Bartender and drinks writer
New York City
Words by: Ian Cameron
Welcome to the world of gaz regan. This is the story of how a boy from a northern English town made it across the Atlantic and somehow became the toast of the modern bar world, helping lead the cocktail renaissance and recently being crowned with a Tales of the Cocktail Lifetime Achievement award. In what some will say is a controversial interview he talks candidly about his struggle with booze - the industry's elephant in the room - and touchingly on the subject of his cancer. And he reveals the answers to all those questions you wanted to ask: Where'd the capital letters in his name go? Why the eyeliner? And what the fuck?
"Have you ever seen the pub on Shameless?" asks gaz regan, when asked about his childhood, growing up above his parents' pub. He's referring to The Jockey, the pub on a hard Manchester estate that's run by a family of crooks, is frequented by a mixture of larger-than-life characters, booze-sodden regulars and general low-lifes, and which plays a pivotal role in the show's no-holds-barred storylines. Well, Shameless ain't no drama, says gaz, it's practically a documentary of his early life.
"My parents' pub was rough and ready, on a big council estate in Blackpool. Very working class. No-one had enough money, but I learned a lot from them. Their values were very solid, they supported each other. And my dad was the pillar of the community. He'd lend them money and he'd get phone calls at 2am from customers saying 'I think our Eric's died. What do I do?' And he would phone for the ambulance. There was a bit of crime but rarely any fights - they had too much respect for my dad.
"My favourite customer was a guy called Volsh, he was the toughest mother in town. He didn't come in often but when he did he'd order a pint of bitter, and everybody would be watching what they say out of fear more than respect. But then a couple of times a year, on a night when dad had hired a piano player, drummer and compere, everyone used to do a turn and sing. Volsh would go up and sing the most soul-wrenching version of Danny Boy you've ever heard, then finish his pint and walk out. It was the only place where he could get shit off his chest without beating the hell out of someone, and because he showed respect he got that back."
If spending his formative years in a pub taught him solid, family values and the value of community, it's no surprise that it also imbued a love of the effect of alcohol within gaz. He had his first brush with booze when he was just 12-years-old, when his parents had a party on a Saturday night and somebody made him a Gimlet. "It made me feel really good and I remember thinking to myself: 'I must remember this.'" It's also no surprise that two years later gaz was working behind the bar on Friday and Saturday nights, and a year after that, aged 15, he had dropped out of high school and was working there full time.
But for the break-up of an early marriage, gaz may yet have stayed in the north-west of England and still be behind the bar of the same pub today, or at least sat at it. As it was, aged 19, he wanted to get as far away as he could, from his estranged wife, from Blackpool, from everything. Or as he puts it: "I scarpered." America beckoned.
It was the early 1970s. gaz got a job at an Irish bar in Manhattan, in the Upper East Side. It was called Drake's Drum, and he remembers it like it was yesterday - a spit and sawdust world of bawdy rugby songs where ex-pats of all nationalities rubbed shoulders - English, Irish, Australian, Kiwi sports fans loved and lost together. How far was the New York bar scene from what it is today? A very long way. But even in Drake's Drum, they peddled their own cocktail culture, and this was a world away from the real ale served back home in England. "We had our own cocktail culture, pegged on Singapore Slings, really badly made, there were no fresh juices, it was all sweet/sour mix. Though we made White Russians, Black Russians, Whisky Sours, Manhattans, Martinis and Rob Roys really well. For special customers - basically another bartender - we'd use fresh lime juice."
It was quickly clear that America was where he saw his future. Blackpool seemed further and further away and when he scored a Green Card, he absolutely wasn't going home. "The bars were open until 4am, and then we'd go out and get laid a lot," says gaz, unashamedly, relentlessly - even today - quite the ladies' man.
But if you can take the boy out of Blackpool, you can't take Blackpool out of the boy, and gaz says he learned most of what he knows about drinks and service from a former drinker from home who now operated bars in New York. "David Ridings died in 2000 but he was truly my biggest mentor. When I got to New York I didn't know how to make any cocktails. He told me to sit at the service area, listen to the wait staff shouting and watch the bartender. I was young and had a great memory. Dave was strict on how to greet customers.
