Gaz Regan by Jimi FerreraGaz Regan
's got a bit of a Rolling Stones vibe about him. Not the haggard-chic of Keith Richards or the chicken-strut confidence of Jagger—more the cool elegance of a suited, grinning Charlie Watts
(though between the eyeliner and punky British charm, we’re sensing a strong dose of Richards). Like Watts, Regan's a high-demand British import with decades of authority schooling Yanks in his particular line of cultural expertise. Except instead of laying down rhythm tracks for "Brown Sugar" or "Country Honk," Regan's been setting a steady, career-long baseline of articles, books, and education to advance the culture of the cocktail.
And like the famously tight-lipped Watts, Regan's keeping mum about his 2012 International Chefs Congress Mixology presentation
, "The Best Bartenders I Ever Met." "I have to be careful here," he says, clearly hesitant to spoil any of the secrets of his story time seminar. There's also the possibility he's too tired to talk shop; we spoke to Regan on the heels of Tales of the Cocktail
, or as he calls it "the most fun and the most dangerous five days of the year."
"It was fabulous," he says, "just as incredible as always." Though this year was the conference's 10th anniversary and Regan recalls hearing there were upwards of 18,000 people in attendance. Beyond the regular Tales fun (which is nothing like civilian fun, mind you), Regan particularly enjoyed an East Coast-West Coast Family Feud-style Bar Smarts contest. Oh, and then there was the surprise of winning the Lifetime Achievement Award. "I had absolutely no idea that it was coming," Regan says. "I was behind the bar onstage during the awards ceremony"—just one of the many ways Tales is different from, say, the Daytime Emmys. You win your Spirited Award and then go get a drink on stage. "They had somebody else's name on the teleprompter," he remembers, "but they announced it, and it was me!" (Here, here!)
Regan told us he has no intention of retiring (the awkward afterthought of the Lifetime Achievement award: do I stop
achieving?), but he's definitely done a lifetime of work worth celebrating. Born into U.K. pub culture, he's been at it professionally for just about four decades, either bartending or writing prolifically about bartending, bartenders, and the culture thereof. Which is to say, he's got a cache of cocktails, characters, and caricatures to color his seminar story time. And it's all going to remain secret until this fall
Regan is, however, willing to share the structure of his presentation. "I'm going to tell stories about three or four different bartenders," he says. "And then at the end of the presentation, I shall draw my conclusions about what they all had in common, and that's what made them stand out in my mind." The idea is to "highlight what qualities are personally deemed to be the most important in a bar setting," i.e. getting the best of the best from the best, which, if you think about it, is something like the best.
After a little deft manipulation (or, more likely, because Regan is very polite), he did give up one name. "In all honestly you won't have heard of many of them," he says of his "best bartenders," adding that some have indeed moved on to that great cocktail lounge in the sky (or, perhaps, the dive bar down below). "I'll tell you one which will not give anything away—Murray Stenson." He's right, we don't know Stenson (though we should, he's a Seattle icon
, a bartender's bartender). But we're eager to get acquainted, because if anyone cares about the work of the bartender done well
, it's Regan.
And that work, he says, hasn't changed over the course of his career. "The role of the bartender has not changed one iota. What's changed is that 21st century bartenders have elevated the craft, the creative side of the craft, to a height my generation would never have dreamed of." To be fair, Regan was bartending at a time when craft cocktails were about as relevant as artisan local foodstuffs. "I was tending bar at a neighborhood saloon with sawdust on the floor," he remembers. "It was loud music and it was a little bit druggie," (i.e., New York City in the 1970s). "We were drinking really stupid drinks," things like Brandy Alexanders and "badly made Singapore Slings," which, we note, still exist.
"But again, we get right back to it hasn't changed so much. I was listening to 'Bennie and the Jets,' and you're listening to whoever you're listening to on the jukebox." Elton John aside, the heart of the job remains the same. "[The] most important aspect of a bartender's job is to make sure your customers leave your bar feeling happier than they did when they walked in." In the 1970s, that meant a well drink, some loud music, and maybe a recreational trip to the bathroom. But even then, Regan took serious pride in the core of his role: service.
"It's something I've been very aware of and very afraid of its demise," he says. "But every time it seems that things are headed in that direction, there's a new wave of people saying 'wait a minute,' and hopefully I'm one of them." He is, and it works—only a couple weeks ago, we celebrated the renaissance of "the bartender."
And this October, we'll celebrate some of the best bartender's in the most appropriate way possible: over a classic cocktail
with Regan, career flame-keeper of the culture and creatures of the bar. "I'll just be spinning some yarns," he finishes. We'll drink to that.