I recently had the opportunity to chat with Gary Regan. The British-born mixologist is generally credited with being one of the key figures behind the recent renaissance in the cocktail culture. In addition to authoring many articles and books on the subject, he is the creator of Regan’s Orange Bitters, a cocktail component that has attained cult-like status in today’s bars.
“Many bartenders now have no idea what a wasteland the cocktail scene was 10 or 20 years ago,” he chuckles. “The craft of mixology is now taken seriously, and we have a generation of young bartenders who know what they’re doing. There’s an awareness of quality that didn’t exist years ago.”
According to Regan, the revolution began with Dale DeGroff, who took over the bar at New York’s Rainbow Room in 1987, and Dick Bradsell, who started training bartenders in London in the 1980s. He likens it to the period 20 or 30 years ago when superstar chefs first appeared on the scene. At the same time, he feels that the essence of the business is still the art of hospitality.
“The first thing I look for in a bar,” he says, “is whether I’m made to feel welcome. There’s no substitute for someone greeting you, making eye contact, engaging you in conversation and waiting for a response.”
When creating a cocktail, he believes the key element is balance. To some degree, the customer should be able to discern each ingredient in a drink, yet they should all fit together in harmony. He finds that the prime market for experimentation and new products is the age group between 25 and 45.
“Most people in that generation don’t have a standard drink that they always order,” he says. “They’ll go to a bar and choose something from the list of specialty cocktails. For them, going out for a drink is like going out for a meal—they don’t always order the filet mignon.”
He also believes that trend toward organic spirits in entering the mainstream. He particularly likes Square One Vodka, and is fond of two products from Crop Harvest Earth—their Tomato Vodka and Farmers Gin. He’s also a firm believer in the locavore movement, and believes that using local, accessible ingredients “has almost become an automatic part of people’s mindsets.”
Above all, he’s an advocate for the transformative role of the bartender.
“Bartenders can change people’s lives,” he claims. “They can make 20 people a day happier than when they came into the bar. When the customer goes home, they’ll spread that happiness.”