Say his name in any bar around the world, and most bartenders will immediately whip out a well-worn copy of his eponymous bible of bartending. Today we meet the legend who not only authored that classic but so much more!
If you didn’t know it already, our guest today, Jim Meehan, is one of the most celebrated bartenders and bar operators, as well as the author of The PDT Cocktail Book and the one and only Meehan’s Bartender Manual. He has worked in nearly every capacity in the hospitality business since 1995.
Today, he serves as Beverage Director of an outdoor lifestyle brand called Snow Peak, which has a restaurant in Portland, Oregon called Takibi. If that isn’t enough, he is also co-founder of Banks Rums, a collection of fine rums that are unique blends from the East and West Indies, which we are here to talk about today. But since it’s Lush Life, you know we’re going to talk about a whole lot more.
Watch it on YouTube
Cocktail of the Week: The Planter Punch
The autumnal twist on the classic Planter’s Punch. Banks Rum will transport you right to summer!
- 60 ml / 2 oz. Banks 7 Golden Blend Rum
- 22.5 ml / .75 oz. Pineapple Juice
- 22.5 ml / .75 oz. Cranberry Syrup (equal parts fresh cranberry juice and simple syrup)
- 15 ml / .5 oz. Orange Juice
- 15 ml / .5 oz. Lime Juice
- 1 dash of Angostura Bitters
- Add all of the ingredients to a shaker
- Add ice
- Shake, shake, shake
- Strain into a terra cotta cup filled with pebble ice
- Garnish with a mint sprig and three cranberries
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 934Total Fat: 0gSaturated Fat: 0gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 0gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 55mgCarbohydrates: 66gFiber: 1gSugar: 40gProtein: 0g
The information shown is an estimate provided by an online nutrition calculator. It should not be considered a substitute for a professional nutritionist’s advice.
Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Jim. Just remember that I own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of Lush Life podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as my right of publicity. So if you want to use any of this, please email me!
This transcript is sponsored by:
Susan: It is such a thrill for me to have you here. I mean, you are one of the greats! So thank you so much for being here.
Jim: Thanks for having me on. I’m so excited to be here.
Susan: I know that we are going to talk all about Banks Rum, but this couldn’t be a Lush Life interview without asking how you got where you did. What I’m really, really interested in is, the why’s and the how’s, why you went from each place to each place and what you learned from those places.
What made you make the leap to the different parts of your life and, where you feel that you were in a place to create something like Banks Rum? Does that make sense?
Jim: Yeah, it does. It reminds me of a similar question I had, when I was in Chicago, I was doing an interview for, it was like a Google Chat, and I was on stage. It felt very important; it was Chats at Google. The host asked me, “Well, what are you going to do next?”
Which I’m sure is the way that they speak when they’re talking to tech guys who are going to start their next platform or whatnot. Surprising answer to this question, perhaps maybe to that question I’ll validate now, it’s an unglamorous answer, but when you’re not independently wealthy, you don’t decide what your next opportunity is.
Your next opportunity is something that, in my case, it could come from a talk at Tales or it could come from a serendipitous bar encounter. Or it could come from an email from a publicist. And I feel like this may sound strange, but in some ways, so many of the opportunities that I’ve taken advantage of in my life came from someone saying, Hey, I’ve I’m working on this and I’d love to talk to you about it.
And it comes from taking the meeting. I mean, I guess the one bit of advice I would give to young bartenders, old bartenders, people who aren’t bartenders, are in another business, is that, especially those of you out there who are not landed aristocrats, is that take the meeting. The worst that could happen is that they’re going to tell you about something that you’re not going to want to do or not interested in, and you can smile and nod and listen to them and wish ’em the best.
And, it was maybe a half an hour, an hour of your time. I’ve taken a lot of meetings in my life. I’ve said no to 10 times as many things as I’ve said yes to. And I haven’t said no, like, you’re crazy. Why would you waste my time? But I’ve just said, oh, what? That sounds great, but that’s not me. Maybe there is a person who would be interested in this.
So the short answer, without going through my whole life story, which is getting longer because I keep getting older, is that I took the meeting, I listened, and some of these things were very interesting to me, and I got involved.
Susan: Of course, I’ve just skipped so much ahead why don’t you, in your own words, just say a little bit about who you are.
Jim: So today in 2022, I’m Jim Meehan. I am a long-time bartender, who is now the beverage director of a restaurant Takibi and outdoor lifestyle brand called Snow Peak, it’s a third-generation Japanese company. I’m the beverage director of the US branch of that here in Portland, Oregon.
Before I was in Portland, I was a longtime resident of New York City where I had the great fortune of opening a bar called PDT, after opening a bar with Audrey Saunders called the Pegu Club, after working at illustrious restaurants like Gramercy Tavern. And in addition to being in the restaurant and bar business for my whole adult life, I’ve written two books, the PDT Cocktail Book and my eponymous Bartender’s Manual and helped, most famously launch a few entrepreneurial, projects that are cocktail cultural centric, apps, bar bags, rollups spoons, spice blends.
But most importantly and why I’m here today, Banks Rums, blended rum. We have two of them, a white from five origins, a gold from seven, that was launched 10 years ago and I still remain, an ongoing ambassador and advisor to the brand.
Susan: All right, we’ll talk about Banks, which are sitting behind me and of course, your book too is sitting behind me, for those of you who are watching on YouTube, they can see those. From what I asked before to now, I guess what I was thinking is from each step. you say you, you fell into everything from taking that call.
What do you think you took from those moments? And we’ll kind of break them down that, took you onto the next thing and, how you grew to do the next thing better.
So maybe start off with the time before you came to New York and what you took from that time when you were in Chicago and Wisconsin and made you, go up the ladder. Does that make sense? I guess it’s trying to look at it like each step along the way.
