Jim Meehan has been at the forefront of the cocktail renaissance since it started several years ago. He opened his cocktail bar PDT inside an East Village hot-dog joint in 2007, and it came to be known for inventive contemporary cocktails, as opposed to the classics everyone else was doing. In October, he’ll release his first-ever cocktail book (first, if you don’t count the Food & Wine and Mr. Boston cocktail books, which he helped compile). He showed us a glimpse of The PDT Cocktail Book, which is whimsically illustrated by subway artist Chris Gall. How convenient, considering this week is the Voice‘s comics issue.
How did you decide to use drawings instead of photographs?
I knew I didn’t want photographs. I was sitting on the 6 train one day and I look up and see this illustration of a fish floating over New York City with people falling out of it. It’s one of my favorite subway art posters.
That poster is awesome.
I thought, this is exactly the style of art I’ve always wanted to have in my book. I emailed him and said, “I saw your fish in the subway today and I love it. It’s just the style I’m looking for. I’m putting together a book proposal and would love to talk to you about illustrating my book.” And he said, “Is it like The Savoy Cocktail Book? I have a first edition.” And I was like, “We have to meet.” So, we met and partnered 50/50 on the book.
Who do you see buying this book?
Part of the reason I partnered with an illustrator is that my goal was for this to book to be as cool to own and hold and page through as it is useful behind the bar. I love books. I grew up in a house full of books and I was an English major. I realize the book is going by the wayside as things go digital, but I love paper. I have very old, beautiful cocktail books, and I love the way the different covers feel. They’re just cool.
Do you think that with this cocktail renaissance, we’ve surpassed the golden age of cocktails?
I didn’t live in that time, so it’s very hard for me to say that we have. I do think that what we’re doing now, because of the information age we live in, [is more advanced]. For instance, just from a training perspective, when I started working at Pegu, the only way you could learn about these drinks was by talking to someone like Audrey [Saunders] or Dale [DeGroff] or Julie [Reiner] or Sasha [Petraske]. Now, because of the Internet and YouTube, you can watch Marian Beke from London make cocktails in Korea.
Have drinkers evolved, too?
Totally. I remember when Pegu Club opened, a lot of our clientele was women. When a man and woman would come to the bar, the man would order a Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks, and we didn’t have Johnnie Walker Black, so it was this painful situation. The woman would order a Gin Gin Mule and you could just see the frustration in the guy’s eyes. He’s like, “I don’t want to order a Gin Gin Mule. I want a Budweiser.”
Dudes eventually got into it, though?
Guys slowly got into it. Then, a lot of my customers at the Pegu Club and our early customers [at PDT], they’re the ones moving [the culture] forward now. The Louis Smebys of the world. A lot of these people who are enthusiasts are way more interested in cocktails and history than I am. I’ve been in this business since I was 18, but their enthusiasm … I’m trying to catch up with them.
How has this bar evolved since you opened it?
We opened a few months after Death & Co. There weren’t a lot of cocktail lounges. The neighborhood back then wasn’t as evolved from a culinary standpoint. We started with the classics. Within a few months, the staff here was creating great drinks and I could see the general aptitude was high. It’ll be four years in May, and I think that each generation that’s come through has left the bar better for the next group.
How was the writing process?
I had a lot of these recipes already so it was just a matter of taking recipes that were made for bartenders and putting them in a format for the book. The hardest part of it was doing all in sections. It’s so hard to look at a forest through the trees. I’ve made a lot of changes to make it more sort of cohesive. In addition to the recipes, it has a section on our mise en place, some of our specialty ingredients, like syrups, and all of our hot dogs.
You have the bar, the book, products, and plans for expansion. What else are you hoping to achieve in your career?
This book was a complete labor of love. I split my advance with my illustrator, so I didn’t really make any money. It wasn’t about money. It was about doing something that I would be proud of. I’ve learned in this business that as much as you deeply desire to make other people happy, the more time you try to make other people happy, the more you’ll become frustrated and clouded. At the end of the day, you have to live with what you’ve done.
So, will we be seeing you behind the bar again?
I took myself off the bar a while ago. There’s something very visceral about giving someone a drink and watching them curl their lip or watching their eyes light up, and there’s something very gratifying about bartending. People love watching great bartenders work at a bar and there’s this really happy feeling I feel behind the bar. Writing is very lonely. I haven’t been around much in the last year because I’ve doing this, so I’m very excited to have something to show for my absence. Hopefully people will like it.