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PDT's Jim Meehan on Cocktail Books and the Need to 'Document, Cite, and Credit'

Welcome to The Cookbook Shelf, in which Eater talks to all manner of food professionals about their book collections. Warning: serious book nerdery ahead.

[Photo: Daniel Krieger]

Here now, a Cocktail Week edition of the Cookbook Shelf: bartender Jim Meehan runs PDT (Please Don't Tell), a Beard Award-winning New York City speakeasy that operates behind a hot dog shop. A year ago Meehan published his PDT Cocktail Book, which, along with hundreds of pages of recipes from his bar, included an extensive, annotated bibliography of recommended cocktail reading. The man knows his cocktail books: after working his way through "a small fortune" buying antique drink books on eBay, Meehan describes himself as a "history-minded bartender" who is fascinated by the way the oral and written traditions of bartending interact. Below, he tells Eater about his upcoming cocktail app, the British cocktail book he can't wait to see published in the States (Tony Conigliaro's Drinks), and why the cocktail world is so interested is tracing its history through texts:

What are your go-to cocktail books? What do you recommend to people?
I would say one of the first few books that I recommend to everyone, that really got me to where I am right now, is Dale DeGroff's Craft of the Cocktail. Dale is sort of our Yoda. It came out quite a while ago, but it's filled with classic cocktails. It's one of the few books that tells the story of 1862 to now. It's just a great all around resource.

The second book would be Gary Regan's Joy of Mixology. It is the Joy of Cooking, I guess, for the cocktail world. David Embury's Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, which came out first in the 40s and then in the 50s. It's a sort of modern theoretical book about cocktails, and really about the families which each cocktail comes from. The premise there is that all cocktails are part of families, a larger sub-grouping of drinks. You know, the Margarita, the Sidecar, the Cosmopolitan are in the same family because it's pretty much a base spirit with citrus and Triple Sec. And then he'll put the Martini and the Manhattan in a similar family, and it goes on. It's a really great theoretical work about drinks.

So it looks at the structure of the cocktail recipe.
Exactly. It demystifies where the recipes come from in many ways. As well as giving you a lot of great history about both classic and new drinks. And then I think that the other two books that I'd round that off with are Ted Haigh's book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. Ted does set design, so he's currently in the credits for Boardwalk Empire. His book is beautifully decorated with all sorts of images from old books and ephemera. It was really the book that sparked my interest in lost ingredients and these drinks that weren't necessarily the Manhattans and Martinis. They were the forgotten drinks like the Aviation, the Zombie. Drinks that had an ingredient in them which had gone out of production. So this book is not solely responsible for, but it's highly responsible for the recreation or reissue of products that were either not being imported to the United States, or products that had gone out of production that have since gone back into production.

And then you can't leave out David Wondrich's book Imbibe, the biography of Jerry Thomas. Arguably, he's probably not the first famous bartender, but he was certainly one of the first famous bartenders. He wrote the first bartender's guide. His writing, in Dave's perspective, is indispensable. So there are many other books but those would be my top four, for my style, for my interest in drinks.

What books are you reading these days?
I'm unfortunately or fortunately — I guess fortunately I should say — I'm writing more than I'm reading right now. So the Food & Wine cocktail book is in full effect right now, working on that. Still writing for Sommelier Journal. I've got a lot of writing going on right now. But the book that I'm most excited about right now is — I was just in London, and Tony Conigliaro's just released his book, the title is Drinks. I've read about 20 pages of it, I haven't had the time to read it completely, but from what I've read it's brilliant. I think it's just going to be available in England to start, but hopefully it'll be coming over here soon. As I said earlier Tony is someone who I've always looked up to and been really keenly interested in his work.

A lot of the books you've mentioned refer to the importance of tracing the history of cocktail making. I've noticed that many, many cocktail books have bibliographies, including your book. That's pretty rare to see in cookbooks, although I think it could be a fascinating way to look at food. Why you think cocktail book authors find this act of referencing to be important while the texts of other fields overlook it?
Well, those first three books I talked about contained bibliographies, good bibliographies in fact. I actually used those bibliographies to find those books, mainly on eBay, and spent a small fortune. So I chose to do an annotated bibliography because some of those books are absolutely amazing, and others are bits of ephemera that have one or two interesting drinks but not worth spending $150 on eBay for.

