Shift Change: A Conversation with 3 Industry Leaders Who Changed Direction

A man making a drink behind the bar.
Jim Meehan stepped away from the fast pace of New York's PDT to raise his daughter in Portland and pursue new projects. Photo by Jennifer Mitchell Photography.

At times, career bartenders say to themselves, “I’ve gotten this far; how do I keep this going?” Bartenders are as much entrepreneurs as they are drink makers and amateur therapists. And the key to longevity in the vocation is changing things up and taking the passion about the craft to a new level. We spoke with a few of the industry’s brightest to see what frontier lies beyond the bar and how they continue to innovate.

Jim Meehan (PDT — New York, New York)

Can you tell us about shifting directions?

I have moved to a place I really like to be. Three people who I respect a whole lot moved from New York to the West. I looked at what was going on; a lot of it was not based on my career. It was more economics than a conscious career move. When [my daughter] was born, there was something more important than my career. The best thing for me, PDT, my career, seemed to be to leave New York. Now I need to pay my dues to Portland.

How has the industry changed?

It’s just bigger. It’s a lot better — the information available. The way technology has shaped the transfer of data information is wild. The industry is a byproduct of the communication advances we have made as a society. We have much sharper tools and more people are interested in it. People are choosing bartending as a career, not falling back on it. In the last 10 years, universities have been pumping out grads who can’t get jobs. Those college educated are what I mean by “sharper tools.”

How are you continuing to spread the word on cocktails?

I am still an ambassador for Banks Rum, still doing PDT’s day to day, working on my book. Had I not moved, I couldn’t have written this book. Absence gave me perspective, which is good. It’s a snapshot in time of NYC cocktail history. I looked at what is not in my first book and am putting it in this one. Part of what I will be trying to do in the next part of my career is setting the bar for people in what success looks like, what the goal posts are.

I gave a talk in Paris for P(our). I think of all the things I have ever done in my career, more people have come up to me and told me how important that talk was for them. That talk wouldn’t have happened had I not made some of the decisions I made these last two years. So much of success is a combination of timing and luck.

Jerry Slater (H. Harper Station – Atlanta, Georgia)

Can you tell us about shifting directions?

It was somewhat economic. We were early adopters of our neighborhood. H. Harper was my baby for six to seven years. The other side of the rainbow though — it was lovely to take a break and be creative. This is the type of lifestyle we wanted to live. We are in rural Bostwick, a town with a working cotton gin. We own an acre of land now, which we could never do in Atlanta.

How has the industry changed?

People have loosened up a bit and are having more fun with it — things like the rise of tiki culture. My favorite place in Athens makes a Negroni slushy that I really love. I think (bartending) is taken more seriously. Along with ingredient-driven chefs, there are ingredient-driven bartenders too. Quality matters and people trust cocktail bars.

How are you continuing to spread the word of cocktails?

I think I will do things that have my bar stamp. Taking a break gave me the time to focus on the SFA (Southern Foodways Alliance) Guide to Cocktails. My wife, Krista, is doing the illustrations for it. It was also a good time to consult. One Flew South has to re-bid [for their space at Hartsfield-Jackson] every year, so I get to reboot the program I started. I will be talking on Southern cocktails at BevCon in Charleston. At TOTC I hung on the periphery. I got to look at cocktail culture from another point of view. It was good perspective. I look forward to doing something in Athens, Georgia soon.

Alex Kratena (Artesian — London, England)

Can you tell us about shifting directions?

I didn’t take a step back, or step out of spotlight; I simply left Artesian to focus on new projects. I am not taking holidays; in fact I work harder than I ever did. We have achieved everything possible at Artesian and the reason we left is because it started to limit us. We have too many ideas to slow down, yes all the awards changed our life, but we strive for happiness.

How has the industry changed?

More people see and appreciate bartending as a career. I think there’s lot of amazing changes happening in the industry right now. Bartending is increasingly more perceived as a proper profession. Cocktail is viewed as culinary art. From a marketing-led environment, brands transitioned into education, unfortunately too many education programs are still written by marketers. The craft spirit, beer, and specialty coffee movement is changing ways people drink. And unprecedented media interest. From a brand-dominated environment, we are moving to personalities.

How are you continuing to spread the word on cocktails?

I continue to spread the word of not only cocktails, but all beverages through my work at P(our) and I continue to train bartenders around the world traveling to different countries on weekly basis. Together with Jim Meehan, Monica Berg, Ryan Chetiyawardana, Xavier Padovani, Simone Caporale and Joerg Meyer, we’ve founded P(our), a not-for-profit organization aiming to expand drinks knowledge, look for more sustainable practices and turn interesting ideas into action.

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