8 Questions for Your Favorite Bartender, Jim Meehan
Ahem, please DO tell.
February 28, 2018
By LM Schnaubelt | Illustration by Gianmarco Magnani, Collage by ChefsFeed
The only way to learn how to tend bar is by doing it.
It’s an old trade, but after all these years, the way in is still through absorption, through working with booze and sugar and ice and listening to many conversations at once without forgetting the list running in your own head. It’s tricky to explain great service, because the better it is, the less you notice how the individual pieces come together.
Jim Meehan’s The PDT Cocktail Book: The Complete Bartender's Guide from the Celebrated Speakeasy came out in 2011, and like most places, we had a copy behind the bar where I worked at the time. One night, a fellow bartender pointed me not to the recipes, but to a section called “The PDT Experience.”
That was the first time I saw my craft memorialized in language that spoke to the true art of bar service.
There aren’t many employee manuals handed out to bartenders—and if there are, they tend to be about company policies, not the finer points of service. “The PDT Experience” was a succinct two-page manifesto, but it made me feel like there were people in my field who were thinking about the profession on a deeper level. Who were trying to steer it back toward its roots; giving people a space to feel welcome, to experience true delight.
Meehan is a writer as much as a bartender. The two skills are neatly woven together: From his writing, you always get the sense that he is driven by a larger desire to make the bar better, through a carefully calculated experience down to the drinks—though he’s always quick to point out how much he didn’t know when he first got started. In 2012, PDT was awarded the first-ever James Beard award for Outstanding Bar Program.
Meehan recently published a new book, Meehan’s Bartender Manual. Bartending is a historically oral tradition, and as a result, many recipes and history are lost; the manual is Meehan’s attempt to capture the soul of bartending at this distinct moment in time—and to contribute his own record to the history of the profession.
The book takes operating or tending bar down to the bones, for both pros and novices. How to build a bar to provide great service, how to train bartenders, and what to make. There’s a section on building a home bar, and a breakdown of how to tackle an elaborate 11-drink-ticket on a busy night.
It’s comprehensive, but not overwhelming. It’s an open door to a world built on theatrical mystery and well-guarded secrets—a world Meehan helped to build.
So: I asked him some questions, and he responded from plane seats, his new bar, and home.
Photograph by Doron Gild, Collage by ChefsFeed
Q: You released this book at the same time as the opening of your new Chicago bar, Prairie School. What was the concept there?
I grew up next to a Frank Lloyd Wright home in River Forest and Oak Park, IL, where Frank Lloyd Wright lived and worked for many years. For my first homecoming project, I’ve partnered with Matt Eisler and Kevin Heisner of Heisler Hospitality to create a bar that both pays homage and channels the legacy of Wright and the Prairie School architects through our design, drinks, service and food to create something world-class and uniquely Midwestern.
Q: Do guests interact with the space the way you imagined?
The honest answer to that question is no: I envisioned the entry being standing room, with seating in the center and back of the barroom. We recently moved the standing tables to the center of the bar to bring more energy to the room. These sorts of changes are often needed during the opening process, when your vision runs into reality.
Hindsight is always 20/20, so I try not to beat myself or my partners up about the mistakes. The early challenges have been getting our reservation system established and making the table and chair configurations work. We opened a bar filled with 4-tops, which was ideal for Kevin to build gorgeous tables and chairs, but it hasn’t been ideal to accommodate the typical party size of guests out in the neighborhood.
Q: Tell me a cocktail story.
After seeing my friend Halvor Digenes use a Japanese kakigori machine [a hand-cranked ice shaver that makes fluffy, snow-like ice] to serve drinks at Fuglen in Tokyo, I’ve always wanted to use it in the US, but haven’t had the right concept or enough room on the bar until now. Wright and the Prairie School architecture are influenced by traditional Japanese buildings which gives me the artistic liberty to integrate Japanese tools, vessels and ingredients into our cocktail program.
For our Lemon Ice cocktail, I mix local Chicago vodka and Illinois sparkling wine with lemon juice and sugar to create a drink that looks and tastes just like the Johnnie’s Lemon Italian Ices I grew up with.
Q: How do you get consistency AND creativity behind the bar?
The two aren’t mutually exclusive if your bartenders understand where there’s room in each recipe to nip and tuck, and you get them involved in the cocktail program. Recipes function like musical compositions that bartenders can riff upon like jazz musicians—if they know the notes, tune, audience and their bandmates well enough.
The most important thing when you open a bar is to establish what a house cocktail is and isn’t, and we’re still in the initial stages collecting feedback from our guests, who are the most important stakeholders in Prairie School’s success.
Q: No smoking in bars, pretty ice, tasty vermouth—what do you hope gets even better? What do you ache for as a bartender resource?
We still work behind bars that remain remarkably similar (from a design perspective) to those built in the 1800’s. I’d love to see bars become more ergonomically sound for bartenders and for our tools to continue to evolve and improve.
Q: Did mezcal snuff out brandy?
What goes around comes around in this industry, which means brandy should have its five minutes of fame again soon. I’ve become obsessed with eau de vie in the past few years and have never stopped mixing with brandy—mostly cognac—in my cocktails. Like American whiskey—which experienced a generation in decline in the 60’s and 70’s—the lack of popularity has allowed the producers who’ve hung on to build up their aged stocks, which is great for those of us who still serve it.
Q: How do you train bartenders to deal with the dreaded word, "sweet?"
Most guests who say they don’t want something sweet mean that they don’t want something they don’t like the taste of. “Sweet” might as well mean “insipid” in our business. The request is a plea for help: they want to try a cocktail, but have been burned in the past and are not confident or optimistic about their chances of receiving a cocktail they’ll be satisfied with.
Q: Where do you hope to spot your book being read?
There’s nothing that makes me happier than seeing people who aren’t in the industry reading my book, because it shows a genuine interest in relating to and empathizing with bartenders. There’s a lot in there for non-bartenders, but it certainly helps to put yourself in a bartender’s shoes to receive it.