"Vodka was never interesting to me until recently."
PDT (short for "Please Don't Tell") isn't that much of a secret these days. Sure, it's still tucked away behind a phone booth at Crif Dogs, which keeps out the passersby—but Jim Meehan's cocktails draw crowds nonetheless. He earned a Rising Star award from Star Chefs in 2007, and the Spirit Award for the American Bartender of the Year at last year's Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans. And his cozy drink haven is right in our own backyard.
Name: Jim Meehan
Location: East Village
Occupation: Mixologist/Owner PDT
At what point in your life did you develop your love for cocktails? I started working in a bar during my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin. Back then it was Long Island Iced Teas and Alabama Slammers in 16 oz. plastic cups. Now, it's Sazeracs and Hemingway Daiquiris. Regardless of the drink, mixing and serving cocktails has captivated me for a long time.
How did PDT come to life? A former regular of mine at Five Points, Chris Antista, brought me on as a consultant. He and Brian Shebairo, who own both Crif Dogs and PDT, were looking for someone to create a cocktail program for the bar they were building. At the time, I was tending bar at Gramercy Tavern and the Pegu Club. I created the first menu, hired the staff, helped fine-tune the concept, and opened the bar as a consulting beverage director. A few months after we opened, I picked up a few bartending shifts. John Deragon and Don Lee, who both made the improbable jump from bar regulars to bartenders, were extremely influential in getting things off to a good start. Ultimately, Brian's light-hearted sense of humor has been a perfect foil for my sadistic attention to detail—a business-oriented approach to running a bar.
What is your personal process for creating a new cocktail? At PDT, I put together a list of seasonal produce, base spirits, and modifiers before cocktail development. Every drink I create centers around the flavor profile of the base spirit. Modifiers such as citrus, fortified wines, vermouth, bitters, produce and carbonated mixers are all employed to compliment the base—never to cover up the "taste of alcohol". I like to mix lesser known, historic spirits with more familiar ingredients to introduce guests to new flavor combinations. My goal is to develop delicious, quaffable drinks that are easy to prepare in my bar, with ingredients that are widely available. If a drink is going to stand the test of time, it needs to have all these characteristics.
PDT is now serving its first-ever vodka-based cocktail. What made you decide to add it and why didn't you have any until now? Karlsson's, the vodka I use to prepare the Gold Coast, is the first "flavorful" vodka (that isn't flavored) I've ever tasted. After visiting the distillery and meeting the people who developed the product, I created a cocktail that compliments the vodka by mixing flavors I encountered while dining in Sweden. Mixing drinks with subtle base spirits that is challenging: you don't want to bury them with other ingredients. Vodka was never interesting to me until recently. For many years, I felt that vodka and its consumption undermined the viability of the cocktail renaissance in American bars. Now, I feel that consciously avoiding working with vodka (or any spirit category) can potentially undermine the continued success and advancement of the movement.
Are there particular people who influenced you or served as mentors along the way? I've always tried to pick something up from everyone I work with. Notable mentors include Kelly Meuer and Ross Johnson at State Street Brats (Madison) for their work ethic. Evan Lehmann at Paul's Club (Madison) for making everything look effortless. Sam Parker at the Great Dane (Madison) helped me realize how important it was to be a role model. Chris Paraskevaides of Five Points (NYC) taught me that the guest was my boss. Danny Abrams of the Mermaid Inn (NYC) showed me the business side of the bar. Juliette Pope of Gramercy Tavern (NYC) showed me that a beverage director needed to master management. And Audrey Saunders of the Pegu Club (NYC) taught me just about everything else.
If you could put together a three course meal with dishes from three different NYC restaurants, what would you include? The Lobster Burrata from Marea, the Liverwurst from the Modern Bar Room, and the Burger at Back Forty with a Side of Brussels Sprouts from Ssam Bar.
What are your favorite local hangouts or places you might be considered a regular? Liquiteria, Ninth Street Espresso, Death & Co., Ssam Bar, Mayahuel, Back Forty, WD-50, and Frankies Spuntino are my favorite places to eat and drink in the East Village.
Have you had a cocktail lately in NYC that has knocked your socks off? I had a mezcal epazote drink at a Haiti Benefit that was made by Miguel Aranda of Yerba Buena Perry Street. It was excellent.
What NYC foods do you crave the most often? From reading the list above, you can gather what I miss when I leave the city. In general, I miss the overall quality of food in New York City. Not every pizza is as good as Motorino, bagel as good as David's, or sandwich as good as 'wichcraft, but New York takes food more seriously than almost any other city in the country. I miss the coffee from Ninth Street Espresso and crave Momofuku the most when I'm out of town.
Everyone has a go-to person they call for restaurant/bar recommendations. Who's yours? My brother Peter used to be the $25 and Under reviewer for the New York Times, so I used to ask him.
What's the best recommendation he/she has given you? He took me to Sripraphai, years ago. It was one of the best meals I've ever had in New York City.