The Legacy of Julie Reiner

Raise an International Women’s Day toast to the Drink Masters bar star who inspired a generation of women in the drinks industry

Julie Reiner is a key player in the rebirth of American cocktail culture and an industry mentor. Daniel Krieger photo

Some of us encountered Reiner two decades ago, as the smiling face behind the curved bar at Flatiron Lounge, the first of her pioneering New York craft cocktail bars. Others know the transplanted Hawaiian from her now-shuttered tropical bar Lani Kai or perhaps Pegu Club, which she owned with fellow trailblazer Audrey Saunders. Many others have tippled at Brooklyn’s long-running Clover Club, or at her joyful revamp of vintage Soho bar Milady’s (both which placed on the North America’s Best Bars 2023 list) in Brooklyn.

Yet more fans met her as the voice-of-reason judge on Netflix’s debut 2022 season of Drink Masters (a second season is in the works). Along the way, she became a key player in the rebirth of American cocktail culture and a mentor to its next generation of stars.

I caught up with Reiner recently when her bars popped up for guest shifts at Kimpton Seafire’s Library by the Sea bar on Grand Cayman earlier this year. Reiner and her team gave an inspiring industry talk about mentorship, collaboration and creativity. She unpacked her impactful career while dishing out snacktail-sized Clover Clubs, a drink she helped popularize in the modern age.

Cocktail legend Julie Reiner, with her partners Christine Williams and Susan Fedroff in front of Reiner’s Brooklyn Bar Milady’s. Jackie Molloy photo

“In 2000, the New York Times was quoting me as a cocktail expert, when I was really just trying to figure it out,” she laughs, with characteristic modesty. That Times story was called “The Greening of the Martini” and recounted Reiner’s penchant for eschewing candy-coloured liqueurs and bottle mixes in favour of fresh juices and other natural ingredients, alongside others who were rediscovering and, in some cases, improving vintage recipes. “I started trying to take a more culinary approach to cocktails,” Reiner says.

Craft mixology methods soon became de rigueur, and Reiner found herself training and mentoring a brigade of bartenders. “The industry really expanded, but the talent pool wasn’t quite catching up,” she recalls. She knew she was having an impact when people eventually started applying for jobs at her bars, citing bar owners and managers she’d once hired and trained as their references.

Reiner has famously advocated for women in the bar industry. In 2019, she started a grassroots social media movement that concluded in German bartender Charles Schumann returning his 50 Best Icon Award after saying, in an interview, “a bar is no place for a woman.” “I’ve always worked with a lot of women. I have surrounded myself in daily life with people who I’m inspired by and want to spend time working with, and a large proportion of them are women who are in charge.”

As a role model for women, Reiner was cited as the Best Mentor by Tales of the Cocktail way back in 2013, and has influenced bar luminaries like Lynette Marrero and Ivy Mix (she and Reiner co-own Brooklyn bar Leyenda). Potential team members sometimes cold-call to inquire about working for her establishments. “I’m all about it,” she says, describing the energy with which a person arrives at a first-meet as “half of the job interview, right there. Most of the time, they’re people I want to work with.”

You might think she’d be a Netflix-grade star by now, frequently stopped on Brooklyn sidewalks for selfies and overcome by fangirls. “I’ve have gotten stopped in a few airports,” she laughs. “If anything, the attention I got at Tales of the Cocktail last year after [Drink Masters] came out was definitely extra special, from young kids that are coming up in the industry … now I’ve gotten to that era where I’m the godmother. Wow!”

Though Drink Masters focuses on the highly visual, high-tech molecular mixology that makes great TV, Reiner grounds the show and the cocktail commentary. “In the real world, I mainly care about what it tastes like and the end product … I’m more about a great bar experience, and that has to do with atmosphere and lighting and music and subtlety and the people there, how the team moves together.”

In today’s drinks industry, you could say that more women move together as successful teams, partly because of the legacy of Julie Reiner.

—by Charlene Rooke

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