Amor y Amargo is a little bar, easy to miss, not far from The Big Gay Ice Cream shop in Manhattan’s East Village. it appeals to me for the most obvious reason – it is a bitters bar. but finally going there revealed a whole other set of charms that i had not anticipated – it is in fact tiny (like, the size of my kitchen, maybe seating for eight, tiny), they have scotch eggs, they have vermouth on tap, the bartenders were excited to talk about bitters and in turn stoked by -our- excitement to talk about bitters (well, one of them was, the other seemed ill-tempered and sullen, but perhaps it was merely the set of his mouth, for he too was quite willing to speak volubly about amari), they were playing Fugazi, they don’t stock any juice.
this last is important for a realization that i made after consecutive nights at Amory y Amargo and Hotel Delmano, both bars well-regarded for their cocktail stylings: i do not love an easy-drinking cocktail. what i had at Delmano was well-crafted, but it was unexciting (despite the ambitious combination of Ardbeg and dry sherry, along with some other things that immediately strike one as unmixable in a cardinal-sins-of-teenage-swampwater sort of way). everything i had at Amor y Amargo was thrilling, inspired, or at least instructive. i would not claim that the cocktails of the latter are necessarily better-made than those of the former, but they are more to my tastes.
the cocktail is a strange thing. part of the magic, or alchemy, of the cocktail, is the assembling and admixture of various boozes in such a way that what one arrives at does not immediately impress upon the drinker the truth of it actually being just a glass of hard(ish) liquor(s). creations of great elegance, delicacy, and smoothness may be coaxed out of quite forceful and even caustic ingredients, and i respect these as high expressions of craftsmanship, even artistry. however, i prefer those cocktails that are a little more up in the shit; those from which one does not get the impression of a spirit subdued – tamed or transformed by mixological prowess – but of several distinct voices, put into excited and perhaps surprising conversation. it is not that there is no harmony in such drinks, but there is not only harmony. there may be moments of dissonance, moments of one voice, or one idea, drowning out or dominating others, interspersed with harmonies fleeting and unpredictable, or sustained but set back from the foremost interplay of flavours.*
this is in part why i love drinks that prominently employ ‘digestive’ bitters – one is introducing an element of considerable complexity into what is already a heady mix, and when it works the results can be truly impressive.** it is also why i as a rule loathe highballs, for nowhere is it more patent that the intent is to ‘mask’ the taste of the spirit therein. now, i don’t have a problem with people not liking the taste of booze, but it happens that i do. nor do i take issue with the frank and honest desire to just get wicked ripped tight, so i can appreciate the highball’s usefulness. i am not opposed to their existing, i would just rather not drink them. i like the taste of most alcohol, that is not bad alcohol, and so i would like to taste said taste. if the alcohol is truly awful stuff, more often than not adding orange juice and coconut milk and pineapple wedges is not going to much improve the situation, and more extreme (but less X-treme than pineapple wedges) measures may perhaps be in order.***
so Amor y Amargo doesn’t stock juice. they don’t serve highballs. they restrict themselves to the cocktail philosophy of “booze mixed with booze with a little aromatic booze for character”, and they do it well. perhaps the most playful of the drinks i had was one of the bartender’s creations that he dubbed My Old Piano. i had (predictably) asked for something weird and challenging and maybe a little savoury, and, mischief-maker that he was, the bartender had just the thing in mind. what he served up was all smoke and apple funk and some sort of warm, spicy confusion – i had to assume it was something involving calvados and the Laphroaig bitters that improbably exist and inevitably they stock, and some kind of kümmel – it reminded me so weirdly of Thums Up or one of those other cuminy-tasting Indian pops. i was right about the kümmel, but had the other stuff all flipped around. it was in fact rye, mezcal (which supplied the smoke), sweet vermouth, and apple bitters. shit was crazy. and the kind of trickery whereby one realizes as much by the involuntary narrowing of one’s eyes appraisingly as by the taste itself that one has been charmed. charmed, perplexed, in the best sense of the word.
we had a discussion about the provenance of the name, which was inspired by the Diana Ross song “My Old Piano”. i’m not sure i understood at the time, but i think that like the drink, the song and its lyrics have a confusing charm, both dignified and ridiculous. i’m not sure this is what he meant.
Love is called / My old piano / I have a ball / With my old piano / My baby entertains / The real life of my parties / But still retains / In all the dignity / His international style / Exudes an air of royalties.
* i have said all this before, apparently. see “Bottled Symbolic/Semantic Violence.”
** at the same time, i can appreciate the position that some such ingredients are too wild to play well with others. i spoke with a bartender at the Comstock in SF who, for all its immense popularity, shied away from using fernet in cocktails (San Francisco is one of the largest consumers of fernet branca outside of Italy. it is conventionally taken as a shot with a shot of ginger in rapid succession). she did eventually capitulate in the form of a jest by making me a cocktail of fernet, sherry, sweet vermouth and genever (which i had said i thought was gross), which on paper now appears to be a riff on the Hanky Panky/Gibrone, but at the time was all very wtf and according to my notes tasted good, but a little rubbery, and like “gougère cheese air.” i trust this was either the dry sherry or the four other cocktails talking, and anyway, we were just in there looking to find out who shot who in the Embarcadero August, 1879.
*** notable exceptions to this “rule” would include fernet & coke, wherein despite the tooth-shrinking sweetness of cola, the fernet plays with it in such a way as to highlight that coke actually does have an incredibly weird and medicinal taste itself, to which we have just become accustomed, so the fernet succeeds in again making strange that so familiar product; fernet & orange juice, which seems to work only because it shouldn’t (think toothpaste and OJ); and a slew of soda-water-containing drinks: the gin & soda (where g&t makes me gag), campari & soda, pompier aka vermouth cassis. as much as i want to, however, i can’t abide whisk(e)ys & soda. generally i have too much poncey regard for scotch, and bourbon & soda distinctly tastes like watered-down (in the worst sense) bourbon to me. perhaps with rye? i doubt it.
additional exceptions would include the soon-to be recounted events of our ill-fated trip to Niagara Falls last summer (tentatively entitled “Hot Dogs at the Brink of Insanity”, that involved warm vodka & canned strawberry kiwi juice, shots (which i also loathe) at a Boston Pizza/Video Arcade, spending 45$ on a ferris wheel, and awakening/awakening into, greater life-pain than recent memory is fit to accommodate. the point being that while, if you can call pouring liquor and juice back and forth between bottle and can to achieve some uniformity a “highball”, highballs were involved, i wouldn’t say it elevated them in my esteem.