It’s often said that there aren’t enough women working in professional kitchens. And the same seems to be true behind the bar. But when it comes to top of the line cocktail chefs, there are few, bigger names in the business than Julie Reiner – male or female.
Owner and beverage director of the jazzy, ten-year-old Flatiron Lounge in Manhattan (which serves intricately layered drinks listed under “Whiskey,” “Brandy,” “Rum,” “Gin,” and “Tequila”), and the pre-Prohibition era Clover Club in Brooklyn (known for its assortment of Sours and Daisies, Collins and Fizzes, Punches and Royales), Reiner is often credited with revitalizing the golden age of the cocktail, making American classics with fresh juices, handcrafted syrups and infusions, and seasonal ingredients.
“There’s this whole fascination with Prohibition, but the reality is, people were drinking really crappy drinks then,” laughed Reiner. “Prohibition really killed the art form of the craft of mixology. So many of the great bartenders couldn’t work, so they went to Europe. But mixology is as American as jazz, it was born in this country. It was ours, we were really good at it, and we want to be really good at it again.”
We also spoke with Reiner about what makes an amazing bartender, which drinks trends she’s so over , and why (although you should certainly frequent both of her bars), everyone should try shaking up cocktails at home. And if you want to sample Julie Reiner’s spring creations, Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation on April 29th is a great (and worthy place) to do it. Fellow cocktail master Dale DeGroff, and a slew of the city’s best restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern, Blue Hill and The Marrow will be on hand for the occasion.
As opposed to chefs, who will often tell you they learned about cooking on their grandmother’s knee, I’m assuming that the life of a mixologist doesn’t quite work that way. How did you get into making drinks?
I grew up in Hawaii, so my mom was always making mango margaritas and stuff in a blender. She entertained a lot, so essentially, I was cocktailing at a young age. 12 years old and handing out drinks! Also, my grandparents were very much into cocktail hour, so at 4:30 every day they would have their martinis. I grew up around it, and that’s where my interest started.
What job would you say really catapulted your career?
I guess my career really started when I moved to New York and managed a little place in the West Village called C3 at the Washington Square Hotel. That’s where I started talking to the chef about flavor combinations, and started making my own infusions and syrups and stuff. Nobody else was doing that at the time. The next thing I knew I was on the front page of the Food section of the New York Times, and I was like—really? Then a week later I was in the New York magazine, then again in the New York Times. So I went from being a manager of this place to being an expert in like three months. And I realized very quickly that this was a niche that was not filled in a city where everything has been done. That was really where I decided that I wanted to open my own place, Flatiron Lounge, which has been open for ten years now.
Who do you consider to be your real mentors in the cocktail world?
Audrey Saunders and I met when I was at C3, and she was also kind of coming up at the time, so she and I would bounce a lot of ideas off of each other. Tony Abou-Ganim has always been great, a really good friend in the industry. But when I started, there was no classic training. You couldn’t go to bar school. Now there’s Beverage Alcohol Resource, and there’s serious experts teaching. But I was pretty much self-taught.
Anyone can learn how to throw ingredients into a shaker, but what do you think it takes to be a real top mixologist?
You have to have a palette. There are a lot of people that get behind a bar and think that they’re going to be a superstar tomorrow. But it’s a combination of having a really good personality, a good palette, a good work ethic, and being able to play nice with a lot of people, both industry and guests. And you have to work hard at it, because there’s a lot of competition at this point.
To what do you owe the frenzy over pre-Prohibition era cocktails?
That was really the golden age of cocktails. Before Prohibition, all of these amazing, classic cocktails were created and being served, and the ice programs were fantastic. Prohibition really killed the art form of the craft of mixology. So many of the great bartenders couldn’t work, so they went to Europe. But mixology is as American as jazz, it was born in this country. It was ours, we were really good at it, and we want to be really good at it again.
Even though you reference classic cocktails and drinks, you make them very much your own. Where do you draw inspiration from when you’re trying to re-imagine, say, a Collins or a Fizz?
We ‘re always seasonally driven. Our chef likes to work with us as well. We all go out to other places and see what other people are doing, and taste different foods. Sometimes it’s a spirit, sometimes it’s an ingredient, sometimes it’s a fruit or an herb that starts an inspiration for creating a cocktail. And sometimes it’s just that this amazing rum came out, or it’s been out for a really long time but we had never actually worked with it, and we want to create something with it.
Are there certain spirits that you find yourself turning to time and again?
It’s kind of funny that you should ask. I sort of had to “86″ myself from using Amaro. One of my bartenders was like, “That’s definitely your wheelhouse.” So yeah, I’ve got to lay off the Amaro for a while.
What are some cocktail trends you’re really into right now, and which do you wish would just die already?
There are a lot of interesting new cocktail trends… bottled cocktails, cocktails on tap, aged cocktails. I’m very much a purist. But I’ve seen where it’s worked in some places. I think the Negroni, for example, works on tap. It’s intensely flavored, so it works. I’ve also tasted aged Negroni’s that I liked. But it doesn’t work with every drink. It’s in its infancy as far as a cocktail trend. I think it’s a good thing for very high-volume bars. But I’d rather make a drink from scratch right in front of you.
Everyone always says, “Why don’t we see more female chefs? Why don’t we hear about more female chefs?” Mioxology is very much the same. Why is it so difficult for females to get recognition in this field?
I guess it’s a very competitive, testosterone-filled, aggressive thing for a lot of people. Which is strange, because some of the women that I’ve trained and worked with make the best bartenders. They are so fast, they are able to multi-task, they’re able to handle things coming at them all at once and not get flustered. A lot of the women that are names in the bar business are tough girls. You can’t be soft-spoken; you have to be able to be heard over a crowd. I would love to have more women. I don’t like that I just have one at Clover Club and zero at Flatiron. People have actually poached a lot of the women I’ve trained.
After making such a splash in Manhattan with Flatiron Lounge, what made you decide to expand to Brooklyn?
I had moved to Brooklyn a little over a year before we opened Clover Club. There were some nice restaurants, but there weren’t places that people had designed and put money into. So I wanted to do an elegant, classy cocktail lounge.
Is there a reason why you decided to do food at Clover Club as opposed to Flatiron Lounge, which is resolutely drinks-oriented?
I opened Flatiron when I was 30. I kind of thought, stick to what you know. I also thought that in Manhattan we could get away with not having food. You can’t open a place like that anymore. Clover Club is in Cobble Hill, which is a family neighborhood. So I wanted a civilized cocktail lounge, and after running Flatiron for six years, there were many, many nights that were not civilized… and partly because we didn’t serve any food!
People think nothing of going out and spending tons of money on cocktails. Why should they take the time to make a cocktail at home?
Because it’s so much more rewarding. I think it’s so interesting that people are willing to make Coq au Vin at home, or they’ll try to bake, but juicing a lime is just too much. It’s like, really? Making a cocktail and enjoying it in the comfort of your own home is great. I do it all the time. I have a four-year-old, so I can’t get out much anymore!
For tickets to Taste Of The Nation on April 29th, click here.