Audrey Saunders on Working Hard and Staying Humble

Portrait of Audrey Saunders

Above: Audrey Saunders at this year's Spirited Awards, photographed by Doron Gild at the Spirited Awards 2016 Icons & Presenters and Chivas ‘1950’s Film Noir’-inspired photobooth with Doron Gild Photography.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Audrey Saunders is easily one of the most influential members of the modern bartending movement. Saunders opened Pegu Club’s doors to New York City amidst the heyday of apple-tinis and Cosmos, helping to usher in a new chapter of drinking culture with a bar that served as an epicenter of the cocktail groundswell in New York — and the stomping grounds for some of the industry’s finest. She’s also helped to shape some of the world’s best bartenders — her “kids” — through mentoring and training. And, not one to slow down after grooming and launching the careers of dozens of bartenders, she and her husband Robert Hess are soon planning to open an immersive bartending school at their home in Washington state (or, as Audrey calls it, “like Hogwarts for bartenders”).

We sat down with Saunders and Hess at the Carousel Bar to talk all things industry: where it’s been, where it’s headed, and what today’s up-and-coming bartenders can do to ensure they’re contributing in all the right ways.

You’re a long-time Tales veteran. How have the conversations changed here since the first few years?

The conversations in the beginning were much like the conversations we were having online back then — it was like, Robert, me, Dave Wondrich, Dale, Ted Haigh, saying, “Now we need to talk about the Sidecar. What's your recipe for the Sidecar?” We were just trying to cobble the information together and get perspective. Like, 'What about jiggering?' Very, very basic. But we really laid the foundation. Now, it's like, 'are you using agar agar for your gelatin?' 'What's the model number of your centrifuge?' [laughs]

It also seems like people are looking more at the hospitality experience, and at keeping guests happy. Like, when someone comes to your rare whiskey bar and orders a vodka soda, accommodating them and not being snobby about it.

That's exactly it. In 1999, when we were starting to have these conversations, it had to be about the cocktails — we had to start from the beginning. Now, in the last number of years, we've by and large gotten that under our belt with regards to recipe, recipe differentials, technique... now, we're talking about advanced technique, hospitality, what if we opened a really awesome dive bar that had really great cocktails... it doesn't have to be serious now. So there's that evolution — we've got the craft, now what?

So as a Tales veteran, what are some of the most interesting things you've seen this year? Surprises?

The 'Drinking in 2116' seminar will be interesting because that's actually what we've been wondering about, with climate change, what are grain futures going to look like? What are botanical futures going to look like? We've been studying permaculture, which goes beyond sustainable agriculture. When done right, as a farmer or a gardener, you're basically planting what you require to bring to market but you're basically creating a diverse ecosystem. You're planning it in such a way that it mimics nature, feeds and sustains itself in a very healthy way.

One of the things we're doing right now is working on this school that we'll have. We have 14 acres and we're learning how to farm. Our backyard is all raised beds that will be a bartender's garden, and beyond that, we've actually got raised beds where we're trying to grow enough food to feed ourselves. We're teaching ourselves how to do all of this, and the idea is that when you come to the school, if you want to create an egg-based cocktail, you'll go to the chickens and you'll get your eggs. Or you'll go pick your blueberries or cherries or whatever. When you think about the importance, going forward, of sustainability, we want the students to have a connection of where their produce is coming from.

Audrey Saunders speaking on a panel Audrey Saunders, pictured at this year's Tales of the Cocktail on the "Vodka is Dead, Long Live Vodka" panel. Photo: Jennifer Mitchell Photography.

Tell us a little more about the school.

It's going to be amazing if I do say so myself. We love to teach and that's what we're known for. We're known for education and teaching and putting out a lot of great bartenders. Obviously, it's going to be small. I can teach a big room, but in order for this to be effective, I need it to be like a bar meeting. If I have 6-7 bartenders at a time, I can really focus on them. So they would come and stay with us, we're about an hour outside of Seattle. We're in farm country. We live on a ridge where you basically overlook the entire valley. The internet sucks, but that's a good thing. You basically have to really just let go.

They'll stay with us for two weeks. In the morning we'll wake up, probably do some yoga in the morning, and after that, we'll go outside into the garden, and then we'll go into small greenhouses to learn perfumery, if you will — basically, when you think about botanicals, and you think, ‘this gin has bitter orange, this one has sweet orange.’ But that's just something I told you, and you don't really understand it, unless you walk into this greenhouse and it's scented with that. Then you understand truly how it differs. Bitter is much more higher-pitched. Sweeter is warmer, a middle tone. If you think about something sharp and high as opposed to middle-sweet, you know how to work it with other ingredients. The more you smell, the more you learn. And then we'll basically do scales. I do a lot of scale work where without letting them know, I'll blind taste seven Negronis, seven Sidecars, we'll do them with different gins, different vermouths, and then we're really just focusing on how it balances on the palate. By doing this work we'll just keep dialing it in and dialing it in. If we put a twist on something, do we want to put the twist on top of the drink? Do we want to put it in the glass? Do we want to coat it, cover it, flame it? A lot of very focused detail that we do.

