First of all, thank you for doing this.
And before we get to the hard stuff, I’ve got a couple of softball questions.
Conceptual questions. The first is, you’re at a dinner party, and there are eight other people at the dinner party, and somebody says something that reminds you of a joke, but you realize five of the eight people have heard you tell this joke. Do you tell it anyway?
OK. Have you had any contact with Jim Meehan, the poker player?
Oh, Jim Meehan, the poker player, I thought you meant the guy–the Wikipedia star?
No, I wish I did. When you Google me, you’ll see a Wikipedia page with this amazing professional poker player. I thought you were being facetious about me playing poker in life. But no. I wish I knew Minneapolis Jim Meehan, but I do not.
Oh, OK. Well, there’s still time.
There is time, I hope. I like that cowboy hat he wears on Wikipedia.
He sounds like a pretty interesting person to be at a table with.
Do you speak any other languages?
I studied French in high school and college, but never went there to learn it, so no.
Apparently the French hate when you try to speak French.
The funny thing I’ve found with the French is that when you go there and speak French to them, they speak English back to you. But when you go there and speak English to them, they speak French back to you. I asked someone about it once in Paris, and he said that it all depends on the exchange rate. [laugh]
Yeah, he said that when the exchange rate starts going in favor of the dollar, they’re more inclined to listen to your terrible French.
Classic. So I see the words ‘educator’ and ‘advisor’ loosely associated with you. What does that mean? Is that part of a bartender’s job?
It can be, but doesn’t have to be. “Consultant” gets lobbed around loosely in relation to guys like myself: the term sounds vaguely dirty to me. So I started thinking about the idea of consulting, like "Do I do consulting work? Of course." But how can I be more precise in describing the sort of consulting work I do? So “educator” and “advisor” are two tributaries of consulting that I seek out. I work with a company called Banks Rum. It’s a brand I helped develop; and one of the partners once said, “Jim is our insultant.” Now that's a term I appreciate
because a lot of times I feel compelled to tell a client something that they may not want to hear.
Surrounding yourself with people who are there to tell you some version of the truth is important. I’m a straight shooter: passionate and painfully honest at times. As far as
education goes, my mom was a schoolteacher, and I majored in English and African-American
Studies in college. Education is something that’s very important to me. That being said, I’m more of an operator than an educator. I’m always seeking knowledge, and part of the payback is teaching and sharing.
Yeah, my father was a teacher as well. There’s no question if you’re around that, you inherit the sort of inquisitiveness I think any really good teacher has.
If you’re a leader, people are going to want to work with you. They’re going to want to be around you because they think they can learn something from you. So the more you embrace education, the more likely the chance you’ll have talented people around you. It’s all about people— you must surround yourself with great people if you want to accomplish things.
I agree. Well, given what’s happened in the last 10 or 15 years in the mixology/spirit world, and the proliferation we’ve seen of new brands, boutique brands, and a desire on the part of the drinking public to have some new experiences with spirits and with drinks, how do you keep up with what’s going on? To me, from the outside, it looks as difficult as trying to keep up with everything that’s happening in music.
Agreed. The term “tastemaker” gets lobbed around in different disciplines, whether
it be film or music and mixology as well. As a tastemaker in the drinks field, you have a responsibility to taste. Or if you’re a musician, to listen. Or as a writer, to read. So I make myself available to taste. There were a lot of people knocking on my door at PDT that wanted to share something with me. Some of it was highly desirable, like old wine barrel finished scotches, honey barrels of rye whiskey, or pre-phylloxera cognac. Of course I want to try that. But many of the products I was tasted on sounded half-baked and were tangential to what I
appreciate and offer at the bar. Regardless, I remain open-minded and consider tastings a
responsibility. Going back to what I was saying about education, when I taste something
delicious, I feel a responsibility to share it with others. I can't taste everything, so I surround
myself with a group who are committed to tasting and sharing. Reading publications like Imbibe
Magazine and monitoring sites like Punchdrink.com, Diffordsguide.com, and Liquor.com help
keep me up to speed with what's going on in the spirits and cocktail world.
Do you know other mixologists? Do they stay in touch? Is there kind of a loose family of people doing what you do? Or is it super competitive?
