Interview: Jim Meehan on The New “Meehan’s Bartender Manual”

The famed bartender talks about his new guide to opening and running a bar

Jim Meehan loves to read cocktail books. Respectively, cocktail enthusiasts are likely to have his 2011 PDT book. Now, Meehan debuts his long-awaited “Bartender Manual.” With more than two decades of experience tending bar, Meehan addresses the art and craft of bartending, not just cocktail-making. The chapters take a deep dive into the bar industry from history and tradition to menu development and design, along with bar tools, spirit production, service, and hospitality.

Meehan fills the book with insights from cocktail industry professionals and colleagues from around the world, including many that Meehan has worked with—from Audrey Saunders to Dale Degroff as well as ice sculptors, brand ambassadors, and master distillers. The 100 cocktail recipes are drawn from classics and Meehan’s own creations, offered along with origin stories, the logic of how and why the cocktail works, and hacks for customizing or adapting each to taste while maintaining the balance and integrity of the recipe.

Photography by Doron Gild and detailed illustrations by Gianmarco Magnani help Meehan present a definitive guide to modern cocktail culture in a way that honors the tradition and history of the craft while delivering up-to-date resources and information. Meehan’s own brother Peter writes in the foreword about the goals of the manual. “That’s the magic of a great bartender—the sleight of hand at play, to hide all the work and serve up the pleasure—and this book teaches you how to do it.”

From a long career behind the bar and being a leader in the cocktail community, Meehan is ready to share what he has learned with other bar professional and cocktail enthusiasts through this book, three years in the making. “This is the way I see bartending,” says Meehan. “This is the way I view my craft.” Cool Hunting caught up with Meehan who was knee-deep into the tasks of opening Prairie School in Chicago’s West Loop. He finds himself again putting all of the long hours, knowledge he has learned over the years, and elbow grease into getting his newest bar up and running. Meehan’s excitement for the simultaneous launch of the “Bartender Manual” and Prairie School is palpable. This is a man on a mission to share his love of cocktails.

After all of the time you have spent in the cocktail industry, why is this the right moment for your bartending manual?

When I started working at Pegu Club, I started collecting cocktail books. Audrey shared her cocktail book collection with us as opening bartenders. Seeing the original books 1862 Jerry Thomas’ “The Savoy Cocktail Book,” “The Gentleman’s Companion,” and “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks” made me realize I was part of something noble and more nuanced than I have previously understood. That was around the time I was helping Anthony Gilio contribute recipes for the Boston Bar Guide and got involved as the deputy editor of the Food & Wine cocktail book and finally sold my own book, the PDT Book in 2011. For me these earlier books were essential. I learn more every year. I could not have written this book when I was 30 because I did not know what I know now.

How did you decide on what the chapters and sections would be in your book?

These are the things I feel that bartenders need to know. They need to understand service and hospitality and technique and bar design and how these things contribute to making better drinks and making people happy. It started with, what is a great bar? What is a great bartender? And worked its way through the essentials.

Why was it important to you to include the section on distilleries?

I have always seen cocktails as a window into spirits. Most cocktail bars don’t sell a lot of neat spirits. Old Lightening in Los Angeles is a great example of one that does. Pablo Moix and I would agree that our interest and affection for cocktails have led us to a greater understanding and respect and affection for neat spirits. For me the base spirits are the notes and the recipes are like the music. You can’t play that music unless you understand the notes. I use the neat spirits as a lens to understand better how to make great cocktails. Having this resource there will hopefully be useful to bartenders and anyone who reads this book.

What was your goal in highlighting so many other people from the bar and hospitality community in the book?

One of the most important things that I have learned in this business, the bar is a stage. When I am a bartender I am like an actor. When I am the bar manager I am like the director. And the bar owner or partner, I am like the producer. When I started on this project I realized I could spend some time with people who are mentors, roll models, and colleagues. These people have been influential throughout my career. Their ideas and comments in their own words complement what I have already written on that page. Or in some cases challenge something I have said to present a different view.

For me, the base spirits are the notes and the recipes are like the music; you can’t play that music unless you understand the notes

How did you decide which spirits and product companies to include in the book?

When I look at a cocktail book and they just say a martini is gin and dry vermouth, every gin tastes different and every vermouth tastes different. Not all gins and vermouth are interchangeable. In the PDT Book I branded every drink. In this book I not only branded every drink, but the recipe section is divided into: Origin, Logic and Hacks. The Hack includes why I picked the brand I work with and what I would use if I were to make the drink with other products.

You include a chapter on bar design. Can you tell us why you feel it is important for bartenders and bar owners to be well versed in elements of design?

Form follows function. In the design chapter I quote a lot of amazing architects and designers. It was uncanny how some of those quotes resonated in my experience working in bars. Architects have to be fluent in code and in materials. They have to understand engineering. They have to understand costs. The function and the concepts behind bar design are things I think have to come from the people who actually use it. Diter Rams says in the design chapter “You can not understand good design if you don’t understand people: design is made for people.” It is for people to use.

How much do you think about that quote while you are getting ready to open Prairie School?

When you design a bar on paper, you look at in on plans and PDFs. It is a completely different experience once everything gets built and you are standing in your space and you realize there are things that you can miss. After writing this book and being in this industry all of these years, I am opening yet another bar. I am still tweaking things all the way up until the last minute. Poorly designed bars limit what you can do as an operator. It is really important.

With all of the information about professional bars in the book, why did you also decide to include a section on home bar design?

I grew up in a home that had a full wet bar in the basement. Growing up in a house that had a bar in it probably planted a seed somewhere in me. As I look at the trade today people’s interest and passion for cocktails is not going to grow if cocktails are viewed as an ivory tower that needs to get taller. They are going to grow, like the cooking world has for chefs, by teaching people how to cook. I have done parties for people who have wine cellars, but no facilities to make cocktail in their home. I would like to see more real home bars. The book includes an example of one I helped build. I tried to outline how you can incorporate professional bar design at home. People making cocktails at home is what is going to get people more interested in what we do as bartenders.

Meehan’s Bartender Manual comes out 17 October but is currently available for preorder from Cocktail Kingdom.

Reprinted with permission from Meehan’s Bartender Manual, by Jim Meehan, copyright © 2017 by Mixography Inc. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Photographs copyright © 2017 by Doron Gild, Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Gianmarco Magnani