GSN Interview: Jim Meehan Shares Thoughts About His Bar Manual

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  How did you approach these venerable recipes and the somewhat outdated service advice?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a fashion-like cycle with the recipes reflecting the mood and style of the time, so I don’t worry about them becoming “outdated”, as what was old will be new again in the future.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?

Jacob Briars

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?

Prairie School

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.

Photograph: Nick Caruana

Old Friend

Old Friend
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

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

 

 

 

Mezcal Mule
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

Photograph by Ian LauerNewark
2 oz. Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy
1 oz. Vya Sweet Vermouth
.25 oz. Fernet-Branca
.25 oz. Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
Stir with ice, then strain into a chilled coupe
No garnish

 

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.

Audrey Saunders

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!

You can order a copy of Meehan’s Bartender Manual from Cocktail Kingdom

GSN Alert: Cocktail Book Preview – Autumn 2017 (October-December)

Time for our autumnal round-up of some great new publications for the drinking enthusiast! This time around we have a selection of volumes focusing on everything from retro and platinum age cocktails to home brewing, from mixers to bitters, along with several books focused on drinking culture in specific locales.  Cheers!

Bay Area Cocktails: A History of Culture, Community and Craft (American Palate) by Shanna Farrell,  Jon Santer, Vaughan Glidden & Nando Alvarez-Perez (The History Press) An American invention, the cocktail fluctuated in popularity following Prohibition and had firmly taken root in the culinary landscape by the 1990s. The Bay Area played a significant role in reviving it–as much as New York and London. From the distillers who pioneered craft spirits and Alice Waters’ revolutionary take on simple, fresh food at Chez Panisse to the bartenders who cared enough to grow a dedicated cocktail community, this is the story of how the Bay Area shaped the art of elevated drinking in America. Through oral history interviews and recipes, author Shanna Farrell chronicles the narrative history of the modern cocktail renaissance.

New York Cocktails by Amanda Schuster (Cider Mill Press) With bars, lounges and pubs dotting almost every block in the city, the Big Apple has an unmatched and incomparable cocktail culture—and now you can travel straight to the epicenter of this trendsetting city with more than 100 creative, as well as classic, cocktail recipes. Take a virtual tour of iconic NYC establishments through breathtaking, full-color photography, scene-setting bar descriptions, and mixologist insights—and a plethora of party planning pointers, shopping tips, and must-visit hotspot suggestions make this the perfect guide to the cosmopolitan art of New York City cocktail crafting. With thirst-inducing, full-color photography throughout, and cocktails inspired by New York City movers and shakers, writers, and mixologists, New York Cocktails features unique libations shared by the best bartenders in the City That Never Sleeps, as well as signature new twists on the classics.

Road Soda: Recipes and techniques for making great cocktails, anywhere by Kara Newman (Dovetail) It’s often difficult for a cocktail enthusiast to find a decent drink on the road, especially when faced with the limited selection offered by hotel mini bars, airplane drinks carts and the great outdoors. Road Soda is the ultimate guide for on-the-go cocktail making, with tips and recipes from cocktail expert Kara Newman. Readers will learn how to become mini-bar mixologists; how to build portable cocktails in flasks, beverage cans and liquor bottles; how to make drinks for camping and tailgating, and more. Throughout the book, notable bartenders and drinks experts will offer tips for finding (and creating) the best drinking experiences no matter where readers’ travels take them.

Fever Tree: The Art of Mixing: Recipes from the world’s leading bars by Fever Tree (Mitchell Beazley) The first cocktail title to put the mixers center-stage. Rather than starting with the spirits, this book focuses on key mixers – including tonic, lemonade, ginger ale, ginger beer and cola – and provide 100 classic and contemporary cocktail recipes that make the most of the botanical partnerships. The book also explores the origins of key ingredients, including quinine, lemons and elderflower, revealing the role quinine has played in geo-politics, for example, and the impact different herbs have on taste. In the way that we increasingly want to know the source and production methods of the food we eat, so this guide allows you to understand more fully what we drink – and use that knowledge to create the most delicious cocktails.

