In this interview, Flatiron Lounge (37 West 19th Street, 212-727-7741) and Clover Club (210 Smith Street, Brooklyn, 718-855-7939) owner Julie Reiner reveals her go-to cocktail, predicts what we’ll be drinking next, and weighs in on the bartender/mixologist debate.
You’ve played a big role in New York’s cocktail resurgence. How did it take off?
At the time, the only other cocktail bar that was open, that really focused solely on cocktails and not food, was Milk & Honey — and I think only a handful of people knew it existed. I had been bar managing at C3 in the West Village, which was connected to the Washington Square Hotel. I started doing seasonal menus and using more of a culinary approach to cocktails, and all of a sudden, I was on the front page of the food section in The New York Times — multiple times. It seemed clear that writers wanted to write about quality cocktails, but back then, it was about cranberry juice on the gun — no fresh juice was being used anywhere, other than The Rainbow Room with Dale [DeGroff]. It was difficult at that time to get a really great cocktail. I quickly realized that this was an untapped market in a city where everything has been done. So I started working on getting Flatiron Lounge open, and I started to take a look at classic cocktails that would use seasonal and fresh ingredients. Cabs were pulling up all night long. A lot of the people who came through my doors those early years have gone on to open their own bars. Now they’re really pillars in the industry and people who have helped to push the cocktail movement forward.
What inspired your culinary approach to cocktails?
When I was working in San Francisco, fresh juice was the norm — so when I moved to New York, I didn’t really think I was doing anything out of the box. I was just expanding on what I had been doing in San Francisco, which was kind of ahead of New York at the time. Then I started talking to the chefs about flavor pairings, started to do infusions and use teas — I tried to take it one step further. Also, growing up in Hawaii, fresh fruit and tropical flavors have always been at the forefront for me. I grew up with a mango tree in my backyard and a lychee tree in my front yard.
As you’ve seen, the cocktail industry has seriously taken off these past two decades. What does it say to you, as someone who helped to kick off the resurgence
It’s a cool thing. At the time, I was just trying to entertain myself and give the people who came to my bar something really delicious in a glass — so watching where it’s gone has been just an amazing thing. I was lucky as far as being in the right place at the right time — doing my thing and having Dale come in and meeting this handful of people who cared at the time. They all became these pioneers of the cocktail rebirth. There are so many people now who are involved in it, and it’s an inspiring thing to see. At the same time, it was sort of that last element of culinary art that hadn’t been revisited. There was amazing food and wine, but nobody was really focusing on cocktails.
What challenges or advantages have you faced as a woman in the industry?
That is sort of the question of my career. You know, it’s funny because I’ve worked with a lot of women over the years, which may not be everybody else’s norm. But for me, I opened Flatiron with four women and two men — three of us women were the managing partners, so we ran the bar. It was a woman who owned C3, and in San Francisco, I learned to bartend at a place The Red Room that had all female bartenders. I teamed up with Audrey Saunders to open Pegu Club, then we opened Clover Club with Susan Fedroff, and now it’s run by three women. My experience has always been very female heavy, actually. It is a very male-dominated industry at this point, but when I got into it, it wasn’t really an industry yet. There was a handful of people, and it was like, Audrey, Dale, Tony [Abou-Ganim]. There were still more men than women, but there were so few of us in total, and it was a very encouraging environment. It was like, “oh — you like cocktails? I like cocktails, too!” It wasn’t competitive in the way it is now. I do my thing, and I don’t really pay much attention to the fact that I’m a woman.
How did you choose the neighborhoods for your venues?
With Flatiron, we wanted to be the place that people would go to after a restaurant experience at Gramercy Tavern or Union Square Café — where you go to this amazing restaurant, then follow up that experience by heading to a high-end place with the best ingredients in your cocktail. That location was very central to some of the best restaurants around. When I moved to Brooklyn, I realized there was nothing really like that out here. I started talking about doing something very classic — pre-prohibition, 1800s cocktail saloon-bar that we’d put a lot of effort into in terms of interior décor. I spoke with David Wondrich, who has lived in Brooklyn for years, and he really seemed to think that Smith Street would be the most receptive for what I wanted to do. He’s later admitted that he’d rather the bar be in walking distance to his house. But yeah — it just seemed like the right place to put it.
What’s your philosophy when creating a cocktail?
If something is in a drink, it needs to be standing up for itself. There’s no point for something to be in a cocktail and when you taste it, that ingredient doesn’t shine at some point in the beginning, middle, and end of that sip — if that’s the case, just take it out. Sometimes less is more. I like simplicity but bold flavors. We really run on embracing seasonality. For the Clover Club menu, we decide on what sections we want to do, then it unfolds from there. We did a “Drink Your Vegetables” section last spring, where we had a sugar snap pea cocktail and a celery juice drink. Sometimes these various sections inspire us to do new things.
What’s your go-to cocktail?
A negroni. Hands down, negroni.
What do you see for the future of the cocktail industry?
I think we’re just going to see more high quality bars opening. And at restaurants, too — it’s no longer acceptable to not have a bar program of some sort. There was a time when there was no menu, but now, you have to have a cocktail menu of some sort — whether it be eight drinks or 30. I definitely see more people looking to do volume a little bit easier in the future. There is a lot of talk about cocktails on tap and bottled cocktails and that sort of thing. I don’t see it slowing down, that’s for sure.
How do you and your venues continue to evolve?
A lot of it for me is keeping young talent in the house and keeping them inspired. I try to bring in various experts to do classes and I just try to give them an education on cocktails and spirits that will inspire them to push forward, create new things, and want to get involved in the menu. We really want to please our audience as well, and they expect it. Because our clientele is made up of New Yorkers, there’s no faking it, you know? You have to give them something new and interesting. They feed us, and we feed them. We thrive on that symbiotic relationship with our guests.
Who has been one of your bigger inspirations?
Early on, Dale was a big inspiration for me. But it’s also really been the bartenders who have come through my doors. I was really young when I opened Flatiron Lounge — I was 30. I have learned from them as much as they’ve learned from me. I kind of grew up behind the bar with all of these guys.
What’s your take on the bartender versus mixologist title?
Bartender is, to me, definitely the better term. I remember when they started using the word mixologist early on, when they were writing about me at C3, because they needed to differentiate between somebody who is taking a culinary approach to cocktails and somebody who is pulling a pint. Both people are bartenders — they’re just different styles of bartending. It just sounds so snobby, you know? And anybody can call themselves a mixologist. As opposed to a sommelier, who would have to actually take a course and pass it before you can actually call yourself that. I think that’s the biggest problem with it.
What has been your favorite thing about doing what you do?
It’s a really fun industry. I love the people in my industry. They’re all just big personalities and real characters. We’re in the entertainment business — people come in to have a good time. One of the worst jobs I ever had was straight out of college when I was renting cars to people who had just been in accidents. I’d have to go and pick up the person who had just been in accident and then rent them a car because their car was totaled. I remember doing that job and dealing with people who were just pissed off or in a bad mood, and I’d think, this is the worst thing ever. I went straight back to the bar world because it’s about letting loose, having a good time, and blowing off steam. We’re there to facilitate a good time for people, and that’s always a great thing.