Peels' Jim Kearns Talks Famous Tippers, the Rum Renaissance, and Why Rick's Café From Casablanca Is the Silver Screen's Best Bar

Photo by Atisha Paulson
Jim Kearns
Peels has gotten its fair share of praise this week. Most of that has been for the food -- or at least the infinitely cool environment in which the food is served -- and a few words were dedicated to the cocktails. The drinks list, designed by Yana Volfson, is eclectic and seasonal, and includes something called a Joey Ramone. Longtime Freemans and current Peels bartender Jim Kearns fills us in on what (he)'s shaking behind the bar.

What was the vision for the cocktail program at Peels?

It's Yana's program. There's a very diverse selection of drinks, different genres, a couple tiki or Caribbean-style drinks. There are a couple of drinks that have some nice floral notes to them. She's doing a lot with tea infusions and syrups, infusing jasmine and hibiscus for spring. Literally, people ask, "What's your favorite?" or "What don't you like?" and I say, "Well, I like all of them." There really isn't one that I don't like.

In what way is the vibe different from Freemans?

Freemans is a great cozy space, but it's also at the end of an alley and there aren't any windows. It's more of a dark, brooding kind of space, whereas Peels is a very open space. You come upstairs and you just feel good. There's light all around you and if it's nighttime you can see out on the Bowery. There are windows spanning the entire room. It's very light, very airy. It's nice to be able to work in a space where if you turn around you can give yourself a moment to clear your head and almost feel like you can get a breath of fresh air while looking at the window.

Are people using the bar as a bar or just as a pre-dinner waiting area?

People tend to use the bar as a bar. They will be there all night drinking and having a good time and they'll eat dinner or at least have some appetizers. I've worked at a lot of places where there's this resistance to the bar being a place where you can stay all night and enjoy an entire experience. What I've always found refreshing about working [Taavo Somer and William Tigertt's] bars is that you put a menu down in front of someone, they're more than likely going to order something to eat and you're going to be able to build a rapport with that guest. It makes your life easier and more enjoyable as a bartender.

What kind of places do you like to drink when you're not at your own bar?

Being a bartender and getting off work late, I end up going to a lot of dive bars. Or Irish bars, or somewhere where I know somebody, which could be a cocktail bar. [I like] somewhere where I can sit down and relax and have a cold beer and maybe a shot of whiskey, which I know sounds apathetic for a cocktail bartender, but it's like a chef who gets off work and the last thing he wants is what he's been cooking all day.

How did you get started behind the bar?

I lucked into a job bar-backing at Balthazar and moved up there and moved on. Then I got into the whole cocktail thing. I just had an interest in it, but I really didn't know where to learn more about it. Then, I lucked into a position training with Sasha Petraske, who owns Milk & Honey, Little Branch, etc. He really opened my eyes to the whole idea of making cocktails consistently with fresh product and that simpler can be better ... technique and intricacy and the idea of being a good host and providing proper service to everybody that comes to your bar. Basically all aspects of the job. It was a revelation working with him.

What are some of the trends in cocktails that you're excited about these days?

I think we all know the obvious most prevalent trend is rum and tiki. I think probably what's coming is a trend toward more savory, more culinary elements. I was actually talking to someone the other day who's pretty plugged into the whole cocktail scene across the country and that's what he was seeing a lot of. It's definitely one of my personal areas of interest. If I were to guess, that's the next big thing you'll see: spiced and salted drinks.

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