Q&A: Julie Reiner - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Q&A: Julie Reiner

It’s hard to overstate Julie Reiner’s influence on the cocktail world of the past two-plus decades. Her first New York bar, Flatiron Lounge, was a game changer in 2003 for the then-fledgling cocktail renaissance, only to be followed by Pegu Club, which she opened with Audrey Saunders in 2005.

Today, as co-owner of New York bars Clover Club, Leyenda, and 2023 Imbibe 75 Place to Watch Milady’s, Reiner still finds time to author a book, launch the canned cocktail company Social Hour with Tom Macy, and serve as a dedicated industry educator. So it’s no wonder that 2022 saw her receive a lifetime achievement award from her peers—but Reiner makes it clear that she’s nowhere near finished. We sat down for a chat about her newest bar, her role as a judge on Netflix’s Drink Masters show, and how she quantifies the achievements of a lifetime.

You’re so busy these days! Let’s start with the resurrection of Milady’s—how did that come about?

It sort of fell in my lap, honestly. I was out for a drink with a friend who I’d been teaching classes to during the COVID shutdown; I’d been doing a bunch of corporate cocktail classes, including one for a female collective with a large company. We’re out for a drink and I found out about this space, and I was like, “I know that place, I used to go there in the ’90s!” So I was talking to my partners, and thought “How do we not reopen Milady’s?” It closed in 2014, but it was open for more than 70 years. I’m a firm believer that locations have a soul of their own. And one of the things I remember about Milady’s is that every time I went there I had such a good time. And it wasn’t about what I was consuming—it just felt good in there.

My friend showed me the space, and she asked me what it would cost to do a bar like that, and I told her. She basically created an investor group of all the women who’d been taking my classes over the course of the shutdown; they all knew me and were excited to be a part of this. I wasn’t looking to open another bar. I was planning to be bicoastal by 2023, spending half the year in New York City and half in Hawai‘i because that’s where I grew up. I feel like every time I try to go to Hawai‘i, New York City hands me something that I just can’t say no to.

What’s the new vision for the bar?

Milady’s was a total dive. It had closed in 2014, and the space was gutted to become an Italian restaurant, so when we took it over, there was no memorabilia to use in the restoration. We were starting from scratch, but I felt like it needed to continue to be called Milady’s, because that’s what it was for 70 years. However, we were in 2022 SoHo, and it couldn’t be $4 Bud Light … you just can’t do that and pay the rent. So how could we honor what this space was, while bringing it into today?

We reworked the original logo, and there’s definitely some nostalgia on the menu like my Big Apple Martini from the ’90s, which were worked and incorporated more modern techniques. The menu is fun—it doesn’t take itself too seriously. We’re doing some fun Jell-O shots dubbed “jigglers” and throwback stuff like blueberry Lemon Drop shots. And on the food menu, one side is called “Dive” and the other is called “High Dive.” So the Dive side has all the things you’d expect to get in a dive bar: chicken fingers, potato skins, smash burgers, a wedge salad, all with an elevated approach, from chef Sam Sherman, who was also the executive chef from Clover Club. And the High Dive features more elevated dishes like steak tartare, duck frites, lobster tail, oysters … so you can choose your own adventure.

And you’ll actually get to spend some time behind the bar, right?

Yes! The way I built the bar at Milady’s, there are three wells behind that bar, but it will only take two wells to execute the room. So the service in the middle well is meant to be a showcase well, where I could hop back to make Martinis for special occasions. Or I can have guest bartenders only making drinks for the people on the pink landing. And that way I don’t have to keep up to speed with the younger bartenders. I can say, “I’m making only Martinis.”

When I lived in San Francisco, there was this older guy at Zam Zam, and if you ordered anything but a Martini he’d tell you to get out. So maybe not that aggressive, but I can be like, “This is what I feel like making today!”

You were also a judge on the Netflix reality competition show Drink Masters, which came out in October; what was that experience like?

It was really fun! During the pandemic, I didn’t know if we were actually going to have any businesses. Things that I normally would have said no to, I agreed to have a conversation about, and that included reality TV. But I decided to chat with them about it. I’m definitely known for being brutally honest, which I think is what they wanted. My co-judge [Frankie Solarik] is very much into the molecular forms of mixology, and all the spherification and whatnot. Whereas I’m more of a classically trained bartender, focusing on the classics. Like, I see you put a smoke bubble on top, but is it any better?

I went up to Canada for five weeks and shot the show, and it was a lot of fun. I think it’s going to do a good job of shining a light on how much we actually do to put a drink in a glass for people. Oftentimes we make things look easy, but there are so many things we do behind the scenes before that drink gets into the glass to be stirred up in a few seconds. So I think it’s going to give a showcase to quite a few talented bartenders, as well as the cocktail industry as a whole. I’m hoping we can do a season two.

Last year at Tales of the Cocktail, you were awarded a lifetime achievement award, which is funny, given how many new projects you have in the works. What does a recognition like this mean to you?

I was at the Milady’s space, when I got a call from Dale [DeGroff] and Audrey [Saunders] to tell me that I’m the recipient this year, which was funny. But I thought Simon Ford made a good point when I said I was too young to get this, and he said, “You’ve done a lot. And you might not be done yet, and you’re younger than some of the other people who were considered, but you’ve done so much in our industry already that you needed to receive this at this point,” which was sweet. But I’m definitely not finished.

When I went up to accept the award, we hadn’t even announced Milady’s yet, which later ended up being announced on the same day as Drink Masters. But it’s always nice to be recognized by your peers. I get the recognition, but Susan [Fedroff] has been right there with me opening these bars, too. So for me, it’s so much about the team and looking back at what we’ve done for the last 25 years here in the city, and how it’s changed the landscape of cocktails around the world, and just getting to be a part of that. I’m super grateful that so many people appreciate the work we’ve done.

Any other projects in the pipeline that you can talk about?

Haha, no. My plate runneth over, currently.

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