Catching Up with Jim Meehan, Spiritual Leader of American Cocktail Culture

Jim Meehan at his Jan. 7 seminar and book signing inside Vancouver’s Royal Dinette. | Photo: Talia Kleinplatz

As any seasoned bartender will tell you, it takes stamina to do the job and do it well.  Bar operator Jim Meehan has been in the game for over 20 years. He has run a James Beard Award-winning bar (New York’s PDT in the East Village), authored two books, consulted on dozens of projects, recently opened a second bar in Chicago, and is now in the process of opening a PDT outpost at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong. While his address may have changed with his move from New York to Portland, Oregon in 2014, Jim continues to travel from coast to coast, consulting on new projects, promoting his new book and educating a new generation of bartenders. In collaboration with World Class Canada and local bitters company Bittered Sling, Jim recently paid a visit to Vancouver to promote his new book, Meehan’s Bartender Manual.

In ten words or less, describe Meehan’s Bartender Manual.

My midlife crisis.

Why this book and why now?

See above. In all seriousness, I’ve never written an employee manual for any of the bars I operate and after eating and drinking all over the world- and comparing it to eating and drinking in my own bars – I realized that there were a number of practices like making eye contact when you greet someone or say goodnight – all bartenders should know, be familiar with and follow; but I’ve never seen many of them in print: much less in the same place. This book memorializes sources and methods in an attempt to establish universal service standards and promote dialogue about the philosophies behind them.

From the photography to the sketches to the copy, the making of this book seems to have been a labour of love. What was the process of putting it together like for you?

I think the interesting thing about this book versus the last book is that The Savoy Cocktail Book was such and direct and focal inspiration for the PDT Cocktail Book. You could pretty much put that up on the whiteboard and say that I love this book and these are the small things that I’m going to change but retain the spirit of it. It was a house cocktail book in the line of The Savoy. We had this guiding light that always kept us on track as far as the format of the book; whereas the second book was an amalgam of a few different books. It was equal parts Harry Johnson’s Bartender’s Manual and Charles Mahoney’s Hoffman House Bartender’s Guide with a good amount of Grossman’s Bar Guide which is more a wine and spirits encyclopedia which focuses a lot on production methods and is expansive in its coverage of all wine and spirits. The last book that plays a role is Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table. I felt like there was a lot of room to add to the service and hospitality guide within the bar book genre. To take three books and try to put them into one- there really was no roadmap the way there was for the first one. That was the biggest challenge. This is a new book. It didn’t have a road map.

And then the second is that for my first book I partnered with Chris Gull and our publisher was really great in the sense that they mapped the book out. It was as much an art project as it was something I authored and wrote. The material in that book was really collated and put into a form. A lot of it wasn’t new material perse. Whereas this book I had to write. It wasn’t something I had repurposed from previous work. I think that was the biggest challenge. When I went to 10 Speed Press and brought them a pile of 1950’s car manuals from Vespa, muscle car iconography, and works of great graphic and symbol designers as inspiration for how I wanted this book to look, how I wanted it to feel, in a very traditional way, they were inflexible. There was no map for this book. They told me to write a manuscript and they’d make it into a book. So I definitely realized in this process that I think very visually. I’m not an artist so my process was really going to work with photographer Doron Gild and artist Gianmarco Magnani on the art first. The art was really the first step. Then I wrote the book based on the art that I commissioned. So it was interesting. Probably looking back, it would have been easier to commission the art after I wrote the book but the art was the most expensive part of this process. I wanted to get what I couldn’t control out of the way so that all that was left was what I had to do myself.

This book features quotes collected during interviews with bar legends, distillers, mentors and colleagues. Was there an interview that most surprised you?

The interviews took a year and were anywhere from 90 to 150 minutes so I had hundreds of hours of these brilliant interviews. I realized that I was in danger of compiling and editing my own book instead of writing my own book. I’m sure it was probably a big surprise for some of the people I interviewed when their two hour interview turned into one sentence. No one has called me out on it. But I realized I needed to lean on these interviews and lean on what I gleaned from them. I needed them to either supplement, complement, contrast or enhance what I was writing. So that’s what I tried to do. I tried to pick quotes that really epitomized these people based on my relationship with them and that really showed them in a great light. But the quotes that I chose from them were more impactful than they would be coming from me even though I either believed or even didn’t believe in what they were saying but felt it was important to add.

I’m friends or colleagues with all of these people…and some of them I quite close with. I found that when you’re friends or colleagues with certain people there can be questions that are a little bit too much tradecraft to talk about. There’s a pride that forces you not to ask some questions which you maybe really want to know. So under the guise of journalism, I got to ask questions of my friends and colleagues that, for whatever reason, didn’t feel natural asking them before. The way in which people opened up to me was amazing. I learned a lot from all of them.

Any lessons you took away from writing your second book?

