Profiles in Pourage Volume I Jim Meehan
A Singani63 Edition
63 West Hudson Street
New York, N.Y.
SS: Beatles or Stones?
TS: Probably the…Stones.
SS: Do you consider yourself to be a good driver?
TS: Not anymore.
SS: Really, why not?
TS: I think maybe I’ve just gotten older and I’ve realized that I was never very good at it. When I was younger, I thought I was good at everything, so…
SS: Now reality is sinking in.
TS: Exactly. I stick to bicycles, that’s pretty much all I drive these days.
SS: Night person or morning person?
TS: Definitely a night person.
SS: Were you a night person before you got into this line of work?
TS: I don’t know, I’ve been working in the service industry for a little over 15 years, so I kind of feel like maybe it was just meant to be that way, you know, I’ve always just felt more comfortable in this environment, so–
SS: I read that you started young, even before you were supposed to be around booze.
TS: Yeah. I did.
SS: How did you get interested in this sort of area, even before, in theory, you should have been drinking?
TS: Well, I was in high school when I started working in a coffee shop. Then I moved up to DC from Austin and I was a nanny, so I didn’t know how to make friends or anything in a brand new city. So some people said, You should go hang out at this place called The Black Cat and being my 20-year-old self, not knowing anything, I was like, Well, if it’s a fun place to hang out, it’s gonna be a fun place to work.
TS: So I just walked in there with the kind of courage that you have when you don’t know anything. I was like, Hey, give me a job. I’d never worked in a bar before, and didn’t have any friends.
SS: So what was your first assignment, what did they give you?
TS: Well, my very first thing was cooking in the kitchen. They had a little cafe and they made like vegan, vegetarian food and, so that was my first introduction to this bar world, the excitement of the bar world.
SS: What about that attracted you?
TS: You know, it’s just–and this is the one thing that’s kept me in this industry the whole time–at the end of the day it’s just fun, and if you can be creative and work really hard, this industry allows you a lot of growth, there’s a lot of opportunity as long as apply yourself, and at the end of the day you create a party for people, you know, that’s kind of what your job is, creating good times for people.
SS: Do you refer to yourself as a mixologist or bartender, or do you care?
TS: I think of myself as a bartender, you know, but there’s all kinds of bartenders and I’m just a very specific kind of bartender. You could be working in a 5 star place or you could be working in a club, we’re doing the same job, we just do it differently.
SS: Right. But it’s clearly something that you got into and then took more seriously than just a bartender who’s there to just fulfill your order.
TS: Yeah. Well, I think that the one thing that made me serious about the industry in general is when I was working at The Inn at Little Washington out in Washington, Virginia, it’s a 5 star place and it’s really like boot camp for restaurant workers. It taught me the finer points of service in general and just gave me a greater appreciation for things done well, and it taught me how to do things well on a bigger scale. My first real bar manager job was this little place in DC that’s no longer there called PS 7′s, and I was really into wine at that point, but I had to do a cocktail list ‘cause, you know, everyone had cocktail lists then.
TS: So I kind of whipped something out, I didn’t really give it a whole lot of thought, and out of the blue, it started getting a lot of attention from the cocktail world. And I was like, Well, it looks like this is something I need to learn more about–
TS: –because if I’m gonna be doing stuff that gets attention, then I need to actually know what I’m talking about. (laughs)
SS: How did you then go about educating yourself? Was there stuff available to read, was there stuff online, or did you just ask other people in the business?
TS: Self-education through books is super-duper important, you get the history, you get to understand how people could put together recipes and stuff like that, but also mentorship is extremely important. I’ve had a few mentors throughout my career who have really pushed me to learn more, in ways that I may not have been able to do by myself.
SS: When you look back on getting to where you are now, are there things you would have done differently?
TS: Yeah. I mean, there’s absolutely things that I look back on and just cringe, you know, because I didn’t have the education of the history of drinks. I knew how to make the drinks that were on my list, but anything else I was pretty ignorant about. I remember the first Sazerac I ever made, and every time I think about it, it just makes me so embarrassed (laughs) because someone ordered it, and I ran back in the kitchen and looked at the recipe, but, you know, I made it almost completely wrong (laughs).
SS: And are you seeing a generation coming up now that is walking in more educated about mixology than when you started?
TS: Definitely. I mean, everybody has a home bar now, you know, and cocktails are so ubiquitous these days, especially classic cocktails, you have people with a way broader base than anyone I knew even like 10 years ago, it’s definitely a different scene.
SS: Is it a full-time gig off-hours just trying to track what people are up to?
