Jim Meehan won the James Beard Foundation’s first Outstanding Bar Program award last week as the foodie group decided to expand its beverage honors beyond the wine list.
At the foundation’s annual party, the Academy Awards of the U.S. culinary calendar, Meehan’s Manhattan bar PDT was selected as “a restaurant that displays and encourages excellence in cocktail, spirit, and/or beer service,” according to the citation.
Meehan, PDT’s general partner and general manager, took the stage at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall amid applause from legendary chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, Thomas Keller and Jacques Pepin.
“The awards committee decided that it was time to recognize the money and time restaurants were investing in their bar programs,” Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, said by phone.
The Beard award was the latest sign of how the growing demand for exceptional cocktails has accorded near-celebrity status to the people who excel at creating them.
“We’re seeing the elevation of the bartender as an artist,” Dave Karraker, director of public relations and events and brand manager at the San Francisco-based Campari America, said by phone. At one time, “if a bartender took more than 30 seconds to make your drink, you were upset. Now, bartenders put on a show in front of the customer,” Karraker said.
The trend also has boosted growth in spirits consumption. Sales of vodka, which makes up about a third of the distilled-spirits market, rose 5.9 percent to 63 million 9-liter cases, according to the Washington-based Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.
Campari sales were up 16 percent last year, Karraker said, as the company has been nudging influential U.S. bartenders to create unique cocktails with spices, herbs or fresh fruit juice and to market some of them as a complement to food.
“You’re seeing people change their idea of what to drink,” said Marshall Altier, co-founder of industry site The Hooch Life.com. “You’re seeing a farm-to-glass movement with bartenders using local ingredients.”
Meehan is appearing at this week’s annual Manhattan Cocktail Classic, along with author Dushan Zaric and Dale DeGroff, master mixologists who helped lure about 8,000 ticket buyers this year, up from about 7,500 in 2011 and about 3,500 the year before, said Lesley Townsend, the MCC’s founder, by phone.
Mixing in Stilettos
The festival’s events and seminars sold out within days after they went on sale. They include “On Bespoke Cocktails,” “How to Mix a Cocktail in Stilettos” and a master class with Momofuku Milk Bar chef and owner Christina Tosi.
Even the troubled economy has failed to check the luxury cocktail market. In Manhattan, the Martini at Club Macanudo on the Upper East Side charges $63 for a pear-flavored, Cognac-infused creation.
The Encore Wynn hotel in Las Vegas has offered a $10,000 Ono Champagne Cocktail made of rare Louis XIII Black Pearl Cognac and Charles Heidsieck Champagne, along with orange juice and apricot nectar. It comes with men’s sterling silver cufflinks and an 18-carat woman’s white-gold chain.
“Handcrafted cocktails are no longer a specialty item, it’s de rigueur,” Townsend said. “Most restaurants don’t open without a solid cocktail program in place.”
When Meehan decided to forgo a career in medicine to become a bartender, he said he had no finesse. He didn’t know how to stir a drink and would whack a stuck shaker tin on the side of a bar counter. To sharpen his game, he got a job at Pegu Club, which like Manhattan’s Milk & Honey and Angel’s Share, was raising the bar for cocktail-making techniques.
“Pegu Club was finishing school, technique wise,” he says of his time working at Audrey Saunders’s cocktail bar, which was also up for a James Beard award.
Saunders opened Pegu in 2005 with 27 kinds of gin, and only a few vodkas, with the aim of changing the perception of the cocktail bar.
She and her bartenders -- including Meehan and Toby Maloney, of The Violet Hour in Chicago, also a contender for the best-bar award -- used fresh ingredients and high-quality liquors, elevating the craft and keeping the atmosphere approachable.
“My bartenders and I were like a rock band,” Saunders said by phone. “Experimenting and discussing and tasting. That continues to be the case.”
Today when Meehan gets behind the bar, he mixes a Negroni like a laboratory chemist, using a small beaker-like pitcher and a glass stirrer.
“Bartending used to be a job that kind of gets you by when you’re not in a band or a play,” said Meehan, but now bartenders have “started approaching their job as a profession.”