I answer a lot of questions with stories. A friend of mine named Leo DeGroff (the son of cocktail Yoda Dale DeGroff) was working with me on an educational program called Bar Smarts for Pernod Ricard a few years ago. We went into a bar that was not run very well. Some of my colleagues were dismissive about the way things were being done, but Leo talked to the bartender in a friendly and familiar way, and showed him a few things. I think you can look at the world as having problems, or as Leo did in that situation: as a series of opportunities presented by them.
There are so many people who have never had a cocktail prepared with fresh ingredients cobbled together thoughtfully; therefore there are so many opportunities for bartenders in general–and me in particular–to grow our craft. I don’t consider our field to be competitive. I read about a Denny’s in The New York Times that’s serving delicious craft cocktails. They serve a case of Dom Perignon a week or something–
The New York Times writer, Robert Simonson, focused on the Tommy’s Margarita they served, which is made with agave nectar instead of Cointreau, fresh lime juice, and 100% agave tequila. It would be so cool to go into any chain restaurant in America and be able to order a well-balanced classic cocktail prepared with fresh ingredients. I’m not a Heston Blumenthal or Ferran Adrià type of culinary professional, who’s looking to take cocktails to the mountaintop.
I’m hoping to spread the knowledge and help establish a new standard. I guess you could say I’m looking to grow wide instead of high. Back to your question: I’m old compared to most working bartenders. There’s nothing competitive about the way we interact with each other, but I think getting everyone to work together is becoming more and more of a task as new generations enter the business.
Do you feel like an athlete? Do you feel like there are younger players whose footsteps you hear?
As a bartender, yes, because it’s an athletic job that requires long hours on your feet. When I started, most of the drinks I served were tap beers, highballs, shots or glasses of wine. It was simple technique-wise. Whereas the cocktails we prepare now have 4 or 5 ingredients; you’re shaking, stirring, muddling, fine straining, reaching into a glass chiller every five minutes all night long. You’re working out: constantly hyper-extending your knees and bending over to scoop ice and grab glassware. So yes, if I see a dinosaur like myself behind the bar, I do look at that person like an athlete, because it’s a really challenging job physically.
Right. Are there any drinks you hate? Like hate to drink and hate to make?
When I was younger, I hated a lot of drinks. But as I got older, I realized it’s my job to make the drinks: it’s not my job to judge them. It’s not that I don’t care what people order, or take pride in what I serve. That being said: cocktails that don’t utilize all of my skills can be executed quickly and dispensed happily so I have more time to make the drinks that require them. As a younger bartender I was more finicky. As an older bartender, I’m more empathetic.
Maybe we can just settle this for all people for all time: how do you define the difference between a bartender and what you would consider a mixologist?
I was an African-American Studies major in college. When studying the Civil Rights movement, I learned about identity as it pertained to what people called you; whether that be African-American, Negro, Black, or much worse at that time. There were many different terms throughout the 19th and 20th century that African-American people wanted to be called, and didn’t want to be called, because they were fighting for equality, which was being withheld from them. If you look at the debate over bartender/mixologist, the request to be called “mixologist” started around 2004 or so.
There were a handful of bartenders who were making cocktails and operating bars quite seriously, and they wanted to distinguish what they were doing from bartenders who weren’t taking it very seriously, and weren’t passionate, and didn’t care. Nowadays, you’ll find most bartenders who weren’t doing that in 2004–and earlier–hate the word “mixologist”. But it served a purpose for its time. And I think it may continue to serve a purpose for people who feel that kind of identity distinction is important. To settle it simply for all
time, a bartender stands behind a bar and serves people drinks, whereas you could be a
mixologist--a really accomplished mixologist at that--and never tend bar. Mixology, is quite
literally the study of how liquids mix together. So you can be a bartender who's a mixologist, and
a mixologist who's never tended a bar.
Got it. And I’m glad you’ve been the first person to connect mixology with the civil rights movement. So was it a gradual thing, you realizing this was something you were interested in and perhaps wanted to make a career out of, or was there an inciting incident?
