My travel to New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail was a little rough. In an effort to get a few extra hours in on my first visit to the city, I had booked myself on a red-eye, foolishly thinking I would be able to sleep, as I had a million times before, on the cross-country flight. When I took my seat next to two younger women holding a fussy two-year-old, however, my hopes were dashed. I would be lucky if naptime came to me during those already uncomfortable five hours on the plane.
The rest of the arrival went much the same. With my hotel room not ready for an early check-in as I had arranged, my tentative afternoon plans, from a tour of the city to an early session, dissolved quickly in front of me. I did my best, taking a walk, grabbing some beignets, but I really just wanted a shower and sleep. Still wearing the same clothes I had put on the afternoon before plus ten hours of travel time and a Southern climate I was not used to, I was officially not fit for public appearances.
When the hotel room was still unavailable in the early afternoon, I ventured to the Monteleone to pick my up my media registration. I was overwhelmed by the numbers of people in the lobby, and a bit dismayed that the line snaking through the room was the one I wanted. I tried not to frown while I waited, exhausted, my heavy purse – laptop and all – still slung on my shoulder. The queue moved relatively quickly and I soon found myself in the ticket and merchandise room, searching for people I knew among the faces. A sea of unknowns, I shuffled to the media check-in, throwing my lanyard around my neck, and turned to depart when I recognized a face in the crowd.
“Jim Meehan! Jennifer Heigl, Daily Blender…” I said as cheerfully as I could muster, my hand extended. We had just finished an interview across the email waves the week before but it was my first time meeting the award-winning writer and ‘tender face to face. It suddenly flashed across my brain that in my hectic, pre-Tales departure, I hadn’t yet written up the interview. I apologized for the delay, and pleasant small talk ensued.
I bumped into Jim again a few days later at the packed “Making of Liqueurs” panel.
“Can I get a few pics?” I asked before snapping away.
“Of course,” he answered, posing with Matteo Luxardo. “Don’t forget to write about me!” he playfully prodded as I headed back to my seat.
From the Recesses of PDT
How could I forget to write about him? Five years ago, at the inaugural New York City Wine and Food Festival, I had tasted my first craft cocktail – made by Jim Meehan and his crew at PDT. It was like nothing I had had before – a solid Sex on the Beach, dive bar drinker before this crazy thing called Daily Blender happened – and it changed the way I would drink forever. The heavenly Aviation became my beverage of choice, the cocktail to which all other cocktails would be compared from that point forward. And Jim Meehan became my bar hero.
When I had that first PDT cocktail in 2008, the now-famous, speakeasy-style bar had only been in operation for a year but Meehan had already made a name for himself at Manhattan hot spots like Gramercy Tavern and the Pegu Club. Now after half a decade in operation, the East Village destination is well known, both to the casual imbiber and the professional bartender, and the Midwest-grown bar manager is riding high on the success of the PDT Cocktail Book, his collection of recipes from the bar. Released late last year, the tome has acquired a handful of accolades, including most recently being named Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book at the 2012 Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards. But Meehan, like many of his comrades, is humble in his success, gracious and approachable, even to a disheveled journalist on a random afternoon at Tales.
Q: From Madison (Wisconsin) to Manhattan… what originally brought you to New York?
A: My brother Peter moved to Manhattan in 1997 to be with his girlfriend, now wife, Hannah. I moved him out here, and immediately fell in love with the city. I was a bartender at the time, and was transfixed by the variety of dining and drinking options. I graduated in 2001, spent a year working to finance the move, and left in August of 2002. My brother helped me get my first gig here at Five Points on Great Jones Street. Had a great meal there last week.
Q: My first craft cocktail was from PDT – and it was spectacular. Do you find that most of the bar’s clientele are craft cocktail newbies? How has the clientele evolved since its opening?
A: Our clientele, thanks to the city’s unparalleled diversity, is different every night. As with many new bars and restaurants: locals, adventurous foodies, cocktail geeks and the media were the first to check us out. Eventually, some of the Crif Dogs faithful crossed the threshold, and as the whole speakeasy craze commenced, many, many tourists. The reservation policy and sheer size of the bar don’t suit most bar regulars, but we have a loyal group of guests that visit at least once a month: many of them work in the bar or restaurant business in some capacity.
