Audrey Saunders (Libation Goddess)
At: New York
Audrey Saunders is arguably New York's most famous female bartender and, by that measure, one of the world's most famous bartenders who we feel sure is destined to join the likes of the Savoy's Ada Coleman and Tony Abou-Ganim's aunt Helen David - and hopefully a fair few more - with a chapter or two in the cocktail history books.
But how did she get to occupy that exalted position, and what steps did she take before she opened the doors at her SoHo lounge Pegu Club? Here, she charts her own career, painting a picture of how the renaissance of the New York bar scene gathered pace, telling the story of her blossoming relationship with mentor Dale DeGroff, how they fitted in with the opening of Milk & Honey, the impact of 9/11 and more.
I had always been very interested in cooking, so I had taken six levels of French technique and I thought that I might perhaps go into cooking. But then I was always fascinated by cocktails and when we threw dinner parties I was always the one behind the bar mixing things. A friend of mine owned a really successful bar in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn Heights called the Waterfront Ale House. I'd never bartended before but I went up to him and asked if I could have a couple of shifts? And he said, sure, and gave me a shift in both bars.
The manager spent the next two weeks trying to talk me out of bartending. He said, oh you're a girl, it's a hard job, there's a lot of lifting, there's no health insurance, blah, blah. But I knew from the very first time I stepped behind the bar I was home. After a while he was like, I can't talk you out of it. He pulled out a copy of New York Magazine and there was a one page profile of this gentleman by the name of Dale DeGroff. Dale was teaching a one-night seminar in New York University and he said if you're serious about it take this seminar. So I did, and there was this guy doing cocktails on a culinary level. And I was just floored. Listening to him just opened up a whole new world.
I went up to him after the class and gave him my business card. I said: I want to be the best I can be and I'll work for free, here's my card. Obviously I couldn't work for him, he was at Rainbow Room and it was a union house and I was totally green, but Rainbow Room did a lot of off-premise charity events and a month later I got a call from Dale. He was like, come on honey we're going to go and make cocktails for the mayor. He said yeah you're going to come with me to Gracie Mansion. I was like, okay. And I think it was kind of like a sink or swim - he just wanted to see how I would do out in front of a group of people.
That was 1996 and Dale started to call me more frequently for these charity events. I would go up to Rainbow and you know I would do juicing, or I would cut twists, you know whatever it took. And then in 1999 Rainbow was opening another place called Blackbird. And I get a call from Dale and he's, I'm going to open this great bar, you want to come? It was like the heavens had opened up and you know I had an opportunity finally to work with Dale.
We were having fun making Cosmopolitans, Apple Martinis and in the same breath we were making Sazeracs and Rainbow Fizzes, and Tom and Jerry's and Singapore Slings. Dale would go to the farmers' market and he would pick up sour cherries, so we'd be muddling sour cherries into Caipirinhas, or grapes, or whatever. It was just such a fertile time and I always say it was really like every day with Dale was like Christmas.
He had all these books which I didn't realise were out of print. He had Jerry Thomas behind the bar and David Emery and Harry Johnson and I didn't understand the importance of these books. But he's like - oh yeah just borrow it and take it home and so I did. I would literally take books with me, I'd take them into the bathtub, I'm take them on the bus, I'd fall asleep on them at night.
So when I was at Blackbird with Dale, Dale told me about this really cool new little bar downtown that we needed to go and visit, it was called Milk and Honey. We were very excited about it, we heard about this guy Sasha Petraske - and he's really into it. I was like, oh good, another one like us. And Sasha so happy that we came to have a visit with him. We just clicked and got to be fast friends and really like family.
Blackbird closed, but we had a sister restaurant called Beacon Restaurant so I was working there. Dale started his consulting business and his first client in London was a gentleman by the name of Jonathan Downey. And he started his work with the Match Bar Group. And Dale would bring Jonathan to New York when I was at Beacon.
