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Q&A: Jim Meehan, co-founder, Banks Rums

Published:  27 February, 2019

Bartender extraordinaire Jim Meehan has been in Europe recently, leaving a trail of wisdom and insight behind him as to what it takes to make it the bar world.

While on the road, and fresh from World Bartender Day on Sunday, February 24, Harpers caught up with the co-founder of the now Bacardi-owned Banks Rums and bartender/founder of New York’s famous speakeasy Please Don’t Tell bar about his time in the industry.

1. What does a typical day look like for you?

I travel up to 50% of my time, so it really depends on whether I’m home or on the road. I live in Portland, Oregon on the west coast of the US, which means I typically have Banks communications from Europe to get to right way, followed by New York emails from PDT, and then a long period of peace before I hear from the PDT team in Hong Kong later in the evening.

When I’m not answering emails or preparing for my next journey, I like to walk my daughter to school and give my wife (who’s at home) a break mid-afternoon by playing with our son for an hour or two.

2. What is the biggest slog day-to-day?

My biggest challenge in the bar world is the rising costs of doing business versus stagnant wage growth for my customers. Our ingredient costs, taxes, rent, insurance and staff wages are going up much faster than my guest’s salaries, which makes it nearly impossible to raise prices on our offerings with impunity. The financial margins in the bar business are razor thin, so I’m always looking for ways to make ends meet personally outside of the bar, so as not to draw down our resources.

3. What's your secret to staying relevant in today’s ever-changing world?

The hospitality business is a young person’s industry because of the long hours and demanding nature of the work. My secret to remaining relevant is keeping my finger on the pulse of young people’s needs and interests and gearing my work towards them while remaining true to my (aging) self.

4. How do you ensure people tear themselves away from the sofa long enough to make it into a bar - and what role does the bartender play in achieving this?

We can eat and drink in our homes or at our desk at work, so the key to getting people to come do so in public is to make them feel welcome and valued. Simple gestures like eye contact, gracious service and saying please and thank you go along way. The bartender’s job is to facilitate a positive, fun atmosphere in the bar.

5. Who is your greatest inspiration in the drinks world?

Bobby Stuckey is my Michael Jordan of hospitality. He’s a master sommelier, restaurateur and brand builder who works service nearly every night in his fine dining restaurant Frasca in Boulder. When he’s not on the floor greeting guests by name, he’s usually on the road logging marathon preparation miles at altitude in Colorado.

6. It was World Bartender Day on Sunday as well as being Sir Joseph Banks birthday, who was the inspiration behind your brand, Banks Rums. What attracted you to the rum category?

When I began bartending in the mid 1990s, each major spirit category saw a rise in public estimation, starting with vodka. The last major spirits category to receive the credit I believe it’s due is rum, and for that reason, I jumped at the opportunity to help raise its profile ten years ago when I first sampled what eventually became Banks 5 Island Rum. Rum still has a way to go before it receives its due, but I continue to believe the best rums are as delicious as the finest whiskies and brandies.

I’m a bit of a Swiss Army Knife for Banks. Before we launched a decade ago, I weighed in on the blends, helped develop the packaging and wrote communications for positioning in the category. After we launched, I served as our brand ambassador for bartenders and distributor salespeople.

Since Bacardi acquired the brand, I’ve transitioned out of ambassadorship into a consultant to the brand director. I don't get out on the road as much as I used to, but when I do, it’s typically at major bartender showcases like Tales of the Cocktail or Bar Convent Berlin.

7. What tips do you have for aspiring bartenders?

Slow down. Seek out mentorship. Nurture your mind and body. Find a hobby. Drink in moderation. Enjoy your life.