Scotch Lodge: A Top Notch Whiskey Bar Dream Turned Reality - The Whiskey Wash

Scotch Lodge: A Top Notch Whiskey Bar Dream Turned Reality

Portland, Oregon, where The Whiskey Wash is headquartered, is a city that has a thriving bar and cocktail scene. A number of these operations are led by talented bartenders and also happen to have some amazing whiskey collections available for trying. One of the latest entries to this scene, and certainly one that’s created a buzz around town, is the Scotch Lodge, helmed and owned by bartender extraordinaire Tommy Klus.

Klus is a long time veteran of the bar scene, developing cocktail programs for some of the most regarded bars in the city. He’s long had a passion for Scotch, however, and was seeking a place to hang his own hat that allowed him to explore the concepts of a deep whiskey program and also top notch customer service. He feels he has found both of those, and more, in his new operation.

To learn more about Scotch Lodge and the background of its owner, we sat with Klus recently just prior to him opening the bar to the public. Note this interview is edited for clarity and brevity.

Tommy Klus behind the bar at Scotch Lodge in Portland, Oregon (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

The Whiskey Wash (TWW): Let’s first talk a bit about your background as a bartender. What was your interest in becoming a one?

Tommy Klus: Well, we have to go back a long time. I was working in breweries. Kind of started with my dad, who worked at Henry Weinhard’s brewery as the chief engineer. He worked with them for twenty plus years, before they sold to Miller. So I grew up in that kind of industry, going to the brewery, exploring –  it was like nine city blocks and steam tunnels and silos. Lots of mashing and kettles. It was a fun place to grow up and explore as a kid.

I started working in breweries at nineteen. I was already working on the bottling line, and had been doing some light maintenance work and doing more behind-the-scenes stuff. I got to take kegs to people’s cars and hear about the parties they’re going to throw and I’m twenty, maybe twenty-one.

Later on I applied for a job at the River Place Hotel that was room service. That led to bar-backing in the bar, twenty-one at that point obviously. Now, I’m bar-backing at the River Place Hotel [in Portland], which had a restaurant called, The Esplanade. I didn’t know anything about booze. I knew about beer from working in a brewery. There’s just so many cocktails I didn’t know, and so many liqueurs I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to make a drink to save my life, but I was getting that exposure. I was also hooked on kind of the social aspect of it.

From there I went on to Bluehour [another Portland restaurant], and I worked every front of house position I could there. Next over to open Departure, as their bar manager, and set up that bar. Teardrop followed – I told them, “I want to learn what you guys are doing and just be a sponge and forget everything I’ve learned as a bar manager and relearn it as a Teardrop bartender and do things your way”.

That was really good for me, I learned a lot. I think back then, the cocktails they were making were super innovative and different. They were making their own bitters and things that other bars weren’t doing. I spent three years there and learned a lot.

Eventually I was in Scotland doing an internship for Bruichladdich and Springbank, and spent three months there, two of which were spent on Islay, living in the distillery manager’s house, and just walking down to work every day. I was in love with whiskey. I still am. I wanted to bridge the gap between what distilleries do and what bartenders do and to figure out if there are any parallels.

TWW: Ok, so you have started or been involved in some prolific bars, including some we haven’t touched upon yet. You mentioned a few of them already. What about the Multnomah Whiskey Library?

Klus: I worked on that project for nearly a year before it was open, on a contract. I probably, on average, was working 100-hour weeks, for well over fourteen months. The pitch for the whiskey program was something I wrote to the owners on how I wanted to do it and what it was going to cost and what categories would look like, what the menu needed to be, how we wanted to print the menus, and what the menus should look like – everything was planned out with details.

My first pitch [to the owners] was on the inventory. I didn’t know how much they wanted to spend, so it was modest, and it was refreshing to hear that it wasn’t enough, and I needed to add in more. I didn’t include everything. I was curating and picking, these are the whiskeys we should showcase from this distillery, some of those we should try and get from that.

TWW: So let’s jump forward now and talk a bit about Scotch Lodge. It is a new animal for you but at the same time, it’s also a culmination of things you’ve been building your skill set towards. Talk a little about that thought process behind starting the Scotch Lodge, what were you trying to do with creating a whiskey centered bar?

Klus: Scotch Lodge was always this idea for me that came from the Black Lodge cocktail I created when I was on a Twin Peaks bender watching several episodes. Instead of the Rittenhouse rye whiskey as a base though for Black Lodge, at one point I started making it with Bowmore and called it the Scotch Lodge.

Before I did that internship I had always romanced what I thought Scotland was going to be like, what the smokey whiskies that I was into – where those came from – it was always this dark, rainy, smokey place with cliffs, big waves, castles. So I had always romanced the idea of what Scotland was like so Scotch Lodge was more of this idea of a place where the Black Lodge is the Twin Peaks dream state nether world that Dale Cooper goes to. So, this is my whiskey version.

It’s a place for all of this and to also celebrate the categories, the people, the stories, that’s where the name Scotch Lodge comes from.

TWW: What does it take to put together a whiskey centric bar like this? What do you have to do to pull the different components of it together?

Klus: Some of this is just being lucky. There’s a bit of luck in buying bottles but knowing that I wanted to do something and setting things aside with that intention. You gotta have content, you gotta have education, you gotta have people that are interested in the idea. Your team that you put together, I think most of them I try and talk out of the job before I end up hiring, knowing what it is going to entail. I think if you have a really nice collection of bottles and your staff doesn’t know what they are, how to sell them, it gets lost to the guests.

It’s really important that you are able to meet the guests on their own level of excitement and enthusiasm. If you can’t, it’s hard to make it a solid bar.

TWW: What’s the idea with the whiskey collection you have here?

Klus: I think it’s a good representation of the category, being able to showcase some of these whiskeys that are no longer available, I think with the collectors too, no ones really is opening their whiskeys. They’re going into boxes or they are saving them and selling them. I wanna open them here and I want you to be able to come in and try them. I think that the goal is not to just put it all on a pedestal, but to be able to open these whiskeys and taste them

TWW: So when the consumer walks through the door here they’re going to be presented with a list that probably has whiskeys on there they don’t know. How do you educate them about these more rare finds?

Klus: I don’t think that we ever wanna come across as forcing education. I just want you to come in and have a good time. If you don’t know and you want to have a conversation we’re happy to engage.

TWW: Is this the culmination of your experience or is there something further down the road you see yourself maybe wanting to do?

Klus: I do have another idea that I want to do. I think we’ve got a lot of work here to do before we do anything else. Yeah there’s a couple of other ambitions I have – this was a place for my love of whiskey and, also, a way to give back. I wanted to be able to share this with everyone.