The Genealogy of Mixology Begotten of the Best Bartenders

How the best of the best keep the New York cocktail up to snuff.

Early on a Sunday evening in October, two men are working behind the bar at PDT, and one of them seems a little lost. From the moment he tied on his apron and pushed up his sleeves (revealing the edges of some pretty elaborate tattoos), the bartender in front of me has struggled in a stream of drink tickets, fumbling for ingredients and furtively glancing at a recipe book before making any drink.

I order an Up-to-Date, a cocktail that was on the very first menu here at PDT (short for Please Don’t Tell), the cozy East Village boite that you can only access by walking through a phone booth in the hot dog joint next door. I hesitate to talk to him while he’s measuring out the whiskey and sherry that go into the drink—I don’t want him to lose his place in the recipe—but I have to know:

What is Johnny Iuzzini, one of New York’s most talented and well-known pastry chefs, doing tending bar?

“Just trying to learn,” Iuzzini says, stealing another look at his crib sheet. “I told them I would do anything—wash dishes, mop floors, whatever. I don’t mind being the low man on the totem pole; I just want to learn what they do here.”

He doesn’t say why he’s learning the bar business—suffice to say that it’s preparation for a future project he doesn’t want to make public just yet. But anyone who’s been paying attention to the cocktail world for the past few years know why he’s come here to do his stage—and that reason is standing at the other end of the bar.

Jim Meehan, at first glance, seems an unlikely mentor for Iuzzini, who spent years studying with master pastry chef François Payard before helming pastry kitchens for Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The 31-year-old bartender doesn’t serve his cocktails in the form of gels, foams or airs. Outside the bar, his sartorial choices are conservative by any measure—he tends towards performance fleeces and running shoes, instead of the two-tone wing-tips and pocket watches favored by some new-school mixologists, and he seems almost averse to the spotlight and the quick money that often comes with it.

When writer Anthony Giglio was asked to overhaul the famous Mr. Boston: Official Bartender’s and Party Guide, he turned to Meehan to help edit the recipes, though he couldn’t offer him a paycheck. Meehan enthusiastically agreed. “He’s got an affabilty and a gentlemanly quality rarely seen today. He’s obviously a barman from the Golden Age,” Giglio says. “Before you meet him, you expect a slick young kid, but he’s got the soul of an 80-year-old master.”

Like the handicappers at Belmont, fans of the New York culinary scene know the lineage of their favorite chefs. They know, for instance, that David Bouley learned his trade in the kitchens of the famous French chefs Roger Vergé, Paul Bocuse and Joel Robuchon, and that his kitchen has in turn been the training ground for many of New York’s best chefs, like Eric Ripert, David Pasternack, Dan Barber and Thomas Keller. Until now, bartenders have been spared this vetting of their bloodlines, measured by other criteria—how well they could pour a Guinness, or how fast they could come up with an appropriate dirty joke. But as other culinary concepts cross from the kitchen to the bar—ideas of seasonality; the use of fresh, local ingredients; an expanding palette of savory ingredients; and celebrity status—it seems only fitting to ask where a mixologist, especially one of Meehan’s caliber, acquired the knowledge and skills that make him one of New York’s most respected bartenders.

On this subject, Meehan is unequivocal: His mentor is Audrey Saunders. That statement fixes him clearly on the American cocktail’s family tree as one of the biggest names in what could be called the “third generation.”

The renaissance of the American cocktail scene is often said to have begun in New York in the mid-1980s, when Dale DeGroff started working with legendary restaurateur Joe Baum, first at Baum’s restaurant Aurora, and more famously at the refurbished Rainbow Room. At Baum’s urging, DeGroff created a cocktail program that was rooted in the long-forgotten bartending manuals published before Prohibition, like Jerry Thomas’s How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivants Companion. These books not only emphasized the use of fresh ingredients and proper technique; more importantly, they treated mixology as a noble pursuit, worthy of intellectual and professional devotion.

By the time Saunders started bartending in the mid-1990s (her first gig was at the Waterfront Ale House), DeGroff was already a legend in the industry. At the suggestion of her boss, Saunders attended a one-night cocktail seminar that DeGroff taught at NYU. He demonstrated several of the drinks he was trying to rescue from obscurity, like the Blood and Sand, an inexplicably harmonious combination of Scotch, orange juice, vermouth and a rich liqueur called Cherry Heering. At first sip, she knew she had found her mentor.

“I went up to him after class, gave him my number and told him I would work for free,” Saunders says. A month later, she got the call. “He said, ‘C’mon, kid, let’s go make drinks for the mayor.’”

