PDT’s Jim Meehan Talks About His James Beard Award Win

This year the James Beard Foundation debuted the Outstanding Bar Program Award, an honor sponsored by Campari that is given to a bar that “displays and encourages excellence in cocktail, spirit, and/or beer service through a well-presented drink list, knowledgeable staff, and efforts to educate customers about beverages.” The winner of the inaugural award was PDT. We chatted with the humble owner of PDT, Jim Meehan, after he won the prize.

How did it feel to win?
It’s a crazy feeling, but it feels spectacular. This is something that we have paid very close attention to for a long time. It’s amazing that bars are now a part of the awards. I kind of left last night wondering if they were going to ask for it back.

Campari had a big part in the creation of this category. Do you like the spirit?
Campari is one of the ingredients that ends up in many cocktails and we use it a lot. Last night one of the bartenders made a good Campari drink with Plymouth gin, spiced honey syrup, and champagne.

Why do you think you won?
For five years we have taken care of our industry. We have always been a bar that is a little something extra, and, when chefs stop by we always take care of them.

You run you bar very well. What is your inspiration?
I came from Gramercy Tavern and Pegu Club. Audrey [Saunders, owner of Pegu Club] came from a five-star hotel and she taught us all how to offer hotel service in a cocktail bar.There were a lot of Gramercy people awarded last night too, and at that place it’s like a finishing school for service.Our own form of hospitality, the way we run the bar, is the way a restaurant runs its dining room—meaning, there is no standing and there is enough staff to serve you. My team for five years now has bought into this concept of running a bar like this. It’s very gratifying to get this award from this industry’s most celebrated and respected chefs.

What other bars do you think should win this award?
All the bars nominated deserve this award. Pegu Club is where I learned so much. Bar Agricole has an amazing wine program and their cocktails are elegant and well presented. Plus, it’s a certified green restaurant and I am surprised it didn’t win. Also, for Grant Achatz to open up a bar [The Aviary in Chicago] is such a huge thing for the bar industry. Last but not least, Toby Maloney who was our head bartender at Pegu Club and the first to head out and open up the Violet Hour in Chicago. It was bittersweet to walk away with the award because I am close with all the nominees and they all deserved it.

Now that you won, what are your plans today?
My plan is to try and reply to all my text messages and emails from people all across the country that reached out to say congratulations. Then I have a meeting at a bar and tonight I am having dinner with my brother and our wives at wd-50 for the launch of their new menu. All in all I am kind of speechless and really happy, but, in my experience you got to try to live up to the award. It’s important not to let it go to your head, so, it’s back to work. 

Photo by Kent Miller

Remy Martin 1738 Cognac: No (Smoking) Jacket Required

You want me to drink Remy Martin 1738 cognac? Sure, just let me grab my monocle, slip on my smoking jacket, and withdraw to a leather chair next to an oil painting of a fox hunt. What’s that you say? These affectations are unnecessary, as cognac is now being used by cutting-edge mixologists like Jim Meehan of New York’s PDT to create cocktails that are as innovative as they are delicious? Well now you’re speaking my language. I’ll be right over.

And so it was on a Tuesday night in Manhattan, when a contingent of BlackBook editors filed through the secret phone booth at Crif Dogs into the quirky PDT lounge, where bartender Jim Meehan (author of the new PDT Cocktail Book) schooled us on the history and versatility of the grape spirit, and Remy Martin cellar master Pierette Trichet discussed the finer points of chalky terroir, limousin oak barrels, and the meaning of eau de vie.

First, Meehan had us taste a flight of brown spirits ranging from rum to rye, just to see where a fine aged cognac fits in.  (Short answer: cognac shares their complexity while adding a smoothness that comes from its lower alcohol content.) He explained to us how popular cognac was in 19th century cocktail culture (the original versions of the Mint Julep and Sazerac called for cognac, which would have been known at the time as brandy). And he talked about his approach to mixing cocktails with cognac, which involves using flavors like citrus and mint that bring out the spirit’s essence, rather than burying it in sweet syrups and sodas.