Around the World in 80 Cocktails by Chad Parkhill & Alice Oehr (Hardie Grant) Around the World in 80 Cocktails celebrates the globetrotting history of the cocktail through eighty different iconic drinks – each of which has its own story to tell. Bartender and writer Chad Parkhill takes you on a whirlwind tour of the places that have shaped the history of the cocktail from its birth to the present day, with recipes so you can follow along at home. You’ll learn about the surprising military history behind the bubbly, vivacious Venetian Spritz; how the G&T moved from India to England (and why the best in the world are now made in Spain); and how France’s Burgundy region turned tragedy into triumph with the Kir. Accompanied by gorgeous vintage-style illustrations that evoke antique travel posters, these stories and recipes are an ode to the joys of travel, history, and drinking.

Canadian Whisky, Second Edition: The New Portable Expert by Davin de Kergommeau (Appetite by Random House) This fully updated and revised edition of the award-winning Canadian Whisky invites you on a journey across Canada and back through time to discover the story of this unique spirit. Independent whisky expert Davin de Kergommeaux weaves a compelling narrative, beginning with the substance of Canadian whisky—grains, water, and wood—and details the process of how it’s made and how to taste it. He traces the fascinating history of the country’s major distilleries and key visionaries, and introduces the present-day players—big and small—who are shaping the industry through both tradition and innovation. Newly designed, and now including a map of Canada’s whisky distilleries, over 100 up-to-date tasting notes, and a handy tasting checklist, Canadian Whisky reflects the latest research on flavour development and the science of taste. At once authoritative and captivating, this is a must-have resource for beginners, enthusiasts, and aficionados alike.

Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Book of Bitters: The bitter and twisted history of one of the cocktail world’s most fascinating ingredients by Adam Elmegirab (Dog n Bone) Bitters, those little bottles you will find in any bar worth its salt, are the unsung heroes of the cocktail world. Where would the Manhattan be without orange bitters? Cocktail historian and founder of his eponymous bitters company, Dr Adam Elmegirab presents the results of almost a decade of research into bitters, guiding you from the early days of snake-oil salesmen through to the birth of the cocktail, Prohibition, and the renaissance of bitters as an essential part of the contemporary bar scene. Adam outlines each of the key botanicals that go into different bitters and explains the science of flavor, describing how each characteristic can be deployed for maximum impact, and summarizes the key techniques for making great cocktails. Most importantly, Adam provides 50 cocktail recipes created by him and some of the world’s leading bartenders. These exceptional drinks showcase the different characteristic of bitters and how they can refine a cocktail in unique ways.

Meehan’s Bartender Manual by Jim Meehan (Ten Speed Press) Meehan’s Bartender Manual is acclaimed mixologist Jim Meehan’s magnum opus—and the first book to explain the ins and outs of the modern bar industry. This groundbreaking work chronicles Meehan’s storied career in the bar business through practical, enlightening chapters that mix history with professional insight. Meehan’s deep dive covers the essential topics, including the history of cocktails and bartending, service, hospitality, menu development, bar design, spirits production, drink mixing technique, and the tools you’ll need to create a well-stocked bar—all brought to life in over 150 black- and-white illustrations by artist Gianmarco Magnani. The book also includes recipes for 100 cocktail classics–including Meehan originals–plus insights as to why he makes them the way he does, offering unprecedented access to a top bartender’s creative process. Organized by spirit base, the recipes contain detailed annotations and are accompanied by fine art photographer Doron Gild’s breathtaking, full-color photos. Thoughtful contributions from more than 50 colleagues around the world who’ve greatly contributed to global cocktail culture further contextualize Meehan’s philosophy. Timeless black-and-white portraits of these industry experts round out this comprehensive tome. This densely informative, yet approachable manual is presented in an iconic package–featuring a textured cover with debossed type, rounded corners, and nearly 500 pages–making it an instant classic to be enjoyed now, and for years to come. Whether you’re a professional looking to take your career to the next level or an enthusiastic amateur interested in better understanding concepts like mise en place and the mechanics of drink making, Meehan’s Bartender Manual is the definitive modern guide.

