February 9, 2018

In Good Spirits: Find your signature

Legendary barman Jim Meehan wants you to shake up your home-bartending game

By Joanne Sasvari
Jim Meehan has worked at some of the world’s most renowned cocktail bars, including New York’s Gramercy Tavern, Pegu Club and the groundbreaking speakeasy PDT, which he opened in 2007. But these days, he thinks the future of cocktail culture is with you, the home bartender.
“The answer for our culture getting to the next level is teaching people how to make drinks so they understand all the things that go into a drink,” he told a gathering in Vancouver recently.
Meehan was in town to promote his new book, Meehan’s Bartender Manual (Ten Speed Press), which promises to become the essential modern guide for bartenders both professional and otherwise. Now based in Portland, he’s become a sort of Obi-Wan Kenobi for the cocktail crowd, writing, editing, consulting and inspiring young bartenders. Indeed, his Vancouver visit was sponsored by Bittered Sling Extracts and Diageo World Class as part of the kickoff for the world’s biggest, most prestigious cocktail competition.
For home bartenders, though, he recognizes that cocktails can seem intimidating. “There’s a wide-ranging consensus that cocktails are too complicated and there’s a barrier to entry,” he says. But it really doesn’t have to be that way.
First of all, don’t think you have to purchase the whole range of spirits, mixers, tools and glassware at once.
“What I always say is, pick one cocktail and buy the ingredients and tools for that,” Meehan says. “Build your bar one drink at a time. As you build your recipes, you build your bar.”
Once you’ve mastered that first cocktail, try making others with some of the same ingredients. For instance, if you start with a Negroni—gin, sweet vermouth and Campari—you could use the vermouth in a Manhattan or the gin in a Tom Collins.
Secondly, don’t feel you have to offer guests a full range of cocktail choices. “It’s not like a wedding bar,” he says. “When guests come to your house, you don’t ask them, ‘What do you want?’ You ask them, ‘Do you want a Manhattan?’ Most people are really grateful that you’re going to make any drinks in your home.”
One elegant way to master the art of home mixology is by having a signature cocktail or two. “After you start making drinks, you find that you have drinks that you make better than others. Own it,” Meehan says. “Don’t be afraid to hang your hat on that.”

Three to try

Classic herbal liqueurs were created as digestifs, but are more often enjoyed for their distinctive flavours and essential role in cocktails

Bénédictine & Brandy (B&B)
Medium sweet with floral, nutmeg, anise and mint notes. The original liqueur contains 27 herbs and spices and is quite sweet; here, it is mixed with brandy for an easy-to-drink sipper. $37.99
Liquore Strega
More than 70 different herbs and spices, including cinnamon, juniper, peppermint, star anise and saffron, go into this minty Italian liqueur. $45.99
A whopping 130 botanicals go into this liqueur from the French Alps. Noted for heady notes of anise and mint, it comes in two varieties: powerful green and milder yellow. $40.49

Witch’s Kiss

Jim Meehan created this warmly spiced cocktail for PDT, the famous New York speakeasy hidden behind a hot dog stand. From Meehan’s Bartender Manual (Ten Speed Press).

1¼ oz (37 mL) fino sherry
¾ oz (22 mL) gin
1¼ oz (37 mL) Cynar (Italian bitters)
2 oz (60 mL) reposado tequila
¾ oz (22 mL) lemon juice
½ oz (15 mL) Strega herbal liqueur
½ tsp (2 mL) agave syrup
½ tsp (2 mL) apple butter
Garnish: 1 lemon twist

Shake with ice, then fine-strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with the lemon twist. Serves 1

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