Food & Drink

Bartender Jim Meehan Heads to the Kitchen Pantry for His New Book

It took a little over five years for bartending icon Jim Meehan to write The Bartender’s Pantry: A Beverage Handbook for the Universal Bar, published on June 11. Co-authored by spirits journalist Emma Janzen, with illustrations by Bart Sasso and photographs by AJ Meeker, it represents Meehan’s third book, following the 2017 James Beard Award-winning Meehan’s Bartender Manual and The PDT Cocktail Book in 2011. 

Several elements factored into those five-plus years of writing for Meehan, such as a worldwide shutdown, several pivots and a creative block. However, the result may be his most ambitious work yet. 

Planting the seeds

The concept for The Bartender’s Pantry gestated for even longer than the five years it took to publish. The idea first took root when Meehan was in a cocktail bar before a presentation in Philadelphia during his last book tour. 

“I saw a bottle of flash-pasteurized lime juice defrosting on a bar, and I was like, ‘What is that doing here in this bar [that is] presenting as a cocktail bar?’” he says. “I thought back to my years when I moved to New York and saw Dale DeGroff speak, and in 2002 the message was very simple: making drinks with fresh-squeezed juices and premium spirits would vastly improve drinks made with commercial sour mix and just rail spirits.”

“The grumpy Gen Xer in me was like, ‘this is a fake news situation,’” he continues. “But the new-age dad in me was like, maybe they didn’t get the message, and maybe — in 2017 — they don’t know about Dale DeGroff. Maybe they don’t know about this message that I got from him.”

“The idea of using forms of preserved fruits or vegetables or spices is not simply a question of quality or price anymore, as much as they are a question of conservation in some senses.” — Jim Meehan, bartender and author, The Bartender’s Pantry

This sparked a whole other host of ideas in Meehan. 

“I also started thinking about how we were already in the age of super juice and we are very much in the age of climate collapse and change,” says Meehan. “And so, the idea of using forms of preserved fruits or vegetables or spices is not simply a question of quality or price anymore, as much as they are a question of conservation in some senses.”

Ironically, despite the focus on modern trends, these are some of the same techniques that were pioneered by DeGroff decades earlier as he rose to prominence with his cocktail program at New York City’s Rainbow Room, which revived interest in classic cocktails made using simple, fresh ingredients.

“Dale’s very simple, binary fresh juice versus sour mix, [and] premium spirits versus rail [approach] — because of the complexities of our age and the growth of our industry — needed a more nuanced sort of survey,” he says. “And so that was where the book began.”

The bar-chef movement

Meehan was also beginning to see many of his colleagues create their own canned cocktail lines and witnessing, in real-time, an industrialization of the craft cocktail movement. 

“A lot of the people that I had seen who were moving in this direction came up on the lounge side of this cocktail movement,” he says. “And for me, I did help open the Pegu Club [in 2005], which was very much on the lounge side, but I was also the head bartender at Gramercy Tavern [at the time].”

After Pegu Club and Gramercy Tavern, Meehan opened his own bar in New York City in 2007 — PDT (Please Don’t Tell), the influential East Village cocktail bar hidden behind a hot dog shop. 

“I think part of what I was trying to bring to PDT was not [to] open a modern speakeasy. My focus was bringing the hospitality and culinary side of the restaurant world into the bar world,” he says. “Specifically, the things that I had been inspired by, [like] farm-to-table restaurants and fine dining service, not [in the] fancy sense, but more like the Danny Meyer service that I’d been doing at Gramercy.”

“I think that I was making a very strong effort to write a culinary book, not a cheffy book.” — Jim Meehan

While writing the book, Meehan drew inspiration from those early restaurant days.

“Places like [Chicago’s] Alinea or [New York City’s] Eleven Madison Park or Drink in Boston or Slanted Door in San Francisco…there [have been] so many chefs who decided that a cocktail program would be part of their restaurant,” he says. “And so I thought I would feature people who had worked in these restaurants and the sort of recipes that you would find in bar programs where they actually have the access of a pastry chef or someone on savory who can help them develop it, help them with prep, help them with sourcing, and then bring the ethos of sourcing and preparation in a restaurant to the book.”

Reprinted with permission from The Bartender’s Pantry by Jim Meehan and Bart Sasso with Emma Janzen, copyright © 2024. Photographs by AJ Meeker. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

The Bartender’s Pantry takes a ​​culinary approach to cocktail making. But Meehan emphasizes that it’s not “cheffy.”

“I think that I was making a very strong effort to write a culinary book, not a cheffy book,” he says. “There’s some cheffy drink books out there that look like some of the cheffy chef books. It’s its own category of books that I actually collect and really enjoy picking through. But I wanted to write something that was more practical.”

