Jim Meehan is one of those enormously impressive young men who exhibit absolutely no shred of ego, pretense or self-importance. He’s gotten to his current lofty place in the beverage industry through hard work and more hard work. Alger Hiss has nothing on Jim Meehan.
The first time I met him was on a press trip to the London Bar Show and an excursion to the Black Friars Distillery in Plymouth, England. What first struck me about him was that he brought his own coffee maker and blend of beans. When I asked him about it, he replied that he takes coffee seriously and prefers not to leave matters to chance. So, seeing that I obviously was not relishing the bitter brew I had been served, he offered me a cup of his, which for the record was marvelous.
Jim Meehan is an accomplished author, mixologist and the general manager of the mega-popular PDT, a cocktail haunt in New York City’s East Village. Accessed through a vintage phone booth within Crif Dogs restaurant, PDT has the look and feel of a classic speakeasy. The interior features wooden ceilings, brick walls and a beautifully appointed bar. Equally attractive is Meehan’s drink menu. His bartenders prepare the cocktails with precision, and each offering is an impeccable work of art.
After co-editing various food and wine books and four Mr. Boston recipe guides, Meehan has finally authored his first solo effort, “The PDT Cocktail Book: The Complete Bartender’s Guide from the Celebrated Speakeasy.” The book includes all of the cocktail recipes he’s created and served at PDT, plus more than 100 classics and a handful of recipes he deemed too sumptuous not to include. There are concise sections about bar design, spirits, mise en place, obscure ingredients, an annotated bibliography of more than 90 books and more.
“For the last year and a half, I’ve been working with an illustrator to create over 200 illustrations for the book,” he says. “We wanted the book to have the feel of our favorite classic cocktail books, but not be derivative of them. I’m hoping that his witty illustrations will bring levity to the text, which is geared towards professionals.”
Meehan is far from an overnight sensation. He began working at age 18 while attending the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He worked his way up from doorman to cook, barback, bartender and eventually manager. Meehan says in the beginning the jobs were just a way to pay for school, but after four years he realized he thoroughly enjoyed working behind the bar and decided to make a career of it.
“It’s been a long trek from Madison to Manhattan,” he says. “This is my 17th year in the bar business. I’ve always worked hard, done my best to steer clear of drama and have had excellent role models and mentors. You don’t become successful in this business without help along the way.”
His prowess as a mixologist has firmly established PDT as one of New York City’s cocktail havens. But Meehan admits that running a high-visibility operation is anything but easy. Managing the expectations of customers, staff, salespeople, partners and the media is a heavy, never-ending responsibility.
“Many people’s livelihoods are affected by the decisions I make on a daily basis, and that’s something I take seriously. While I love to create and mix drinks, I’m deeply satisfied knowing that even though most people are just passing through, I have the opportunity to make an impression upon them along the way.”
Meehan works hard to keep PDT on the cutting edge. Stagnancy is something he will not abide, so he’s constantly tweaking the operation — adding a fresh coat of paint, a new logo, uniforms, soundtracks and spirits offerings. The change he’s most proud of is his decision to start promoting employees from within instead of looking to hire from outside. In baseball terminology, it’s the difference between free agency and developing a farm team.
“Other than that, the next best change I’ve made was when I stopped paying attention to what everyone else was doing,” he says. “Thanks to the media, bloggers, Facebook and more, I feel like the bar world keeps getting smaller. Putting on the blinders has helped me focus on what I really want to accomplish at PDT.”
Meehan is one of the industry’s bona fide stars. Yet he seems completely unfazed by the steady stream of media attention he attracts. Humility and balance are two of his most laudable character traits.
“If you told me about all the opportunities that would come my way when I started in this business, I’d call you crazy. While I couldn’t have dreamt it all up, none of this would have happened without knocking on a lot of doors and receiving a lot of help along the way. I have no idea what lies ahead, but I look forward to going to work every day.”