"It was real hospitality and he taught me how to treat people right. If a girl left her handbag when she went to the ladies' room we'd take it for safe-keeping. We'd let them panic a while and then give them it back. If somebody was drunk at 2am, we'd find somebody sober to walk them home." It was where he learned to listen to customers. "What pisses me off to this day is bartenders asking 'how you doin'?', then not waiting for an answer."
A slew of neighbourhood bar gigs and assorted other "horrible jobs" followed in the late '70s and early '80s, as a barman here, manager in a department store restaurant there, before he scored a position as manager of an English pub in South Street Sea Port, called the North Star Pub. "I was there four years - and it was probably my favourite four years in the industry. It was an authentic English pub, not an American pub, serving English customers and Wall Street brokers English delights like mushy peas." He helped open a few venues along the way, some more successful than others, some closing within a matter of months in the typical bar industry manner that seems to have been ever thus.
Throughout the previous decade he'd began to indulge a secret passion, and this would now come out in a way that would change his life. It was a love of writing. In the early 90s he got a column in a well-respected, glossy title called Food Arts, writing about drinks, more than ten years after conceiving an article, laboriously typed with one-finger on how to behave in a bar. "I was going to submit it to New York magazine but never did."
gaz had a way with words and it snowballed. He got lots more writing jobs - for Wine Enthusiast, Nation's Restaurant News, Cheers and the Malt Advocate, among others. He took no more bartending jobs, but of course his writing was founded on more than two decades of experience as a bartender. He published his Bartender's Bible in 1991. Then his best-known writing gig, as The Cocktailian on the San Francisco Chronicle, came in 2003. "A woman on a press trip recommended me and to it was the best gig I've ever had. At one point I was writing for the Chronicle and four other magazines and it all became too much. In 2007, I quit the other magazines, wrote all four resignation emails, sent them and heaved a sigh of relief. But I kept the Chronicle."
With that, after two decades in Manhattan, he moved upstate to the Hudson Valley, creating his Cocktails in the Country two-day residential bartending course - a forum to promote an increasingly zen-like approach to the craft that has more recently manifested itself in his Annual Manual. "It's the opportunity to influence people in hopefully a good way. Good bartending is nothing to do with making drinks. I try to help them understand that the main part of their job is to make guests happy. That's what drives me more than anything.
"Bartenders have an opportunity to actually change the world. I mean that in a real sense. I know that sounds stupid but as a bartender, on any given night, you have the potential to make 10 people feel better than they did when they walked in. With 100 bartenders they have the potential to make 1,000 people feel better. Boom, you've just changed the world."
Where did this New Age gaz come from? It's a long way from his Shameless upbringing isn't it? "I call it mindful bartending and it started not that long ago, in 2003, after I had tongue cancer. I had a proper spiritual awakening - prior to that I was agnostic. My tongue cancer slapped me upside my head. I thought somebody was trying to get my attention and I started seeking why that was happening."
Cancer was the cue for one of gaz's now notorious changes of appearance. Look at any bottle of Regan's Orange Bitters and you'll see him sporting a rather large beard. Radiation therapy put paid to the hair on his chin, though not to the hair on his head, bizarrely, and he had something of a Samson-like awakening. "I think of myself as a story teller and my beard was my identity: the cancer attacked my tongue; and the radiation took my beard away. With those two things I thought 'Oh shit, something's going on here'.
"A friend persuaded me to see a healer, and I thought what do I have to lose? He told me a long story about how he found God and how he had been chosen to be a conduit for their love, and I thought 'Oh yeah'. And then he said he was going to put his hands on my shoulders and that I might feel a breeze. I said OK, I closed my eyes and the next thing I knew I was lying on the floor crying like a baby. He didn't cure my cancer but after that I was never afraid and knew it would turn out ok. Normally you hear these stories that happened to somebody's aunt in Australia. But it fucking happened to me and I felt it."
