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Cocktail chat: Julie Reiner

The bar owner’s appearances on Netflix have made Julie Reiner a certified cocktail celebrity.

Julie Reiner was a judge on Netflix’s Drink Masters show

*This feature was originally published in the December 2023 issue of The Spirits Business magazine. 

Julie Reiner is still becoming comfortable with her status as a cocktail celebrity. She bristles at the term, even. “It’s such a strange form of celebrity, if I’m being honest,” she says. “I feel like this is my job.”

Reiner has been a force in the New York cocktail scene for decades, opening bars such as The Flatiron Lounge, Pegu Club, Clover Club, and Leyenda, but her notoriety has ballooned in the past year after appearing as a judge on the Netflix cocktail competition show Drink Masters. Now, when she visits one of her bars, to meet staff or simply check in, she can feel the eyeballs on her.

“People will come into Clover Club, or Milady’s, or Leyenda, and I can sort of feel them staring at me,” she says. “I’ll just go over and say hello, and try to be as approachable as I can be.”

Since Drink Masters debuted in October 2022, she is not only more recognisable among bar patrons, but to bar staff as well. She recalls interviewing a new bartender recently and sensing a degree of intimidation. She was there to do a job, while they were meeting with a TV star. “I’m there just to have a conversation with them, and I forget that that can be daunting for them,” she says. “I’m just like: ‘Listen, it’s just a chat, let’s talk.’ Because to me, I’m still the person who’s cleaning the bathroom in the middle of a shift.”

Reiner wields a trademark honesty and unapologetic sense of self that she says was part of the reason Netflix wanted her for the show. She wasn’t so sure though, and had the streaming service not approached her during the pandemic, it seems doubtful that she would have signed on. But with bar shutdowns in effect, the timing seemed right.

“In my former pre-pandemic life, I probably wouldn’t even have answered their call,” she says. “But I was sitting at a table at the front door of Clover Club, giving people drinks in plastic cups to-go, I was like, ‘Well, I guess I should at least have this conversation’.”

She was encouraged by her experience judging other, non-televised, competitions, and the fact that she would have the support of a host, Tone Bell, and co-judge Frankie Solarik. Drink Masters was renewed for a second season in February, and Reiner is adamant about her time filming the first series, which crowned Lauren ‘LP’ O’Brien champion, and introduced audiences to a colourful cast of cocktail creators, some of which she continues to work with. “Ultimately, it was a really great experience,” she says.

Setting the trend

Appearing on Drink Masters and the ensuing fame she has gained serve as the latest milestone in an impressive career. Beyond opening a series of iconic New York bars – Clover Club celebrated its 15th anniversary in June 2023 – Reiner has also been busy with other projects.

In October 2022, she reopened Milady’s, a pillar of the West Village bar scene, transforming it from a classic dive to a craft-focused destination offering ‘cheeky sized’ half portions of its seasonal cocktail menu. The move allows guests to opt for a smaller serve in an effort to limit consumption, or to give them greater freedom to explore the menu, both common requests from the modern cocktail drinker. When it comes to trends, Reiner wants to be a leader, not a follower.

Puttin’ on the Spritz from Milady’s (photo credit: Daniel Krieger)

“We have staff meetings, and we talk about what people might want to make, and sometimes it’s an ingredient, sometimes it’s a new spirit,” she says. “We sort of focus on the things that we are loving at the moment. We tend to drive the trends, rather than follow the trends.”

That has been the case with Reiner’s Social Hour ready-to-drink cocktails, which she launched in 2020 with Clover Club partner Tom Macy. Shortly after Leyenda opened in 2015, Macy began toying with the idea of a bottled Paloma, arriving at an ‘a-ha’ moment when he determined that he preferred his bottled, carbonated version more than the one made with fresh juice at the bar.

Social Hour now offers six canned cocktails, plus a Harvest Whiskey Sour that uses 13-year-old George Dickel whiskey, honeycrisp apple, meyer lemon, cinnamon, maple, and cardamom. At 20% ABV, and US$28 for a four-pack of 250ml cans, it offers a boozier and more premium canned cocktail experience in what is quickly becoming a crowded market.

“We’re just trying to push the envelope and do the things that other people aren’t doing,” Reiner says, emphasising the importance of emulating a cocktail that a patron would be served at one of her bars. “Our gin and tonic is the same proportions of gin to tonic that you would get if you sat at the bar at Clover Club.”

A changed culture

Reiner finds herself at the centre of a New York cocktail culture that’s vastly different from when she moved to the city in 1997, when bars were still serving sour mix out of a gun. Her emphasis on fresh ingredients and seasonal menus can be seen in bars throughout the city.

“Being in it as long as I have, and seeing the industry grow, and being a part of the reason that it has gone in the direction it has is probably the part that I’m most proud of, personally,” she says.

While she is still grappling with her celebrity status, it’s clear that her impact has been profound, and that this new phase of her career, one where she doesn’t have to bother with inventory or scheduling, suits her well.

“I get to sort of oversee the big picture, and then work on the TV show, or, I just went to Tokyo to do a bar takeover with the head bartender of Milady’s and the beverage director at Clover Club and Leyenda,” she says. “There’s a lot of really exciting stuff that has come to me, and I’m just excited to still be here.”

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