Please do tell

Hamish Smith caught up with industry great Jim Meehan at Bacardi Legacy in San Francisco


JIM MEEHAN – articulate, intense and candid – is a fine man to interview. Eighteen months after his shock move from PDT cocktail bar in New York to Portland, Oregon, he’s feeling the pain of transition and doesn’t mind admitting it.

“I had a rough year in 2015 – I had two [bar] projects that I had been working on for more than a year that were pulled,” he says. “2015 should have been huge. My running joke is that I want to remain Jim from New York, because Jim from Portland doesn’t do anything.”

That said, his follow-up to the global smash The PDT Cocktail Book is being penned from his west coast retreat – so it hasn’t been time wasted. But it’s fair to say the arrival of New York’s finest in Portland hasn’t yet lived up to expectations.

“I’ve found it incredibly humbling if I’m going to put it in a positive light – and discouraging if I’m honest. I wouldn’t say I haven’t been accepted, I just haven’t done what’s necessary to be embraced. It’s give and take. Hopefully that’s the chapter still to be written.”

Meehan moved out of New York principally for his family. You can raise a child in the Big Apple but NYC didn’t bring the best parent out of workaholic bartender Meehan.

A travelled man, he has “kicked the tyres” wherever he has been and considered moving to Chicago, where he has lived before, and Boston, where his wife’s family are from.

In the end, the slower pace of a smaller town offered the “work-life balance” he craved.

Meehan was “burned out”. He says: “I saw the way Jack [McGarry] and Sean [Muldoon] worked to launch Dead Rabbit; Leo Robitschek’s evolution at Nomad; and saw [PDT general manager] Jeff Bell mature in front of my eyes – it was clear that I was no longer leading.

“Because of [daughter] Olivia I was fine with that. At a certain point it is lead, follow or get out of the way. I was exhausted. I needed a break to get my breath and perspective, and also put Jeff in a place where he could grow. It was quasi-suicidal [for my career]. But it’s not like I went to Portland to retire.”

Meehan will give Portland until August. “You have to give a city two years. I’ll come up for air after my book and make a decision. My wife and I have discussed leaving but we would really like to stay.”

In Portland or not, it won’t be long before we see Meehan back at a bar. “I feel off my axis – I miss operations. It makes me tick. To not be in it is very hard.”

With Bell ensconced at PDT, which Meehan still owns, a return to bartending would mean a new venue. But does a man who has ascended and descended the mountain have the appetite to do it all again? Yes is the answer – not for the adulation but for the pleasure of running a great bar. “I’d like to open a game-changing bar that is amazing… and happens to win awards.”

Portland may not have been meant to be retirement but, through life’s twists and turns, it has kind of ended up that way, temporarily anyway. But it was the break Meehan needed to self-reflect, recharge and move on.

He will be 40 in November but there is fire in his eyes and grit in his voice. If he emerges from the wilderness of bartending, it’ll be with energy and purpose.