Every industry has its legends. Gary “Gaz” Regan is, without a doubt, one of ours. From mentoring to spreading the gospel of mindful bartending to becoming one of the most prolific writers in the industry, Gaz is inarguably one of the most influential people in the spirits business. He’s also, perhaps, one of the most interesting.
Spend a few minutes chatting with Gaz, and he’s likely to offer prescient observations about the industry alongside a dose of spiritual wisdom rooted in Eastern philosophies, sprinkled here and there with a light dose of profanity. One minute, he’s explaining the elaborate dirty joke behind the tiny rooster figurines he keeps on his person to distribute to friends old and new; the next, he’s waxing poetic on the benefits of meditation and singing the praises of his favorite New Age self-improvement book. If you created a hybrid of Keith Richards and the Dalai Lama, imbued with a scholarly knowledge of the spirits world (and a hilarious sailor’s mouth), you might get a character who looks a lot like Gaz.
At this year’s Tales of the Cocktail, we caught up with the wizened spirits sage on the heels of his “Letters to a Young Bartender” reading, in which he called for today’s whippersnappers to focus not on flashy technique or trending ingredients, but on what matters most: the real, lasting, human relationships bartenders can form with their patrons. Read on to see what Gaz has to say on mindfulness, mentoring and the importance of those human connections made every day on both sides of the bar.
You just spoke about the importance of building human relationships behind the bar. How can a bartender can make a lasting, memorable impact on a guest?
It’s really easy: when your guest comes in, you lock eyes, and you say, “How are you?” And then you stand there, and you wait for an answer. Because tons of times, when you walk into a bar, the bartender says, “Hi, how are you?” And then they walk away. So you wait for an answer. Some people will just respond, yeah, two Bud Lites. That’s okay. If you want for an answer, for the people who don’t do that, and you listen to the answer, and you react to the answer, that’s it — you have made a connection, and that connection between you and your guest will last forever.
And that connection is more important than the drink itself.
Absolutely, yeah. Drinks come way down the list as far as I’m concerned. I’ll drink crap drinks if I love the bartender.
You referenced a Maya Angelou quote in your letter to young bartenders. What other writers should bartenders familiarize themselves with?
Most of the books I recommend are New Age spiritual books. “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz is a great book for teaching you how to live, and if you live by the four agreements behind the bar, you’ll be a better bartender.
This industry can take its toll on people. How can young bartenders take better care of themselves?
Meditation helps. I tell this story, it’s true: when I first started tending bar in New York, I’d been a bartender in the UK. But in New York, I was intimidated. New Yorkers were way more sophisticated than I was, and they saw I was nervous, so they would tease me, and I got to a point where I was afraid to go into work. And I thought, I have to do something about this. What I did was, before every shift, I went into work an hour early, I sat on my own, I had my staff meal, I wouldn’t let anybody talk to me. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. On reflection, that was a form of meditation. And I found that if I did that for an hour, I got behind the bar and was like, “okay, motherf**kers.” I mean, really. And it worked for me. Just five minutes of meditation can make a huge difference.
What were you thinking about? What was your strategy?
I don’t know. I don’t think I had one. It wasn’t until I started meditating ten years ago and then a few years ago, I thought, shit, that’s what I was doing at my first job.
Gaz keeps these tiny rubber rooster figurines on his person and disperses them as gifts to lucky recipients, as part of an elaborate dirty joke. We’d tell you why, but you can probably guess the punchline.
What excites you about the current generation of bartenders?
The creativity. The fact that they have gone so far, with [things like] molecular mixology, that has created a space for artistic people to choose bartending as their way of expressing themselves. So we’ve got more and more artistic people behind the bar, and I think that just keeps progressing and progressing and progressing.
So you think it’s attracting a personality that wouldn’t necessarily have entered bartending before?
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.
Why do you mentor?
To pay my mortgage. [laughs] I don’t want to be behind the bar anymore, but I can make money doing workshops about mindful bartending. And, I love every second of it. And the response I get is fabulous. The letters I get from bartenders who take my course make it all worthwhile.
Tell me a little about your mentor, Dave Ridings. What were the more memorable lessons he taught you?
Pretty simple. For instance, in those days, everybody would go to a bar, put a $20 bill on the bar, and you would take the money, put the change back on the bar. They would leave it there as they drank through the night. So you’d have thieves come in and get a menu to hide themselves, and steal your money. So Dave said, if that happens, you go straight to your tip cup, and you give the customer their money back. Because it was your job to take care of their money. It was all little things. If someone was drunk at 2 a.m., and they were walking home, it was Dave who said, you find someone sober to walk them home. It was the service aspect.
If you could see bartending as it is now, 20 or 30 years ago, what would you have thought?
I would never have believed it. In 2006, I went to the London bar show. I’m English, but I was never known in the UK for many years. I was kind of known in the USA. In 2006, I went to the London bar show, and everyone knew who I was. I was like, what the f**k is going on here? My main concern was, how do we keep this going? Because, bartending prior to that was a part-time job. Something you did until you got a real job. I thought, well, we’ve gotten here, how do we keep this going? What happened was, the spirits companies then recognized the value of bartenders. So they started having big competitions with big prizes, and they started investing money in bartenders. They started giving bartenders jobs as brand ambassadors. And, in return, the bartenders gave the spirits companies the exposure that they were looking for. So that’s been a fabulous marriage. I get asked sometimes, is this all going to go away? And my answer is, not as long as the spirits companies are making money.
Does that contribute to the celebrity bartending culture you spoke about earlier?
Absolutely, yeah. In the ’80s, here in the US, we saw the rise of celebrity chefs. Wolfgang Puck, Emeril, those people. They’ve not gone away, and this isn’t going to go away either.
What do you think is next for the industry?
I don’t have a f**king clue. I just stand back and watch it happen. Here’s what’s important: bartenders will do stuff that is absolutely ludicrous and doesn’t work, and there is nothing wrong with that. Keep pushing the envelope, because sometimes, it does work.
Listen to Gaz’s story about his foray into meditation: