Jim Meehan may have achieved cocktail supremacy at PDT—his world-renowned bar in the East Village, where bartenders routinely mix drinks with multiple obscure ingredients and reservations are made weeks in advance—but he started off in a place familiar to us all: Drinking Milwaukee’s Best at a high school party.

His professional path included churning out shots at a crowded college bar—“I had the joy of having my front tooth knocked out there,” he recalls—and working a busy brunch service at Manhattan’s Five Points. From there, he began hobnobbing with some of New York’s most accomplished mixologists—including Eben Freeman at wd-50 and Audrey Saunders at Pegu Club—and honed his signature style.

Last year, Meehan’s first book, The PDT Cocktail Book: The Complete Bartender’s Guide from the Celebrated Speakeasy, was dubbed “the most buzzed-about cocktail guide in the country” by New York Times, and this past May, he took home the first ever James Beard award for Outstanding Bar Program.

“The drinks I’ve served have evolved with the times,” he says, humbly, of his path. Here, he breaks down the eight essential tipples that shaped his career along the way.

This interview has been condensed and edited.