While she was hard at work bartending, Julie Reiner’s dormmates were “drinking their faces off.” After a long night behind the bar, she’d come home to find these revelers “naked and vomiting in the hallway. Then I’d walk past them to my room, throw piles of money on the bed, and stand over $200. I was living nicely,” she recalls.
That the industrious Reiner chose to supplement her roster of classes at Florida State University by pouring shots instead of throwing them back is not surprising. One of the nation’s most esteemed bartenders, Hawaiian native Reiner is a craft-cocktail pioneer, having made her mark with New York bars Flatiron Lounge and Clover Club.
Working in a Tallahassee pub may not have been a glamorous route to slinging drinks, but it’s where Reiner knew she found her calling. “I had waited tables, but once I got behind the bar I was like, ‘Okay, this is for me.’ There’s a certain respect there you just don’t get on the floor.“
Frustrated in San Francisco after scoring a “real job” she hated, she knew it was time to devote her multi-tasking prowess and innate sense of hospitality to the bar business. The cocktail lounges of a forward-thinking San Francisco were a perfect fit—that is, until her girlfriend Sue Fedroff (now her wife and business partner) got into grad school at New York University. Not one to shy away from change, Reiner thought it was the right decision to join Fedroff and find her voice in New York’s soon-to-skyrocket cocktail scene.
…she’d come home to find these revelers “naked and vomiting in the hallway. Then I’d walk past them to my room, throw piles of money on the bed, and stand over $200. I was living nicely.”
While at C3, a hotel bar in the West Village, she caught the eye of Dale DeGroff, the drinks legend who revived the art of classic cocktails; he soon became a mentor. “At this point I was just bartending to entertain myself, to give people something great in a glass,” says Reiner. But her West Coast sensibility toward cocktails—emphasizing a culinary approach using fresh ingredients—required her own distinct platform: In 2003 she opened Flatiron Lounge, an Art Deco den for classics like the negroni and riffs on the Rob Roy. Five years later, Clover Club followed in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill, serving drinks like Collinses and Daisies from a 19th-century bar. Her most recent venture—along with her recently published book The Craft Cocktail Party (Grand Central Life & Style)–is Leyenda, a Latin-inspired bar across the street from Clover Club.
Now that joints from Boston to Boise are churning out inventive margarita renditions, it’s easy to forget that such bar-side inspiration and imagination were uncommon when Reiner opened Flatiron Lounge. Whether it’s a heady Manhattan that brightened her college years, or a hot toddy that doubles as an extra layer in winter, here are 10 of the drinks that have made a memorable impression on one of the country’s most talented and enterprising bar owners.
I went to college at a Southern football school. I wasn’t into that scene so much, but it was where I first started bartending. It was at a pub that offered ‘bladder bust’ specials, where beer was free until someone went to the bathroom. You can imagine what we would find in pitchers under the table. But before I started working there, I went out to different bars to see what was out there and drink whiskey. I drank it neat and I embarrassingly drank it in Old Fashioneds, with a splash of cherry juice. It’s also when I discovered the Manhattan, and I just loved everything about this cocktail. At 21, I was already drinking whiskey. (Photo by Liz Barclay)
The Mai Tai
Being from Hawaii, I grew up walking around Waikiki watching people drink really bad Mai Tais. My very first job in the bar industry was as a cocktail server at Hot Rod Café, where all the tables looked like the back seats of 1950s cars. It was basically a rip-off of the Hard Rock, but it’s the place where I got my first taste of serving people fun, tropical drinks like the Blue Hawaii, Chi-Chi, and Mai Tai—which wasn’t even remotely close to a real Trader Vic one. I’ve put it on my menus over the years, and when I consulted at the Andaz Maui at Wailea, I made sure it was the real Trader Vic recipe. The Mai Tai has come full circle now. It’s also one of my favorites, and something that’s been with me since the beginning of my career. (Photo by Liz Barclay)
Hawaiian Iced Tea
