Words by: Ian Cameron
Julie Reiner has been elevating the cocktail scene in NYC for fifteen years, most notably with the opening of the Flatiron Lounge (2003), the Pegu Club (2005), and Brooklyn’s Clover Club (2008). As co-owner and beverage director of the Flatiron Lounge, Reiner drew much of her inspiration from her native Hawaii by utilizing the freshest fruits and premier quality spices & spirits available in her original cocktails. Julie’s beverage program at the Clover Club is highly focused on classics, and furthers her signature style of superior quality and green market ingredients.
Julie’s consulting company, Mixtress Consulting, helps to create top-notch beverage programs and cocktails for restaurants, bars, resorts, and spirits companies. Flatiron, Pegu and Clover opened to rave reviews and have enjoyed a top ranking among the best bars in the world. In 2009, Clover Club was honored with the award for “Best New Cocktail Lounge in the World” at Tales of the Cocktail and last year, took home the award for “Best American Cocktail Bar”, “Best High Volume Bar”, and Julie was personally awarded “Best Bar Mentor”. Clover Club has also been listed in Drinks Internationals 50 best bars in the world two years in a row. Julie’s recipes have been featured in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Food & Wine, Imbibe, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Playboy, Gourmet Magazine, Food Arts, Bon Appetit, GQ, Fortune, Wine Enthusiast, O Magazine, Crains, Time Out NY and Time Out London, The London Times & Wine & Spirits.
Julie has also been featured on The Today Show, The Food Network, the Cooking Channel, Martha Stewart Radio, CNBC, LXTV, and the Fine Living network. In 2011, Julie was honored with a James Beard nomination for spirits professional of the year.
“Many things have come since Cherry Heering was created, they don’t have the same quality as Cherry Heering has”
From growing up in Hawaii and her first steps behind the bar at a wannabe Hard Rock Café in Waikiki, to a role as the confusing focal point of a drag bar in San Francisco, and the toast of the New York cocktail scene as owner of Flatiron Lounge, Clover Club, and potentially the world's biggest smile: meet Julie Reiner.
As Julie Reiner got up from her seat and walked to the stage of the Hyatt Regency auditorium in New Orleans in July 2013 for the third time that night, it was not just the achievement of receiving two Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards for her Brooklyn bar, Clover Club, and of personally being named Best Bar Mentor that gave her such pride.
As she held her third trophy aloft, surrounded by staff from both her bars, she was struck by a particularly satisfying thought: it was fully ten years since she had opened Flatiron Lounge, her 1920s-inspired bar in Manhattan. "Since the day it opened, I have been working to increase the importance of hand-crafted cocktails in the US," she tells us afterwards. "It felt as if my place in it all was finally recognised. What a great feeling."
In 2013, with the craft cocktail movement going at full pelt, it seems hard to reconcile the New York scene today with Manhattan a decade ago. She recalls there were few decent bars and even fewer good bartenders. It's a scenario which makes her achievements all the more significant.
"The talent pool just didn't exist," she says. "It was a ton of work when we opened Flatiron. It was many years of training people and promoting from within. I found it easier to take a bar-back like Phil Ward [who would go on to open Mayahuel] and turn them into a bartender than to hire them in the first place - and that's a long process. The only other thing that had happened at that point was Milk & Honey and only Dale [DeGroff] knew about it. Employees Only hadn't opened its doors either - that came after Flatiron Lounge."
As she talks to us from the kitchen table in her Park Slope, Brooklyn apartment, which she shares with her partner Susan Fedroff (they married on the north shore of Kauai in 2002) and their four-year-old daughter, she also reflects on how locating Clover Club in the borough has helped the area find its feet as a cocktail destination. By extension, surging house prices in the hipster neighbourhood, no longer the place to buy when you can't afford Manhattan, have no doubt been helped by the quality bars and restaurants which have followed Julie's lead.
Sure, she asked seasoned Brooklyn residents like Dave Wondrich for his opinion, but it was Julie that took the risk: "Clover Club was definitely a gamble," she recalls. "There definitely wasn't a bar like it in the area. But we were busy immediately. The economy and political climate meant financially it was a challenge, everybody was watching to see how it happened, but we did it."
