“People tend to romanticise speakeasies.”
By Samantha Francis
Jeff Bell was the Diageo World Class 2013 U.S. Bartender of the Year.
There’s an unspeakable appeal about speakeasy bars — the secrecy of closed doors that lead to a world of wondrous concoctions and the exclusivity that comes with being in the know. Whisper a password, and you’ll be let in.
And who better to tell us more about speakeasies than Jeff Beff, General Manager (GM) and Head Bartender of Please Don’t Tell (PDT), one of New York’s top speakeasies?
Talented and easy on the eye, he was also the Diageo World Class 2013 U.S. Bartender of the Year. We chatted with him amidst his busy bartending stint in Singapore and got him to share his favourite New York speakeasy bars.
He enjoys Raffles Hotel’s Singapore Sling.
Hi Jeff, tell us more about what you do as PDT’s bartender and GM?
As PDT’s Head Bartender and GM, I basically perform an all-in-one role that ensures that the bar is operational every night, from managing and bartending to handling events, media and customer enquiries.
As a Diageo World Class U.S winner, I also travel the world to host masterclasses and takeover pop-up events. I will be guest bartending in five bars across Asia — two here in Singapore, two in Manila and one in Seoul.
You’ve got a wealth of experience working in New York bars. How do you think the cocktail/bartending scene differs between New York and Singapore? And why?
The bartending scene is different in every country because people come from different cultural backgrounds with different tastes and expectations of how they like to be served. New York is more densely populated with a rich diversity across both people and bars so we need to constantly evolve and stay relevant to their changing tastes.
I haven’t done a full bar service in Singapore so I can’t make a direct comparison but I would imagine that the bars in New York have a higher volume of customers. Singapore and New York are both expensive places to operate in and you have to be efficient in the way you operate. Tastes and flavours may also differ due to cultural influence and the native ingredients available.
Walk us through a day in your life as PDT’s bartender and GM?
I have a four-month old daughter and my day starts at 9am when I hold and play with her for an hour. After that, I grab a cup of coffee and start my work day by handling the first wave of emails from home.
My team usually sends me memos about the night’s service, highlighting anything out of the ordinary. If I have upcoming guest shifts overseas, I would work on the recipes at home so that I can spend more time with my baby.
Around noon, I head to the bar and a typical afternoon involves managing the bar inventory and holding meetings and tastings with different food and spirits vendors. I’ll also chat with our host and bartenders about the service for the night and work on new cocktail recipes.
In the past few weeks, we’ve put eight new cocktails on the menu so a lot of time has gone into fine-tuning the recipes, designing menus and conceptualizing the names and stories behind each drink. If I’m on bartending shift, my day ends at about 4.30am.
“We all want to rebel a little.”
What do you think is the appeal of a speakeasy bar? And why?
People tend to romanticise speakeasies because of its history being illicit, exclusive and glamorous. They get excited because people like to do what they are told not to and a speakeasy bar represents that spirit. We all want to rebel a little.
What’s your go-to cocktail? And why?
I believe there are different drinks for different occasions and my go-to cocktail really depends on the time and place I’m at.
I’ll get a Penicillin at Attaboy because that was where it was created, an Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista in San Francisco and a Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel. It also has to suit the moment. I would love an elegant drink like a Tanqueray No. Ten Martini before a fancy steak dinner.
In your opinion, which are the top 5 speakeasy bars in New York and why?
PDT, Employees Only, The Raines Law Room, Attaboy and Angel’s Share. All five are excellent with very different concepts and serve amazing cocktails.