At Beacon I had just started feeling my way through - you know creating drinks and putting them on the menu and just getting the feel for like doing a bar schedule, you know not full blown management, but little bits and pieces here and there.
I had been at Beacon for about a year when they offered me an opportunity to go down to Windows [at the World Trade Center] and I could become an apprentice sommelier. Then I got another opportunity to become the beverage director of a really cool bar downtown called The Tonic and as I was very passionate about cocktails and spirits I obviously went in that direction. So I went down there and it was really the first time that I got to really write my own menu, I thought, wow this is going to be amazing.
I had already created a drink call the Gin Gin Mule, I was working on another drink called The Old Cuban, and I brought those with me and along with another one called the Jamaican Firefly, so I put those on the menu and then I had some really fun drinks. The bar was amazing, the bar was a 60-foot Brunswick and it was just stunning - it was just this studding mahogany bar with lead crystal - kind of like a beautiful PJ Clark's but with an amazing cocktail programme.
It was unfortunately short-lived because we were downtown and about seven months later 9/11 occurred and the bottom fell out of the market. I lost my job and a number of my co-workers lost their jobs as did a lot of people in the industry, and I took a few months off because I had a lot of friends working at Windows - that was our parent company - who were there that day.
So I took a number of months off and then Dale pops up again. He was consulting for the Carlyle and they were looking to relaunch Bemelmans Bar. The Carlyle is just such an amazing, blue blood hotel. He said it would be a great position for me. Obviously I was very concerned, because I'd been studying the history of cocktails and bars and I knew that the great bars, the great hotel bars of the world, that women were not barmaids. But he had told them that the best man for this job was a woman and they wanted to meet me.
My concern was also that I'm this woman and I had these union bartenders, you know one has been there for 45 years, the next one's for 40, the next one for 32. I think the youngest one has 15 years under his belt. So basically I did something very unorthodox, and I had a meeting with them and I said you know I know that there are a lot of times that you guys get treated unfairly and I want you to know that what happens in this room stays in this room. I said if you have issues I will deal with those issues and I will I promise I will get your back.
We basically put a programme into the Carlyle that rejuvenated the entire bar. And it went from a sleepy bar to an overnight sensation; it was basically in the headlines across New York. All of a sudden they went from like okay tips, to triple and quadruple. We said that we would make it successful, but we also implemented a cocktail programme that they could actually execute.
So when I was down at The Tonic Restaurant, Dale had a gig for me to do and he's like, we've got this new girl in town coming in from San Francisco and I've got this really great gig for you guys to do together. It was Julie Reiner.
I remember meeting her for the first time, it was in the middle of nowhere, nobody on the street, just she and I looking at each other. We did the gig that night and we just had a ball and we were so thrilled because here we are, these two cocktail chicks. Julie was working in a place called C3. She had these really fun infusions, she was like doing pineapple vodka and all sorts of different flavours.
Julie would come up to the Carlyle and visit me, and I'd go and visit Julie at C3 where she was rocking it out with just a bar-back. There's a 60-seat lounge and maybe eight seats at the bar. Julie would literally get behind the bar, make the cocktails, put them on a tray and she and the bar-back would run the drinks.
Julie opened Flatiron and was having a great time with it. Julie came up one day and she's like, the partners are talking about doing a new project. And then I was down in Flatiron one night and one of her partners was there. We wound up having a conversation for two hours. A week later Julie came back up to the Carlyle and she said, well, my partners want you to be a part of it.
I said, really, because I get very 'specific' behind the bar - I have a very specific vision and I really don't want it to get in the way. Like basically the things that had to be agreed on were splits of soda, no soda gun, that I was going to do a fresh juice programme, the glass ware was going to be very specific. And she was like - don't worry about it. It's your bar, you call the shots.
