On November 15th, 2019, the world lost one of the great bartenders. Gary was a long-distance mentor of mine, and then he became an idol of mine, then a colleague, and finally a friend.
When we lose someone, I think it’s nice to share some fun stories about them. Gary was a true bartender, and I’m a bartender, and so the Gary story I cherish the most is very… bartender-y. It’s not a story about us drinking together, and it’s not a story about us talking about cocktails together. This is a story about two bartenders doing what bartenders do best: making fun of each other.
Here’s to Gary. I hope you enjoy this.
I got into cocktails mainly by reading Paul Harrington’s Alchemist column on the Hotwired website in the late 1990s and early 2000s. His book, Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century was my bible when I started learning about cocktails and moving my way up from dive bars, to better bars, and eventually to cocktail bars. It was the book that taught me everything I knew… until 2003.
When Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology came out, I must have read that thing like five times. It was, and I believe still is, the most comprehensive manual on bartending ever written.
I lived by that book. All the stuff on service. The cocktail family stuff. All of the recipes were even so much better than anyone else’s. Like, when you’re first learning about this stuff and want to know how to make, I don’t know, like a White Lady or something, you look at so many recipes. And time after time, Gary’s recipes were just better; more balanced, and they all kind of made more sense, if that… makes sense.
Inspired by the likes of Harrington and Regan, I started this blog in 2004 in the hope of repaying the world for everything that those two had taught me by contributing to it. Two years later, I had – much to my amazement – caught the attention of Gary Regan and he reached out and asked me to contribute some thoughts for this article, which was the very first piece of national press I’d ever received.
I was beside myself to be mentioned by one of my great bartending heroes, I can’t even tell you what it felt like, but it was awesome. Over the next few years, he and I conversed over email from time to time, chatted over Twitter, and he mentioned me a few more times in various articles for Wine Enthusiast and the SF Examiner.
Now, I know that a bartender meets a ton of people, especially someone of his caliber. So I never took it personally that he almost never recognized me when I’d see him sporadically at events or whatnot. I first introduced myself to him at Tales in maybe… 2008? Whenever it was, I walked up to him and said “Hi Gary, my name is Jeffrey Morgenthaler. I’m a bartender from Eugene, Oregon. We’ve spoken over email a few times and you’ve written about me once or twice.” And then I would go on to give the same spiel to him about once a year, every time I saw him at some industry event.
In 2011, Gary awarded me with a Gazzer, which was this fun little award he was doing in conjunction with Pernod-Ricard. I didn’t know what I’d done to deserve such a treat, but over email he told me it was an Innovation Award for inventing barrel aged cocktails. He sent me my Gary Regan bobblehead and I displayed it in my home office with pride.
Then, in 2013, he emailed me to inform me I was the recipient of another Gazzer award. “What did I do this time?” I asked him. He told me it was an Innovation Award for inventing barrel aged cocktails. I said “It must be a great innovation if I’m getting awarded for it twice!” He told me he’d forgotten that he’d already awarded me for that particular trend and sent me my Gary Regan bobblehead which I displayed in my home office with pride – right next to the first one he’d sent me.
In 2015, Campari Germany and the BCB invited me to Berlin to present on the Negroni with Gary. For the first time I was on a stage with one of my bartending idols, as a peer. I don’t know if I can adequately convey the feeling that a total nerd from the little burg of Eugene, Oregon (now living in Portland) got from that. But you get it.
I mentioned in one of the group emails leading up to the talk that it was going to be great to see Gary again, and sent along a photo of myself as a reminder, while telling everyone on the email chain that Gary never seemed to remember who I was. To which he replied with something along the lines of “Maybe I’d remember you if you were a more memorable person, you little fucker.”
When I arrived at my hotel in Berlin, Gary was outside waiting for a taxi. I walked right up to him with an outstretched hand and said “Hi Gary, my name is Jeffrey Morgenthaler. I’m a bartender from Portland, Oregon. I don’t know if you remember me but we’ve spoken over email a few hundred times and you’ve written about me a dozen times. I also have two Gazzers and you and I are presenting tomorrow about the Negroni”
To which he replied with something along the lines of “Maybe I’d remember you if you were a more memorable person, you little fucker.”
So that entire week, every single time I saw him – and we were working really closely together on that talk and on another project – I would walk right up to him and say, “Hi Gary, my name is Jeffrey Morgenthaler. I’m a bartender from Portland, Oregon. I don’t know if you remember me but we’ve spoken over email a few hundred times and you’ve written about me a dozen times. I also have two Gazzers and you and I are presenting tomorrow about the Negroni”
Every. Single. Time. Even if he’d only been gone for five minutes to the bathroom, I would greet him with that spiel. And every time it was greeted with something along the lines of “Maybe I’d remember you if you were a more memorable person, you little fucker.”
As you can probably tell, despite my love of shit-talking, I’m a total fanboy. And when I travel somewhere and I know that the author of one of the many, many books I hold in my collection will be there, I always bring it with me to get them to sign it. I have books signed by all the greats: Degroff, Cecchini, Wondrich, Harrington (that one I bought a signed copy online, I still haven’t met him in person) etc.
At the end of our week together I told Gary about this and produced my tattered, dog-eared copy of The Joy of Mixology for him to sign. I told him, sincerely, how much that book meant to me coming up in the business and how much of an honor it was to be working with him, despite my constant harassment of him that week. He graciously autographed my book and handed it back to me. I didn’t even look at the inscription – I wanted to wait until I got home.
And when I got back to Portland and opened up the book in my home office to display it proudly where it still stands to this day, I finally read what he’d written to me in Berlin:
To Jeffrey –
Whoever the fuck you are.
I love you, man.
I love you too, Gary. Wherever the fuck you are.