Words by: Ian Cameron
Jim Meehan talks about what has made him the man he is today, what he makes of the success he's had at PDT, the implications of its imminent rent review, and what he might do next.
"I don't have a signature cocktail," laments Jim Meehan. "I'm always creating new drinks but I just don't have a signature."
Every bartender wants to be remembered through a drink. Ever since Jerry Thomas started blazing his way across America, having a signature cocktail has been the way to secure a place in the annals of bartending lore. Well, Jim may not have a signature drink, but he probably needn't worry as he is implicitly connected with the success of PDT.
If ever a bar has captured the attention - and on an international level - of the bar world, it's the not-so-secret world of New York speakeasy PDT. It repeatedly tops lists of the best bars in the world, Jim was named Tales of the Cocktail's American Bartender of the Year in 2009, and his first cocktail book has just flown off the shelves following a launch that attracted 300 of the great and the good from the bar world.
So how did it come to be? Has the bar made him rich beyond his wildest dreams? How will he top his achievements? We met Jim at PDT on a Saturday in November 2011 to ask him these questions and more.
The bar's not open during the day, so we are denied the famous entrance, via the back wall of a phone booth in the hot dog eatery next door - an approach now imitated by other bars globally and with a phone box portal even showing up at a recent film premiere after-party in London. And the service door, where the real door would be normally bar, is blocked by bikes chained to the railings outside - after all, PDT's only street presence is a bejewelled streetlight with 'Please Don't Tell' in mirrored mosaic (pictured, top). Such is the price of street anonymity - Jim drags the bikes to one side as he opens the gate, and bids me to enter. We settle into one of PDT's three booths.
His career path began in the bars of the American Midwest. He grew up among what local boy and legendary drinker Ernest Hemingway described as the "broad lawns and narrow minds" of Oak Park and River Forest, Illinois, both affluent suburbs of Chicago, before moving the short distance to Madison, Wisconsin to study. Originally intending to become a doctor, organic chemistry and calculus "crushed him" and he dropped out of his pre-med studies to focus on English Literature and African American Studies.
It was in Madison, in the mid 90s, that he took his first hospitality job. It was in State Street Brats, a sports bar where he started as a bouncer, then worked as a cook, bar-back and finally bartender, specialising in 16oz serves of light beer and Dayglo shots. From there he moved to the relative maturity of Madison's Paul's Club, serving microbrewed beers, G&Ts and Manhattans; and then to Cafe Montmartre, which gave him an introduction to jazz and fresh juices in mixed drinks - "It was super-progressive, we were serving Margaritas with 100 per cent agave way before anyone else was." There were also positions in a brew pub, and a more fine dining angle.
What started as a way to earn cash while studying had quickly become a way of life. "By the time I was 22 I realised I loved what I did, I was good at it and I was making good money. More than that I realised I was part of my regulars' lives - I knew about their births and deaths. I knew being a bartender didn't have the prestige of a lawyer but I knew I would rather do it than do something to impress other people."
Career aspirations now solid in his mind, after college came the almost inevitable move to New York. This was in August 2002. He scored a shift at Five Points restaurant in Lower Manhattan on the advice of his brother, who worked at the restaurant's PR firm. "The owner had not told anyone I was coming, so I spent my first shift as a waiter, even though I had seven years experience behind the bar. My brother suggested I learn about wine, so I read all the books I could and effectively became a sommelier behind the bar."
If he had cut his teeth - and had them knocked out on occasion - as a bouncer and bartender in the college bars of Madison, the early Noughties were his formative years as a cocktail bartender. By now he had already visited Sasha Petraske's Milk & Honey, and this world of classicism was juxtaposed with the innovative mixology of Eben Freeman at WD50, which was just round the corner from where Jim lived.
Coupled with his new-found interest in wine, the stage was set for Jim's future career. The first act, in 2004, was at Pace, an Italian concept where Jim became assistant wine director and bar manager. While the project was short-lived, he used it to his advantage and it was here that he met perhaps the most important influence yet in his bartending career.
His friend Rob Wiley had started writing the Food & Wine Cocktail Book, and through that had come into contact with the leading mixologists of the day. "I had been reading in the press that Audrey Saunders was opening a new bar [Pegu Club]. I had read about her work at Blackbird and Bemelmans and I asked Rob to invite Audrey to come over.
