Four Questions with Audrey Saunders

Posted on: May. 18, 2016 | | By: Gray Chapman

When we talk about the evolution of craft bartending, and the enormous strides that have been made in the cocktail movement over the last decade, there are a few people whose names come up again and again. Audrey Saunders is, inarguably, one of those names. Simply put, you cannot talk about modern cocktail culture without talking about Pegu Club, which opened its doors just over ten years ago to a New York City still fixated on Cosmopolitans and apple-tinis. Saunders, alongside fellow cocktail dame Julie Reiner, was faced with the epic challenge of gently persuading Manhattan bar-goers to try something outside the ‘tini comfort zone — a difficult predicament to imagine for bartenders who launched their careers in the height of the cocktail craze.

Saunders was up for the challenge — and, needless to say, she succeeded. Since its opening, Pegu Club has become one of the undisputed titans of the industry, a place where a nascent movement got its sea legs and where a generation of drinkers discovered what happens when a culinary philosophy is applied to the craft of mixing drinks. Pegu Club made the Top Nine in 2008’s Spirited Awards for Best Cocktail Menu, the Top Four in 2009 for World’s Best Bar, and that same year, took home top honors for Best American Cocktail Bar. Saunders herself has been lauded over the years, too: she made it into the Top 3 for 2009’s American Bartender of the Year, and won 2011’s Best Mentor award. (Oh, and she also hosted her wedding at Tales.)

Suffice it to say, Saunders is an industry luminary. And in the time since she first hopped behind a bar alongside her mentor, Dale DeGroff, in the late ‘90s, she’s seen the industry shift and evolve in a number of ways. We asked her to look back on the years since she and Pegu Club were first recognized at the Spirited Awards and tell us how she feels about where the industry is heading. She didn’t hold back.

How did things change for you, your career, and/or your establishment after winning a Spirited Award? 

As an industry elder, I wouldn’t necessarily say that anything changed for me or Pegu after winning the award. Yet, with that said, it is an honor to receive recognition for many years of hard work. I also think it’s a real treat for our guests to see our awards displayed in the center of our backbar—while they might not be familiar with Tales, I think people in general like to patronize an establishment that is at the top of its game… and they get to share in that whenever they join us for a drink and see our awards displayed.

What are some of the biggest differences between the industry in the year you won, and the industry today?

How much it has grown. As one of the pioneers, I watched every single aspect of our industry evolve.

What are some of the positive changes that have happened in the industry when you won, and some of the negatives? 

The growth of our industry has created many new opportunities for advancement in a number of different areas (including the development of new cottage industries), which has been a very good thing. And it can continue to be a good thing — as long as integrity is maintained.

What I find deeply disheartening is observing an increasing number of brands taking advantage of younger bartenders, heavily promoting them in conjunction with their brands and utilizing the lure of social media to potentially increase their popularity (and that of the bartender) within the industry. This type of seduction can potentially be a dangerous thing for a bartender who needs more technical development.

At the same time, I watch those very same brands dumbing down the overall quality of their products. Because as long as they’ve attached popular faces to their products, then these younger bartenders (along with their peers) aren’t necessarily paying attention (or perhaps don’t even know any better, or even care) to the insidious degradation of the product itself. Young bartenders should be treated gently, like unripe fruit, best left on the vine to ripen organically.

What about some of the biggest surprises? 

Just how quickly our industry has increased in size within such a short timeframe. I’ve witnessed at least four generations come forth in the last decade, and that is seriously rapid industry growth. And yet with all this growth, why we still aren’t witnessing more outright bartender-owned establishments, even on the senior level. Whether man or woman.

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