Clay Berkes of Power House

Clay Berkes epitomizes Oklahoma’s laid-back, welcoming brand of hospitality. Berkes was born and raised in southern Oklahoma between Love County and Lawton/Fort Sill. At age 16, he got his first taste of the hospitality industry. But it was while attending Oklahoma University working at Pearl’s Oyster Bar in Oklahoma City that he got hit with the bartending bug. There, he connected with Jonny Raglin, one of his oldest and dearest friends, a pioneering barman in San Francisco for over 20 years, and an Oklahoma native who oversees The Absinthe Group bars and opened acclaimed SF bar, Comstock Saloon.

Among this pioneering group of bartenders, Berkes honed his bar chops over the years. He eventually moved to Austin, where he bartended from 2000 to 2013 while playing in the bands Love County and Medicine Park. That experience in hospitality and music plays richly into his bar Power House, which he opened in January 2015 in a former powerhouse building. He painstakingly restored the 1928 building to its current authentic roadhouse vibe, with a back bar liquor shelf that was an original breaker panel, nodding to their powerhouse roots. But it’s surrounded by a few Mexican markets, produce vendors, and a superb made-in-Oklahoma market, Urban Agrarian, selling local coffee and meats, baked goods, local produce, and artisanal foods.

Power House is the kind of place where you can sip Lambrusco wine or PBR, a Monterey Chardonnay or OK’s famed Prairie Artisan Ales. And certainly plenty of agave spirits, American whiskey, and signature drinks like the Roasted Hatch Chile Top Shelf Margarita. There are more New Mexico vibes in their roasted hatch chile queso and house famous spicy chile pork verde — irresistible on a winter’s day.

Music plays a key part of the bar’s rustic warmth inside and on the patio. You’ll hear classic soul and funk, à la Stevie Wonder or Sam Cooke, classic and outlaw country (Dolly Parton, Roger Miller, Waylon Jennings, etc.), and rock from Roky Erickson to Spoon. Power House, Berkes, and team express Oklahoma spirit with chill friendliness, without sacrificing or getting hung up on quality. It’s a place where you can feel the heart as soon as you walk in.

In his own words, Clay talks about his philosophy of hospitality, how he chooses which spirits to stock, and how he sees the bar world evolving in the future.

How does being based in OKC influence your bar’s style and operations and the drinks you create?

It really does and doesn’t. We use all of the seasonal fruits and vegetables available to us as we would in any setting. We don’t determine that as much as it determines what we can use. Walking across the street to Urban Agrarian, Pam’s Plants, or the Piñata Store greatly dictates our operations and what we provide. That would be the same anywhere we set up shop.

What is your philosophy on deciding what spirit brands/bottles to stock in your bar?

We tended to lean on our quality purveyors from day one and from day to day. Starting from the ’80s and the constrictions of corporate ideology, it’s nice to be free from those bindings and just go with your gut. It’s all I’ve known.

Anytime I travel, which isn’t a whole lot — I need to do more — but every time I do, whether I go to San Francisco or, God forbid, Austin [Clay’s old stomping grounds], I’m always learning. I’m not a car guy, necessarily. I’m not a boat person. Not into motorcycles. I love tasting. It’s my hobby. Whether I’m at the Texas Chili Parlor, or an expensive steakhouse, I just study. I love reading menus, and there’s a discovery that can occur. [It’s often with] bartenders, sitting at the bar.

For example, I was just at the Hochatown distillery [in southeast Oklahoma]. They have a quaint little bar there. The bartender was making their [signature] bourbon margaritas. And I was like, ‘I’m completely doing this. I can’t wait to support this bourbon.’ But you always have to put your own twist on it.

I like looking for new brands when I go to the liquor store — and it goes for beers, too, because there’s a whole slew of Oklahoma beers that I’m unaware of or from breweries I like but simply haven’t tried [their new beers]. [New product] is always something you have to keep an eye out for if you wanna be viable. I also lean on my bartenders who are younger than I and a little bit more “on the scene,” as far as that’s concerned. Then also other bar owners. When I was recently out in San Francisco at Comstock [Saloon], it’s always a huge learning experience when I’m around someone like Jonny [Raglin].