Saunders ended up working with DeGroff on several catering events, including that night at Gracie Mansion, and was eventually tapped to help him open the restaurant and bar Blackbird. There DeGroff continued to teach Saunders the best practices he had developed at the Rainbow Room, practices that are now standard at first-class cocktail bars all over the country, including the use of fresh citrus and simple syrup in place of commercial sour mix; big ice cubes instead of standard ice chips; small cocktail glasses instead of the huge v-shaped martini glasses. Behind the bar, DeGroff kept a library of cocktail books (another practice that’s since become common in quality watering holes), and encouraged his staff to peruse them. A tattered hardcover caught Saunders’ eye: David Embury’s The Fine Art of Making Drinks, originally published in 1956 (and reprinted recently by Mud Puddle Books). One of the densest and most exhaustive books on cocktails ever printed (my paperback edition runs to 400 pages of small text), the book is not only a collection of recipes—in fact, the first recipe (for a dry martini) appears on page 116—rather it’s a scientific examination of what a good mixed drink is, written in a clear and authoritative tone. He warns that for every hundred cocktail recipes you’ll find in most books, “three or four will be really good and another half dozen can be made respectable by readjusting proportions. As to the rest, the less said and the sooner they are forgotten, the better.”

But Embury, never a professional bartender himself, believed that anyone could invent delicious cocktails by the dozen. “You need no recipe book,” he wrote. “All you need is an understanding of a few fundamental principles and a reasonably discriminating taste.”

In 2005, Jim Meehan heard that Audrey Saunders was opening her own bar, to be called the Pegu Club, and he wanted in. By this time, Saunders had begun to distinguish herself as more than just DeGroff’s protege. After Blackbird, Saunders took over the recently re-opened Bemelmans Bar at the Hotel Carlyle, and attention from national press helped establish her as the nation’s most respected bartender.

Pete Wells’s article on her in Food & Wine detailed her method of creating new cocktails and refining old recipes, adjusting amounts of ingredients in each drink down to the quarter-ounce, until the recipe can’t be improved further—a page taken directly from Embury’s book. While DeGroff was doing his best work in the public eye, acting as a kind of cocktail Johnny Appleseed, Saunders was winning renown for laboring in private, working long and late hours, tinkering with recipes. At the time, Meehan was tending bar at Pace, Jimmy Bradley’s short-lived Italian restaurant, and he convinced Rob Willey (whom he met through his brother, food writer Peter Meehan) to bring in Audrey Saunders for dinner one Sunday night, so he could introduce himself.

“I was nervous,” Meehan remembers. “They sat at the bar and ordered dinner and wine—no cocktails. I didn’t know what to do. Eventually I just went up to her and asked if I could make her a few cocktails, just to see what she thought. She said, ‘Bring it on.’”

The gambit succeeded; Saunders was impressed. Soon after, they spent an evening discussing their common craft—they started at the Bemelmans Bar and by the time they were drinking nightcaps at the Brandy Library, many hours later, it was all but official: Jim Meehan would be on the opening staff at Pegu.

This was the big break he had been hoping for since he moved to the city—akin to a small-town song-and-dance man landing a starring role on Broadway. Raised in the Chicago suburb of River Forest, Illinois, Meehan had attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he got his first job pulling draughts of beer at State Street Brats, a big, bustling sports bar in downtown Madison. By the time Madonna was photographed drinking one of Dale DeGroff’s cosmopolitans at the Rainbow Room in 1996, sparking a national cocktail craze, Meehan had moved on to Madison’s slicker spots, like Paul’s Lounge and Café Montmartre, where he made martinis and gimlets for post-graduates and Sex and the City fans. For a time, he enjoyed being a big fish in a small pond (“My quality of life was unbelievable,” Meehan said, leaving me to imagine the advantages of being the best bartender in a town full of co-eds), but he was stagnating. He wanted to get better, and there was no one in Madison to teach him.

In the months leading up to the opening of Pegu Club, Meehan met often with Saunders and the other starting-lineup bartenders. The meetings were filled with anticipation, excitement, a sense of common purpose; the cocktail-fueled conversations stretched on for hours.

The world had changed since Saunders had gotten her start. For one thing, there were more and better books available: DeGroff’s bookwas published in 2002, joined soon after by other serious books about the trade, like Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology. And her recruits were already familiar with (or ex-employees of) the handful of serious cocktail bars that had recently opened in New York, like Milk and Honey on the Lower East Side, and Julie Reiner’s Flatiron Lounge. The group included many bartenders who have gone on to distinguish themselves, including Phil Ward and Brian Miller, who opened New York’s Death & Company; Toby Maloney, who opened Chicago’s Violet Hour and New York’s Rusty Knot; and Chad Solomon, who founded Cuff and Buttons, a cocktail catering service, with Milk and Honey’s Sasha Petraske and Christy Pope.