She might be cocktail royalty in 2013, but flash-back to her first steps in Hawaii's hospitality industry, and she was green around the gills. The year is 1989, and Julie is working the floor at the Hot Rod Café in Waikiki. She's learning the ropes from a troupe of ruthless, older male bartenders, the type who have seen it all. "There was a strict calling order: all frozen drinks first, then mixed, then highballs, beers, wines and non-alcoholic stuff. The bartenders had been there for ever, and if you called drinks out of order they would just stare at you till you got it right." But learn the ropes she did - and after seeing what was happening behind the bar, she realised she wanted to get back there with them.
At this point, despite the tropical location and the residual impact of tiki - Don the Beachcomber, the creator of the movement, had helped embed tiki in the islands from the 1940s and then retired there until his death in, coincidentally, 1989 - there was nothing on display in Hawaii that would resemble the craft cocktails of today. Sour mix ruled.
Nor was there much to raise the roof about when Julie's family upped sticks and moved to Florida, where she would go to college (studying General Communications). But it was the mismatch between multicultural Hawaii and Deep South prejudice that saw her pack up her car and head to San Francisco, the place she would take the next step on the path to bartending glory.
"Hawaii is probably the most multicultural state in the US, but in Florida I was blindsided by the racism and sexism and homophobia that I saw. It just wasn't something I had been exposed to, so after I graduated I decided to drive to San Francisco. I knew it was a liberal, gay city, and when I got there it was like night and day. I felt very at home there."
After a short stint where Julie tried to exercise her new-found university talents, working for her aunt as a rookie marketing executive, she went stir crazy in her cubicle and craved the service industry. This took her to The Red Room, now closed, for her first real bartending job on an all-female team ("I was dating the manager who taught me how to tend bar," she says). Next stop was Asia SF, where a reversal of fortunes saw her as the only female (OK, technically female-born) worker in this famous drag/transgender venue. "The whole back-bar was a runway, so I would be bartending and part of the drag show. I'm still the only actual woman to have worked there - I had a great time playing around with people, so that they were never sure [if I was really a woman or not]..."
It was in San Francisco that Julie started dating Susan. And when her partner got a place at grad school at New York University, Julie agreed to move across the country once again. "We packed up our lives. I'd never even been to New York, but I was 26 and thought, if I don't do it now, I never will. I loved San Francisco but I was still hungry for adventure."
It was in C3 Lounge (now North Square) in the Washington Square Hotel where Julie was quietly making cocktails with fresh ingredients that got her noticed by one particular bartender of growing repute: Dale DeGroff. "I became the bar manager and worked this tiny lounge at the back of the restaurant. It was a one-person bar, with maybe 10 or 12 tables, and I would bartend and wait the room and create these drinks with infusions and fresh juices. It was common in San Francisco, but was clearly an untapped market in New York and Dale, Ted Haigh, all these people started coming in." Dale now introduced her to his protégé Audrey Saunders. Together, they would tend bar events together and, after Julie had opened Flatiron Lounge in 2003, Audrey and Julie were among a cabal that collectively opened Pegu Club in 2005.
The Art Deco, jazz-led Flatiron Lounge, on west 19th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, was one of the first of the new generation of bars where there wasn't a trade-off between good times and good drinks, with contemporary creative cocktails measured by jiggers (then practically revolutionary). Its 1920s bar and mirrors from the Algonquin Hotel helped give Manhattan's cocktail enthusiasts an authentic taste of Prohibition.
Clover Club came about in 2008, bringing its taste in classic cocktails to Smith Street. Here, a monumental wooden bar from a former dance club in a mining town in Pennsylvania acts as a focal point, the bar welcoming to everyone from cocktail geeks to families - typical Brooklyn. Its awards at Tales speak for its continued success five years after opening, as do the presence of other notable bars along the same stretch of street, from Char No. 4 to The Jake Walk.
Lani Kai came next - Julie's paean to her home state, a tropical lounge that avoided the clichés of Hawaii: check your grass skirt at the door. But it was short-lived, closing two years after it opened in late 2011. If Clover Club had seen Julie dip her toe into food with a short menu of tasty bites, Lani Kai had seen her dive in with a full restaurant programme - and it proved too much. "The biggest problem was that it was too big," she says. "We had some disagreements within the partnership on what the concept should be and how it should look, and at the end of the day it didn't end up being what I envisaged.
