Rye's Sother Teague Talks Played-Out Pickle Backs, the Bartender From The Love Boat, and the Superpower That Makes Him the Most Dangerous Drinking Companion in Town
Sother Teague, the head bartender at Rye in Williamsburg, spent years cooking in restaurants around the country until, one day, he found himself behind the bar. When you find out what his superpower is, you'll wonder how he didn't end up there sooner.
What should people order at Rye these days?
The newest drink on the menu is called the Carol Cooler, which involves watermelon juice and aloe vera juice. It's a great combination for summertime, very refreshing and cooling. The Bonnie Prince has pineapple juice that I smoke. We take something that's generally thought of sweet and turn it into something a bit savory. I've got a Smash on the menu right now, with fresh peaches, poached in white wine and pureed. And a Reposada Shrub, with raspberry gastrique. Shrubs are a category of drinks that use vinegar. Probably our biggest selling drink since we opened the doors is a South Side. It's basically a gin mojito with a bit of muddled cucumber. It's almost impossible to drink just a little. It just goes down like water. It's dangerous.
How did you get started behind the bar?
I was a chef for years and years. I actually worked on a show called Good Eats with Alton Brown on the Food Network. He and I co-wrote a book called I'm Just Here for the Food back in 2002 and won a James Beard Award for that. I was cooking, cooking, cooking all over the country [until] I was burnt out on cooking. So I asked if I could go at the front of the house, just for six months so I could figure myself then go back to my career. As it turned out, I just fell immediately in love with it.
What did you like better about being behind the bar than in the kitchen?
It's a very similar process, both mentally and physically: thinking about the way things taste and how they're going to match up together, preparing them, presenting them. But in the kitchen, after it goes through the double doors, that's the last mile that gets left unrun. Whereas, behind the bar, I get to do all that same stuff and now I get to hand it to my guest and talk about it and connect. I fell in love with that. After I figured I probably wasn't going back to the kitchen for a long time, I started looking around at the regular run-of-the-mill bar. I looked at the bottle of Rose's grenadine behind the bar and saw nowhere on the bottles that it was made of pomegranate, so I thought, well, I'll make my own grenadine. And the parts of me that are a chef emerged behind the bar.
Interesting that you went from being a chef to a bartender when now so many bartenders like to think of themselves as chefs. And even call themselves "bar chefs."
A lot of the guys I hang out with are trying to make more stuff on their own. It's fun to watch and help them and see the mistakes they make that are mistakes that I would not make, given that I had all those years of experience in the kitchen. A lot of those guys are trying to get into the kitchen, as I'm trying to escape to the bar. But all those terms -- mixologist -- I've always been of the mind that you are what your boss calls you. I jokingly call myself the CD, the creative drunk. I have a lot of skills and I like to drink.
What is the most exciting thing happening in the world of bartending right now? I think it's great that we're finally able to reach our clientele and show them that things can be made with fresh ingredients. This is not necessarily a new trend, but it's peaking right now. I get to Rye at noon and spend hours and hours doing prep before we open. I also think one of the things that Rye and some restaurants do is trying to be both a great cocktail bar and a great restaurant. I can go to lots of great bars and not get great food. PDT has hot dogs and they're delicious and kitschy, but it's not what I'd consider a great meal with cocktails. Or I can go to Le Bernardin on the flip side and have an amazing meal with boring standard highballs and martinis. No one's back there creating a list and making it food-friendly and even pairable with the foods on the menu.
What is your favorite food and cocktail pairing at Rye? I like the classic Old Fashioned for the food styling here. It's a gorgeous drink and very handsome in a glass. It's potent without knocking your face off even. Right now my favorite thing on the menu is a smoked sturgeon salad, which is just unbelievable. Cal [Elliot, chef] gets in fresh sturgeon and cures it for three days and smokes it for several hours. Again, lots of preparation goes into everything we do here. It's plated with some frisée and potato, so it has notes of salty and bitter, and a little bit of bacon in there as well. It's just a great dish, and I think the classic Old Fashioned goes with it very well. What are some of your favorite bars to drink at when you're not at your own place?
