Gary Regan has some stories to tell. Like the first time he made an “extra-dry” Martini, he thought “extra” must mean lots of Vermouth, since “dry” meant only a splash. Or the way he converted a sworn vodka drinker to Gin by serving him an Aviation. Suffice it to say that Regan has seen a lot in his years behind the stick, and well he should, since he’s been tending bar since he was 14 (Gary is English and, as you may know, the English take a slightly different view of kids in pubs).
Regan’s first job in New York was at Drake’s Drum where they sold wine by the carafe and had a dusty bottle of Bols Genever on the shelf that everyone referred to as “some kind of Dutch gin” (which tells you the state of drink in the ‘70s). The cocktail world has changed a lot since then – we know more, drink better, and have a vast arsenal of once-lost ingredients at our disposal. Much of this is due to Regan, who is something of a crusader for the craft of the bar. In 1999, he started ArdentSpirits.com, an amazing resource that offers up old and new cocktail recipes, as well as three email newsletters – the Worldwide Bartender Bulletin, the Weekly Shooter with job listings, festivals, and competitions, and the Ardent Spirits eLetter about the goings-on of the cocktail universe. Oh, and in his “spare” time, he’s written a lot of books, including The Bartender’s Bible, as well as a slew of titles with his wife Mardee Haidin Regan. He’s also the cocktail columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. And he’s created his own Orange Bitters. The man simply does not stop.
We at 12 Bottle Bar (admittedly, Johnny-Come-Latelys in the cocktail kingdom) are thankful for the fact that Regan is so prolific — we have used his vast knowledge again and again. Two of our favorite titles, which hold a central spot on our bar bookshelf, are The Joy of Mixology and The Bartender’s Gin Compendium. Of course, there’s more to Regan than just these two books – do seek out his other titles – but we’re going to talk about these in particular and tell you why, quite simply, you need to add them to your own library.
THE BARTENDER’S GIN COMPENDIUM (2009)
Thank goodness Regan wrote The Bartender’s Gin Compendium. Many books have been written about the subject – all solid pieces of work. Regan’s book differs on a lot of fronts and makes it far more user-friendly, as well as just plain fun. Gary’s love affair with Gin began early – his first taste of alcohol was at the tender age of twelve and the tipple was a Gimlet. As Regan recalls, “I remember loving that gin and lime, and I remember dancing the twist with my mother later on.… I consciously committed to memory the fact that gin was the very first distilled spirit I ever tasted.” Perhaps it’s that memory that inspired the Compendium – that sense of adoration comes through from page one.
Sure, the book is chock full of history and pertinent facts. As you might expect, Regan charts Gin’s rise from its Dutch beginnings as Genever, that malty, whiskey-like distillation, to its English evolution as Old Tom, a sweetened, less malty style that almost crippled London in the 18th century, to its evolution as Dry Gin and its singular expression as Plymouth. The history is well-researched and the facts are useful, but it’s the telling – with Regan’s wry gift for commentary, that is so enjoyable. For instance, when he discusses the newer Dry Gins that don’t offer the classic juniper top note, he embraces them, saying that he is “determined not to be one of those old farts who despises change… (but rather) one of those old farts who embraces it.” When he talks about Genever, he actually tells us that “it’s probably best that you don’t think of it as Gin at all.” His relaxed, irreverent voice is, in a word, fun.
Making the book all the more valuable is the Gin profile section. No other Gin book that I’ve seen is so thorough in detailing each brand (Regan self-published and so allowed the makers to contribute their own descriptions and facts). Further, when deeper information is needed, Regan seeks out the experts. When he talks about Genever, he invokes the words of Philip Duff, a Gin/Genever expert in Amsterdam. When he discusses botanicals, he turns to Hugh Williams, master distiller emeritus of Gordon’s/Tanqueray. And, to add a lighter note so that the book doesn’t feel too text book-ish, he peppers it with lovely quotes and supplies a healthy selection of recipes, old and new, with their back stories. The one back story that’s missing is why Regan changed his first name from Gary to “gaz” with this book – not that it matters, but it does have a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
THE JOY OF MIXOLOGY (2003)
Note the title of this book – “joy” is truly the operative word. Regan wrote The Joy of Mixology more for the professional or would-be professional bar tender than the at-home mix master. Still, the way the book approaches spirits and mixing drinks is indispensable to anyone who wants to become proficient with a jigger and strainer.
In fact, Regan’s commitment to expertise – not just pouring drinks, but achieving that often-elusive balance of flavors – led him to coin the term “cocktailian”. It’s a word you see and hear everywhere these days and it is an essential term for the modern cocktail universe because it separates the mere work-a-day, throw-me-a-tip, let-me-add-some-sour-mix bartender from the true artist behind the bar.
All great cocktailian bartenders embrace the roots of their craft; Regan charts the rise of the mixed drink and the Cocktail, noting that men like Jerry Thomas and Harry Craddock were true cocktailian bartenders in their day, mixing up fresh fruit purees and sugar syrups, as well as performing more complex tasks like reducing the proof of the spirits they poured. He offers a chapter on the foundations of the bar, including detailed lists of garnishes, sweetening agents, and dairy ingredients. He explores the theories of mixology, especially the vital need to achieve balance between spirits. As he says, “mixed drinks of all kinds should glide down the throat easily” — and this only happens when the ingredients blend seamlessly. One of my favorite entries in the book is a table of spirits listed by weight, so that you can easily learn to create and pour layered drinks properly.
Most importantly, for our purposes, he offers an elegant and logical approach to classifying drinks by their various “families”. Thus, we learn that “New Orleans Sours” all call for a base spirit, lemon or lime juice, and an orange liqueur. The bottom line – the Brandy Crusta, the Sidecar, and the Margarita are all kissing cousins, something the average soul may never consider. For those more detail-minded, Regan has even broken all these categories down into tables showing how the ingredients are used. It’s a brilliant way of simplifying the often daunting world of mixology.
Finally, I’d like to get a bitoff-topic. I want to tell you why, quite simply, I like Gary Regan. The reasons are many, both personal and professional. First, he was immensely generous with information and advice while I was writing my own Gin history book. Second, he loves what he does and anyone who is passionate about life (and liquor, for that matter) gets my vote. Third, he is egalitarian in his recipe selection – you’re just as likely to find a jello, aka “jelly”, shot (which happens to have its roots in the 19th century), as you will find an old standard. And, finally, the man knows how to spin a tale, which gets back to my original sentiment: the man has some stories to tell. And, come on, the guy drank – and enjoyed – a Gimlet at the age of twelve. How cool is that?
- ‘Bar-tweenies’ need lessons in basic mixology (sfgate.com)
- Book Review: The Bartender’s Best Friend (wine-by-benito.blogspot.com)