It was 2008, the first time I ever went to New York City. It was the first time in my life that I had the disposable income to travel and start seeing and doing things that always seemed like a joke to some broke punk kid.
I had been working in the service industry for a few years at the time (solving my monetary woes and working in bars are very closely related) and was about a year into collecting old books and reading blogs about exciting new bars all over the world. The thing with being in New York for the first time, and for only three days, is that you can’t possibly hit every bar/landmark you want to, so you choose a few big ones and go for it.
At that time in my life/career, there was no bar I was more impressed (there has to be a better word for how I felt) by than PDT. Every article written about it at the time seemed so focused on the phone booth, but for me it was about the people behind the bar. I had never seen so many cocktails made so fast by so few people. Their precise but graceful motions behind the bar had me mesmerized and for the first time I had a feeling that I have had few times since: “I need to get better”.
I did as much research about this bar as I could and found as much out about Jim Meehan, the person that designed the bar, the drinks and the concept behind this magical place. Luckily a few years later, The PDT Cocktail Book came out and filled in all the blanks.
This week, Jim Meehan’s second Book, Meehan’s Bartender Manual comes out. This book is almost 500 pages and covers as much or more about bartending than any other book I own, in ways that both bartenders and enthusiastic drinkers can relate to. Jim took the time to answer some of my questions about the new book and how he went about pulling together such a tome.
Bartender Atlas: When The PDT Cocktail Book was published it made a real impression on the bartending community worldwide. How much did the positive feedback have to do with the drive to write a second book or did you always know that there was going to be a second book?
Jim Meehan: I’ve had my eye on two formats within the cocktail book genre for a long time: the house cocktail book (epitomized by The Savoy Cocktail Book) and the bartender’s guide (Harry Johnson’s is the most renown). After editing eight Food & Wine cocktail books and four Mr. Boston Bartender’s Guides, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to write; so when PDT began winning awards in 2009, I took advantage of it and pitched a house cocktail book to publishers. Thanks to the success of the title, I was able to write this book, which has been a pipe dream for a very long time.
BA: How long ago did you start working on Meehan’s Bartender Manual and what was the process for it?
JM: I sold the book in July of 2014- one month before I left New York City- and worked on it well into the winter of 2017. The story of how the book came together is probably longer than the book itself, so I’ll just say that that it took a village to make it. While being “my” bartender’s manual, it mostly attempts to share and celebrate the people who helped me come to understand our craft.
I interviewed well over the 50 people who had their portrait taken- mostly in their place of work- all over the world, and cut those 90-120 minute interviews down to a single point for most. We photographed 102 cocktails in one week in Doron’s studio using glassware I’ve collected all over the world with Don Lee on hand to style the drinks. Most of the illustrations are from pictures I took myself, or solicited from dozens of people from distilleries all over the world. Each was shared with Gianmarco Magnani, who lives in Lima and speaks English as a third language, so we communicated via email.
After spending a full year on the artwork including the cover before writing almost anything, I requested an extension and began writing the book in earnest: mostly alone during the late mornings and early afternoons when my wife fled our apartment with my daughter so I could work in silence. I reread dozens of books, and after finally turning in the first chapter, my editor suggested I hire a writer to help me! I persisted and with the help of my agent Kim Witherspoon’s colleague William Callahan, and finally turned in the final chapters this March.
I’ve facetiously called this book my midlife crisis. The process wasn’t pretty or all that organized, but it was cathartic, and I learned a lot about myself and our craft during the process.
BA: When you started writing Meehan’s Bartender Manual was there a specific goal? Was there another book that you looked to for inspiration and then thought “I want to do this, but better?” Or was there a void in the bartending world that you felt needed to be filled?
JM:I used a number of other books for both inspiration and yard sticks for success. The Bar Radio Cocktail Book has the most beautiful drink photos, so we looked at that. Old car and motorcycle manuals including one I found from Vespa inspired the typography and graphic feel. I loved the portraits in Sean Brock’s Heritage, the packaging (and writing of course) in Gabriel Hamilton’s Prune Cookbook and the look and feel of a book Nike chairman John Hoke recommended called Chemistry.
Death & Co, Liquid Intelligence and The Bar Book sat on my table for most of the process, because each of them came after my first book and pushed the genre forward in their own way. If you look at the index, there are over twenty references to David Wondrich: he should practically be given a byline for the book, but history is important to me and he is the preeminent cocktail writer and historian.