Like children, they’re all different. I learned a lot from my first agent William Clark, my partner (illustrator) Chris Gall, and the team that shepherded me through my first book at Sterling Books, and built upon that foundation with the team at Ten Speed. The cocktail book and media landscape have changed dramatically since my first book was published in 2011, when I wasn’t on social media to promote my book. My second book reinforced my findings from my first: that books are a team effort with your colleagues, family, agent, editors, designers, artists and the publicity, sales and marketing teams. Each stakeholder is vital to the success of the project, so making time to find out what each expects and delivering is key. When expectations diverge, diplomacy is essential.

Stacked copies of Meehan’s Bartender Manual | Photo: Talia Kleinplatz

Was there anything you wanted in the book that didn’t make the cut?

My editor, Emily Timberlake – whose participation was one of the main reasons I chose Ten Speed – cut 25,000 words from the chapters I turned in! Had my agent – Kim Witherspoon – not brought in her colleague William Callahan to mop up all the red ink, I’m not sure how I would have finished the project. With that said, the book is better because of Emily (and Kim)’s judgement and I feel grateful that Ten Speed published 100,000 words when I was only supposed to turn in 70,000 words.

Any particular albums or types of music you listen to while writing? Tragically, I need complete silence to write. When I’m not writing, I listen to Radiohead (every single day) bolstered by a whole lot of Dead Meadow, LCD Soundsystem and Kendrick Lamar this year. I just discovered Pile, Colleen and Wand in a few “Best of 2017” lists, which will carry me through the beginning of 2018.

As a Chicago native, what was it like to return to the city to open Prairie School?

I couldn’t dream of a better homecoming. I’m so proud of what we’ve done – and are doing every day – on Morgan Street. My brother Dan has two young sons, so it’s great to have an excuse to return to Chicago more frequently.

Prairie School Bar, Chicago, IL | Photo: Anthony Tahlier

Designing a bar inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright seems like it would be an intimidating task. How did you go about pulling this inspiration into the bar design and the menu?

Choose great partners (Matt Eisler and Kevin Heisner of Heisler Hospitality) and let them do their thing (scout the perfect location, design and build a gorgeous space, attract great people to work with) and then do my thing: “mixography”, as I call my company. I use history, zeitgeist, graphic and interior design, my writing, and cocktails themselves to tell stories that resonate within a place and time. Having grown up across the fence from a Frank Lloyd Wright home in River Forest, this concept helps tell my story too!

In 2016, you famously talked about some of the things that make you uncomfortable in the bartending world, including sexual harassment and gender inequality. How do you envision these issues changing in the coming years?

I think the #MeToo movement in the US is really helping. While what Donald Trump and the Republicans are doing is incredibly hurtful to our society and the world at large, it’s forcing people to become more political. It’s forcing people to become more aware. And it’s forcing misogyny and irresponsible behaviour to be brought out into the forefront. I think that we’ll continue to have a reckoning in our society and in our bar culture at large. I think that the victims need to feel empowered to come forth and they need to be protected. One of the accusers of Roy Moore – the notorious senate candidate in Alabama – the woman’s house was just burnt down. I feel like we need to continue to support the victims and create an environment where people feel comfortable coming out. We need to begin to root out these people that are serial harassers. I also think that in 2018 and 2019 we need to make alcohol abuse a front-and-center issue. I think that sexual harassment and some of these other problems can be a byproduct of alcohol abuse, drunkenness and intoxication. We need to stop celebrating shots and bone luges and gross intoxication. We need to actually start supporting and promoting moderation with drinks. If we can get our industry to sober up just a little – not to stop drinking but not celebrate intoxication – these issues may never go away but they’ll be mitigated by it. When people have their wits with them, they tend to say less salubrious, offensive things because they know better.

While I’d love to remain focused on the finer points of the craft, that’s a luxury I can’t afford right now while our civilization rots. Silence – in the form of acquiescence or disinterest – is unacceptable.

What are the things you miss most about New York?

The people (my friends, family, colleagues) mentality (driven, open-minded, inquisitive) places (restaurant, bars, shops, parks, museums, views) and business opportunities (global media, real estate and finance capital).

What are the things you love most about living on the West Coast?

I love the landscape. I love the environmental commitments. I love the food and beverage per capita- it plays a larger role and brings larger value to people’s lives. I do feel three-plus years into it that I am a worker bee and so it’s hard to a worker bee in a hive filled with non-worker bees. People work to live on the west coast and I live to work and always will. I feel like an outsider on the west coast but I also think that’s more healthy for me. On the east coast I was too much a pee in a pod. The west coast forced me to attempt to achieve balance and no one was forcing me to achieve any semblance of balance on the east coast.

PDT Hong Kong coming in 2018. Anything you can tell us about the project?

We’re going to take the formula from St. Mark Place- a hidden bar with an unmarked phone booth entrance leading to a dimly lit lounge decorated with taxidermy where chef-curated hot dogs and mixology minded cocktails are served in an unpretentious, accessible manner- on the road. It works, so we’re just going to continue refining it with new staff and a much nicer bar thanks to architect Nelson Chow and the discerning oversight of Mandarin Oriental Hotels.

