To track down Jeff Bell at his workplace, you pass through a phone booth in a
hot-dog joint on St. Marks Place and enter PDT. The world-famous Manhattan speakeasy will celebrate its 10th birthday in May with Bell presiding as general manager, having taken the reins when founder Jim Meehan moved his family to Portland, Ore., in 2014.
Off the clock, Bell tends a home bar notable for its combination of discipline and extravagance, and he never uses his kitchen as a cocktail laboratory.
“I don’t tweak drinks here,” he says. “If I lived further from the bar, I probably would. But, I mean, I probably have $1,500 in liquor inventory, and the bar has $20,000—and, you know, a staff that juices.”
Bell’s apartment is a five-minute bike ride away, in the East Side’s Stuyvesant Town complex. He shares its river view with his fiancée and their 16-month-old daughter. It’s a rare occasion that he cracks open one of his many rare bottles. “We don’t drink much at home,” he says. “But when we do, we make sure to do it well.”
Bell started bartending in 2006, when he was an undergraduate at the University of Washington in Seattle. What drew him to the profession? “Realistically? I was 21 and single.”
Upon graduation, he took a position at Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., went to part time at the bar—and then reversed course with auspicious timing. “I realized it was a bad idea, and I took back my other shifts,” he says. “I was gonna be a financial planner. It was right before the economy went to shit. Thank god I didn’t fulfill that. Back then, they were giving that job out like they were giving out mortgages.”
Bell bought his liquor cabinet a few years ago at the
Brooklyn Flea. “I can’t remember the dealer’s name, but he specializes in midcentury Danish furniture, which I was a really big fan of,” he says. “Then I started getting worried that my whole aesthetic would turn into that. I don’t know if I really want to look like I’m living in the ’50s. But it’s not too over-the-top, and it goes with the other furniture we have. I think I only spent like $400 on it.”
And the liquor itself? “I have kind of a basic setup. It’s basically whiskey, a couple liqueurs, and then tequila, mezcal, and gin for gin and tonics.” Although he brought some favorite bottles down for this photo, most of his collection actually dwells in the kitchen. “I moved the booze up above the microwave,” Bell says. “I don’t put $200 bottles of whiskey within a child’s reach.”
The Tiffany silver shaker at far left commemorates Bell’s 2013 victory at the Diageo World Class bartending competition. “I’ve never made a cocktail with this. … It’s funny, the agency they worked with to promote the event bought this as the prize. The next year a different agency ran it, and they were like: We’re
not giving out $3,500 cocktail shakers to the winner,” he says. “I was the last year.”
“God, I gotta get this stuff out! I just need a higher shelf or something.”
“I didn’t drink for about a year—when we were expecting, and then for the first part of my daughter’s life,” Bell says. “I didn’t drink till she was about 6 or 8 months old, just to kind of refocus my life. Then, when I refocused it, I was like, ‘We’ll drink, but we’ll Krug once a month instead of going out to the bars twice a week.’ I find it’s much more enjoyable to do it infrequently.”
“The last time I drank at home,” he says, “I had
Hakushu 18. We had some friends over. We bought a porterhouse and a rib-eye from the butcher at Eataly, so we cooked two 2½-pound steaks for eight of us with the recipe Dave Chang uses in the Momofuku cookbook. That, with some great Barolo, and we finished it with Hakushu 18. A solid meal.”
His daughter’s name is Delilah, which explains the bottle of limited-edition
Compass Box Scotch created for the excellent Chicago bar that shares her name. Bell has no plans to open it any time soon. “They gave me that. I figure I’ll drink it with her if she wants to drink whisky when she’s old enough.”
“All the glasses except for the wine glasses are from Japan,” Bell says. “These kind of glasses don’t really exist here. They use these at
cocktail bars in Tokyo [where] they’re only serving 30 people a night and they charge a lot more than we do, so they can kind of afford to do it.”
He uses the exquisite glassware (sourced at Tokyo’s
Sokichi) mostly to create Instagram thirst traps—to make PDT drinks look especially tempting on his personal account.
“And then for wine, we use these
Zaltos. If you read Pete Wells’s review on Pasquale Jones, I think he spends as much time talking about this wine glass as he does anything else.”
Bell doesn’t typically mix cocktails at home. “It’s like margaritas, daiquiris, Manhattans, and gin and tonics. I try not to get too complex. If people came over to watch me work, I would charge ’em,” he jokes.
“When we’re hosting big groups, I typically
make a punch. We had 18 people here for Thanksgiving, and I made a Fish House Punch with rum and Armagnac [rather than cognac] because I had a bunch of Armagnac at the time. My fiancée is Puerto Rican, so for Christmas I do , which is Puerto Rican eggnog.” coquito
My punch bowl is a Dave Wondrich collaboration with Cocktail Kingdom. This will serve 10 people two cocktails apiece.” The Latin inscription proposes that we eat, drink, and enjoy ourselves, because there is no pleasure after death.
This is literally the coolest bag ever. “It’s made by
Moore & Giles, a leather-goods manufacturer down in Virginia. We’ve done work with them for years, and they finally made that for us,” Bell says.
“They didn’t say, ‘This is the PDT bag,’ but I planted the seed years ago, asking if they would do a leather cooler bag. Because, once in a while, millionaires and billionaires will invite you into their homes to make cocktails—that’ll be a gig we do. And then you show up with, like, a cooler from Kmart?”
“The knife is a Nenox [with a] cow-shinbone handle. I bought it at
Korin on Warren Street in Tribeca. I think I spent $600 on it. But it’s just [ sigh] … it’s one of those purchases where I saw it and said, ‘I love that knife. It’s beautiful.’ I made up my mind before I found out how much it was.”
“If one of my family members came over and said, ‘
Let’s do Manhattans,’ I would probably make them this drink,” Bell says of a recent invention that’s emerging as a PDT standby. This fragrant variation relies on Rieger’s, a whiskey blended with a bit of oloroso sherry. “‘Kansas City’ is not an actual style of whiskey, but the way they made this, it didn’t really fit in any other category, so they asked the TTB if they could call it that.”
Kansas City Star
2 oz. Rieger’s Kansas City whiskey
¾ oz. Cocchi Vermouth di Torino ¼ oz. Roulot l’Abricot liqueur ¼ oz. Foro amaro
Stir well with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and serve.
Asked how many
cocktail books he has around, Bell says, “I don’t have a ton.” Then, from a hall closet, he retrieves a couple dozen great ones, plus a bottle of Tequila Ocho.
He opens his leather-bound edition of
“This book was published in 2011, and I started at PDT in 2010, and I’m not— The PDT Cocktail Book. I’m not in the book. My first drink came onto the menu after Jim submitted the manuscript. I’m in the acknowledgments.”
“I love these Wellers, especially the 107,” Bell says, pouring a finger of 107-proof Old Weller Antique wheated bourbon. “This is essentially what Pappy Van Winkle is. It’s not expensive, it’s just rare—$30 apiece. You can get them on allocation. Some of the rare stuff I buy through the bar, but I imagine that you could make friends with the buyer at any liquor store and say, ‘This is what I want. Can you get me this bottle?’”
“I got these in Tokyo, but they’re Baccarat,” Bell says of his rocks glasses. “They’re what I like to drink whisky out of. I don’t know what I spent, $95? I feel like if you’re gonna pour something from your special stock, you might as well give ’em a nice glass to drink it out of.”