A Tribute to Gary “Gaz” Regan, Bartending Legend

Gary
Gary "gaz" Regan / Photo by James Ferrara

Gary “gaz” Regan, a cocktail pioneer and well-known beverage industry personality, died on November 15, 2019, at 68, following a battle with cancer.

Regan was best known as the author of The Joy of Mixology (Clarkson Potter, 2003), and published a revised version in 2018. An influential work that classified drinks into “cocktail families,” it helped to demystify life behind the bar. He was also known as a “mentor’s mentor,” a guiding light who helped shape today’s bar culture as we know it.

Born in Rochdale, Lancashire, England, Regan was the son of pub owners. He moved to New York City at 22, where he worked a number of bartending jobs throughout the 1970s and ’80s. Eventually, he took a position at the North Star Pub in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport. He worked there for four years, which he credited with informing his perspectives about the bar business and hospitality.

According to author and cocktail historian David Wondrich, Regan’s perspective was unique. Unlike some of his peers, Regan wasn’t a product of the New York City high-end cocktail lounge tradition, or the culinary or hotel worlds.

“He came out of the rock ’n’ roll 1960s and 1970s, and like the best rock ’n’ roll of the time, he combined flash and cheek and energy with great technical skill,” says Wondrich. Regan was also notably unpretentious. “He was always far more interested in the life of a bar than in the minutiae of his drink mixing.”

If you spent five minutes with Regan, you were usually treated to an anecdote or the spinning of a tale. It’s a skill he felt any good bartender should have, and he incorporated it into his style early in his career.

As Regan himself put it: “I learned the power of storytelling and the entertainment value of the liquor and bar businesses.”

Certainly, Regan was known as not just an authority on cocktails, but also an entertainer. He was impossible to miss. Depending on the year, he might have been spotted in his signature dark eyeliner that often rung just one eye, a colorful caftan or long, flowing gray hair and a beard.

Starting in the early 1990s, Regan transferred his love of storytelling into print. This was included in the pages of Wine Enthusiast, where he was a contributing editor from 2001 through 2008. He also had regular work in Food Arts and the San Francisco Chronicle, where his column, “The Cocktailian,” was considered a must-read.

“Gary kept the time of this industry in the days before the internet,” says Frank Caiafa, beverage director at The Stayton Room in New York City. “He created the new mold and was the first to remind us of what this job is and what we are supposed to be: guests first, recipes and bullshit later.”

A prolific author, Regan published 18 books. His first book was The Bartender’s Bible (Harper Collins, 1991). Between 1995 and 1998, with Mardee Haidin Regan, he co-wrote The Book of Bourbon and Other Fine American Whiskey (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998), The Bourbon Companion (Running Press, 1998), New Classic Cocktails (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002) and The Martini Companion (Running Press, 1997). In addition to The Joy of Mixology, Regan self-published The Negroni: A gaz regan Notion. It was re-released in 2015 by Ten Speed Press as The Negroni: Drinking to La Dolce Vita, with Recipes & Lore.

The Negroni became one of his calling cards. An ongoing joke that involved stirring Negronis with his finger led barware company Cocktail Kingdom to create a stainless-steel “finger stirrer” cast from Regan’s finger.

In 2003, Regan developed tongue cancer. That experience led him to develop what he described as “mindful bartending.” The philosophy was that bartenders have the ability to react to and steer the energy within a bar.

He moved from Manhattan to Cornwall-on-Hudson, where he adopted the lower-case name “gaz.” Noting that orange bitters were called for in many classic recipes, but were nearly impossible to find, he developed Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6.

He also taught a two-day course for bartenders, “Cocktails in the Country,” at a time when education in what we now think of as craft cocktails was rare. Many of today’s top bartenders passed through his school, which included Jim Meehan, founder of New York City’s lauded PDT bar and author of Meehan’s Bartender Manual (Ten Speed Press, 2017).

“Gary Regan inspired our industry’s ‘joy of mixology’ through his life and early work, and later, stuck his finger in the glass—literally and figuratively—when some of us took it too seriously,” says Meehan. “He was always a few steps ahead of the curve, from books to bitters to bar tools. But his focus remained on the well-being of bartenders all over the world.

“In his passing, bartenders have lost their most loyal champion and, for me personally, I’ll miss my doting friend.”

As one of the industry’s pioneers, Regan was sought as a guest bartender, consultant, public speaker and expert. He was seemingly tireless. If there was a cocktail conference, Regan was always there and telling cheeky stories about life behind the bar.

Those stories, which he imparted to a generation of bartenders, and the next generation or two after that via his classes, writing and public appearances, were a key part of his legacy. His lively, often bawdy wit and leadership in the cocktail world will be missed.

Published on November 22, 2019
Topics: Spirits Culture


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