Five minutes with Jim Meehan
Jim Meehan is the award-winning bartender behind PDT, New York’s not-so-secret pseudo-speakeasy. Last month he and two colleagues flew to Tokyo to spend a week as guest bartenders at one of Tokyo’s best-known drinking spots -- the Park Hyatt Tokyo’s New York Bar. We spoke to him about the PDT philosophy and how to bring New York style to Japan.
I’m a firm believer that the cocktails we make at PDT are PDT cocktails, the cocktails I made at Gramercy Tavern were Gramercy Tavern cocktails, and the cocktails we make at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, I want to very much be Park Hyatt Tokyo cocktails. PDT bartenders Jeff Bell, John deBarry and I all went separately (to a Japanese food store in New York’s East Village) and found all this interesting stuff and brought it back. We’re using sake, we’re using shochu, barley tea, matcha tea, different sauces, I’m doing a Midori-infused tequila drink. We’re bringing PDT to the Park Hyatt, but we’re trying to use ingredients that are traditionally Japanese.
From what very little I’ve seen, Japan has a very conservative culture, as far as their rituals and their traditions are concerned. It does surprise me coming to a city like this and a culture that is so proud, to see them making classic American cocktails and classic British cocktails. You can see it in other aspects of Japanese culture, that there’s this very strong reverence for craft and making things excellently. But interestingly enough, creativity is not high on the list of values.
I welcome customers telling me how they want a drink. Every guest has a different palate. If someone were to order a drink that’s bone dry and say they want a sweet drink, I’d try to get them to a different drink. But if someone orders a margarita and says they like it a little stiff or don’t want it to be too sweet, or “Can you make it with some tequila but it doesn’t taste like tequila?”, that gives me an idea of how to make the drink, and instead of thinking about it as “Why don’t you want it the way I’m going to make it for you?” I’m like, “Well, thanks, ‘cos now the chance that you’re going to enjoy your drink is going to be higher.”
I’m a big believer that you can’t make great food without great ingredients; you can’t make great cocktails without great ingredients. I’ve gotten the opportunity to travel to distilleries all over the world. You see the shock when (Ron Zacapa master blender) Lorena (Vasquez) finds out you’re mixing Zacapa 23, or when the French find out you’re mixing their Champagne, or when people in Cognac find out you’re mixing something better than VS. I charge $15 for my drinks, so I can afford to mix with 12-year-old malts. You can create very sophisticated cocktails with very nuanced spirits.
You hear about people drinking Johnnie Walker Blue Label with Coke, or taking Chateau Petrus and pouring Coke in it. If that’s what you want to do with your money, go ahead. Who am I to judge? But as far as what I do, I’m not putting coke in anyone’s Petrus, but I try to create cocktails that accentuate the character of the spirit at the base.
I’ve never insisted that someone call me a mixologist or bartender. I think that there was a time, and thankfully we’re past it, where bartenders like myself wanted to differentiate ourselves from other bartenders. Many of the people who wanted to use the term mixologist, or use that term now, are passionate about spirits, they’ve studied and trained and travelled and are part of a global discussion of drinks. But I think that 10 years ago that term was more important than it is now.
Every single person I’ve ever worked with in the bar and restaurant business has something to teach me. I took a video today at a sushi restaurant, of the guy making the sushi, of him wiping his hands, grabbing the ball of rice, rolling it up, putting it down. It was fast, it was beautiful to watch, it was functional. Do I roll balls of rice at PDT? No. But I’m always watching how people move, appreciating it for how beautiful or utilitarian it is, but also thinking how I can take something like that movement and bring it to what I do. If your eyes aren’t looking for that, you don’t see it. You have to look for inspiration.
Nicholas Coldicott has been writing about Japanese drinks and bars for over a decade. He's the former editor of Eat Magazine, former drink columnist for the Japan Times, and former contributing editor at Whisky Magazine Japan.