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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Veteran bartender Brian Rea talks shop at Tales of the Cocktail

Posted By on Thu, Jul 22, 2010 at 9:38 PM

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By Jennifer Kilbourne

Brian Rea is coauthor of The Modern Bartender’s Guide, creator of, and former curator of what he says is the world’s largest collection of books about cocktails. On Saturday, July 24, he’ll host the seminar, “Bartending in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s (The Dark Ages)” (10:30 a.m., Royal Sonesta Hotel, tickets $40 in advance; $45 at the door) at Tales of the Cocktail 2010. The self-described “Curmudgeon Loungasauraus,” spoke to Gambit about his life in bars past and present.

Gambit: How did you begin bartending?

Rea: I was married to a lady whose father sold bars and grills. The father of my first wife, I should say.

Gambit: How many wives have you had?

Rea: Three. I would’ve had more but I was working nights.

GAMBIT: What’s the best way to pick up women in bars?

REA: As a bartender?


REA: Those are two different venues there. The bartenders don’t have to pick the women up. The women pick the bartenders up. Usually the female is more aggressive than the bartender. They think he’s cute, and he’s funny, so they start giving out their lines.

GAMBIT: What about for customers? What tends to work well for them?

REA: Well, what I’ve seen for customers — well, it’s really changed. Are you talking about my time or are you talking about today’s time? In my time, there weren’t that many ladies at the bar. Ladies usually sat at the tables. That meant less interaction between the males and the females. The ladies at the bar culture did not start until 1960 or ’61 when the pill came on the market. That was one of the primary reasons for the renaissance of the bar business.

GAMBIT: The Sexual Revolution?

REA: Well, that was part of it. You have many elements there. The pill was the first thing, then along came the miniskirt, then came the hot pants and then came women’s lib and then burning your bra. So I mean, the ladies were off on a tear. Prior to 1961, I would say — unless you’re talking about hookers and that’s a different story — there was very little interaction between male and females at the bar.

GAMBIT: What’s your favorite bar that you’ve worked at?

REA: The 21 Club, that was the best place I’ve worked. It was such a classy place. It was a big operation, known worldwide, had great owners. It was well managed, with a lot of space. You had the main bar, 55 foot long. Then you had the separate function room bars. It was a good operation, very classy – everybody knows about it.

GAMBIT: Have you had any celebrity clients?

REA: The last time I worked as a bartender the people at my bar were Dan Blocker from Ponderosa, Howie Duff, Burt Lancaster, Rod Serling, John Carradine, on and on and on.

GAMBIT: Any big misbehavior there?

REA: Nope, if there’s any celebrity misbehavior it’s usually the third-rate actors. I think because they want to be more forceful, they want to bring more attention to themselves, whereas any real actor doesn’t have to do that. Any real actor really wants to keep a low profile so people don’t bother him.

GAMBIT: One thing that’s changed since the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s is smoking in a lot of bars. How do you feel about that?

REA: In the ’40’s and ’50’s everybody smoked. I mean you could lean on the smoke. Even the bartenders smoked. It was just a normal thing. You reeked of it, but nobody noticed because everybody smoked. It was just a way of life. The people from Mad Men called me regarding drinks from the time and we were talking about smoking. And then in the ’60s the better smoke came.

GAMBIT: Better smoke?

REA: Much better smoke. What we call the happy smoke, the funny smoke. Nobody minded. Everybody was smoking pot. You felt better. You felt better about it.

GAMBIT: I bet the drinks tasted better.

REA: Well, the drinks, they changed. It was all weird drinks. The 60s, you’re talking about grasshoppers, the sangrias — I’ve got multiple lists of all these things — margaritas, chi-chis, beer floats, the salty dog, greyhound. They were all drinking with high intensity of flavors, not of the alcohol, but something to mix with the alcohol. They were having tequila sunrises, velvet hammers, zombies, Smith and Kearns, all that kind of stuff. Bahamas mamas…

GAMBIT: Any drinks you’d like to see make a comeback?