His cancer was successfully treated, and though he emerged scarred and looking different, gaz refused to let his resultant speech difficulties get in the way. "I thought to myself I never want to pretend this hasn't happened, don't hide behind it, but carry on as if it's not there. Although my speech is not perfect, it's not an impediment. I intend not to have cancer again and to live till I'm 100."
You might think that this period is what gaz would describe as his low point. On the contrary, he found strength from within and it was a motivating force for good. But here's where gaz becomes surprisingly candid and talks openly about a little-acknowledged facet of the drinks world. "What was the low point? Not the cancer. It was when I was a total drunk. It was back in the early 1980s. I was such a drunk for a few years, I was in such a horrible shape. I was the sort of drunk who put vodka in your coffee in the morning. And if I didn't have alcohol I shook like a leaf. That was embarrassing, it was terrifying and I knew I had to do something."
He stopped - of a fashion. Anyone who know gaz even a little knows he still likes a drink - we're drinking Negronis during this interview. He stopped drinking in the morning, stopped putting vodka in his coffee, and applied strict rules around his own consumption. This will no doubt be a bone of contention among alcoholics and recovering alcoholics, who say once an alcoholic always an alcoholic. But gaz says he was able to change his behaviour and not only continue drinking but to continue to make a decent living from it, from the Chronicle, from his books and his role as a mentor to the world's young bartenders.
"Alcoholics and recovering alcoholics will never agree on this but the burden has been lifted from me. I'm still a heavy drinker but I'm not a morning drinker and now I never have to have a drink. I do it at opportune times."
Yet no-one talks about alcohol addiction within the bartending community, even though we probably all know someone who has struggled, someone who canes it that little bit too much, someone with something of a reputation. Isn't he risking a hell of a lot talking about it so openly - given that he is very public about drinks companies paying him 'enormous' sums of money to work for them? Isn't he worried that the well will dry up? Should he really be applying bright pink paint to that elephant in the room?
"That period in my life has been over for many years but my 'coming out' on this issue is a way of opening a conversation that needs to be started in the bartending community, so I'm going to take my chances," he says. "I think it is very hard to find a way to talk about it and certainly drinks companies struggle with it, the best thing they can do is promote moderation, and they do that very well, indeed, but that's not to say the problem shouldn't be acknowledged.
"Bartenders have always drunk a lot, and it's important we talk about it. If I'm remembered for doing one thing, it should be as someone who tried to do the right thing."
Does he think that his past battle with booze contributed to his mouth cancer? "No, I think that was more related to smoking. I think that was god slapping me across the side of my head. Telling me something needed to change." He lists drinking as his only vice, so he's clearly conscious about it, of the way alcohol has the power to corrupt and destruct. "It's the only bad habit I am going to reveal, at least."
Does he have any regrets, especially about the alcoholism? "Not for one second. Everything I've done in my life up to now has led to me being one of the happiest people you know. Today I feel fabulous. I am the happiest person you know. I'm so lucky. I turned 60 last September, and a lot of people are shy about their age. I prefer to say 'I'm 60: watch this!'"
Indeed, age 60 or not, gaz continues to reinvent himself. A couple of years ago Gary Regan became gaz regan (and he's precious about those lower-case letters) and last year he started to decorate one of his eyes with eyeliner. The first time I saw gaz with this make-up, I for one didn't know what to say, wondering if someone had played a joke on him, wondering if this was deliberately designed to confuse. In the end I pretended it wasn't there. "Ha, well now I try and put people at ease and say it's my latest 'affectation'," says gaz. "Yes, it's kind of Clockwork Orange though not totally as you'd have to do false eye lashes too. Eye liner is a lot easier. I enjoy it, it's fun, of course it's an ego thing, sure it's 'look at me', but it helps me feel current. It's all a game."
No doubt his old regulars in Blackpool would have something to say about this eyeliner-wearing guy with no capital letters in his name. He laughs. "They would be shaking their heads saying 'what the fuck happened to him?'."