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Jim Meehan on the PDT Cocktail Book, the Recipe Canon

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If you've heard of PDT, the stories have most likely been shrouded in mystery, intrigue and a bit of tipsy enthusiasm. The bar, whose name is short for Please Don't Tell, is peculiarly located through a secret(ish) door within East Village hot dog stand Crif Dogs in New York City. Upon emerging through the stand's unassuming phone booth into a taxidermy laden and leather adorned den, one will discover a dark and cozy bit of America's blossoming cocktail culture, and some evenings its managing partner and award winning barkeep, Jim Meehan.

Having opened the bar in 2007 with owner Brian Shebairo, Meehan has since been the face and voice of PDT's thriving success. In November, Meehan's first book, The PDT Cocktail Book (buy on Amazon — out November 1), will allow readers a peek into one of the world's most revered cocktail bars without having to squeeze through a phone booth.

Tell me a little bit about how you got started as a bartender.
I began working in bars back in 1995 as a freshman in college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. My friend Andre was working the door at a bar called State Street Brats and seemed to be having more fun at work then anyone I'd ever met. He got me a job and I worked my way up to manager before I was old enough to come in for a drink. I worked in a number of bars in Madison, most notably Paul's Club, until 2002, when I decided to join my brother Peter, who moved to New York City in 1996. I fell in love with the city as soon as I stepped foot here.

Yearning for a bigger wing to fly under, I found Vicki Freeman and Chris Paraskevaides at Five Points, Jimmy Bradley and Danny Abrams at Pace, Kevin Mahan and Juliette Pope at Gramercy Tavern and Audrey Saunders and Julie Reiner at the Pegu Club. I supplemented my work studies with a B.A.R. certification from Dale DeGroff, David Wondrich, Steve Olson, Andy Seymour, Doug Frost and Paul Pacult in 2006, which has become an industry standard among American bartenders. I've worked for some of the best in the business in New York City, but honestly, I'm still a work in progress.

In a few sentences what is PDT and what do you do there?
You know it's difficult to fit what PDT is into just a few words. Part of opening a business in New York is its particularity. You can't just open an Italian restaurant. You have to specialize in a dish from Campania with a hand crafted wood burning oven by a third generation so and so and so on. However, the concept can't be so contrived that it doesn't feel organic. It has to feel like a product of its time and place.

That's why we chose to serve hot dogs at PDT, which might not have been the case at a different point in time. Part of the DNA of a successful restaurant in New York is that it has to meet the needs of the community that it's in. It has to be an earnest expression of the owners love for what they do.

We have so many options in New York. Good options. The way that we spend our money, especially in this economy, says a lot about our values and our sense of style, politics, everything. [New York bartender] Gary Regan says something like, "When you go to a bar you should feel cool because you go there." Not Joe Cool, Snoopy cool, but going to a bar should validate the decision that you made to go there. I think a great bartender should make you feel better for coming. It's my job to validate your decision to come to PDT. My staff is an invaluable resource, and not based on their arcane knowledge of old cocktail books or their passion for bitters, but because they're good people. They're a big part of the reason PDT makes people feel cool.

We've never advertised. Never placed a help wanted ad. Never had a publicist. We don't have a website that functions. We don't use Facebook or Twitter. Our success is based on word of mouth. When people are only in New York for three days, if they come to PDT, and walk through a hot dog stand into this crazy bar, and it makes them feel better about coming to New York, then we've succeeded. PDT gives people the opportunity to share their discovery with others and that's a very valuable consumer experience that very few brands of any sort can offer to their clients on a regular basis.

So, what is PDT? PDT is a 43-seat cocktail lounge attached to a famous East Village hot dog stand. And who am I? I'm Brian Shebairo's managing partner and I do so many different things. I used to be behind the bar fulltime, but haven't been for two years because I travel so much. Now, I run the cocktail program, hire and train the staff, buy the spirits and do PR.

Why did you want to write a cocktail book?
It's become clear to me as I've traveled and spoken to bartenders in other countries or cities that PDT is a very difficult concept to explain to people who have never been or heard of it. When you tell someone about ducking into a phone booth and emerging into a cocktail lounge, you're taking away from the discovery experience.

I've never been able to put PDT in my suitcase, take it to other places, and say, "This is what I do. This is what I am." While this book doesn't make up for the experience, I don't have any regrets about things that were cut or went unpublished. Everything was included—every original recipe we've served until Spring 2010 and more. It's a complete bar manual, and the first printing, that I know of, of Wiley [Dufresne]'s Fried Mayo recipe. There are so many resources down to an architectural blueprint of the bar. It's going to be a great platform for me.

How is the PDT cocktail book different from other cocktail books today?
I don't think there's anything necessarily like it on the market right now. I had wanted to write a cocktail book for years after doing five Food & Wine cocktail books and three Mr. Bostons. Those were never mine—I was very much a hired gun. My publisher at Sterling told me to go for it, and empowered me to write the book that I proposed. They held me to my original proposal, which is very rare in a publisher.

When I wrote it I very much wanted it to be of its time. I don't think there's a better theoretical book than The Joy of Mixology [by Gary Regan], and I would always recommend Craft of the Cocktail [by Dale DeGroff] as a primer for cocktails. As a book collector, I have favorites from the classics too. At no point was I trying to outdo or rewrite these.

As far as the format, my desire was to be very precise about who created each recipe and then who wrote about it. As a bartender writing a book, I wanted to do my own style of history. This way it will help people track down where it came from. The reason we need David Wondrich or Jeff Berry or Ted Haigh is because they record history. If they have to go to a library in Cornwall to do it, they'll do it. What was important to me was not was to find out if it was first mentioned in a newspaper in Hudson County in 1803, but if it was actually being made in bars in London or New York. Not that I discount the first mention at all, but I want to emphasize when it become a relevant drink. Maybe it won't be the Savoy Cocktail Book, but it will certainly have the most clues as to who created and wrote about the recipes.

