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Nathaniel Meiklejohn on The Bearded Lady's Jewel Box

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Nathaniel Meiklejohn, also known to his friends as Nan'l, might have mixed you a drink during his last steady gig as bar manager at Local 188 in Portland (he even struck one observant Yelp reviewer as a Zach Galifianakis lookalike). Since leaving that post over a year ago, Nan'l could be described as a bartender-errant, wandering the city of Portland in search of adventures to prove his mixological virtues. Operating under the alter ego "The Bearded Lady," he has collaborated on frequent events at Space Gallery, helped organize Pocket Brunch, and wowed those lucky enough to attend his private parties.

As of 2014, though, The Bearded Lady wanders no more.

In January, Nan'l signed a lease on a space in Portland's Arts District, and is building out a bar called The Bearded Lady's Jewel Box (or The Jewel Box, for short). In advance of his latest Space Gallery event (this Saturday, May 11), Nan'l chats about his favorite architectural feature of the bar, his active Kickstarter campaign, and why even beer geeks will want to show up to a cocktail bar with only one tap.

First things first: Where did the persona of The Bearded Lady come from?
The name itself came up about five years ago. Some friends and I were cleaning out a room in my vast basement, creating a getaway to help with the winter blues. We'd listen to records, play darts, drink beers, and play Mind Trap. Any good basement bar needs a cheesy speakeasy name, and we all had crazy beards, so we opted for "The Bearded Lady." I have since adopted the name in recent years, mostly to have fun with the persona. It acts as a good filter too. It seems to attract open-minded people.

How long has The Bearded Lady's Jewel Box been in the works?
I realized I needed to run my own establishment after leaving my last job. But I started working on the Jewel Box in January 2014: Specifically, the day I signed the lease for 644 Congress Street. After putting far too much planning into spaces that turned out to be flops, I decided to just hold off planning until it was a sure thing.

How did you decide 644 Congress Street was the spot for the Jewel Box?
The mezzanine. Combined with the size of the space, the mezzanine made it the spot for me. It's such a great voyeuristic aspect that fits in so well in this neighborhood of naughtiness.

What's the time frame for the opening?
Late June. Some Kickstarter obligations need to be fulfilled along with the customary soft openings, but you can definitely plan on stopping in for a drink on your way up the hill to see the fireworks. If anyone is dying for us to open sooner, going over the $21K Kickstarter goal would help! The Kickstarter campaign has been an elating experience thus far. People I have known for years are coming out of the woodwork to be involved. It was a pleasure to work with my brother, David Meiklejohn, on the video, which was purely brilliant. He's the reason I felt like I could run a successful campaign.

You've been doing both public and private events for a while. Are you putting these ventures on hiatus as you build out the new space?
No. Those events are what keep things fresh for me. We will have all kinds of events at the Jewel Box, but until then, I'm gonna keep on bouncing around, having fun, and spreading the love of good fucking drinks. This Saturday at Space Gallery will likely be my last music-oriented party I'll be throwing for a while. That should be bonkers. Anyone that wants to know what events I'm part of, be sure to sign up for my mailing list. Or just stop me on the street and ask.

What are you hoping to bring to the crowded Portland bar scene that we're missing, or that hasn't been fully fleshed out yet?
There are millions of mixed drink recipes out there and thousands more [created] every day. There are forever new distilleries, hundreds of new mixing products, and constantly evolving techniques for making drinks. What we are going to do is honor the ever-changing landscape of mixed drinks by changing our drink menu every week. We will base the week's menu on a theme, an ingredient we love, our current mixing fixations, and/or seasonal ingredients. Over time, we will develop a menu of drink staples based on positive responses from guests. But at first we're going to keep it changing. We're kindly encouraging our guests to be adventurous, daring, and willing to try something new.

You're planning to have a single tap line at the Jewel Box— beer geeks want to know, how will you pick the draft?
The line will ideally be dedicated to brewers that have agreed to do a collaboration batch with yours truly. In'finiti Fermentation and Distillation is going to get things started off for my opening season (a beer I will be helping to brew sometime over the next couple of weeks). After that, we will have to see what happens. It's a lofty goal, but it would just be so sweet to keep these kinds of cross-genre drink collaborations happening. Collaborations are the key to staying exciting and fresh.

What are your goals as a business owner?
To run a successful company without being a total fucking asshole. I never want my employees to feel under-appreciated. I already love my staff so much, and if you've been waited on by me, I hope you know: You are the jewels. I love you.
—Adam H. Callaghan
· Fund The Jewel Box's Metaphorical Velvet Lining [Kickstarter]
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The Bearded Lady's Jewel Box

644 Congress Street, Portland, ME