a complete contradiction. AMC would make a movie about him selling meth or something. Pompous, arrogant, just entertaining as all get-out.

Where did Dow's disdain for alcohol come from?
I wish I coined this phrase: We're an alcoholic republic. Always have been. The people who settled this country had a certain suspicion of water — that drinking water would make you act crazy like an Italian or Spaniard. In their worldview, there was nothing in water. It's like drinking vodka for me — there's no point to it. There's no energy to it. There's no heat to it. There's no life in it. Cider was much more interesting. They came from a culture of punch brothers. In this day and age, if you need a bunch of people to come over and help you move, you buy pizza and beer. In the old days, if you needed a barn raised, you bought barrels of cider and rum. In a ship's manifest it listed the human trade in the value equivalent of barrels of rum.

So Neal Dow is walking around the Portland town and he sees 12-year-old Irish kids drunk. There's nothing but squalor. Men are spending their time at the barrel rather than in their homes or supporting their families. He had a very New England, angry Calvisinist streak in his Quakerism. He and his father were tanners. He was one of the first people to really get behind the industrial side of the industrial revolution. I think part of his calculation was if you're an agricultural economy, it's OK to go about your work slightly buzzed. It's just manual labor. You've got to get through it somehow. But operating machines, you had to have your wits about you.

Along those lines, has workday drinking changed a lot in the decade-plus you've been in Portland?
Absolutely. Now, a day bartender at higher-end restaurants can be bored out of his skull because there's nothing to do put pour sodas and iced tea, maybe the odd glass of wine. The business lunch is about business, primarily. I don't think it's Portland specific. In D.C. (where Myers worked prior to moving to Portland) there was a joint called The Class Reunion in the press building. The day bartender made stacks and stacks of money because the same 20 guys came in at the same time every day. He set every seat at the bar, looked at his watch and started making drinks before the people got there.

There was more of that boulevardier behavior when I first got to Portland. You still see it. The Commercial Street Pub is a great place for the monied set to pop back a few in the afternoon. There's a segment of the financial sector that, "If I haven't made my money by one, I'm in the wrong fucking business." They're there at noon, 1 o'clock. There's a table there, if you go at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, where there's probably eight million dollars sitting there. Whether it's captains of industry or captains of boats. It's one of the great places in America. Unfortunately, some of those guys have passed on and that's where you see that cultural shift away from the boozy business lunch.

Is there a chance that trend will ever return?
As long as Mad Men is in syndication, we'll see it. But seeing it in the wild, in its natural habitat ... Carter didn't help it by taking away the three-martini lunch deduction. The power to tax is the power to destroy.

Have there been other changes you've witnessed in the Portland cocktail scene?
Portland's cocktail history is defined by its absence until now. When I got into town, the only place with a drink menu was a shitty place by the mall. Places like Applebee's, those were the only places with a drink menu. Now, Fore Street has a drink menu. That is the bellwether sign that this thing has arrived. Dana Street does not like cocktails in his restaurants. I interviewed for a job there years ago and he was like, "John, we're not going to sell cocktails here. If it were up to me, we'd sell wine and brown spirits after dinner, with ice maybe." For them to have a menu with several drinks, it's a huge signal that it can no longer be denied. Resistance is futile. He still holds the line on some drinks. You'll never gets Baileys there. He thinks it retards your appetite. And he's right. I have no problem with that. But sometimes that's all your date drinks.

Is the current trend a return to more old-school cocktails?
That was one phase. Now it's more of an absolutely free-form sort of expression. The old tried and true templates, the DNA of the American cocktail — we're now in like a more free-form jazz phase. We're getting into the bebop era of the cocktail rather than jump jazz or blues-based jazz. We're going through that heroin phase of Miles Davis.

[As an example, Myers gets Beta Cocktails, a slim manifesto, off the bar shelf and opens it up]

Some of it smacks of fad, and some of it is spot-on and innovative. "We will not give the usual, slightly varied iterations of the same 50 cocktails." That's part of the manifesto. One of my favorite drinks in here starts off with eight-year old rum, then Fernet, then there's Angostura bitters, Angostura orange bitters and Peychaud's bitters, with a little bit of lemon juice. It's called the D.L.B., Don's Little Bitters. On paper, it looks like a shitshow, but it's absolutely delicious.

Andrew and I were sort of anxious about whether the Portland market would latch onto the Fernet scene and the Chartreuse scene, and all that stuff. Turns out they can't keep it in stock. People love those drinks.

Why weren't those drinks popular before in Portland?
They weren't popular because they weren't really available here. The powers that be that run the liquor industrial complex looked at the Portland market on paper and at their balance sheets and said, "If we bring in something weird, it will just sit on our warehouse shelves and we'll pay rent on it." It was one of those build it and they will come situations. Portland's rise in the culinary scene really has helped make this work.
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John Myers. [Photo: Tom Minervino]