"I Googled her, so I knew how to recognise her from her giant glasses and blond hair. I made her all my drinks and I'd even printed out my recipes for her. But it wasn't until I met her again at Bemelman's bar that I asked her for a job." At the same time, Jim had been shortlisted for a job at the prestigious Gramercy Tavern, securing a position after a mammoth six-hour interview. Contriving a way to work at the Tavern and the Club, he called Audrey up: "I really want to work with you, but can I work for you one day a week?" he asked. Lucky for him, she said yes.
"Gramercy never allowed me to work less than full time, but I got to open Pegu Club as a one-day-a-week bartender. I'd also taken over editing the Food & Wine Cocktail Book, so I was working 80-90 hour weeks, and I did that for about two-and-a-half years. Gramercy turned out to be an amazing job. It was the type of place where if someone lights the tablecloth on fire you calmly put the fire out and replace the table cloth. If someone behaves badly at PDT, I lead them out by the nose - my patience for discourteous patrons has definitely waned over the years.
"And Pegu was the most inspirational place to work. I used to work Mondays or Tuesdays and I got to meet everybody in the business. Audrey was there all the time at that point. But because I only worked one day a week, I could never cover my co-workers. At the same time, I was pushing the Gramercy Tavern to make cocktails like we did at Pegu, but I managed to alienate colleagues with my zeal."
Jim ended up getting fired from the Tavern, after Jim corrected a young bartender's use of Peychaud's bitters rather than Angostura. He was told he was unprofessional and didn't respect his co-workers. "It was not true, but I had over-communicated and was over-delivering. In retrospect, getting fired probably did me more favours than anything else."
At Pegu, he was getting offered a consulting job "every other week" and it was one of these that he could now concentrate on. Brian Shebairo, the owner of weiner eatery Crif Dogs in the Lower East Side, had taken possession of the failing tea lounge next door and decked it out with taxidermy and a 1930s phone booth to serve as a covert entrance. Having first met Jim at Five Points, he now contracted him to come in and run the bar. If meeting Audrey had been a central turning point in his career, PDT's opening date - May 25, 2007 - is now etched on Jim's brain as a life-changer.
"I opened PDT as a consultant," he says, "though now I have shares. I originally had mixed expectations for the place. Death & Co was a couple of streets away but St Mark's Place had a sordid history and the thought that you could open a fine drinking establishment there was the furthest thing from my head. I staffed the place with role players - unassuming and capable bartenders but not big names. We didn't have a publicist. Somehow it took off. By August I was working there full time, and I left Pegu. In fact, I was the last opening bartender to leave Pegu."
With the benefit of hindsight, Jim can see that the contradiction between PDT's locale and its drinks has been one of the defining factors of its success. "PDT is based on the tension between being a formal bar in a historically bohemian neighbourhood. The juxtaposition of sophisticated cocktails served alongside plastic plates of deep fried tater tots is one example of how the concept works. There's a ying and a yang to our operation and without it, the conceit collapses."
PDT's enduring success - particularly so given the faddish and fashion-driven bar world - has given Jim a profound psychological insight into the workings not just of drinks, but of people.
"One of the things I've learned here is that the employees I might have wanted to replace were actually the ones that gave people the best nights out, that the way I see the bar and the way customers see the bar are far apart. As a result I feel like I've become more of a human being. Where it has become so successful is that I've stopped worrying about drinks and started worrying about people.
"The drinks have always been good, but now I know that getting a drinks programme together and nailing the technical things is relatively easy. Finding young, geeky bartenders is easier than getting them to treat each other well and customers well. Mixing people is a lot harder than mixing drinks."
His award at Tales in 2009 prompted him to come away from behind the bar. "I thought I could continue to try and prove myself as a bartender or I can stop and learn other skills and management skills. It's those I've really tried to hone since then. I used to focus on the trees, now I focus on the forest. So although I'm here every night, and maybe two or three times a day, I've only worked three shifts behind the bar in the last two years."
After four-and-a-half years, 2012 may herald some big changes for the bar. PDT faces a rent review and Jim is acutely aware that that could be potentially disastrous commercially. "If our landlord doubled the rent we are going to close," he says, matter of fact.
In reality, he's hopeful that won't be the case. "I'm not ready to see this thing go down. We've been working with our landlord for months to figure out a way to ensure we can keep the bar open with a reasonable rent or him as our partner, and the chances that we'll be forced out of business are quite low in my estimation.
