Pegu Club, a Pioneering Manhattan Cocktail Bar, Won’t Reopen

Pegu Club, the SoHo bar that kicked the cocktail revival in New York City into high gear when it opened in 2005 and quickly became one of the most influential cocktail bars in the world, will not reopen, a victim of the citywide restaurant and bar shutdown in the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is with a heavy heart that we have to ring the bell for last call,” Audrey Saunders, the bar’s co-founder, wrote in a letter to friends and colleagues on Thursday.

She said she had intended to keep the bar open at least until its lease ran out on Oct. 31, but “Covid-19 has taken every bit of the life we had out of us, and a soft reopening following NYC guidelines would not be enough to sustain us entering into the summer months.” Even if it had reopened, she wrote, social distancing orders would allow the bar to serve only half its normal number of customers.

The bar would have celebrated its 15th anniversary in August. Ms. Saunders, who lives in Washington State, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. Julie Reiner, a partner in Pegu Club, confirmed the closing.

When Pegu Club opened, there were few craft cocktail bars around the city. The growing movement coalesced around the large, second-story bar on Houston Street. Though Pegu Club was opened by a group of partners, Ms. Saunders emerged as the bar’s figurehead. A bartender who had worked at Blackbird (with her mentor, Dale DeGroff), Beacon, Tonic and Bemelmans Bar, she drew from the best mixology talent in the city for the opening bartending staff: Toby Maloney, Phil Ward, Jim Meehan, Brian Miller, Chad Solomon — all of whom would eventually open their own cocktail bars.

Ms. Saunders became renowned for the seriousness she brought to her craft, testing dozens of versions of the same cocktail before finding the one she deemed worthy of being the Pegu Club version. She fought to get products then unavailable in New York that she felt were needed to make the best drinks possible, such as Laird’s bonded apple brandy and Rittenhouse rye whiskey. The menu was a mix of forgotten classics (including the Pegu Club, an old gin cocktail named after a British club in Rangoon) and her own modern inventions, such as the Gin-Gin Mule, Old Cuban and Little Italy, which went on to become modern classics in their own right.

The staff was at the front line of a yearslong battle to recalibrate the public’s taste, steering then away from safe choices like a vodka and soda or rum and Coke, and introducing them to pisco punch and the 50/50 martini (a vermouth-heavy variation of the martini that was popularized there).

As the cocktail boom continued and relaxed its rules and attitudes a bit, Pegu Club remained true to its original standards, the menu rarely changing, the bartenders forever in vests, everything just so.

“I wanted to change things,” Ms. Saunders said in 2016. “I wanted to change drinking history. This is a revolution. I knew that if we didn’t do it right then people would be, ‘Oh, it wasn’t all that.’ ”

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