There is no out-talking, outsmarting, or out-mixologizing Sother Teague. Ask a question about bitters, and Teague has not just an answer but a tome, an in-depth dialogue of distillation, history, and flavor. That he’s writing a book is a confusing notion; this man should be on TV with a captivated audience following his lightning-speed, energetic locution. But then, Teague already has an audience, one that keeps coming back to the other side of the bar at Amor y Amargo, a self-proclaimed “Bitters Tasting Room” tucked behind Cienfuegos in the East Village.
Originally conceptualized by restaurateur Ravi DeRossi and the team at Bittermens–a small-batch bitters producer once based in Red Hook that now works out of New Orleans–Amor y Amargo is part bar and part store; the tiny space showcases interesting cocktail accoutrements like strainers, books and, of course, bitters assortments, making it a prime place to stock up on ingredients for some cocktail-making at home.
It’s also a good place to drink and learn. After setting down a glass filled with ice, Teague proceeded to concoct a Sharpie Mustache, adding, one by one, Meletti Amaro, Bonal, rye whiskey, gin, and Tiki bitters to a mixing glass and then stirring (never shaking), creating a viscous, complex meld of citrus and spice. “I think it tastes like Christmas,” he said. It was beautiful.
He then walked me through the details behind making bitters.
Many associate bitters with a mother’s remedy for stomachaches or nausea–perhaps not the sexiest ingredient to add to a cocktail–and that’s because the combination of herbs and alcoholic preservatives has long been used for medicinal purposes. A doctor hoping to cure digestive ailments concocted Angostura bitters in the early 1800s in Venezuela; that formula is the grandfather of bitters still in use today.
All bitters are composed of three key ingredients: a base alcohol, most often a neutral grain alcohol; a bittering agent (or two), such as quinine, gentian, or angelica; and a flavoring agent, usually an herb or fruit. Campari is made of alcohol, gentian, and burnt orange. Angostura bitters are also made with a base alcohol and gentian, but they’re flavored with cinnamon and cardamom.
Importantly, though, Teague explained, there are two kinds of bitters: potable bitters and tinctures. Potable bitters are drinkable, and you’re probably familiar with several of these; Fernet Branca, Campari, and Underberg are all variations. Tinctures, on the other hand, are not really drinkable on their own–they’re super-concentrated flavors that, with only a few drops, can drastically alter the profile of a cocktail. They’re also highly alcoholic. And while drinking bitters are often mellowed by the addition sugar or honey, tinctures never are, so they can be harsh.
What makes Amor y Amargo unique is that nearly every one of the cocktails served there incorporates both types of bitters, a combination relatively rare in the world of mixology. As a result, they offer intense medleys you’re unlikely to find elsewhere: my Sharpie Moustache, for one, or the Di Pompelo, a combination of Tequila (alcohol base), Aperol (potable bitter), Citron Sauvage (spirit and flavor), and Hopped Grapefruit bitters (tincture). The bar also specializes in traditional bespoke cocktails, and bartenders create riffs on the old fashioned, manhattan, and negroni, though you won’t find muddling, reducing, smoking, or shaking–instead, everything made in-house can be made in your house, each ingredient a spirit or type of bitters (or, OK, simple syrup) poured from a bottle.
Find the recipe for Amor y Amargo’s Sharpie Moustache on the next page; you can find all of the ingredients for sale at the bar. Or test out another quirky combination from a stool and chat bitters with Teague while you’re there. You can also get his wisdom via Twitter if you follow @CreativeDrunk and @AmoryAmargo
by Sother Teague, Amor y Amargo
3/4 ounce Meletti Amaro
3/4 ounce Bonal
3/4 ounce London dry gin (we use Beefeater)
3/4 ounce Overproof rye whiskey (we use Rittenhouse 100°)
2 dashes Bittermens Tiki Bitters
Stir over plenty of ice to dilute and chill. Strain into a chilled glass. Express the oil from an orange twist over the top of the drink and drop in to garnish.