Bartender Spotlight: Sother Teague
With three bars and a radio show, Teague adds author to his resume, but he’s still committed to spreading the bitter love.
All photos by Amanda Schuster.
In 2009, Sother Teague, in an interview for the now tragically defunct publication Metromix, the Beverage Director of Amor y Amargo said he one day planned to write a book called “I’m Just Here For a Drink.” In 2018, not only is he now the co-owner of two other East Village, New York City bars—Blue Quarter and Windmill—he is also the co-host (along with Damon Boelte) of Heritage Radio Network’s The Speakeasy podcast… and has just published a book entitled I’m Just Here For the Drinks. Teague is a busy guy. When I finally had the opportunity to sit down and chat with him about the book, I found out just how busy. And why keeping it that way is the key to his survival.
About the book
Amanda Schuster: I love the book! One of the best things about it is it really sounds like you.
Sother Teague: Thank you. It was a difficult goal to achieve having never written a book. I was already in the writing process when I realized I didn’t have a voice on paper, but I had a voice out loud. I had a radio show and I talk to people at the bar. I have an actual voice but not one on paper.
I went back to reread books that I liked that I could hear the author’s voice in while I was writing mine so I could figure out what they were doing and how I could do it too… How is it that I can hear Wayne Curtis’ voice in my head when I am reading his work? It’s because he writes like he talks. Same with David Wondrich or Kara Newman… You too… So I decided [to approach it as] what would I say if someone was sitting here?
AS: Did you ahead of time know how it was going to be organized?
ST: I always knew the structure, except for art direction and layout. I was focused on broad strokes, and wanted it to be engaging and challenging without being too stuffy or boring. I knew it would be ⅓ research and reference to keep cocktail nerds engaged, ⅓ shifts into anecdotal stories, and the other ⅓ is recipes.
AS: I like the inclusion of instructions about sussing out whether to visit a bar.
ST: I’m known for being a “hospitalitarian” - which is this weird militarized word about a thing that’s supposed to be so soft. I can only be as hospitable to you as I can be within the boundaries I have set in my place of business… if you see a bunch of dusty bottles it’s probably not the best place for a Negroni. If you see a sticky floor then it might not even be a good place for a beer because they probably haven’t cleaned out the taps… Don’t order spaghetti at the sushi place. Worst case scenario is they’ll try and make it. Nobody’s going to be happy, including them! Always go for the thing that they do.
I’ve learned from my own experience when I was first researching drinks that if I went to any old bar and ordered cocktails, now I’m getting a drink that I know nothing about made by someone who knows even less than I do…
AS: Your book opens with a chapter about vodka. It’s the shortest one and isn’t as detailed as the others. Why start there?
ST: I wanted to get into and get out of it as soon as possible because I didn’t want to discount it. It certainly has its place in the pantheon. But I think of vodka more as a food accompaniment. I like vodka straight out of the freezer with a bag of potato chips or vodka with oysters, caviar, that’s where it belongs. But it was also a great place to begin the conversation about what is a distillery and talk about how vodka turns it up to 11--get it as clean and clear as possible--whereas in whiskey they have it up to 6, in rum they have it all the way down to 3… they want a lot of the funky stuff to stay in there, but the process is the same in every category.
AS: You definitely seem to have more fun as you go along. It gets more whimsical, though not in the papyrus font kind of way--creative and playful. And then the Amaro chapter is clearly your baby.
ST: One of the questions I kept getting was, “Is this book about Amor y Amargo? Is this book about Amaro? Is this book your homage to bitter drinks?” My answer is it’s not. It can’t be. The main thing is if you picked that book up in Des Moines, Iowa you wouldn’t be able to make 1/10th of what’s in there. I had to be reverent. This is my baby. This is where I staked my claim. But I don’t want to be too playful that I’m not giving good information. I wanted it to be more like, “Pause for a second, we’re going to church. But after church we’re going to have drinks.” I highlighted my favorites but I also had to cull that list, but I didn’t want to write about things most people wouldn’t get the chance to see. I didn’t want to be teasing. Meletti, Dell’Erborista, Montenegro for sure…
AS: But it could at least inspire people to travel.
