Bartender Jim Meehan took off time from his newly opened bar in Chicago’s West Loop, Prairie School, to talk about his latest book, Meehan’s Bartender Manual (Ten Speed Press, Oct. 17). In it, he mixes cocktail history with bar design, and spirits production, along with comments from other professionals and 100 recipes for classic cocktails.
In 2007, Meehan opened the James Beard Award-winning PDT bar in New York City and subsequently published The PDT Cocktail Book (Sterling Epicure). Meehan lives in Portland, Oregon with his family, where he operates his consulting firm Mixography Inc.
What drew you to drink (literally) and turned you into a spirits nerd?
I took a job at a bar in college upon the recommendation of a friend and fell head over heels in love with the industry. If you peel away all the pageantry; running a bar is nothing more than hosting a party every night. The opportunity to get paid to work in a festive environment where you mingle among all walks of life makes me pinch myself to confirm it’s real nearly every day.
I got nerdy about my job when I decided to make it my career. I couldn’t stand in front of a wall of bottles that I didn’t know like the back of my hand. So I began researching and became even more enthralled. Whether you’re a chemist or an economist, the spirits industry has a rabbit hole for everyone to disappear down once they realize all the angles you can explore.
We hear a lot about the effect of local foods and the farm-to-table movement. Is there a cocktail equivalent? What’s the effect of place on drinks?
The craft distilling boom has been a boon to bars, which allows them to mimic the locavore purchasing practices of top chefs. For instance, in Chicago, where I just opened a new bar called Prairie School, we’re featuring four Chicago beers on tap, an Illinois-based sparkling wine, and a variety of Midwestern spirits such as CH Vodka, Letherbee Fernet, Rhinehall Plum Brandy, and Death’s Door gin. Some of these products have national and even international distribution, while others are made in such small quantities that they don’t make it out of the city.
While efficiencies in social media and digital communication have brought our world closer together, they’ve also begun to homogenize regional customs, including peculiar drink preferences. I prefer to play up these singularities in my drink programs, whether that’s Chicago’s thirst for Malort or New York’s connection to the Manhattan cocktail. Unlike wine, which takes on the terroir of the place the grapes are grown, distilled spirits’ connection to place relies more heavily upon the hand of the maker, which says a lot about the culture they come from if you pay close attention.
In the book, you write about 100 classic cocktails. Was it hard to pare the list down? What are a few that ended up on the cutting floor?
Yes and no. Cocktails are a lot like fashion, so guest preferences of a given time must be taken into consideration when you anthologize drinks for a book like this. Classic recipes like the Kir, Michelada, and Stone Fence would have been unusual choices ten years ago, but today, their composition conforms to the contemporary zeitgeist. I also had to take The PDT Cocktail Book and app into consideration, so I didn’t double or triple down on information I’ve already put out there.
Recipes like the El Presidente, Boulevardier, Kir, Tom & Jerry, Grasshopper, and Hot Whiskey aren’t in my PDT databases, while drinks like the Singapore Sling, White Negroni, and Pink Lady are. The most daunting task—along the lines of picking your favorite child—was choosing which personal recipes to include. Some, like the Old Friend, were commissioned for projects I’m no longer involved with, while others, like the Mezcal Mule, remain in heavy rotation in my bars. While I’d like to have a say in what recipes I’m remembered for, and am implicitly suggesting them here, it doesn’t work like that.
What’s your favorite drink, and why?
I always say that my favorite drink is the one in front of me when someone asks. It’s mostly meant to take the pomp and circumstance out of what I do for a living and downplay any gravitas that goes along with my personal preferences. The connection between what we eat and drink and memory is so visceral that it’s important to be where you are when you’re out drinking instead of wishing you were elsewhere with others. I embrace the environment I’m drinking in and and the company—whether that’s a cup of coffee at a café, a bottle of beer and a shot in a dive bar, a gin Martini in a fancy hotel bar, or a Margarita at the pool. Context and companionship are vital to appreciating your drink, so I tend to go with the flow or at the very least, not make waves.