While each of these books influenced me and my process for this book, I don’t think what I’ve come up with is an attempt to improve upon any of their books, because each author is knowledgeable about matters that I’m not. The hardest part about this book compared to the first one was there was no explicit roadmap to follow like there was for The PDT Cocktail Book. It’s DNA is a mix of Grossman’s Guide, Harry Johnson’s Bartenders Manual and Setting the Table.
BA: Your brother Peter, an accomplished writer himself, wrote the foreword for the book, how often do you two talk or compare notes on whatever it is you are working on?
JM: I don’t. I write and Peter is a writer. We’re Irish twins who’ve been at each other’s necks most of our lives, but one thing you’ll never hear me argue against or disparage is my brother’s prowess with the pen. While it’s awkward that the best writing in the book is his foreword, I thought it was important that someone critical- who knows me well- takes the piss out of me right upfront for writing something like this while insisting that readers give it a chance.
Ultimately, I never asked him what he thought of the book because he’d probably tell me the truth if I did. I appreciate what he wrote and remain a huge fan of his writing, which is nothing like the technical work I’ve put in for this book. There’s a difference between what I’ve written and the type of writing my brother or David Wondrich, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, Toby Cecchini and Thad Vogler do, which is as artful as it is insightful.
BA: In the book, the section on mis-en-place, bar tools and house made ingredients is positioned in the context of dealing with a nightmare drink order for a large party. Where were you when you had the idea to position that part of the book in this way?
JM: As I said above, I wrote most of the book from the dining room table of my apartment in Portland. I thought long and hard about the structure of each chapter-they’re all different- and one thing that occurred to me about every other bar book’s treatment of technique is that most omitted the critical elements of timing and prioritizing which task is most important when you always have many things to do.
It’s tough-dare I say impossible- to write a better technique chapter than you’ll find in The Bar Book or Liquid Intelligence, but one area I thought I could expand upon was the importance of prioritizing each task and explaining why. Going beyond who, what, how, when and where to explain why became the book’s imperative.
BA: The graphic design element of the book is stunning. How much of the appearance of the final product were you involved in?
JM: I had a say in every decision, but the book wouldn’t be what it is without the entire team’s input, from Doron Gild and Gianmarco Magnani on up to publisher Aaron Wehner and his marketing, publicity, and sales teams at Ten Speed. Ultimately, I was very fortunate to work with designer Betsy Stromberg, who patiently listened to all my suggestions and always came back with something more beautiful and legible than I could ever imagine.
BA: For a long time you have been at the forefront of “The Craft Cocktail Resurgence” (or whatever anyone wants to call it) and in that time you have travelled extensively to observe and experience production methods, drinking cultures etc… Is there anywhere in the world you had to travel to specifically for Meehan’s Bartender Manual?
JM: It was serendipitous that my travels- for various purposes- lead me back to all the bars I chose to feature in the design chapter: Lidkoeb in Copenhagen, Bryant’s in Milwaukee, The Dead Rabbit and Nomad in New York City and Drink in Boston. Fortunately, I was able to interview people like John Glaser when they travelled through Portland, and many others in New Orleans for Tales, so I didn’t spend too much time on the road to write this.
I did take a number of trips for the book, and the two journeys that stand out were my trip to Scotland to tour Tanqueray and visit Talisker and Dahlwinnie with Tom Nichol two months before he retired from Tanqueray and my” honeymoon” to Italy and France with Bacardi’s director of advocacy Jacob Briars. I learned a lot about alcohol on those trips, but I learned a lot more about life, and am grateful to have had the time with two people who are incredibly difficult to pin down.
BA: Now that this book is out, is there anything you feel like you missed? If there is, when does the next book come out?
JM: After the first book, I said I’d never write another, and after this one, I definitely need a rest- my wife might leave me if I signed another book deal right now- but I could be coerced out of retirement for the right book. There’s a lot more cocktail theory to discuss than I had room to write about here and there are some holes in the spirits primers and recipe sections. My editor cut 25,000 words from my manuscript and while the book is no doubt better for it, I’d jump at the chance to add some of it back and update the book as time passes and everything changes with it.
Thank you, Jim for taking the time to chat with us.
And did you hear? We are bringing Jim to Toronto in celebration of Meehan’s Bartender Manual on Monday, October 30th! You can get tickets for this event HERE.