And then it came down to the name. At Blackbird a drink on the menu was called the Pegu Club. It was a bracing, sophisticated gin cocktail, everything that I wanted in a gin cocktail. At that point in New York, 99 per cent of all the bars had at least 20 vodkas on the back-bar and maybe three gins. I knew what a gin cocktail could be and I thought that if I opened a place called the Pegu Club that my friends, my peers, and my associates would get that it would be a gin palace - a sophisticated environment to enjoy an aperitif cocktail.
So I took a chance and I opened with 27 gins and three vodkas. I asked Dale what he thought. He said: it'll work. He's like, envision yourself in a big black car in a long open road, nobody in front of you, nobody behind, he said don't even look in the rear view, just drive.
One of my visions was that we would see the level of the cocktail reach a bit more sophistication and complexity. And we couldn't do that with vodka, there's nothing wrong with vodka, but I wanted to display gin because bartenders needed to understand how to work with gin to understand balance in a cocktail. It was the perfect medium to work with because the botanicals are complex, so if you understand the intricacies of each you can create extremely complex cocktails with balance.
And then we focused on rye. I remember the first time I ever had Rittenhouse. At the time we had shit rye. And so I discovered rye and I'm like wow, we're talking about a real Manhattan, just know beautiful stuff, why can't we get it? Why is everything dumbed down for the American market, why can't I have it in New York?
Dale felt the same way and we got together and we both picked up the phone to Larry Kass, who was the head of national media for Heaven Hill. We basically said, Larry please, just give us some Rittenhouse 100 for New York. We will commit to a pallet.
We put it out there and it just took off, so we searched all the distributors for any sort of rye, old dusty bottlings, and stocked the bar with it. So all of a sudden we had this little collection of rye and started to do rye cocktails, demand picks up and then we see it spreading out into all of the other bars - and to these rye distillers who are sitting on God-knows-how-much rye, because nobody had been ordering it in a million years.
It was the same thing with cherries. I discovered what the Luxardo cherry was over in Europe. We had Griottes in the States, which were okay, but the Luxardo cherries were just the most incredible thing. Before I opened Pegu I went to Dean and Deluca and they had 22 little jars on the shelf. I got the cart and I just took the 22 jars and put them in the cart. We put the cherries in the bar and everybody that walked in, the bartenders, the customers and a writer from the New York Times, they were like what are these cherries in the Manhattans? I get this really nice email from Matteo Luxardo and he introduces me to a lovely man called Henry Price. Henry was importing Matteo's liqueurs and he spoke to Henry about getting me some cherries. And it was wonderful because it wasn't just little jars of cherries, I was getting the big tins.
I don't think people even realised how difficult it was to get things back then. Brizard apricot, Amari, Chartreuse and Punt e Mes, we put them in the well and bartenders were like, what is it? Forbes came to us because I think they were doing a profile on Chartreuse and they said you are the number one consumer of Chartreuse in the United States. You know and then all of a sudden we're doing the Campari drinks - amazing Campari drinks, we were infusing Campari you know with grapefruit peel, it was extraordinary. It was very important because all of these bottles were 'sleeping' - these beautiful stunning bottlings we reintroduced again to a new generation of bartenders.
The thing about Pegu was that I really wanted to do cocktails not only on a culinary level, but professionally. I'd look at the great bars in London and throughout Europe and I really wanted to emulate that. We couldn't really do it because we didn't have the education with these ingredients, and Europe did.
In order for our programme to work, the drinks had to be delicious - the drinks could not be anything short of delicious. Having a team of bartenders that were so hungry, passionate and sharp, we would have this continual 'jam' session, just like a band but with ingredients. I'd say I want you to make a Sazerac but you've got to figure out which whiskey are you going to use and then how many dashes of bitters are going to work with that whiskey. So it came down to with this whiskey you're going to do one dash, with this whiskey you're going to do three.
And it was that all of these sophisticated ingredients became commonplace again, and that was really the goal. We needed the cocktail to stay put, we needed to arrive and stay put. I think we accomplished that.