When we asked the Libation Goddess, Audrey Saunders to talk to us for the New York issue of The Cocktail Lovers Magazine, there was no way we’d be able to cram her vast experience and insights on two measly pages. So we’re sharing her wise words over three posts starting today.  

PART ONE: Falling in love with bartending, learning from Dale DeGroff and discovering the art of craft cocktails

Design, taste and showmanship have played an important role in your life (interiors business with your former husband, parents who loved to entertain, training in French cuisine), is that what drew you to bartending and how have these elements come into play in your profession?

Ha, my divorce drew me into bartending!  My ex-husband and I were childhood sweethearts (and frankly more like brother and sister), and we also owned, not an interiors business, but a specialty maintenance company (the sort of thing where you hand clean items like tapestries and silk upholstered walls) together as well.  We were both also workaholics, and continued to work together in the business for five years after our divorce. At that point, I felt like I needed to have my own life, and since I loved cooking and entertaining, I thought I should try my hand at bartending for a while as it would still allow me to operate independently to a great degree, meet people, and have some fun. I thought it would be a great place to park while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life.

You began bartending as a job at Waterfront Ale House in 1996, when and why did you decide to turn it into a career?

During my very first week behind the bar. Even though I was so green that I was still learning how to pull a pint, and properly use the soda gun; I’d never been in the service industry before and the moment was magical because it was also that first week that I absolutely fell in love with service. It didn’t matter that the Waterfront was burgers and beer, I’ve been a giver all my life and there I discovered just how deeply gratified I became by serving people. The manager, Cory Hill was also a good friend of Dale DeGroff’s and many of the guests that used to frequent the place were also in the industry. In the first two weeks behind the bar Cory tried to convince me that it was a super-hard business – no health insurance, inconsistent wages, physically taxing on the body etc, not so much to discourage me from a career in the business, but more to give me a reality check that it wasn’t all rosy. A couple of Cory’s close friends also worked at Rainbow Room with Dale and they were also frequent regulars at the Waterfront, so I was surrounded by professionals who were all too happy to offer advice whenever they sat at my bar. I had a barful of mentors, and I greatly welcomed it!

Describe your first meeting with Dale DeGroff? What it was it about him that resonated with you?

Around two weeks after I started bartending Cory showed me a copy of New York Magazine, which contained a short article on a gentleman by the name of Dale DeGroff who was going to teach a one-night seminar at New York University. Cory advised me that if I going to pursue a bartending career, I should take the seminar that Dale was teaching. I love to learn, so I agreed and signed up.

I was in awe as I sat through that class. I had visited Rainbow Room once before for a special occasion and it took my breath away – I’d never seen such a stunning place. So now to have just found my life’s calling as a bartender, hearing all about Dale and how he had resurrected classic cocktails, to be sitting and watching him as he taught this class had me absolutely giddy. As I mentioned earlier, I love to learn. Cory was an excellent teacher and taught me about hospitality, steps of service, craft beer, and classic cocktails 101. But I really felt that my true calling was cocktails. I already adored cooking and wanted to learn about how to ‘cook with liquids’.

I distinctly remember the cocktail that Dale served in the class, it was a Blood & Sand. As I watched him prepare it, I was sceptical because I was ignorant and frankly, the combination of all of those ingredients sounded fairly disgusting. Then I took my first sip… The heavens opened up and the angels sang. What a revelation! I knew then that the only way I would be able to truly learn this craft was to enlist Dale as my mentor. So I went up to him after the class and told him that I wanted to learn and be the best I could be, I told him that I wanted him to teach me, and that I would work for free.

Obviously two weeks into my new career, I was also completely green – I didn’t realise Rainbow was a union shop. There was no way I could simply go to work at Rainbow but I was hopeful that maybe someday there might be an opportunity to work with Dale and I waited… About a month later, I got a call from him. It turns out that Rainbow Room was also involved in a lot of off-premise events, and Dale asked me if I wanted to go up to Gracie Mansion (the official residence of the New York Mayor) and make cocktails. What? I was stunned & thrilled, I didn’t expect the call or the offer. So I went. I remember he gave me a Mary Pickford to serve. It was a simple drink, but a fun one – I think that was his way of seeing if I could cut the mustard at a high-volume event.  Well, I had a blast, and did pretty well if I do say so myself, and so my education with Dale began through these events.

Before any event, I would go up to Rainbow to prep and he would teach me a new skill – not just how to prep, but to do these tasks properly and he would take time to explain why. How to juice properly, how to cut twists properly, etc etc, and ultimately how to batch. I would work many of these events with Dale until Blackbird opened in 1999. I remember Thanksgiving of 1998. He called me and asked me to come visit him at Rainbow. There I was, sitting with Dale DeGroff in his bar, looking out the window at the Manhattan skyline, drinking a Manhattan, and pinching myself. It was magical. And it was then and there he offered me the Blackbird job. I was over the moon…

What are the greatest lessons he taught you and how have you implemented them in your work?

Dale taught me everything about the craft – I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for him. He’s like a father to me. But even beyond the ability to make great drinks, it was the importance of being of service, true hospitality, exercising discretion and the ability to have empathy for a guest – those were the invaluable things he passed on to me. Also, never to make assumptions about anyone and whoever the guest might be, to make sure they left happier than they were when they first sat down. I took all of this to heart – these lessons deeply resonated with me because I’m a giver. He also taught me how to provide five-star service as well as helping me develop a keen set of ‘bar eyes’ – known as the ability to anticipate the needs of your guests before they know them, and to always be 10 paces ahead during service.

When you first started working together, the US bar scene was very much about soda guns and sour mixes. Do you remember when your craft approach to drink-making really took off?

When I was working with Dale at Blackbird, it was 100% about learning experiences and revelations, and I was pretty much just reacting to all of it, soaking it all in. I remember when he ended his shift each night, he’d step from behind the bar and he would always have a Valencia Martini and oysters. He would often sit at a small table in the corner with one of his rare books and read. I remember looking at him with such love and such respect and I took such pride in preparing that Martini for him. It was such a pleasure to do something like that for a man who had given the world to me. Every day working for Dale was like Christmas. And I remember that first Christmas! He appeared with a large porcelain bowl, and told me the story of the Tom & Jerry. Then he taught me how to prepare them. Wow! They were extraordinary. As was the first time he taught me how to do a tableside presentation of the Café Brulot (he has a gorgeous Sheffield service set designed especially for it). Also the ritual of spinning a Sazerac in the air, or the je ne sais quois of adding a dash of Angostura aromatic bitters into a Pina Colada because the drink greatly benefitted from it. There were hundreds and hundreds of small details to learn, and he equipped me with every single tool I needed. When Blackbird closed, it was around the time that Dale began working with Jonathan Downey and he headed to London. At that point I was fortunate that Blackbird’s sister restaurant Beacon (which Rainbows executive chef, Waldy Malouf, had opened with the partners of Rainbow) had wanted me to come on-board, and so I went.

Part 2: Beacon, Bemelmans Bar, Pegu Club and changes behind and in front of the bar…

From the New York Issue of The Cocktail Lovers Magazine. Read it here

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