In New York’s bar scene, where trendy drinkers are always searching for something new, Audrey Saunders, co-founder of Pegu Club, has built her business around something hundreds of years old: the classic cocktail. Armed with worn recipe books, fresh juices, herbs and homemade tinctures, she has created a place designed to celebrate the simple joy of drinking well.
Before opening Pegu Club in 2005, Saunders’ career included work with such noted mixologists as Dale DeGroff as well as stints at several upscale outlets, including Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle hotel in New York. She says attention to detail and a focus on quality are the secrets to creating a successful cocktail—not to mention a successful business.
Tell me about the current cocktail scene.
Right now we’re experiencing the second golden age of cocktails. The first golden age was just prior to Prohibition. Now we’re seeing real skills behind the bar [again]. We also see a melding of kitchen and bar.
What type of atmosphere do you and your staff aim to create at Pegu Club?
It’s important that the staff be welcoming. I’m not about the velvet ropes. I’m not about the attitude. I’m not necessarily looking for savvy New York bartenders. You can teach a monkey to bartend. At the end of the day, if I hire someone really nice who doesn’t have a lot of experience, that’s good. I can train them and then I have a very nice person who just happens to be able to bartend.
What have you learned from your years of experience?
[Bemelmans Bar] was like finishing school. The steps of service are so detailed. Are there fresh flowers on the table? Is the pen in the check presenter a black pen? Is it clicked on? Is it facing downward? It really opened my eyes to what five-star service was.
How do you translate that attention to detail to Pegu Club?
FAST FACTS HOMETOWN: Port Washington, N.Y.HOBBIES: formerly skydiving and sailing, now primarily running Pegu ClubCAREER HIGHLIGHTS: being named Bon Appétit’s wine and spirits professional of the year; working as beverage director for Citymeals-on-Wheels’ Chefs Gone Wild! event; acting as beverage chairwoman for Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation
HOMETOWN: Port Washington, N.Y.HOBBIES: formerly skydiving and sailing, now primarily running Pegu ClubCAREER HIGHLIGHTS: being named Bon Appétit’s wine and spirits professional of the year; working as beverage director for Citymeals-on-Wheels’ Chefs Gone Wild! event; acting as beverage chairwoman for Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation
In order to come on to this project I needed fresh juice, ice, proper glassware and no soda guns. And it had to be a special type of ice cube, a cold-draft cube. It’s almost like an iceberg. The larger and denser it is, the slower it’s going melt and it will cool the cocktail longer. If you ask for a whiskey on the rocks…it won’t just be a whiskey and water in 10 minutes. The olives are in the refrigerator because why would you have an ice-cold martini and warm it up with a room temperature olive. And the glassware isn’t too large. In a big glass, the drink gets warm.
You have to really think about who your guests are and what you have to offer and what they might like to have.
What can other restaurants and bars do to improve their beverage programs?
Start with a bottle of fresh lemon juice and a bottle of fresh lime juice. As long as you have fresh juice and understand how to make a basic sour, start with that. Whatever you do, you have to do it with excellence. If you’re offering your guests a superior product, it’s very easy to establish yourself.