Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Julie Reiner Is Not Harsh—She’s Honest

This interview was originally published November 21, 2014. Flatiron Lounge has since closed. Julie Reiner is currently the co-owner of Clover Club and Leyenda in Brooklyn.

Julie Reiner, the co-owner of the Flatiron Lounge in Manhattan and Clover Club in Brooklyn, has long been credited as one of the early pioneers of the contemporary cocktail movement. At last year’s Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, she was named Best Bar Mentor, and Clover Club took home the award for Best American Cocktail Bar. We chatted with Reiner about her views on being a mentor in this industry and, in the process, came away with free advice that every bartender should heed.

Do you have anyone in your life that you consider a professional mentor?

I’m sort of a self-taught bartender. But Dale DeGroff definitely played something of a mentor role because he discovered me back when I first started in New York. Even though I never worked in his program, he’d invite me to events and things, and I picked up skills just by watching him. I then met Audrey Saunders [of the famed Pegu Club] through Dale, as well as several other people who are still my constant collaborators. There was a little budding family, and he invited me in. Having him as a resource for things I didn’t know about was hugely valuable, and he was very generous with his knowledge. There wasn’t a school or anything back then. No educational programs like the bar community has today.

Why is mentorship important within the contemporary cocktail scene? How is it different from when you started out?

Well, for starters, everything is on a larger scale. There are more ambitious young bartenders vying for jobs, and there are way more options than a straightforward bartending role. When I first started bartending, the end-all be-all professional goal was to open a bar of your own. Now, there are brand ambassador jobs and consulting gigs and competitions and fledgling distilleries. It’s competitive and confusing. A lot of what I do when I mentor is help young bartenders navigate those choices, those career moves. It’s interesting: A lot of the people I sit down with don’t work for me; lots of women, in particular, will reach out just to talk about their options.

What’s your message to this upcoming generation of bartenders?

A lot of the bartenders I meet want to jump really fast. They’ve been bartending for a month, and they expect to become in charge overnight. They don’t want to put in the time. You have to do the work. There’s no way around it. Learn the basics; learn to walk before you can run.

What has it been like to see so many of your former employees—people like Phil Ward, Brad Farran, Giuseppe Gonzalez, Ivy Mix and Lynette Marrero—go on to open projects of their own?

It has been really awesome and fulfilling to know that I had a hand in the growth of the industry. A lot of it was timing: I was in the right place at the right time with the right passion. But it's really amazing to look around the industry and see people who came through my doors and are now running distilleries, running nationwide events, running top-notch cocktail bars. I’m proud of my place in it.

In addition to being a mentor to many, you’re also a competition judge and a consultant, both of which require dispensing knowledge and advice at a rapid clip. How have these new roles changed your outlook on work?

Well, it has changed my day-to-day, for starters. Every day is different, which I love. Everything comes back to the bars for me. That’s my heart and soul. But judging and consulting offers an enriching perspective. I really love judging Diageo’s World Class competition, because it gave me the opportunity to see what’s going on in bars all over the world. Since I live and work in New York, I’ve been handcuffed to this city’s bar scene. It was great to judge a competition that brings in bartenders from all over the world; it broadened my view, reignited my interest in making drinks.

What kind of judge do you think you are?

[Laughs] Well, I’m known for being brutally honest. The competition isn’t for everybody. Just because you’re good behind the bar doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good competitor. You have to be a good presenter, a good public speaker, in addition to making an excellent drink. It’s what separates the good from the excellent. I’m not out to be mean, just honest.

What’s the most important thing that a mentor can offer a mentee?

Community—being someone who brings people into the fold through introductions and shared experience. Basically, it’s the same thing that Dale did for me. He held my hand. Now that’s what I try to do for others.