I think in general why cocktail books tend to have this sort of scholarly aspect to them is that large swaths of the history of mixed drinks are missing. You know, the history of bars was written and came to be in places filled with people drinking. So a lot of our history is mostly oral, it's an oral tradition along with the written tradition. Many things because of the nature of bartenders — I mean, bartenders sort of take a hand shake, an oath. What happens in the bar is really supposed to stay in the bar, it's not supposed to be in Page Six the next day. So getting the actual story about what happened or who created something is way more complicated than it probably is in food.

I think that for those of us who are passionate about origins, it's vital to document, cite, and credit. That's why the books perhaps tend to be more scholarly or at least seem more scholarly than culinary books. Right now, if you only went to bars like mine, or some of the great cocktail bars, you'd think that the cocktails are sort of "Been there, done that." But I think that in reality, we're still a niche part of the bartending/drinks world. Given there's still so far to go, I think the first books [coming out of the cocktail movement] will be like this, and moving forward will be a little less serious or we'll feel less of a need to refer back.

Do you think the cocktail world sees publishing recipes as revealing secrets? Or more as a way to share and communicate?
I think they fall on both sides. Certainly some of my colleagues are not as giving as others as far as recipes go. Some people proudly consider some of their recipes to be things that they developed over years, they spent a lot of time and energy and resources on them and don't see the need to just give them away.

But I think there are others, like myself, who are on the complete opposite side. It's more along the lines of publish or perish. Maybe not perish, but become irrelevant. Maybe it's because I live in New York, but I find that in New York when you think of a great idea, if you don't act upon it someone else is going to be acting upon it. I feel like great ideas are more the result of intelligent people putting different things together. So do you want to be remembered, do you want to at least document that when you did it? Or do you want to rely on the oral traditions to verify that? I personally prefer to stake claims. I'd rather document it.

So publishing is a way of getting attribution.
Yeah, I think that's part of it, and I think the more noble part of it is: I'm good at certain things, I'm not good at other things. So that can be my contribution, is sharing [what I'm good at]. Whereas there are people like Tony Conigliaro or Dave Arnold or Eben Freeman who have a different skill set than I have, and by sharing their work I can learn from them.

One year out from publishing your book, how do you feel about it? Would you change anything?
I wouldn't characterize myself as a super sunny person, and I'm really critical of myself, especially. I have to say I am thrilled with the book, the reception to the book, the whole nine yards. It's been a wonderful experience. The one thing that I'm addressing now in an app I'm developing that will follow up the book is that one of the main criticisms was the book didn't have any photographs. Obviously, the goal was to not have photographs. Certain people who make drinks at home would have liked to have reference photographs to get an idea of what these drinks look like. The app will include photographs of everything so they can have a visual reference. That being said, I wouldn't go back and add photographs to the book now. But all in all, I love the way it's been achieved, I love the job my publisher did with printing it and distributing it. I have no regrets.

Tell me about the app.
Literally we're just in the process of even being able to talk about it. We're still working on it. What I can tell you about the app is that I have over 150 new recipes that we've created at the bar [since the book]. The staff that has worked for me for the last couple of years, many of them aren't really represented in the book because it took about a year and a half to write it and some people moved on. So the app will have all the new recipes in it and it will allow me something that I can actually upgrade with new recipes. I think what's different between a book and an app is the app is more dynamic, it allows me to add and to edit and to address consumer needs in real time, as opposed to in posterity.

Any idea when it will be released?
The goal would be to get it out late Spring, early Summer, hopefully no later than June. When I started writing the book there were a couple of different concepts that I had in mind. One was the PDT book, which was the best option so I followed that. The second was a more professional bartenders' guide, more of a professional manual. I thought, I'm going to be in this business for the rest of my life, so should I really try to write my definitive bar manual while I'm half or two-thirds of the way through my career? But that being said, the great part about this app will be how you can use it to search recipes. I think that's something about a book is that it doesn't have indexing and databasing capabilities that an app does. Both my bartenders and guests will be able to look at all the drinks we've done.

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