Gary Regan’s Profound Legacy in the Cocktail World
The cocktail world lost one of its greats this week when Gary “Gaz” Regan, 68, died as a result of pneumonia due to complications from cancer.
A bartender, author, mentor, and philosopher of hospitality, Regan was hardly a household name to those outside the bar community. But to those in the industry, his influence can’t be understated.
“He loved to learn, and to share,” said Allen Katz, founder of New York Distilling Company. “His influence and his legacy are, in part, his kindness, but more so that bartenders could think of themselves in the highest regard for imparting and pursuing excellence in serving others.”
Rewind nearly three decades, to 1991. Long Island Iced Teas and wine coolers were still the drinks of the day. The Cosmopolitan was in its infancy; the Appletini was years in the future. Suffice it to say, the terms “craft cocktails” and “mixology” were on no one’s mind.
This is the world into which Gary Regan released his first book, The Bartender’s Bible, more than a decade before anything resembling today’s modern cocktail movement began to take shape. Eventually writing more than a dozen books, as well as long-running columns for the Food Arts, Wine Enthusiast and, most notably, the San Francisco Chronicle, Regan penned entire works about bourbon many years before the American whiskey resurgence; he shone a spotlight on classic cocktails well before they were roundly embraced.
“Gary’s The Joy of Mixology was my bartending bible,” Katz said. “It’s what I feel like I learned cocktails on.”
Regan came by his bartending skills honestly. Raised in Lancashire, in the United Kingdom, he worked at his own parents’ pub, the Prince Rupert, in Bolton, from the age of 14. Arriving in New York in the early 1970s, he bounced between neighborhood bars and pubs for years, eventually becoming the manager of the North Star Pub in South Street Seaport.
By then, he’d acquired a certain persona behind the bar, and an appreciation for the art of hospitality—the unique connection a bartender can create with a customer. “I first encountered Gary as a civilian, as it were, back in the 1990s at the North Star Pub,” said Amanda Schuster, editor-in-chief of The Alcohol Professor and author of New York Cocktails. “He was incredibly kind to me on a night that, let's just say, I needed someone to be, and I could tell he sensed that.”
Gifted with the art of chat and a knack for relationships across the bar, he valued the human side of the business just as much as the cocktails. “Know that you are entering a life of service,” he told Paul Clarke in 2012, as advice for younger bartenders. “It's your job to intuit the needs of your guests, and try to make their lives just a little better.”
“Because positive bar experiences were important to Gary, he made it his mission to make people happy, too,” according to Schuster. “People like feeling good. Gary made people feel good. Everyone was worth a damn, unless they weren't.”
Allen Katz first met Regan in March of 2003, at an event at The Plaza Hotel. “Gary looked like he could have stepped right off a horse and carriage out of the mid-19th century,” Katz remembers. “The accent, the beard, his flowing mane of hair all lent to a vibe that he could share a war story or two and happily close the bar down the bar with you.”
From his under-eye eyeliner to his predilection for “finger-stirring” Negronis—exactly what it sounds like—Regan was an inimitable character, but in a way that friends and admirers describe as wholly genuine. In a field that often smacks of pretension, Regan didn’t indulge. “Over the years he would regularly tell me not to be beholden to recipes,” Katz said. “He was a great advocate for experimentation and he was great to hold tastings with. There was no pretense.”
Over the years, Regan worked with major spirits brands and judged cocktail competitions. His own Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6 are a bar staple. He worked a few choice shifts a year as “Bartender Emeritus” at The Dead Rabbit. His Worldwide Bartender Database connected the hospitality community across the globe, providing resources and education.
And while he has been an influential figure for decades, his impact persists for a new generation of bartenders, as well, a decade-plus into the cocktail world’s golden era. His “Cocktails in the Country” retreat in the Hudson Valley was a crash course on mixology and hospitality for younger bartenders.
"I was encouraged to sign up for Cocktails in the Country by my bar mentor, Lucinda Sterling, who in turn considered Gaz a mentor,” said spirits writer and bartender Dan Q. Dao. “That was the power of Gaz's wisdom: it's been passed on from one generation of bartender to the next, making our industry more mindful as a whole.”
While Regan had nothing but admiration for the craft cocktail world, he emphasized the importance of a more holistic hospitality, the human side of the business. “Mindfulness, he said, is applicable to all aspects of your life, but especially when you've been entrusted with the safety and happiness of those in your bar,” Dao said.
“The bartending community loved him because he reminded us that there's more to bartending than shaking drinks.”