Earlier this year, The World’s 50 Best Bars celebrated its 10th anniversary with a celebration in New York City that featured discussions with some of the most influential bartenders from the last decade.
Subjects covering everything from sustainability to gender equality were considered, as well as how bar culture has changed during these past 10 years. To further the discussion, we caught up with Jillian Vose—beverage director of The Dead Rabbit—and Jim Meehan—author and managing partner of Please Don’t Tell—to talk about what has shaped American cocktail culture these last few decades.
When did you really start to see American cocktail culture coming into its own? Do you think something specific inspired the movement?
Jillian Vose: Before moving to New York, I lived in the Phoenix area of Arizona. So when places like New York City and San Francisco were already on their way to actually having a cocktail culture, I was just learning about classic cocktails and using fresh juices. We weren’t even close to the renaissance at that time. This was when I was a new, bright-eyed bartender working at a fancy spa resort, and it was the first bar to really take bartending seriously and differently from the dives, sports bars, and nightclubs that Scottsdale was known for. I was reading books by the likes of Gaz Regan and Dale DeGroff and following bars and recipes from Bourbon & Branch, Death & Co, and Pegu Club.
Jim Meehan: American cocktail culture is really tough to pin down. If you mean the history-minded renaissance that many trace back to Dale DeGroff’s opening menu at the Rainbow Room in 1987, I’d say we can all thank Dale and Joe Baum. But there are many other characters in this plot.
What bars and bartenders have been the leading force behind the movement?
JV: Bartenders I feel have led the past are the likes of Dale DeGroff, Gaz Regan, and Tony Abou-Gamin, for sure. Dale then mentored Audrey Saunders and Julie Reiner, to name a couple; they then went on to mentor people who became my generation of bartenders, such as Phil Ward, Jim Meehan, and Brian Miller. You also had the late Sasha Petraske, who opened Milk & Honey, and completely changed the game and hired some of the most talented bartenders from all over the world. The first bars doing proper drinks in NYC were the Rainbow Room in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, where Dale started bringing back classics and fresh ingredients.
Then it was Pegu Club, Flatiron Lounge, Milk & Honey, Bourbon & Branch, Death & Co, and PDT (Please Don’t Tell) in the 2000s. These bars, the people behind them, and the people that were trained in them all started to mentor of some of the most famous bartenders we know and follow today. In London, you had Dick Bradsell and Peter Dorelli at American Bar at The Savoy, as well as Nick Strangeway and Jonathan Downey all pushing different types of programs and styles. Some focused on hospitality, while others nailed the classics, and some were more adventurous with flavors. There are so many influential people who have paved the way that I couldn’t possibly name them all.
JM: Borrowing from the political sphere, I’d say it’s been a grassroots movement, even though figures like Dale have been hugely influential. Robert Simonson (A Proper Drink) and Paul Clarke (The Cocktail Chronicles) have each written books about “the movement” (to borrow from politics again), and there will hopefully be more to come.
As for consumers, do you think they help drive the cocktail culture forward? If so, in what ways?
JV: These days, absolutely. I believe at first it was the bartenders, but I think now consumers are excited about cocktails and becoming more educated on properly made drinks. That’s in part because of the education that we, the bar community and its pioneers, are providing through online programs, festivals, seminars, staff training, etc. I think it’s about transparency in what we are doing—writing books for consumers to make drinks at home, writing down recipes for an inquiring guest, having quality articles in all types of magazines to hit different demographics. The cocktail craze is in full effect, and there is more information and bars doing great things for consumers to learn about drinks. Because of these resources, and when bartenders interact and talk to the guests about what flavors and styles of drinks they’d like, they then have verbiage to explain what they like or don’t like when they go out. I think that partly transitions into them enjoying their drinking experiences and being more adventurous with cocktails. If it wasn’t for the consumer, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.
JM: None of this happens without an enthusiastic audience. One could make a cogent argument that the audience—not the bartenders—drove the movement if you look at how influential the early internet chat rooms facilitated by folks like Robert Hess and Ted Haigh were. Consumers have driven this forward in every way, and I’d say a key reason is that cocktail culture has shared so many affinities with culture at large over the past two decades (I can’t believe how long I’ve been a part of this!).