When you've worked in the bar business for over 20 years, friends and family often send emails and call you on the phone asking for cocktail advice. They ask which drinks they should serve at various gatherings and which brands of booze to buy. For Julie Reiner, co-owner of Brooklyn's Clover Club and Manhattan's Flatiron Lounge, all those calls and emails added up into a book, The Craft Cocktail Party: "I realized that a book geared toward my mom, aunt, and sister-in-law was truly needed. I wanted to demystify the craft cocktail and show them that they could easily make punches and cocktails at home."
I asked Julie about the essentials of hosting a cocktail party, her favorite drink-related books (both new and vintage), and where she goes for a cocktail when she's not at work.
What do you wish people would remember when hosting a cocktail party? First, the host should enjoy the party as much as her guests! Set yourself up for success by planning out what you will serve ahead of time. Second, make sure that you have enough ice! Nothing halts a party like running out of ice. If you will be serving punch, freeze a large block of ice 24 hours before the party—I use a one- or two-quart container. Finally, keep it simple. Choose five hors d' oeuvres and prep as much as you can the day before your party.
What books do you recommend for folks who are just starting to get into cocktails? Dale Degroff's The Craft of the Cocktail is full of great recipes that are perfect for home bartenders. Dale has a wealth of knowledge, and gives great tips on how to make a great drink. There are quite a few simple recipes in the book with easy-to-access ingredients.
Kara Newman's Cocktails for a Crowd focuses on punches and pitcher drinks which are fantastic for large parties. It is also full of tips on how to execute punch service with ease.
If you want to learn a little bit about the history of cocktails in America, look to Ted Haigh's Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. Ted gives the history behind historical drinks, and tells you where to find some of the uncommon ingredients.
Do you have any favorite older cocktail books? Ted Saucier's Bottoms Up. This book was originally printed in 1951, and was one of the first old bar books I bought. The recipes are great, and the book has fun illustrations that are very Vargas-like. This is a big book with approximately 800 recipes in it. I have spent a lot of time testing them out, and have featured many of them on the menu at Clover Club.
I found Trader Vic's Book of Food & Drink in a vintage store on Oahu, where I am from. I love tiki cocktails and everything about the tiki movement that swept the country from the 1940s through 1960s. This book is filled with great tropical drink recipes, and rum recommendations as you would expect, it also explains how to throw a tiki party or luau, and gives recipes for some of the delicacies that Trader Vic served at his restaurants and house parties.
I have referenced The Savoy Cocktail Book often over the course of my career. This book was first printed in Great Britain in 1930, and is packed with great recipes. I suggest that all of my up-and-coming bartenders buy it.
What makes a really great cocktail bar? What makes a bad one? A great bar is a place that you just feel comfortable and welcome in. It has a vibe that makes you want to come back over and over again.
The menu should tell your guests what you are about. The drinks should showcase the bar's specialty, whether it's classic cocktails, Latin spirits, tiki, etc. The menu should tell a story and give a sense of place. While cocktails, music, lighting, and atmosphere are very important, I am a firm believer that it's the people who make the bar. Your staff are your front lines, they represent the bar and can make or break the experience for your guests. There's nothing worse than a beautiful bar with an unfriendly staff! They can make the best drink in the world, but if it's not served with love, I won't be back.
Where are your favorite places to drink cocktails right now? I have been very busy working on various projects in Brooklyn over the past six months, so I have really been staying local. I can say that I am very excited for the growth of the bar scene in Carroll Gardens and the surrounding areas. There was a time when Clover Club was the only bar of its kind, but with the opening of The Long Island Bar, Leyenda, Grand Army, and of course Fort Defiance over in Red Hook (which has been open for many years), there's now a bar scene in our neighborhood. I'm excited to take friends on a bar hop of the area.
Where do you think the cocktail scene is going next? It looks like more bartenders are choosing to open up in smaller markets, which is great. Big cities are full of great cocktail bars, but we are now seeing them in small towns, too.
Did any books inspire you when you were in the process of opening Clover Club and Flatiron Lounge? When we were building Clover Club, David Wondrich released Imbibe [There's a revised and updated edition now.] I was reading the book while I worked on the menu. Dave talks a lot about the families of mixed drinks, which is how the Clover menu is separated: juleps and smashes, punches, the collins and fizz, etc. We decided to separate our menu in the same way which makes it easy to navigate.
The Craft Cocktail Party has a big tiki/tropical section. What are your favorite books on these topics? What do you think people get wrong about tropical drinks? Since I'm from Hawaii, I love all things tiki. It is light-hearted and fun! When a bartender puts a tiki drink in front of you, it's hard not to smile. My favorite tiki books are: Trader Vic's Book of Food & Drink, Trader Vic's Tiki Party, Sven Kirsten's The Book of Tiki, and Beachbum Berry's Grog Log, Intoxica, Sippin' Safari, and Potions of the Caribbean.
There is a misconception that all tiki drinks are sweet, unbalanced, syrupy drinks. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of bars that have turned out these sweet tropical drinks, but today you can find some awesome tiki bartenders out there who are doing it right. Tropical drinks have a time and a place, and I know that in the summer time, I love a well made mai tai!