Michael Neff was fresh out of the Navy and looking to start the next chapter of his life when bartending piqued his interest. He was living in Seattle at the time and a bartender he knew was kind enough to show him the ropes and also pointed him in the direction of a bar that was hiring. “The first time I walked behind that bar was the first time I had been behind any bar,” Neff says. “From that moment, though, it felt like the perfect place for me—it was clear that the best way to do the job was to show people the best time possible. That hooked me more than anything else, and keeps me in the business still, 22 years later.”
Now with an impressive resume of bartending stints in major cities across the country, Neff lives in Houston, where he co-owns and runs the beverage program at The Cottonmouth Club, which opened in April 2018. “We honor classic cocktails while adding simple, house-made components to put our own stamp on them,” Neff says. “It was important to me that the drinks were accessible enough for the general public to enjoy them without feeling judged, but forward-thinking enough to engage the imagination of the cocktail set.” The menu showcases all types of flavors and cocktail styles, from the lighter side with Neff’s Terminally Pretty ($10), comprising marigold tea-infused Macchu Pisco, fresh lemon juice, and a house-made pineapple-pink peppercorn gomme syrup, to his bolder Long Lost Pal ($14), featuring an equal parts blend of Jack Daniel’s Rye and Shackleton blended malt Scotch, Dolin Dry vermouth, St. George Bruto Americano aperitif, and simple syrup.
Neff adds that while he doesn’t have any one defining style as a bartender, he’s known for his “bespoke” cocktails—those that are custom-made for people individually. “It requires a strong foundation in flavor, a thorough understanding of the structure of a cocktail, and the ability to drill into people’s thoughts so you can make something that will have a big impact,” he says. “I often say that curiosity and compassion are the two hallmarks of a great bartender.”