Jim Meehan opened PDT—the secret/famous cocktail lounge accessed through a phone booth in the East Village's Crif Dogs—in 2007. Since then, we've loved his drinks and his work on Food & Wine's annual cocktail guide. His PDT Cocktail Book is one of our home bar essentials. Meehan is schooled in classic cocktails and has a massive collection of vintage drink books, but we wanted to ask him a bit about how he develops new drinks, and what he sees happening in the future of the cocktail scene.
Shall we get started?
What got you into the bar business in the first place?
My first job was as an 18 year old freshman in college at State Street Brats in Madison, WI. My friend Andre worked there as a bouncer and loved it, so I asked him to help me get a job. Initially, I used the extra cash to supplement what my parents afforded me; and eventually ended up using tips to pay for it all when the well ran dry. The bar business pays you to host a party every night, and I've always enjoyed that. By the time I was 22, I decided I wanted to do it for the rest of my life.
How do you go about developing cocktails?
There are many ways to 'create' a cocktail. I put it in quotation marks because chances are, your creation will resemble Christopher Columbus 'discovering' America. One of the only ways to create new cocktails is to work with new products and ingredients that rarely make their way into the bar. Three processes I use are:
Substitution: Change out vermouth for Sherry, lime juice for lemon, or Genever for Cognac. The key here is to understand what category of ingredient you're substituting: Crème de Cassis (low proof/high sweetness) will not work as a substitute for dry gin (high proof/no sweetness). After years of working behind the bar and developing drinks, I've cataloged the qualities of ingredients I work with in my mind, so I can 'taste' most of these pairings before I have to waste any product. This takes time.
Use your nose: Often I'll choose a base spirit to work with such as gin, whiskey, or tequila; and smell and taste the product. I'll look for fruit, herbs, spice, and more ephemeral aromas, and jot down my findings. Those notes are my road map to tailor a cocktail for that product. For me, a great cocktail is mixed with modifiers such as citrus, sweeteners, other spirits, and fortified wines that complement the base spirit, not fight with it or drown it out. For example, orange notes could be brought out using orange peel, juice, or an orange liqueur. The combinations are limitless: you just need to pick the right recipe to model your new creation after.
Seemly contradictory to what I just said, sometimes I'll taste something, typically an unusual and thoughtful combination such as beets and black licorice, and that will be my inspiration for a new cocktail. This process requires a little bit of a & b, since you need to know what recipe to choose as your structure for the flavors, and which spirit to partner. I'm not a chef, but imagine this is the way their minds work on a daily basis.
What's your take on using expensive spirits in cocktails? Does a super-premium whiskey or rum belong in a mixed drink?
Like a chain, a cocktail is as strong as its weakest link. Nothing is too good to mix with in my opinion. With that said, most of us have budgetary limitations, so we make do with what we can afford. Ultimately, it's easier to mix with more modest spirits, as a great (rare or expensive) ingredient requires modifiers of equal merit. It reminds me of buying nice clothes: once you have a great pair of shoes, suddenly your pants look shabby. It can become a vicious cycle.
What are your picks for affordable spirits?
It depends on what you mean by affordable. On a budget, I'd probably choose Smirnoff Vodka, Beefeater Gin, Bacardi Rum, Old Grand Dad Bonded Bourbon, and Millagro Tequila. Big companies produce such large quantities that they can keep the price low if they choose. Nowadays, I spend more and drink less: alcohol consumption is a luxury for me, so I do it in style.
Where do you think cocktails are going next?
The exponential growth of bars and bartenders devoted to craft cocktails makes it difficult to answer this question with certainty anymore: I used to know most of the innovators personally! Each market, bar, and bartender is at a different place in their journey: some are learning how to use fresh ingredients for the first time and others are running rotovaps and centrifuges.
The craft distilling boom has regionalized trends, as locavorism runs rampant in the bar business as well as the kitchen, and most new spirits lack national distribution. If I had to give you anything here, I'd say that cocktails will become more regional and the number of venues they're served in will continue to grow. With growing media coverage and interest in a well-mixed drink leading to more crowded cocktail bars, I'm planning on more consumers mixing and serving drinks in their homes.