Posted on | January 19, 2015
Written by | Alia Akkam
As head bartender of New York’s The Happiest Hour and Tijuana Picnic, Jim Kearns spends his nights making drinks like the What The Doctor Ordered (sarsaparilla, vanilla, wintergreen, soda and choice of rye, aged rum or Scotch) at the former, and the Smokin’ Maid (mezcal, cucumber, mint, lime, agave) at the latter.
The Beverage Network: The Happiest Hour and Tijuana Picnic are two wildly different concepts. How do you balance the beverage programs of two newcomers with unique focuses?
Jim Kearns: I like thinking about different things in different ways. They’re very different programs, so I approached them from different perspectives. Tijuana Picnic is meant to be a list of creative twists on classics using a range of Latin spirits and ingredients; The Happiest Hour is meant to be an accessible menu that captures a bygone era. I also love to collaborate, and my collaborators were different for each menu. At Tijuana Picnic I had the opportunity to work with my longtime friend and consulting partner Lynnette Marrero, and on the Happiest Hour I worked with Karen Fu, one of my bartenders at both Prime Meats and the NoMad. I had never workshopped an entire drink list with her before. Both were a lot of fun, and I’m happy with the results.
TBN: So much of The Happiest Hour revolves around the guest’s freedom and spotlighting what they really want to drink, not what they are expected to. What was your thought process behind letting them customize each drink to their preferred spirit?
JK: Our focus at The Happiest Hour was to create a bar that recalls a time when going out was a fun escape from your daily routine. We felt strongly that people could still have good, well-made drinks and not be told what they should and shouldn’t drink. At the end of the day, service is about giving people what they want, and we wanted to bring that into focus.
TBN: Were there challenges in dreaming up cocktails that are at once balanced and versatile to adapt to the addition of different spirits?
JK: The list was fun to create because the flavors are pretty straightforward. It was interesting because the creative process was mostly focused on coming up with the base ingredients for the drinks, and then figuring out which spirits would make the most sense with them. The tastings of the signature drinks were mostly virgin or low-alcohol cocktails.
TBN: New York is saturated in bars of all stripes. What void did The Happiest Hour fill? It’s packed every single night, so you’re doing something right beyond serving a good burger.
JK: The idea was pretty simple: Jon [co-owner Jon Neidich] and I wanted to create a bar that was fun and that offered guests a range of simple, easily recognizable food and drinks, done well, with friendly, accommodating service and pricing.
TBN: As for Tijuana Picnic, what was your goal with the drink program there? With cocktails like the Mi Hermano (Tequila, Averna, Fernet Branca, Dolin Rouge, mole bitters) paving the way to skirt steak and pickled vegetable soft tacos, it seems like there is a desire to delve way beyond the Margarita.
JK: The goal was to use Latin flavors and spirits, largely mezcal and tequila, to create cocktails that are at once simple and creative. There are a lot of little surprises, which is always a lot of fun when building a menu. I also wanted to make a cocktail list that would pair well with food, particularly the flavors and ingredients on the menu. The response has been good so far, and we still have more drinks to introduce, which is exciting.
TBN: Between all the years you’ve spent bartending and all the drink programs you’ve created, what is the hospitality ethos you’ve embraced that cuts across all bar genres and demographics?
JK: I always make sure to smile at people and try my hardest to give them what they want as quickly as possible—ideally before they even know they want or need it.