Jim: I mean I think that these are good questions. I, from the time I was in third grade, because I remember a book, I made in third grade that was about my life and future wanted to be a doctor and I went to college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
They didn’t have a pre-med program, so you took the pre-med track and then you took the MCAT and I struggled. I also growing up, had a great English teacher in seventh grade named Mr. Samuelson, who taught his seventh graders like Good Will Hunting.
I fell in love with literature in seventh grade. So third grade I knew I wanted to be a doctor for the rest of my life. Seventh grade, I knew I wanted to, I loved literature. I went to college and I was taking literature classes with for half my time and then doing the pre-med track. I was loving literature and I was getting pummeled in math and science.
Come my sophomore year, I’m volunteering at the UW Hospital in the ER helping the nurses in these trauma situations. And I’m working at a bar at night.
To make a long story short, It became clear to me that I was not going to get A’s and get a high MCAT score and get into medical school, and I needed to rethink this medical school thing.
I knew from working in the hospital that I liked that work, but I just knew that I wasn’t going. It was the way that the educational system is set up in America, like you got to get very high scores to get into Med School. I was struggling with maths and chemistry. I was thinking about it. My mom was a schoolteacher, Catholic school teacher, growing up. My dad worked at a racetrack and my mom loved her job, but she got paid half as much as I did as a bartender, a 20-year-old bartender in Wisconsin.
My dad hated his job. I thought about how so many of the people who came to my bar, regardless of whether they were teachers or lawyers or politicians or whatever they did. They seemed to sulk into the bar and then I’d give them some drinks and then they’d perk up.
I realized that they were happiest, not when they were at work, but they were happiest when they were with me at the bar. I really liked working at the bar a lot. This idea hit me as a young person that instead of doing a job for the prestige, or instead of doing a job for the money or instead of doing a job because it was what I thought I was supposed to do, what if I did a job that I really liked, like the one I was doing?
I decided as a very young person that I should just continue working as a bartender or working in the trade. And it was a very unusual decision. This was in 1998 to go to college, graduate with good marks and work in the restaurant business. That is the decision that I made.
I think it was a good decision because I’ve spent, like this was the hardest two years of my restaurant life, opening this restaurant during a pandemic and reckoning in the industry in which systemic inequities and abuse was always talked about in the restaurant business in the last two years.
I think that it’s great that I love what I do because it’s been a hard two years and I think that I’m blessed that while work is hard right now, and has never been easy, I love my work. I think that’s made as far as what happened in Wisconsin. I decided to do something I loved for my career and it’s made it really great as far as in the beginning when I was doing a job that a lot of people didn’t even want to be doing.
I excelled at it. It was easy in my early years to move up the ladder because no one wanted to be on the ladder. And ironically, no one wants to be on the ladder right now again either. I’m at the top of the ladder so I can’t move up really any further. But we are now back to where I was back 20 plus years ago where like people don’t think the restaurant business is cool.
And fortunately I do. I don’t struggle with motivation to go to work. I just now have to motivate a whole new generation to think what I’ve always loved is cool again.
Susan: Yeah. It, it is tragic that, so many places, are open for people in the hospitality industry and they’re just not coming to it right now. But so I guess the answer to that question was love. Okay. So the love was at the beginning.
Susan: You were loving what you were doing in the Midwest. Why did you feel that it was necessary to come to New York City?
Jim: I was a working in a college town, which Madison, for those of you who probably don’t know it, as well is the state capital of Wisconsin. It has the university which has 40 some thousand students. So a lot of people think, oh, Wisconsin, that’s just like a farm. if you live in New York, it’s funny, there are a lot of Americans who think that New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, and all the space in between that you like fly over to get to those places.
But for those of us who come from one of the places you fly over the Midwest is not just farms and Wisconsin isn’t either. So it is actually a very cosmopolitan place, but the challenge I had is because it’s a university town, there’s a lot of transients, people come there for school and then they move on.
I found myself seven years at the very top of that food chain and realizing that I thought I was good and I wanted to go to a place to find out what the ceiling was. It’s the old Matthew McConaughey saying, I stay the same age or I keep getting older and everyone stays the same age.
Like all of my friends and colleagues were continuously college aged. So at a certain point you age out a little bit and it’s like, Hey, I’d like to work with people in my own age group and I’d actually like to get mentored. I’d been reading about Dale DeGroff who had just published his The Craft of the Cocktail and I’d been reading about his protegee Audrey Saunders and I was thinking, wow, what if I could meet someone like that and get under his wing?
I moved to New York in the hopes of A – seeing if I was any good and B – seeing if I could find someone to mentor me to make me better.
Susan: Which you did and you ended up at the Pegu Club.
Jim: Yeah, I did.
Susan: You absolutely were successful in that.
Jim: I think that that was a lesson for New York, is that I had a plan when I moved to New York and I followed the plan. I think that when you go to a place that is like New York or London, they’re very competitive, very, they’re scarce resources, going back to the not independently wealthy.
So you got to figure out what you’re going to do. You got to work hard and you’ve got to, ideally you have a plan because you got to be focused.
Susan: Yes, of course. That definitely you were, and also being at the kind of the right time. I just had moved to London a little bit before this cocktail revolution in London. There was Temple Bar, there’s Angel Share and Milk and Honey, which I had been to, but then it kind of just exploded. Fast forward a little again to the how and why – you’re at the Pegu Club, you’re doing your thing. When did you think it was the right time to open your own place?
Jim: Well, ironically, I ended up being the last opening bartender at the Pegu Club, of the opening team. I stayed there for two and a half years, and the time that I knew it was getting ripe was I had, so I explained to a lot of people about the Pegu Club, as you mentioned the first three bars, Temple Bar, Angel’s Share, Milk and Honey.
