Ask an Insider is an interview series that talks to the people that make, serve, shake, sip, pump, pour, crush, distill, and bring life to this industry. (For other interviews in the series, click the Ask an Insider tag at the bottom)
Sother Teague, Beverage Director
Amor Y Amargo
Where are you currently working and how long have you been there?
Currently I’m the Beverage Director at Amor Y Amargo on 6th street at A in NYC’s East Village. It’s the most unique bar I’ve ever been a part of. It’s intimately small, only 13 seats. We’re a bitters tasting room with over 30 tincture bitters (think Angostura and Peychaud’s, as well as several more modern flavors like Chocolate Mole, Sriracha or celery) and we have close to 90 potable bitters (AKA amaro’s like Campari, Cio Charo, and a host of Fernets). We don’t use any juice so none of the drinks are shaken. All of our drinks are basically “brown, bitter and stirred”. There are only 2 ingredients on my bar that are non-alcoholic, water and bubbly water. So the drinks are pretty stiff. Additionally, we’re a “General Store” of sorts. We sell bitters, bar ware and cocktail books. We also teach classes about bitters, amaros and vermouth. It’s amazing.
What is it about bitters that capture your attention?
Bitters have long been a key ingredient in cocktail preparation. The original cocktail, the Old Fashioned, was cited simply as “Sugar, Water, Spirit and Bitters.” Now that bitters are undergoing a renaissance, there are literally hundreds of choices on the market. If we use that “recipe” as a template, there is no limit to the number of Old Fashioneds that we can make. Classically, Rye, Angostura, a sugar cube and a splash of water can become Rum, Demerrara sugar syrup and Tiki bitters (Island spices like nutmeg and mace). A rum Old Fashioned is not to be beat. The combinations are limitless. The enormity of flexibility that bitters have is what captures my attention.
Tell me about the concept of Amor y Amargo, specifically how you’re not using citrus or syrups?
We remain true to the spirits: amari, vermouth and bitters, by not adulterating them with juice or syrups. We pay close attention to the ABV% of each product and do our best to blend drinks that are balanced and palatable (obviously with a slant toward bitter). Also, by only using ingredients that come from a bottle, it means that we can make any drink that we’ve ever made at any time. It also means that our guests have a great chance at making our drinks at home. We’ll gladly write you the spec and you can pick up the bitters at AyA and grab everything else you need at the liquor store. Win, win.
What places have you worked at in the past that were instrumental in helping form what you do now?
Every place I’ve worked behind a bar has been influential to my personal style in some way. Most of the spots were heavily based in the classics with a few modern twists. I loved hanging out with Damon Bolte at Prime Meats as well as my stint at White Star and I adored the modernest approach from Dave Arnold when I worked at Booker and Dax. But, truthfully, as far as influence for working at AyA goes, I have to reach back to my former career. I was a journeyman chef for years so I have a very well trained palate. I was an instructor at the New England Culinary Institute, Sous Chef for Susan Spicer in New Orleans, and I was the Research and Technical Chef for the hit Food Network show ‘Good Eats’ with Alton Brown. I have intimate knowledge of flavor and that’s a huge advantage for me behind the bar.
What people have inspired you?
Well, I have a lot of people that I look up to and have been inspired by both in the back of house as well as the front. I’m kind of a nerd, as well, so I’ll shout out to a few nerds first: Harold Mcgee the author of “On Food and Cooking,” if it weren’t for that book, I’d never have been a chef and eventually bartender at all. My friend Darcy O’Neil and his works at The Art Of Drink website are both intellectual and inspiring, the aforementioned Dave Arnold is constantly unraveling the mysteries of both food and liquids. As far as cocktails go, we all owe a debt to Dave Wondrich and Dale Degroff for their seeming limitless knowledge and unyielding desire to share it. I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Brad Thomas Parsons contribution with his James Beard Award winning book “Bitters.” Beyond these luminaries, I owe a debt of gratitude to every chef and bartender I’ve ever worked with or for. I’m curious by nature and I feel I watch everyone closely and try to pick up something from everyone. My dad always said “If you’re the smartest guy in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” I try and remain in “learning mind” whenever I work.
Who is doing the most exciting things in cocktails right now?
I get asked this all the time and I’m usually stumped. I don’t get out enough and generally I love the classics. However, you should get yourself a stool at Pouring Ribbons. It’s the guys from Alchemy Consulting. The very layout of the menu is so forward thinking. I wont spoil it here but suffice it to say it’s genius. Plus, it’s really hard to beat Joaquin Simo, he’s among the nicest barmen I’ve ever met.
Your favorite place to get a cocktail in NYC?
There are so many!! I love Dram in Williamsburg, it’s close to my apartment and manned by a terrific team of talent. Best of all, you can get great cocktails, the back-bar is well appointed so the spirit selection is great if you’re just looking to sip. And, finally, if you’re just looking for a beer and a shot you’re in good company as well. I think it bridges the gap between “Cocktail bar” and “Neighborhood bar” very nicely. Everyone feels welcome and comfortable.
What new trends do you foresee in 2013?
Not to sound trite, but I feel like bitters and amari are going to keep climbing the ladder. We’ve created a very educated consumer and I believe they’re growing weary of drinks that are to clouded by sweetness and juice. People are more interested in the true expression of the spirits and of bold, sometimes unexpected, flavors.