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Mixing It Up With a Cocktail Purist

In her reverence for vintage cocktails, mixologist Audrey Saunders is part scholar and part priestess. Pete Wells visits her sanctum.

When the bartender began snapping padlocks on the liquor cabinets, I was definitely surprised. Even a little offended. No, I wasn't quite ready for another drink myself, but what about the other customers? Surely anyone who had the good taste to come to Bemelmans Bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan didn't deserve to be cut off so early in the evening! Ready to launch a vigorous protest, I turned around to enlist the support of my fellow patrons, which is when I noticed that the bar was empty.

In retrospect, I believe all the trouble started with the Maharajah's Burra-Peg. Of course, I can't be completely positive that the Imperial Cossack Crusta doesn't bear some responsibility as well. Nor can investigators confidently cross off the Jimmie Roosevelt or the Ile de France Special from their list of suspects.

The one party I hold entirely blameless, despite damning circumstantial evidence (to wit: she had prepared and served me each of the above-referenced cocktails), is Audrey Saunders. In fact, strictly speaking, there's a technical sense in which the whole thing is my fault. A week earlier, Audrey and I had been talking about the Pegu Club, a bar she's opening on Houston Street in Manhattan this spring. She wants the Pegu Club to be a fun place, a zone of experimentation and novelty, but at the same time a strong vein of tradition and historicism runs through the project, and through Audrey herself. She chose the name, for instance, as a tribute to a legendary club in Rangoon, which served its signature drink (gin, lime juice, orange curaçao, Angostura bitters, orange bitters) to British colonial administrators stationed in Burma.

Musing on possibilities for her opening menu of cocktails, she had been "going back to the books," as she puts it. She's been studying a 1939 cocktail guide called The Gentleman's Companion, Vol. II by Charles H. Baker, Jr. "It's romantic—it takes me places," she explained. "The prose just pulls you in." One recent night, on page 21, a page she'd read countless times before, a section heading had jumped off the paper and grabbed her by the collar: "FIVE DELICIOUS CHAMPAGNE OPPORTUNITIES, which Are not to be Ignored."

"When you read that, how can you not dive in?" Saunders asked. "And when you see the first one is called the Maharajah's Burra-Peg, that's like putting cheese in front of a mouse." Like Bond movies, Baker's books provide far-off locales, frequent scene changes, a constant rustle of wealth and specific details so peculiar they make you wonder if the whole thing isn't one sustained in-joke. This, for example, is how he leads into the recipe for the Maharajah's Burra-Peg: "This particular Champagne affair was broken out on the eve of our departure alone across India, after a month with Spofford in his big Calcutta bungalow show in the fashionable Ballygunge section down Chowringhee, beyond Lower Circular Road." It helps a little if you read this in the shade of your veranda while gazing at distant Kilimanjaro, but you get the idea.

Anyway, the day after Audrey told me about the Burra-Peg, I wrote her a note asking if we could mix it together. This is why the whole thing might be my fault. She wrote back suggesting we "take advantage of all five Champagne Opportunities." This is why I love Audrey.

Bartenders can be split into three classes. First, the corner-tavern guys who stick to beer-and-a-shot basics. Next, the Cosmo merchants, young guns who wear black and sling flavored vodkas—it's faster than using fruits and syrups and so on, and since the average customer isn't going to tip more than a dollar no matter how much effort goes into the drink, such shortcuts make sound economic sense. Audrey belongs to the third class, the subculture of against-the-current purists. This group is so small that when I asked her which bars in New York she admired, she could name only two. Both share her interest in classic cocktails and their history. One is the Flatiron Lounge, a narrow, Deco-looking spot. The other is Milk & Honey, a kind of speakeasy with no sign on the door, a reservations-only policy, an unpublished phone number and a series of archaic rules posted on the wall. ("Gentlemen will not introduce themselves to ladies....If a man you don't know speaks to you, please lift your chin slightly and ignore him.")

Audrey meets me at Bemelmans. Just two weeks earlier, she had put in her last night after more than three years as the bar's manager, during which she turned the place into a cocktail oasis. Aside from a few modern departures, Bemelmans is still happily stuck in 1947. That was the year Ludwig Bemelmans, the author of the Madeline children's books, covered the walls with bizarre and wonderful scenes that are not for children at all. Slipping behind the bar, Audrey points out two rabbits who appear to be running a race until you notice that they're an awful lot closer to each other than runners usually get. In the center of the room, a baby grand gleams in the low light thrown by candles glowing behind painted lampshades. While Audrey sets to work carving a spiral of lime zest, she begins listing a few of the items that will not be seen at the Pegu Club.

One: soda guns, those hoses that dispense limp streams of flat tonic, seltzer, H2O, Coke, sour mix and God knows what else. At the Pegu Club, soda will be kept sparkling cold in the refrigerator in small glass bottles until it is needed, at which point it will be uncorked at full force.

Two: sour mix, from a gun or not. Sour mix is the lazy bartender's substitute for sugar syrup mixed with fresh lemon or lime, and Audrey has no patience for lazy bartenders.