Then from there you have the Flat Iron Lounge, and then you have Employees Only and then Little Branch. So these are the like five cocktail bars in New York City, of which Angel Share is mostly serving Japanese clientele. Temple Bar is not quite the next, they’re not the 2.0, they’re still like the best version of 1.0.
There were very few serious cocktail bars that were doing what Milk and Honey was doing or what Pegu or Flat Iron were doing. At first a lot of my friends would come and visit me and they’d be like, what are you doing here? It wasn’t the only people drinking, there were the Daily Candy, Jet Set of young professional women and the New York media.
That was who drank at the Pegu Club and otherwise it was dead. We made no money. I made $80 a night, it took a long time. Basically when we opened it, cocktails were not cool and by the time it closed, cocktails were an institution and were the coolest thing on earth.
In the early days, people used to come, between the Daily Candy and New York media, there were people who were thinking it was cool and so there were consulting opportunities, offered, or hinted at, or like cards dropped almost every week of like, Hey, I’m working on a restaurant I’d love to hear what you think, or whatever.
One of those latter-day consulting opportunities was my coworker at Pegu Club, St. John Frizell who obviously has gone on and opened a bunch of great bars and restaurants in Brooklyn since he was working at the Good Fork in Red Hook and had a guest come to his bar and ask for me or he overheard them talking about me and he interjected and said, Hey, are you talking about Jimmy?
I worked with him at the Pegu Club and so this gentleman came to the Pegu Club when St. John and I were working and told me that he and his childhood friend were opening a bar in the East Village and they’d wonder if I’d be interested in checking it out. That was Brian Shebairo, who owned Crif Dogs ,and Chris Antista, who helped him, opened it originally and then got off the project and was helping him open PDT essentially.
The two of them were in the process of building what is now PDT in a former bubble tea lounge. I visited when it was an early construction site and talked to them and they had an idea in mind – the phone booth and the hidden bar, attached to the hotdog stand. It was in place, but they had no idea how to run a bar or what to serve in it.
So that was when the conversations began. I got along really well. Chris was a regular of mine at Five Points which was the first restaurant I worked at when I moved to New York City. I knew him well and then I got along really well with Brian and then that was off to the races.
Susan: When you finally had your first chance to have your own menu, was it overwhelming or did you already know? Was this your Oscar speech? Like I know what I’m going to say. I’ve been dreaming about this for years.
Jim: I arrived in New York in 2002, and from 2002 to 2004, like it was almost two years, I think I was at Five Points, we had this $5 martini and oyster happy hour. That was huge. Then we served, basically this was like the end of the fruit martini phase. I served a lot of Apple Martinis and regular Vodka Martinis and those were the drinks there.
Then we served a lot of new, really dynamic American wines. We had the Robert Chatterton portfolio there. The wine list was great. So at Five Points, that was when I was almost going to go the way of wine, where I went to, like you said, Milk and Honey in 2003 for the first time.
I lived across the street from WD 50 and met Eben Freeman (Bar Manager) and, so I experienced Eben’s cocktails at WD 50. Then I went to obviously Employees Only and Schillers was around the corner from where I lived, which was the Keith McNally spot that was before Employees or right around the time Employees only opened, that was the project that Dushan and Jay did before Employees Only.
I was almost going to be a sommelier. Then I started trying these cocktails and Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails came out. And at a certain point I knew that Five Points was never going to let me write a list. So Jimmy Bradley and Danny Abrams hired me to open their Italian restaurant, Pace in Tribeca.
I basically told them that in order to leave Five Points, I would need them to make me the Bar Manager and make me a sommelier. I remember Danny looking at me, he’s like, that position doesn’t exist. And I was like, well, you’re going to need to create it. And they did. I worked three nights on the floor as a sommelier in a restaurant right around the corner from the Financial District selling 150 bottle all Italian lists to bankers.
Then two nights a week, I worked behind the bar and I had my own bar program there. That was the first time I worked with a great PR company, I was in the New York Times that year. Andrew Knowlton named my Montenegro Manhattan, which was a Maker’s Mark Manhattan with Montenegro Amaro, his cocktail of the year in Bon Appetit.
So it was a really a watershed year for m, For all you young bartenders out there, I was putting Amaro in my Manhattan in 2003, it was a watershed moment for me. Then from there, that was how I lured Audrey Saunders into my bar, and then once I met Audrey Saunders, I put the full court press on her to hire me at the Pegu Club. Basically just I went to Bemelmans and met her and then had a meeting with her across the street at the Brandy Library and just basically all it begged her to, to hire me to tend bar at Pegu Club.
Susan: You were kind of an old hat by the time you, not old as an old, but you knew your way.
Jim: It was like a new hat.
Susan: Yeah, a new hat!
Jim: Yeah, that was a new hat, but it was going well.
Susan: Okay. It was going well. So you were, I mean, you were well, well sorted for PDT. You were I got this, I got this. I know exactly what I want.
Jim: Well, I mean, the other thing that happened was Pegu Club had a long delay on opening, and so Pace was, even though it was this very cool restaurant, we didn’t get a good New York Times review, and Jimmy Bradley and Danny Abrams were breaking up their partnership and it was kind of going down in flames.
A coworker of mine who was a previous Gramercy Tavern employee was like, Hey, my sister still works at Gramercy Tavern. I worked there for a long time. They’re hiring a bartender right now, which they haven’t done in years and years, and. I think you’d be perfect for this job.
He suggested I go interview. I went and interviewed at Gramercy Tavern. I went from Bar Manager, Assistant Wine Director, Management, in the magazines to, “can I be a bartender at Gramercy Tavern?” So, not a lateral move, but in many ways a move down. But what everyone told me was, Hey, if you’re serious and you want to work at a great place like this and you want to work at a place that is culturally wired like you, you’ll fit in here.
I went in and I interviewed and got hired. I was the first bartender that Gramercy had hired in many years that wasn’t from the floor. I started there and it was right at a time when Tom Colicchio was selling to Danny Meyer and Mike Anthony was brought in as the new chef. And they were going to redo Tom’s very successful menu into Michael’s who had left Stone Barns.
I was working with these very senior bartenders at Gramercy Tavern while I was waiting for a Pegu Club to open. One by one all these dinosaurs, I know you guys aren’t that old, but all these bartenders had been there forever, left. Within nine months I was writing the menu of the Gramercy Tavern.
Obviously, there were a number of classics which came back on. I didn’t create all the cocktails, but for my two years, for at least the last year and a half of my time at Gramercy, I was in charge of the cocktail menu there. The cool thing for me about working at Pegu was I only worked there once a week and I was working with like Toby Maloney and Brian Miller, and Phil Ward and Sam Ross and, and Kenta and all these guys, Alistair Burgess who’d been there and they were working full-time.
I only, this will surprise some people. I only, I think, put two drinks on the menu at the Pegu Club in two and a half years. Like only, two of my drinks, maybe. Yeah, two, the 21st Century and the Improved, I think it was called, the Improved Norwegian Old Fashioned or something. In my time there, I’d only put two drinks on the menu, but I was writing the list at Gramercy, so it wasn’t, I didn’t feel like I, I was creatively limited.
Susan: I actually hadn’t realized that. I thought it was gradual. I didn’t think that you were doing it all at once. All at once. That is mind-blowing.
Jim: And for two and a half years I was working full time at Gramercy, which was 50 hours. I was working one shift a week at Pegu which was about a 10- or 11-hour shift, and I was editing the Food and Wine Cocktail Book with Kate Crater by myself. So that was a job that at some weeks was like 15 or 20 hours a week.
And I had to go to midtown to recipe test all the drinks in the Food and Wine Test Kitchen, so for these two or three years, I did that for six years, I think, for at least that six-year period, I was working 90 hours a week.
Susan: Well, that answers the question of what you brought to PDT because you brought everything management, cocktail creation, running a place, writing everything to what was then your, I was thinking of it as, your baby, PDT. You had already had many children by then.
Jim: It was. I guess the best way to describe it is that working at Gramercy Tavern… Gramercy Tavern will always be associated with Danny Meyer and now with Mike Anthony, then with Tom Colicchio. I worked for Danny, or I worked for Union Square Hospitality Group.
At the Pegu Club, it’ll always be remembered and correctly as Audrey’s Bar. So these other places I worked at were someone else’s place, whereas PDT was up until, I’m not involved anymore, was, irrevocably. Maybe even still, people think of me when they think of PDT. And I think that was the biggest difference is going from being a creative mind as a part of a stable to being kind of credited as proprietor.
Susan: And how did that feel?
Jim: I also think that the jump to Banks Rums at the time, this is all beginning to get to Banks. I think that the Pegu Club, in addition to opportunities for consulting, there were opportunities for brand work, like for Charlotte Voisey and Simon Ford and slowly a trickle of a lot of British bartenders kind of coming over to New York and America.
Simon and Charlotte to me and Jacob Briars were really the three that were the prototypical, new people who were like arguably the marketing and sales geniuses of their time.
I feel like they were coming over and they were around my age, so young and less experienced than they are now. Then we were getting a lot of focus group work at the time where it’s like, Hey, come in for an hour to an office in Midtown and tell us what you think and here’s like $500.
I think for me, after doing a lot of these focus groups, there was a part of what happened with Banks was the, I could tell that it could have gone that way, where it’s like, Hey, let’s just get some of your ideas and pay ’em. My instinct was like, what? I’ve been doing enough of these focus groups and meeting with founders.
This idea for Banks came about where I was like, what? I want to actually not only give you guys advice, but I want to stick around and find out if any of it works, I actually want to. I think that so much of what people probably think about either my career or their careers people probably think that being successful is having success.
I would argue that yes, obviously, that’s not incorrect, I’ve learned the most and grown the most through my failures and or through my shortcomings or through the things that haven’t worked. I intrinsically even knew back then, that in order to actually grow from these focus group and paid opportunities that I needed to get into a driver’s seat where I could actually see if we were getting anywhere.
Susan: Timing wise, when did Banks come into your life? What were you doing then?
Jim: By Banks’ time. I was I think it was a year into PDT. So PDT made a huge splash in New York City, and the easiest way to describe it was that Sasha Petraske who was really highly inspired by Angel’s Share, everyone kind of knew that what Sasha and Mike and Honey were doing was revolutionary.
But Sasha refused to talk to the media. He had this very artistic streak, and he wouldn’t take interviews for the most part. I mean, Robert Simonson cracked that egg towards the end of his short life and was able to get him on the record for his book and for some articles.
But for the most part, Sasha didn’t speak for his own work. And in the absence of Sasha speaking for his own work, PDT was like the hidden speakeasy style bar in New York City that was similar enough to Milk and Honey, where people wanted to talk about this as a trend. Sasha wouldn’t speak to them, so I did.
I ended up getting just a giant amount of press for PDT because like you said earlier, right place, right time, right concept and, and willing to talk about it.
Susan: Wait, let me interrupt you. Also, you have to add to that great cocktails because PDT could have been all of those things, but if the drinks hadn’t been good, no one would’ve come back. So kudos to you.
Jim: Yeah, I mean, the team was executing at a very high level, it’s kind of a fun story. When PDT opened, we opened five months after Death and Company opened When Death and Company opened, Phil Ward and Brian Miller and Jim Kerns, who were three of my eight bartender buddies at Pegu Club, all left the Pegu Club to open Death and Co.