Ever since I was three years old, I wanted to be a doctor. I idolized Michael Crichton,
and wanted to write books with an M.D like he did. This remained the plan until I started getting
my ass handed to me in chemistry and math in college. At UW Madison, there was no pre-med
track. I was volunteering in the hospital my freshman year, and could see the writing on the
wall. I was not going to get straight A's, get an amazing MCAT score, and get into medical
school. I took my sophomore year off to get residency and lower my tuition and knew I was
going to have to foot a lot of bills when I re-enrolled. I thought, “There's no way I'm going to
waste what many people told me will be the best time of my life in the library studying for exams
that I'm not going to get good grades on.” So I dropped chemistry and math and enrolled in
French and African-American Studies classes. I loved my Afro-Am classes, and decided to
double major. While bartending throughout college to pay for school, I interviewed people about
their jobs, including many of my friends' parents. It was interesting--I often found that what they
studied didn't relate to what they ended up doing, and I thought about that. I was studying
subjects I was passionate about, really enjoyed, that came naturally to me; but I was also
bartending. I loved my job and was good at it too. I was promoted to bar manager by the time I
was 20 in my first bar and became the general manager of the second place I worked at by 23.
I made great money and had a great life. When I was 22, I started thinking about my career
choices, which you do when you're in college, and thought, “Why don't I just do this? Instead of
getting a degree and pursuing something someone else thought I should do, why don't I just do
what I love?” I realized very early that if I did something I loved… well, the cliche is true: you
never work a day in your life. That was '98, when people with college degrees didn't typically
decide they wanted to pursue a career in the bar business. At that time, the bar business was a
fallout shelter for people who couldn't handle the cubicle circuit, or their band wasn't making it. It
was a band-aid job to help them get by. I often describe the beginning of my career—as me
being the tallest short guy. I succeeded because I was surrounded by people who didn't really
want to be doing what I was doing and resented it because it was what they were doing
because the thing that they wanted to be doing wasn't working.
Well, right, for a young person who was, I’m sure, ambitious and had ideas, it looked like an opportunity as opposed to a dead end.
“Opportunity” is really the key word, because when I moved to New York, no one would hire me because I didn’t have two years’ bartending experience in New York. So I took a job in a restaurant and became a waiter in order to get the bar shift. I fell in love with wine, and left my first job to become the bar manager and sommelier at a new restaurant. I considered pursuing the sommelier route until I went to Milk and Honey for the first time in 2003, and had my craft cocktail epiphany. I realized that the sommelier route was a long road.
The M.S. and M.W. education are expensive, and the time I needed to put in to become a great sommelier was much longer than the time I needed to figure out what Milk and Honey was doing. So I took a bartending job at Gramercy Tavern and joined the opening team at the Pegu Club as a bartender for Audrey Saunders in 2005. This was my breakthrough: a watershed moment in New York City cocktail history.
Right. In pursuing this, have you ever gotten– from somebody you encountered–a great piece of advice?
Yes, when I was at Five Points, my first restaurant job. My brother Peter, who
worked as their publicist at the time, was able to secure the brunch bartending shift before I
arrived in New York. When I got to town, and came to meet with the owner, the new general
manager had no idea I’d been promised a job. He interviewed and hired me to train as a waiter,
knowing that I had no experience. They made me train as a waiter for three months. Towards
the end of my education, I had a really, really rough day. The kitchen staff was abusive, and one
day, one of the sous chefs really pushed my buttons. The situation was really getting to me, and
I was thinking about walking out. That same sous chef pulled me aside with compassion and
said, “Think about this before you go through with it. Don’t burn any bridges in this business.”
He talked me off the ledge, and everything ended up getting better.
I was given an opportunity
to contribute cocktail recipes, and I remain friends with the owners to this very day. It was such
a formative experience; that moment where he pulled me off the cliff, when I was really ready to
tell everyone what I thought about them…it's such a great piece of advice, because maybe as a
manager you fire someone or you say something seemingly inconsequential, but who knows
what that person's going to be doing in ten years? At the end of the day, we're in the
relationship business. And not burning bridges is crucial to the long view in life.
Oh, I totally agree. I tell people that all the time, that this is–it’s all about repeat business. And you have to behave in a way in which people want to interact with you again.
What do you do when you feel you’ve been burned by somebody?
