Single-serving canned cocktails have a few advantages: They don’t require mixing or shaking, you don’t have to clean up afterwards, and you don’t have to worry about broken glass. But, canned cocktails don’t always taste as fresh as the real thing. Bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler set out to change that with his line of canned cocktails, designed in collaboration with local brewery Ninkasi Brewing Company. Morgenthaler is a Portland-based bartender now, but he got his start in the world of craft drinks right here in Eugene, and his longtime friendship with Ninkasi founders Jamie Floyd and Nikos Ridge ultimately led to the collaboration.
“Jamie and Nikos invited me to lunch and asked me to think about creating canned cocktails,” Morgenthaler says. “I said yes right away. Then I drove to the liquor store and picked up every single canned cocktail on the shelf and tried every single one of them. I said, ‘Well, I know we can do better than this!’”
In Eugene, Morgenthaler began bartending at Tiny Tavern, which is now Nelson’s in the Whit. He migrated to the Vet’s Club, then Bamboo and Red Agave. In the mid-’90s, the Vet’s Club was the hottest bar in town, packed to the gills with people going out, relaxing after going out, or just there to dress up and dance. Morgenthaler honed his craft at the Vet’s Club by reading everything he could about classic cocktails. Then,wherever he worked — be it Marché, El Vaquero, and other spots in Eugene — he elevated the bar program by using fresh juices and making his own mixers.
“I got super into it,” says Morgenthaler. “I had been making drinks at home at my home bar, and I just kept learning and improving.”
In 2001 at Bamboo, Morgenthaler invented the Richmond Gimlet, which would morph into the canned Gin Rickey. At Red Agave, he created the Bourbon Renewal, which is the basis for his canned cocktail of the same name. The third canned cocktail is an Agave Paloma, which channels a grapefruit soda with a tiny hit of fresh jalapeno.
“The Bourbon Renewal has been a huge thrill for me,” he says. “It was on the menu at Clyde Common for 12 years. We probably made 10,000 or 12,000 of them a year. It’s crazy. But what really started it was the feeling of excitement that I got in a packed house at the Vet’s Club and wanting to make better drinks. And then working at Marché really helped me hone in on this as a culinary art.”
In Portland, Morgenthaler created a name for himself through his bartending column in Playboy magazine and by bartending at Pépé Le Moko and Clyde Common, where he ran the bar program for more than a decade, before both became casualties of the pandemic. Morgenthaler is now launching Pacific Standard, a bar and restaurant in the lounge of Portland’s KEX Hotel. But prior to that, the pandemic closures gave him the time he needed to turn his previously developed drinks into recipes suitable for canning.
Morgenthaler discovered that most canned cocktails taste tinny, but even worse, they often don’t taste like anything at all. “They can taste watery,” he says. “And a lot of them are overly strong.”
He thought jiggering his recipes for canning would be easy, but it was far from it. Luckily, being locked up in his kitchen for weeks gave him the time he needed to figure out how to get each recipe scalable, shelf-stable, full-flavored, and under 9% alcohol. “I wanted to be able to taste the liquor, because they are made with liquor,” he says. “But I don’t think a canned drink should be stronger than 9% at the most. And I wanted these to taste like a beautifully engineered drink, but you can’t just take a recipe of bourbon, lemon juice, and simple syrup and hand it over to be canned.”
Morgenthaler would meet with Ninkasi’s director of brewing process development, Daniel Sharp, taste-testing dozens of different bourbons, gins, tequilas, and juices to find the right combinations. Then, Morgenthaler worked on numerous iterations before getting something he felt good about handing over to Sharp to test in small batches of 5 gallons or so.
Did he get sick of tasting all of those drinks? Luckily, no. “These are like my babies, so if I get sick of tasting drinks, I should probably just retire!” Morgenthaler says with a laugh. “It’s still exciting to me.”
All of Morgenthaler’s drinks are between 8% and 9% ABV, and come in standard 12-ounce cans. Word is, there are more flavors in development right now. Morgenthaler says in addition to creating these delicious drinks, what he’s most proud of is that they represent much of his work developing his craft in Eugene. “I think of Eugene as home,” he says. “I didn’t grow up there but I lived there for 17 years and still have many friends there. So much of my personal and professional history is there.”
The Better Living Room by Ninkasi Brewing, 155 Blair Blvd, 541/735-9500, ninkasibrewing.com