Spirits and Cocktails of Upstate New York: A History by Donald Cazentre (The History Press) From the Hudson Valley to the Niagara River, Upstate New York has a long and grand history of spirits and cocktails. Early colonists distilled rum, and pioneering settlers made whiskey. In the 1800s, a fanciful story of a tavern keeper and a “cock’s tail” took root along the Niagara River, and the earliest definition of the “cocktail” appeared in a Hudson Valley paper. The area is home to its share of spirited times and liquid legends, and the recent surge in modern distilleries and cocktail bars only bolsters that tradition. Author Don Cazentre serves up these tales of Upstate New York along with more than fifty historic and modern cocktail recipes.

Straight Up: Where to drink & what to drink on every continent by Joel Harrison & Neil Ridley (Mitchell Beazley) How great would it be to have access to the world’s experts to help you choose the coolest and most interesting bars, wherever you find yourself in the world? Well, now you do. Straight Up is a carefully curated collection of insider tips that will allow you to discover the best drinking spots around the globe. From a 10-seat basement bar in Tokyo, to a glitzy rooftop palace in Toronto and a converted Ottoman bathhouse in Budapest, this book contains everything you need to drink in style, brought to you by the locals in the know. Spirits experts Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley have gathered a team of expert contributors among the world’s bartending community to nose out the most interesting and characterful experiences. Throughout the book you’ll also find features on signature cocktails, cocktail recipes, the low-down on star bartenders, and the inside track on what to drink where.

The Way of Whisky: A Journey Around Japanese Whisky by Dave Broom (Mitchell Beazley) Since 2002 (the year it appeared on export markets) Japanese whisky has been consistently winning major international spirits awards. As export production increases and export markets – the USA and France in particular – open up to embrace the quality of these fine malt whiskies, all eyes are on Japan. Award-winning author and internationally recognized whisky expert Dave Broom has visited Japan 25 times in the past 12 years, studying and learning about its whiskies. In this major new book he shares his personal journey around Japan’s whisky distilleries and the unique whisky culture of the country. Each chapter details the history of the distillery in question, its production and current whiskies (with tasting notes). Dave considers along the way why Japanese whisky is different, questions of tradition vs innovation, and how whisky links with many aspects of Japanese culture. Breathtaking photography from Kohei Take leads the reader deeper into the philosophy behind the drink, making this a must-have edition for any whisky lover, whisky drinker, whisky collector or Japanophile.

Project Extreme Brewing: An Enthusiast’s Guide to Extreme Brewing at Home by Sam Calagione, Todd Alstrom & Jason Alstrom (Quarry Books) Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, and Jason and Todd Alström, of Beer Advocate, offer an authoritative primer on extreme brewing. Project Extreme Brewing is the new required reading for any serious home brewer. Inside you’ll find the recipes for the most exciting and exotic beers around today. Recipes from breweries around the country are at your fingertips. You’ll see how brewing operations like Allagash, Lost Abbey, Shmaltz, and Beau’s All Natural make their glittering beverages. Following along is easy, even if you’re new to the home brewing scene, because all recipes come with step-by-step instructions and insider tips. Expand the definition of what great beer is. Show off to your friends and family members that you are the best source of home-brew, by learning to brew at home with the experts!

The Mezcal Experience: A Field Guide to the World’s Best Mezcals and Agave Spirits by Tom Bullock (Jacqui Small) The definitive guide to Mexico’s best kept secret; Mezcal. Unlike its infamous offspring tequila, until recently you would have had to take a trip to Mexico to try this intriguing spirit. But with ‘Mezcalerias’ popping up everywhere from New York City to London, Tokyo and beyond, and mezcal increasingly seen on the menus of the most discerning and hippest bars, the agave plant-based alcohol is the cool new drink taking the world by storm. Embark on a regional tour of Mexico and discover local mezcal gems in this illustrated guide to the best ‘mezcalerias’ (mezcal bars) in the world, then work your way through more than 30 cocktail recipes from the world’s best mezcal bartenders. From backyard heroes to big names, this is a comprehensive guide with over 100 varieties of mezcal, complete with a tasting wheel to help explain the subtleties of this intriguing drink and make you a connoisseur in no time.