Meet Your Mixologist: Audrey Saunders of the Pegu Club

By Karen Loftus

I believe that you can’t truly make advances without understanding the history of something first.

Audrey Saunders, known as the “Libations Goddess,” is largely responsible for kicking the American cocktail revolution into high gear. The tippling trailblazer has been wildly awarded in countless cocktail competitions and events around the world and has forever created a buzz, being profiled in every conceivable media outlet from The New York Times to Forbes, Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit and London Times.

To tip her liquid legacy to yet another level, Saunders New York bar, Pegu Club is one of the five final nominees of the first-ever James Beard award for Outstandi​ng Bar Program. Société Perrier caught up with lovely liquid legend to explore how and why her Pegu Club remains a top spot today.

Did you ever imagine after that initial seminar with Dale in ’95 that the cocktail revolution would be as expansive, grand and global as it is today?
Audrey Saunders: It was something we had both always dreamed of…But no, and never to this enormity, within such a short period of time!

What was it in Dale’s seminar that spoke to you and set you on this impassioned path?
I had only been bartending for a few weeks at that point. But my mom is Swiss and loves to cook — especially French cuisine.

My dad also had a cool wet bar complete with all of the accoutrements — shakers, exotic glassware, various spirits & liqueurs, jiggers, you name it. I vividly remember the Mr. Boston bar book always in use.

Prior to bartending, I had also taken five levels of French technique at Peter Kump cooking school (now I.C.E) in NYC. It was there that I learned about technique, ingredients, and how they interplayed with each other and that carried over behind the bar with me.

Stepping behind the bar introduced me to these liquids and their vastly-different flavor profiles — it was there and then that I knew that I wanted to “cook with liquids”— I remember Dale serving up a Blood & Sand cocktail in the class. Dale was talking about culinary cocktails and fresh ingredients in the class and I knew then that I wanted him to become my mentor.

The opening of the Pegu Club in 2005 was groundbreaking. What is it that made it so unique then?
Most bars were copy-cat replications of each other — same ingredients, same glassware, same soda guns, 20+ vodkas and three gins. No amari, barely any rye, no bitters, neon cherries, you name it.

Working with Dale exposed me to what a proper bar should be comprised of, down to the minute details. I knew when it came time to open my own bar that it was going to be the complete antithesis of all other bars.

I chose to champion the gin category, and was determined to revive it. I was very fortunate to have had Dale as my mentor. He loves gin and showed me how the spirit shined, how to work with it…and because of that, my subsequent experiences with gin cocktails were true revelations. In a world of vodka-soaked bars, my goal was to show the world just how good a well-crafted gin cocktail could be.

How did you come up with the name Pegu Club?
As a classicist, I believe that you can’t truly make advances without understanding the history of something first. So I studied many old cocktail books, one of them being the Savoy. Within it contained the recipe for the Pegu Club. Dale made a version of it for me, and he explained a bit about the history of the original Pegu Club in Rangoon, which was a British officers club from late 1800s – 1930s.

That drink embodied everything that I loved about gin — it was crisp, bracing, refreshing, and sophisticated — and I felt that if I resurrected the Pegu Club name, my peers would understand what I was trying to achieve. It was my homage to not only the superb Pegu Club cocktail, but also to Gin, to the UK as a gin drinking nation, and to the return to elegant, sophisticated imbibing.

When I opened Pegu, I offered 27 gins and only five vodkas (three plain, two flavored). Frankly, I was a little nervous about this, because it was unheard of at the time. Every other back-bar in America had pretty much the reverse of that — 27 vodkas and only three or four gins. I promoted the merits of good vermouth and stocked six different artisan brands, and drove home the importance of keeping it refrigerated.

I tracked down Kold Draft ice (cube size: 1.25” x 1.25” x 1.25”), and installed their machines so I could work with large ice cubes (thus preventing a watery cocktail due to rapid dilution). Nobody in the city was using Kold draft yet.

I dusted off chartreuse, Benedictine and Cynar. I utilized bitters in many of my recipes, and offered them for sale to guests.

Historically, rye whiskey was also extremely important, and I made the revival of that another one of my goals. Like gin, it had fallen out of favor.

Why do you think Pegu continues to be one of top global cocktail bars today?
Our continual focus and investment is in education, high-quality products, consistency, and service. We are seven years old now and place as much emphasis on education as we did when we opened our doors.

Pegu Club, 77 W. Houston St., New York, NY 10012