On a balmy Friday night, the first revelers are trickling into the cool of Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle hotel on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The Chris Gillespie Trio is getting to work, with Gillespie twisting slightly on his piano bench so he can engage patrons even in the corners of the room. From her perch on a banquette, beverage director and resident mixologist Audrey Saunders grins hello to the regulars while eyeing the orders on the trays her waiters are whisking by.
So far, most guests are playing it safe with wine and sidecars, a traditional brandy and Cointreau cocktail. But once in a while an order comes in for one of Saunders' more inventive intrusions into the classical canon: her Old Cuban, a $17 mojito topped off with Champagne instead of club soda, or her $13 Dreamy Dorini Smoking Martini, which melds vodka with, of all things, one of the smokiest of single-malt scotches.
Saunders, who abandoned a lucrative drape-cleaning business six years ago to practice the art of mixology, does with cocktails what Gillespie does on a keyboard. She keeps the reliable standards fresh with nifty interpolations of the ingredients. Only, unlike Gillespie's always-composed trio, Saunders occasionally lets loose -- as in the Dorini -- with the cocktail equivalent of an ear-splitting screech on the saxophone.
That combination of classical balance and unbridled whimsy -- along with a fanatical devotion to fresh and unusual ingredients -- has been crucial to reviving the night life at Bemelmans. The bar is named for children's book author Ludwig Bemelmans, who wrote the Madeline series and in 1947 painted the walls with charming renditions of his creations. Following a $2 million renovation of the tobacco-stained room three years ago, Dale DeGroff, the cocktail consultant brought in to devise a new menu of drinks, recommended his young protégée for beverage director. (Long fascinated by drinks, she took his mixology course and then worked with him for free at benefits around the city to learn the craft.)
That has left Saunders, 40, in a highly visible position in what remains very much a man's preserve. She has used Bemelmans as a pulpit from which to preach the fresh-and-inventive gospel she learned from DeGroff, while demonstrating an equal dexterity at designing great drinks and attending to the business of the bar.
What Saunders and her friend and sometime collaborator Julie Reiner of New York's Flatiron Lounge have brought to mixology is a more culinary approach. They pay far greater attention to ingredients and the proportions in which they're combined than traditional bartenders. That's no mean accomplishment in drinks, which too often tend to be thrown together.
Even today, with a cocktail revival in full swing, Saunders laments the trend toward oversweet concoctions made from pre-mixed ingredients. Such drinks erase the character of the liquors and forego the fresh fruits and herbs that should be the joys of a well-constructed cocktail. Vanilla martinis? Not at Bemelmans. Sour mix dispensed from a "gun" behind the bar? Saunders would sooner shoot herself.
Instead, Saunders ransacks such 1940s bibles as David Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks or Charles Baker's The Gentleman's Companion to learn how to balance sweet, sour, and strong ingredients, or bittersweet and strong ones. "Once you know the basic ingredients, it's easy to pull out one and put something else in," she says.
For a base, Saunders most often uses gin, thanks to the range of flavors provided by various brands. She has been among those lobbying to revive long-overlooked rye whiskey, for its powerful spiciness. But she thinks America's most popular spirit, vodka, is overused: "Why would I want to use vodka when there are so many other interesting spirits out there? Vodka's a no-brainer. Put juice with it and you've got a fruit smoothie, not a real cocktail."
Saunders argues it's more important to explore unjustly neglected spirits and aperitifs -- names like Chartreuse, Punt e Mes, Fernet Branca Menta, Crème d'Yvette -- that elicit blank stares from many bartenders today. Rather than look to the distillers for innovation, Saunders invents her own new tastes by infusing (or steeping) into spirits exotic ingredients that might be overwhelmed if simply mixed in -- say, Earl Grey Tea for the famous Earl Grey "MarTEAni" she created two years ago for a Thanksgiving celebration at the Ritz Hotel London.
Visitors to Saunders' apartment describe it as a riot of infusion experiments -- coffees, juices, herbs, spices, whatever. "Audrey's a bit of a mad scientist," says DeGroff. Once she has uncovered an interesting flavor combination, Saunders will tinker with it endlessly until the proportions are just right. "Her attention to detail amazes me," says her friend Reiner. "I'll do 15 or 20 versions of a cocktail, but she'll do 100" before settling on the best.
The results can be startling. Saunders' most audacious concoction, the Dreamy Dorini, is named for a whiskey-drinking friend, Dori. Though martinis had been created using blended scotch whisky instead of vermouth, Saunders went further, using a peaty single-malt whisky called Laphroaig. Its smoky taste would have overwhelmed its companion, Grey Goose vodka, except for Saunders' inspired idea of adding a few drops of Pernod as "the lion tamer." It's not clear why that should work, but it does.
Such virtuosity has convinced the cocktail crowd that the drapes lady is a true original. "Audrey seems able to envisage flavors that will marry well even if they haven't been tried before," says whisky expert Gary Regan, who has a Web site, ardentspirits.com, and was an initial skeptic. While Regan himself has long urged that single malts be used in mixed drinks, "it was the whole recipe that astounded me. As you know, the Libation Goddess was right," he says, calling Saunders by her e-mail handle.
As the first Dorini of the night passes by on a tray, Saunders allows that "it's a bizarre drink, and if you don't like it, that's O.K., too." Even that radical recipe, though, boasts simplicity and balance. "You can create new things, but they have to stem from history. We make them fun and delicious, but we haven't strayed very far," she says. Spoken like both a true revolutionary and a keeper of tradition.
By Gerry Khermouch