Jim Meehan and his Contemporary ClassicNovember 29, 2011 By: Jack Robertiello
Jim Meehan, the man behind New York City's PDT and someone who regularly has tracked the skills and recipes of America's best bartenders for the annual "Food & Wine" cocktail guide, has set a high bar with his new book, "The PDT Cocktail Book." The goal: Craft a contemporary companion to the classic "Savoy Cocktail Book." Here's what he has to say about the book, now available:
Mix: There's been a steadily increasing flow of cocktail books over the past few years. What's different and important about what you've tried to do here?
Jim Meehan: Thanks to great bartenders' guides written by Gary Regan, Dale DeGroff and Robert Hess (among others) and more focused works written by Ted Haigh, David Wondrich, Jared Brown and Anistasia Miller (among others), I was able to refine my focus and expand upon the existing body of work. It’s up to the reader to decide what’s important, but points of difference in my book include: illustrations instead of photos, an annotated bibliography, comprehensive recipe attributions and an ornate package among other features.
Mix: I thought the pages spent on bar design, equipment and technique were really important. Do you see these issues as under-emphasized in new bars?
Meehan: Absolutely. Bar design is crucial, yet one of the most poorly documented aspects of our business. I hired a draftsman to create detailed sketches of our bar setup to help readers understand how form follows function. Thanks to Greg Boehm at Cocktail Kingdom, tools have become readily available and will continue to improve in years to come. Bar books, such as "Cocktail Techniques" by Kazuo Uyeda, have amazing technique information, but I can’t think of a single cocktail book that details cycle of service, as I have in my book.
Mix: The general public, though, usually buys cocktail books for the recipes — what was the overarching idea behind the ones you selected?
Meehan: None of the top modern cocktail bars have published all of their recipes. Employees Only, Absinthe and the Hemingway Bar in Paris (among others) have all published great books, but as an inquisitive bartender and enthusiastic customer, I want to know it all. I’ve included every recipe (until I had to circle the wagons in the spring of 2010) we’ve created since we opened. When a guest wants something off the menu, we recommend classics, so I’ve included a little over 100 of my favorites. I’ve also included a little over 50 of my friend’s drinks culled from guest-bartending stints and the cross pollination of recipes that’s occurred as bartenders have hopped from bar to bar (including mine) in New York City. It’s also significant to note that I’ve included all the brands we use to prepare our recipes: You and I know that no two products in the same category mix exactly the same, and this is key information that doesn’t usually escape the cutting-room floor in most recipe books.
Mix: You've generously credited nearly every drink to its originator, but that can sometimes be a controversial issue. Did you have any trouble identifying each one with its definitive creator?
Meehan: With the classics, I documented the first appearance in a major cocktail book instead of trying to find the creator: That’s David Wondrich's and Jeff Berry’s beat. With the modern drinks, there were a few surprises: Two have surfaced after the first printing was published, but in general, there’s little dispute over the origins of each drink I’ve included. Ever since PDT opened, I’ve credited each drink on the menu with its creator. A bar is a stage, and I do my best as the director to show off my crew’s work.
Mix: As David Wondrich suggests in the forward, your book is reminiscent of "The Savoy Cocktail Book," revived and now found behind many bars. Was that conscious?
Meehan: Absolutely. When I emailed Chris to inquire as to whether he’d consider partnering with me on a book, his response was, “Do you mean something like the 'Savoy Cocktail Book'? I have a first edition.” We used numerous books for inspiration, including Jerry Thomas’s "Bartender’s Guide," Charles Schumann’s "American Bar" and Harry MacElhone’s "ABC of Mixing Cocktails" (among others), but the Savoy was always in the back of our minds. It’s the most ambitious artistically and included so many of the most important recipes of that generation. With less than half the recipes as the Savoy, my book is far less comprehensive, but after years chronicling the work of the best bartenders and recipes in Food & Wine magazine’s annual cocktail book and the "Mr. Boston Bartender’s Guide," I feel as though I’ve already covered that.
Mix: What do you hope professional bartenders come away with after reading the book?
Meehan: We’re all very different (professional bartenders). Many colleagues, mentors and friends in the industry have said really nice things about the book so far, which I’m humbled and thankful for. Most love the illustrations, many are grateful for the attributions, the bar diagrams have attracted feedback. To be honest, I just hope they like it and feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. It may sound clichéd, but our job is to entertain people in this business. I hope this book amuses its readers.
Mix: What's your favorite cocktail right now?
Meehan: The one in front of me.