This is the story of how one woman with a passion for making cocktails overcame the doubts of half a dozen men to become one of the most prolific bartenders of our time. Robert Simonson, a cocktail writer for The New York Times among other publications, has just published a new book (one of 2016’s biggest releases) titled A Proper Drink. In it, Simonson tells the story of the modern craft cocktail movement through the stories and recipes of 200 international industry makers and shakers. Out now, find here an excerpt from a chapter chronicling the rise of drink maven Audrey Saunders.
Saunders is the founder of New York City’s Pegu Club, a modern day cocktail bar responsible for ushering in a new era of drinking based on classic cocktails updated with quality ingredients and made with care. Alongside the story, find two of Saunders’ most noteworthy cocktail recipes below.
XIV. THE PROTÉGÉ
WHEN AUDREY SAUNDERS ASKED Sam Barbieri for a bartending job, she was in her early thirties, working in the corporate carpet and wall cleaning business with her soon-to-be-ex-husband. Sam owned Pete’s Waterfront Ale House, an above-average bar with locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
“She wasn’t happy with the business or the relationship either,” recalled Barbieri. “She said, ‘I love the bar business. Can I bartend?’” Barbieri had heard that plenty of times. He told her to go take a two-week bartending course, probably thinking that would get rid of her. She took the course. At her first shift, in 1995 at the Manhattan location, her hands shook. “I hadn’t worked a soda gun,” Saunders remembered.
She was fortunate in one coworker: Cory Hill, a fellow bartender, was a member of DeGroff’s Red Meat Club. After a couple of weeks of trying to talk her out of bartending, Hill sent Saunders to a continuing ed class at NYU led by DeGroff. After four hours of hearing about pre-Prohibition cocktails, Saunders was sold. She walked to the front of the class and handed Dale her carpet cleaning business card. She’d work for free. She just wanted to learn.
“I couldn’t hire her,” recalled DeGroff. “But I did use her for pro bono work.” The first was for Mayor Giuliani at Gracie Mansion. Dale put her in charge of making Mary Pickford cocktails. It would be four years of free work until DeGroff hired her for Blackbird. In the meantime, she kept her job at Pete’s, taking her training where she could find it. One memorable shift, she entertained a regular named Sterling Youngman with endless Margarita modulations. “We did proportions, we did different types of orange liqueurs, trying all sorts of tequilas.” It was a preview of what would become her career R&D process in creating cocktails.
At Blackbird, as short as its lifespan was, her eyes were opened. “It was really that year with Dale that I learned about cocktails,” she said. “I found out about the Negroni, the Old-Fashioned. Every day was like Christmas with him. He was always coming in with a rare book or some ritual.”
Following Blackbird’s implosion, Saunders was lured over to another nearby Restaurant Associates project, Beacon, on 58th Street, where chef Waldy Malouf was in charge. The first years of twenty-first-century New York featured many jealous chefs who came to resent the increasing attention lavished on their bar directors. But Malouf was free of spite. He had been seasoned through years of working with Nick Mautone at the Hudson River Club and then DeGroff at Rainbow Room, where he was executive chef and director of operations. A flow of ideas between the kitchen and the bar was normal for him.
“Because we took so much care in the food, it became a natural extension,” said Malouf. “If you had a great meal and you ordered a cocktail and it wasn’t a great cocktail—it just didn’t make sense.”
Malouf and Saunders put together the food menu and the cocktail menu at the same time. If Malouf was cooking with pumpkins and gooseberries, Saunders was welcome to them. The wood-burning oven was used to roast tomatoes for Bloody Marys. Given such freedom, Saunders created modern classics that would become her calling cards. The Gin-Gin Mule—a Moscow Mule crossed with a Mojito, but made with gin—was introduced at Beacon, using a homemade ginger beer recipe cadged from a Jamaican kitchen staffer. The ginger beer also went into the Jamaican Firefly, a Dark and Stormy with lime juice and simple syrup. It was simple, but complex enough in 2001 for Julie Reiner to think, “This is the best thing I’ve ever had!” And Saunders began work there on the Old Cuban, another Mojito riff topped with Champagne.
As with C3 and Blackbird, the city’s small coterie of cocktail geeks sniffed out Beacon, trying whatever Audrey was working on.
“I remember drinking a lot of Manhattans,” recalled Doudoroff. “I do remember Audrey was making Grasshoppers with chocolate magic shell. This is where we were.” Orders were all over the place. People asked for easy classics like Martinis and Sidecars, obscure forgotten drinks like the Monkey Gland and Satan’s Whiskers, more outré modern creations like Lemon Drops and Cosmos. It was hit or miss, trial and error, for both barflies and bartenders. And there were a lot of failures.
“We pretty much screwed up anything from the nineteenth-century books,” remembered Doudoroff. “Just about everything from Jerry Thomas. We’d look at that stuff and our eyes would glaze over. The terminology is just bizarre in that book.”
But for the time being, the enthusiasts were happy. “I could go there and sit at the bar and there was no competition,” said Doudoroff. “I could irritate Audrey for two hours.”
Saunders stayed about a year at Beacon, when an offer of triple the salary lured her to Tonic, a Chelsea restaurant with a beautiful old mahogany Anheuser-Busch bar that had been in the building, in its various iterations (most famously Harvey’s Chelsea House), since the late 1800s. The cocktail crowd followed here, and all was well until 9/11.
