Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A View From Behind The Bar

Over the last eight decades, America has gone on quite the ride: the Depression, World War II, the outdoor grilling, luau themed fifties, hippies, women's lib, disco, the cocaine fueled 80s, martini bars, and craft beer. Brian Rea has been lucky enough to witness some of the most exciting events in American history from behind the bar. Rea, 83, will deliver what promises to be a hilarious look at Bartending in the Dark Ages (50's, 60's, and 70's) at this year's Tales of the Cocktail from 10:30-Noon on Saturday. This will be his third time presenting at Tales, "They have no standards, these people. They keep inviting me back," Rea cautions.

As the seminar is rather early for a cocktail party, Rea will greet the attendees with a Ruddy Mary, the gin lover's answer to a Bloody Mary. Rea began bartending in the Fifties, a time when bartenders were second class citizens and few customers ordered anything but the classics. Rea explains, "Manhattans, Aviations, Between the Sheets, Martinis, Scotch. That is what people ordered. The booze was higher proof plus they drank more in bars then in their homes."

Most domestic images of the fifties and sixties center on a housewife raising 2.5 kids then fixing her husband a perfect martini at 5 p.m. Dinner follows at 6 p.m. This idyllic myth continues to perpetuate on shows like Mad Men, a show which Rea consulted on. "That was utter media bullshit," Rea demystifies, "but they got the cocktails right."

Bartending in New York lacked the celebrity cache today's mixologists and bar chefs enjoy. The oldest bartender in the place was in charge of training. Read here: the guy who couldn't find a better job. No one went to bartending school. Bartending was, and still is, backbreaking work. Beer still came in wooden barrels, ice had to be chipped from large whole blocks, no television to distract patrons, no air condition, and perhaps most saddening for Rea, "No broads either working or in the bar."

Wearing a white coat and making next to nothing but constantly observing the operational side of the bar business allowed Rea to work in some of the best New York bars before moving to Los Angeles in the early sixties. In the sixties the whole bar business changed with the debut of the Pill. Suddenly women wanted to burn bras, wear miniskirts, and drink with the men. Cocktails became more elaborate affairs with more descriptive names like Pink Squirrels, Black Cods, and Golden Cadillacs. "And everyone was smoking dope. We had pot, broads. I made Harvey Wallbangers up the Wazoo," Rea says.

Soon Rea found himself working for Host International running airport bars around the world. In 1972, noticing the uniqueness of New Orleans' "drink anywhere" culture, Rea placed a golf cart loaded with hooch in Armstrong International and staffed it with pretty girls in hot pants and go-go boots. The crew listened to air traffic control on a headset. When the girls got the word that Flight 654 or the non-stop from Cleveland was delayed, they drove the cart to the corresponding gate and the party began.

Rea is a man full of opinions and wit. His favorite cities to drink in? "Cities with good public transportation: New York, Chicago, Boston. New Orleans is good, cause no one seems to care about laws. West of the Mississippi, save San Francisco, there ain't one city worth a damn to drink in. The automobile culture killed the drinking culture."

Martini bars? "Bullshit. A creme brulee martini? Get out of town."

His last drink on earth? "A Sidecar. But a real one made with Cognac, not Brandy. And Cointreau, not sweet and sour mix, or Calvados like one asshole tried to serve me. A Sidecar is a beautiful drink when done correctly."

The new age of bartending? "Whatever happened to real bartending? Look the customer is not there to window shop. They want a drink and they want it now. They are more impressed with themselves than they should be. It should not take me four and half minutes to get a God damn drink."

Rea has a host of other anecdotes and stories about his time watching people drink, but it would be best if you heard it from him the horse's mouth on Saturday at Tales.

Sidecar - credit Harry's Bar in Paris

1.5 ounces of VS Cognac
3/4 ounce of Cointreau
3/4 ounce of lemon juice

Shake with ice and strain into a well chilled cocktail glass with a sugared rim. Garnish with an orange or lemon peel.


Anonymous said...

"They are more impressed with themselves than they should be. It should not take me four and half minutes to get a God damn drink."

~ Take him to Cure and watch his freaking head explode in fury.

I'maNolaGirl said...

What a great post! I wish I could hear his story in person at the Tales, but I'll have to wait till next year.


Leigh C. said...

"Man Med", Rene? SpellCheck, Aisle Two!