A chapter called “The Pantry” makes up the bulk of the book and separates cupboard staples into sections like sugars, spices, dairy, fruits, teas, and ferments — with each covering how to source and store the ingredients, as well as techniques and tools that may apply. After each pantry category is fleshed out, the book includes recipes that feature those ingredients — more than a hundred in total — from bartenders, cookbook authors, chefs, and notable drinks experts, among others. 

“The Prep Kitchen” section follows this with illustrated deep dives into bar staples, specialty cordials, and spirits infusions. 

“‘Handbook’ was a word that was very much bulletin-boarded and top of mind as I was writing this book because it gave me a sense of what depth I needed to go into on all these subjects,” says Meehan. 

Pivoting home

Key among reasons the book took so long were complications due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Though the worldwide shutdown stymied Meehan’s progress, it also helped to shape the book.

“So, I’m in communication with all these contributors at the time about their recipes, I’ve scheduled the photo shoot, the book is due, and I basically have to pivot in the sense that I have to shoot the book in my house,” he says.

And so the book shifted from a mostly restaurant bar-inspired cocktail book to a sort of community-minded, homestead-y one with undercurrents of social justice. 

“The book [took] quite a domestic turn in the sense that it was entirely written, tested, and photographed in my home during the pandemic and between the call-outs and reckoning in journalism and in restaurants, with the simultaneous George Floyd protests, which were very prominent here in Portland, [Oregon]” says Meehan. “There’s a sort of racial justice, social justice equity sub-current that I think, if you read the book closely, it undergirds labor, which wasn’t part of the proposal.” 

“There were things that happened during the process of writing this book that had me radically rethinking what I was going to write and what I thought was important,” he adds. 

With this domestic shift, the book fully took on the pantry idea — Meehan credits his publisher, Aaron Wiener for the book’s title — with a nod to the historic role that women have played in food prep, production and recipe building.

“One of the reasons why I think these recipes are not celebrated in the way that other recipes are is because they were innovated by and continued to be made over generations by women.” — Jim Meehan

“What was really troubling and illuminating to me as I wrote this book was in featuring beverages like horchata, tepache, kvass…there’s very little scholarship about the history of these beverages, and there’s obviously no specific person or specific place,” he says. “One of the reasons why I think these recipes are not celebrated in the way that other recipes are is because they were innovated by and continued to be made over generations by women.”

“A lot of the people whose recipes are featured are women and are women from other cultures,” says Meehan.

Early in the book, Meehan addresses the fact that we’ve been conditioned to believe that drinks making, especially when featured in cocktail books, should be really quick and easy, and can’t have too many ingredients. This book is not that.

“Part of why these recipes involve way more work than maybe squeezing lemon juice or carbonating water is because women’s labor has never been valued and home labor has never been valued,” he says. “And so if it took a whole day to make a batch of something fermented or that required a lot of processing work in the form of peeling or seeding or drying, that was [seen as] fine because women did that.”

Getting an assist

While writing this book, Meehan discovered that what he wanted to create was vastly different from anything he had worked on before. It was for that reason, for the first time, that he reached out for help.

“The first book was my bar’s [PDT] book, which I was obviously the right person to author. The second book was my philosophical bar guide, which I was the only person to write,” he says. “This book, I clearly say from the onset, is based upon the recipes of others and the research I’ve done from all these other people. So I’m working more like a journalist here.”

Even though the pandemic had slowed things down and made him pivot, Meehan was still able to photograph, source, recipe-test, and do extensive research for the book. He then found himself stuck. 

“After all I’ve read, [I asked myself] what are the 2,500 words I’m going to write about spice, based on the five books I’ve read about spice and all these people I’ve interviewed and featured?” he says. “My mind was just spinning and I had so many other people’s ideas in my mind that I felt like I had lost the sense of confidence that I could do it.”

“I needed someone who could help me find my voice so that I could tell this story, which I knew I had in me, but was really struggling with,” he says. 

Emma Janzen / Ten Speed Press

Meehan then called Emma Janzen, the award-winning journalist who co-authored the Bartender’s Manifesto with Toby Maloney and The Way of the Cocktail with Julia Momosé.

“We met at Tales [of the Cocktail], and I made a pretty hardcore attempt to be like, ‘Hey, I probably sound like a crazy person with all these ideas right now, but I need help and I think you can be this person.’ And so she agreed to get involved,” he says.

The Bartender’s Pantry addresses a lot beyond cocktail making, including the importance of community, sourcing ethically, and building connections through food and drink. 

“There are a number of things I’m subversively pushing for in this book,” says Meehan. “One of them is a move towards a broader knowledge and interest in our drinks and in our food that will hopefully make us more approachable and adapted to being able to talk to each other again.” 

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