When I was younger I ran very hot. And I still run hot, but I’ve taught myself as a manager that I have to sleep on things. When I get real hot, I need to sleep on it before I do anything I’ll regret in the heat of the moment. And I find that usually after a day or two, I’m not very upset about it. When people burn me, they’re making a grave mistake. But it’s not my job to punish or retaliate. I’m a big believer in karma. If someone is burning me, the chance they’re burning someone else is likely, and the way things will end up for them will play out independently of me.
Right. So you don’t escalate.
No, I don’t escalate at all. I’m confrontational–I love confrontation, but confrontation has to be calm, thoughtful and unemotional. I don’t like emotional confrontations. For something bad, it usually goes in the black box so that I can move forward. As a bartender, you see so many screwed up things during the course of the night, that if you tried to process them all or brought them to work the next day, you wouldn’t be able to handle the job.
Talk about your decision to go out on your own and have your own place. How hard was it to get that to happen?
I was initially hired as a consultant to PDT, and my partner made me a minority partner in the business later on. With that said, Brian (figuratively) wrote a blank check for me to build my dream bar when we opened. The phone booth was already there, the banquettes were in, it was even called PDT, although PDT meant something different then. PDT is very much my bar in the sense that I’ve put everything into it, but it means much less if we were to sit down with a lawyer and an accountant.
I imagine you probably encounter similar situations when you make movies? You’re working with screenwriters, producers, actors, and other partners. At the end of the day, you must believe you’ve made your movie. And with respect to PDT and the projects I’m working on in the future, I won’t own 100 percent of all of them — most will be collaborative. In order to do something great, you have to take ownership of your work. And you have to operate as if you are a 100 percent owner, because that’s how invested you have to be.
Right. Tell me about the spirit that you gave us to try. That was a rum, right?
Yeah, it’s a brand called Banks. A lot of big companies build brands and launch extension via focus groups. And those meetings are typically internal or put together by branding agencies. And I sit in on a lot of these panels.
What kind of information are they trying to pull out?
They’re looking for professional feedback on packaging, labeling, names, bottle design, liquid, positioning, pricing, and cocktail recipes. There are often opportunities to work in collaboration as a marketer or salesperson for the brand. I’ve done contract work for each of these disciplines for many brands.
And they don’t care if you’re exclusive or not. They just want your knowledge.
Usually, you go into a room, sign an NDA, and someone's there taking copious
notes or videotaping you. That information goes to the brand, and it's either used or not used. I
imagine it’s thrown out when they fire their agency and hire a new one, and most of this work is
totally clandestine. It can pay really well. With Banks, the U.S. director of Hine Cognac at the
time, John Pellaton, hired me to make drinks at an art gallery in Tribeca for an opening. I made
three or four cognac cocktails with Hine H, a new, smartly packaged, competitively priced
cognac. One of the cocktails was called the French Maid. It was prepared with muddled
cucumber, mint, lime juice, Falernum, and house-made ginger beer. I liked it and put it on the
menu at PDT after the event. It quickly became one of our best-selling drinks--we started selling
12 bottles of Hine a week. John came in to find out what we were doing to sell so much
Cognac. I introduced him to a number of other Cognac drinks--besides the Sidecar. I also
introduced him to Phil Ward of Death & Co., and a lot of the other bartenders in the mixology
John gained a lot of business out of that art gallery gig he hired me for, and after that, I
knew he was scoping me out for something bigger. Eventually he came to me and said, “Hey,
I'm working on a new spirit, it's a rum, and I'd be interested to hear what you think.” He brought
me 4 lab samples of different formulas. I brought them home and blind tasted them to figure out
which was my favorite; then I blind tasted my favorite sample against my favorite white rums at
that time. Then I did what I call the Pepsi challenge for white rum, I made a Daiquiri. It just so
happened that his rum showed well in the blind tasting next to my favorite white rums, and it
made my favorite Daiquiri. I reported my findings to John, and he offered me the sort of work
that a number of other brands had before. And I thought, “Well, let me propose something:
instead of me doing cookie cutter work where I give you ideas, you pay me, and we go our
separate ways, why don't I give you all my ideas and work with you on developing the brand?
"Instead of taking money, I'll take shares.” So I went to London and met the partners and got
involved in the early stages of creating the brand. And I've stayed involved ever since. It's been
a humbling and exciting experience, with highs being winning Best New Product at Tales of the
Cocktail 4 years ago, and lows experiencing what it feels like to have so many “friends” in the
bar business not stock your product or help grow your brand. It's been eye-opening to see this
side of the wine and spirits business. You have to put your own skin on the line.
