Jim Meehan, acclaimed bartender and author, helped kick off the global cocktail revival with his world-renowned New York City bar PDT in 2007. Having recently opened a location in Hong Kong and published Meehan’s Bartender Manual, he’s living proof that the world’s love of fine spirits is here to stay. Several bottles of Meehan's favourites, including Pappy Van Winkle’s Private Reserve Kentucky Bourbon, will be offered in Sotheby’s upcoming Finest & Rarest Wines (24 February, New York) auction. Ahead of the sale, we spoke with Meehan about what separates Pappy Van Winkle from other bourbons, cocktail culture and the next big whiskey trend.
How is the craft cocktail revival tied to whiskey's explosion in popularity?
If you look at the original craft cocktail revival bars of New York – Milk and Honey, which opened at the end of 1999, Flatiron Lounge, Employees Only, Little Branch, Pegu Club, Death & Co, PDT – our drinks were made with spirits that you find in classic cocktails, mainly gin, whiskey, rum and brandy. At that time, cocktails were very nerdy. They were not popular. Cocktails have gone from a niche, specialist thing to pop culture. They are now massively popular, and therefore the ingredients that go into making them, bourbon and rye in particular, have become a hot commodity.
Is there a reason why bourbon in particular has gained such a following?
My hypothesis is that American whiskey has gotten so popular for the same reason some people like Napa Valley or Oregon wines. It’s a nationalist sense of pride over what America makes best. Bourbon is the country’s national spirit.
Pappy Van Winkle has an almost cultish fanbase. How has it earned and maintained its reputation as a prized bourbon?
Julian Van Winkle has done an amazing job stewarding the brand. When the whiskey industry started facing shortages of aged whiskey over the past few years, almost all producers blended older whiskies with younger whiskies and went no age statement on their bottles. If an age statement on a bottle says “12 Years Old” then all the whiskey in the blend has to be a minimum of 12 years old. But instead of declassifying his whiskey and making “Pappy for the People,” Julian never changed his line. I think the best thing about a lot of these bourbon companies, like Pappy, is they come from multigenerational family businesses. The decisions that Julian has made will ensure that his brand is secure from generation to generation.
What’s your experience with Bowmore whiskies?
They’ve had some master distillers over the years. Their aged malts are some of the best I’ve ever tasted. I remember when I was working at Gramercy Tavern, we had the 25 Bowmore – it’s just exquisite.
One of the things I like about your Meehan’s Bartender Manual is how it relates the history behind the business, including distilleries and production. I also appreciate how your recipes call for specific makers or brands, rather than generic whiskey or gin.
Definitely, they’re all different. Every gin is made with different botanicals and every whiskey is made with different mash bills, fermentation techniques and barrel aging. So the notion that you could just write a recipe that gin and vermouth is a martini is absurd.
It’s crazy to me that high-end cocktail bars would not clarify what they’re using in drinks.
What concerns me is you go to a lot of bars now, and they’re charging $16 a drink. But it doesn’t tell you what whiskey or rum they used. In my mind, if you were buying a $16 glass of wine, you would know the producer, the vintage, the varietal and maybe even the vineyard. They’re ignoring the value proposition at stake. I feel like disclosing brands is important.
What’s the best way to drink a really great whiskey?
Appreciation of spirits doesn’t need to be prescriptive – that’s one of the great things about them. Certainly the most accurate way to evaluate a whiskey is to enjoy it neat. But many spirits experts would argue that adding a little water would actually “open up” the whiskey. So I would try it neat first, and then add a couple drops of water to see how it changes. Personally I drink most whiskey on the rocks when I simply want to enjoy it. One thing to be aware of is that when you add ice that chills the whiskey, which minimizes its aroma.
Do you have favourite go-to whiskey cocktails?
For me the Old Fashioned is the ultimate and the Manhattan just adds vermouth, which works very well with whiskey.
Where do you see whiskey going next?
The biggest trend is the highball, which is basically a whiskey soda. We’re seeing it more with Japanese and Scotch whiskey. As people become more aware of sugar and overconsumption, drinking a highball is basically like drinking a glass of water with each whiskey. It also doesn’t add powerful new flavours like a cocktail would – it just dilutes the concentration.