The Pegu Club in NYC takes its job as one of the “gatekeepers of the classic cocktail” very seriously. So does Kenta Goto, the Pegu Club’s head bartender, whose work at the bar includes not just pouring excellent drinks on a nightly basis but also working with the Club’s owner, Audrey Saunders, to maintain an extensive menu of beloved traditional drinks and new creations that push the boundaries of modern cocktail culture. A bartender’s bartender, Goto is both a passionate student of his profession and a leader in the industry, quick to share his knowledge and experiences with other drink-makers. He’s also got the credentials to back it all up, having won the “American Bartender of the Year” award from Tales of the Cocktail in 2011. We had some questions for him — and learned that he’s mastered more than just mixology (calligraphy lessons, anyone?).
Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
How to cook.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
Fishing on a little boat in choppy winter water. I guess that’s not that hard compared to rescuing someone from a fire or something like that.
Q. What are you working on right now?
The Summer menu for Pegu Club.
a lot of people used to order Vodka & Red Bull to simply get hammered. I don’t see that often anymore. I see that people are more educated and sophisticated in their drinking.
Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
Q: Who or what influences you?
My girlfriend, my parents, Sun Tzu, Steve Jobs and my team at work.
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. The Art of Fermentation
by Sandor Ellix Katz.
Q. Name one thing no one knows about you.
I have a teaching license for Japanese Calligraphy.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
Scotch and Jamon Iberico. All you can eat Sushi too.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?
Don’t get distracted.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
“Oh, this guy made it.”
Q. How did you get into bartending/mixology?
First, to make cash. Then I quickly started learning valuable things, from finding the right balance for delicious drinks to how to interact and build relationships with all sorts of people. So I stayed.
Q. Do you think there’s a unique drinking culture in the states? Have you seen a change in recent years?
This is my seventh year at Pegu Club. Although we’ve been known for great cocktails since day one, a lot of people used to order Vodka & Red Bull to simply get hammered. I don’t see that often anymore. I see that people are more educated and sophisticated in their drinking. It’s a really good change.
Q. What’s your favorite cocktail of the moment? How about a spirit?
It’s summertime, so I prefer cocktails made with white spirits and fresh fruits. We have this white rum daiquiri with honeydew melon and a hint of Absinthe. It tastes like heaven.
As for a spirit, I think Japanese whiskey will become more popular. They take such great care to make it; it deserves the recognition.
Q. As a head bartender we’re sure you witness some interesting situations and overhear some interesting conversations. Anything stand out over the years?
There was a couple who came on their first date to Pegu. I was a bartender serving them. They became my regulars over the course of time. They are now happily married and come back to celebrate their anniversary every year. In some small way, I’m a part of their life.
Q. Are there any current mixology trends you think are overrated? Anything you’re particularly jazzed about?
I just want to focus on making tasty drinks super quickly and super neatly.
Q. Food and cocktails are being paired together more than ever these days. Do you have any rules for matching the right drink with the right meal?
Cocktails must not overpower the food, so you have to watch the proof, temperature and portion of the drink. Paying close attention to what seasonings and herbs are used to prepare the meal also helps you find the right match. However, you just have to taste both together to figure it out in the end. That’s what I do.
Q. What are some must-have tools for every budding bartender?
The book called The Craft of the Cocktail
by Dale DeGroff.
Q. As a pro, what’s it like watching other bartenders work? Are you ever tempted to take over?
Only when I see anyone messy. Yes, it makes me feel uncomfortable, but that’s none of my business at the end of the day.
Q. How does the Pegu Club manage to stand out in one of the world’s most competitive bar scenes?
There is a lot of competition nowadays for sure, but I can tell you that all drinks on our menu are something we feel happy with after repeated tasting and tweaking. If it’s only “good”, then it won’t end up on our menu. It has to be “great” at the very least. That’s how we do things here.
Q. Sometimes it feels like bartenders ignore certain customers or fawn over others. Maybe they’re just busy and someone tips better. Maybe we’re just paranoid. But are there any customer pet peeves that get under your skin, or ways you size up good customers from bad?
The customers who steal roses from our vases on Valentine’s day. Trust me, your dates can tell.