A Guiding Light Goes Dark

For 15 years, Pegu Club reshaped the way we drink, and trained a generation of bartenders along the way. This is its legacy, in the words of former staff, owners and regulars.

Pegu Club is that rare bar where there is no argument about its influence. You don’t have to dig deep to measure its impact. The legacy is right there in foot-high neon letters; in the modern classic cocktails it gave birth to, including the Fitty-Fitty Martini and Little Italy; the long list of illustrious alumni, such as Toby Maloney, Jim Kearns, St. John Frizell and Jim Meehan and the bars they went on to open, like The Violet Hour, The Happiest Hour, Fort Defiance and PDT.

Meanwhile, the service practices and standards Pegu Club helped establish during its 15-year reign—which ended in April, when founder Audrey Saunders announced that the famed SoHo cocktail den would not reopen, a victim of the citywide coronavirus shutdown—continue to guide cocktail bars today.

To get a better idea of the myriad ways in which Pegu Club changed and improved the way we drink and think about cocktail bars, we interviewed some of the key players. Collected below are select memories from Saunders; her Pegu business partner, Julie Reiner; opening bartenders Toby Maloney, Jim Meehan, Brian Miller and Chad Solomon; Lurie Jackson, the bar’s first head server; and Sam Kinsey, a longtime regular at the bar.

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

Audrey Saunders was a Long Islander who made a midlife career shift to become the protégé of famed Rainbow Room bartender Dale DeGroff. Through tenures at Blackbird, Tonic, Beacon and finally Bemelmans Bar in The Carlyle hotel, she steadily carved out a reputation in the cocktail world. Until 2005, however, she had never owned a bar.

Sam Kinsey (longtime Pegu Club patron): “At that time, there were more or less two games in town. There was Flatiron Lounge, a large venue that did quality cocktails at volume in a fun and approachable way, and there was Milk & Honey, a tiny venue that had a serious approach to cocktails. This is not to say that Flatiron had no seriousness or that M&H wasn’t fun. But Pegu Club was going to have a foot in both worlds.”

Saunders (co-founder and creative director of Pegu Club): “I was the beverage director at The Carlyle hotel, primarily managing Bemelmans Bar, when Julie came for a visit. On that particular trip, she told me that she and her partners were planning on opening a second bar.”

Julie Reiner (co-founder of Pegu Club): “[Flatiron partner] Alex Kay’s bar, Zinc Bar, was kitty-corner to the Pegu space. He lives there. He had been eyeing it for some time. Such a cool space.”

Saunders: “Kevin Kossi and his sister Kristina, who was also a partner at Flatiron, came up to Bemelmans for a visit, which struck me as odd, as they didn’t often venture out to bars. I remember them giving the room and the bar a combing over and taking in all the details… A couple of weeks later, Julie returned to Bemelmans for another visit and said, ‘You remember that second bar I was telling you about?’”

Reiner: “I thought it was too soon to put my name on another project.”

Saunders: “Julie assured me that this bar would be about my own personal vision, and that I would be calling the shots for it just as she was doing at Flatiron.”

THE RAMP-UP

In the months preceding the long-anticipated opening of Pegu Club, Saunders mapped out every detail of the new bar, using the basement of Flatiron Lounge, a cocktail bar owned by her partners, as her base of operations.

Saunders: “My vision was to take the classic, five-star hotel bar experience and make it accessible to everyone. No velvet ropes, no reservations, no exclusivity, no bullshit. This bar was also going to provide a platform that would shine a light on ‘the cocktail’ as a true culinary expression, while at the same time dispelling the myth that you couldn’t get high-end service in an ordinary bar.”

Reiner: “Audrey wanted to call it Sun King. She was adamant about that for a long time. I said, ‘I don’t know, Aud. It kind of sounds like a juice bar.’”

Saunders: “It was important that every single detail about the bar operations be intentionally thought-through. Shunning soda guns in favor of fresh bottled soda, bringing in a Kold-Draft ice machine, moving away from bucket-sized glassware and instead utilizing smaller, more appropriate glassware… The months spent on getting the logo just right, the type of ambiance provided by lighting, the menu design, the music, the uniforms, the list went on and on and on.”

Toby Maloney (Pegu Club’s first head bartender): “I would occasionally go down [to the basement below Flatiron Lounge] and see Audrey surrounded by a legion of glassware, like she was under siege. Or she was elbow-deep in books and paper in a puddle of light, looking like a monastic scholar searching for the secrets of alchemy.”

Kinsey: “She had these plastic ‘model cubes’ in the same shape and size as Kold-Draft cubes, so she could be sure the glassware accommodated ice the way she wanted it to.”

Chad Solomon (Pegu Club opening staff bartender): “I remember her at Milk & Honey one evening. She, along with her companions at Table 1, was workshopping the classic Pegu Club cocktail, having the bar tweak the recipe incrementally, resulting in over 20 versions of the drink going out to be tasted. This was my first glance at Audrey’s process of development and editing a drink.”

ON THE HIRING PROCESS

When it came to bartenders, Saunders had the pick of the litter, as every young New York mixologist with a name wanted to work at Pegu Club.

Brian Miller (Pegu Club opening staff bartender): “I met with Audrey in the basement at Flatiron. I don’t remember much about what questions she asked, but I do remember talking about Dale DeGroff’s book and about how all the tools he talked of and the kinds of ice he liked were all gonna be used at Pegu.”

Solomon: “I met Audrey for the first time at Flatiron on a Thursday night for my interview with her, and we grabbed a table along the back wall. Over many, many Margaritas, we had a long conversation getting to know one another, talking background, drinks, history, interests, passions, etc.”