TS: I always appreciate when people are doing things that are totally out of the box and may not necessarily be my style, but I tend to like things a little bit more streamlined, like simple and delicious, you know, using quality ingredients, making as much as we can ourselves but ultimately having them be pretty simple. So I like to see what new kind of fun things people are doing but, you know, give me a can of beer any day and I’ll be happy (laughs).
SS: Right. Since I started getting into this I’ve been reading some of the trade publications, do you read any of this stuff?
TS: Imbibe magazine, which has the book that came out a long time ago. You know, my reps know the things that I like and what my style is, and so if a new product comes out, they’ll say, Oh, you know, you might like this or that. But there’s so much stuff that comes out that, you know, is kind of like cheater stuff–
SS: How do you mean?
TS: For example, there’s the orgeat, the almond syrup–
TS: –you can buy it from a lot of different people, but it’s really not that hard to make yourself. So a lot of ingredients that are flavored, especially liqueurs, if I really want peach in my drink, am I gonna use peach liqueur or am I gonna make something? Chances are I’m gonna try and make something myself, because the natural flavors are just gonna taste more authentic in the drink…
SS: Right. And what’s the protocol if you create a drink, what’s the, you know, moral ownership of a drink?
TS: Well, you know, we’d all love to have invented the Cosmo–
TS: –but if I do have all the ingredients, and someone’s like, “I had a drink at this place, I want to have it here,” as long as they know what’s in it then I’d be happy to be make it for them. At the end of the day, my whole view on it is, you know–
SS: They’re the customer.
TS: Yeah, as long as they’re gonna pay for it, then I’m gonna make it for them, and sometimes it’ll be something brand new to me that I might fall in love with, so it’ll be a learning experience for me.
SS: How often does that happen, somebody makes a request for something you’ve never heard of?
TS: Not all the time, but sometimes people will ask for some really weird stuff, and the great thing is, when you understand the flavors behind things, you can tell someone, “I can’t necessarily make that specific thing, but I understand what vibe that you’re looking for in your drink, and I can make you something else that you’re really gonna enjoy too.” So you don’t necessarily have to give people exactly what they want to make them happy.
SS: Are you a good customer, or are you a pain in the ass?
TS: (laughs) Well, if I do go out and I’m in the mood for a cocktail, the very first cocktail I will order is a Manhattan. Cause a Manhattan is just–
SS: Hard to fuck up–
TS: You would think so! (laughs)
SS: I’m stunned at the variation in quality of a dirty martini.
TS: Yep. Yep. If I start out with a Manhattan and it’s spot on, then I will feel absolutely comfortable branching out and ordering what’s on the menu, or if the bartender is particularly engaging, then something they suggest. I would never want to be one of those people that’s like, “Can I have this crazy, obscure cocktail that I know that you’re not gonna know,” and then, “let me educate you,”…
SS: Do you have everything at home to make anything?
TS: Strangely enough, I have a couple bottles of bourbon and a bottle of Chartreuse or something, but I try to go dry on my days off…(laughs)
SS: What’s the gender situation in the mixology world? Is it an issue?
TS: As time goes on, we continue to achieve more balance. You know, it’s just a more male-dominated industry–
TS: –like back of the house, you know, bars, the only place you really have women is when they’re waiting tables, it’s a pink and blue kind of situation, or it used to be. So it’s gradually balancing out and we’ve had a lot of really well-known female cocktail people that have helped forge a way. I love the whole Speed Rack thing–
SS: What’s that?
TS: It’s this competition to benefit breast cancer awareness–
SS: I see.
TS: –but it’s all female bartenders, and it’s a competition to see who can be the fastest, and so they’re making drinks and they’re making cocktails, but it’s all a speed challenge–
TS: –so, it’s a lot of fun, like it’s a big party and everyone hoots and hollers.
SS: And you’ve gotten Bartender of the Year.
TS: (laughs) Yeah, that was–that was totally out of the blue–
SS: So, how does that all work? Did you know you were a nominee?
TS: I found out whenever they announced the nominees, I think the people from Eater chose the nominees, and it was completely out of the blue. That kind of stuff makes me a little nervous, like, just put me behind the bar…
TS: –let me make drinks and maybe be the clown behind the bar for awhile. But it was like super cool and I never would have expected it. So it was fun.
SS: Do you get a belt or what?
TS: We got a can of tomatoes with my name on it.
SS: Is that what it is?
TS: Yes. All the Eater prizes are these giant cans of tomatoes.
SS: Oh, that’s pretty funny.
SS: What does your family think of this?