I love Rye, of course, but to do my drinking, I like to go elsewhere. I love Dram, and I love that the bar is stacked with just these crazy good bartenders from all over the place. I love the Counting Room, a pretty new place here in Williamsburg. The flip side of that is that I like to go to just joints. I'm pretty partial to the Bushwick Country Club when I want to have a couple of frozen Jim Beam and Cokes. I like some of the standards -- PDT, Death & Co., Milk & Honey. They're all fun places to go for different reasons.
What do you like drink at home?
I have a theory on how I drink. I drink in three ways. The first is the season: Hot weather I'm probably sticking to tequila, gin, and vodka, which I'm not opposed to. Second, I drink to the occasion. I'm not partial to champagne, but I'm drinking it on New Year's. And third, I drink to the atmosphere. I would never walk into the Bushwick Country Club and order a classic Old Fashioned, just as I would never walk into Dram and ask for a pickle back. But when I'm at home I'm not jiggering and shaking and stirring. I'm just free pouring and enjoying myself.
What are some of the trends in cocktail bars that you're sick of seeing?
Well, I guess the pickle back's played out. It's bothersome for me for a number of reasons. The pickle juice will just shatter your palate, and not to mention, it's not all that great for your stomach. I've seen guys have four, five, six pickle backs and I think to myself, "You just drank six ounces of pickle brine." That's just saltwater. Sodium water, just pounded. That's part of the reason I put a shrub on the cocktail list, because I want to use vinegar in a cocktail and show people you don't have to do a pickle back to drink vinegar.
Who's your favorite TV or movie bartender? Just off the cuff, I'd say Isaac, the bartender from The Love Boat. He snapped his fingers and did that thing with the thumbs and was always happy to see you with a cool drink on the deck of the boat.
Do you have a favorite drinking song or drinking music?
Again, it's very atmospheric. I like to listen to jazz when I'm in some smoky lounge sipping on some whiskey. I like listening to rock 'n' roll over at Duff's when I'm pounding Budweisers. I feel like the mood and the music inspire the drinking every time.
What's your go-to hangover cure?
I've been asked this one before and I get the same response every time when I say that I've never had a hangover. Yeah, I have this crazy metabolism. I don't know what it is. I never get punished. I can drink and drink and drink and the next day I'm fine. My girlfriend hates it, of course. I have to make her greasy food the next day, but I'm up and ready to go. I've never thrown up from drinking and I've never had the headaches and the bleary eyes. People always tell me that that's lucky, but I don't know if they're right. Maybe it's not lucky because I've never had that slap on the wrist from my own body to say, "Hey, cut it out." I mix everything, I drink everything, I get people to do it along with me, and they're crippled the next day and miss work and I get up and go. That's my superpower, I guess.
Are you working on anything outside the bar? I've been working for the past few weeks on a project with the Dos Equis family. They do an ad campaign called "The World's Most Interesting Man." I was asked to make them five Dos Equis beer-based cocktails that will be used in the print ads. I made a version of the classic French 75 with Dos Equis Lager, which is their lighter, crisper beer. I'm also doing a cocktail that's based on a Dark and Stormy with their amber beer, and doing a more desserty cocktail called the Irish Tuxedo. That's Jameson, Kahlua, and their amber beer with no ice. They can do whatever they want with them. ... They may use them in a commercial. Like, "I don't always drink cocktails, but when I do, I like Sother's beer cocktails."
Any plans to go back to the kitchen at some point?
Well, yes, actually. I'm in very preliminary talks with my friends at Dram about stretching those culinary wings of mine again and doing some small-plate food out of that tiny little kitchen they have there. [Owner Tom Chadwick] is talking about getting a stable of guys to come through [as guest chefs] and I would be an anchor to all that. To get back with a knife in hand instead of a cocktail shaker will be fun for me.
Have a restaurant tip or other food-related news? Send it to email@example.com.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to New York dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.