Behind the phone booth of PDT: A conversation with one of the world’s best mixologists, Jeff Bell.
Nestled deep in the heart of the East Village of New York City lies one of the country’s most celebrated cocktail bars. Tucked behind a bustling, yet nondescript hot-dog shop, Please Don’t Tell is a dimly lit, cozy, cocktail lounge lined with exposed brick walls that ooze with character. Quaint. Mysterious. Special.
One does not simply stumble upon this hidden gem of a bar, some pre-planning is involved due to its hidden location. It’s not uncommon to wait weeks for a reservation, but as we found out, the wait to sip on one of PDT’s masterpieces is well worth it.
Moore & Giles was introduced to PDT almost a decade ago when we first partnered with the godfather of American mixology and PDT owner, Jim Meehan. Working with Jim on two bags made especially for professional bartenders, putting out a leather-bound version of his acclaimed PDT book, and developing the Rolls Royce of barcarts with his guidance, we have forged a deep respect for the dexterity, time, and attention it takes to craft a drink worthy of PDT. Not unlike our tanners, greatness at this level can’t be rushed. We sat down with Jim’s acolyte and heir to the PDT driver’s seat, Jeff Bell, to discuss the art of the craft cocktail.
In between sips, we discussed the art of bartending as well as discovered some remarkable similarities between craft cocktails and natural leather. Two of our favorite things.
MG: Tell us about who you are and how you came to PDT.
JB: I moved to New York in 2009 and worked at a restaurant called Maialino in the Gramercy Park Hotel. There, my bar manager was Valerie Meehan, who’s husband, Jim, ran PDT. After half a year at Mailino, a barback position opened up and I split my time as Head Bartender at Maialino and barback at PDT. I juggled both jobs for a few months but slid over to PDT full time when the opportunity arose.
MG: How much of bartending is science and how much is art?
JB: I have a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Philosophy. I’m definitely not approaching it as a scientist. I think bartending is an art in terms of technique, guest interactions, multitasking and style of service. It’s a science in the way that recipes are like balanced equations. For example, you need to find the right amount of sweet to balance sour, the right proportion of spirits to modify to bitter. At the end of the day, this is not chemistry; what we’re mixing won’t explode.
MG: Even at such high-end bars, we’re sure you’ve seen some unusual things. What’s your most memorable experience behind the bar?
JB: Soon after moving to New York, when I was working at Maialino, the secret service randomly swarmed the streets and they posted agents throughout the restaurant so the [then] Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emanuel could come in for dinner. It was like something out of a movie, way more powerful than any celebrity sighting.
MG: Why did you choose to use Moore & Giles leather throughout PDT?
JB: We’ve been working with Moore & Giles for nearly 10 years. The people that make up the company are wonderful and happen to make some of the best leather in the world. We use their leather for our bar stools, chairs, banquettes, and aprons. It’s the best.
MG: What is it about leather that makes it feel so at home in a bar?
JB: Leather is soft, warm and welcoming. It ages with time and has character. It’s also much stronger than vinyl or the synthetic materials that can’t handle the daily wear and tear. PDT serves over 50,000 people every year, we need materials that can handle that abuse.
MG: Are there any similarities between leather and cocktails?
JB: There are definitely parallels, for both are creative fields. Moore & Giles has tanneries all over the world using different hides from different places for different applications. In the same way, we use spirits from all over the world and from different raw ingredients for different purposes. We both hone in on the subtle nuances in our materials to create something different and unique.
MG: The Moore & Giles x PDT leather-bound cocktail book contains hundreds of recipes, do you have a favorite to make?
JB: I love the Mezcal Mule: Mezcal, Ginger Beer, Passion Fruit