TS: Oh, they’re excited I’m doing well in a field that I’ve chosen. My family doesn’t drink. So–
TS: (laughs) Yeah. My dad like owned a steakhouse when I was a kid but we didn’t serve alcohol, you know, this is in Texas–
TS: –so, you get your steak and you get your iced tea.
SS: Why is Texas so damn big?
TS: (laughs) Because we’re better. (laughs)
SS: Oh, okay. That should be on the license plate.
TS: I think it might be.
SS: What’s your method for keeping your antenna sharp about who might be a problem at a bar?
TS: I feel like you can get a good gauge from how they act before they have a drink.
TS: Like if someone is fairly aggressive about the things that they do when they first walk in.
SS: Where would you put the percentage?
TS: I’ve been lucky that I haven’t had too many aggressive altercations, especially when I’ve been working someplace by myself. I mean, I used to work a dance club in DC, like a hip-hop dance club. It was one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had, ‘cause all I had to do was make Long Islands and dance around behind the bar.
TS: But there was one time when someone, you know, reached over the bar and grabbed me and started cursing and I just look over at the 8-foot bouncer who looks like a tank, and I’m like, “Uhhh…” (laughs) and he comes over and deals with it.
SS: Are there drinks that, in your experience, tend to make people more aggressive? Some people I know call the vodka and Red Bull the mean-maker.
TS: Some people say that tequila makes them mean.
TS: I think maybe it’s just a personal thing, like maybe you had one particularly bad experience with one spirit.
SS: When I was in high school I had a very bad night with some Wild Turkey, and to this day if I even smell it–
SS: –I have a physical reaction to it, it was that bad. Haven’t had it since.
TS: Yeah. I had a special evening with a plastic gallon jug of tequila in high school once, and it took me a long time to come back to it.
SS: Kingsley Amis, in his book Everyday Drinking, makes the case you should never use a really good spirit to mix anything with. He argues once you start mixing stuff in, you’ve thrown out a lot of the distinction between something that’s really good and something that’s just sort of okay. You think that’s true?
TS: Absolutely. I mean, one of the things that makes high-quality spirits so nice is there is a subtlety to them, like the nuances and flavor. If you have a really nice wine, you’re gonna get all of these like little hints of flavor to it, you know, you get the barnyard and the cherry and the grass and if you have a nice bourbon or rye, then you get these winter spices and caramel and espresso and all this other stuff, so–yeah, I would say top tier stuff, you probably want to just enjoy it as it is, and then you have the good quality middle, where you’re using good product in your mixed drinks.
SS: Yeah, right. In a double-blind test, do you think you’d be able to distinguish boutique handmade stuff versus mass-produced stuff?
TS: Yeah. I mean, whenever you’re producing something in quantity, you just can’t have the same kind of quality as someone who’s been slaving over this one barrel for years. So I think in terms of that, you could definitely tell the difference in the flavors, especially with the smaller boutique-y stuff, they’re making smaller quantities, so they can make it more intense.
TS: Or they’re using different methods, like Industry Standard, in Red Hook, they use a completely different process to make their vodka, and so it actually does taste different, and forever I was like every other snotty bartender who was like, “Vodka, buh-boo,” but this was one of the first vodkas I tried that I was like, “That tastes delicious.” And also I just love the idea of supporting small businesses where people are going out on a limb to follow a passion, I have so much appreciation for that, like, “We’re just going to start a distillery!” That’s kind of insane and amazing, and you want to do everything that you can to support that person.
SS: I have to believe they’re like me in the sense that if I had any idea how truly competitive it is, they might not have pulled the trigger.
TS: And because the booze industry is booming in terms of options, it’s that whole embarrassment of riches situation, and our attention span is like this big (puts two finger close together)…
SS: Right. So what you stock here, these are the brands and the kinds of spirits that you want?
TS: Yeah. I was extremely lucky that I got carte blanche, so yeah, when I worked with our corporate beverage director to kind of figure out all the boozes that we wanted to carry. You ask yourself, “Do I really want to carry Maker’s Mark?” Not personally, but you know, you have to carry it, because–
SS: –people are gonna ask for it.
TS: Yeah, you can’t be such a nerd about it
that you alienate people, particularly because The Library bar is physically small, we’re gonna carry three of everything, cause that’s, logistically, all we can carry.
TS: So half of the category would be kind of nerdier stuff, and then the other half would be brand recognition, stuff to make people feel comfortable coming in.