“It was an amazing time,” Meehan says. “I’ve never worked with a staff like that.”
From the beginning, Saunders not only encouraged her bartenders to experiment with the extensive collection of premium sprits and liqueurs that she kept behind the bar, she insisted on it; each bartender was expected to come up with new drinks to put on the menu, which changed frequently. Pegu’s collection of spirits was like a giant sandbox, full of toys. There were no limits on bartenders’ creativity, even if they poured through two bottles of cognac, trying to zero-in the proportions of a certain recipe.

Often, their research and development was fueled by antique cocktail books Saunders kept behind the bar (just as DeGroff had at Blackbird). Meehan created a cocktail called the 21st Century, inspired by a classic from the exceedingly rare Café Royal Cocktail Book (1937) called the Twentieth Century. His version keeps the original lemon juice and crème de cacao, substitutes tequila for the gin, and adds a hint of Pernod. Through exhaustive, repetitious Emburian experimentation, Meehan determined the correct amount of Pernod was less than a barspoonful—so he loaded tiny spray bottles with the spirit, and spritzed each glass before pouring the other chilled ingredients in. Tequila, combined with chocolate, lemon and anise? It’s a pure example of the Saunders/Embury school—the flavors blend beautifully, but only because the ratio of ingredients is so perfectly calibrated.

When I started tending bar at Pegu in early 2007, Meehan was the last member of the original staff still working there. We both worked only on Monday nights—by then, he was also all but managing the bar at Gramercy Tavern—and I was the beneficiary of his growing reputation. Traditionally, Monday nights are chefs’ night off—and I met many of them across the bar at Pegu, along with food writers, restaurateurs, bartenders and other food industry figures who came in to luxuriate in Pegu’s seductive, dignified atmosphere, and to sample Meehan’s latest creations. Seldom a night passed without Meehan taking me aside to explain that the gentleman or woman sitting at the corner of the bar was Someone in the Industry, and should be treated with every courtesy. During his second year at Pegu, he attracted the attention of an unlikely nightlife impresario: the owner of Crif Dogs, a hot dog and burger joint on St. Mark’s Place.

“We had the space, and we didn’t know what to do with it,” recalls Brian Shebairo, owner of Crif Dogs, about the basement that would eventually become PDT. “We thought about making it a classic East Village rock-and-roll club, then we thought about a membership club.” Eventually, he and his partner started to think of it as a cocktail bar, and offered Meehan a gig as consultant. He hesitated, but the prospect of creating a bar from the bottom up was just too alluring. He knew expectations would be high—Death & Company had just opened a block away, and the reviews were glowing.

Meehan quickly pulled together a staff that, at least on paper, was very different from the team that opened Pegu. “It was like a penal colony,” Meehan laughs, and indeed, his staff had a certain ragtag, Bad News Bears quality, with only one seasoned professional in the bunch. The rest of the shifts were filled by two passionate amateurs with day jobs; a hotheaded but lovable barback from Pegu; and a bartender from Red Rocks West who had more experience lighting bars on fire with grain alcohol than stirring martinis. Today, PDT is one of the most respected cocktail bars in the country, and Meehan’s bartenders are budding masters, earning respect for their own achievements. At a recent cocktail competition sponsored by Rhum Clément, the penal colonists swept the awards, winning first, second and third place.

Recently Meehan’s been able to stretch out a bit professionally. In addition to his work on Mr. Boston he’s been writing, including a column for Sommelier Journal, but he has no plans to stop bartending anytime soon. As long as he’s behind the stick, he provides a model for budding drink slingers everywhere, reinforcing the lesson that DeGroff discovered between the covers of his old cocktail books: that bartending is an honorable pursuit, worthy of the most rigorous professional devotion.

It’s an idea that the public is slow to embrace. “Ten years ago, they looked at us [bartenders] like we were social rejects. They thought we tend bar because our band never made it, or we’re avoiding 9 to 5 jobs because we love to drink and party … and honestly, for a lot of the older bartenders that I’ve met, that’s true,” Meehan says. “But that’s changing.”

A few weeks ago, at a loft space on Manhattan’s west side, Meehan was mixing drinks at one of the countless industry-only events he’s asked to participate in each year, and most of the New York cocktail elite was in attendance—writers, bartenders, brand ambassadors and other players in the spirits business. Meehan’s hands were a blur as he measured ingredients, dashed bitters, shook and stirred with the unstudied grace of an old bar hand. From a quiet corner, Audrey Saunders watched him work as he chatted with a crowd of well-wishers, friends and bartenders that he trained at PDT.

“Look at this,” Saunders remarked, wistfully. “My children are having children.”

Photo credit: Michael Harlen Turkell. 

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St. John Frizell writes about the liquored life for Bon Appétit, Saveur, and other magazines such as this one, and runs a café-bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn, called Fort Defiance. When not writing or bartending, he haunts the pubs around Port Authority, carrying a shoebox.