Jim Meehan is a bartenders’ bartender. As a former General Manager at PDT (Please Don’t Tell) in NYC, and author of The PDT Cocktail Book, those alone would qualify him a star on the Bartender Walk of Fame. He recently opened two new bars in Chicago and Hong Kong, is the long-time brand ambassador for Banks Rum, and has received recognition from the James Beard Foundation and the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards.
Jim kindly took time to answer a few questions we had after reading his latest volume Meehan’s Bartender Manual.
GSN: Like a lot of us who came into the bartending game in the 21st century, you discovered the classic bar and cocktail guides by Jerry Thomas, Harry Johnson, Harry Craddock, etc… after you’d already been bartending for a while. How did you approach these venerable recipes and the somewhat outdated service advice?
JM: Discovering these books made me feel part of a long, noble tradition I wasn’t familiar with. While the world has changed, the fundamentals of the job- serving people food and drink in an engaging environment- has not. Mixed drinks follow a fashion-like cycle with the recipes reflecting the mood and style of the time, so I don’t worry about them becoming “outdated”, as what was old will be new again in the future.
GSN: Which cocktail & bar guide books do you feel best capture a snapshot of the four ages of cocktail history from the golden age of the 1800’s up to the pre-prohibition era; from the silver age during the emigration of American bartenders to Europe during the 1920’s-30’s; to modern age post-WWII tiki and Mad Men era drinks; to the craft revival age where many of the drinks utilize house-made ingredients?
JM: This is more of a (David) Wondrich question, but if you put me on the spot, I’d recommend The Hoffman House Bartender’s Guide by Charles Mahoney, The Artistry of Mixing Drinks by Frank Meier, David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks or Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide if you want tiki too, and Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s The Bar Book.
GSN: Much of the guests’ experience is not about the drink itself, but rather the overall visual experience of the bar and the personality of the bartender. How do you see overall bar design aesthetic working with a team of bartenders who all have differing personalities and levels of commitment to the craft?
JM: Audrey Saunders once described the bar as a mouse trap to me and the staff as the cheese. Expanding upon this analogy, if you want to attract a diverse clientele, you need a variety of “bait” to entice them. Accordingly, I encourage operators to recruit and hire a diverse staff, whose personalities and interests will be reflected in the clientele. As for differing levels of commitment, everyone needs to understand the vision for the business, but they don’t all need to go about achieving the bar’s goals the same way. There are many ways to do things, so as long as you’re getting results, why not promote multiple pathways?
GSN: On that note, is there ever a place for a “star-tender” on a bar team, or do you think that they might be better suited to owning a venue, or transitioning into a brand rep?
JM: I recall a Tales of the Cocktail seminar Jacob Briars gave where he suggested great bars need two stars: not just one. His duos included Sam Ross and Michael McIlroy at Attaboy, Simone Caporale and Alex Kratena formerly of Artesian and others. You’re only as good as your staff, so I agree with Jacob on this. As long as the team understands the vision for the business and is mindful of each other’s needs, there’s room for “star-tenders” with other responsibilities to play a supporting role.
GSN: What brands of bar tools do you find yourself reaching for these days? There are so many different jiggers, shakers, bar spoons, and mixing glasses available these days, it makes sense to buy the best if you can.
JM: Cocktail Kingdom remains my favorite place for one stop shopping, but I’ve got a wandering eye when it comes to bar tools. I’m particularly fond of Japanese tools from Soukichi and Bar Times in Tokyo and Umami Mart in Oakland. Erik Lorincz (Birdy) and Charles Joly (Crafthouse by Fortessa) each have bar tool lines, which is super cool.
GSN: What are your thoughts about the relatively new idea of cocktail flights and food pairings? Obviously, it can be a huge hassle when you’re in the weeds, but in a slower atmosphere, do you feel that these are of value to either the bartender or the guest?
JM: Absolutely. Pairings and flights- which I’ve been doing ever since I started working in restaurants in New York in 2002- reinforce the cocktail’s rightful place within the culinary arts. I’m doing a pairing dinner in Boulder, CO at Frasca on March 26th. If a guest asks for one or the chef is motivated to feature cocktails as part of their tasting menu, it provides a great opportunity for the bartender to showcase their creativity.