ST: Or come to the bar…
Behind the bar
AS: Let’s talk about the bar! People who know it might be surprised to see so many shaken drink recipes in the book.
ST: It’s like how actors get pigeonholed. The main role that I play is this guy who only stirs drinks, but I do play other parts. I have depth and range.
AS: You’re the comedian who could be in a drama…
ST: I think of myself the other way, actually. [laughs] It’s created a bit of a problem with people who saw a cocktail in the book and want me to make it at the bar, “Oh man. I saw you shaking that drink in the book.. Can you make that drink here?” “Yeah, no.” Or I sell the book there. They buy a copy, open it up, and say, “Make me that one.” And that’s not gonna happen.. [The only times of course were with their Two Weeks Notice program and a fizz event for Unofficial Bartender Week that was held there, with three people shaking at once behind the tiny bar.]
AS: So we’re sitting in Blue Quarter, which is all tea cocktails. How did that come about?
ST: The owner of Local 92 been here 12 years, and he had this non-revenue generating space [in the back of the restaurant] in NYC that he’s paying rent on. He came to AyA live trolling us. Finally he said, “You guys kill it in this small space. I have a room.” We thought, “That’s creepy. Show it to us!” Max [Green] designed the entire thing. I was knee deep in the book, and only helped design the cocktails. We thought, “It’s Mediterranean out there [in the main restaurant], Moroccan in here… what do they drink in Morocco? Tea!”
AS: What’s up with the blue door? Was it always there?
ST: We put it there, but I want to make something clear--we’re not a speakeasy. I tell people all the time: “The only way to go to a speakeasy is if you have a time machine, and if you have a time machine we need to be friends.”
AS: Windmill [co-owned with Le French Diner] is also a tiny space.
ST: Small places give us an opportunity to engage with every guest. It’s an intimate experience, and we have better management of the space, the guests that are in it, the drinks that they’re having, etc.
Striking a balance
AS: Now speaking of big spaces… You’ve been vocal on social media about anxiety and depression and how that affects you. You’re a bartender. You’re someone who has to face the public whether or not you feel like it. I feel conflicted too sometimes—if something personal is going on or if the news of the world just sucks—I find it very hard to bring the “Yay! Drink this!” some days, but I’m not doing it in public. There are even improv skits about this, with someone playing the bartender wiping down glasses listening to other people’s problems. But some days you’re that guy. How do you reconcile those worlds or can you?
ST: You can’t reconcile the two, you have to live with them both. And they are often competing with one another. So there’s lots of micro mechanisms that I use to help myself get through any given shift. The big thing we always say about being behind a bar is, “We’re on stage.” Frankly, the bigger part of me doesn’t really believe that… But you can take that stage part and say that a big part of what I do every night is acting, and I think that’s true of most people. Nine times out of ten when someone asks “How are you?” you’ll say “fine.” That probably happens to you as a regular person. Well, I don’t think of you as a normal person. You probably talk to more people than normal…
AS: True. I’m definitely not normal. [both laughing]
ST: But let’s assume you talk to 100 people a day and say “I’m fine” 9 out of 10 times. 90% of the time you’re lying. I have to do that like 900 times.
AS: That’s gotta get to you.
ST: It does! That’s exactly what gets to me. So I work all the time. This is my first day off today in 49… Throw yourself into the fire and it burns you, right? It keeps me busy, which makes me not overthink things.
But when I do have time off, unless I get asked to do something I will just sit and stew. I’ll sit in my room in the dark without the TV or anything or any distractions and mull over what just happened last night or the night before or five nights ago and it just churns and churns, and that’s when the anxiety is just gripping.
AS: Has it helped to talk about it so openly?
ST: I first spoke out about it when I was struck by a car on my bicycle and broke my arm… No work for 6 months! I had to sit at home. I get anxious and nervous about drugs, so I wasn’t taking painkillers. So I had this throbbing, low grade, constant pain that was distracting. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t pay attention to things like reading a book or watching TV and surfing the net. I really spiraled like crazy. That’s when I posted something on Facebook, which got noticed by Kat Kinsman who asked me to write something for Chefs With Issues, which is a great website everyone should check out. I was the first apparently to write anything from the front of the house [perspective]. That helped launch that side of the website. It got picked up by CBS news radio and I was on the radio talking about depression in my field. Then I gave a talk at Tales of the Cocktail about it.
