14:47 GMT // 19 Nov 2013
As the owner of New York's most famous modern speakeasy, when PDT's Jim Meehan talks, the industry listens. So when he flew to London to judge Beefeater 24's Global Bartender Competition we couldn't miss the chance to grill him on how he sees the New York bar scene.
"The arrival of The Dead Rabbit in New York changed everything," says Jim Meehan, referring to the bar in the Financial District that has been open for less than a year but already scooped multiple accolades.
Having been part of the New York bartending scene for over a decade, Jim's seen many a venue and trend come and go. But the change instigated by The Dead Rabbit is not based around the bar's concept, menu or even location. No, the city is abuzz about this latest opening because of the way it, and similarly the arrival of ECC Lower East Side, has suddenly internationalised the scene.
"London and New York are both of course international cities but only London has been home to great international bartenders. In New York there were essentially four people who all the openings were stemming from: Audrey Saunders, Sasha Petraske, Julie Reiner and Dushan Zaric. The Dead Rabbit changed that.
"For years we've had young foreign bartenders coming over, like Sam Ross and Naren Young, but what's changed is people arriving when they are already at the top of their game. It adds diversity: when all the bars come from the same group it limits how far you can go."
Further evidence of the trend has seen Australian Linden Pride at Saxon + Parole, Bostonian ex-pat Londoner Brian Silva, currently back in the Big Apple consulting for Keith McNally. But does this influx actually influence existing venues?
Yes, says Jim. Bringing with them trends and techniques from other markets they push the city along, give New Yorkers novel ideas to work with and to launch from. "We're not plagiarists by any means," he says. "But when you have so many great operators to look at, it's certainly inspiring. It's also creating employment for up-and-coming bartenders. When I moved here in 2002 there weren't a lot of options to learn from established people. Now, ten years later, there are plenty of bars that I would recommend a new bartender to try."
"Brooklyn is now far cooler than Manhattan," says Jim, confirming the area is no longer the alternative kid-sister to Manhattan, but an entity in its own right. Previously eclipsed by being located next door to the iconic skyscrapers of Manhattan, this city of 3 million in its own right is now standing tall.
"I moved to New York 12 years ago but if I were to move here now I would move to Brooklyn. And that's where young people are going, not because it's cheaper but because that's where their friends are. Brooklyn is a destination, it's definitely cooler than Manhattan, although I hasten to add it's not yet better."
And in a reversal of the traditional "bridge and tunnel" crowd Manhattan is famous for attracting, island dwellers are now making the journey to Williamsburg, Red Hook, Carroll Gardens and Park Slope to socialise.
"Speakeasies are over," says the owner of one of the most famous hidden bars in the world. To be fair, Jim has always had an uneasy relationship with the concept of 'speakeasy'. His bar has a novel entrance, but it's presence is an open secret - a far cry from the legitimate speakeasies of Prohibition. Nevertheless he knows his bar, reached through a phone box in Crif Dogs on St. Mark's Place, will forever be associated with the concept. "When you say speakeasy the next three letters out of anyone's mouth tends to be PDT."
So why is one of the leading fashions in new bars over? "Sasha moving Milk [& Honey] was the end of an era. People don't want small secretive venues any more. They want to be less formal, less about the gimmicks and more about good drinks and a good time."
And what does this mean for existing 'speakeasies'? Places like PDT won't be vanishing, but don't expect too many more to be popping up. Instead, the latest venues causing a stir in the city, such as Pouring Ribbons and The Dead Rabbit, are accessible and open. Just as cocktails have become simplified and taken a back-to-basics route, so will bars.
"Just because it's local doesn't mean it's any good," warns Jim. He's talking about the wider trend to insist on locally made produce, away from big brands. The problem is, what was once regarded as 'local' has been progressively 'upgraded', with consumers insisting on smaller and smaller radiuses for what they consider local.
As far as spirits are concerned, that means familiar, large volume brands are regarded as passe whereas something craft made down the street is regarded as inherently 'good', regardless of quality.
"We've lost track of the benchmark. People think big brands are bad just because they're big, and whilst that can sometimes be true, the majority of the time they provide a benchmark of quality.
"I taste some of these craft products and they just don't measure up to benchmark. Do the producers not know what a decent spirit is or do they just expect customers to buy it because of the packaging and bottle? When starting a business I would say to myself what is the competition and how can I match up to that?"
One size of bartender personality does not fit all, says Jim. Or, rather two - Jim sees young bartenders mimicking two distinct - and polar opposite - styles of bartending talent.
On one hand, he cites the ultra-theatrical, precise style of bartending, full of deliberate flourishes, manifested by someone like Nightjar's Marian Beke. At the other is the larger-than-life, charismatic, life-and-soul character of a bartender like Portobello Star's Jake Burger.
But, complains Jim, there's little in between. Instead, he argues, young bartenders need to find their own way to work and for their own personality to shine through from behind the bar.
"Marian is one of the most beautiful bartenders to watch while Jake is the life of the party but it's not fair to measure yourself against these people or try to mimic their skill set. Bartenders need to develop a better sense of self and stop trying to mimic people who are so particular in their style."
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