How an Industry Veteran Got Her Start
Ann Tuennerman interviews Pegu Club founder and Dame Hall of Fame inductee Audrey Saunders.
Every year, Tales of the Cocktail inducts hardworking women of the spirits and cocktail industries into the Dame Hall of Fame to celebrate their contributions to the industry. Each of these women has their own story, from their starts, their stumbles, and, finally, their successes. In this edition, Pegu Club founder Audrey Saunders talks about getting her start as Dale DeGroff's protégé.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Queens, NY, and raised in Port Washington, LI, NY.
What attracted you to enter the cocktail/spirits industry in the first place?
I got divorced. My ex-husband and I owned a business together, and we were both workaholics. After we split, we remained friends and continued to work in our business together for another five years, but it was at that point that I needed to get out more socially, and meet more people. I thought bartending would be a great way to do just that.
Was it planned, or was it a temporary gig that evolved into a career?
I honestly thought it was going to be a temporary gig, but during my first week behind the bar I fell in love with service. At that point I was pulling pints and serving burgers — as someone who has been a "giver" all her life, it gave me an opportunity to deliver those pints and burgers with love. I have always gotten a very deep sense of satisfaction from taking care of my guests.
What and where was your first job in the industry?
The Waterfront Ale House in Brooklyn, NY. The bar manager there was a good friend of Dale’s.
Was there a moment when you decided that the cocktail/spirits industry would be your career path?
After working two weeks at the Ale House, the bar manager saw that I was serious about wanting to learn. He handed me a magazine with an article about Dale that discussed an upcoming, one-night seminar that [Dale] was going to be teaching, and he recommended that I take that class. I immediately signed up. It was during that seminar that everything changed for me. After the class, I marched right up to him, handed him my card, told him that I wanted to be the best I could be, and that I would work for free.
Only one month later, Dale called me and invited me to work a charity event with him at Gracie Mansion (the residence of the NYC Mayor). At the time, Dale was still running the roost at the Rainbow Room, which was a union shop: as a very green, non-union bartender, I couldn’t work there. But I continued to work off-premise special events with Dale for another few years until he opened Blackbird in 1999. It was at that point that he offered me a dream-come-true …. a full-time job working with him.
As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry, what did you find the most rewarding and the most challenging?
I’ve never accepted “no” as an answer from any man unless there was a logical reason for it. I’ve dedicated my life to education, and it was no different for my bartending career — I gained advancement and received the respect of my male counterparts early on by becoming as expert as possible. The fact that I had a nice rack was secondary.
Was your family supportive of your decision?
I’m blessed with outstanding parents. They are also two of my closest friends, and they have always been behind me in any choice I’ve made in life —even when they didn’t understand it.
How has the role of women in the cocktail/spirits industry changed since you first joined it?
I see women mentoring more, and increasingly taking on roles as educators. It's outstanding to witness. It makes my heart sing.
For a woman who wants to pursue a career in this industry, what top 3 tips would you offer?
I’ll give you eight:
- Believe in yourself. Always be true to your convictions.
- Maintain a solid set of morals and values, regardless of how unpopular you think they might be, even if you have to swim against the current to maintain them.
- Study like you’ve never studied before, and become expert in everything you do.
- Question everything: whether to others or just quietly to yourself. Just because someone tells you that something needs to be done in a certain way, or that “it's always been done that way," it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s optimal or that they are correct.
- Be kind, and treat everyone the way you would like to be treated.
- Don’t sell out, or become a gun for hire. If you get behind a brand, do it because you believe in the brand, and not just because the money is good.
- Don’t put yourself in any positions where you allow yourself to be taken advantage of.
- Physically, let your smile become your biggest asset. If you want to be taken seriously, tuck the rest away.
How did you first learn about Tales of the Cocktail?
From Dale. I attended the second Tales back in 2003 with him and we did a Spirited Dinner together. It was fantastic.
Were there any challenges you had to overcome to attend Tales for the first time (financial, logistical, etc.)?
None. But then again, I’m a planner!
Kindly describe your first Tales experience and what it meant to you.
It was pretty magical, in fact. At that point in time, Tales was still in its infancy, so the number of attendees was fairly small. You could fit us all into one large room.
How did you first hear about the Dame Hall of Fame?
Through conversations of people involved with Tales.
Were any of its past inductees your mentors or role models?
No. As one of the founders of the craft cocktail industry, my role has always been as a mentor, but I thoroughly enjoy watching my hard-working friends getting inducted as well.
What was it like to be inducted into the Dame Hall of Fame at Tales?
It was wonderful. When I was coming up in the ranks, there were very few females doing craft cocktail work. It’s been a real treat to watch the number of women increase, and it's very meaningful to be honored on this level.
How has it energized your career, and what opportunities have flowed as a result?
It hasn’t really, but again, only because I established my career long before the Dame Hall of Fame ever existed.
Kindly describe any key professional relationships that were formed through your induction.
Getting to know Cris Dehlavi a little better. I enjoy watching her work from afar, and have enormous respect for her accomplishments, both personally and professionally. She is someone who has achieved what she has through a lot of hard work, dedication, and perseverance.