It left a huge hole in the bar schedule at Pegu Club and a huge hole in Audrey’s heart which I was there to console her about. We were still at a period in New York where there weren’t a lot of cocktail bartenders. I opened PDT with two of my regulars from the Pegu Club, not bar, they were bar regulars, John Deragon and Don Lee.
I staffed it with a bunch of folks who couldn’t get enough shifts at the five other cocktail bars, it was a castaway crew that we opened with. John and Don ended up recruiting former Columbia grads that they had gone to college with or were working with. At one point I had five Columbia grads on the staff at PDT. It was right during the financial class of 2000.
The bar opened in 2007. The financial crash happens in 2008. And as I think about it now, as horrendous as that time was for so many Americans, it was a watershed period in hospitality where the combination of these heroic figures like Bourdain and the rise of the Food Network really pushed a lot of people who were very highly educated, highly gifted and talented people into hospitality, because they thought it was cool and the desk job that they thought they were going to get wasn’t going to work out then.
We really had a great team for good reasons and bad and they were doing great. So fast forward to Banks, PDT got hired to cater an art gallery open opening in Tribeca by a cognac company called Hine and I went down with a couple coworkers and made drinks at this small gallery.
I liked one of the drinks. It was a variation on Sam Ross’s Kentucky Maid, which was a Bourbon Bach. I made it with cognac instead of bourbon and with lime instead of lemon. I made it with cucumbers and mint because the Queen’s Park Swizzle and the Pimm’s cup were very popular at the time.
I added falernum because I like this spice with the cognac. It sold well, it was well received at the gallery. I put it on the menu at the bar. Then two a month later, this guy who hired me for this gig comes into the bar. His name was John Pellaton. He’s still a good friend. I just had dinner with him in New York last time I was there. He grew up in Long Island from a wealthy family. He worked in the liquor business at Moët Hennessy his whole life. He was a very like blue blooded, but very nice, intelligent, engaging man who was in his sixties at this time.
He came to the bar and not being arrogant, but he’s like, what are you doing with my cognac? You guys are going through two cases a week, you’re the biggest account in the country and there’s all these sales in the neighborhood. What is your little basement dive bar in the East Village doing with my fancy cognac brand?
I was like, well the drink that I created for your party, I liked it. I put it on my menu. All the bartenders in the neighborhood drink here, and that’s what happens here. So it was a light bulb moment for him where I think he realized that like, oh, someone like me could be someone who could incubate and accelerate a brand.
Fast forward a couple months, he told me that he was working on a rum project, he’d like me to meet his partners. I flew down to Florida with him and then I flew to London with him. When I was at Design Bridge in London with the whole team established, I spent two days in these focus group type meetings.
After meeting the partners, I always say that it felt like Ocean’s 11, it was like a group of like celebrity, high IQ. It felt like a bunch of kind of guys getting together for lone last heist. They were all in their like late sixties. They’d all built big brands. They were all quite wealthy, but they were all pooling their resources to do it one more time. For some of ’em, they can’t stop themselves.
I was the youngest person in the room by 25 years and it was just intoxicating too. I was also running the number one bar in the world and I was this young person with these older gentlemen who had been doing it their whole career, who were like my parents’ age.
I was saying a lot of things and they were listening to me and it was intoxicating to be around these entrepreneurs who had done it, had succeeded, were successful, but were listening to me. I was helping to create the brand. So after a few productive meetings, I said, Hey, would you guys be interested instead of paying me for this, offering me potentially some shares and letting me be part of this journey? And they agreed. I worked with them for a year and then we launched Banks 5 in 2010.
Susan: Okay. A little bit about Banks’s history. Where did you come in the project? What was there already? Liquid in a bottle? What did they want your brain for – the making of it, and also your relationship with rum
Jim: Yeah, you’re beginning to probably pick up a pattern here, 40 minutes into our
talk that in the same way that I fell involved with PDT, these guys had a plan and one of the former chairman, Arnaud de Trabuc, had long time work for Angostura and had found a firm in Amsterdam called Scheer, which has been blending rums for 300 years and had worked with them to develop a formula for a white rum.
Then John Pellaton, this gentleman who I did the catering gig, brought me lab samples of some final blends that they were considering. I picked my favorite one of those, which ended up being the final blend, and did what I call the Pepsi Challenge with every kind of spirit, if it’s a white rum, I’m going to try it on its own, try it next to the other white rums I have, and then use it in cocktails.
I made a Daiquiri with it, with fresh lime and sugar. I made a Mojito and I made a Rum and Coke. And lo and behold, I found a rum that was flavorful enough to shine through even Coca-Cola and was really made a beautiful Daiquiri and, and, and as well as mojito. That was when I knew that I wanted to be involved in this project.
As far as rum, as I mentioned before. I had been doing focus group work. For me, I’d seen vodka had been ascendant my whole career. Gin was on the move, thanks to these British brand ambassadors like Simon Ford and Charlotte Voisey. Tequila was just beginning its ascendance with Phil Ward and Mayahuel and the Oaxaca Old Fashioned. Bourbon was ascendant. Rye was coming. Cognac and scotch were already huge and I really liked rum and found that rum had the most opportunity in front of it.
I found that rum was a great category, but it suffered from a few different challenges in 2010. One was that it was kind of viewed by a lot of the industry as a commodity where there was like a pride in how cheap the rums you used were in your drinks, and so the price was something downward.
Price was something that really drove popularity, not upward price. Then I also felt that having tried certain styles of rum that, like Jamaican rum or rum from Guyana, or rums from Martinique and Guadalupe and Reunion that were dry rums, that a lot of people associated rum, because it was made from sugar cane, as something sweet.
A lot of consumers especially didn’t understand that great rum was as sophisticated and complex as cognac or whiskey. I as a person who made drinks, but also was a spirits enthusiast and an educator, knew that this rum that I had just tasted really had legs because it was dry. There was no nothing, no sugar added. It was really rich and flavorful. It made great drinks and I felt the white rum dilemma.
