F&W’s Masters Series: Lessons from Cocktail Expert Jim Meehan
To enter New York bar PDT (which stands for Please Don’t Tell), customers must pass through the fake back wall of a telephone booth inside an East Village hot dog joint. Clever packaging aside, it is PDT’s nightly-changing menu of delicious cocktails that has established Jim Meehan as one of the nation’s leading experts in mixing drinks. Meehan got his start as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “A friend was working at a bar called State Street Brats. It just seemed like he was working at a party. And I needed to make money,” he remembers. He didn’t experience his cocktail epiphany until after he began bartending in New York City. After apprenticing at Gramercy Tavern and Pegu Club, he launched the bar program at PDT in 2007. Here, the co-author of the Food & Wine Cocktails guide and sole author of The PDT Cocktail Book explains his surprisingly simple process to mastering cocktails one at a time, why PDT has at least four kinds of ice, and why only the most dedicated cocktail experts should invest in his Meehan Utility Bag.
What was your cocktail epiphany?
My a-ha moment was in 2003, when my friend (and fellow NYC cocktail genius) Eben Freeman took me to Milk and Honey. I had a Gold Rush. I was blown away by everything from the entrance, to the elegance of the place, to the idea of no menu. I remember the bartender putting down this frozen glass with a hand-carved ice cube and a metal straw holding this elixir of bourbon, lemon juice and honey syrup. That’s when I realized what a cocktail could be and aspired to make them even better.
What are the most important classic cocktails to master?
It’s not a small handful. I included 100 classic cocktail recipes in my book, and I would start with those 100. But honestly, instead of recipes, I think it’s most important to learn how to taste. If you ask people if they like something, they’re usually able to say yes or no, but if you ask what they like about it, they can’t break it down. I think the most important thing for amateurs and pros is to develop a vocabulary to communicate what you like and don’t like. Because at the end of the day, you can find a book that you trust, like my book or the Food & Wine Cocktails guide. But let’s say you make the recipe and it doesn’t work out. Ask yourself, why don’t you like it? What about it is out of balance? What is balance? Then the next level is being able to go back to the recipe armed with that information and change it to reflect how you think the drink could be improved.
How are cocktails evolving?
Recipes have to be constantly updated, from classics to signature drinks served over a few years, because our palates are constantly changing. Years ago a drink like the Negroni would have been far too bitter for the general public to enjoy. The collective palate is becoming a little more sour and less sweet. And as new products come out, like a new gin or a more historically correct recipe, you have to try that out to see if it works better.
As a bartender, how do you gauge customers’ palates?
I try to find out what drinks they typically enjoy, what spirits they don’t like. A lot of bartending is profiling people. It’s insane what people will say right in front of you, it’s a strange privilege. But you learn to pick up hints from the clothes, the haircut, the accent, the jewelry. There’s a difference between a Rolex Daytona watch and a Livestrong band. Those things around your wrist say a lot about your values. Odds are someone with a Livestrong bracelet is more calorie-conscious and might not like a sweet drink. Essentially, what a great bartender does is read your mind. Not being a mind reader, you have to interpret this data and guess what people want.
Any unsung cocktails?
The challenge isn’t on the new products or the historic rare stuff, it’s more the opposite. There’s so much focus now on authenticity and obscure oddities, people are having a Hemingway daiquiri before they have a daiquiri, a Martinez before a martini, a Brandy Crusta before a sidecar. (The Brandy Crusta is where they think the sidecar came from; the Martinez is thought to be the precursor of the martini. The Hemingway daiquiri isn’t a precursor but an embellishment.) Those are actually quite important and I enjoy them a lot. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be heralded or ordered, but I think that it’s important for both the bartenders and people who drink cocktails to stay focused on the very simple group of classics.
What characteristics distinguish a great cocktail from a mediocre one?
Appearance. We evaluate things with our sight first and other senses later.
Balance. If it’s a margarita, can you taste the tequila? The lime? The triple sec or orange liqueur? Is it too strong or too sweet or too sour or too bitter or is everything in harmony? And just like a chain is as strong as its weakest link, for a great cocktail you need every ingredient to have quality and integrity. Places where you see people skimping are the freshness of the juice, or the freshness and price point of the liqueurs, like using generic triple sec instead of Cointreau, or using nine-month old cassis in a Kir Royale when cassis is low-proof and oxidizes when it gets that old. So you have to understand your ingredients.
Ice. There’s the ice you use to shake or stir a drink, then the ice that you use to serve a drink. So it’s purpose is either to water down or to maintain its shape. I also think ice has an aesthetic purpose. The way a drink tastes as soon as it’s poured out of a shaker or mixing glass is the perfect taste. So theoretically, as soon as it’s served, a drink is only getting worse—warmer, more watery. I can make great drinks with what cocktail bartenders would call “bad ice.” Bad ice is the ice that you get in most ice machines, which is already melting as soon as you start working it, so you have to work with it quickly and be hyperaware of what it’s doing. The ice we get from our Kold-Draft machine melts much less rapidly, giving you more control.
Glassware. This is all subjective. In a five-star hotel I want the finest, most interesting glasses. On someone’s back porch, a coffee cup or a mason jar makes more sense. Of all the elements to a cocktail, glassware is the most prone to fashion. Years ago we all drank from V-shaped martini glasses with very straight faces. Now we drink from coupes.
Personality. Ultimately when you’re being served by someone in a bar, if you’ve asked them specifically to make a cocktail for you, the cocktail they make you should be an expression of three things. There’s a book by Kazuo Uyeda called Cocktail Technique, a very formal Japanese cocktail book. Uyeda writes that every time he makes a cocktail, he thinks first of the person who created the original recipe, second of his own favorite way to make the drink, and third and most importantly, the customer and how they think they want the drink to be made. If you consciously try to please all of those elements—the drink’s creator, the customer and yourself—you will serve a delicious drink.
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