Speakeasy bars have been popping up all over KL, a sign of growing appreciation among Malaysian consumers for cocktails in classy spaces. More and more we ask ourselves: Just what is a speakeasy bar, exactly?
During the Prohibition Era in the 1920s, when selling booze was illegal, spirits were finding their way to consumers through unlicensed bars hidden away from the law, accessible only to those who were in the know. Prohibition ended in 1933, but the speakeasy lives on – few can resist the pull of a secret little place to get a drink, frequented only by an exclusive clientele.
During the Singapore Cocktail Week, we met with Jim Meehan, the man behind the success of PDT (Please Don’t Tell) New York. We asked him for a few tips on making a successful speakeasy bar, and on how to develop a cocktail culture, in a scene that’s still new to the craft.
Note: PDT is a speakeasy-style cocktail bar attached to Crif Dogs, a hot dog stand in New York. Entry to PDT is through a phone booth within Crif. – World Best Bars
Why did you choose to open a speakeasy bar in 2007?
My business partner Brian Shebairo opened a hotdog stand called Crif Dogs in 2001, where he applied for and was granted a liquor license before the neighborhood began to gentrify. Six years later, it was nearly impossible to get a liquor license in the East Village; but he found a loophole that allowed him to use Crif Dog’s liquor license for a bar next door if he connected the spaces using an entrance through Crif Dogs. (If the door faced the street, he would have had to apply for a new liquor license.) The phone booth entrance in the hotdog stand is more of a manifestation of his sense of humor then a conscientious attempt to open a speakeasy.
What do you think it takes for a budding cocktail scene to become a full-blown cocktail culture?
In the beginning, you can’t think big; you have to build the culture one guest experience at a time. Look at the example of American sports. If you listen to the athletes on the best teams interviews after the game, they typically have the same response when asked about a championship: “We’re just going to focus on the next opponent and take it one game at a time.”
Cocktail competitions are great kickstarters, which raise awareness and interest; but building a cocktail culture requires further investment on behalf of bartenders and brands to develop demand and connoisseurship around cocktails instead of more pedestrian offerings. Bartending is a team sport, so the competitors must bring what they learn back to their colleagues and guests back home.
We’re in the business of cultivating and nurturing relationships, so the fundamental job bartenders have is to make guests feel good about going out, and drinking cocktails by extension. In a small emerging market, you have to devote yourself to making each impression count, because in the beginning, you can’t afford to screw it up. Evolutionary change is day to day, experience to experience, and guest to guest.
So what matters the most when making a first impression? Is it the menu, the bar design, what?
Everything is important. Right after we opened, Stan Vadrna (a Slovakian bartender and trainer) conducted a seminar at PDT where he suggested the most important feature of a bar was the toilet. He believes the bathroom reflects how the bar views its customers. Using his logic, if you want your guests to have a good experience, you’ll go as far as making the bathroom clean, stylish and sanitary. The example shows that there’s no shortcut and everything must be considered to run a great bar.
What tips would you give to new bartenders for making a bar commercially sustainable?
Serve people drinks: don’t serve drinks to people.
Bartenders who were into cocktails ten years ago were mostly interested in providing their guests with the best possible options ... nowadays, bartenders are getting into mixology for other reasons. No matter how passionate you are about the drinks you make, you have to remember whom you’re doing it for and why. Being hospitable, empathetic, and creating an environment that is comforting, engaging, stimulating, thought-provoking, convivial and safe is more important than your drinks. You can’t control how people perceive your drinks, but you can create the environment that is more conducive to enjoying them.
What help did you wish you could have had from the industry, back when PDT was opened?
I wish chefs were more interested in incorporating cocktails into the dining experience, as they are now. It’s my dream for cocktails to become established as a culinary art.
When PDT opened, many chefs were against cocktail programs. The James Beard Foundation (which began recognizing chefs and restaurants with awards in 1986 to support and promote the industry) added Best Cocktail Program in 2012, and we were it’s first recipient. This was a huge step for cocktails (and PDT) being recognised as a culinary art in America, and things are beginning to change.
How long did it take the cocktail scene in New York to develop and bloom?
The first modern cocktail bar in New York City was Angel’s Share in 1995, and then Milk & Honey came along in 2000. There was more than a 10-year gap between Angel’s Share and PDT, and nearly the same number of years for cocktail bars to gain mass appeal in the city.
Nowadays, anyone who travels and has an appetite for cocktails would already have encountered cocktails in other cities, so it won’t take as long to develop cocktail cultures in other world capitals.
How about the brand owners and distributors?
If there’s too much money involved in brand placement and sales, a dynamic cocktail culture (with integrity) is much less likely to develop. Brands and distributors should nurture symbiotic relationships and fund educational programs that reward bars and bartenders for their patronage. When this is negotiated upfront in a contract, you don’t have freedom of choice and organic sales potential. Consumers aren’t aware of any of contracts – which warps their understanding of what bars stock and why.
In our world, bartender’s patronage is often bought and sold by brands – unlike sommeliers, who fight for allocations of the best wines and chefs, who build life-long relationships with farmers and other food purveyors. In my opinion, brands are exerting too much influence on buyers, which undermines everyone’s integrity.
I’d like to see bars stock products they love, and brands reciprocate after these decisions are made. Brand loyalty is difficult to achieve with backroom negotiations for exclusive contracts. Operator’s should stock what they think is best for their guests, and let them be the final judge if it stays or goes.
Related: New cocktail era in Malaysia
Meehan is currently living in Portland, Oregon and growing Banks Fine Rums brand. His book “The PDT Cocktail Book” is available on Amazon but Meehan would prefer if you buy it from independent bookstores. It was initially intended to be a cocktail guide for his staff, but Meehan realised that what they do changes and evolves so much that the content was bound to be dated – so instead he decided to make it a bartender’s manual to be released to the public.
He will have a new book out in October 2016, which is intended to work as inspiration for other bartenders. The book will share Meehan’s experience as a bartender, as well as his service philosophy. Watch this space for details about the release.