When I first started doing The Bartender’s List, there were two bucket list interviews I had in mind that I never dreamed I would get. The first was Jeffrey Morgenthaler (and we all know how that one turned out). The second was Jim Meehan. Jim, I felt, was going to be more tricky. I’ve never been to PDT. I’d never met him in person and with his recent move to Portland, there’s was no bar I could sit at to convince him of the merits of my blog.
As fortune would have, I learned in early November that the Canadian Professional Bartender’s Association and Brown Forman Canada would be playing host to Jim Meehan and Jeff Bell for a PDT Vancouver Take Over. How the stars aligned for this one, I’ll never know. But a little over two weeks later, I found myself sitting in a booth at Bao Bei, sandwiched between Jim Meehan and Jeff Bell with a list of a million interview questions and my voice recorder at the ready. Which just goes to show that anything is possible.
For those who are unaware, Jim Meehan is the award winning bartender behind New York’s legendary speakeasy, PDT (Please Don’t Tell)- a hidden cocktail lounge attached to a famous hotdog stand in the East Village (You enter through a phone booth. True story). While Meehan recently moved to Portland, he continues to be a partner in the business while head barman Jeff Bell has assumed responsibility for daily operations. Meehan has more awards to his name that I can count. He authored the PDT Cocktail Book which has become a staple in every cocktail-lover and bartender’s library. He is accomplished, to say the least.
While Jim and Jeff were in town, I had the opportunity to attend the PDT Q and A at Granville Room. Someone asked Jim about his recent move to Portland and what that means for his role with PDT. His answer made clear that he remains very much involved behind the scenes and describes himself as PDT’s biggest fan. He spoke so passionately about the team he left in New York and his confidence in their abilities to not only maintain the bar, but to continually make it better. “We at PDT have a team like no other. We are this awesome, little dysfunctional family….They are all warriors and the bar itself has that mentality. We are like the cockroaches of the bar industry and we are going to be around through that next trend and just keep going.” Cheers to that and without further ado, I give you Jim Meehan.
1) First sip of Alcohol.
It’s vague. It was probably a sip of my dad’s Miller Genuine Draft when I was very young. My mom drank white wine on the rocks and my dad drank Miller.
2) What is your five bottle bar?
I’d say Plymouth Gin, Banks 5 Island Rum, Maker’s Mark Bourbon, Hakushu 12 Year, Siete Leguas Reposado Tequila.
3) Death Row Drink.
Frapin Sazerac with Edouard Absinthe as the rinse and XO Chateau de Fontpinot Cognac.
4) What was the hardest part of moving out from behind the bar and most rewarding part?
I think that the hardest part is that bartending is so deeply gratifying. It’s instant gratification. You make a drink, serve it to someone, they smile, they’re happy. You get to see the fruits of your labour. Whereas when you’re managing you’re behind the scenes so it’s very hard to see the results or failures of your work. So it’s less data coming in, less gratification.
5) The album that would capture your dream bar.
6) One non-cocktail book that should be behind every bar.
The Art of War.
7) The most unusual drink request you ever got.
I don’t even take stock of things like that. It sort of never surprises me what people ask for and I try not to remember.
8) There was a time when bartending was a job you would do to get yourself through school and now you end up seeing a lot of highly educated bartenders or people leaving very lucrative jobs to enter the bartending industry. What is that about?
I think it’s about happiness. So many people I talk to leave good jobs because they aren’t happy in those careers and they’re happier behind the bar. I think that going back to the instant gratification thing, it is deeply gratifying to tend bar. That being said, the challenge as we bring more educated and talented people into the career is you start to look at how to create longevity. As you get older and you have a family or as wear and tear starts to accumulate on your body, there needs to be something more. The people that are bartending in their late 30s and 40s and past are freak athletes. They’re not normal people.
9) Is there a way that people are able to sustain themselves in the profession?
They do a great job of moderating their drinking. They are physically fit and treat their body like an athlete would. They are mentally and emotionally very dynamic people. The longer you see a bartender going into their career- especially a good bartender- you are finding a very exceptional person for the most part.
10) Are you concerned at all that craft cocktails and craft bartending is a bubble?
No. I think that there are a lot more people getting into this now who are doing it because it’s cool. It wasn’t cool when we started doing. In that sense, craft cocktails and bartending is trendy. I think that the people that do it because it’s trendy find out sooner rather than later that it’s too hard to do because it’s trendy. So I think that will sort itself out. The people that are interested in it and good at it will remain interested and good at it.
What do you find to be the hardest part of bartending?
I think that it’s a rigorously monotonous job. It’s wax on, wax off. I talked to a guy after the PDT Q and A. He worked in software and he had just left his job in that industry to become a bartender. It’s interesting how many people come from the tech world into bartending. I think that in the same way, not everyone can do it. Not a lot of people have the discipline to embrace that process oriented nature of the job.
