The cocktail as such has seen its fair share of ups and downs since the classic strong-and-stirred through the 1970s spritzers, Wallbangers and Screaming Orgasms, which were supposed to attract a female audience with vulgarity.
The surge in popularity experienced today most would agree originated in New York. Specifically, many attribute the success to Dale DeGroff who in 1988 was hired for the Rainbow Room with the, at the time, unusual orders of using fresh ingredients along the same lines as the kitchen. His boss further recommended him to get a copy of the book, How to Mix Drinks by Jerry Thomas.
DeGroff quickly discovered that this wasn’t a book he could just pick up at any old bookstore and instead he had to dig through the dusty antiquarians. When he finally found the book he was transported into another world, a world where cocktails couldn’t have been further removed from the sweet and colorful drinks of the 1970s and ‘80s. The chance encounter of DeGroff and Thomas’ old book kickstarted the second golden age of the cocktail which today has spread out from New York to the rest of the world.
But he wasn’t alone. A few years later, Audrey Saunders showed up to one of DeGroff’s cocktail classes. This meeting would later prove to shape the New York bar scene of today. DeGroff became her mentor first, and later business partner when they opened Blackbird in Midtown. Following Blackbird, Saunders continued her career behind the stick at Bemelman’s Bar in the historical Carlyle Hotel where she was hired on as a beverage director.
In 2005, Saunders put all her experience into her own place as she opened up Pegu Club in SoHo with Julie Reiner. From the very start, Saunders’ strong vision for the bar was clear to the bartenders she hired; there was no beating around the bush, no half-assed solutions, and not a single cocktail on the menu that hadn’t been tested in every conceivable way, with changes to ratios and addition of different bitters. The bar was a hit, but Saunders did not rest on her laurels. Every employee is continuously and meticulously evaluated to an extent which might overshadow even the checklists for a pilot. It’s an ambitious undertaking which has proven worthwhile. Not just to Saunders, but to the many bartenders as well.
Among Saunder’s opening staff at Pegu Club we find many of the bartenders who has since developed the cocktail culture of New York. Brian Miller and Phil Ward left to help David Kaplan open Death & Co., Jim Meehan launched PDT, Sam Ross manages Attaboy, Jim Kearns owns The Happiest Hour, John Frizell is in charge of Fort Defiance, and more recently, Kenta Goto, opened Bar Goto in Lower East Side. To name but a few.
Sam Ross Jim Meehan Jim Kearns
Julie Reiner, who started Pegu Club with Saunders, was born and raised on Hawaii and later appeared in New York in 1997 where everyone were quick to take notice. So much so that she was actually fired when her then-boss was frustrated with her taking all the limelight. To make matters worse, she then went on to open Flatiron Lounge before taking over Brooklyn with Clover Club in 2008 and Leyenda in 2015.
The tippling trio of Dale DeGroff, Audrey Saunders, and Julie Reiner have all since been lauded with the title of Best Bar Mentor at the world’s largest cocktail convention, Tales of the Cocktail, in 2010, 2011 and 2013, respectively.
Precisely mentorships have been the key to the bar scene of New York today; the desire to teach and to learn. Naturally, then, DeGroff, Saunders, and Reiner weren’t the only ones around. Dushan Zaric and Jason Kosmas opened Employees Only in 2004 with a long line of bartenders, and, last but not least, Sasha Petraske laid the foundation for a new cocktail culture, and a bar empire, with the opening of Milk & Honey in 1999.
My first encounter with the cocktail culture now associated with New York took place a late night in the East Village. The rumors of Death & Co. had reached all media and, by chance, I happened to find myself in front of the shut-off bar on a weekday. It was open, so I went in. A great big welcoming smile and a sparkling set of eyes made me feel both at home and expected, as soon as I stepped through the door. Usually, solitary nights out sees one shoved off to the shady corner next to the bathroom but here I was promptly directed to a good seat at the bar and served cocktails far removed from any Piña Colada or Lumumba. And I had more than just that, I had a feeling of landing smack center of a family reunion. Suddenly, the term of hospitality made sense and that night saw the beginning of new friendships with locals and cocktails alike.
I can’t keep track of how many times I have since visited, but it’s not without reason that Death & Co. became my home away from home. Unquestionably, this bar, and all the experiences, was the prime inspiration that led to the opening of Moltkes Bar in 2009.