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SB Meets… Jim Meehan, PDT

Jim Meehan, the founder of acclaimed New York bar Please Don’t Tell, on moving from medicine to bartending, the revival of rum and transparency in the industry.

Jim Meehan, co-creator of Banks Rum

How did you first get involved in the drinks industry?

In 1995, a friend of mine helped me secure a job as a doorman at a college tavern called State Street Brats. It opened in the 1950s and is still there today. I worked my way up from the grill, to bar backing, bartending and, finally, management at the ripe old age of 20. When organic chemistry and calculus dashed my aspiration of becoming a medical doctor, it occurred to me that serving people was what drew me to medicine and I was already doing that behind the bar. In 1998, I chose to make a career of it.

When did your love for rum begin?

When I entered the bar business, Scotch and Cognac were the most prestigious spirits, and during my time I’ve seen nearly every category of spirits ascend, including rum just this year. In 2008, Please Don’t Tell (PDT) was hired to create Cognac drinks for a gallery party and one of the recipes went over so well that I put it on the menu at the bar. That menu placement depleted 12 bottles of Cognac a week at PDT and introduced many of my colleagues to the bottling, which they picked up for their bars.

The client, one of Banks Rums’ co-founders, returned to the bar to ask me if I’d be interested in tasting samples of a rum he was developing. I tasted through the samples, picked my favourite and gave it the rum category equivalent of the ‘Pepsi Challenge’: mixing it into a Daiquiri, Mojito and Cuba Libre. The rum shined in each preparation and I was hooked.

In the following months, I worked on the branding and positioning. I’d done this as a consultant for other companies, and was weary of the transactional nature of these opportunities. I wanted to see my ideas through and create a flavourful white rum full of depth, which was something that was missing in the category at that time. As the project progressed, I came on board to launch the rum in a hybrid ambassador/marketing role that would allow me to test my ideas in the market. The rest is history!

Tell me more about your role with Banks Rum.

Start-ups don’t have the luxury of anyone wearing one hat, so during the course of my time at Banks, I’ve worked in marketing, sales and PR. My primary roles have been ambassadorial – recipe development, trade education, media outreach and distributor relations – up until the last year, when Bacardi hired two dedicated brand ambassadors: Stilo Pimentel in the US and Alison Bartrop in Europe. Since then, my role has shifted to be a primarily advisory role as well as hosting bartenders at the on-trade events we do throughout the year.

What inspired you to write Meehan’s Bartender Manual?

I first learned about cocktails from books. The first was William Grimes’ Straight Up or on the Rocks, then Dale DeGroff’s The Craft of the Cocktail, Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology and Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails.

Within the genre, the two styles of books I’ve always loved are the ‘house cocktail book’, such as Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book, William J Tarling’s Café Royal Cocktail Book and Harry MacElhone’s Harry’s ABC of Mixing Drinks. The other is ‘the bartender’s manual’ in the style of Harry Johnson’s Bartender’s Manual and Charles Mahoney’s The Hoffman House Bartender’s Guide. My first book, The PDT Cocktail Book, fits into the former mould and the second fits into the latter.

What has been your career highlight to date?

There are too many to single any one moment out. Watching my colleagues at PDT develop and take over like Jeff Bell and A-K Hada in New York or Malaika Suarez and Adam Schmidt in Hong Kong, or those who have moved on to open or manage their own places, like Anne Robinson, Karen Fu, Jane Danger, Don Lee, Kevin Diedrich, Mike Madrusan, Sean Hoard, Daniel Eun, Michael Klein and John deBary, feels like an ongoing highlight reel to me.

The Hong Kong outpost of Please Don’t Tell

What would be the ultimate goal for you career-wise?

Goal setting is an ongoing process for me as I meet milestones and reset them. I facetiously say I’m ‘living the dream’ frequently, and while it sounds sarcastic at times, it’s really true. Having a happy, healthy family and the type of work that I wake up each day eager to accomplish is a blessing I’m keenly aware of and grateful for. Thanks to all my employers and partners!

Who do you look up to the industry?

Certainly mentors of mine like Audrey Saunders and other figures in the industry like Julie Reiner, Dale DeGroff and David Wondrich. With that said, many of the people I once revered as demigods are now my friends, and our relationships have evolved. I caution colleagues from ‘looking up’ to anyone, as the opposite – ‘looking down’ – is not a good look in our line of work. I try to treat everyone I encounter in the industry equally, with respect, unless something happens that forces me to re-evaluate the relationship.

What has been the most challenging obstacle you’ve had to overcome in your career?

I’ve chosen many paths in the industry – operator, brand builder, author, journalist, product designer – and while I’ve had a great go and earned a modest living, I’m not a wealthy person and all of my endeavours are subject to our fashion-driven industry’s trendiness. For this reason, the biggest obstacle in my career has been the notion that I’m never going to catch up to the carrot at the end of the stick and eat it. A friend recently shared a Buddhist maxim: ‘Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water’. Now I know.

What’s exciting you most about the bar industry right now?

The younger generation entering the trade gives me hope that things will continue improving. We’re only as good as the people in our business, and I constantly meet intelligent, emotionally aware people whose passion drives me to learn more and be a better person.

I’m also really excited about the revival of rum that we’re experiencing at the moment. We’re moving into a golden age as the category matures and premiumises, as consumers educate themselves and explore brown spirits outside of whisky and Cognac.

What does the future hold for the rum category and for Banks?

We’ve placed our bets on punch for the past few years and are seeing that come to fruition as the serve gains in popularity. As interest in cocktails swells, high volume solutions become more and more important, and punch is a ‘craft’ solution to this. The gin and tonic, Aperol Spritz and Japanese whisky highball have become just as popular at home as in bars, which is why I feel punch has legs. There’s no better or strategic mixture to prepare for a gathering of friends than a convivial rum punch.

What trends do you predict for the industry in coming years?

The non-alcohol category is going to grow exponentially as health becomes a larger focus and recreational marijuana begins to claim a larger share of the alcohol industry’s pie. As these trends converge, I hope and expect the bars that prioritise friendly service and a culinary-minded beverage programme will rise to the top, and the watering holes that have ignored best practices will pay the ultimate price. Quality will begin to trump quantity on a larger scale.

Greater transparency is something we have seen across the industry and is something we are now starting to see with rum. Consumers and bartenders want to know more about where spirits are coming from and how they are made, so the re-classification of rum is a conversation that I am hearing more and more about.

Do you have any exciting projects in the pipeline that you can tell us about?

I have a few projects I’ve been working on for the last couple years that will hopefully see the light of day by the end of the year. More to follow soon!

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