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NYC bartender Jim Meehan talks about Boston’s cocktail culture

WHO: Jim Meehan

WHAT: The influential bartender behind New York’s trendsetting speakeasy PDT (Please Don’t Tell) is also the coauthor of the updated Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide and 2009 bartender of the year at Tales of the Cocktail. On Feb. 13, he’ll be at new cocktail bar The Hawthorne to promote the release of ‘‘The PDT Cocktail Book.’’ We spoke to Meehan, 35, who was on the road in the UK, about cocktail culture, his new book, and where Boston bars stack up nationwide.

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Q. In Boston, we can trace the rebirth of quality cocktailing back about 15 years or so. Do you have a sense of when it started picking up steam in New York?

A. As far as the modern New York City cocktail scene, the first “proper’’ cocktail bar was Angel Share, which opened over 15 years ago. Milk & Honey opened in 2000, Flatiron Lounge in 2003, Employees Only, Pegu Club, and Little Branch opened around 2005, and Death & Co. and PDT opened in 2007. It went from a couple new bars a year to exponential growth after PDT.

Q. We’re bombarded with cocktail culture now, so it seems like we’ve been talking about this stuff forever, but even in 2007 a bar like PDT, with serious takes on classic cocktail recipes, and a hidden entrance you had to find, was still a novelty, right?

A. PDT was definitely a novelty in 2007 and remains so to this day. Every night many customers, including New Yorkers, come to my bar for the first time. We’ve been the beneficiary of a great deal of attention in the media, but many have never heard of us or ever had a great cocktail.

Q. What made PDT become so beloved in the bar world?

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A. I think the easiest answer to that question, because it’s not simple, is that some bars court celebrities, some athletes, some beautiful girls. . . . There are bars that have their ideal audience. I think our bar has always celebrated chefs and bartenders and taken care of our own.

Q. There are people who still think of craft cocktails as a fad. What do you say to disabuse them of that notion?

A. The culture and number of places you can find a great drink has grown by leaps and bounds, but we still have a long way to go. As far as calling this all a fad, the size of cocktail-focused forums such as Liquor.com, magazines such as CLASS in the UK, international conventions such as Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, drink demos on national TV, and this year’s first ever James Beard Award for a drinks program suggest otherwise. With that said, it’s important that we not be overconfident or complacent with our progress. The growth we’ve experienced won’t continue without the right attitude. We’re only as good as our last drink and customer served.

Q. Why’d you choose the Hawthorne for your event in Boston?

A. We chose Hawthorne based on my relationship with [owner] Jackson Cannon, interest in promoting his new project, and the presence of Kevin Martin’s Albert Mathieu recipe in the book. Unlike the Mr. Boston Bartender’s Guide and the Food & Wine Cocktail book which feature top [Boston] bartenders such as John Gertsen and Misty Kalkofen, the PDT book focuses on our house recipes and is supplemented with classics and friends and family drinks, primarily from influential local [New York City] bartenders like Phil Ward and Sam Ross. There are also recipes from guest bartenders like Kevin, who came down to PDT years ago to make drinks, including the Albert Mathieu, from a menu he and Jackson put together.

Q. What’s your impression of Boston’s drinking culture from outside looking in?

A. As far as Boston cocktail culture, I love it. My wife was born in Boston and still has family there so we visit as much as we can. While not having as many cocktail bars as New York, San Francisco, or LA to choose from, Drink and Eastern Standard are beacons of excellence in the world.

Q. Who is the book for? Entry-level drinkers, or experts only?

A. It says right in the introduction that it was written with the widest possible market in mind. I hope foodies, cocktail geeks, and guests who visit the bar will pick it up.

Interview has been edited and condensed. Luke O’Neil can be reached at lukeoneil47@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @lukeoneil47.

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