So if you’re carrying that in your bar, and you have some vested interest in it, how do you find the balance of making sure people don’t feel like you’re pushing it on them and yet you want them to try it? Is the balance like if they ask for a specific rum, then you give them that specific rum?
Exactly. It's important for me to only stock products I really like and think are good.
With respect to Banks, we have 18 cocktails on our menu, one recipe with the white and one
with the gold. At one time we had two drinks with the gold, but in no way am I using PDT to
deplete stock. The goal is for people to see that I believe in the product, and show them how to
use it. If I didn't serve it at PDT, it would be hard for them to take me seriously. Having a
reputation as a trendsetter, as soon as I get behind something, I wonder if it actually has the
reverse effect on that brand? Maybe when people see me championing something they're like,
“Oh, Jim found that, I’ve got to go find something else.” You know what I mean?
I hope that’s not the case. I hope I’m not a spoiler. But sometimes I wonder why some things don’t catch on.
If you’ve become the reverse barometer.
Yeah, it’s so strange to me. The products we stock at PDT are empirically delicious and intelligent from a financial standpoint. It boggles my mind when something I enjoy doesn’t catch on. Maybe it’s because fewer people are paying attention to what we’re doing than I think.
I know what you mean in the sense that the only reason I got involved in Singani in the first place was my reaction to the spirit itself and my belief that, well, if I feel this way, then somebody else can. I guess the question is, always, will that be the case on any sort of scalable level?
Right. When I look back at how Banks and PDT have gone, even my big break with
Pegu Club, so much of life is timing. A good analog is human relationships--you might find
someone you absolutely adore, but they’re with someone else. Or maybe you have a great
relationship with someone, and something terrible that happened to you in the past affects your
ability to be a good partner and you break up. Or maybe you did something stupid and were
selfish. But regardless, timing is so important to relationships between people.
With bars, PDT
wasn’t the first speakeasy, it wasn’t the first bar that took reservations or the first to serve craft
cocktails. It might have been the first bar that served hot dogs and craft cocktails together, and
it was definitely one of the first modern cocktail bars that played music other than jazz. Despite
the firsts, I think our success had a lot to do with timing. With Banks, I know we were way
ahead of our time on a number of brand attributes. Perhaps we never communicated about
ourselves as intelligently as we needed to. That's another big point, and to reel back to Banks,
Singani, you and I, timing and luck are two things which are really hard to bottle. Imagine a
timing or luck consultant. Or to add that to your resume, like: I'm a lucky guy! These two
intangibles are vital to the success of a big product launch or a small business like PDT.
Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. So, using Singani as an element that occurs by chance, walk me through your exposure to it. Jonathan, my sales rep, approaches you. Walk me through the steps here.
Well, I don't remember if Jonathan e-mailed me once or twice. He may have tried to
contact me 3 or 4 times. He obviously was not put off by how hard it may or may not have been
to get in touch with me. Once he did, we made an appointment to taste. It was right around six
when we open--and I don't normally do tastings during opening hours. But whatever. We
agreed upon the time, and he brought the product in, and I tasted it. I wouldn't have taken that
appointment if he wasn't diligent, generous, and incredibly accommodating in our
I started bartending in Wisconsin, the largest brandy consuming state in the
union, so I've always had a fondness for brandy. Singani reminded me of an elegant Peruvian
Pisco. Jonathan told me a little bit more about it, and bringing it in became a no-brainer. He
was a nice guy, accommodating and professional, and the brandy was delicious and had a
story. The story’s such a huge part about brands. Like I said earlier about Banks, that maybe
we've never told our story in a way that's as captivating as it needed to be. Jonathan told me
about your involvement, and I thought it was super cool. And then I asked him, “Well, how
involved is he?” And then he tells me that you’re really involved.
He didn't promise that he’d introduce us or that you’d come to the bar, but he said it
was likely you’d want to meet me. I didn’t buy Singani so I could meet you; I took it because it
was delicious. If you look at cocktail trends, so much of what people drink has to do with what
they see on TV. Boardwalk Empire just featured the New York Sour and the Bacardi Daiquiri.
