Interview: bartender Jacob Grier (MetroVino)
1139 NW 11th Avenue
Portland, OR 97209
503 517 7778
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Since my reason for visiting Portland was ostensibly to cover the SCAA event, it seemed natural to interview a bartender who previously worked as a barista. Jacob Grier currently tends bar at MetroVino in Portland’s Pearl District and works as a brand ambassador for Bols Genever. Before moving west, the Houston native pulled shots of espresso for coffee industry personality Nick Cho at bygone Murky Coffee in Arlington, Virginia. Grier also oversees a self-titled website that preaches “Coffee, Cocktails and Commentary.” On April 20, we met Grier at MetroVino, and he prepared two cocktails befitting his adopted city, starring coffee and beer. He also shared several insights that hinted at why he’s been successful.
How does being a barista help you in what you do as a bartender?
It definitely helped develop my palate. Cupping coffee, you pick up a lot of complex notes. It was a great education, starting out in coffee. There’s also precision and science in brewing espresso. Brewing coffee was very helpful and made me pay a lot of attention to technique.
At what point did you know that you would work with cocktails and spirits for a living?
After a few years in coffee, I started looking for the next thing that interested me, so I started bartending, but at that time in D.C., craft cocktails still hadn’t taken off. So I got bored of it and eventually decided to go back to being in a think tank in D.C. When I got the job at the think tank, I took a vacation to San Francisco and went to the great cocktail bars there like Rye and Bourbon and Branch, and seeing how they were making cocktails was a really eye opening experience, with fresh juices and great ingredients, precise measurements. And that’s actually what got me back into cocktails.
Why move to Portland instead of San Francisco?
Mainly the cost of living. Portland was a much more approachable city, and it seemed to be an up and coming food and drink city. That’s been very true. It’s been an amazing city for discovering food and drink in all kinds of fields.
When you first started in bartending in D.C., what do you remember about the very first night, and where was it?
My first bartending job was actually at a wine bar, where it was only wine and beer. Then I got a job where I had been at a barista, called Open City. They had a full bar, so I started off by doing daytime bartending there.
What do you remember about that first shift?
It was very simple drinks, and most people weren’t drinking during the day. I was pouring beer and wine and making simple drinks like gin and tonic, nothing too complicated to start off, but it was a good way to learn.
How did the opportunity came about here at MetroVino?
I worked in a restaurant called Carlyle, which had shut down. I started working as a brand ambassador for Bols Genever, and I was a regular here at MetroVino and got to know the owner and chef. I really liked the food, was coming in regularly, and they finally talked me into getting behind the bar again.
Would you say that you’ve had any cocktail and spirit mentors over the years?
To begin I was self-taught. I didn’t know anyone in D.C. who could teach me, so I learned a lot from books, and I hosted frequent speakeasy nights at my apartment, where I would invite a bunch of friends over, pick out a handful of cocktails to make, and basically just put a jar out for them to drop a little bit of cash into, to pay for the process. So I was very self educated to begin with, learning the classic cocktails. Then when I came to Portland, I had two mentors, Lance Mayhew, who’s now at Lincoln, and Neil Kopplin, who’s now at Beaker & Flask and making Imbue Vermouth. They were the first two who hired me.
What is it that you took away from them?
They were both the first craft bartenders I worked with. I learned a lot about spirits from them, from Neil especially, who showed me how to balance a cocktail, balance flavors. And then I’ve also been lucky to work with really great chefs. Jake Martin, Greg Denton, and now Justin See have all been very helpful, balancing flavor ideas off of them and getting techniques.
What would you like people to know you for as a bartender?
I like taking an interdisciplinary approach. I have a background as a barista, I’m really into beer, so I like making beer cocktails. I like working with ingredients that you don’t always find in other bars, and working with new techniques, and always trying to do new things.
What does a cocktail have to be if it goes on the menu here?
It has to keep my job interesting, so when I’m developing a new cocktail, I like to be featuring an ingredient that I haven’t used before, or a technique that I haven’t tried before, so that I’m always learning.
What’s your top selling cocktail here, and why do you think that’s the case?
The top selling cocktail is the Cleared For Departure. It might be the top selling because it’s the first one on the menu.
Is that like the first track on a CD?
Yeah. It’s a really interesting cocktail. It used one of our local gins, Aviation, and it has a big following here. It’s also a really cool drink. It’s a variation on an Aviation cocktail, so we make a clarified lime cordial. A normal Aviation is shaken. Ours is stirred. It’s crystal clear and gets brilliant color from Crème de Violette. It’s a very visually striking cocktail. I’ll make you one.
I think I’m more interested in your beer cocktail. I’m huge into beer too.
The beer cocktails are fun. I work with a group here called Brewing Up Cocktails, which is a local beer writer and another bar owner. It’s Ezra Johnson-Greenough, who writes a blog called The New School, and Yetta Vorobik, who owns a bar called The Hope and Vine. For two years, we’ve been putting on beer cocktail events, where we have an entire menu of beer cocktails, and we’ve done those everywhere from San Francisco to Vancouver, Canada.
Why not Los Angeles?
Maybe that’ll be next.
What kind of music do you like to listen to when you’re behind the bar?
My music tastes are shaped by being a barista, so I like music that chills people out while making their drinks. Iron & Wine, Shins, Beth Orton, very typical coffee shop music.
As far as writing goes, how does that fit into what you’re doing?
It’s been very difficult to keep up with writing with my two jobs, but it’s a great way to promote the bar and have my cocktails live beyond the bar. A lot of cocktails, you’ll put on the menu for a few months, then they’ll go away. If you put them on a blog, or they’re published somewhere, then they’re more likely to be created by other people, so they live beyond the bar.
Where and what do you like to drink when you’re not here?
I’m primarily a beer drinker, so I like to explore the local beer bars, especially the Horse Brass and The Hop and Vine.
If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, primarily to drink cocktails and spirits, what city would it be and how come?
I think I’d probably have to go to Tokyo, especially for the spirits in Japan. There are so many bars dedicated to single spirits. I read they have a bar dedicated just to Calvados. You can definitely tour the world of spirits in Japan right now. I think that would be fascinating.
The most recent bartender profile I posted was today, was Sam Ross from New York, and he said Tokyo too.
Oh yeah? Maybe we’ll have to go together.
Maybe so. So if you could only drink one more cocktail, what would be in the glass?
I think I’d have to go with a Rob Roy made with a really good single malt.
Any single malt in particular?
Not necessarily. I’d go to like to go out in style with a good Scotch drink.
Who would you let make it for you, if it couldn’t be you?
Probably Derek Brown in Washington, D.C. He’s a very meticulous, thoughtful bartender, and a great person to talk to.