One of my first cocktails to be written about in New York was the Hawaiian Iced Tea, which I created when I was at C3, inside the Washington Square Hotel. I had moved from San Francisco, where fresh juice was the norm, so I took a more culinary approach than other bars had at the time. I started talking to the chef to see how we could take things to the next level by utilizing ingredients I hadn’t seen in cocktails before. They were using a tropical black tea, Liliuokalani, in iced form, so I started playing around with it, infusing it in vodka—my first time doing this—and making a spiked tea. To realize that I could create a cocktail totally different from others—and then get listed as the first drink in a New York magazine article with Audrey Saunders’ Earl Grey MarTEAni—was an ‘aha’ moment for me. (Photo: Facebook/Washington Square Hotel)
One of Audrey’s earliest drinks is the Jamaican Firefly. It’s been on the Pegu Club menu for 10 years, but she created it way before then. The first time I had it is when she was working at the Tonic, around the corner from Flatiron Lounge. She made me this drink at the gorgeous antique bar with rum, lime juice, simple syrup, and ginger beer, and it was one of the best I’d ever had. She used fresh ginger and it was such a revelatory moment because everyone else just bought theirs in bottles. At the time there were so few people who liked and understood cocktails besides Dale DeGroff. I’d go there to see what she was up to, and she’d come to Flatiron to check out one of my infusions. We were just figuring stuff out back then, and it was such a cool time. (Photo courtesy Food GPS)
The Hemingway Daiquiri is one of my favorite cocktails. I put it on the opening menu of Flatiron Lounge, and early on it kind of signified my love for the classics. At that point I was talking about cocktails with Dale and reading as many books on drinks as I could. I remember when I first discovered the Hemingway Daiquiri and was so intrigued. It was like, ‘What is maraschino?’ Luxardo wasn’t even available then. It was inspiration to look into as many classic cocktails as possible, and make my way through drinks I never heard of. (Photo: feltandhoney.com)
Queen’s Park Swizzle
The first time I had a Queen’s Park Swizzle was at Milk & Honey. I hadn’t even heard about this bar until Dale told me about it. Then I finally found my way down there. It was like, where the hell is this place? I walked in and Sasha [Petraske] was actually there. I didn’t know what to have and I told him I wanted something refreshing, so he made me the swizzle, something they served a lot of. It was just so gorgeous and tasty. Now this drink always makes me think of Milk & Honey. (Photo: kevineats.com)
I’ve had a love affair with the Old Fashioned for quite some time. I love the history of the drink. Once I realized that it wasn’t about muddled oranges and cherries and learned how it actually should be made, I started playing around with Scotch and tequila variations. It’s my go-to; probably the cocktail I drink the most of. I’m a whiskey girl. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
I hate winter in New York. I don’t know how my family lives with me because I’m completely miserable, December through February. I would rather be sweating than cold any day. One night early on at Flatiron Lounge, Toby Maloney was behind the bar. I was holiday shopping up and down Fifth Avenue and came in shivering. I hadn’t had that many warm cocktails before, but Toby gave me a hot whiskey toddy. Then I drank another. I went back outside and my whole body was warm. I walked around and did more shopping, thinking, ‘Oh, whiskey is the key to warmth in the wintertime.’ It’s like an internal blanket. I thank Toby for shining that light on the toddy. (Photo: ruthschris.com)
I had made pisco drinks before, but it wasn’t until Diego Loret de Mola launched BarSol in NYC that I really started to experiment. He was eager to have bartenders make more than Pisco Sours, so he brought a bunch of us to Peru: Willy Shine, Gaz Regan, Charlotte Voisey, Franceso Lafranconi. It was an amazing, eye-opening trip, and when I came back I created the Cuzco, with pisco, Aperol, lemon and grapefruit juices, simple syrup, and Kirschwasser to coat the glass. It was on the menu at Flatiron and Clover Club, and Jim Meehan even made it a guest drink at PDT. It’s really my homage to feeling so inspired while in Peru. (Photo: Facebook/BarSol Pisco)
The Gin Blossom
The Gin Blossom has become one of my signature drinks. I created it for Clover Club as a house martini variation with apricot eau de vie. It’s simple, but after I made it, Sue drank nothing else for a year and a half. I had to bring eau de vie home so she could make it. She still loves it. I was working on the opening menu for Clover when Eric Seed [of the importer Haus Alpenz] came into Flatiron. We had been discussing obscure ingredients and forgotten products, and apricot eau de vie was one of those things I just loved, so it made sense. I had also just come up with the Slope cocktail, with rye and apricot liqueur, and I thought it might be really cool to show off this dichotomy and have a dialogue between these spins on the Manhattan and martini. (Photo courtesy Julie Reiner/Daniel Krieger)