Part bar, part laboratory and part general store, Amor y Amargo (Spanish for "love and bitters") is Ravi DeRossi’s newest vision for the space that used to house the bright sandwich shop Carteles in the Cienfuegos complex. DeRossi, whose East Village empire includes Cienfuegos, El Cobre, Death and Company, Mayahuel and The Bourgeois Pig, joined forces with the folks from Bittermens, a Brooklyn-based "very small batch" cocktail bitters and culinary extracts producer, to transform it into a tasting room, classroom and retail space that highlights the power and appeal of bitters. Even if you don’t know citrus bitters from citrates, the experts at Amor y Amargo will happily impart the pleasures of creating elaborate beverages with tinctures of herbs, roots and fruits.
Maroon walls and ornate Spanish tiles give the space a Mediterranean feel, and with only 12 stools altogether, the room is small enough that on a recent night, it was impossible to avoid overhearing conversations between the bartenders and other patrons, many of whom seemed new to the world of bitters and were anxious to learn exactly what it was that they were drinking. Rachel Ford (of Ford Mixology Lab, the cocktail website she runs with her husband) was giving descriptions of various bitters in the bar’s vast collection, which includes better-known brands like Suze and Campari as well as a wide selection of Italian amari, and mixing drinks alongside Avery Glasser, co-founder of Bittermens and managing partner at Amor y Amargo.
Glasser, who created many of the custom cocktails on the menu, was on hand mixing up a few special concoctions, answering questions and expounding on the difference between the Orange Cream Citrate, which is part of Bittermens’ experimental series, and orange bitters (essentially, the citrate is sweet and tart, but not bitter). Ford referred to a small black notebook full of recipes as she carefully prepared each cocktail in a mixing glass, and then dipped a straw in to pull out a taste and ensure each drink’s quality before serving it.
This emphasis on craft and attention to detail translated into cocktails that were as rich and complex as the descriptions suggested they would be. The Mud Season ($12 and created by beverage director Mayur Subbarao, who’s also tended bar at Dram in Williamsburg) combined Zucca Amaro, a rhubarb-based Italian bitter; Killepitsch, a fruity German liqueur; house-made sweet red vermouth; rhum agricola, a West Indian rum made from sugar cane juice; and Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit Bitters. And together, these created a dark, intense ambrosia that was garnished with a thick orange peel and became increasingly refreshing as the ice cubes in it melted. The Franaise Four-Play ($12), which blended Bonal Quinquina, a quinine-based apéritif, and Yellow Chartreuse, an herbal liqueur produced by French monks, with Lillet Blanc, club soda and Bittermens Hellfire Habanero Shrub, was surprisingly subtle and delivered a slight lavender flavor.
If all these ingredients sound like enough to make a person’s head spin, either from trying to remember what was in the drink or experiencing these powerfully intoxicating creations, or both, they were. Luckily, the menu— including 10 custom cocktails that featured Bittermens Orchard Street Celery Shrub Bitters, Xocolatl Mole Bitters and Peppercake Bitters, a flights of liqueur beginning at $12 and three draft selections—was detailed, listing the elements of each drink. Less potent possibilities were on draft, like the delightful house-made sweet red vermouth ($4), which was served on the rocks, and a rotating British bitter beer for $6 (Fuller’s ESB made an appearance recently), and offered lovely alternatives and a way to downshift into a lower level of inebriation.
Though an emphasis on custom cocktails with exotic ingredients has become standard practice for any serious new cocktail bar, the bartenders at Amor y Amargo are more willing to share their extensive knowledge about the exceptional beverages they’re mixing than other barkeeps typically are. This is surely due to the fact that Amor y Amargo also holds formal cocktail classes and sells barware and Bittermens bitters, so the bartender’s purpose is not only to sell remarkable drinks but also to sell the pleasure of mixing remarkable drinks. Amor y Amargo succeeds on both fronts, and even patrons with only a casual interest in bitters and mixology will reap substantial rewards from a visit.
443 E. 6th St. (betw. 1st Ave. & Ave. A),