Jim Meehan on Banks rum and The PDT Cocktail Book
Since opening PDT behind a telephone booth in a hot dog joint in the East Village of New York City, bartender Jim Meehan has become one of the most recognized faces in the industry, inspiring drinkers and fellow bartenders alike to drink better cocktails. And like many bartenders of his stature, he's frequently pulled away from his home bar to travel around the globe in search of different spirits-related events and activities.
And this week, he's in the Mile High City.
Meehan is in Denver tonight signing his new book, The PDT Cocktail Book, at Williams & Graham from 4 to 6 p.m. The bar, which will be pouring some of the Meehan's own creations, also has a stack of the cocktail guides on hand. Meehan will head to Boulder tomorrow, where he'll conduct a cocktail class and pair drinks to dinner at Frasca Food and Wine.
"I'm in town to promote Banks rum," the bartender explains, adding that he's a partner and adviser in the venture and not just a brand ambassador.
Banks rum, he says, is named for Sir Joseph Banks, a British botanist who traveled with Captain James Cook to Australia. The bottlings are blends of east and west rums, and the 5 Islands Rum, which is currently the only mark you can get in Colorado, is made with rum from Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados and Indonesian Batavia arrack, a rum that was frequently included in the first punches.
The sourced elements are combined in Holland and bottled in France, and Meehan says he jumped on board because it was a high quality product in a category that hasn't seen a lot of premium brands. "Bartenders are opportunistic people, and I'm one of them," he admits. "Of all the spirits, rum is the last one to happen. Everything else has had its coming out party."
But rum isn't the only thing that brings the bartender to town. He just published The PDT Cocktail Book, which, he explains, is a complete guide to the way he and his bartenders do things at his bar. "Just like there was a hole in the market for a brand like Banks, there was a hole in the market for a top bar to publish all of their recipes," he says, noting that he came to that conclusion after editing several editions of the Food & Wine cocktail book. "It didn't make sense for me to write my definitive cocktail book when I'm still learning. This book is about what we did at PDT from 2007 until 2010."
And that's key, because Meehan hopes the book will serve not just as a guide to mixing drinks, but also as a window into this particular part of history, much like the original cocktail guides of the pre-Prohibition years. "I love books, and I love old books," the bartender says. "I want it to be a historical book, and I don't want it to be adapted in ten years to the current brands."
For that reason, he explains -- and because he has always carefully considered the specs of any drink he makes -- he wrote the recipes to include the specific brands of spirits he actually used at PDT. This, too, is different than many modern cocktail books, which are produced by big brands and, therefore, only contain the products they produce.
Meehan also channeled historical guides by foregoing photos and pursuing drawings for art. "Stylistic illustrations are fun to look at, and when you see them, you think this bar was probably fun to drink at," he says.
But it took him a long time to find the right illustrator. "I was on the subway thinking about this, and I looked up and saw one of the MTA ads," he recalls, adding that the MTA contracts artists to do those spots. "There was this drawing of a subway train as a fish. It was exactly what I'd been looking for. I got the guy's name from the ad and sent him an email that said, 'I know this is crazy, but your illustrations are exactly what I've been looking for. Would you be interested in doing a cocktail book?' He wrote me back and said, 'You mean like Savoy? I have a first edition.'"
Meehan brought on that illustrator -- whose name is Chris Gall -- as a partner immediately, and when drawing up a deal for publication, insisted that the artwork could never be separated from the content. "I want this to be around in twenty to thirty years, and the only way that's going to happen is if the package stays the same," he asserts.
The finished package, by the way, is a stunning collection of not just hundreds of recipes and comic-like drawings, but also an inside look at the bar tools, bar design, glassware, garnishes and hot dogs that all go into PDT. And best of all, it's easy to read -- so it has a place on the home bar as well as the back bar.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.