TS: But then you have more boutique-like options, for people that want to like try something new and fun. Yeah, it was a lot of fun to come in here, and this sounds like it’s off-topic, but the glass racks that are hanging from the top, they actually pulled me in when it was being built–
SS: –to make sure you could– (laughs)
TS: –they had me reach up so I could reach it. And I was like, “This is my bar!” (laughs)
SS: Well, that’s probably a smart move–
SS: I found when I was doing the play and eating here a lot, the menu was really, really good. In your experience, how important is the food part?
TS: Well, I mean, at the end of the day, as much as I want the whole little world to be like Tiffany Short-land, it is a restaurant and essentially people come to restaurants for the food. Right? I mean, we’re not a cocktail bar, we serve food and we have, you know, good drinks. So if the food was mediocre we wouldn’t be having the business that we have, and I work best when I have another person of a similar mindset to bounce ideas off of, right, so it’s really wonderful having such creative, talented chefs where, if you’re kind of stuck on something, you can go down to the kitchen and be like, “Guys, taste this, it’s not quite right, I need your help, what do you think?”
TS: So I think it all works together, we try to have a similar vision in both the food and the booze, to have it be cohesive, you know, like the food and the booze are not at odds.
It’s absolutely integral, I think, the two work with each other.
SS: What are the low points of the job?
TS: Manners. Manners. The lack of manners.
SS: Do you think it’s worse now than it was when you started?
TS: It’s hard to tell, because I was in such a different environment when I first started, you know, working with such a different demographic–
SS: But you find this even at a place like The Library.
TS: I think that manners are not always at the top of people’s list of priorities. (laughs)
SS: Is there something endemic to the service industry in that people view anyone who’s waiting on them as kind of invisible?
TS: Yeah, I mean, at the end of the day, most humans are good to each other, you know, and all I ask for is that real basic level of human decency, right? It’s just like, Please and thank you–
TS: You know, you’re human, I’m human, we don’t have to be best friends at the end of this whole thing, but I’d say most people are just fine, you know, but there’s definitely days where, you know, that one lack of “please”, and you’re just like, “Who raised you?” (laughs)
SS: Yeah, right.
TS: But having worked in so many different kinds of places, I have gotten this perspective on different kinds of people that I never would have had the opportunity to have in my life growing up in mostly rural towns in Texas.
SS: What are the high points?
TS: Whenever it’s just all working, like you’ve made a special moment for people. You know, I’ve had people come to me and say, You know, we had our first date at your bar a year ago, and now we’re engaged to be married–
TS: –and we had such a wonderful time, and the fact that they would come back and think it was important to tell you they had such an amazing time on their first date, that they’re engaged, and you’re like, Holy crap, I had one tiny little part that was positive in someone else’s life, that’s insanely cool, it’s almost humbling, it makes you really evaluate how you interact with people, ‘cause if you can have that significant an effect in a positive way, then you certainly don’t want to have that kind of effect in a negative way on people.
SS: Speaking of positive effects, what’s considered like a good tip?
TS: I would say industry standard is now 20 percent. But, like, if you’re gonna pop open a beer for somebody, and they leave you a dollar on the beer, no worries, right, I know I didn’t work that hard. But if you’re a cocktail bartender, and you’ve just spent 2 or 3 whole minutes–especially if it’s busy–then a dollar on that drink is like, Come on, man…
SS: “I muddled that shit!”
TS: (laughs) Exactly! “Did you see how hard I shook that?”
TS: But yeah, it can bum you out, especially when you think restaurant workers are making 5 something an hour, they’re not even making minimum wage. So that’s how you live, that’s how you pay your phone bill, you know, it’s not even necessarily booze money then, that’s how you’re paying your rent.
SS: Now, are there places that pool everything and then places where you get your tip, like how does that work?
TS: I’ve always worked in pool houses, so bartenders and servers all put their money together–
SS: Oh, really? OK.
TS: –and then it’s divvied up.
TS: But then, also, you have some places where the bartenders pool their money and share it, and then the all the servers do the same. As a bartender, you probably make a little less money in a pool house, but everybody has so much more encouragement to help each other that it creates more camaraderie amongst the staff.
SS: It sounds like Communism to me.
TS: (laughs) And I’m gonna be chased down the street too, and not in a Taylor Swift way. (laughs)
SS: Is there any appeal to you in starting your own place from scratch?
TS: Well, you know, you were saying if you knew how hard it was, you may not have kind of jumped in in the first place–
TS: I used to want to have my own place forever, and then I started learning more about the business side of it, and the more I learn, the scarier it gets. But if I could pair up with someone who is super business-savvy, like the money person, I think I would still love to do it, but maybe not necessarily in New York, ‘cause it seems to be harder and harder for a small business to make it here.
