How One 80-Year-Old Leather Company Got into the Bartending Biz
In 1933, right around the time when Harry Craddock was busy pouring Corpse Reviver #2’s at the Savoy and America was cheers-ing to the end of Prohibition, two Virginia men founded a little company selling leather to footwear craftsmen in the height of the Great Depression. More than eighty years later, that company — Moore & Giles — is quite a bit larger than it was in Don Moore and Vernon Giles’ day. One thing that hasn’t changed? The craftsmanship of their goods, which hearkens back to a time when things were made to last.
That’s part of what attracted Jim Meehan, barman behind legendary cocktail stronghold PDT, to Moore & Giles in the first place. At the time, he’d gotten into collecting vintage American workwear, like old Navy deck jackets and postal bags, and was fascinated by the way they seemed to improve with age. “What was interesting about Moore & Giles is the way their leathers and waxed canvas patina with age and look better over time, as opposed to so many things you buy where it just degenerates over use,” Meehan says. One of Meehan's regulars at Gramercy Tavern introduced him to Moore & Giles' Brooks Morrison, who eventually asked him to help design a bar bag: a product which even Meehan himself was in need of.
“At that point I was doing cocktail development for Diageo and a few other companies, and I'd have to give these presentations, but I'd show up with milk crates full of stuff,” Meehan says. “When you're going to a business meeting, you want to have the right briefcase, or the right tools of doing business. I felt like I was showing up to work without the right tools.” Thus, the Meehan Utility Bag was born: a sturdy, functional leather and waxed canvas bag designed specifically for a modern bartender’s day-to-day needs. “I wrote a list of everything I needed for a gig,” says Meehan, “and went about designing a bag with all the right compartments and elastic strips, so that everything I needed was easily accessible.” Dozens of sketches later, Meehan and former M&G designer Heather Dillard had worked out their final iteration of the design—one that was surely an improvement on the milk crates and co-opted camera lens bags he’d been using before. (Not to mention a few shades more stylish.)
The bartender’s bag and leather-lined roll-up were released in 2009. Six years later, Moore & Giles have developed a line of handsome leather aprons, a leather-bound edition of “The PDT Cocktail Book,” a leather-wrapped flask, coasters, wine bags, and more. Did the team originally set out to expand into the world of entertaining and barware? Daryl Calfee, M&G’s marketing director, says no. “I think it just organically happened as we started to form these relationships,” he tells us. But, he adds, the worlds of drink-making and leather goods do share some parallels. “All of our leather is handcrafted by artisans, whether they're in Spain or Italy or Germany, and there's such a handcrafted nature to our leather. All of that goes hand-in-hand with making these amazingly unique drinks,” he says. “There's some science to it, but there's also a lot of artistry that goes along with creating these really great recipes. Some might be unique to a region or to the bartender, and that's such a great metaphor for what we do in leather as well.”
And, like a well-made drink, these products take time. From start to finish, the production of one Moore & Giles bar bag will typically take about four to six weeks, and they’re only done in small batches. Hides are turned into leather at a fifth-generation tannery in Bassano del Grappa, a tiny Medieval Italian town at the base of the Alps. This process alone can take four weeks, with anywhere from forty to eighty hands touching the leather along the way. “We do everything in small runs of fifty or less,” Calfee says. “We don't do any big box stores, just specialty shops. If someone calls with an order for 750 bar roll-ups, that's great, but we're still going to do them in runs of 50, and we're still going to take the time we need.”
These days, Moore & Giles and Meehan have the Sidecar, a leather-wrapped bar cart that clocks in at $13,000—perhaps not a pricetag the average bartender or home cocktail enthusiast can swallow, but it sure is nice to look at. M&G is also planning on releasing a knife roll-up for chefs, and they’ll also be replacing the black vinyl bar at PDT with a leather that will change and patina as it ages. The unlikely pairing of a leather company and a bartender is one that’s proven to yield some pretty great things, and Meehan agrees. “For me, as a bartender, the fact that they took me seriously back when we started working on this project, shows how innovative and thoughtful they are,” he says. “Lynchburg, Virginia may not be Paris or Tokyo or London, but they're doing some really cool stuff down there.”