Jim Meehan (Pegu Club opening staff bartender): “I was running the bar program at Pace in Tribeca… One night, Audrey and [Pegu general manager] Rob Oppenheimer came in for dinner. Between apps and entrées I introduced myself and inquired if they’d be willing to try my drinks. They obliged, so I prepared all my drinks, printed out the recipes and gave her my card to stay in touch. Audrey invited me up to Bemelmans shortly after for an interview. We had follow-up drinks with Rob at Brandy Library, and I all but begged her for a job every time we spoke.”

Miller: “Toby Maloney did become my fashion icon at the time. I remember the first time he showed up to Pegu, he was in a seersucker suit, a dope straw hat and if memory serves me right, fucking white Capezio shoes. Audrey said, ‘Now, that is how a bartender should dress.’”

THE “FERRARI” OF BARS

With Pegu Club, Saunders had the chance to design a bar befitting the elevated drinks and skills of the modern cocktail era.

Saunders: “The design of most bar layouts pre-renaissance was poor due to architects focusing mostly on aesthetics without considering/understanding/appreciating actual functionality—the bar [itself] was always an afterthought.”

Miller: “I remember looking at the service well and seeing the glasses above the ice bin and double rail and thinking, ‘This bar is built like a Ferrari.’”

Meehan: “It was like driving a Bond car. A gorgeous live-edge bar, custom stainless wells, glass freezers in each station, a vintage and modern bar-book collection—including an 1862 Jerry Thomas.”

Saunders: “I had bookshelves prominently installed in the middle of the backbar for all my rare books. They were there for both the staff and guests to peruse.”

Kinsey: “The fact that there were 30 different brands of gin in the backbar, that there was no vodka in the house, that green Chartreuse was in the well—it’s hard to understand from today’s perspective just how revolutionary many of these things were.”

Saunders: “The service bar would have to produce three times the cocktails that the main bar would, so I enclosed it into its own room.”

THE MAKING OF THE MENU

The debut menu at Pegu Club was a painstakingly developed mix of modern classic cocktails Saunders had created at previous bars alongside new inventions. It was designed to capture the customer’s and media’s attention—and it did.

Maloney: “There was such attention paid to both the minutiae and the big picture at the same time. Many hours of recipe development. Making cocktails with the smallest adjustment in the spec. I could not understand it at the time, but that first menu was a masterpiece of storytelling, cohesion and scope.”

Solomon: “I remember one training day where Audrey had the bartenders each make the proposed opening menu drinks for the servers, runners and barbacks who sat directly across from us and then compared the drinks against one another to look at execution differences: balance, temperature, dilution, texture.”

Saunders: “I had to import an entire pallet of Marie Brizard orange Curaçao from France for the Pegu Club cocktail, because it wasn’t available in the U.S. and I wasn’t willing to compromise quality. Ditto Rittenhouse Rye, which wasn’t available in New York. Dave Wondrich and I worked together with Heaven Hill Distillery to get it listed in New York. Lisa Laird also helped me with getting Laird’s Apple Brandy listed in New York.”

Kinsey: “There was a 1:1 [50-50] Martini on the menu. It was completely different from anything being sold as a Martini elsewhere. This Martini, in my view, represented Pegu Club making a statement and Audrey planting her flag more than any other drink on the opening menu.”

THE FIRST SERVICE

Following many delays, Pegu Club finally opened in August 2005. A seminal moment for the cocktail elite and cocktail enthusiasts, everyone showed up.

Saunders: “Everyone came together and gathered around [the bar] in a special way, almost as if it were a newborn child.”

Lurie Jackson (head server, opening staff): “Opening night was nerve-wracking and exciting. There was so much buzz about Pegu, and everyone was ready for it to open. There was a line that wrapped around Houston Street.”

Kinsey: “I feel like everyone in the community was there … and behind the bar was a virtual ‘Who’s Who’ of up-and-coming cocktail bartenders. I sometimes wonder whether people understand the importance of things when they’re happening.”

Reiner: “The very first guest was Gaz Regan. He had the first Pegu Club at the Pegu Club ever. He was so excited about that. He went around telling everybody.”

Maloney: “The pressure to execute the cocktails for such a discerning crowd at full speed was tremendous.”

Miller: “We were your typical dysfunctional bar family, bathed in rye and baptized with Led Zeppelin. I wouldn’t trade my experience there for anything.”

Meehan: “Audrey managed the opening bar like a family: She was mom and we were the kids.” 

Jackson: “She is driven by passion and expects the best out of herself and her team. Settling simply wasn’t an option and that often came with some tough love.”

Solomon: “She was quick to call us over to the service well for an attitude adjustment—a shot of Rittenhouse—if we were getting our asses handed to us, or the energy was off. 

THE PEGU LEGACY

Almost 15 years later, Pegu Club closed for good. But it had long since made a lasting impact on the drinking world, in New York and beyond.

Reiner: “I think the cocktail culture in New York, it was bubbling and budding. It was starting to happen. With the opening of Pegu, it was solidified.

Saunders: “It became proof that a high-end, quality cocktail experience could be achieved on a large scale with great consistency.”

Miller: “Pegu was like Studio 54, it was the place that everyone wanted to be. And for bartenders it was a rite of passage. You either wanted to work there or you at least had to visit.”

Solomon: “The Harvard of Mixology is an accurate descriptor.”

Kinsey: “Pegu Club is, along with Flatiron Lounge/Clover Club and Milk & Honey, one of the three ‘mother bars’ in the cocktail community, and a huge number of successful bartenders and bar owners can trace their way back to someone who worked and received training and mentoring in at least one of these bars.”

Saunders: “Pegu also greatly helped to uplift the public’s low perception of bartending as a trade. No longer do we have to endure with any great frequency the demeaning question that we were once so often asked: ‘What’s your real job?’”

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