Next, Trichet took us on a virtual tour of cognac country, which is located near the west coast of France. Its chalky soil is perfect for growing ugni blanc grapes, whose acidity is ideal for cognac production. The juice of the grapes is made into eaux de vie (fruit brandies), which are then blended and aged to produce the cognac house’s various "expressions." Of those expressions, Remy 1738 may well be the most versatile, easily fine enough for sipping neat while seated in the aforementioned leather chair, but also ideal for mixing in both classic and modern cocktails.

Which brings us back to the purpose of our visit. Meehan mixed several amazing cocktails that featured Remy 1738 as a base spirit. The Mint Julep was sweet without being cloying, with the tartness of the grapes mingling with the coolness of the mint. His Sazerac – which featured an absinthe rinse – was divine, and the substitution of cognac for rye whiskey seemed to work perfectly with the bitters. Served in a sturdy tumbler, it’s definitely a man’s cocktail. And I truly enjoyed the Bow Tie, which combines Remy 1738 cognac with dry vermouth and fresh pineapple juice (not the sticky canned stuff) that gave the otherwise austere cocktail a tropical twist. Delightful.

I’ll admit it, up until last night, cognac was not my thing. But after tasting Remy’s 1738, both on its own and mixed in a variety of inspired cocktails, I’m happy to add it to my regular drinking rotation. You think it would go well in a Long Island Iced Tea?

My Rock Star Moment: A Civilian Infiltrates the PDT Cocktail Menu

The first unsettling realization, back when I made my initial stab at DIY bitters, was that I didn’t have the mixology skills to do my tinctures justice. The second was my total cluelessness as to whether they were even worth a damn. So I took matters to the top and sought out PDT’s Jim Meehan, a man who I’ve got a sneaking suspicion was the inspiration for the phrase “a gentleman and a scholar.” He graciously agreed to check them out, and after a month of daily shaking, smoking, and praying, my precious babies were strained, bottled, and shipped off to St. Marks. They also went with a hopeful request: if any of them were deemed decent enough, would Meehan or his staff be willing to create a drink based around my bitters? Why yes, they would. What followed was a three-month-long game of cat and mouse, as Mr. Meehan traveled the globe on business, doing what he is wont to do (blow minds), while I corresponded with him from the confines of my light-starved studio apartment.

Between trips to Peru and Australia, Meehan finally gave me his assessment. Tragically, two of my concoctions (citrus/clove/pink peppercorn and rainier cherry/birch) were brushed off, due to the distillate being too pedestrian (note to self: high-proof booze is a must, but using the highest quality liquor possible is even more important — this should have been a no-brainer, but my hindsight has cataracts.) Apparently, Pegu Club’s Audrey Saunders has used grain alcohol to successfully make bitters before, but she runs it through a Brita filter several times to improve the quality. Oh well, next time in Jerusalem. But! They loved the smoked bourbon bitters. (“They’ve got a great depth of flavor,” Meehan said.) After the session, as promised, I received a recipe from Jane, one of the PDT bartenders. Some astrally influenced scheduling ensued, and a tasting was arranged.

The drink has a name, the Salted Chocolate Flip, and it’s gorgeous. The inclusion of a whole raw egg makes it a “flip”; the yolk adds flavor, while the white bumps the volume and mouthfeel, resulting in a milkshake-like texture. Meehan explained that some bartenders only use the yolk in their flips, but that he prefers to use the whole egg as both the yolk and white contribute to the overall result in their own ways. The other ingredients (bourbon, creme de cacao, amaretto, simple syrup, and sea salt) bolster the flavors already present in the bitters. It was exhilarating to watch Meehan as he pinched a few drops of the bitters into his hands, rubbed them together, and brought them to his face to “nose it” — using the surface area of his hands to release the full range of flavors (he got waves of clove, orange, vanilla, and cinnamon).

