Jim Meehan, co-owner of New York’s cult hot-dog-stand-turned-cocktail-bar PDT, has just picked up Tales of the Cocktail gongs for Best American Bartender and World’s Best Cocktail Bar in New Orleans. Alice Lascelles asks the man from Please Don’t Tell to Please Tell All…
The return of the tiny bar was a popular topic of conversation at this year’s Tales. PDT (Please Don’t Tell) seats 43 at a push with no standing allowed. How do you make it work as a business?
‘Basically, 43 seats is not enough to make anyone rich or to pay out two or three partners. But we’ve just been extremely fortunate, because when we opened, the premises was attached to a hot dog stand for licensing purposes – it was the hot dog stand that actually had the liquor licence. To have a street entrance we would have needed a separate licence, and at the time the community board was being very strict and we never would have got that licence.’
In New York, to be successful you
have to open with a very specific
concept. A hot dog and a cocktail
sounds insane – but it’s great
Guests gain access to PDT through a phone booth in the hot dog stand. Where did that idea come from?
‘It was very much out of a sense of humour. We were being cheeky, and it led to a lot of media attention. In New York, to be successful you have to open with a very specific concept, like Mayahuel, a fabulous new tequila and mescal bar, or Pegu, which opened primarily as a gin bar. A hot dog and a cocktail sounds insane – but you try it and it’s great.’
What approach have you taken with your cocktail list?
‘The philosophy is seasonal, with a menu that changes about four times a year. Four local beers, three local wines, champagne and around 18 cocktails. We originally opened with a classic cocktail focus, but now we’ve circled the wagons and are really focusing on our own cocktails. We also try to use wine and beer in our drinks. We always have a seasonal beer cocktail – at the moment it’s a Michelada spiked with mescal. We also do a wine cocktail and a couple of champagne cocktails, plus a punch – at the moment it’s one made with genever.’
Give us an example of the seasonal drinks on the list right now…
‘Some very simple drinks like the Cherry Pop – an Aviation-style drink with fresh muddled cherries served long with crushed ice. Or a drink I created a couple of years ago, the Imperial Blueberry Fizz – muddled blueberries, cognac, Crème Yvette (a kind of crème de violette) and champagne, served in a coupe with an orchid. I believe there’s virtually nothing you can’t mix in a drink – I’ve even used puréed peas. Give your customers a reason to come back and try new things.’
So what are the trends on the East Coast cocktail scene at the moment?
‘Cocktails have gone from something like the Cosmo, which is strong, sweet and sour, to the Pegu Club, which is strong, sweet, sour and bitter. We’re seeing a lot more bitters and things like Benedictine. Mescal has also taken New York City by storm and it’s increasingly being used like an Islay malt, as they have a similar smokiness. Smoke is definitely another new trend. Gins like Beefeater 24 and Bols Genever, and rye whiskey – we can’t keep it on the shelves. And of course there’s saké and shochu. Vermouth and fortified wines are also becoming more interesting – I’m really looking to trend that.’
I believe there’s virtually nothing
you can’t mix in a drink –
I’ve even used puréed peas
What about the finishing touch – the garnish?
‘I’m probably the worst garnisher in America. Having a chef to run your drinks past is invaluable. I had a lot of fun one time with a Japanese chef who brought out all these micro-herbs for us to experiment with, which was awesome. I think people are also looking more now at using hydrosols and absolutes, using egg white as a special garnish or atomisers or droppers’.
Speaking of chefs – it’s often the case that people will go to a restaurant because they know a great chef will be in residence, actually cooking there. But ‘celebrity bartenders’ don’t exist in quite the same way. Why do you think that is?
‘In America there are only a handful of cocktail consultants who are getting equity in bars. And until they have it, you won’t see them working behind the bar in the way you might see a famous chef in his restaurant. If it’s your money – you’ll be there! When it comes to London, my theory is that as soon as you become quite elevated or win a few competitions you get sucked up by a brand to become a brand ambassador, which is a shame.’
Any favourite bartending gadgets at the moment?
‘Well, a Kold-Draft ice maker has become virtually a must-stock piece of equipment. The clarity of the ice is fantastic. But it has also made bartending one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done. Shaking a drink with Kold-Draft rock ice is like… well, I saw this bartender with a t-shirt that said ‘Body by Kold-Draft’. You feel it in your elbows, in your shoulders and wrists. If you want to stay in bartending for a long time, you can’t work more than three nights a week. Otherwi
se it’s too demanding both physically and psychologically.’
The US’s burgeoning micro-distillery scene has been attracting a lot of interest in the UK – what do you make of it?
‘The micro-distilled spirits thing is a huge conundrum in America right now. A lot of bartenders look at my backbar and go “Oh, Maker’s Mark, that’s a huge brand”. But what if you’ve got a big brand that actually makes great product? Brands like that have created the liquid that set the standard that others try and emulate. Meanwhile you’re getting many micro-distilleries popping up that don’t have any experience in distillation or don’t have access to the botanicals. So, I’m excited about some of the new gins but the supply is too high now. I don’t have room for 20 gins on my backbar. And if I have a new gin I have to teach my staff how to use it. I’m much more interested in the styles – London Dry, Plymouth gin, Genever, Old Tom – and helping people to realise what different styles are available.’
On your travels, which bar scenes have really impressed you?
‘On my last visit to London I liked The Connaught, which was very elegant; and Callooh Callay was very adventurous with its menu, plus I liked the Alice in Wonderland concept. The Japanese and Germans have this natural attention to detail and style – they’re almost like the Mercedes-Benz of the cocktail world. Whereas I’d say PDT is like a muscle car. We’re the Shelby Cobra of cocktails.’
SHISO MALT SOUR
55ml Yamazaki 12YO whiskey
20ml lime juice
20ml simple sugar syrup
5ml Vieux Pontarlier absinthe
3 shiso leaves (2 to muddle, 1 for garnish)
Muddle the shiso leaves and sugar syrup in a mixing glass. Add everything else, then shake without ice. Add ice, shake and fine-strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a shiso leaf.
BEER AND A SMOKE
170ml Victory Pilsner
30ml Sombra mescal
20ml lime juice
1 dash of The Bitter Truth Celery Bitters
4 dashes of Cholula
Put everything but the beer in a mixing glass, then add ice. Stir and strain into a chilled Collins glass rimmed with kosher salt, celery salt and ground black pepper. Top with pilsner and garnish with grated orange and lime zest.
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – September / October 2009