In this interview, PDT’s (113 St. Marks Place, 212-614-0386) Jim Meehan reveals his stance on trends, why he wants you to order from the menu, and where he plans on drinking next.
How have your studies in literature influenced your work behind the bar — and vice versa?
First and foremost, I studied literature because I really enjoyed it. I was supposed to be a doctor, but I found out that the pre-med thing wasn’t working out pretty quickly. I ended up doubling in African American studies, which was also quite indulgent in that it’s not like studying engineering or going the prelaw route. My education helped pave the way for what I do now because I think I consciously made a choice early on to do what I enjoyed for a living as opposed to doing something for work and trying to plan my life around other things that I enjoy as a reward for working. That’s one part of it. The second part of it is that communication not only is essential for the nuts and bolts of what I do, but it’s been very essential over the last 10 years, in particular, where trying to distinguish bartending and the craft of the cocktail as a culinary art has been challenging. It has required a lot of articulation and a lot of time spent painstakingly describing or explaining why what we do is significant, valuable, important, or worth talking about. I think that the communication skills that my literature background gave me have been very helpful for what I do.
You grew up in the Chicago area and went to school at University of Wisconsin at Madison. What traits from your midwest upbringing have you carried with you to NYC?
When I moved to New York, my midwestern work ethic was significant at the time in the service industry. But it was a different time in the service industry. I moved here 12 years ago, and the places I was working at weren’t recruiting people like me. My work ethic, integrity, and good cheer was different than the gauche corner cutting that I encountered. But now the industry has really changed a lot, and the level of people that I hire and interact with in the industry is much, much higher. I think that, at the time, my background was very helpful. The quality of people I’m working with is so high now that I think that the playing field, as far as where people are from, has been leveled — and people are taken more on a merit-based system.
You’ve been coined quite the Renaissance man within the cocktail realm. What’s been your favorite part of it all?
I think that the product design — the roll up, the bag, the spice line, the rum — has been probably the most exciting. With products, you spend a lot of time thinking about it, developing it, the PR and marketing of it, and in some sense, the sales. But at certain point, it’s done, it’s out there, and if it’s successful, it develops a life of its own. So it’s really fun to work on something that you’ll randomly see, or people will be carrying, or people will come to you later and say that they like it or that it’s part of their life. That part, for me, is really exciting because the difference between that and the books or apps, is that there have been a few situations where people have come up to me and pointed out either an error in the book or an app or in my writing. Also, the book is now four years old, and many of my practices are always evolving. As time goes on, there’s a discrepancy between what you wrote a year ago or two years ago or four years ago, or what you demoed or what you think. In many ways it’s really exciting — but as a product designer or someone who wants things to be normalized and standardized, that discrepancy starts to become sort of a challenge. I think with bartending and running a bar, it’s such a day-to-day, hands on, you get out of it what you put into it type of work, that it’s so different. I feel like with the bar business, you literally get out of it what you put into it. In product world, you create an amazing product, and it kind of develops a life of its own. And for me I don’t manufacture and distribute and package and mail, so I enjoy that stuff. I can focus on it and move on.
What were your expectations with PDT — and what surprised you?
Everything has surprised me about PDT. It’s been the gift that keeps on giving from a surprise standpoint. As far as my aspirations — they were very humble. A lot of what Brian [Shebairo] and I discussed as far as what we were going for, is we just wanted a great place that we would like to drink in. I think that we were quickly able to make that happen, and what sort of came of that was a whole lot of whipped cream and cherries.
What kinds of drink orders are you seeing more of — and less of?
I would say that 85 percent of the drink orders come off the menu. On a good week, there’s a good balance between people trying many of the 18 drinks on the menu, as opposed to seeing one or two — such as the Benton’s Old Fashioned or Mezcal Mule — completely dominating sales. A successful week for us, also, is being able to continue to have our menu dominate our sales. If I were to look at our product mix of sales and find that there were many other cocktails being ordered beyond the ones on our menu, then I would probably begin to think that there was something wrong with my menu. I think that most of the great cocktail bars have menus, and I think one way to evaluate how successful that menu is and how that bar is doing is to see how many of the orders are coming from the menu. Places like PDT, Pouring Ribbons, Death & Company, Dead Rabbit and many, many other places — we all spend so much time developing our drinks for the menu, just like a chef does. So the notion that when you come to a cocktail bar, that you should order off the menu is totally antithetical to how we operate. Generally speaking, what I’m looking for — and what I thankfully see — is balance when people come in and order our drinks.
