Monday, August 1, 2011

A Royal Wedding in Cocktaildom

I've taken on many roles in my 25-year career as a journalist. I never expected that one of them would be what used to be quaintly referred to a Society Writer. But here it is, my first—and very probably my last—Vows column in the New York Times. I suspect that many of my relatives and friends will care more about this byline than anything else I've written.

Of course, the wedding is one from the drinks world, or it wouldn't make much sense my writing it. On July 4 in Seattle, Pegu Club owner Audrey Saunders married all-around cocktail philosopher Robert Hess. Then, on July 23, they got married all over again in New Orleans, at the "Plymouth Gin Bartender's Breakfast" at the Tales of the Cocktail convention. It was meant to be a surprise ceremony. But, by midnight that night, I think I may have been the only person who knew of it who had kept his mouth shut. Still, as far as I could judge in my informal polling of the celebrants, about half to two-thirds of the crowd were taken aback.  The ceremony was performed by the dueling distillers act of Desmond Payne (of Beefeater) and Sean Harrison (of Plymouth). The wedding party included such cocktail luminaries as Allen Katz, Julie Reiner, Chad Solomon, Christy Pope, Gary Regan, Anistatia Miller, Jared Brown and David Wondrich. Dale DeGroff gave the bride away.

The Seattle wedding was a much more tranquil affair, held near a lighthouse on Vashon Island in the Puget Sound on a bright, breezy day. Still, there were signs of Bacchus along the edges. Someone had a water gun that sprayed Negroni shots into people's mouths. (Pictured below.) Francesco Lafranconi brought a bottle of Hennesy Paradis (which will cost you about $600) that lasted about a half hour.

The bar program, it's safe to say, was unbeaten in American weddings of this or any year. Executed by some of the best bartenders in the nation, as well as the entire staff of Seattle's Rob Roy, it included almost every cocktail that can be found on the Pegu Club menu, as well as two drinks invented by Hess (including the Trident), one by DeGroff and one by longtime Pegu barman Kenta Goto. The Rob Roy folks spent the entire night before the wedding batching cocktails. The morning of, they carted an actual ton of craft ice over to Vashon Island. (That means the ice and batched cocktails took the ferry.) For teetotalers, there were fancily infused waters, a non-alcoholic Moscow Mule, and Mexican Coke.

One element of the New Orleans bash that did not make it's way into the Times piece was an encounter with adult film legend Ron Jeremy, who was in town promoting his new rum. I told him about the wedding, that he had somehow missed. "Was it a big deal?" he asked. "Are they big in the industry?" I intimated they were. "I should have played my harmonica," he said. Around 3 AM, he took to the stage and did just that.

Here's the story:

VOWS: Audrey Saunders and Robert Hess
By Robert Simonson
The couple’s first face-to-face meeting in 2002 took place exactly where it should have — at a bar.
Audrey Saunders was then overseeing Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel, and Robert Hess was the barfly.
Both had become leading figures in the then-nascent cocktail renaissance — which began in the late 1990s with a few scattered professionals and enthusiasts striving to reclaim classic libations and create new drink concoctions. New York became a capital of the movement.
DrinkBoy, the cocktail-oriented Web site founded in 1998 by Mr. Hess, an executive at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash., was their first point of contact. And from that point on, Ms. Saunders, who preached the religion of mixed drinks, through jigger and shaker, knew that Mr. Hess — a man with a published predilection for a classic Old Fashioned, but whom she then somewhat contemptuously viewed as a “civilian” — would show up at her bar eventually.
Finally, a Microsoft event brought him to town. She was ready: “I took his recipe and gave it to all my bartenders. I said, ‘If someone orders an Old Fashioned, it’s him. He might not announce himself. We’ll show him.’ ”
But instead of trying to slip in unnoticed, he parked himself right in front of her, and properly introduced himself. “Here was this lovely, soft-spoken guy with very gentle eyes,” recalled Ms. Saunders, 48, who had been married once before and was dating no one at the time. “I thought, he’s nothing like he sounds.”
They talked all night. When it came to drinks, they shared the same canon: the juice must be fresh squeezed, the ice hand cut and the martinis properly measured.
The next night, they went to Lupa Osteria Romana, under the guise of conducting “research” into the Greenwich Village restaurant’s bar program. “We could tell there was something going on,” Mr. Hess said. (Years later, he would tell Ms. Saunders that he knew she was the one for him that first night at Bemelmans.)
Ms. Saunders remembered: “I was tortured by liking him, because it just didn’t fit into my plans. He was in Seattle, I’m in New York. I wanted to open my own bar. I didn’t think it could work.”
Over the years, they’d see each other at liquor industry events. Occasionally, they became lovers.
She tried closing the door on the relationship. “I couldn’t,” said Ms. Saunders, now an owner of the famed drinking mecca Pegu Club on West Houston Street.
But the miles between them remained an issue. After an event at the Merchant Hotel in Belfast in fall 2007, where both were invited guest bartenders, Ms. Saunders said, “ ‘That’s it.’ I was frustrated. How does this work? We cooled it for a while.”
Ms. Saunders had a change of heart in 2009 at the liquor industry’s Tales of the Cocktail convention, which draws the cocktail demimonde’s elite to New Orleans every July. She spied Mr. Hess from afar at an early party.
“That was the moment, like in a cartoon, where you get hit in the back of the head with a frying pan,” she said. She sent a “long, gushy” text message suggesting dinner.
Then, silence.
“He never responded all week. My heart just sunk.” A few days later, at another party, “I feel these hands on my shoulders,” Ms. Saunders recalled. “I see Robert towering over me.” Her text? “I had lost my phone,” Mr. Hess said. “She assumed that I’d given up on things.”
“Him not responding that week really made me think how much he meant to me,” Ms. Saunders said.
The couple’s first official date also took place where it should have — at a bar. Mr. Hess arrived at the New Orleans hotel bar called Swizzle Stick first and ordered a Sazerac. Ms. Saunders joined him soon after and called for a manhattan.
Lu Brow, manager of the bar and a friend, recognized what was going on immediately, and alerted her fellow bartender, explaining, “This is a special night,” and adding, “This may take a while.”
Ms. Brow then plied the couple with pinot noir, Champagne, Cognac and stingers. “They were there a long time,” she said.
While setting up a new bar in Los Angles that fall, Ms. Saunders broke her ankle and was laid up for weeks. Soon, she realized Pegu Club could run on its own.
“That was really the deciding factor. I thought, ‘I really can consider a life out West with Robert.’ ” She moved into Mr. Hess’s house in Lake Forest Park, Wash., in July 2010 and began commuting, spending roughly four out of every five weeks in the Northwest.
Mr. Hess — a man of few, but heartfelt, words — said their shared affinity for cocktails is just a “small piece” of what makes them made for each other. “She has an adventuresome soul,” said Mr. Hess, who is also divorced. “I like status quo and relaxing in the moment. Audrey likes to kick things up sometimes. One of my faults, perhaps, is that I’m a little too monochrome. Her infectious behavior pushes my bounds in healthy directions.” Directions like some day turning their home into a sort of cocktail institute, a Taos for tipplers. “It would be wonderful to tap our friends for the betterment of beverage,” Ms. Saunders trilled.
Friends and family began noticing a change in the “always very solemn and quiet” Mr. Hess, as his father, Robin Hess, a retired Methodist minister, put it. “It used to be when you would talk with him, you would have to keep the conversation going. Now you just sit back and let him go. He’s so happy now.” Ms. Brow saw an alteration in Ms. Saunders. “Audrey’s always been a loving and sweet person. It’s just more magnified now. She’s more bubbling and effusive.”
Ms. Saunders and Mr. Hess became engaged in November 2010 while she was working an African-coast cruise as — what else? — a guest bartender.
Their wedding was one part Seattle, two parts New Orleans.
It began on July 4 with a small private religious ceremony led by Mr. Hess’s father on Vashon Island in Puget Sound. A select collection of cocktail luminaries attended. Some of them, including much of the staff of Seattle’s Rob Roy lounge, jumped behind the bar to execute a reproduction of the Pegu Club’s cocktail menu — modern classics like the Gin-Gin Mule and Old Cuban — as well as a couple of inventions by Mr. Hess.
But being members of a close-knit, sybaritic community that will give a party at the drop of a Champagne coupe, the couple couldn’t stop at that. They wanted a second public wedding — an unannounced event at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail that all their colleagues — bartenders, bar owners, distillers — could witness. They chose a post-midnight event on July 23, euphemistically called the “bartender’s breakfast,” held this year at the grand, high-ceilinged New Orleans Board of Trade. The party traditionally closes out the convention.
“We basically turned it into the wedding reception,” said Mr. Hess of the well-lubricated ’70s-themed soiree. The bride, in a loose white, flowered dress, and the bridegroom, in a powder-blue tuxedo and white platform shoes, were led into the room by a brass band playing “What a Wonderful World.” The couple then danced their way through the roughly 1,000 revelers to a platform directly behind a long, glowing bar staffed by star mixologists from New York, Boston, San Francisco and elsewhere.
The couple read their vows; the crowd cheered; the bartenders continued to mix drinks.
Meanwhile, partygoers jumped in the courtyard fountain and accepted shots funneled through a giant ice sculpture. “See,” Ms. Saunders said, with a gesture that encompassed the surrounding donnybrook. “This is why I wanted a wedding here.”

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