"I suppose the most important point is that after building a successful business over the last 5 years for PDT and 10 years for Crif, our reward will most definitely be less favourable terms to do business. It's one of the conundrums all renters face in New York. If I do something similar again I'm not doing it in a building where I don't own the space - we're all in the real estate business whether we want to be or not."
Remain open or close, Jim is still only 35, and of course has other options. Turning PDT into a chain is a no-goer. "Maybe it's because I'm not a great businessman but I would not enjoy running 3-5 bars. I would not know what was going on. I am a bit of a control freak - I'm not the easiest person to work with or for, though I've learned to tread a little more lightly as I get older to minimize collateral damage. Part of the way I look at PDT is that it's damage control, me being here every day."
Turning it into a franchise is equally a non-starter. "I'm not confident PDT would work in a strip mall or airport." That's pretty much the understatement of the century. No, mimicking the success of PDT would serve only to dilute the power of the original concept, so what he's interested in is pursuing something completely different. Probably more consultancies, and also a return to his former love.
"The green grass on the other side is the restaurant business I left in order to focus on this little cocktail lounge. I miss serving wine, a variety of beers and pairing food and beverages. I miss working with a great chef and as I get older, I miss the hours: I used to get home at 1:30am or 2 and now we're open till 3am or 4 almost every night."
Late nights don't help family life and Jim says that in addition to PDT's lease being up for renewal, his own "existential lease" with New York is approaching review as well. "I've been here nearly 10 years and the cost of raising a family, the focus required to operate here and the increasing demands on my time at all hours of every day, no matter where I'm at in the world, make it challenging to be a well-rounded person, let alone a family man."
Jim is not so big-headed to think that PDT couldn't function without him. In fact, the ultimate success of the PDT collaborative culture he has worked hard to embed will be in whether he has produced someone who will take the reins at some point. "I've spent the last five years creating a culture at PDT that is bigger than me at this point, but it would be egotistical and short-sighted to think that the show couldn't go on without me. It would be different, but I've been developing leaders and one day, hopefully when I'm ready, they will take the reins and my role will evolve."
Behind the scenes, he's already been cleverly engineering his own future. He's a 'senior advisor' to Banks rum, a share owner and effectively its brand ambassador, working on everything from the liquid itself to marketing and sales strategy, not to mention having created almost all of its signature drinks, "although my primary interest is in participating in the executive branch of the company. I hope our rum will help shake up the white rum segment and tilt the pendulum away from bland bottlings into more flavourful styles."
In the meantime, Jim's effort's to define the current cocktail age is manifested through the pages of the PDT Cocktail Book. It is a thing of beauty, the recipes bridging classic and lost recipes with 21st century ingredients and techniques, illustrated with original and striking graphic images. The first 10,000-strong print run flew off the shelves. Amazon's all out until 2012 - but you can find it on other suppliers' websites and it's being advertised for up to $133 second hand: it's undoubtedly already a collectible, modern classic cocktail book. Moreover, it's probably the only book you'll see out of Jim for a while, as it's taken a lot out of him. "Holy shit, a book is a lot of work - that took two years! At this stage it's a one-off. They are not going to let me add 100 more pages of recipes anyway. Maybe in ten years I'll look at writing Meehan's Manual - after all, we pulled a lot punches in the book: we didn't say what you shouldn't do, it's all about what you should do."
In Jim's mind, however, is a recognition that whatever the sophistication of bartending talent is now, it will probably be as nothing compared to what we are drinking in 20 years time. "The bartender today needs to know the Corpse Reviver and Monkey Gland, but in 20 years we'll probably look back in the same disdain that we currently look back at the 1980s. Perhaps we should all examine what happened 20 years before us, and try to figure out why it happened instead of just writing it off.
"By all accounts, things in 1982 were rather bleak behind the bar given our current standards. The only way to stop history from repeating itself is to educate and inform each other. Cocktail trends are like fashion: they repeat themselves, but certain fashions need not be repeated."
The pages of the PDT Cocktail Book are also revealing in that it's not only his name that you see appended to most of the recipes: just as frequently are the names of his staff, indicative of a collaborative, sharing culture that's led from the top. In itself, this marks him as an original and influential contemporary cocktailian, and we can be in little doubt that his contribution to the world of mixology will be held in high esteem for years to come.
As he says of the bar himself: "This is me: my taste in music, my drinks and my values on display." In short, PDT is Jim Meehan; Jim Meehan is PDT. No signature cocktail? No worries.