“You’re either a giver or a taker”, Audrey Saunders told us at one point in our conversation. Undoubtedly, she falls in the first camp. The Pegu Club owner has spent the last 25 years teaching everything she has learned. Her world-renowned bar opened in mid-2005 and is still going strong. Some of the biggest names of bartending have started or developed their careers behind its doors. “I look at them all like my kids. I never had any of my own, but in the same instance, I’ve had a hundred”, she says.
From the start, it was crystal clear for her: “I didn’t want it to be just my bar. I wanted it to be the bar of every bartender who worked there. I always told them ‘one day, you’re going to have your own bar, so let’s talk about how this process work’.” “I’m not an operator, I’m a teacher”, she insists. And if you want proof of her gift for teaching, well, just look at Tales of the Cocktail’s 2018 Spirited Awards – a Pegu alumnus is the owner of Happiness Forgets, recipient of the best International Bar Award.
In the industry, Saunders is known for her unique approach to the training process. In a world where some become head bartenders in six months, at Pegu a bartender can wait up to three or four years for one of his or her drinks to make it to the menu. “You have to understand the work enough to get it right”, she says. And the Daiquiri is integral to the development of her employees. “Our Daiquiri is very specific. They think, ‘three ingredients, easy!’ Not so fast: what rum do you have? What kind of sugar are you working with? What’s your shake like? The Daiquiri doesn’t lie.” Once Audrey is satisfied they understand “the delicacy of the Daiquiri”, they get two extra ingredients to come up with a twist. “My head bartender did it two years ago. It took him eight months to get there. But once they get it, they can use that understanding to get everywhere else”.
Another important aspect for Audrey is to foster a sense of ownership. She thinks it crucial for consistency. “You often see that bartenders are not invested in the menu. But every single bartender that works at Pegu knows that if they work hard enough, they could get 10 drinks on the menu”. But what of those who are still waiting to come up with a proper drink? “When the creative process happens, everybody’s giving some input. We’re all helping the drink getting there, so it becomes everybody’s cocktail, everybody wants to make it right and everybody has the tools to make it properly. And that’s huge.”
Her own training has hugely influenced Audrey’s philosophy. Around 1995, recently divorced, she went into bartending while she was figuring out her next move. She met Dale DeGroff, then at the Rainbow Room, fell in love with classic cocktails and never looked back. “I told Dale ‘I want to be the best I can be’. I wasn’t good enough to work at the Rainbow Room but I was willing to work for free in order to learn the craft”. For four years, DeGroff had her work with him at charity events – the first one took place at the mayor’s mansion; she was asked to make Mary Pickfords. “He wanted to see if I would sink or swim. I had such an amazing time. Afterwards, he kept calling me. He gave me recipes and I’d fall asleep on the train with them in my hands. I studied a lot”.
Audrey could now rest on her laurels. She has created quite a few modern classics, from the Gin-Gin Mule to the Old Cuban, and runs a successful business with systems in place. She has been mentored by the best and has mentored the best. In short, she’s left her mark. She’s not done, though: “The minute you stop learning, that is as good as you’re going to be for the rest of your life”, she argues. With husband Robert Hess (a cocktail grandee in his own right), she’s been studying sustainable agriculture and planting their property near Seattle. The endgame is, obviously, to teach others: “We want bartenders to have an experience with how things grow, especially with climate change. A bartender is lucky if he gets to go to the market where he’ll find mint cut off at the stem. You don’t get to go to the garden and pick your mint, your pear or your strawberries. It’s an incredibly enriching experience. This is important”. She’s right.