A lot of great bartenders work in New York City, and some of them even own establishments, but Jim Meehan has managed to distinguish himself beyond the bar. The PDT owner is also a consultant and frequent contributor to publications like Food & Wine and Sommelier Journal. Meehan’s the 2007 StarChefs.com rising star mixologist and 2009 Tales of the Cocktail American Bartender of the Year. On January 23, he was at The Spare Room in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to promote The PDT Cocktail Book, which Sterling Epicure published last November. We spoke by phone earlier that day, traded e-mails afterwards, and Meehan shared several spirited insights.
What’s your first cocktail memory, good or bad?
Growing up my parents drank wine and beer, they didn’t drink cocktails in the house. I don’t have vivid memories of cocktails except for bowling alleys, nowhere fancy. I saw cocktails in TV and movies, but it never really resonated until I went college. A friend of mine named Andre Wright worked in a bar, and I saw what he was doing. I worked at a bar called State Street Brats, as a doorman and line cook, and worked my way up to being a bartender. Wisconsin’s one of the places where you can work in a bar when you’re 18 years old. It was cool to work in bars before I was old enough to drink.
I made all sorts of drinks in college ranging from simple classics like the Gimlet to more involved shooters like The Cement Mixer. The first cocktail that really changed my perspective was the Gold Rush cocktail, served at Milk & Honey in 2003. I thought, wow, this is a cocktail!
Was it a given that you’d work with cocktails and spirits for a living, or did you consider other careers?
No, I was supposed to be a doctor. I found this little book I wrote in third grade, that said I wanted to be a doctor. Wisconsin didn’t have pre-med, so I took chem. With chem majors, math majors, etc. Freshman year, I really got crushed. I didn’t really understand math and science. I was planning to be an English major anyway. At the bar, I helped and served people. It wasn’t triage, but I was actively engaged in the lives of my customers. I was there when they graduated, or got engaged or were with a girl. I always thought when growing up, being a doctor, I wanted a noble job – doctor, lawyer, Indian chief – but I sort of realized doctors had so many patients, they spent little time with them, and it was nurses who spent time with patients, so the modern hospital system didn’t allow doctors to be active in patients’ lives.
I moved from State Street Brats to Paul’s Club. I was making good money, loved the physical nature of the job, working with people, making drinks, I just loved it…I tried to find a connection between what you studied and did for a career. Most of my friends’ parents didn’t study what they ended up doing. I decided when I was very young that work didn’t need to be something you did because you had to. At that time, it was not a popular decision to say you wanted to be in the restaurant business. This is pre Food Network, post Julia Child and Jeff Smith. Food Network, not always in the most tasteful ways, has really elevated cooking and working in the service industry – this was a coup for some people – they did not see this decision coming. There have been times at PDT where I’ve had four to five Ivy League people working for me. It’s a different game now.
What do you want people to know you for as a bartender?
I guess the multi-part, complicated, but also most true answer to that question – and it’s perhaps ironic – I’m not just a bartender. Two years ago I pulled myself off the bar at PDT for a lot of reasons. I worked the bar 15 years and wanted to focus on being a better manager, my book, my iPad app Speakeasy Cocktails: Learn From the Modern Mixologists, expand my role at Food & Wine and continue writing for Sommelier Journal. I would like to be known as someone with multiple talents. Part of how I think our industry will evolve is to have masterful technicians in their field of interest, such as Julio Bermejo is with tequila or Ron Cooper with mezcal. Or Murray Stensons, who are like marathoners. I’m really trying to show this industry has opportunities for people with so many different skill sets. There might be people who aren’t great bartenders who still have skills to help grow our platform.
As a bartender, I always worked with very, very talented people. Like at Paul’s Club, where I was for four and a half years, I worked with a bartender named Brian Bartels, who’s now a partner at Fedora in the West Village. He was Batman, and I was Robin. At Five Points, Zoe Sonnenberg was the main attraction. When I worked at Pace, I worked with a talented bartender named Gabriel Stulman, who’s opened 5 restaurants in the last six years. At Pegu Club, I worked one night a week, Brian Miller and Phil Ward were the main attractions there. People probably think of me as the featured act or the one that people pay the most attention to – and that’s perhaps true – but I’ve always been a role player. That’s always been my M.O., to take different roles to complement the personalities and skill sets in play.
What does a cocktail have to be if it’s going to appear at PDT?
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