So I’ve become this weird de facto spokesperson about depression and anxiety in our field and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think two things were true: One I can say is 100% true—it’s therapeutic for me and it’s helpful. The other I am hesitant to say because I’m too anxious about it, I guess. It definitely helps me, for sure, but I think it also helps other people.
A section of this interview was cut for space in which Teague discusses his anxiety triggers. One of the biggest is checking email and regular snail mail, (despite the fact his signature winter attire includes a vintage postman’s hat). Though he is quick to answer texts and social media messaging, he can go for a year or more without checking email unless he is told to look for a specific message, and once even hired an assistant to deal with it.
ST: What I’ve learned really powerfully is I’m not alone… There’s plenty of help out there. Also, when people understand what this is about. Someone said to me recently [about not being able to reach him via email], “Oh, that’s cool. People work in different ways, that’s fine.” That [observation] was a tremendous relief to me. Through it all, if you’re like me, I am able to poke fun at myself and laugh at myself. And I’m this weird example that you can be stressed out about something like email and still be successful. I wrote a book. I have three bars. I have a radio show.
Why we heart bitters
AS: Back to the more fun aspect of being bitter… There’s been such a fascination with bitter cocktails in America lately. Bitters have always been a casual part of the European culture, but not here. It was a really eccentric thing to have a bitters bar when AyA opened [in 2011]. Not that it’s old hat now, I guess it’s still considered eccentric in some ways because it’s still one of the only places that’s solely devoted to these diverse and territory-driven products. But why do you think the drinking public is so attracted to bitter flavors now?
ST: I think that the consumer is more educated now than ever before—through blogs and youtube, all manner of publications like your own that can deliver that information. The consumer is savvy, and they’re holding onto all that information, so they ask questions, etc. I’ve always jokingly said, for many reasons, there’s no better place to get an education than at a bar. And that can be anything—you can learn manners at a bar, you can learn about sports, you can definitely learn about bitter spirits. It got to the place now where bartenders are trying to be that educator in a fun, convivial and active way, and that’s charged consumer interests… So in many ways, Amor y Amargo is a 101 or even 102 education depot, since many people return to learn more. We’re putting what most people consider secondary ingredients to the front and guests are interested in that. We’re not going to run out of things to do for them. I have over 300 bottles on my bar but only 16 of them are [base] spirits.
AS: When it started there was kind of an old guard of amaro—the really wonderful, established, traditional bottles like Varnelli, Ramazzotti, Nonino, Nardini or Zwack etc. One thing that must be so cool for you being in your position is trying new things, especially some of the interpretations that have been coming out of the states lately. Anything that’s really impressed you as of late?
ST: I’m a big fan of Caffè Amaro by J. Rieger in Kansas City that is outstanding. Even if you’re not a fan of coffee liqueurs at all, this one is going to change you into a believer. It’s coffee. It’s boozy. It’s bitter, but it’s all so well balanced.
There’s a relatively new one from Haus Alpenz—Pasubio. It’s an alpino, so it has pine and juniper. Most alpinos going down the pine, juniper, citrus and herbs road, but this one goes to berry, specifically blueberries, which I’ve never seen in amaro before. It’s wine based, so it’s light and not syrupy. Southern amaro: I like Southern Amaro from Highwire Distilling in Charleston. It’s got local dancy tangerines and black tea--real bright, and juicy with that great bitterness from the tea.
AS: Have you tried any of the ones from Baltimore Whiskey Co.?
AS: Those—there’s even a Szechuan one, as well as a great fernet riff—really impressed me.
ST: See? So even that is telling. People now have distillates happening, and they decide to make amaro out of the base. It makes sense to fold it in and make it part of your program and diversify your portfolio. It’s exciting to see people are doing it at all because that means that they see the interest. No one is out there to make a product for themselves. They do it to share. More and more people are doing it, so it’s happening.
“They do it to share”--just like books and good bartending skills. Thanks for sharing, Sother!