GSN: How do you feel about the distilling industry explosion here in the U.S.? Some would say that having too many choices leaves the consumer overwhelmed and asking for a brand or cocktail that they are already quite familiar with as opposed to experimenting with something new.
JM: The cream will rise to the top. It’s a bit overwhelming right now, as you want to support local craft distilling, but the quality isn’t there yet for most producers. It takes time, and most small business owners don’t have the capital to compete with big brands.
GSN: For the bartender who works either for a venue where the owner will only carry a limited number of products, or if they work in a highly regulated state where distribution or availability is limited, how do you suggest they manage to create an interesting cocktail program?
JM: Beauty- or “interesting” for this question- is in the eye of the beholder. We stock a limited selection of products at Prairie School and PDT because focus matters to me. Whether your back bar and spirits selection is big or small, it should be curated and relate to the chef’s cuisine or the bar’s cocktail focus.
GSN: Have you ever found that some cocktails you’ve created and thought were sure-fire winners, just didn’t resonate with the guests despite being appealingly described on a menu? If so, what were they? Also, please share a few of your favorite cocktail recipes that you’ve created, and a few that others have made and are on your short list.’
JM: As I said above, taste is subjective; so, in some ways, my opinion of my bar’s cocktails is somewhat irrelevant. I love many of my recipes like family, but at the end of the day, the guests decide what stays on the menu and what goes. I have a little over thirty favorites in my new book, and if I had to pick, I’d highlight the Mezcal Mule, East India Negroni, Old Friend and Newark as favorites.
1.5 oz. Beefeater Gin
.75 oz. grapefruit juice
.5 oz. Campari
.25 oz. St. Germain
Shake with ice, then fine strain into a chilled coupe
Garnish with a lemon twist
East India Negroni
2 oz. Banks 5-Island Rum
.75 oz. Lustau East India Solera Sherry
.75 oz. Campari
Stir with ice, then strain into a chilled rocks glass filled with one large ice cube
Garnish with an orange twist
1.5 oz. Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
1 oz. ginger wort
.75 oz. lime juice
.75 oz. Boiron Passion Fruit Purée
.5 oz. agave syrup
4 cucumber slices (reserve 1 for garnish)
Muddle the cucumber slices and agave syrup, then add the remaining ingredients
Shake with ice, then fine strain into a chilled rocks glass filled with ice
Garnish with a piece of candied ginger picked to a slice of cucumber and a pinch of ground chili
GSN: Service is key in our industry. Do you think this is a skill that is inherent in a new employee, or is it generally a learned skill? What is the best approach that you’ve found in training new staff?
JM: I look for character- most of which is determined by a candidate’s upbringing- when I’m hiring. I can’t teach someone to care about themselves, others or their job: ideally, their parents already instilled that. On the other hand, the x’s and o’s of service are totally trainable and I’m happy to teach them because our service style is what distinguishes us from other bars.
There’s no one size fits all approach to training in my book. You do your best. There’s never enough time before you open and once you’re open, your bar becomes a work in progress constantly evolving based on the team and the guests’ interests. Instead of rounding everyone up like it’s a school, I eke out one-on-one time: typically, after a mistake has occurred and there’s a teachable moment to take advantage of.
GSN: Any mentors that you’ve had you’d like to give a shout out to? What was their advice that has had a lasting effect on your career?
JM: There are over fifty portraits of friends, colleagues and mentors in my new book with quotes that lend insight into their expertise and impact upon my career. Among all of them, Audrey Saunders stands out as my primary mentor, who once told me “Don’t believe the hype.” It’s something that I took to heart and hold close to the vest when things seem to be going well. You’ve got to put work in every day and never take your success for granted.
GSN: Last question: Burnout and alcohol abuse abound in an industry founded on a controlled substance. How have you personally been able to keep a level head over the years and not get sucked in to the dark side of bartending?
JM: I grew up around alcoholism in my family and have always been wary of over indulging. That ad on TV: “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs.” had an impact on me! I don’t drink when I’m tending bar and forbid my staff from it until the shift is over. After our first child- and fifteen years of drinking with bartenders- I’ve pulled way back in the last few years. My hangovers last all day and it’s just not worth it anymore. I fell head over heels for this industry because I love serving others: not myself. I love to drink, but I value my health and happiness above it.
GSN: Thanks Jim, and cheers!