Right now, the bartenders behind New York’s legendary Please Don’t Tell are running a pop-up at Melbourne’s Black Pearl. When news first broke that Jim Meehan and Jeff Bell were coming to town, people who like good drinks got quite excited. So excited, in fact, that tickets for all sittings at the pop-up booked out within hours.
Last night, we stopped by their temporary home above the Black Pearl to talk drinks, drinking and what it is about Melbourne right now.
Jim Meehan: We’re fortunate to do Please Don’t Tell (PDT) here in Melbourne because it’s an international city and there’s a great food and beverage scene. I think people here understand what we’re doing is at a pretty high level. Melbourne’s a great fit. We have a collaborative team working with us, we have collaboration hot dogs, we have a phone booth, we have taxidermy. We have the Diageo cocktails we serve at PDT being served here. We have Jeff and I here.
Jeff Bell: And it’s hard to get in just like PDT in New York as well.
JM: So all the boxes are ticked.
Broadsheet: Is Please Don’t Tell’s secretive element still important here?
JM: It’s funny, PDT was never supposed to be a secret. Which is one of the foundational differences between a prohibition-era speakeasy and a modern speakeasy. We’re hidden very much in plain sight. The phone booth was more a figment of my business partner Brian Shebairo’s sense of humour, rather than any attempt to recreate a prohibition-era speakeasy. We’re happy that everyone knows we’re hidden in the attic of Black Pearl.
BS: You must get a particular clientele because of it. People aren’t walking past and seeing a sports bar to come into.
JM: We’re fortunate that when people come to New York City, they make lists. They want to go to the Empire State Building, they want to go to Central Park, they want to eat at Momofuku. They want to drink at PDT. So we get a lot of tourists, and they’re pretty discerning about the activity they want to do. They do the research on the city and they’re the ones that are fun to be around.
Because of the challenge of PDT, we’re not getting people just dropping in. We’re getting people who are there for a special occasion – they’re visiting or they’re on a date or they’re having a meeting. So that’s something that plays in our favour. There’s an occasion.
BS: When people go somewhere for a special occasion they want special drinks.
JB: We’ve brought our cocktail list here, eight drinks, most of which have been served at PDT and then some we’ve come up with for this event. For example, Bundaberg Rum Small Batch is not available in the US so we went to the Bundaberg distillery yesterday. We tasted the whole line-up and came up with a couple of Bundaberg Rum Small Batch Drinks we thought would go well with that rum and the Melbourne audience.
BS: Are any of the drinks here batched?
JM: A lot of them are.
JB: One of the few differences between PDT New York and the pop-up we’re doing is we’re letting a lot more people in here. Here we’re doing waves of 50, so we’re going to seat 150 people a night here in six hours. In New York we probably serve 150 people a night over eight-to-ten hours. So in Melbourne we’re getting a lot more people in and we have less staff – really, Jim and I are the only two staff members here. So the only way we can really execute eight different World Class cocktails is if we batch ingredients.
What we’ve done is batched the spirits and liqueurs together and the fresh ingredients are added after. The freshness and integrity of the drinks are still there, but we can serve them quickly – all of a sudden a six-ingredient drink becomes a three-ingredient drink once you start cutting out the less-complex steps.
JB: You have to get the drinks out fast. Especially in New York. In Japan people will wait 20 minutes for a cocktail. But in New York they want it right away. So part of the experience we bring is we want to get the drinks out fast, but we still want them to be great, fresh cocktails.
BS: Do customers understand the batching process?
JM: Ten years ago “mixologists” never spoke to guests – about the opera or the sports or contemporary politics or music – but now I think mixologists are starting to become bartenders again. Batching is part of that.
JB: A key part of hospitality is giving people what they want and nothing that they don’t. There’s a lot of things we do every day to make the bar operate that a guest doesn’t really need to know – it can take away from the magic of it.
JM: It’s like an iceberg – they need to see the tip of the iceberg. We’ll show them as much as they want to see of it, but at the end of the day it’s less about the process and more about the end result. Hopefully they’re excited about what’s in the glass rather than how it got there.
BS: Do you get offers to do a PDT pop-up like this a lot? I can imagine you’ve got people falling over themselves to get you to come out and do this in another country.
JB: We’ve done a handful over the years. Jim set up a really cool one years ago at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, we’ve done Paris, recently we were in Vancouver.
JM: There’s us guest bartending and then there’s us doing a PDT pop-up. They’re very different things. Trying to recreate an environment is unique and most people don’t have the resources to recreate PDT abroad.
JB: We have a nice relationship with the Diageo team. I competed in Diageo World Class, I won in the US and I was second in the Diageo World Class Global Finals. Jim’s been a judge at the US finals since its existence. We started talking with them about this event back in March, so it’s almost five-months of planning to get the taxidermy, the phone booth, to come up with the drinks, to get the collaboration with the hotdogs. This is probably one of the most intense ones we’ve done, but it’s the best example of illustrating what we do back home. If we could do this in other cities, this would be the template for all of them.
JM: A lot of people ask, but we don’t do it often. For Jeff to be away from PDT, we don’t want to dilute the value we have at home. So we do it with select partners in select markets. We have a long-standing relationship with Black Pearl. Mike Madrusan at The Everleigh worked at PDT, I was here six years ago, so this is a special place for us to do this.
BS: What sort of reputation does Melbourne have in New York?
JM: The funny thing is the bartender who’s created probably the cocktail of our generation is Sam Ross with the Penicillin. Being that Sam Ross is one of the most famous bartenders in America and from Melbourne, there’s no shortage of representation from Melbourne in the US.
JB: People talk about the Black Pearl and Eau-De-Vie all the time.
JM: The first bartender I hired at PDT was David Slade, who came from Adelaide but worked in San Fransisco before coming out here. We had Mike Madrusan, my book has one of Greg Sanderson’s cocktails in it as well as Mike’s, one of Sam Ross’.
Melbourne’s always known as sort of the San Fransico of Australia whereas Sydney is more like LA or New York. So strong representation. Naren Young’s also been in New York for a long time, he and Linden just opened a bar called Cafe Dante’s.
JB: Australian bartenders have a strong reputation as being international bartenders. There’s a ton in New York, there’s a ton in London, but also Portland, Seattle, every city seems to have one. They seem to be known as some of the most-travelled bartenders.
JM: We worked really closely with Nick Van Tiel to set this up, and Nick was a national ambassador in the US for a number of years. So this for us is a lot like coming home, we just don’t get to come here as often.