How was Hong Kong chosen as the spot for the first outpost of PDT New York?

We’re opening in the same space we did a PDT pop up in in January of 2016. We couldn’t be more excited to partner with Chef Richard Ekkebus and his brilliant team at the Landark Mandarin Oriental Hotel to take PDT to the next level in Hong Kong. Longtime PDT colleagues Malaika Suarez and Adam Schmidt departed a couple months ago to lay the groundwork for Jeff Bell GM (and partner in Hong Kong) and I to go open it February 1st. They’ll be staying on as manager/head bartender respectively, and we’re excited to support them in their new roles.

Bartending and the craft cocktail scene has changed significantly since you first started in the industry. What do you see as the most positive change? What change would you still like to see?

I feel like the quality of the people that are attracted to this work has gone way up. I think people are choosing to be bartenders instead of falling into it. I think the type of person that gravitates towards this work is a nice person. They’re parents love them. They went to college. Some of them take care of themselves and practice a healthy lifestyle. I no longer feel like I’m surrounded by misfits. I mean, I love being surrounded by misfits. Misfits are interesting. On the flip side, that’s the problem. Now that I’m surrounded by non-misfits, it’s getting a little boring. Misfits are sort of funky. They have other interests in life. So I think where we now need to work is to take these very earnest, interested, sponge-like people and encourage them to develop other interest, become well-rounded people. Along those lines, as the culture advances, you like to see older bartenders. I still think there’s way more roles in the industry that are pulling people out from behind the bars so as our culture matures, our bartenders aren’t maturing. They remain young. I’d like to see the actual bartending and bar operations mature. I’d like to see older bartenders and I’d like to see bars last for more than 10 years. I’d like to see the media’s interest in them last for more than one year.

 

How does the role of the bar and the bartender within society change in more challenging political climates?

If your bar is on fire, do you continue pontificating about orange bitters, hospitality and whisky age statements, or do you start ushering people out of the bar? We’ve been very fortunate to have a relatively stable democracy during my tenure as a bartender; I don’t think we have that right now. While I’d love to remain focused on the finer points of the craft, that’s a luxury I can’t afford right now while our civilization rots. Silence – in the form of acquiescence or disinterest – is unacceptable… now’s not the time to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Current shoe of choice? Viberg boots. I’m meeting up with Brett Viberg while I’m here in Vancouver!

Current watch of choice? Rolex Submariner Date.

A current cocktail trend you’d like to see die? The notion that there are good or bad trends… the drinks business is very similar to the fashion business and trends are a lot like couture: most of it is really garish, but it serves a purpose. We all – trendsetters and traditionalists – serve a purpose in this industry, so I think everyone should stay in their lane and stop worrying about what everyone else is doing… especially people in other lanes!

Any favourite spots you like to hit up when you come to Vancouver? I’m only here for 48 hours, so I’m going to focus on the people – both friends like Lauren Mote and all the bartenders and enthusiasts I’ll meet at the signings – and try to be as present as possible. I’m more effective when I’m not thinking about what’s around the corner and around the bend.

Final thoughts?

A lot of what I’m trying to do now – with respect to Prairie School especially – has to do with sustainability. We have a program at Prairie School where we’re getting scrap leather and cutting it for coasters at the bar that are reused. We have all stainless steel straws. We have our wine on tap and our beer on tap so we have no bottles. We have a filtered water system so there’s no bottled water. We’re in a building that’s green. We have a garden on our roof and we’re working with a company called Roof Crop in Chicago that’s building roof crop gardens all over the city. I’m finding my project in Chicago is allowing me to be more green. I mean green and bars will never really go together just because of the amount of water we use and so many of the things we do is just not green. I’ll never say green or sustainable but looking at those practices is becoming increasingly more important to me. I am committed to actively trying to bring women and people of colour into my orbit, into my bars and operations. I remain committed to projects outside of the bar – whether they be writing or design or in consultation in liquid.

I’ve come to realize as I’m sort of away from it now in Portland and I don’t have a bar there – how much I miss operations. I miss being involved in bars more and Prairie School helped scratch that itch. Having spent three years under the hood with this book, bartending has such a great, tiny little feedback loop where you create something, serve it to someone, they usually like it. There’s this gratification from serving something that someone else likes; whereas with writing you don’t get a huge feedback loop. The vast majority of people who buy it or read it don’t really say anything about it. The excitement to get it out there and see if anyone really cares about it, to even get some critical feedback about it has been really pleasant. Ultimately I hope that it establishes a baseline document for bartenders to have out there to understand our craft. Secretly I think this book is like Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. For people that aren’t going to be bartenders for the rest of their life, I’ve tried to outline a book that’s not just about who, what, when, where and how, but why. What I’ve tried to put together is a book that hopefully inspires people that are not serious bartenders or cocktail people to be able to apply the material in their life or in their line or work.

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