THE AFTERMATH OF THE ATTACKS on September 11, 2001, affected business in restaurants everywhere in New York City—including Tonic. Everywhere but Bemelmans Bar, nestled inside the ritzy residential fortress known as the Carlyle. Economic downturns didn’t much affect Bemelmans: it was dead whether times were good or bad. A plush Upper East Side landmark, Bemelmans had been quietly keeping the hotel-bar torch burning for nearly three-quarters of a century. The interior was elegant and unique. The light from the tiny lamps on the tiny tables bathed everyone and everything in a cinematic amber glow, including the namesake murals executed by illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans.
The artworks’ enveloping embrace had always ensured that wit, art, and New York café society history would never quit the room. But everyone else had. When the Rosewood Hotels chain took over the Carlyle in 2000, they determined to give the bar a jumpstart.
Dale DeGroff was brought in. They wanted him to redo the work manual for the bar, do training sessions, and write a new cocktail menu that at least brought the bar into the late twentieth century. DeGroff had his work cut out for him. The Carlyle was a union hotel, with stubborn, immovable bartenders. “The least senior guy was seventeen years on the job,” he recalled. “Those guys looked at me like a side dish they didn’t order.” The longest-serving veteran was Tommy Rowles. Manning the bar since 1958, he was a local legend, but one almost perversely proud of doing no more than absolutely necessary. In his charmingly Irish way, he refused to serve an ornate oyster shooter drink devised by DeGroff, because it contained food.
“‘You know it’s such a pleasure to be working for you; you’re such a famous young man,’” said DeGroff, doing a spot-on Rowles impression. “‘But I won’t be able to serve the oyster shooter. It’s such a lovely drink, but I can’t handle food. I can’t go against the union, after all these years; what would happen?’” The oyster shooter was struck.
When DeGroff’s contract was up, he was asked who Rosewood should hire to manage the new program. DeGroff said, “I know the man for the job, and she’s a woman.”
It was an almost impossible assignment. Not belonging to the union, Saunders couldn’t step behind the bar or make a single drink. And the men who could were not inclined to put in the effort needed to make a Gin-Gin Mule when a Martini took one-quarter the time and made them the same money. But Saunders wore them down bit by bit.
“She charmed the pants off these guys,” said DeGroff. “But that didn’t change the fact that she had to make all the special stuff in the kitchen. She’d call me up crying, ‘Oh, Dale, I can’t stand it. These guys are driving me crazy!’”
Despite these trials, within a short time Saunders succeeded in turning Bemelmans into a drinking destination. The room and the staff would always be, to a certain extent, ineffably themselves. But the cocktails were better, and the place seemed relevant again. And she benefitted professionally.
“There were years there that any time any journalist wanted to talk about cocktails, they’d called Audrey,” said Doudoroff. “That was the time that Audrey became the Audrey Saunders.”
AUDREY SAUNDERS, 2000, Beacon, New York City
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce simple syrup
6 sprigs of mint, some leaves reserved for garnish
1½ ounces Tanqueray gin
1 ounce ginger beer
The crowning achievement, in gin terms, of early gin advocate Audrey Saunders. This is essentially a Mojito (a rum drink) crossed with a Moscow Mule (a vodka drink), but made with gin. It also illustrates the wide influence the omnipresent Mojito had on bartenders at the turn of the twentieth century. “Dale [DeGroff] showed me his recipe for a classic Mojito with a dash or two of Angostura. Having a cocktail that had a fresh herb in it—who knew? Wow, that’s amazing. For me, the Mojito base, mint and lime, was really, really enjoyable. At that point, I dove head first into gin. So sub out the rum and try the gin and see how that tastes.” Saunders found a recipe for homemade ginger beer from a Beacon kitchen staffer. “It had a lot more sugar in it, so I tightened it up,” said Saunders. “I’m adding simple syrup in cocktails anyway, so let’s make it drier. Then I can control how much sugar I can put in it. So that was it: Gin Mojito. My quest was helping people get over their phobia about gin. And I thought, Wow, this drink is really good and accomplishes just that.” She used Bombay gin at the beginning, but finally settled on Tanqueray, which had the heft she wanted.
Combine the lime juice, syrup, and mint in a mixing glass and muddle. Add the gin and ginger beer and ice and shake well. Strain into a highball glass filled with ice. Garnish with mint leaves.
AUDREY SAUNDERS, 2001, Beacon/Tonic, New York
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce simple syrup
6 whole mint leaves
1½ ounces rum (Bacardi 8)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 ounces Champagne
Saunders was a master of taking old classics and giving them inventive new life—in this case a Mojito, which she tops with Champagne. She began work on the drink while working at Beacon and completed it when at Tonic. “The working title was El Cubano.” As with the Gin-Gin Mule, she was tinkering with the Mojito model. Instead of white rum, she put in aged rum. “So, OK, Old Cuban. There. Then, let’s make it festive and top it with Champagne.” Call it a Mojito Royale. The drink is probably seen on more menus worldwide than any other Audrey Saunders creation, particularly in London.
Muddle the lime juice, syrup, and mint in a mixing glass. Add the rum, bitters, and ice, and shake well. Strain into a cocktail glass, and top with the Champagne.
Reprinted with permission from A Proper Drink, copyright 2016 by Robert Simonson. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprinting of Penguin Random House, LLC.
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