Bartending Icon Gaz Regan Thinks You Could Change the World
The eyeliner-wearing, finger-stirring, writer-barman preaches a gospel of equal parts mixology and mindfulness.
May 14, 2018
By Dan Q. Dao | Photo by Jimi Ferrara; Photo illustration by ChefsFeed
Gaz Regan’s 5 Golden Rules of Bartending
1. Your job is to make people smile.
2. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
3. Good service is so much more important than good cocktails.
4. “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”- Maya Angelou
5. Be kind to angry guests.
A row of Negronis sat on the bar, awaiting one final stir.
The year was 2010, and Gary “Gaz” Regan was in Cognac, France. A group of his fellow bartenders stood nearby, Negroni-less, so—in a move that would forever define his playful approach to the job—Regan chose to expedite things by dunking a finger in each cocktail and giving it a quick swirl.
Anyone who’s worked in the service industry knows the impulse to get drinks in the hands of guests as quickly as possible, and the struggle to do so during crunch time, but Regan couldn’t have predicted that he would eventually replicate the move for model Chrissy Teigen at Campari’s Annual Bartender Bash. Or that someday, his “technique” would be immortalized in the form of a Cocktail Kingdom stainless-steel bar spoon, shaped, yes, like his finger.
Regan’s resourcefulness and witty ingenuity may have sustained his long bar career and made him one of the industry’s most beloved figures, but it’s his behind-the-stick ethos of mindful service that’s established him as an enduring mentor to some of today’s most acclaimed bar talent.
Regan, 67, wasn’t always a cocktail bartender, or one with such a new-age approach to bartending. Originally from the town of Blackpool in the United Kingdom, Regan started working (and drinkin’) at his parents’ pub all before his fifteenth birthday. “I fell in love with the job almost immediately,” he says. “My father was a big influence. I learned, mainly by observing him, what the job was all about—it’s all about being of service.”
He arrived in New York City in 1973, at the age of 22, with zero cocktailing experience. Under the tutelage of a fellow Brit, the late David Ridings, he’d sit at the service end of the now-shuttered Drake’s Drum bar on the Upper East Side, watching servers and bartenders exchange orders and cocktails until he could “bluff [his] way through a shift.”
Over the next couple of decades, his meandering career took him from pub to restaurant to bar, and when he decided to take a break from slinging drinks in the 90s, his verbal finesse, coupled with decades soaking in bar culture, landed him drinks-writing gigs in Food Arts, Wine Enthusiast, and most notably as “The Cocktailian” columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He’s tended bar at the world-renowned Dead Rabbit as Bartender Emeritus, produces the popular Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6, and has penned over ten booze books including The Bartender Bible, The Negroni: A Gaz Regan Notion and The Joy of Mixology.
And in 2001, at the start of the craft cocktail revolution, Regan launched Cocktails in the Country, a two-day bartender retreat and workshop series set in the countryside of Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York.
Initially, it was a way to introduce the bartending basics: when to shake, when to stir, and how to handle awkward guests, until a bout with tongue cancer in 2003 that altered his appearance and speech served as a watershed moment for his outlook on life. Since then, the focus has grown a philosophical layer of teaching that he calls mindful bartending.
“I had a proper spiritual awakening," he told international cocktail resource Difford's Guide in an interview. “My tongue cancer slapped me upside my head. I thought somebody was trying to get my attention and I started seeking why that was happening.”
That awakening manifested itself in a revelation that mindful bartending—bartending in a way that demonstrates care and awareness of everything that takes places within the walls of our bars—could be an avenue for spreading love and changing the world.
Regan opens the workshop by asking participants to think about how many lives could be positively impacted if everyone who walked into their bars left happier than they’d been when they arrived, and then, in turn, made someone else happier afterward. Calculations usually end up in the thousands.
“Mindfulness deals with being aware of everything that’s going on around you—something that bartenders really need to be able to do,” he explains. “One example is to make sure that the guest knows the bartender cares about his or her welfare. It’s pretty simple really: Get eye contact as soon as the guest gets to the bar, ask the guest, ‘How are you, tonight?’ and hold that eye contact until the guest answers.”
He continues, “So many bartenders say, ‘How’ ya doin?’ then walk off down the bar without waiting for an answer. It drives me crazy.”
If that sounds like a whole lot of Zen and not enough shaking-and-stirring, Cocktails in the Country features plenty of opportunities to hone your skills as a bartender and recipe developer alongside the occasional meditation session. Regan, acknowledging the changing tide of bartending at the beginning of the cocktail revolution, beefed up the mixology component of his program.
When the mixology craze began to hit around 2005, Regan realized that many of the bartenders attending the workshops were far more advanced than even he was. “At that point, I started to learn from 21st-century bartenders,” he says. “Bartenders must keep learning throughout their careers.”
To that end, each workshop features a session of what he calls “organized chaos.” All the participating bartenders draw one or two spirits and liqueurs from a hat and then cram behind a bar together to create original recipes using those ingredients. The rules are loose: glassware and garnishes are open-ended, and you can get as creative as you want.
There’s a lot of bumping into each other as you gather input from as many as ten fellow bartenders before presenting your new creations to the group for a thoughtful critique. With bartenders of all levels in the mix, there’s something for everyone to learn—and that’s what Regan aims to reinforce: A speakeasy bartender might have a tip or trick for keeping glassware chilled to control dilution, while a restaurant bartender might offer insight on using different foods as garnishes and flavorings. It even teaches the intangible—the choreography of working efficiently behind a crowded bar.
The drills put the lessons on mindfulness that precede it into practice: staying aware of your colleagues as well as the guests, as opposed to being single-minded with your drink, ensures you’ll be a good bartender, not just a good drink maker.
Going to a bar is a unique experience in that it is one of pleasure-seeking, not of necessity or sustenance. As Regan explains—via the words of Maya Angelou—a guest may not remember what drink you made, but how you made them feel. And that ability to impact someone’s life is the most powerful ingredient in a bartender’s arsenal.
After all, you just might change the world.
To find out more about Cocktails in the Country, visit Gaz Regan’s website. The workshop fee is $250 and includes transportation to and from Hudson Valley, all meals, and lodging for the night. A limited number of scholarships are available for bartenders to assist with the fee. Workshops run until the end of August.