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PDT's Jim Meehan on His New Cocktail App and Bartenders Pushing Boundaries

Today, Eater is covering the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen live from the Eater Lounge at the Limelight Hotel. Right now: bartender Jim Meehan
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[Photo: Eater]

So what's up? What's going on?
Where do I begin? There's still PDT. PDT is growing. We celebrated seven years on May 25. So, that's going strong. I'm here all summer presenting the Centurion Lounge project that I'm working on, beginning with Anthony [Giglio], and eventually Dean [Fearing]. American Express just introduced Cedric Vongerichten and Chris Kostow last night, so, I made drinks with them. Kate [Krader] and I did seminars today. This is my third or fourth year giving seminars with Kate Krader. We always do one that's related to the cocktail book and sort of those trendy, topical roundups of what's going on. The other one, we pick something that's interesting. This year we picked brunch cocktails.

This our tenth anniversary for the Food & Wine cocktail book, so we're going to be talking about what's happened over the past ten years. Kate and I are going to be joined by Charlotte Voisey who is the William Grant portfolio specialist. She's from London and was one of the first brand ambassadors to come to New York. She and Simon Ford both brought a lot of international cocktail culture to New York and eventually America. What else am I up to? I have a few projects that are on the back burner, but I'm legally obligated to not talk about them yet.

Is one of those projects maybe an app for the PDT book?
That actually I can talk about. We've been working on this for awhile. Essentially when the PDT book came out, one of the criticisms was "This looks like a great recipe, but I wish I knew what it looked like. There's no visual references for what the drink should look like." I chose an illustrator, so there's not any photos. I think that the other valid criticism was the index. The book is 370 pages long, and they only gave me six or eight pages for index. The index is totally insufficient for what it needs to be.

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I'm partnering with Martin Doudoroff, he founded CocktailDB with Ted Haigh ten years ago, and he put out Jeff Berry's new app. He's working on another app with the gentleman I can't talk about, who is amazing. So, we've been working on this. It's all the recipes that are in the PDT book, plus everything since then. It's going to be 450 recipes. Everything is photographed and even all the ingredients are photographed. If you look at it, it has the recipe, a picture of the drink, it has the annotation of it. The ingredients are linked. It will have information on what Curacao is and a picture of the bottle.

One of the things I've found, with a cocktail bar, especially when you bring someone new in and ask them to go downstairs and grab you a bottle of orange Curacao or green Chartreuse, there's 400 bottles down there and they just don't know the bottles yet. The younger generation is much more visual and photo and video oriented than my generation, so it's going to be a great tool. My book is A to Z, and a lot of cocktail books are A to Z. You go for gin drinks, rum drinks, or tequila drinks. [In the app] you can look by creator, style of drink. So it's basically a database that makes it very easy to find a drink. I'm pretty excited about that.

When it will be available to the public?
The photography part takes around three hours to shoot 15 drinks, and there's 450 drinks and 1000 ingredients. My goal is to get this by August or September. The other great thing about an app is you can update it. The thing that's hard about PDT is everything is changing. This will allow me to change ingredients if I want to and also add new drinks.

With PDT's anniversary, what's changed in those seven years?
The cocktail world is so different. You look at the history of New York cocktail culture, [and] there's Milk & Honey and Angel Share before that. Milk & Honey, then Little Branch, then Pegu Club… There'd be two or three cocktail bars that opened a year, starting in 2004, when Employees Only in Flatiron opened. Now, you have five or ten great cocktail bar openings in New York every year. People used to come to New York that always came to PDT. It was one of the six or seven bars that you hit. Now, there's 25 great cocktail bars or more in Manhattan and more than 15 great cocktail bars in Brooklyn. It's just grown a ton. It's all for the better.

But as a business operator, trying to keep PDT fresh and keep it in the conversation… When we opened, we had mostly chefs and bartenders and industry journalists. It was an industry bar when we opened. Now, we're really a consumer bar. At any given night, you'll see tourists. It sort of feels like Katz's Deli some of the times. In some ways, early on, with the Beard Awards and the Cocktail Classic, we used to be slammed, and we'd give the bar away every weekend to all these national and international chefs and bartenders. This weekend, we really had very few people come through. In one sense, it's not sad, but it makes you a little concerned you've fallen off the critical face of the Earth. In another sense, it's really amazing to be fully reserved almost any day of the week and to be reintroducing cocktails to a larger audience.

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For me, I'm much more interested to grow the base of cocktails to a larger audiences than to be a trendsetter that is pushing the boundaries. I feel that's what Dave Arnold is doing, and he's doing an amazing job at that. I'm so glad, because that means I don't have to. There are certain people that have taken specific focuses, not that I feel they are pressuring me or anyone is pressuring me but myself, but seeing the way people are specializing allows me to find my niche and find what I'm good at.