White Rum has the most classic cocktails to mix with it, of all of them. I was really excited about it and that’s what got me, that’s what hooked me. The quality of this rum really got me involved.
So to answer your question directly, Banks existed, the first rum was going to be a white rum. I got involved at the final end of the selection of the formula for the Banks 5. Then I helped them in all the communications and creating any visual or written content in the beginning.
Then I gave them the idea of attaching 5 to Banks 5, because I felt that for bartenders, remembering Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, and Java, or Indonesia would be a challenge. That this would be a mnemonic device to help them remember, oh, it’s a rum from five origins.
Susan: Saying that, I’m glad you brought that up. Why did they choose those places?
Jim: The process for the selection, the way that Scheer works, you give them a brief of what you’re going for and then they provide samples. You can go to them and say, Hey, I want to create my own independent label of rum and I want it to be rums from Martinique, and they can source that way.
But there’s other ways of doing this where you can go to them with other needs or wants, and then they send you rums that they think would fulfill that. So with Banks 5 and Banks 7, the idea was to create a dry, flavorful rum that would mix well with cocktails. I always like to mention that Arnaud, our chairman, who worked directly with them was a big cigar smoker and he wanted something he could smoke cigars with as well.
What our original idea was something that was good on its own, as well as great in cocktails. I was there to make sure that they were great in cocktails. To answer your question though, it had five rums in it because, or it has 20 rums in it actually, but it has 20 rums from five origins to fulfill the brief.
I think it’s a strange thing in our single origin, craft distilled world to imagine this, but this generation of entrepreneurs I was working with grew up in a world in which champagne, which is a blend of wines, Bordeaux, which is a blend of wines for multiple origins, blended scotch whiskey, which is a blend of whiskeys from multiple distilleries, cognac, which is a blend of brandies from multiple distilleries, all of the prestigious pr, super premium wines and spirits of the seventies, eighties, even nineties were not single origin, single batch, single distiller products. They were blends crafted from longtime master blenders.
I think, in their mind, quality and super premium quality products were not the product of terroir or were not the product of a genius distiller. They were the byproduct of a blend of many different things from someone who is more of a blender than a distiller.
Susan: Yeah, I totally agree, I’m seeing some whiskeys are starting to create blends again. I think that single malt or single idea not, it’s reached its pinnacle, but we all appreciate that. But now it’s kind of going back to appreciating the mastery of blending, which is such an art and so was there only the white when you were involved or were they also creating the gold?
Jim: Yeah. So we launched with the White Rum. We won best new product at Tales of the Cocktail, I think it was in 2011 with Banks 5. Then went to back to Scheer in 2012, I believe, to work on Bank 7 and that was when I got to be involved for the whole thing. Then I did that with Arnaud and there were a couple super exceptional rums that we tried during a couple sessions there that went into a decanter bottling called Endeavor and that sold out and is gone.
Banks 7 was something I got to be involved with the entire process. It was a lot of fun. It was essentially same thing. We came up with a brief of what we were looking for. I wanted something that I could mix an Old Fashioned or Queens Park Swizzle. We knew that the flavor of Banks 5 had struck a nerve in the industry, but Banks 7 is what I would call gold rum versus an aged rum.
The Gold Rum style, the penultimate examples of it are in the West Indies. We were looking for some of that rich West Indian, chocolatey richness. What ended up happening was we, Arnaud and I, tasted through dozens and dozens of rums and we narrowed down on five.
Funny enough, Carsten, our master blender, told us that the five that we liked most all had Batavia Arrack in it.
The one that we selected to be Banks 7 had rums from all five of the original origins. So Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, and, and the Batavia Arrack was in the Panama and Guatemala. There were rums from Panama and Guatemala in that the blend we liked the most in there as well. That was when we decided, if it’s going to be from seven origins, we should call it Banks 7, and then we were off to the races.
Susan: Now for those who might not know, what is Batavia Arrack?
Jim: The Batavia Arrack in Banks 7 and 5 is rum. Batavia Arrack though is a spirit. Arrack is a generic term for spirit in that part of the world. Batavia Arrack can be made from molasses, but it can also be made from other fermentable sugars, so it can be made from palm or coconut sugar as well.
So part of the original challenge of both launching back then, and even to this day, Is the, there’s no bible of Batavia Arrack, like the David Wondrich book, that explains everything that the history of Batavia Arrack and every different distillery. There’s no Michael Jackson’s distilleries of Indonesia book. It’s a product from a place in the world that is not super open to the west. Scheer has been sourcing Batavia Arrack for a very long time, hundreds of years from them. What makes it unique and stand apart is a lot of rums from Java use a Koji starter.
There’s a little bit of a rice starter that catalyzes fermentation. The rum that we get from there, we call it our spice, it has this salt-like capacity to integrate all of the different rums that are in our blends, as well as accentuate some of their best characteristics.
So it’s almost like salt on a steak or Angostura Bitters in a Manhattan, it spices things up. When you taste a bottle of Batavia Arrack, if you can find one and give it a taste, it doesn’t taste like Banks. There’s probably 6 or 7% of the blend is Batavia Arrack. It’s not a huge percentage, but in my opinion, it distinguishes Banks from all other blended rums and we were the first to use it in a West Indian rum blend.
Susan: It sounds so interesting. I can’t wait to try it by itself if I can ever find Batavia Arrack. Did it work in your Old Fashioneds and the drinks that you wanted it to? Were you like, okay, this is it.
Jim: It did. Yeah, my Pepsi challenge for Banks 7 was the Old Fashioned, it was a drink that was really becoming popular around 2013 when we first launched it. And I made a Queens Park Swizzle with it. It was also right around this time that I really started pushing for Punch to be our drink strategy.
