Once challenged to make a cocktail inspired by a famous painting, Maggie Morgan chose Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, evoking the Dutch master’s lush panorama in the glass with gin, herbal accents and a flower garnish. It was a particularly apt prompt for Morgan, who is herself a painter, approaching drink invention with the same freewheeling spirit as she does the canvas. Her creative credo? “Embrace your mistakes.”
Raised in Roanoke, Virginia, Morgan grew up in an artistically minded family and earned an art scholarship to college, but dropped out after losing faith that the fine arts were the right direction for her. Which was how she found herself working as a cocktail server at a music venue in New York’s East Village, where she also found a new passion for cocktails and hospitality. Learning under Tiffany Short, who had just won the Eater New York Bartender of the Year award, Morgan developed her palate as she was introduced to classic cocktails like the Martinez and Gimlet.
She then moved to Hong Kong, where she bartended for the first time and supervised at a newly opened bar in the Sheung Wan district. There, she encountered a different flavor profile and cocktail-making style, one that favored more-ornate drinks crafted in a slower, more deliberate fashion. By the time she returned to the United States and settled in New Orleans, Morgan had learned how to blend the decorative, visual flair of Hong Kong drink-making with a classics-based New York approach that prized speed and efficiency. Finding a mentor in Nick Detrich, she landed her first original cocktail on a menu: the Sweeter Reaper, a low-ABV, tiki-inspired refresher with a piquant kick from a dash of Carolina Reaper hot sauce, made for steamy NOLA summers.
She still continued to paint, too, a process which helped her hone her creative approach. She was drawn to creating images that juxtaposed ugliness and beauty: catacombs and skulls, but rendered in soft pastels. She found that her best work seemed to happen when things didn’t go according to plan. “My favorite paintings ended up being the ones I had to tweak somehow. Because when I messed something up, I had to get really creative and do something different.” A similar process of trial and error has guided her approach to cocktails, as she’s focused on classic builds with an unexpected, playful or far-out twist.
Through co-founding and organizing Salon d’Whatever, a monthly pop-up gallery that showcases artists’ work amid drinks and music, she’s been able to combine her passions, giving an exhibition space to people in the service industry who, as she does, continue to create outside of the bar. The art in turn fuels her imagination when it’s time to put together a new menu.
“Through creating this space,” she says, “not only for these artists but for myself, I’ve been more inspired in the last month than I have in the past couple years.”
What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
Salon d’Whatever: Curating and creating spaces for artists (typically in hospitality) to show their work.
How does it inspire you?
Seeing how it impacts each artist. Seeing artists that have gone through creative mental blocks get out of them. Having artists feel seen and appreciated. I’ve had people tell me that they hope to sell at least one piece and end up selling everything. There are so many reasons. Plus, I get to collect some amazing art.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Don’t do anything that makes you unhappy.” —My dad
Describe your creative process in one sentence.
Inspiration. Trial and error. Self-doubt. Pep talk. Creation. Repeat.
What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far?
Having a platform to share and celebrate our passions while getting to meet other creatives who share similar dreams and goals. Super inspiring.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
The Iris Apfel of the bar world. (She has a collection of stuffed animals that she dresses up in her jewelry. I mean, come on, she’s the best.)
Best thing you ever drank:
There’s been so many amazing drinks, but I’m going to have to say Nick Jarrett’s Gibson. It is one of my favorite things on this earth and a wonderful practice in self-control.
Worst thing you ever drank:
I was once tricked into mind-erasing a warm pickle vodka Collins with ranch soda that someone sent as a boomerang. I still haven’t been able to shake that one off.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
Bone marrow–infused espadín, made to luge down a piece of bone.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Organizing Salon d’Whatever, traveling, seeing live music, collecting art and records, visiting museums and galleries, daydreaming at home—but mainly, sleeping.
If you had to listen to one album on loop for the rest of your life, what would it be?
The Stooges’ Raw Power.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
Making chain mail. Like medieval chain mail. I made smaller jewelry pieces, but knew lots of intricate weaves and patterns. It’s just too damn time-consuming.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
Your gut instincts are almost always right. Always be open to taking advice from people, but at the end of the day, trust your gut.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
It’s a tie between Hennessy, neat with tons of pepper freshly cracked on top, or a hot dirty Martini.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
A proper Finnish lunch by my friend’s parents in their home in Hyvinkää, Finland. Everything was homemade and there was so much love put into everything that went on the plate. It’s one of those things that’s special because it was a time and place kind of meal. One that means something because it was gifted to you and can’t be recreated. It was perfect. True hospitality.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Martini or Negroni if I want something boozy. Daiquiri or Aperol Spritz if I want something refreshing. It’s almost always these or a variation on one. (Sorry, choosing one is too hard.)
Modelo and a shot of tequila.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
The last text message you sent:
“You gonna crush”—to my partner in crime, Anna Giordano.