Secret Entrances and Cocktail Books with Jim Meehan of New York's PDT

The tender: Jim Meehan
The bar: PDT (113 St. Marks Place, New York, 212-614-0386)
The pedigree: Meehan began bartending in Madison, Wisc. At the tender age of 18. He moved to New York in 2002, and after jumping around several other restaurants and bars, opened his speakeasy PDT (Please Don't Tell) in 2007. The bar's become famous not just for its entrance -- a phone booth inside an East Village hot dog joint that, when a number is dialed, opens a secret door -- but also for the inventive, contemporary cocktails Meehan serves up. He stopped in Phoenix to make a few drinks and promote The PDT Cocktail Book, a cocktail recipe and bar management guide he authored with illustrations by Tucson native Chris Gall.

So, a speakeasy. How did you decide this is what you wanted your bar to be?
There are a lot of dimensions to bartending, obviously. You can bartend at beer bars, hotel bars, neighborhood places, mixology bars. I've been interested in all of it. In 2003 there were just a few cocktail bars in New York. I think bartenders are naturally opportunistic, and I saw an amazing opportunity to start something unique and I went for it.

What have you been up to in Arizona?
I hadn't been to Arizona before this. I came on Friday to spend the weekend with Chris. He and I worked together on this book and he created a few hundred illustrations for it, so I kind of wanted to see how he went about doing that. We didn't really have a mixology-focused weekend; we mainly checked out old western ruins, went hiking, that kind of thing. Now we're making our way around the bars, checking out the bar scene.

Where did you get your inspiration for this book?
The guys upstairs -- Dale DeGroff, Dave Wondrich -- were certainly huge inspirations. Gary Regan's Joy of Mixology was another huge book for me. What Chris and I tried to do was look back at these classic ideas and books and try to channel that style and culture, and put it together in this book.

How many of the recipes in the book are your own?
I haven't counted my own personal recipes, but they're all credited. There are 154 PDT drinks, a little over 100 classics and 57 family drinks that are either from guest bartenders or people I work with at PDT.

How do you approach making a new drink or coming up with a new recipe?
There's nothing new under the sun, really. I read as many cocktail books as I can get my hands on; I find recipes I think are brilliant and generally adapt them. I try to work with as many delicious new ingredients as possible --that's what's going to give you the opportunity to create something "new." A spirit like St. Germaine that hasn't been around long will give you the opportunity to create new recipes. But still, a lot of the recipes descend from a classic family tree.

What one tip would you give to a person trying to be a better bartender?
One person in New York told me that I was no good, that I couldn't do it. My one tip to anyone would be not to listen to anyone who says you can't do it. I feel like I'm my own worst critic, and for me the only reason I'm not further than where I am is because you've got to believe in yourself.

Did that person putting you down affect you?
Profoundly. Three or four years after, he was sitting at my bar. I wanted to kill him, but he didn't remember me at all. And I'll never forget him. But I realized it didn't matter to me. We all are motivated by different things; I'm certainly motivated by people who tell me I can't do something. I've learned as a bar manager that most people respond better to positive reinforcement. So however you motivate yourself, just believe in yourself.

If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
I feel like, as a bartender, you have to like people. Someone just asked me what my favorite drink was, and I said the drink in front of me. I feel like the person I'd want to drink with is the person I'm having a drink with right now. The thing about bartending is that you're meeting all sorts of people. If you're spending your time wishing you could have a drink with someone else, you're going to be a bore to hang out with. 

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Zach Fowle
Contact: Zach Fowle