Peels' Jim Kearns Talks Famous Tippers, the Rum Renaissance, and Why Rick's Café From Casablanca Is the Silver Screen's Best Bar

Jim Kearns
Jim Kearns
Photo by Atisha Paulson

Peels has gotten its fair share of praise this week. Most of that has been for the food -- or at least the infinitely cool environment in which the food is served -- and a few words were dedicated to the cocktails. The drinks list, designed by Yana Volfson, is eclectic and seasonal, and includes something called a Joey Ramone. Longtime Freemans and current Peels bartender Jim Kearns fills us in on what (he)'s shaking behind the bar.

What was the vision for the cocktail program at Peels?

It's Yana's program. There's a very diverse selection of drinks, different genres, a couple tiki or Caribbean-style drinks. There are a couple of drinks that have some nice floral notes to them. She's doing a lot with tea infusions and syrups, infusing jasmine and hibiscus for spring. Literally, people ask, "What's your favorite?" or "What don't you like?" and I say, "Well, I like all of them." There really isn't one that I don't like.

In what way is the vibe different from Freemans?

Freemans is a great cozy space, but it's also at the end of an alley and there aren't any windows. It's more of a dark, brooding kind of space, whereas Peels is a very open space. You come upstairs and you just feel good. There's light all around you and if it's nighttime you can see out on the Bowery. There are windows spanning the entire room. It's very light, very airy. It's nice to be able to work in a space where if you turn around you can give yourself a moment to clear your head and almost feel like you can get a breath of fresh air while looking at the window.

Are people using the bar as a bar or just as a pre-dinner waiting area?

People tend to use the bar as a bar. They will be there all night drinking and having a good time and they'll eat dinner or at least have some appetizers. I've worked at a lot of places where there's this resistance to the bar being a place where you can stay all night and enjoy an entire experience. What I've always found refreshing about working [Taavo Somer and William Tigertt's] bars is that you put a menu down in front of someone, they're more than likely going to order something to eat and you're going to be able to build a rapport with that guest. It makes your life easier and more enjoyable as a bartender.

What kind of places do you like to drink when you're not at your own bar?

Being a bartender and getting off work late, I end up going to a lot of dive bars. Or Irish bars, or somewhere where I know somebody, which could be a cocktail bar. [I like] somewhere where I can sit down and relax and have a cold beer and maybe a shot of whiskey, which I know sounds apathetic for a cocktail bartender, but it's like a chef who gets off work and the last thing he wants is what he's been cooking all day.

How did you get started behind the bar?

I lucked into a job bar-backing at Balthazar and moved up there and moved on. Then I got into the whole cocktail thing. I just had an interest in it, but I really didn't know where to learn more about it. Then, I lucked into a position training with Sasha Petraske, who owns Milk & Honey, Little Branch, etc. He really opened my eyes to the whole idea of making cocktails consistently with fresh product and that simpler can be better ... technique and intricacy and the idea of being a good host and providing proper service to everybody that comes to your bar. Basically all aspects of the job. It was a revelation working with him.

What are some of the trends in cocktails that you're excited about these days?

I think we all know the obvious most prevalent trend is rum and tiki. I think probably what's coming is a trend toward more savory, more culinary elements. I was actually talking to someone the other day who's pretty plugged into the whole cocktail scene across the country and that's what he was seeing a lot of. It's definitely one of my personal areas of interest. If I were to guess, that's the next big thing you'll see: spiced and salted drinks.   Are there any trends that you're sick of seeing at this point?

As much as I love some of the original places, the speakeasy trend just has to go away. It's not Prohibition anymore and I think it's nice to be able to go to a bar and have it be a bar where you can get either a cocktail, a good beer, or whatever. I think that's what a bar should be. I think the speakeasy thing has been done very, very well by those who have done it. It's time to put an end to it.

Do you have a favorite fictional bartender?

The combination of the bartender and host in Casablanca. It's one of my favorite films, and when I was watching that movie at one point I realized that a bar used to be what I'm talking about: a beautiful space where anyone can come in as long as they can buy a drink. They can order a bottle of champagne, a glass of wine, a beer, a cocktail -- whatever they want and it will be made well and the service will be good. That's definitely one of the bars that I've connected with most in a movie. I've never seen Cocktail, so there's always a chance that guy can be my favorite bartender. I have my doubts. That movie never appealed to me.

Do you have a favorite tipping story?

I have a pretty good cache of them. Do you want irony? Good tips? Bad tips? For irony, I have a really good one. I worked at a club that made a lot of money and sold a lot of bottles. One night, it was a slow Saturday, and this guy came in at the very end of it. He had tons of money and dropped a shit-ton of cash. He buys 15 bottles of Dom Rosé, which was like $800 or something and a 20 percent auto gratuity was added on everything, so the bar staff made like $1,500. The irony of it for me is that I had my shift covered. I got a text about it the next day.

Ouch.

Favorite tipper I'd say is an actor who used to bartend and he's very, very cool when he approaches your bar and very down to earth. Almost to the point where you're not even sure if it's him until he introduces himself. But he introduces himself as a bartender. That's the funniest part of it. And then he proceeds to tip about $100 on average per round and is just an absolutely lovely guy. He buys the bartenders drinks and takes care of everybody on the staff. He's the only person I've ever met who's famous and who I could actually say I would really want to hang out with that guy after work.

That story would be way better if you said who he is.

Yeah, well, I don't want to intrude on his privacy.

Fair enough. Is there anything coming up at Peels you want to mention?

We're going to be doing some new fall drinks pretty soon. We're all going to collaborate and contribute to that process. A friend of mine said you shouldn't be a slave to seasons and I agree with that. Even though fall may be well upon us, we're still doing the menu that's transitional from summer to fall. We have a drink called the Bond Street Swizzle and it's this really nice Caribbean-inspired drink with mint, gin, and crushed ice and it was selling like hot cakes last week. It was balmy outside, for God's sakes.

Have a restaurant tip or other food-related news? Send it to fork@villagevoice.com.


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