As the cocktail scene continues to evolve, what about your approach has changed — and what has stayed the same?
I think that I’ll always continue to evolve my techniques. I’ll see someone do something that’s really different and unusual, and then I’ll think about it and evaluate it from an aesthetic standpoint, speed of service standpoint, and accuracy standpoint. I’ll see if it’s something that’s incredibly personal, or if it’s something I can take and incorporate into the way I work. That’s something that is always under development — technique. I think the way that I tend bar is always going to remain the same. The one thing that has changed over time is that I’ve come to understand more fundamentally how we’re all different and how allowing each different person to carry themselves in a way that both suits them personally and suits the bar professionally is the way to go. The bar is a stage, and the better you can motivate your actors as the director to perform — that’s the key. I think if everyone focuses more on themselves and their performance and less on the performance of their teammates, or the normalization of everyone’s process, then the more successful the performance is.
What’s next for cocktails?
I think that every city and every country is in a different place in this journey. Where New York is is different than where Chicago is or LA is. We all are facing different challenges — challenges of legislation, of audience, of talent pool, of resources — so there’s no one path we’re all on. For each city to continue to move along on its arc, I think leadership is the most important thing. I think that promoting, seeking out, and maintaining visionary leadership in each market — and maintaining integrity and looking at things in the long term instead of the short term — will be the key to our success. I think that cocktails, more than food, are very fashionable. And I think that in a seemingly ironic twist right now, cocktails are very fashionable. I think that’s a good thing, but also, to me, it’s a terrifying thing. Cocktails are “cool” right now, and they were never cool when this all started. So I think now that we are sort of en vogue, we have to be careful to not be narcissistic or shortsighted. This sort of work, this industry, and the way these bars need to be run — it’s not an easy thing. Even though it’s fashionable, I hope to see that it continues to grow in a disciplined manner.
What’s your outlook on trends?
I think trends drive media, and media drives customers to the bars. Being trendy is incredibly important — especially for a bar like PDT, which is seven years old. Once you’re not new anymore, you have to find reasons for people to continue to write about you and continue to talk about you. Being trendy is part of our DNA. I think that the challenge as a trendsetter, though, is to understand that within the sort of cycle of different cocktail fashions, what we’re constantly doing is recycling cocktail recipes, aesthetics, and various reminders of different times. And I think that what we choose to not bring back is just as important as what we choose to bring back. There’s new interest right now in cocktails of the 70s and 80s and disco drinks — and I think that we’re treading on thin ice here. As we start to get closer to the era when the cocktail disappeared, I think that we should be careful from a trend perspective of where we find our new inspirations and trends and how we’re going to articulate them in such a way that doesn’t lead to the extinction that we experienced during that era.
What part of the world would you want to visit most for drinking?
I still haven’t been to Barcelona. I’m interested in heading there. There are a few places in the U.S. I haven’t been to. I still haven’t been to Nashville — I’m very interested in getting down there. I haven’t been to Atlanta in a number of years. One of my bartenders just moved down there to take over Holeman & Finch from my good friend Greg [Best]. There are definitely some final frontiers for me, but fortunately, I have had a chance to see most of the world’s both major markets and some of the smaller ones. Maybe five or six years ago, London or New York or San Francisco really were light-years ahead of everyone else, but that’s really changed a lot. Wherever I go now, I generally find one pretty world-class cocktail bar. And usually, the things that are going to surprise you most are right under your nose — you just have to open your eyes and pay attention to what’s in front of you. There are a few bars in NYC that I still haven’t been to. Once I’ve been to all the great cocktail bars here, I’ll start thinking of these other cities I haven’t had the luxury of getting to yet.