It sounds pretty idyllic.

It really is. We're really blessed.

Who do you envision participating?

At this point it would be more like a finishing school. Like a Hogwarts. Aside from what we teach during the week, we'll have the two weekends, and we'll have guests on the weekends. The great thing about it is, we are so rural. And that's the best part about it, because if you're going to learn... it's not like going into Manhattan. You have to get away from the lights and the neon and the sounds, and really be able to focus. We're also tinkering with the idea of shifting the hours of the class because we know the hours of a bartender. The bartender gets up at noon. Even if they can get up early, their brains are not working, and I know that because I did it.

You obviously love to take someone early in their career under your wing and help shape them.

I'm a mother hen. I look at mentoring like true love. I love my kids like they're my own kids, and they know it. Because I go beyond this industry. I love them with what's going on in their personal lives. And they feel really supported, and they know they can come to me for anything. Depending on what level, too, it goes beyond just behind the bar. But at the end of the day, it's love.

It has to feel pretty good, to have all of these "kids" out there following their own paths but affecting the industry in different ways.

It really does.

Audrey Saunders and Robert Hess Saunders and her husband Robert Hess, pictured at this year's Dame Hall of Fame (where Saunders was honored with the Pioneer Award. Photo: Jennifer Mitchell Photography.

Looking at this new crop of bartenders, if you could give them any advice, what would you tell the new kids on the block?

It’s what I tell my old kids. Truly, you'll get recognized not by how loud you talk but by the quality of your drink. You need to keep your head down, study your ass off, and do the work. There's a lot to be said for humility. It is hospitality. It's what we do. There are a lot of cocky kids out there. The industry's gotten very big, and I imagine a lot of them are overwhelmed — how do I make a name for myself, how do I stand out? Well, while social media's great, use it responsibly and in teaspoons. Sasha was a very close friend of mine, and that was something that we both believed in: keeping our heads down and being humble and really focusing on our work. It was true — because we focused on our work and it was so good, the word gets out. My bartenders, some of them put themselves out there, and sometimes it's necessary, but you don't see my kids or his kids beating their chests.

Do you think that's become a problem?

I think it's a problem when there's a lack of something else. If your skillset's not all that, and you're putting yourself out there that it is, you don't last very long. Your coworkers weed you out very quickly, your associates will weed you out.

I worked for Dale for free for four years and I was grateful for it. I wanted to learn, I worked my ass off, and I studied my ass off — whatever books I could get my hands on, whatever information. I worked really hard. I just don't have tolerance for people who try to skip grades or get around the learning aspect.

Whenever I have this conversation, I think of my bartender Kenta, who now has his own place. Everybody's got a different driving style. Many of them were very outspoken, big personalities, and in New York City especially, if you can amplify, it's like, 'okay, he must know what he's doing'. And Kenta is very quiet, very humble. He's very meticulous and methodical, and conservative. Took his time learning things, being comfortable in things. Now, after 7 years, he has opened. But he would say, does that matter? And I'd say, you know what, you just do exactly what you're doing because your work is expert, and people know you from your personality, your hospitality, but ultimately your work. He's still very low key, the bar is very low key, and yet it's winning awards. I'm so proud of that. It showed him that he didn't have to beat his chest; he could do it exactly his way and still get to the top. But there's so much stamina in that, there's so much longevity in that. When I get new bartenders, they want to go from 0-60 in one minute. Slow down. Let's start with a daiquiri. And that's what I do.

Is the daiquiri your litmus test?

I call it the Daiquiri Project. Basically, there has to be a mastery of the daiquiri because it is one of the most fragile drinks out there. If you don't get it right, it's obvious. In regards to proportions, there's balance, but you have to take into consideration the flavor profile of the rum that you use, you have to take into consideration where the lime is from. Is it October or is it July? Are you using beet sugar? Cane? Are you using syrup? And, the shake, the dilution. Are you doing a battering ram? Is your ice shattering? Or do you want to pack the entire shaker with ice so that the ice can't even move, so you're just chilling it?

Is that how you teach it?

Yes. And then, once we master it and we taste it with 8,000 different rums, then you create your own daiquiri. So it's basically the core recipe plus two ingredients, and that's it. That can take months. I had one of my bartenders working on it for 8 or 9 months. My bartender Ricky, who is brilliant, after doing this for month, he created a shiso pear daiquiri. So basically the core daiquiri with just a hair of pear eau de vie and a specific size shiso, muddled for a specific amount of time. And when I had Yael Vengroff, she did a strawberry daiquiri, but it was brilliant: she did one with strawberry liqueur but the grace note was Thai basil. It was amazing, almost cinnamon-y, peppery, with a specific type of strawberry.

Last question: do you feel like the average guest right now has a more adventurous palate, and does that make everyone's job harder?

I can't speak for all bartenders on that, but I can speak for mine. It's not necessarily harder for them because they're on a certain level. Once you have templates for things, if somebody says, 'I like this flavor, I like that flavor' — we have core templates, but then we have different flavor templates or combinations in the back catalog. So we have a lot to draw from.