What do you think the next seven years brings for PDT?
One of the other big things that is changing, when you look at the NoMad Bar and The Dead Rabbit, these are bars that cost $1 million, $2 million — the new Nomad bar maybe $3 million or $4 million — PDT opened for around $600,000. And I believe we need to do what we do. We can't be thinking about what everybody else is doing and then operate in reference to that. When the economy tanked and PDT opened, we did really well because we were an ambitious bar with high quality offerings during a rough time. Now that we're back to sort of a boom time, and people are spending a ton of money on bars, we need to retain our identity and remain dynamic.

Ten years is a huge deal. So we signed our second lease, and we have another nine years on our lease. It's really continuing to invest in the physical plan and continuing to invest in great new talent and continuing to try to keep doing what we're doing. We're embracing the possibility of becoming an institution. I think that's something that will be huge if it continues to build up.

What's happening in the cocktail community, right now, that you're excited about?
There's nothing that's not exciting about the new NoMad bar. I think that in the wake of their Beard Award, those guys could always coast and they never do. They keep pushing. I just stopped by there on their first night and they're doing the large-format cocktails, which are beautiful. They're doing Coravin short pours of really cool wines.

One of the things I tell people about opening a cocktail bar is your station and your mise en place really decides whether you can run a cocktail bar or not. If you go to the top kitchens in the world and they're designed by the chef, in collaboration with all of the producers, the stations are all set up to crank. I think seeing that next level of bar design get closer to the level chefs are at is something that's really going to drive innovation and the quality of the drinks that we can serve. I love what Sean [Muldoon] and Jack [McGarry] are doing at Dead Rabbit. [It's] kind of what PDT has, with two bars instead of a hotdog stand and a bar, but having a casual space that people can drink beers, but be in a real bar with a more refined space upstairs.

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People who are probably not the best students of history have started pushing the historic pendulum a little too far forward. I don't think we should be drinking Long Island iced teas again. I don't think we should be drinking these disco-era drinks because, from a historical perspective, we know once we start serving those, people stop drinking cocktails. We know what happens next. Instead of pushing us into the '60s and '70s, which is like jumping off a cliff, we need to make cocktail bars fun and we need to make them accessible, but we don't need to make ourselves obsolete. I think that's the challenge as we move forward in the years to come. How do we continue to bring people into the fold, along with people who have been along for the ride and are sort of ready to unbutton their tie and let loose?

I think it's hard to have both those groups in the same space. That's why The Dead Rabbit and NoMad work well. If you want to have your hushed serious conversation or date, you go into the NoMad Library. If you want to have the raucous bar experience, you stay in the NoMad bar. I think you'll see that in the new NoMad bar. Bars and restaurants, like Gramercy Tavern, that have the sort of booming, bustling place and the more hush hush place allows guests and operators the opportunity to offer different dining experiences within the same space. Chefs are allowed to go casual or sort of formal depending on the guests and what kind of night they're having.

What are you so over? What pisses you off?
In general, I think the only thing, and I wouldn't say it pisses me off, but it scares me that in the past few years, like with the James Beard Award, the door to cocktails becoming a fully recognized culinary art has opened further and further every year and I think we're not there yet. We still have a long way to go. I think it's very important for my peers and constituents to remain role models and keep pushing forward. You're sort of missionary spirit, you get sick of it or the blade gets a little bit dull. I think it's important, as a leader, to evolve and to grow. The endurance factor of that is also important. I just want everyone that have been with me for the past ten years to keep going. We've got a long way to go.

What's the craziest opportunity you've ever turned down?
I just turned an amazing opportunity down.

Tell me about it.
I probably shouldn't tell you about it.

I think you should.
I just turned down, and I won't say which properties, but it was an amazing offer to do a drinks program for one of New York's most venerable hotels. And I turned it down.

Why did you turn it down?
It was not the right deal for me to be able to do what I do. I think that's the sort of thing I find, with respect to deals, is that people are happy to pay a big name chef a mega-fortune to take over a culinary program, but when the budget comes down to the bar program, it's still like an afterthought. They spend all the money in the kitchen and there's no money left to design the bar. Even though the paychecks aren't what I want, they're still very good.

For me, the products I've said no to have defined me more than the things I've done. It's an interesting sort of thing. I'm sure it would be fun to find out all the things that, say, Thomas Keller turned down. When you're as far along as Thomas or Danny Meyer, these are the things that are the road they didn't take, but they really wanted to, but decided not to, [which] probably led them in another direction or forced them to focus on something they are already doing. That's huge. It's a great question.

· All Jim Meehan Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Aspen 2014 Coverage on Eater [-E-]

Limelight Hotel

355 S Monarch St, Aspen, CO 81611

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