Q: PDT opened at a key time in the emerging craft cocktail scene, but now it seems that every half-happening city has an “underground cocktail bar” of sorts. Flattering or obnoxious?
A: A bit of both: I believe imitation to be the sincerest form of flattery, but many have copied the gimmicky entrance instead of the commitment to service and preservation of a peaceful place to commune. There’s a lot more to PDT than the phone booth.
Q: At this year’s James Beard Foundation Awards, PDT took the prize for the first Outstanding Bar Program award.
A: It’s a huge honor. We’ve made huge strides in the last decade, and I’m cautiously optimistic that our lot will improve thanks to the spotlights shined by gastronomy-minded organizations such as the James Beard Foundation.
Q: You’re busy as a contributing editor to Food & Wine’s annual cocktail recipe collection, but you also released your own collection of PDT cocktails last year as well. How has the writing and publishing experience been for you?
A: It’s been an eye-opening ride. This year will be my seventh year working on the Food & Wine book with Kate Krader, who’s taught me a ton since she, Dana Cowin, and Mary Ellen Ward took a huge leap of faith in me in 2005. In addition to six Food & Wine guides, I collaborated with Anthony Giglio on four different editions of the Mr. Boston Bartender’s Guide before trying my hand independently. The PDT Cocktail Book borrows elements of each, along with a handful of classic guides such as The Savoy Cocktail Book and American Bar. In retrospect, the Food & Wine and Mr. Boston mantles shielded me from the most challenging aspects of publishing, but thankfully, my partner (illustrator Chris Gall) and our agents helped keep everything on course. Sterling has lived up to its name as my publisher: I’m deeply grateful for their commitment of talented editors, designers, marketing and salespeople.
Q: What would you like to see on more menus? A particular spirit or drink? An ingredient?
A: I’ve helped develop a rum brand called Banks. We have two rums available in the U.S.: a white rum called 5 Island, and a gold rum called Golden Age, which just came out this month. I’m very proud of what we’ve produced and am hoping bartenders and beverage directors will support one of their own by mixing with it. At PDT, we’ve poured the white rum in a drink called the Paddington for years, and just created a daiquiri variation called the Spice Plum: just in time for stone fruit season. Many of the countries top bartenders work with Banks in bars such as Employee’s Only in Manhattan, Drink in Boston, Violet Hour in Chicago, Heaven’s Dog in San Francisco and Picca in L.A.
Q: Is there a signature Jim Meehan cocktail?
A: I’ve always been so enamored with seasonality that many of my favorite recipes have a limited shelf life. Originally, we changed the entire menu every season at PDT, until I realized how it undermined the ability of regulars and repeat customers to recommend their favorite drinks to guests. Since then, I’ve nurtured a core lineup of cocktails that don’t require hyper-seasonal ingredients. Recipes of mine such as the Mezcal Mule sell well, but our bar’s most enduring recipe is Don Lee’s Benton’s Old Fashioned: a Benton’s bacon-fat-infused bourbon old fashioned sweetened with maple syrup, served over a large block of ice with an orange twist. The sales report speaks volumes over my ego, so the drink remains.
Q: What and where are you drinking when you’re not behind the stick?
A: I’m out four or five nights a week: visiting friends’ bars and restaurants and supporting accounts that serve Banks. I love beer, wine and spirits, so it’s tough to find me sipping the same thing from night to night. I bolster my booze intake with two daily trips to Ninth Street Espresso and elixirs from Liquiteria and Juice Press.
Q: In an interview last year, you mentioned a few possible future directions, from PDT expansion to fatherhood to heading back to the Midwest… Any of those on the docket yet?
A: My wife is due in January. After numerous opportunities to try some of America’s best cities on for size during my modest book tour this year, I’m leaning towards the West Coast over the Midwest, but we’re staying put for the time being. For the last ten years, my life has been focused around my job. I’m taking steps to refocus my activities around my life: you only live once.
Missed my post on the 2012 Tales of the Cocktail? You can read it here.
I’m also thrilled to be headed back to New York in October for the fifth annual Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival. Not only will Kat and I be visiting the city for a little food, a little drink, and a whole lot of Daily Blender coverage, but Daily Blender is also a media partner this year – so stay tuned as we’ll be featuring special guest posts and interviews leading up to the October weekend. Be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook if you aren’t already!
*Photo credit: Jennifer Heigl / Daily Blender