I like giving people an opportunity to discover something else besides the top two or three big brands, even though I have no problems [with those brands] and love them just the same… The thing is, we’re very limited on space. So we are asked just like everyone, “Hey, can you pick this bottle up?” A lot of times I already know it’s just gonna sit there. But you want to support. We’re all in the same industry and the same boat. So you want to support, but you really do have to pick and choose because I have [bought some brands and it] took years to sell it all. We just have this much amount of space and until that changes, we have to be pretty selective.

How do you educate customers on quality spirits and experiment with new things at your bar?

What is one day a quality spirit can drastically change in the blink of an eye, depending on brand acquisition, the weather, demand, etc. So you always have to read and test and try and lean on others you trust to determine what is relevant and ahead of its time and its value.

I was browsing around and found this liquor called Maggie’s Farm. So I bought a bottle of that rum. My bartenders liked their spiced rum and coffee liqueur, so we might tinker with that. We just broke down and bought a frozen drink machine, so we’re really excited about that. I bought a refurbished one and we’ve just been cranking out these frozen refreshers. They’re great because now we can play with different flavors. We’re doing a housemade chamoy blend and we add flavors to that.

What is your philosophy on hospitality and the type of atmosphere you want to create?

That’s the easy part. Just be nice and genuine. The rest works itself out. It is the hospitality industry, yeah? As soon as we try to outdo someone or something, or claim to be something we’re not, it falls flat. Just be nice and genuine.

We do a thing occasionally called Sad Country Sundays where we’ll have someone — typically solo or a couple of people — and they’ll play for a couple of hours. We run some specials while they sing some sad country songs. We will also have a festival here and there where we’ll have live music. Depending on the weather, they might play outside or inside. Our patio has really grown with the awning and the trellis I put up.

How do you envision the bar world evolving in the coming years?

That’s a great question. There are government classifications, studies, trends to observe, luck, culture wars, fads, the economy, pandemics, and all of the like. At the end of the day, you find your niche and attach yourself to it. But being genuine goes a long way.

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Founding The Perfect Spot in 2007 sharing top recommends globally in food and drink, Virginia Miller is W. North America Academy Chair for The World's 50 Best Restaurants, regular columnist at The Bold Italic and Medium, Distiller Magazine, American Whiskey Magazine, Whisky Magazine, VOICES,, Gin Magazine, etc. She held roles as Zagat SF/NorCal editor, SF Guardian restaurant critic, Table8 National Editor/VP of Content. Published in over 60 international publications, she’s covered global dining, travel, spirits, cocktails, hotels and bars with regular columns at Time Out, Where Traveler, Google’s Touringbird, Food Republic, Thrillist, Travelux, to name a few. She wrote The Official Emily in Paris Cocktail Book. Virginia consults in dining, spirits, cocktails and drink. She co-created Avion’s Reserva Cristalino tequila with Pernod Ricard’s House of Tequila innovation, marketing and distilling teams and is now working multiple agave spirits projects in Mexico over recent years, including cutting edge innovation products and blends for different clients. She consults for multiple distilleries on short-term projects, whether evaluating and providing feedback on samples or products or multiple versions. She helps create various samples and flavor profiles with distilling teams or in labs, edits or writes tasting notes, provides feedback on marketing materials and leads tastings virtually or in-person. She leads tastings virtually for Whiskies of the World and for company parties or private events, educating on a range of spirits. Virginia creates drink menus for Michelin-starred restaurants (like Dominique Crenn’s Golden Poppy in Paris, a multi-month project creating an entire menu of cocktails and non-alcoholic cocktails with stories and photos for the restaurant’s launch). She aids in honing and curating food and drink menus and provides feedback on dishes and drinks. Virginia judges in many international dining, food, spirits, cocktails and bars competitions and awards (including SF World Spirits, ADI Craft Distilling, Tales of the Cocktail, Good Food Awards, IWSC in London, Nola Spirits Comp, Whiskies of the World, etc.) and has visited over 13,000 restaurants and even more. top bars around the world.