The Weekly Mix: T. S. Eliot, Martinis, and Unlikely Creative Overlap

by Emily Bell
Shannon Sturgis
August 2012

Even in the alco-academia of modern mixology, it's less common for a bartender to quote T.S. Eliot (or Nobel Prize winning men of letters in general). But then we're talking to Jim Meehan, owner of one of Manhattan's ivory tower liquid learning temples, PDT. And Meehan isn't quoting Eliot in reference to a cocktail, though we're guessing that's not impossible. He's explaining his upcoming mixology seminar at the 7th Annual International Chefs Congress: "Cocktail Couture: The Convergence of Commerce and Fashion."

The quote, which Meehan was loathe to butcher and we're equally loathe (but Internet-ordained) to trim, comes from Eliot's essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," and goes something (very roughly) like this: "tradition" isn't the "blind or timid" adherence to what came before, but rather the possession of a "historical sense," i.e., "perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence." Anyone who notices a confluence between Eliot's vast wisdom and our 2012 ICC theme, Origins and Frontiers, gets our endless thanks for the flattery. More to the point, it's what's at the heart of Meehan's seminar.

Meehan's Dry Martini
Meehan's Dry Martini

"We've seen trends recycled the same way we've seen fashion recycled," says Meehan, who'll explore historic creative overlap (i.e., multi-media "pastness") in cocktails, fashion, and music with the help of Taavo Somer, progenitor of all things Freemans (restaurant, menswear line, way of life) and DJ Dieselboy, one of the foremost practitioners of the deep rhythmic hypnosis otherwise known as drum and bass. "It's interesting, comparison-wise, between the bartender and the DJ—they both [create] in real time," says Meehan, who goes on to compare fashion textiles and cocktail ingredients. "The goal of the panel won't be for them to prove me right" (about tradition within creative disciplines). "It'll be more to talk about what is the same, and different, about our creative processes."

The cocktail focal point of Meehan's creative process is as unlikely as his intellectual inspiration. "[The Martini] couldn't be more out of style right now," he says, which, we slowly realize, is the point. "To me it's one of the most iconic, if not the most iconic, of all cocktails. It's a great style index of where we are, how it's being made." Which is why, as Meehan discusses cocktails from the 1890s through Prohibition and from the 1930s to the present, he'll shake and stir "a bunch of different historic iterations" of the Martini (née Martinez), demonstrating the backbone of tradition even as styles and tastes evolve.

For their part, Somer and Dieselboy (a.k.a. Damian Higgins) will weigh in on the influence of tradition in fashion and music, respectively. And while a DJ booth might be light years from Eliot's early 20th century intellectual perch, Higgins cuts to the core of why, quite possibly, tradition endures. "Music hits people on a very primal level," he says. "We are all programmed to feel music." In other words, the tie that binds T. S. Eliot and a Martini might be the timeless ability to tap into human nature—and maybe any creative pursuit that appeals to that is actually just unearthing what makes "tradition," of any kind, so eternally intoxicating.