David Wondrich had written his follow up to his book Imbibe, Punch, I really felt that following the success of his biography of Jerry Thomas, Imbibe, that this big, beautiful book, Punch, he wrote was going to be widely adopted by the trade and would make sense to consumers who for those of the people who spent the pandemic making cocktails instead of sourdough.
It’s great because you can spend all day making a bowl of punch and then you actually get to enjoy it with your party as opposed to being stuck making cocktails all night, like bartender. It was around this time that I worked with Jacob Briars on a punch set that we used to launch Banks that we basically used once Bacardi acquired Banks a few years later.
This was a time where I realized that Banks 5 worked really well in a signature drink that I created called The Green Tea Punch that had mint and Sencha and lime and sugar and nutmeg. I really liked teas and so I started working, for those of you in London, with Henrietta Lovell, at Rare Tea.
She and I have done a bunch of cool work, but there’s a drink that she and I came up with for a series of events we did at Tales of the Cocktail called the R&R that had her Rooibos which she gets a single estate Rooibos from South Africa with some maple syrup and some lemon and Banks 7 and nutmeg, and it’s outstanding.
Susan: It’s funny, I was going to bring up punch because I had read that you had been talking about punch lately so I’m really glad you brought it up. Now when the common person thinks about punch, you think about going to an event and there’s a huge bowl and someone has poured like the Long Island Iced Tea of drinks. They’ve just poured every single thing into it, and that is punch when you talk punch. What do you mean by punch?
Jim: That’s a great introduction. So it’s funny, when Banks 5 launched and I went out to try to get people to understand what we were doing. I would go to bars and I would order a Daiquiri and the bartender would sheepishly frown and be like, I’m so sorry, but we don’t have a blender. Or, I’m so sorry, but we don’t have any strawberries.
They didn’t understand that I wanted a hand shaken Daiquiri with just lime and sugar. It’s the same thing with punch. You assume when you create a drink strategy or when you are like, this is a perfect rum for punch that this is going to work.
Then punch to me, from David Wondrich’s mouth, is this ambrosial liquid that was formulated before cocktails that was very much ascendant and fashionable before and it was. It was originally created by sailors who’d run out of their beer and wine.
And it was typically a blend of a strong spirit, which would’ve been rum on these ships, sometimes maybe cognac, that was mixed with citrus, which they would’ve been taking for scurvy with sugar to balance that citrus and then lengthened with probably tea or water or wine, and then served with the spice.
It was something that was perfected in punch clubs in London but served all over the world. Its low proof, sessionable, but interesting. If you serve it on a big block of ice, the ice dilutes and, so it becomes more and more mellow and sessionable as you sit with it. In the old days, someone might have sat with a bunch of friends and sipped it, like bottle service, I guess in the 1800’s. It’s the 1800’s form of bottle service. But it’s interesting.
I finally relented and I started serving punch by the glass, almost made like a cocktail at my last bar in Chicago, Prairie School. I’ve done that at my current restaurant, Takibi, and it sells well. Going back to entrepreneurs making mistakes and learning, I can’t seem to quite make the bowl come back, but I have found great success in making individual portions of punch.
Susan: Yes, maybe Covid had something to do with not having a big bowl of something in front of you that everyone’s dipping into, but definitely, the single ones. Now, now you have these two wonderful liquids. Are you thinking of doing something else at Banks?
Jim: The interesting thing is when Banks was acquired by Bacardi nearly eight years. I think it’s around eight years ago, nine years ago now. My initial instinct was that we were acquired at a time when we had done a number of line extensions, and my initial instinct at this time was that we would start working on some line extensions that I wanted to work on.
I have worked on a couple of them, sadly, that haven’t come to market. But I have to say, now that I look back all these years, and I look at some of, I won’t call them competitors, but I look at other friends in the business who have been able to launch all the line extensions that they wanted, that it’s actually kind of nice. Almost as if you’ve ever been to McSorley’s in the East Village, when you go to McSorley’s and you go to the bar, if you order a beer, they give you two beers instead of one beer, they’re like in these little awesome heavy glasses.
You have two options. You have light or dark, and that’s all you can drink. I don’t think you can even order whiskey. You can just drink one of two beers and it’s the oldest bar in New York City and it’s amazing, and while we have a long way to go to get to McSorley’s age, I’m kind of liking me and my two rums right now.
It’s nice to have one of two options. I can put them both in my bag. I can stock them both in my bar. They’re workhorse rums that work great in all the drinks, 90% of the drinks that aren’t dark rum or spiced rum or agricole rum that I need to mix in my bar. So the answer is yes. Would I like to work on other rums with Bacardi sure. But am I glad that I don’t have 172 rums done with a million other collaborators right now, and that it takes me all hour just to go through each formula.
Yeah, it’s nice to just have two rums in some ways. I feel like we’re focused. Going back to that idea we were talking about earlier having a plan and being focused is something that is important in business and life. The other thing I’ll say is that having had the great fortune of working on like a prototypical discovery brand like PDT, which didn’t have a website or use social media during my time there, or even have a sign outside, it takes people a lot longer than you think to discover what you’re doing.
Sometimes if you’re constantly innovating, by the time people discover you, you have no relationship to what they just discovered. Sometimes you’ve got to, in the same way that, that a drink like a Penicillin has stood the test of time. Why? Because Sam Ross keeps making it and he is still running bars. I think that in the same sense, it’s nice that I have slowed down, or I haven’t slowed down, but Bacardi’s slowed down with Banks and we’re really allowed to just focus on these two because they’re special.
Susan: Yeah, it’s funny that you say that, that two things came to mind. Number one, I always think that every television show becomes popular in its third season. If it lasts, all of a sudden everyone discovers it from Seinfeld to Succession. Everyone somehow discovers it. Its third season, so it needs to baste a little.
And number two, as a bartender having only two liquids to play with is, or should I say, having two liquids to play with is plenty because there are thousands, tens, and tens of thousands of cocktails that you can create. And if you have ten rums that you’re dealing with, it gets probably a little too crazy. So you have these wonderful liquids that you can just keep playing with. So, you’ll be having millions of cocktails with, with these two.
Jim: Yeah, I think that I look back on it now and I’m grateful and I think that it’s allowed people time to catch up and, and I think the rum category has caught up in 10 years. The rum category is premiumized and we’re moving towards drier rums being standard. We’re moving towards sipping rums not being an oxymoron.
We’re moving in all the directions that I had hoped for 10 years ago. And while it’s been a rising tide, a lot of different brands have seen what we’ve done. Some of them have used part of our playbook. I look back on it and I’m proud of what Banks has helped to be a part of. I go to bars now and everyone has their own house rum blend and I laugh and I’m just like, yeah, like, Banks.
Susan: 2008 was early.
Jim: Yeah. I’m proud of what we accomplished, ? Will it ever become a million-case brand? It’s not looking like it right now. I feel like every product needs its own Ryan Reynolds really. We’re right now in the midst of this celebrity spirit thing, which unfortunately I’m not The Rock, but even though I do have this haircut, I feel like it.
Banks just needs a break or two, it needs a cameo and a Batman movie and something else. Who knows what’ll happen. Like, I think it’s a great spirit, I continue to enjoy mixing with it year to year, and I feel like myself and my own career right place, right time and like doing the right thing. I think that we’ll get there.
Susan: I think that leads perfectly into the top tip for the home bartender. So if someone is discovering Banks, what would your tip be for them to do first with it? For both the light and the golden.
Jim: Going back to my Pepsi challenge, when I first tasted it myself, I like to taste something on its own. Just so just try it on its own. Then if I like to taste it next to the benchmarks that I think of as the best in the bar.
What I would say is everyone who is interested in rums, taste it at a bar and then if you get a bottle at home, taste it next to the rum that you think is the best. I think that gives you a sense of calibration as far as where you think it fits.
Then the other thing I would say is that I always think of spirits in a utilitarian sense. Like, is this my sipping spirit? Is this my Daiquiri spirit? Is this my Old Fashioned spirit? I think with white rum, you may be a tropical tiki person or you may be a Daiquiri person, or you may be a cigar and rum person.
Think of the track that you’re on, and then think of the drinks or the application, like on the rocks or neat. Or in a long drink that you typically have and give it a try because I think that there’s two buckets. There’s, on its own, which is more for educational purpose, unless you’re like a neat spirit drinker. Then two in an application like a recipe and there’s obviously tons of recipes out there on the internet. Banks has as many as the internet does. Those would be my two recommendations. Try it on its own first and then plug it into an application that works for you and see how it does.
Susan: There you go. Now, I always ask this to everyone who’s on my show, but if you could be anywhere drinking anything right now, where would that be and what would you be drinking?
Jim: I’ve answered this question before and the answer remains the same when I was younger and when I was the hot new thing in the bar world and was jet setting all over to give talks and visit distilleries and do popups and whatnot.
I had the opportunity to just have some amazing experiences that I’ll never forget and never not continue to cherish, but I realized that with all this great fortune that the answer to that question could get really obnoxious very quickly. Like I just saw a friend who was guest chefing at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, and I spent two weeks doing the same thing there a long time ago and loved it. I feel that instead of being that guy who’s like, oh, my favorite place to drink is like to drinking like whiskey at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, like Bill Murray or whatever.
I thought about how so much of being both the person that you would want to drink with and being not obnoxious is being able to be present. I feel like we’ve all been out for a drink with that person who’s on their phone all the time or who you can almost tell that they would rather be drinking somewhere else with someone else or they have something better to do.
So my answer to this question, which I hope is inspirational to some of your viewers, is to be present. And whether it’s being present over a whiskey at the Park Hyatt Tokyo or being present over a beer at the local tavern with your coworker that regardless of the setting, the person, or people you’re with or the beverage you’re with, to really enjoy it and be present in the place with the people with that drink.
Because it’s really that act of being present and with people. When you’re in bars or when you’re at home drinking with someone else really defines whether you are fun to drink with and whether you’re the person that other people want to be out with. I would say that I always say tritely that my favorite drink is the one in front of me with the people I’m with.
So that’s my morning Chinese herbs with you here at 10:00 AM, on the show, because I feel we got to be present, you got to be here now.
Susan: I love that. That’s one of my favorite answers of all time. Very good, which doesn’t surprise me from the man who has written the book and created the rums. This has been such a joy for me. Thank you so much for spending so much time with me and talking me through your life and what you’ve done, and what you’ve achieved. It’s really been a treat.
Jim: Pleasure’s all mine.
Susan: So hopefully the next time we’ll be in Portland or London and we can do it in real life.
Jim: I’m voting London.
Susan: And I’m voting Portland.
Susan: All right. Thanks so much.
Jim: Thank you Susan.
Don’t miss out on any Lush Life episodes!
You can get this and all future audio files automatically downloaded to your mobile device easy. If you’re on iOS, you can listen on Apple Podcast. It’s easy to Google Podcasts or Spotify too. Or click the player or link above to listen to just this episode. (But trust me, you’ll want to subscribe!)
If you live for Lush Life would you consider supporting us… Just go to patreon.com/lushlife and you can donate once or monthly to make sure we are still here every Tuesday.
Lush Life Merchandise is here – we’re talking t-shirts, mugs, iphone covers, duvet covers, ipad covers and more covers for everything! and more!
Theme music for Lush Life is by Steven Shapiro, and used with permission.
Lush Life is always and will be forever produced by Evo Terra and Simpler Media Productions.