SS: Well, you’ve heard what’s happening, the landlords just keep jacking the rents up and pushing people out, places that have been there for a long time. And I guess Bobby Flay wrote a piece when Union Square Cafe was getting booted out, he’s like, you know, this is not cool, these restaurants come in to these places and begin a process of remaking these neighborhoods in a positive way by drawing people in, and then, soon as the lease is up, you know, the landlords just gouge them.
TS: Bars and restaurants are what create communities in neighborhoods. If you have nothing but Versace and Louis Vuitton stores up and down the street, it’s not gonna be any place where you want to actually live.
TS: But yeah, one day I think it’d be nice to have a little honky tonk that has unassuming drinks.
SS: You need a university town.
TS: Yeah. Well I’ve been scoping out Charleston, I’ve heard that’s like a new kind of hip place, especially with food and booze.
SS: We just shot in Savannah, and we were staying in this very nice hotel, and it was clearly a point of pride for the bar in the lobby to carry all boutique brands, they didn’t have any name brands. So there must be something going on down there, ‘cause that’s like an hour from Charleston.
TS: Yeah, so maybe one day I’ll just take over some biker bar and play country music. (laughs)
SS: Right, right.
TS: But yeah, that’s kind of the American dream, right, to be an entrepreneur, to work for yourself?
TS: And there is something very romantic about, you know, moving to a smaller area and just opening up something really small, and doesn’t have to be a 5 star place, you know, all the time. Sometimes people just want some place they can go and show up in their sweats if they want and cry in the bar if they feel like it.
SS: Do you have many friends who do what you do?
TS: Oh, pretty much every single person I know works in the business– (laughs)
SS: Oh really.
SS: Wow. That’s interesting.
TS: Ah, yeah.
SS: Is it just ‘cause the hours are so nuts–
SS: –it’s hard to be friends with normal people?
TS: Basically. I call them–we call them–day walkers and night walkers. For instance, you can’t call up your day walker friends at 1 A.M and say, “Hey, I just got out of work. Where are you going?” It’s Tuesday night! And you become really close with your co-workers because you just naturally go out with them after work.
SS: And do you just talk about work stuff? Is it like movie people getting together and just talking about movies?
TS: Sometimes, yeah, but what’s great is, you know, there are so many people in the service industry that do other things, so you talk about music and stuff and if you’re really drunk, the human condition (laughs). You might have to vent for a little while about work, but you actually try not to talk about it too much, ‘cause you just spent 10 hours feeling pulled in all directions, so you just wanna sit here and not think about human beings for just a little while or only think of them in a broad sense.
SS: And are you looking to decelerate when you get off work? Or does it depend on the night?
TS: One of the more addictive things about it, is that you’re pumped full of adrenaline, and on those busy nights, your body is just–(roars)–and you feel 10 feet tall sometimes, you’re just working so hard, and your body’s just pumping–
TS: –so definitely, when you get off work, you’re like, “Aaah! I just gotta drink.” But it’s such a bizarre job to have, when you think about it, it’s like working with kids in the sense that it’s so emotionally involved, you know, your body is so engaged the whole time, but also your emotions are so invested, you know, you’ve just got nothing left.
SS: And what’s the absolute no-no for a customer?
SS: Yeah, they’re dead in your eyes.
TS: (laughs) Well, personal attacks, right, when people are cursing at you, berating you personally.
SS: What’s an example of that?
TS: Probably the most shocking thing, and I just wasn’t ready for it, because I was working in a nice place, a gentleman in his late 40′s, early 50′s asked me to put more booze in his drink, and I said I’d be happy to pour you a double, you know, and he called me a fuckin’ bitch–
SS: Oh oh.
TS: And I was thinking, you’re a grown man, and I’m at work–
SS: (laughs) Right.
TS: We’re not in a social situation where I’m trying to be combative or anything, I’m literally doing my job, and in a nice place, I mean, would you call the teller at the bank a fuckin’ bitch? Or your loan officer?
TS: And I was like, I’m done with you, go talk to my manager if you’re that upset. (laughs) Can’t deal with it.
SS: There’s a shirt on my website that says, Now you’re making ME the asshole.
SS: I think that was smart, you just recused yourself.
TS: Yeah. “Go talk to someone else!”
A Singani63 Edition
63 West Hudson Street
New York, N.Y.
A Singani63 Edition
63 West Hudson Street
New York, N.Y.
A Singani63 Edition
63 West Hudson Street
New York, N.Y.
A Singani63 Edition
63 West Hudson Street
New York, N.Y.