Julie Reiner: ‘I’m not afraid to bet on myself and my team.’

The Netflix Drink Masters star and pivotal New York bar personality talks about TV, good bars, and how “the right team of people is everything.”

Julie Reiner: ‘I’m not afraid to bet on myself and my team.’
Julie Reiner is this week's guest on Drinks At Work. Photo: Supplied

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If you’ve been working in cocktails bars for a good stretch of time, you’ve likely heard about Julie Reiner before: she’s the bartender behind influential New York cocktail bars like Flatiron Lounge, Pegu Club, Clover Club, and Leyenda; she’s written a cocktail book, inspired and trained loads of bartenders, and judged plenty of cocktail comps. It’s fair to say that Julie Reiner is a big deal.

Julie Reiner. Photo: Suppleid
Julie Reiner. Photo: Suppleid

But if you’re new to the world of bartending and bars you might only know Julie by way of the Netflix series, Drink Masters, which debuted in October last year.

On the show, Julie is one of two bar owner judges on the show (the other judge, Frankie Solarik, owns Toronto’s Bar Chef) and helps to make it entertaining, engaging, and informative. I really liked the show — it’s the first of its kind for bartenders, some 14 years since Masterchef began on Australian screens in 2009. I know opinion is divided on the show — some people find it ridiculous, with two much emphasis on the ‘molecular shit’ and not enough on old fashioned bartending. But I tend to agree with those who think the show is a good thing: it’s popularising the bar, and bartending in particular, and despite the format being a well-worn one by now, I thought the show was entertaining and engaging — and I hope they make one in Australia.

But this episode of Drinks At Work isn’t just about the show. Julie has had an impressive career since it began in the 1990s, and she was there at the beginning of the cocktail renaissance at the start of the 2000s — as she says in our chat, she was using fresh juices and making her own culinary-inspired syrups and ingredients before just about anyone in New York cottoned onto the idea.

She’s very much a bartender’s bartender, if you ask me. She attributes the success and longevity of her Brooklyn bar, Clover Club, to the fact that it’s a “neighbourhood joint” first and foremost; it’s a classic-looking bar, with some top-notch bartending talent, making great drinks, but that local aspect encourages old fashioned hospitality.

What else could you want?

Below, you’ll find a few of my favourite quotes from the interview — give the podcast a listen in the player here, or take a listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or wherever you get yours.

The Quotable Julie Reiner

The next thing I knew Dale DeGroff walked in and said ‘hey kid, I hear you’re making some cool drinks on here?’

“San Francisco [in the mid to late 1990s] was actually very ahead of New York at that time.” If you came of bar age in the last five years or so, you could be forgiven that the cocktail world you walked into — fresh juices, premium spirits, quality ingredients etc etc — was a world that always existed, but that was not the case.

“If somebody wants a Vodka Soda, you give them a Vodka Soda and you don’t give them shit.” Any bartender who doesn’t get this is a bore.

“I realised that... New Yorkers wanted the best of everything and they were willing to travel for it.” If you build it, they will come.

“I had a lot of questions.” Julie wasn’t 100 percent certain that she wanted to do the Netflix TV show thing — did she want to get recognised walking down the street? She says that if they’d approached her before Covid, she’d have said no. That changed, though — it only took a global pandemic and the closure of her bar. “Being on TV — do I want that?”

“Make me a great drink and tell me a story — that’s what I want.” In one of the episodes, chef Edward Lee sees all the molecular stuff going on and asks Julie if that’s a thing now. “Not in my bars, chef,” she says.

“I’m not afraid to bet on myself and my team.”

The Spirited Awards are open for nominations

Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards are open for nominations from now until February 22nd.

I recently got involved as the volunteer Asia Pacific Co-Chair for the awards, and the one thing I’d love to stress to everyone who’ll listen is this: all it takes to be consider for an award is one nomination. That’s it. Yes, you can nominate yourself — in fact, it’s encouraged that you do. There is no prize for getting more than one nomination.

In my view, Australia hasn’t always done as well in the Spirited Awards as it ought to, and having been a voter in the process for a few years now, I can tell you I’m often surprised at the lack of nominations from Australia. The truth of the matter is, for Australian bars and bartenders to get voted for by the judges, they have to be nominated. If you’re not nominated, you’re nowhere. It's up to you.

You can nominate yourself or someone else at the Tales website here — nominations close on the 22nd of this month.