12 Rounds With… Brian Rea

By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson


What becomes a legend most?  In the case of Brian Rea, winner of the 2010 Tales of the Cocktail Lifetime Achievement Award, the answer is sheer breadth of experience – the man has done every job out there.  A walking history book of the beverage industry, Rea has tended bar, as he says, “in gin mills, waterfront bars, saloons, nightclubs, taverns, hooker bars, (and) gourmet restaurants.”  Perhaps most importantly, he was head barman at the 21 Club – for those of you youngsters, the 21 was the quintessential New York restaurant/bar from its early history as a speakeasy (it had an “invisible” wine cellar) to its modern iteration as one of Manhattan’s classic watering holes.

More than being an accomplished bartender, Rea has been an exceptional teacher, spreading the gospel as Beverage Management Educator at UCLA and Cal Poly, as well as being Corporate Beverage Director at Host, Inc. for seven and a half years.  Moreover, until recently, Rea was the owner of the largest collection of bartender/cocktail recipe guides and other drink books, making him the go-to repository for anyone writing a cocktail book.  Suffice it to say that the man is an inspiration, not to mention a font of bibulous information and tall tales.

01) What inspired your interest in cocktails?
Being an altar boy, watching the priest mixing holy spirits, and drinking that watered down sacramental wine (holy water on the rocks).

02) What was your first formative cocktail experience?
Being 15 years old and being introduced to Boilermakers, which I didn’t like that much, so I drank them Depth Charge style.

03) What is your all-time favorite mixed drink?
A Perfect/Perfect Manhattan: 1 oz. Rittenhouse Rye, 1 oz. Knob Creek Bourbon, 1/4 oz each quality dry and sweet vermouth, 2 dashes Angostura Bitters

04) Favorite place to drink?
Then:  The old Rainbow Room in NYC, with (Dale) DeGroff behind the bar.
Now:  A real bar, with real bartenders

05) If you don’t know the bartender, what do you order?
Irish Whiskey

06) If you could make any drink with the 12 Bottles, what would you make?
Rum, Orange Liqueur, Peychaud’s, and a little champagne (Brian was privy to our original list which included Peychaud’s not orange bitters)

07) If you could replace any one bottle with another, what switch would you make? And why?
Replace the Pusser’s with a more flavorful aged rum or the Genever with a fine bourbon

08) Outside of the 12 Bottles, what should people make an effort to try?
Tuaca because of its versatility

09) If you could only have one mixed drink for the rest of your life, which would it be?
A Sidecar with the rim being frosted with a combination of salt and sugar,   the way we did it in the late 1940′s and early 1950′s.

10) With whom (living, deceased, or fictional) would you like to most share a drink?
Harry Johnson, as I have not seen him in years

11) On which one item should the home bartender splurge?
An attractive hostess

12) One piece of advice for the home bartender…
Keep it simple, it’s not rocket science

Brian Rea is currently at work on a book entitled B.A.S.T.A.R.D.S. chronicling his life in the trade.  We will be featuring the first glimpse of it tomorrow, as well as an excerpt.

You can also visit Brian’s website:  thebarkeeper.com

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6 Responses to “12 Rounds With… Brian Rea”

  1. April 27, 2011 at 1:02 pm #

    These guys are national treasures. Thanks so much for the interview and a chance to get to know him. He must have some insane stories!

  2. luckycat6
    April 28, 2011 at 7:23 am #

    If this is an Anglo-American collaboration, what about some cocktail or drink to enjoy while watching the royals get married on tv? One for the East coast- people having to get up at 4 am? and others for the West Coasters who might be doing an all-nighter from 1 am on….

  3. May 2, 2011 at 5:44 am #

    I had a great time interviewing him last year for the Tales Blog. He’s like a never ending source of quotes.

  4. Paulrisi
    October 24, 2011 at 7:38 am #

    Brian Rea, I attended your beverage seminar in the 70′s, I was from Miami the Sonesta Beach Hotel, I had enjoyed it very much, best of luck with your new book, P.R.

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