If you could make a cocktail for anyone, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you make them?
I would always just make drinks for the people in front of me. I think it’s so important to live in the moment and be with the people you’re serving and not wanting to serve rock stars or dead presidents. You meet bartenders who would rather be serving someone else other than you and I think you can feel that. So I’m very conscious of being where you’re at and being present.
A lot of the questions asked of established bartenders tend to be about trends. When you’re thinking about trends and what’s the next big thing, does it make it more difficult to be present and stay in the moment?
One of the things about our bar and our process is that it’s fundamentally creative. We’re constantly wiping the slate clean and doing something different. So in that sense, not to sound like a dick, but we’re trendsetters, we’re not trendy. That being said, none of our process is thinking about what the next trend is going to be. That’s not how we think.
So how do you think?
One of the things I’ve found working in New York and in any major creative city is that you have a lot of people walking around, working in their creative fields, reading the same magazines, newspapers, watching the same TV shows. We all have all this data. And what we do as creative people is we put that data together. In that sense, you’ll find that certain dishes, cocktails, clothing styles are simultaneously created in different cities from people that are not in communication with each other. In that sense, we are all just putting data together. I guess it’s an ambiguous way to answer your question but that’s what we’re doing.
Can you tell me about some of the most pivotal decisions you have made that have guided the trajectory of your career?
I’ve been doing this for 20 years. There are so many pivotal moves. When I was a bouncer and when I was working at college bars where people got really drunk….I saw a lot of fucked up things having to do with drinking and none of it that I was necessarily responsible for. But very early on I realized that it was my job to take care of people. Whether they were in my bar or whatever happened when they left, it all has to do with what I did or didn’t do, so I had to take care of people.
I was 23 when I realized- as I was thinking about becoming a doctor and entering the medical field- that I loved what I did and I didn’t have to do something for a living that someone else thought I was supposed to do. I could do something that I love doing. So I decided to be a bartender for the rest of my life at a very young age.
I remember working at Gramercy Tavern and listening to Danny Meyers speak. I always thought that perfection was the goal in the industry, in the business and in the way I did my job. I remember him saying that what we are striving for is not perfection but excellence. That was a big deal for me because I realized that I didn’t have to do everything perfectly. I realized that part of achieving great things is over-extending yourself and failing miserably. So failure is part of success. If you’re always seeking perfection you often times don’t push yourself past the point of what you’re comfortable doing and you don’t grow. And from that, as a manager of people, I’ve pushed people towards making mistakes and most importantly, learning from their mistakes, creating a culture that rewards risk-taking and mistake making but that fosters learning from those mistakes as well.
Do you have a fondest memory from working at PDT?
I love the people. We have had so many people come in and get engaged there. People have told me that they met their fiance or wife there. People bring their family or their grandparents in. Those moments are all very important to me. They are all deeply important to me. I love the intimate relationships that running a bar helps to foster. Like I said, I try to live in the moment. I try to get the most out of each interaction and each relationship. And for that reason, I’m never looking too far back because I make mistakes all the and I have to just move past them. And I’m never looking too far forward because I’m not good enough at what I do on a daily basis to not be focused on what I’m doing.
Your favourite fictional bar from TV, movie or book.
I think my favourite would be “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Hemingway. It’s from a collection of short stories called “In Our Time.” The story is the dialogue between two waiters who are asking all these questions about this man that comes late at the end of the night and eats and drinks by himself. I haven’t read the story in a long time. It’s sort of gossipy about this man and the waiters wonder what his deal is and what he’s all about. I think for me working in the bar business, I love being in a bar by myself. I feel like a bar has an energy when there’s no one there and it certainly has one when people are there. I can feel that energy when no one’s there. Sometimes for me, being by myself in a bar is very peaceful and makes me very happy. That story reinforces the mindset of that guy sitting there by himself at the end of the night.
What is your favourite three ingredient cocktail?
It’s very popular right now but it’s hard to not to stick to a Negroni. It’s pretty good for three ingredients.
**On a final and personal note….
I have done nine interviews with bartenders in six months. From Vancouver to Montreal to Portland, I am humbled every time a bartender takes the time to sit with me, to share their stories, to answer my questions. And while there are still plenty of exciting things in the cue for Two For The Bar between now and the New Year, it feels fitting that this is my last installment of The Bartender’s List for 2014. It feels like the culmination of a truly pivotal year- hundreds of hours of writing, thousands of photographs, endless editing and more fun that I could possibly have imagined. And here’s to doing it all over again in 2015. Thank you Jim for closing out the series for the year. It was a true honour. Cheers.**