Three: ice chips. These are the lentil-shaped discs in use almost everywhere, and Audrey has a lot of complaints about them. They're not cold enough or big enough, plus they're designed to nest together, filling your glass so a stingy pour looks generous. The Pegu Club will use big, fat, geometrically pure cubes.

Four: vodka. Yes, the most popular distilled spirit in America will not be seen at the Pegu Club. It'll be there, sure, not on display, but under the bar. In Audrey's view, this is where it belongs. To explain why vodka bores her, she slaps a blank white cocktail napkin down in front of me. "That's vodka," she says. "It's a canvas you can paint on. It's got no real flavor profile. Sure, there are subtleties, but I don't ever use it as the primary note." She prefers gin, with its complex aromatics, its persistent evergreen fragrance and its leading role in some of the best cocktails in history. The Pegu Club, she promises, will proudly display at least 23 brands of gin.

While outlining her plans, Audrey's been chilling a slug of Cognac in a tiny carafe so it doesn't warm the Champagne in the Burra-Peg. She slides the Cognac into a flute, drops in brown sugar crystals stained a rich cordovan by Angostura bitters and begins pouring Champagne. And pouring. And pouring. The flute is gigantic; it looks like a prop from Dynasty. The lime spiral she'd carved earlier is coiled around a drinking straw; she gently untangles it, hooks one end over the lip of the glass and lets the rest tumble into the barrel of the flute. Bubbles stream upward from the sugar and climb the lime spiral like it's a circular staircase. Still Audrey's not quite satisfied. She mixes another Burra-Peg, this time with less Cognac and a sugar cube in place of the crystals. "Let's try it again the same way," Audrey says, "but let's use orange bitters and see what the dramatic difference is."

David Wondrich, author of Esquire Drinks, praises her for applying "scientific method" to her cocktails. "She's like a research mixologist," Wondrich says. His favorite example is the twist—those discs of lemon peel that sometimes garnish martinis. "Most bartenders cut them thick, with the pith on, because they don't care," Wondrich says. "The old school says you just want the peel, because the pith is too bitter. Then there's Audrey, who makes vodka infusions with just the pith, to see how bitter it is. She's always trying stuff."

If you watch a bartender like Audrey as she tinkers with a recipe, tasting, adjusting, tasting again, it occurs to you that cooking and bartending aren't that different. You might even be tempted to apply the current phrase "bar chef." But don't, because Audrey doesn't like it. For one thing, she insists that a good bartender should never be the center of attention. "It's not about me, it's about you," she says. "The minute you sit at my bar, I want to make you a great drink. I love for you to sit down at the bar, and I love to put a napkin in front of you." She quotes Dale DeGroff, the celebrated bartender who taught her that mixology was an art, but who also said, "Audrey, we're in the business of making people happy." If you still believe that bartenders are chefs, walk into a bar and order the dumbest drink you can think of. The bartender may smirk, but he'll make your Woo Woo Shooter. Now imagine asking for the edible equivalent—a fluffernutter with Fritos, say—at Charlie Trotter's.

If a Woo Woo Shooter sounds to you like a sign of the apocalypse, you may be a cocktail purist. Like Calvinists, the purists believe we have been cast out of paradise and live in a fallen world. Drinks experts differ on just when paradise ended. Maybe it was the twilit colonial era of Charles Baker. Or the Jazz Age world of Fitzgerald and Hemingway at the Paris Ritz. Audrey says that for her it was the mid-1800s, the time of such heroic drinks as the Blue Blazer and the Tom and Jerry. Whenever the Golden Age of the Cocktail was, though, one thing is certain: It's over. We have dug down into our past to rescue endangered foods like wild rice and quinces, but we haven't revived orange bitters, let alone more recondite bottles like Crème d'Yvette. Instead, we get a new flavor of vodka every 17 minutes. No matter how many times visionaries like Dale DeGroff and Audrey Saunders try to start the Cocktail Revolution, they always end up like the citizens of Paris who stormed the Bastille for liberté, egalité et fraternité and found themselves a few years later watching Napoleon crown himself emperor.

Well, so what. With the Pegu Club, Audrey's going to try to start the revolution again. And then she's going to open a bar within the bar, a back room for the real weirdos. "That's where I'll serve things like Loggerheads, or Flips—that's another name for them. That's where you take a hot poker, the flip dog, out of the fireplace and plunge it into ale. The heat caramelizes the sugar in the ale." Or, for another example, the Maharajah's Burra-Peg. Audrey has just made a fourth attempt at it. The worst version yet, I tell her. She agrees.

We decide to avail ourselves of the remaining Champagne Opportunities. The Jimmie Roosevelt works right off the bat. The next, "in the charming style of the Jocky Club in Rio de Janeiro," is better still, and that's not entirely the Champagne talking. "You've heard of Slow Food?" Audrey asks. "This is slow drink. If it takes us all night, it takes us all night."

The Pegu Club, 77 W. Houston St., 2nd Fl., New York City; 212-473-7348. Bemelmans Bar, 35 E. 76th St., New York City; 212-744-1600.

Published May 2005
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