What was the writing process like?
The book project took me out of the bar. I can't write when I'm drinking, so it kept me quite sober because when I write I really have to cloister myself. Bartending is instant gratification. You get to make drinks and see people instantly enjoy (or not enjoy) them. Writing is an entirely solitary experience, and this took two years.

I spent a lot of time and energy buying pamphlets, which in the end aren't very helpful. Many cocktail books have bibliographies which helped me start a list for my own book, but most of them aren't annotated, so I was doing a ton of research tracking down recipes. As for the guide in the back, I noticed that a lot of the hotel cocktail books have huge wine primers, but didn't spend much time on spirits primers, so I wanted to have a very detailed section on spirits. So many spirits definitions talk about what spirits aren't, so I tried to talk about what spirits are. I spoke to the experts in the field and read books on each category. My brother tested and wrote the food recipes, and I had a great deal of advice from people like him and Paul Pacult who are experts at what they do.

You and your bartenders know and create so many recipes. How did you decide which ones to include?
I knew I wanted to have at least 300 recipes. There are so many cocktail books today that have 50 or 100 recipes. The bigger ones like Mr. Boston have 700-some. I decided to include every recipe we've served since we opened in 2007 through Spring 2010, which ended up being 153 originals. We also included 101 classics and 50 recipes from friends and family.

It was interesting how the process of writing the book actually changed some of the specs of our drinks. I had so many recipes for the French 75 so my staff and I went through and tasted each of them made with everything from Tanqueray to Beefeater. I never thought it would be best with Tanqueray, but it was so now we make French 75s with Tanqueray. You'll notice that each recipe in the book is branded, which I mention in the back of the book are just guidelines. If a reader sees a recipe that calls for Fernet Branca, Beefeater 24 and Suze, and he lives in Maine, how is he supposed to make these drinks? Obviously, if you've never made a drink before, it's best to stick close to the recipe, but for those who understand them, it's just a guideline.

I always made Manhattans with Carpano Antica, but when I tried it with and Martini and Rossi it was just better. On the other hand, I made a martini with Dolin Blanc and Dolin Dry vermouth. It tasted so much better with Dolin Blanc, but I would never change a martini recipe, because it's not a martini if you make it with Dolin Blanc. This just comes down to personal preference.

Talk a bit about the collaboration with your illustrator.
I spent a year looking for an illustrator. I had two in mind, but they didn't work out. One day, I was sitting on the subway after the second prospect fell through and I looked up and saw this fish illustration. I thought, "This is the style I'm looking for." I really like the style of Frank Meier's Artistry of Mixing Drinks and Charles Schumann's American Bar. I knew I wanted something of this moment like those were at their own times. So I saw Chris Gall's illustration and I went home and Googled him. His website had a contact page, so I emailed him and said, "I know this sounds crazy, but?" This is before I went on Jimmy Fallon and before PDT won Best Bar and Best Bartender in 2009 [at Tales of the Cocktail], so I told him if certain things fell into place I thought it might be a big opportunity.

He emailed me the next morning and said, "I have the first edition of the Savoy Cocktail Book," and I was like, "We need to speak." He came a month and half later and I took him out to Milk and Honey and Death and Co., because I wanted him to see New York cocktail culture. I knew I couldn't afford his illustrations because he's been doing this for over 25 years, so I proposed that we split the book. Eventually, alongside my proposal he put together a little book with the recipes and illustrations in a spread much like in the book now, and from there we ended up selling it.

It's sometimes hard to partner with creative people. A lot of times you give them a brief and they come back with something you didn't ask for or that doesn't address the brief. When I gave Chris a suggestion he would do it or he would come back with something ten times better. He turned around work so fast it was unbelievable. It was an amazing collaboration.

There's a spread on page 200 of a bear walking across Lincoln Center. On the previous pages you see recipes for the Paddington [PDT's taxidermied bear] and the Opera Cocktail. On page 89 there are recipes for the Chrysanthemum and the Chien Chaud, and on the facing page an image of a woman walking in Central Park with a French bulldog [my dog, Pearl] and chrysanthemums on her dress. If you look at them, all of the illustrations work with the drinks. We wanted the book to have a classic feel—to be nostalgic, but not derivative.

Do you plan to update the book regularly for new editions?
When I first conceived the project, part of the idea to keep the trim size down was not only because classic bar books have been smaller through the ages, but to remain old school and preserve print edition details. Nowadays, bartenders have all their recipes on their phones, but I'm glad the resources were devoted to putting out a beautiful book. I feel like the next step is to work on an edition that can be constantly refreshed with our new drinks, so it can all be kept it one's pocket and drive new audiences to the book.

How do you see the book fitting into the continuum of historical cocktail books?
The way that people receive my book will determine whether it will be written into history or not. Whether this book or PDT will become historical is up to other people to decide, but whether it's a part of the conversation now is undoubted. What has happened since 2000 in the New York cocktail world has changed everything.

There's who you think you are and who other people think you are. One the gambles I took on this book, and one I never had to take on at PDT, was giving up control to a publisher. PDT is very self indulgent. Not in an egotistical or self centered way, but in a way that I have complete control over the music, the cocktail menu, the expectation that guests have a role in the ambiance of the bar. The way PDT runs the way that it does, and the reason that I wrote this book, is to constantly be better. If you're going to buy this book or come in and spend $15 on a drink, it better be worth it.

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