I'm kind of a media nerd, and if I was working behind the bar after that was on TV, I’d ask
whomever ordered those drinks if they saw Boardwalk Empire that week. Think what effect
Miami Vice had on the Mojito and Sex and the City had on the Cosmopolitan. Hollywood and
network television have a huge role in drink trends, and I have a vested interest that when
someone makes a movie or films a tv show, the actors drink cocktails, not Miller High Life or
Right. Then we’ve got to tell everybody to go see Gone Girl, because we’re all over Gone Girl.
That’s huge! Sure, what we make at PDT is influential, but what George Clooney drinks is much more influential: especially when he drinks something in a movie.
Some people might find thinking along these lines to be superficial or some form of star-fucking, but it’s the truth. And it can really help move the needle for what I do.
Right. OK, now I’m going to close with just a couple of sort of pure bartending questions.
Do you think that drinking age should be lowered to 18?
Not necessarily. (pause) I think it should depend from market to market. A lot of it has to do with driving. Do I want 18-year-old kids drinking legally, then driving? Absolutely not. But if 18-year-old kids can’t drive when they’re drinking, then I don’t think it’s really going to make a big difference. So in general I’d say mostly no, but preferably yes if not driving.
How do you know when to cut somebody off?
I try to cut someone off before they’ve had too much to drink. Never when they’ve had too much to drink. I can usually see it coming, and it’s a lot easier to dissuade someone from drinking more than they need to when they still have their wits.
And what percentage of people respond with “What? Really?”
The key to cutting someone off is doing it discreetly so no one really knows. The worst thing you can ever do is embarrass someone in front of their friends in a bar. If you want things to go smoothly, be super discreet and generous about it. And raise the point in such a way that you’re doing them a favor and they’re doing you a favor in return by obliging. It cuts down on all sorts of potential conflicts that can come of it.
And is that a verbal cue? Is it a visual cue? What do you do?
Sometimes it can just be finding ways to ignore refilling someone’s drink. Bartenders are great at finding ways to look busy when they’re not really busy. So it usually starts off with something along those lines; like creating a situation where the reason why they’re not ordering another drink is because it’s so hard to get that drink. But I think it can go in a number of different directions.
And has anybody ever convinced you not to cut them off?
Probably, I don’t remember–
Or do they decelerate into something that’s got less alcohol content?
Yeah, I’m sure I’ve negotiated. I used to run a bar in Madison, WI where there was serious drinking going on, a lot of regulars and repeat customers who let loose regularly at the bar. With that kind of crowd, you have to negotiate, so, yes, I’ve definitely been talked out of cutting someone off. But once I get close to cutting someone off, the chances that their night is going to be ending soon under my watch are very good.
[laugh] And–assuming you drink at home–how do you decide what you want to drink at home?
I used to drink a lot at home, and then we had a daughter, and I got a little bit older
and realized that they were adding up. When I'm at home with my wife, we generally enjoy wine,
ideally something that pairs with what we're eating for dinner. We both like beer, and I used to
love to finish my night with whiskey, but I've stopped doing that. Tonight we're having a few
friends over, and we'll decide what we're drinking based on what we're cooking. That being said,
my friend is bringing over some ingredients to make the Pain Killer Cocktail, dark rum, pineapple
juice, orange juice and coconut cream. I'm going to take that on tonight.
I saw you blurbed the Adam Rogers book Proof, which was fantastic.
Yeah, it’s awesome. He’s such a cool guy.
That book was so helpful to me. And fascinating.
Yeah. Well, that's one of the great things about the whole mixology scene: we're
starting to get smarter. Like at one point at PDT, I had three kids who graduated from Columbia
working for me. Once the whole mixology thing caught on, many bartenders started
approaching their job as a profession. We're starting to get guys like Adam writing books about
our profession, because they're interested in us. I think the most exciting times are in front of us
in this business.
So you don’t feel this is cyclical. You feel this is like a secular change in the way people look at drinking.
I feel like we’re just getting started. Writers like Adam could write about something
like a keyboard, but he chose to write a book about spirits instead. I’m constantly reminding
bartenders that we're in this amazing position right now where important people are really
interested in what we're doing. But it's still a small number, in my opinion, and can grow a lot.