Jim Meehan is a bartender, educator, writer and owner of the award-winning PDT in New York. Here he shares his thoughts on drinks trends, what makes a good bar and why imitation is the greatest form of flattery.
How has the bar scene changed in the past ten years, in the US and globally?
In 2003, a mixed drink was called a Martini in most parts of the United States. It was served in a 7 oz. (or larger) stemmed cone, and almost always contained vodka and some form of fruit juice: typically thawed from a concentrate. Most guests would compare a great bartender to Tom Cruise in the movie Cocktail, and tending bar was rarely the bartender’s primary professional focus. In 2013, a mixed drink is called a cocktail. Most are served in b cup sized coupes, and while vodka remains the most popular spirit in the world, you’re just as likely to have gin in yours, with fresh squeezed or extracted fruit juice. Jerry Thomas is the new Tom Cruise, and your favourite watering hole probably resembles a scene from Boardwalk Empire. Many of your favourite bartenders went to college and chose to be a bartender because they enjoy the work.
In 2003, if you wanted to know what was going on in the industry globally, you probably relied on international newspapers and national food magazines, which reported on cocktails three or four times a year (as opposed to weekly now). If you were lucky, you may have been aware of Internet chat sites such as DrinkBoy or eGullet). If you were really, really, really lucky, Phil Duff, Angus Winchester or Dale DeGroff visited your bar, and you could ask them! The Craft of the Cocktail, Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, and the Joy of Mixology were your reference sources. There was a dearth of up-to-date information about spirits production, save books by Dave Broom, Michael Jackson, and Stuart Walton.
Nowadays, smartphone enabled devices equipped with high-definition cameras, wireless Internet, and Apps that allow you to access YouTube, Facebook, and dozens of websites that allow bartenders to communicate in real time. Media outlets of all types are covering cocktails, and we are flooded with information about new products, competitions, trade gatherings, tastings, seminars and opportunities to imbibe. The Internet has transformed our world, leaving much more information for consumers and the trade to sift through.
What trends are coming through in terms of the way people drink and what bartenders are offering?
This is tough to answer from a global perspective, as what’s going on in Tokyo is not the same as London, New York, or Sydney. Speaking for New York, guests at bars such as PDT have become incredibly knowledgable about cocktails: either from making them at home or spending a significant amount of time with their favourite bartenders. While the bartender’s choice is alive and well, many guests now order what they want: how they want it. As far as bartender’s interests: housemade everything lives on. Today’s young bartenders are obsessed with process, just like chefs, and pride themselves on their ability to not only create cocktails, but the ingredients combined to fashion them.
Why do you think PDT has been so successful?
I believe our success to be a confluence of great timing, dynamic staffing, and goodwill from mentors and colleagues in the industry. The global financial crisis drove diners and drinkers from opulent, high-end hotels and clubs to more discreet concepts such as PDT. We were far from the first ‘speakeasy’, but became a tipping point for the concept, which was reported upon all over the world. In the six years since we opened, I’ve had the luxury of leading one of the greatest collections of talent and character (my staff) I’ve ever encountered. Lastly, mentors and colleagues of mine from all over the world were kind enough to visit the bar and recommend it to others.
How does it make you feel when you see your many imitators in the US and globally?
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s nice when those who are inspired by what we do follow our lead and give us credit, but at the end of the day, if you sit around waiting for people to pat you on the back, you’ll probably end up lonely and disappointed.
What’s the best thing about being a bartender/owner in 2013?
I’m not the first person to say it, but I believe there’s never been a better time to drink in history. The craft wine, beer and spirits industry have all hit their stride, and the public’s appetite to taste new and interesting products has never been greater. In addition to the bounty of ingredients to work with, more and more bartenders are being incorporated into management as mixology is integrated into the culinary arts. The good fortune trickles down in many ways including greater profitability: music to investor’s ears.
Who should we be watching in the bartending world and why?
1. Jack McGarry is a prodigy unlike any other I’ve seen. I met him years ago, and have followed his career from Belfast to London to New York. He and his mentor, Sean Muldoon, are doing amazing work at the Dead Rabbit, New York.
2. Ryan Chetiyawardana is one of the smartest, most charismatic bartenders I’ve ever met, and I’m intrigued to see how he puts his talents to use following his work at Purl and Worship Street Whistling Shop.
3. Hidetsugu Ueno is one of the hardest working professionals in our industry. His efforts to educate bartenders about Japanese philosophy has changed the way many of us approach the craft, shedding light upon a wonderful, but insular culture.
If you hadn’t made it as a bartender, what do you think you’d be doing now?
I wanted to be a doctor, but my misunderstanding of calculus and chemistry stood in the way. Besides enjoying the work, bartending provides an opportunity to serve people like doctors do. Other than medicine, and the far-fetched possibility of becoming a professional basketball player, the bar business is all I’ve ever wanted. Steve Olson, a friend and mentor, often describes bartenders as having “a sick need to make people happy”. I suppose if bartending didn’t work out, I’d look for something that allowed me the opportunity to have a positive influence on other’s lives. Thankfully, great bartenders come in all shapes, sizes, and intellects.
If you were writing the manual on what makes a good bar what would be the top three things on your list?
People: a great bar requires the shared vision of staff, ownership, and guests.
Design: form follows function.
Location: whether isolated, or in the midst of hustle and bustle: great bars embody their surroundings.
You can find Jim Meehan at PDT, 113 St. Mark’s Place, New York, NY 10019. Follow Jim at Twitter.com/mixography
Photographs by Minnow Park and Jonathan Mannion.
From issue 8 of The Cocktail Lovers magazine