Michele Reina: His fathers' son

27 June, 2018

Michele Reina explains to Shay Waterworth how his upbringing shaped his personality


MICHELE REINA, a 29-year-old bartender from Rome, might be described as an instinctual decision maker. Not many people have been married twice by the age of 21 – to the same person. “I got married for the first time in Amsterdam and, to be honest, we barely remembered it,” he says. “A couple of years later we decided to get married in secret so, even to this day, my family doesn’t know I’ve been married twice, but they won’t bother translating English so it’s OK.”

Last year Reina won a cocktail competition run by bourbon brand Rebel Yell and is now European brand ambassador for the entire range. He also works as assistant manager at Smith & Whistle in the Sheraton Grand Park Lane in London and volunteers as an ambassador for The Benevolent charity. He’s a busy man – something his somewhat unorthodox upbringing kicked off.

Reina didn’t meet his biological father until he was 13 years old. He says: “My step-father told me that if I rejected him I would be no better than he was for being absent.”

Reina agreed to work under his father, who was a hotel manager in Milan. “One minute I would be working in the hotel reception and then in the kitchen or running breakfast the following morning. Some of the guests would ask if I had a twin brother.”

Once Reina finished school in Milan, which he was doing alongside work, he was fired by his own father. “He told me there was nothing more that I could learn from him. I think it was his way of telling me he was impressed with me.”

Reina’s next step was to move to London when he was 19, where he started out in a tequila bar in Brixton. “I wanted to work in a high-volume bar to improve my English. When I first came over my English was terrible.

I knew how to say hello, thank you, goodbye and you are pretty.”

His determination has shaped his career since he moved to London. For example, when he was living in Brixton he went to the same restaurant in Camden Town seven times during his days off to apply for a job in its bar, until the manager had no option but to give him a chance.

In 2015, while working with Georgia Billing in an east London bar, the pair set up the Reina Lab, creating custom bitters, vermouth and liqueurs for bartenders. Although the company has been temporarily shelved, Reina plans to reopen it at the next opportunity.

“When I first met Georgia she was looking for a part-time bartending role after finishing her PhD in nutrition research at Cambridge University. I made her a deal – if I taught her everything I knew behind a bar, she could teach me what she knows about chemistry, then we were able to start the business and everything was going great.”

Reina knows no half measures – not just behind the bar, but in life. When he found out that his step-father, who he regarded as his first father and best friend, had been diagnosed with a tumour in his pancreas, he was given six months to say goodbye. He knew he liked to drink red vermouth on ice and, given that people with the condition cannot take in high levels of sugar, Reina created a vermouth with no added sugar in less than half a year.

“This was the greatest challenge and achievement of my life. I was able to deliver a bottle of the vermouth to his bedside in hospital and he loved it. He died two days later. Mastrostefano vermouth (named after his step-father) will sit on bar shelves for years to come because it is a unique liquid. With the help of Georgia and her chemistry background I was able to honour the man who made me who I am today.”

Although he is no longer with his wife, Reina still wears his wedding ring on a chain around his neck. While holding it in one hand, he says: “I wear this ring because it reminds me that whatever you want to do in life, do it. Then use the experience to better yourself in the future.”

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