This is the first of a three-part series featuring Q&A's with a few of our most talented and creative friends.
Meet Jeff Bell. Jeff concocts some our favorite cocktails in the world. But I'll let him tell you the rest.
What do you do? Tell us about your job...
I’m the General Manager at PDT in New York City, which means that I do a bit of everything. On a weekly basis: I bartend, handle PR, book events, buy/order product, manage a staff of fifteen, test recipes, taste new products, meet with distributors or spirits reps, drink A LOT of coffee, and forecast menu changes so that our cocktails always have an appropriate seasonal focus. On average, I spend about one week per month on the road for work related travel. It can be difficult to manage all of that while away from the office.
You’re one of the world’s finest cocktail architects. How did you get into the beverage world? Where did it all begin? Tell us the story...
I started working in restaurants when I was 16 to make money to pay for college. Restaurants operate on opposite schedules than traditional business hours do, so it’s a no-brainer that students gravitate towards the industry. I worked my way through college at the University of Washington washing dishes, then busing tables, waiting tables, and finally getting behind the bar when I was 21 during my senior year (it was my least productive academic year).
The restaurant industry has crazy high turnover, so I’ve found that sticking it out at the same job often leads to promotions. In 13 years I’ve worked at 4 restaurants/bars. I know so many people who have the opposite ratio. My patience with each job has allowed me to work my way up. Even at PDT I took a barback position even though I was the head bartender at Danny Meyer’s Maialino. I’ve been with PDT since 2010 and I look forward to many more years with this company, continuously improving and growing our brand.
What is the process like for you when you craft a recipe? Where do you start, and where do you go from there? (do you start with a syrup or spirit or bitter, etc, etc?)
I always start with the base spirit. The base spirit is the foundation for each cocktail. The cocktail is a framework that is analogous to some classic drink, whether it's a Manhattan (Rye, Sweet Vermouth, Bitters) or a Margarita (Tequila, Lime, Cointreau, Agave). Then there is usually something that seasonalizes (this isn’t an actual word) the drink. During Fall, think: pear, pumpkin, sage. In the Winter, think: allspice, cinnamon, cranberry. And from April through September you have an insane amount of flavors to work with: berries, herbs, and so on. I just created a new scotch cocktail that will go on our menu soon, and it will run from December till late-February or early March, depending on the weather. I knew we needed a new scotch drink and I wanted to incorporate this super cool Apple Eau de Vie (Cyril Zangs Double Zero), which is an unaged brandy distilled from apples. Scotch and apples are typically a homerun, but instead of just throwing ingredients into a mixing glass and seeing what happens I just thought about possible combinations for a while. When you think you don’t waste product (recipe development can be expensive if you are constantly just experimenting). We needed a sour (something with citrus), so I came up with:
-Compass Box Great Kings Street Glascow Blend
-Cyril Zangs Double Zero Eau de Vie de Cidre
-The King’s Ginger Liqueur
-Fresh Lemon Juice
Scotch, apple, ginger, honey, lemon and sage: yes, please. The key is to use the best products you can get your hands on that are also affordable. The Double Zero is pricey, but there’s only half of an ounce in the drink, so we can still sell this without losing money.
Many people don’t think mixology contains a scientific element…but there seems to be a strong chemistry tied to making cocktails. You need the right ingredients to ensure the drink comes out right. How have you grown to understand that chemistry over the years?
I definitely didn’t go to school to become a bartender, but I found out after I graduated that bartending is what I wanted to do for a living. Balancing cocktails can seem like balancing a chemistry equation, but at the end of the day nothing will explode if you mix two of the wrong ingredients, it will just taste awful. Finding balance takes time, but if you understand the difference between sour lemon vs lime vs grapefruit vs orange, and sweet maple vs honey vs white sugar vs brown sugar, then you start balancing the equations of each drink in your head. It gets harder when you begin substituting liqueurs, because some are super sweet and some are pretty dry (and probably shouldn’t be called liqueurs – but that’s another converstation). It takes time to realize why a mint julep tastes delicious with bourbon that’s over 100 proof instead of 80, and how much sugar you need to prop up the flavor of the whiskey and mint while the crushed ice is melting it down as quickly as our ice caps. Like any maker, there’s definitely a touch that you develop over time, but sometimes I have phenomenal ideas in my head and when I try them out they’re awful. Sometimes bad ideas turn out to be the best ones. There are definitely exceptions, but they’re infrequent.
Where are you from? What was your upbringing like? As a kid what did you want to do when you grew up?
I was born in Bend, Oregon and I spent the first seven years of my life bouncing around small towns in Central Oregon and on up to Eastern Washington. My parent’s split in ’92 and that’s when my mom, brother and I moved west to the Seattle area. I have a large family, one brother and four sisters (two from my dad’s previous marriage and two from his current marriage). From age seven to eighteen we grew up pretty modestly in a small town of less than 2,000 people. I loved it then. We were on the Olympic Peninsula with beautiful views of the Olympic Mountains and access to the Hood Canal. Much of my childhood was spent outdoors. Looking back, I’m not sure how I ended up in Manhattan from those life experiences, but I just went with the flow and pursued the best work opportunities for myself. I knew that Belfair, Washington was beautiful, but it wasn't where I wanted to root myself. Seattle called my name first, but when I outgrew Seattle I moved to New York.
Mixology has enlightened people to the fact that making drinks requires creativity and effort. Do you think your profession is a form of art?
I think there is an art to it, but I also think there is an art to everything you do with passion. I don’t let the artistic side of making drinks distract me from the reality that it’s usually a 10-12 hour shift on your feet, while serving people. I think a lot of folks who gravitate to this industry are unaware of all work and preparation that goes into this job and that it’s not all glamorous. The drinks are important, but not as important as how you make people feel when they come to your bar. Hospitality is the real art.
Why is it that in the United States bourbon has had a more recent resurgence? It didn’t used to be as popular. What caused that?
American whiskey is on fire all over the world right now, it’s super popular everywhere. The demand for Rye and Bourbon is way up. Rye Whiskey is called for in many classic cocktails, so the cocktail boom has really helped with growth there.
Consumers are becoming well-educated with spirits and they are expanding their horizons. People want more flavor than they did before, and with bourbon, you can still get it at a fair price point. It’s also a tightly regulated industry, so the quality across the board is actually very high. It’s hard to find a bad Bourbon, which can’t be said about other spirits out there.
Where do you gain inspiration from?
Tasting products. I get most of my inspiration from the nuanced flavors of well-made products. There are subtle differences in spirits across each category, so I focus on those to determine what direction I head for mixing. When tasting tequila, one may have more tropical fruit notes and another may be more vegetal. The goal of the cocktail is to enhance that flavor, so I try to pair ingredients that will compliment those spirit flavors.
You’re a lover of quality food and quality drinks. What came first, the love of food, or the love of drink? Has your love for influenced necessarily influenced the other?
I’ve had simultaneous growth with food and drink, but food came first. I got into food when I was 18, before I could legally drink. Every once in a while I eat something and think that the flavor combination could inspire a cocktail, but typically I eat for enjoyment.
What are a few challenges and rewards of running a business, especially one like PDT?
PDT is a small business for sure; I think the rewards far outweigh the challenges. On one hand, running a small business means dealing with a lot of minute details on a daily basis, which can be daunting, but on the other hand you aren’t big, corporate structure. We have the freedom to forge our own path, which has allowed us to stay relevant for 10 years, and hopefully more!
Check back in this time next week for the second interview on our Some Of The Best Series!