When I walked into Sonny’s to interview bartender Jon Clemons, I was assured by his coworker “he’s the best bartender in town.” Flashes of overly hip moustaches, unheard of infusions, and tales of Brooklyn nights came to mind. I was nervous. Could I possibly be cool enough to chat with this guy? Turns out, I’m not really cool enough to chat with anyone, but Jon was an absolute delight to sit down with anyway. For the record, he was sporting a pretty darn hip moustache which basically screamed bartender photoshoot but I didn’t have a camera that day so we actually didn’t get any ‘stache photos…sorry guys. He also made me a drink that he lit on fire before serving to me, so that was pretty cool.
“The problem with the world is that everyone is a few drinks behind.” –Humphrey Bogart
Name: Jon Clemons
Bartending how long: 10 years
Where to find him: Sonny’s at 83 Exchange Street
Why he’s cool: He onced got called out at Trader Joe’s
Did you start in Portland?
No, I started bartending in New York City.
How long were you there for?
I was there for about four years.
Then you moved to Portland?
Yeah. I grew up in Portland then I moved down there, then came back.
So how did you start bartending here?
I was general manager at Port City Music Hall and it just wasn’t going well and my friend Andrea told me about a job over here. So I came down and became the bar manager. It’s a much better situation. I’ve been here for a year and a half, two years.
What drew you to bartending?
Working in the restaurant industry when I was a waiter I’d always watch the bartenders make drinks and hang out after work and watch them rake in the money and I was like I need to get into that, that’s where the money’s at. Started out just for the money but then I found a passion for it and just continued with it.
Do you geek out at home?
Oh yeah I’ve got a couple infusions going on at home. I’m always thinking about new drinks and stuff.
Do you study up the history of it?
I was trained by a lot of top mixologists down in New York City. They taught me a lot about the history of classic cocktails and whatnot and I just went from there.
Do you have a favorite drink?
Always Budweiser and a shot of Jameson.
Drinks you don’t like to make?
There’s a couple on the menu here that aren’t fun to make. A lot of ingredients, time consuming, but whatever. I mean I came up with more than half the cocktails on the menu so…
So do you consider yourself a mixologist?
Well down in New York at the places I worked you were considered a mixologist. I don’t…I did create a bunch of drinks that are now popular here.
We’ve got a huge craft beer scene in Maine; do you have beers on tap that you’re excited about?
Um yes and no. I’m not really a beer guy. I mean beers are always changing. There’s so many of them I’d rather not get into it. It’s like wine, ya know. Once you get into it, you can’t get out.
With beer and wine there’s a lot of culinary overlap—beer dinners, wine pairings, whatnot. Can you pair cocktails with food?
Oh yeah absolutely. I can pair cocktails with what you order.
So if I were to order a steak, what would you recommend?
Steak? Hmmm. Probably a nice bourbon cocktail.
I used to have a theory, until Andrew Barron ruined it, that all bartenders in Portland have tattoos. Do you have any?
[Laughs and rolls up sleeves to reveal tattoos] Yep.
Where do you get tattooed?
Will from Sanctuary did a bunch. My friend Brandon Rowe did a bunch.
So back to your job, since you’ve returned from NYC, have you seen a growth in the cocktail world here?
Yeah. Right when I first moved back there weren’t too many places making really good cocktails. Then Sonny’s and a couple other spots opened up and places started making some good ones. And there it started spreading. We’re still behind the times though I feel as far as cocktails and the world of bartending as we know it. You go down to New York or any major city south of here and they’re not really doing infusions and stuff. They’re beyond that. It’s like ten years ago for them. But we still are like, “Oh what is that?” We’re still not knowledgeable yet. I’ve got a lot of things up my sleeve that I’m holding back on to introduce to Portland because I mean, there are some things that I learned down in New York that were just groundbreaking then but no one has heard of up here. It’ll be fun to see them develop in the next couple years.
Where’s your favorite watering hole when you’re not at work?
I don’t. I’ve got a two year old daughter. I’m pretty much at home when I’m not here. When I do get to go out, I’ll probably do to Downtown Lounge or Local. But other than that, hit or miss.
When you moved down to New York, was there someone who took you under their wing?
My brother moved there with me. We were going through pretty much the same thing. And we got trained by Gardner Dunn—just a bunch of really, really amazing bartenders who are now blowing up the scene all over the place. Willy Shine is one of them. One of the leading mixologists of the east coast right now. Greg Seider, too.
So do you guys ever have to kick people out here?
We don’t like to do that. If it gets to that point, yeah. We just had a problem with that with a security company we hired. We didn’t like how they handled things. If you’re coming behind the bar, yeah. If you’re stumbling around, throwing up, yeah. But other than that, we want people to have a good time and we understand, people are people.
Have you had any nightmare encounters with cutting people off?
No, not really. I’ve had a group of guys get mad that I cut off. It was a little bit before last call and we had a crap night so we’d already cut off a bunch of other people [early] and were calling it a night. Then they saw me make a friend a drink that just came in—she comes in every night—and she had about five minutes to drink her drink and this guy got all huffy puffy. He actually called me out at Trader Joe’s. He was like “Are you the bartender from Sonny’s?” And I said “yeah” and he goes, “well you’re a fucking dick!” It was just like “Oh,awesome.” I’m there with my daughter. “Well good to see you—thanks for the support!” [Laughs]
And you guys have music here, too?
Yep. Mosart212 is here on First Fridays, and every other Friday happy hour, and also every other Saturday night. And the Jaw Gems play every Thursday.
Anything that you’re super into right now in terms of cocktails?
I always like playing with tequila and gin. Not a lot of people like gin. I also want to get into making rum cocktails—some good rum cocktails. Not a ton of people drink rum around here, except you have the local Mainers drinking captain and coke.
Any fall or winter cocktails on the menu right now?
Not right now but last year we did. We’ve got a delicious date makers mark infusion going on right now. Pretty bangin.’ Last year we had some good ones. We had some good infusions: an apple cinnamon vodka, we do mulled ciders and stuff like that. We can always make those again if anybody wants one.
So, what’s your favorite thing about bartending?
Making drinks and watching people—teaching people about cocktails. I love it when people sit in front of me and ask, “What’s that? Why you doing that? What’s that for?” I love turning people on to cocktails that don’t like cocktails. Like some dude sitting in front of me watching me make cocktails and he’s drinking a beer and ten fifteen minutes into it he’s asking me a million questions then all the sudden he’s drinking cocktails. That’s what I like. Educating people. Seeing people’s faces when I make them something they’ve never had before.
Have you ever made anything had someone else try it and just hate it?
Oh, absolutely. Whatever. That’s their thing. Doesn’t bother me. Though I once made a cocktail at this premiere party for this TV show Drinking Made Easy with Zane Lamprey and I made a cocktail and this guy was like “oh this tastes soapy.” And then he told everybody that it tasted like crap and he wouldn’t let me replace his drink. And I’m like “dude let me just make you something else—whatever you want.” He’s like “oh no, I’ll suffer through it.” And people kept coming up to the bar next to him and he’s like “don’t order this—tastes like there’s anthrax in it.” It was like wow, really. Get the out of here. That’s what might piss me off.
Best out-of-context quotes:
- “You get some overflow from the Old Port on the weekends that you have to deal with. But we don’t serve red bull so they don’t stay long.”
- “I grew this moustache for the photoshoot.”