The best bartender in the world got his start in Madison, though Jim Meehan didn’t come to town to mix drinks.
His parents wanted him to be a doctor. That’s why Meehan, originally from outside Chicago, was sitting in an organic chemistry class not long after enrolling at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1995. He looked around and estimated there must be 600 other students in the lecture hall.
“I was miserable,” Meehan recalled, when we first spoke a few years ago.
That he chose another direction was amply illustrated when I caught up with Meehan, by phone, again last week.
He was in New York City for the launch party of his new book, “Meehan’s Bartender Manual,” a bartending bible already drawing raves. And why not? Meehan on bartending is like Federer on tennis, or Picasso on painting.
Meehan’s list of bartending accolades includes being named American bartender of the year in 2009 at the Tales of the Cocktail industry trade show in New Orleans.
PDT, the New York speakeasy Meehan cofounded, was named the world’s best bar in a 2011 poll by Drinks International magazine. The following year it won the first-ever James Beard Award for outstanding bar program.
Now Meehan has the new book and a new bar, Prairie School, which opened in Chicago in September.
And to think he owes it all to Paul’s Club on State Street.
Well, maybe not all. But Paul’s Club is where Meehan first discovered the art of the cocktail.
It wasn’t his first saloon.
When Meehan bailed out of organic chemistry into liberal arts—eventually majoring in English and African-American Studies—he helped pay his out-of-state UW tuition by taking a job at State Street Brats.
A relentless work ethic propelled Meehan to a manager’s job in two years—he still wasn’t old enough to buy a drink—and his ambition and desire to learn the business led to jobs at other Madison bars, including the Great Dane, Café Montmartre and Orpheum.
But Paul’s Club, where Meehan stayed four years, was different.
“I fell in love with Paul’s Club,” Meehan told me.
It should be noted Paul’s was then located a few doors down from its current home at 204 State Street. They took their famous oak tree with them when they moved, in 2012, as well as the passion for craft cocktails that made such an impression on Meehan.
When he published his 2011 book, “The PDT Cocktail Book: The Complete Bartender’s Guide from the Celebrated Speakeasy,” Meehan included a recipe for a drink he called a Paul’s Club Cocktail—gin, simple syrup, a shrub made of concord grapes and a float of Ricard pastis.
Meehan noted the drink was “our homage to Paul Ricard [a famed French mixologist] and Paul’s Club, the bar I used to manage in Madison, Wisconsin.”
In 2002, Meehan decided he was ready for the big leagues, and moved to New York City. He plotted a path to the top by observing his betters at various well-known bistros, and making a deep dive into the cocktail history literature. After bartending jobs at Gramercy Tavern and the Pegu Club, Meehan was ready when the owner of the soon-to-open PDT—Please Don’t Tell—bar asked him to develop a cocktail program.
Meehan had been to Milwaukee’s SafeHouse bar, which requires a password for entry, while attending college in Madison, so he appreciated PDT’s elaborate secret entrance through a hot dog joint and phone booth.
When we spoke in 2012, Meehan was at PDT, in Manhattan’s East Village, a few hours before opening, getting ready for a vodka tasting.
A burgeoning celebrity was already changing his life, he said. Meehan missed the days when he could just open the bar and serve the customers. But the tradeoffs—travel, books to write, new business opportunities—were hard to resist.
Meehan now lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and daughter, and doesn’t get back to Madison often. That’s OK. He’ll always have Paul’s Club.
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.