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PDT's Cocktail Expert Jim Meehan Tackles Airport Lounges

The master bartender continues his quest to share the culture of crafts cocktails—now for people in transit

by Julie Wolfson in Food + Drink on 25 June 2014

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For a bartender with as much knowhow as Jim Meehan (his PDT book forever changed how many think about and make cocktails), his legendary drinks make him something of mythical figure to many cocktail experts, who are willing to travel far and wide to experience the fruits of his labor. That's just what we did this year at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, where he was busy mixing up spirits that can now be found in a range of newly opened, world-class airport lounges.

Under a vibrant blue Colorado sky Meehan put on his signature leather apron and began to make his magic. The revered cocktail master showcased his ability to create worldly drinks with a sense of place through three expertly crafted cocktails: a passion fruit-flavored, lassi-style concoction made with Woody Creek Vodka; a San Miguel—named for the home of Casa Dragones Tequila which he's infused with LA's Miracle Mile Celery Bitters; and a Silver Cup, which features Colorado’s own Tin Cup Whiskey, sherry and brandy all poured over crushed ice in a befitting tin cup.

Meehan mixed up drinks and spoke with CH about his newest discoveries, his affinity for the Negroni and how his new airport project with American Express—making their Centurion Lounges a great spot for travelers to relax and enjoy a tasty cocktail.

What is the latest new ingredient you discovered that inspired you?

For this cocktail tonight it was the Noosa Honey Yoghurt. I try to make every lounge’s offerings local. In the case of Woody Creek vodka, I let the nuances of the base spirit direct what I mix with it. The Woody Creek is an unusual potato based vodka with vanilla and creamy dairy notes. I started playing around with the idea of a lassi, a classic Indian drink. I added some vanilla and passion fruit.

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How do you translate your handmade cocktails to creating recipes for The Centurion Lounges and making sure they will get executed up to your standards?

One of the things I am very conscientious of is having gone from Madison, Wisconsin to Five Points to Pace to Gramercy Tavern to Pegu Club to PDT, I have made very different types of cocktails for all of those venues. My recipes mostly begin with the classics and riff on them. In the lounge in Las Vegas I’ll do riffs on Italian cocktails because Scott’s food is predominantly Italian. I also did some of the early casino cocktails there. We have a Vesper on the menu and an Aviation, which is a cheeky play on the whole airport thing. With California I will definitely be using local spirits and trying to incorporate some of the great spirits, wines, and vermouths of California as possible. With New York I’ll probably do even more classics, playing around with the Manhattan and looking at the historic bars of New York like the Stork Club and the Rainbow Room.

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How detailed can you make the The Centurion Lounge recipes?

They are balanced delicious cocktails, but I am not serving PDT style cocktails in the lounges. They serve drinks that are easier to execute in high volume. At PDT we measure down to the ¼ ounce and to the teaspoon—many of our drinks our muddled, shaken, fine strained with complicated garnishes and esoteric ingredients. The Negroni for me is a great example. It’s hard to make a bad Negroni. I like gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. There is wiggle room in my recipes.

What have your learned from your experience behind the bar, collaborating on projects, and writing a book that helps you make this project successful?

One of the things I have learned that has set me free and also terrified me is that everyone has a different palette. The preference I have for acidity, for sweetness for bitterness, for strength is different that anyone else. So I can spend hours and hours jiggering my cocktails to create the perfectly balanced cocktail and I could serve Dale DeGroff, that perfectly balanced cocktail that I made one hundred times to make sure it was perfect and it may be to sweet or to tart or too bitter or too strong for Dale. And who’s wrong?

What’s next for you?

I talk about balance of cocktails, now finding balance in life is important to me. As you are moving your way up you have to work very hard and when you get there and you have to work even harder, but at a certain point, you feel like you are on a wheel and you are running and running. Trying to find out how I can find more balance to be a good father, a good son, a good friend, and a good business owner and do all of the things I do better is something that I have been chewing on.

Centurion Lounges are currently open in Dallas and Las Vegas and will soon open in San Francisco and at LaGuardia in New York. Then the next stop is Miami.

Image of Jim Meehan courtesy of Getty Images for American Express

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