"The bar programme was successful but the restaurant was tough. My name is synonymous with cocktails, and the only way to work it out was to have a chef with as big a name as mine in drinks, and we couldn't make it work. The location was tough, on a weird street on the edge of SoHo near the entrance to the Holland tunnel - just because you're in Manhattan doesn't mean you have a guaranteed hit. I was sad to have to sell it, but I'd do it again in a much smaller space."
This is where a more ruthless, business-minded version of Julie reveals itself. Here's the Reiner Business 101:
• be sure to protect yourself for the worst case scenario of any partnership
• if a partnership is too one-sided, move on and find the right group of people
• a good bartender does not always make a good bar owner
• take a business class - what happens behind the bar drives the business, but without a grasp on the business as a whole, you will fail
• listen to your instincts and hold out for the right opportunity - if a space isn't right for your concept, don't force it on the space no matter how much you like it
• a disproportionate focus on accolades can cause you to lose your edge and ignore the aspects of the business that keep things running efficiently.
Along the way, ever aware of her role as one of the few leading women in the industry, Julie has developed something of a missionary's zeal to encouraging more women to follow in her footsteps - understandable considering the desert of female craft bartenders into the late 2000s. And let's face it, women bartenders are still hugely outnumbered by their male counterparts, a fact not lost on Julie in her new role as Diageo World Class guru - a lone female out of ten judges at the 2013 final.
Standing on the decks of the cruise ship that hosted the week-long global final of the cocktail competition, it was plain to see the demographic of the 44 national finalists: "It's all dudes," she says. "I'm tired of it being a boys' club. I'm always trying to find more women to bring in - they are a commodity. It still is a boys' club, but in New York today you can see more female talent. Except in Employees Only, where it's still all-male - that's my next mission!"
Perhaps the ultimate proof of her success in this area - and of her mentoring skills - is Speed Rack, the all-female speed cocktail contest in aid of breast cancer that's recently gone international, founded by two female bartenders Julie has encouraged to rise through the ranks. Lynette Marrero was a cocktail server at Flatiron Lounge and went on to tend bar there, and Ivy Mix worked at Lani Kai before Clover Club, where she still works.
"I am beyond proud of the two of them," says Julie. "Ivy came to us with the idea: we told her we thought it was a brilliant idea, gave her some tips on who to talk to, how to get it sponsored, and acted as a sounding board, but it was her and Lynnette who went out there and hooked up with big brands."
Outside of work, Julie tries to lead a normal life. She admits to having slowed down since the birth of her daughter, but that allows her to take advantage of the New York life, from Broadway plays to live music gigs and the occasional bar - Dead Rabbit, The NoMad and Attaboy, in case you're wondering about her preferences. Awards apart, having a life is what Julie regards as her greatest achievement: "Balancing work and family in a business that is not always conducive to having a family. It hasn't been easy, but we have managed to maintain our reputation in the bar business and raise a child. It is definitely two totally different worlds."
Julie is not looking to open any new bars in the short term. When she does, her new bars will call time on sleeve garters, suspenders/braces, fancy moustaches, scratchy jazz and secret knocks. Instead she wants to open bars that are "just fun... that don't focus on Prohibition or classics necessarily, but that are just a good time." When that happens, she'll be looking back to her roots - she references relocating to Hawaii, or at least splitting her life between Brooklyn and the mid-Pacific, several times in our conversation. Living in a shoebox apartment in New York clearly makes Julie pine for the open spaces of her childhood home. "I would like to retire there, or at least move there when I'm ready to slow down a little bit - ten years may be the perfect amount of time."
In the meantime, she prefers to concentrate on her consultancy, Mixtress Consulting. When we speak, she's just back from six weeks in Hawaii where Hyatt is opening a new resort on Maui. She's charged with developing a bar programme for two outdoor bars, a pool bar and a lobby punch service. Back in New York, the Hyatt in Times Square has a rooftop bar opening in February 2014 with a bar programme courtesy of Ms. Reiner.
From up there, Julie can gaze across the city's famous skyline and feel proud that the city's night scene pulses to a beat that's been partly defined by her over the last decade. She knows it too, though it takes a push to get her to say it overtly. "Part of it was that I was in the right place at the right time and recognising that New Yorkers want the best of everything. It's also because some of the bartenders I've trained have gone on and opened other bars and helped spread the art of the cocktail even further, but sure, I do feel like I played a role embedding the revolution."