Why are bitter cocktails all the rage? It could have a little something to do with Sother Teague.
We humans emerge from the womb with a sweet tooth – that’s why you’re more likely to see a baby drinking breast milk, which is slightly sweet, than propped up at the bar nursing a Negroni.
Seriously though, this innate liking for sweetness is all about survival. Traditionally, sweet foods are energy-dense and, importantly, not likely to poison us.
Which brings us to bitterness. “Your brain considers it to be a threat, potentially poisonous, so to maintain the self and the species, it’s telling us stay away,” says Sother Teague. “So you literally have to train your palate to enjoy it.”
Teague’s not a scientist, he’s a bartender, but he’s got a pretty good handle on this particular taste: his New York bar Amor y Amargo, which is Spanish for “love and bitters”, is a “bitters tasting room”.
Initially conceived as a six-month pop-up that would serve as a clubroom of sorts for Teague and his bartender buddies, it’s still going strong eight-and-a-half-years later, and Teague is preparing to open a second branch in Brooklyn in a few weeks’ time.
He’s a busy man, talking to The Spinoff in Auckland fresh from a 12-hour flight from the States. Teague came straight from the Spirited Awards in New Orleans, where he and Amor y Amargo were finalists in several categories, including best American cocktail bar, American bartender of the year and world’s best spirits list. He’s in town for a few days to host a series of cocktail-and-food-matching events with the Comensa Group, which owns the likes of Cafe Hanoi, Saan and Xuxu.
The idea behind Amor y Amargo, says Teague, is to showcase both tincture bitters – those are the ones you just use a couple of drops of, eg Angostura – and potable bitters, the likes of Campari and Fernet Branca (the latter is an amaro, a class of Italian bitter liqueur). In some ways it’s a narrow remit, but go in with an open mind and a world of opportunities presents itself, says Teague.
“We don’t use any juice, we don’t shake any drinks – all our drinks are spirit-forward, stirred, short drinks,” he explains, adding only half-jokingly that the only non-alcoholic beverage on the bar is water.
But who needs mixers when more than 500 tincture bitters and a dizzying array of potable bitters line the back wall of the tiny bar. Does the thought give you anxiety? Teague gets it.
“From the beginning, we wanted to build a space that was going to put people off balance a little bit – they walk in and they see this wall of things they might not recognise 80 or 90% of. And even though it’s just drinks, it’s intimidating. So we want to knock you off balance a little bit, but then grab you before you fall and bring you in with us and say ‘no you’re with us, it’s cool’.”
Not everyone’s on board straight away, says Teague. “In the beginning, the number one thing we served was ‘no’,” he says. “People would walk in and say, ‘Oh, I’m at a bar, I’ll have a rum and Coke’, and I’d say ‘No…’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, sorry, I’m at a cocktail bar, I’ll have a daiquiri’, and I’d say ‘No…’ Because those drinks have things we don’t use.
“But when you’re nice to people and hospitable, they’ll go, ‘Well, I’m in here already so I may as well try something, what do you think I would like if I like this?’ And we try to accommodate.”
To that end, Teague says, he’s learnt to say ‘yes, but…’ instead of a flat-out ‘no’. Going back to the rum and Coke order, the response now might be, “Yes, but I don’t have any Coke. I’ve got delicious rum, and I’m going to put it in a glass with Meletti Amaro, which is a cola nut amaro so it’s going to have that cola flavour. I’m going to add a lot of lime bitters because I don’t have any lime juice, and then I’m going to pipe the glass up with seltzer water so it’s bubbly. It’s going to be our style of rum and Coke – are you in?
“And they’ll be like, ‘Whoa, yeah, let me try that weird rum and Coke’,” he says. “Then once you get ’em there you can bring ’em on down the road and say, ‘That’s definitely what we do, but let’s have something more of what we do, which is esoteric stirred drinks.”
In essence, the bar serves only three drinks: old fashioneds, Manhattans and Negronis, he says. “Every single drink we make is a variation on those themes.” But with 500-plus bitters, those variations are essentially endless.
A former chef, Teague likens tinctures bitters to seasoning, as they’re used to tie everything together. “The only time you notice them is when they’re missing. I would never serve you unseasoned soup, so why would I serve you an unseasoned cocktail?” he says.
“It opens up a whole host of new things you can do. If I make you chicken soup, I can season that with just salt, but then I can say you know what, I’m going to add some cilantro [coriander] to this soup, or maybe oregano, and it becomes a whole new product because of that final touch.”
There’s been a bit of a boom in artisanal bitters in recent years: they’re basically a blend of herbs and spices steeped in alcohol, often with a bittering agent such as gentian, but you can make them out of pretty much anything. While the classic Angostura is based on cinnamon and cardamom, Teague says at the bar he’s got sriracha bitters, Earl Grey tea bitters, eucalyptus bitters, Memphis barbecue bitters… New Zealand’s still catching up on the trend in terms of bitters makers, but Elemental Distillers is producing some fine examples in Marlborough.
The rise in bitters brands comes off the back of an increased interest in bitter cocktails in general, as we continue to move away from the cosmopolitan and mojito-crazed days of the early 2000s to crave something a little more refined.
“I see it all over the world,” says Teague. “The trend has definitely been moving further and further away from the syrupy sweet, heavily juice-laden cocktails into the more spirit-forward and refined cocktails.”
If you’d still rather sup upon a sickly sweet RTD than a Negroni, shaaaame, but it might not be your fault, you poor young thing. Just as the bitterness within our souls intensifies as we age (no? just me?), we develop a taste for bitter flavours too. It’s likely some combination of having trained our palates and our taste buds dying (yep, it’s grim getting old, but at least you get some class along with your withering taste buds).
If you’re an oldie but still hate bitter stuff, don’t despair: blame your taste receptor genes. A couple of flavour compounds exist that some of us can barely taste, while others perceive them to be overwhelmingly bitter.
It’s fascinating stuff, so no wonder people love researching bitterness. One of the most intriguing conclusions to emerge in recent years is that people who enjoy bitter flavours are more likely to be psychopaths.
“I love that article!” Teague laughs when I raise it. “It pops up every now and again and I post it out all over everything.”
He proposes that it could come down to the, er, more psychopathic among us probably being a bit more adventurous and aggressive of palate.
Don’t let this put you off bitter drinks, however: it’s good to push your personal flavour boundaries every now and then.
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