According to Jim (oops), the idea was to start with a barrel-aged product to play off the bourbon base of the bitters, and the salt was added because it amplifies flavors (in this case, the sweet and the spice from the rest of the ingredients). It really is perfectly suited for winter, with its egg-induced frothiness and those warming spice notes. I told him I loved it and asked his thoughts. He described it as a dessert drink; something you’d want to end your night with. Once I heard that, I became emboldened. After all, I had a good 200ml or so left. As a New York food world obsessive, the opportunity to make a contribution to this grand, tumultuous machine — in all its beauty, grotesquery, and Chodorowity — was too tempting to pass up. So I inquired as to how much more he’d need for the drink to get a spot on the winter menu. Which brings us to the present, where I now have almost a gallon of bitters macerating in my closet. With any luck, I’ll be able to reproduce the spectrum of flavors in the original batch, and you’ll all be drinking Salted Chocolate Flips well into March.

Salted Chocolate Flip 2 oz Elijah Craig 12 Year Old Bourbon .5 oz. simple syrup .25 oz Luxardo Amaretto .25 oz Brizard Creme de Cacao 4 dashes smoked bourbon bitters 1 egg Pinch, sea salt

Dry shake and then shake with ice. Strain. Pour into a fizz glass. Garnish with a pinch of sea salt.

Embittering Experiences: DIY Cocktail Infusions Part II

At the end of the first part of my DIY bitters experiment, the ingredients were in their respective jars and I was waiting for them to infuse within the comfort of my Manhattan closet. A week went by, and my bitters (after seven daily shake sessions to the rhythm of Miami Sound Machine’s “Bad Boy”) started taking on their flavors and aroma profiles. The aromas got intense — high-proof alcohol is an effective blank canvas. On my citrus/clove/pink peppercorn blend, the floral spice of the peppercorns and cloves hit first, followed by that zing of citrus, the flavors playing nicely off each other. The cherry/birch batch, however, is almost entirely birch; it’s herbal and bitter with just an undercurrent of sweetness from the rainier cherries, which have a mild flavor (note to self: next time use Bings if possible). To counteract the birch’s bitterness, I stirred in a teaspoon of cherry-infused honey I’d picked up at the Greenmarket. As for the smoked bourbon bitters, the vanilla harmonized with its bourbon base while the sarsaparilla was more of a background note, but it had a glaring flaw. It wasn’t smoked yet!

Using the Polyscience Smoking Gun, I tried two methods. First I piped smoke on top of the bourbon, quickly sealing the jar and shaking like mad until the smoke incorporated into the liquid. When that proved somewhat unsuccessful (the smoke smell was there, but the taste was absent), I used a rubber tube that comes with the gun to aerate the bourbon. (I was inspired by Houston mixologist Robert Heugel’s efforts on Drink Dogma, in which he employed a fish tank aerator for the task). The smoke’s acridity needed to be balanced, so I added half an orange’s worth of zest. Every day, the mixtures got murkier and murkier, as the high-proof boozes leached the flavors out. Cracking open the lids after the second week, it was time for the final three steps: straining, simmering, and filtering.

1. Using a colander, strain out the solid ingredients. From here you can either skip to step 3, or follow below. 2. In a saucepan or deep skillet, combine the solid ingredients with 3/4 cup liquid (for the two with Devil’s Spring vodka; for the bourbon I did half Booker’s and half Red Jacket Orchards apple-lemon juice). Bring to a simmer, cooking for two minutes. Let cool, strain through a colander, and add to solution. 3. Using a coffee filter, strain the mixture at least once to extract impurities. What you’re left with is some homemade, crystal-clear, liquid magic.

I purchased a dozen amber dropper bottles, the kind favored by massage therapists, and siphoned off my elixirs for distribution. My buddy Mark gets a special shout-out as he received one for his birthday … see, instant presents. We’re always looking out for you at House Special. And now that I’m ready to put my bitters to use, well — I have no fucking clue as to what I should do with them, or if what I’ve made is even halfway decent or just a collection of Frankenstein spirits destined to be chased out of town with pitchforks. Which is why I’m putting their fate in the hands of a most virtuous member of the NYC cocktail elite, PDT’s Jim Meehan, recently crowned American Bartender of the Year (with PDT garnering World’s Best Cocktail Bar) at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail. Meehan has agreed to give my babies the once-over. I’m a bit nervous about throwing my figurative taint on the chopping block, but at worst I’ve been promised some constructive criticism. In part three, I’ll either get served a drink … or some well-meaning advice!