REA: Well, one of the concerns I have today, is I think there’s too much focus on the mixology element. Everybody wants to be a mad chemist. Everybody wants to be a molecular mixologist, and I believe what’s happening is the customers’ concerns are diminished. We have far too many people trying to make impressions of who they are rather than be involved with service and the tender loving car of the customer.

GAMBIT: So can you tell something about a customer by the drink they order?

REA: Not necessarily. You can tell more about the customer by the way they come in and their first opening conversation with you.

GAMBIT: What’s a good starter?

REA: The first thing, the customer responds to the bartender. If you’ve got a slovenly bar tender, or you’ve got an ugly bar, right away you’re on a downer. It’s really important how the bartender approaches the customer. One of the most frustrating things is when the bartender says, “Would you care for a drink?” and that’s when I say, “No I’m here for a lobotomy.” How stupid can you be?

It should be “Hey, good afternoon, how are you?” or one of my favorites when I worked was, “May I serve you an adult beverage?” Right away, that puts the customer in a good mood. They say “Oh that’s neat. I’ve never heard that before. That’s great. ‘Adult beverage,’ I’ve got to use that.”

GAMBIT: Would you rather work in a dive or somewhere swanky?

REA: I’ll take the middle: I want to work in a great eating and drinking establishment with a great bar, a good-looking bar.

GAMBIT: And you prefer an old-fashioned type of bar, right?

REA: Yeah, but they’ve all come back now. Everybody’s doing speakeasies. Speakeasy bars, what we call saloon bars, they go back to the late 1800s.

GAMBIT: Are you familiar with New Orleans? Do you have a favorite drinking establishment down here?

REA: Yeah. I was first there in 1969, worked at the airport. Oh, there’re so many good joints. I really don’t like to pick out one. In case I see someone I didn’t mention, you know how that goes: “Well, jeez, Brian, you could’ve mentioned my place.” So yeah, my favorite bar in New Orleans is any bar that has a professional bartender. How’s that?

Also I’d hate to mention someone and then realize they’re not professional. Last year there I had a humongous experience with a drink at one of the most famous restaurants. It’s just ludicrous. One of the people I was with, the lady wanted a Manhattan. The waiter came back and said they’re out of sweet vermouth. How the hell are you out of sweet vermouth? And we’re talking one of the most famous places there. I mean if you’re out of sweet vermouth, Jesus Christ, send someone across the street to get a bottle from the other bar.

GAMBIT: I hope they were embarrassed

REA: No, they weren’t, which shows unprofessional bartenders. What I refer to as beverage transporters. That’s my interpretation of a poor bartender.

GAMBIT: So what’s your number one rule of bartending?

REA: Show up.

GAMBIT: On time or just at all?

REA: Well, there’s a lot of things. The first thing is proper attire. The way these bartenders dress — I don’t think they realize how it negatively impacts the customer. Everybody’s trying to set their own fashion. I want just a good-looking shirt and tie. I prefer the white bar apron — the old style, that’s coming back a bit. And then the bartenders with all the hats on their heads, they’re trying to be different or they’re going bald.

GAMBIT: What’s the worst drink you’ve ever made?

REA: That was probably my first old fashioned, which I made incorrectly. It was my second week behind the bar, and the owner only let me draw beer and serve bottle beer and make shots. I had a little book, a little mixing drinks book and I was studying it every day. The third week I was there the owner said, “Brian, you’re in charge. I gotta go to the bank to get some change.” So here I am, my first day [alone] behind the bar. This guy comes in. He says, “I’d like to have an old fashioned.” I go down to the mixing station to make the old fashioned. I got the old fashioned glass. I put in half a teaspoon of sugar. We were using a one-and-a-half-ounce shot glass for a drink [to measure], and I was trying to pour the bitters into the shot glass. I said, “That’s dumb.” It didn’t come out, so I took the cap off the bitters, and poured one and a half ounces of bitters into the drink, one-and-a-half ounces of whiskey, added little soda, garnish, and I served the customer the drink.

He was a commuter. He was going to catch a train, so he drank it — fast. It was like somebody nailed his arm in the air. The arm was above his mouth, mouth open, and all his neck muscles were going. He slammed the glass down, never tipped me.

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