EAST VILLAGE—It’s always tempting to mix one’s pleasures. And in a neighborhood that draws drinkers to both caffeinate and tipple, what better way to blend day into night than a craft cocktail fueled with coffee?
What baristas and coffee pros know, and you may not, is that coffee’s harmonies of fruit and acidity, body and flavor, can, in the right hands, provide the perfect backdrop for spirits. Two of those right hands (well, technically one’s left) belong to Amor y Amargo bartender Amanda Whitt, who, since last spring, has helmed the intimate bar’s Double Buzz program.
A four-hour-long very special cocktail service taking place each Sunday afternoon, Double Buzz draws perhaps a more specific mix of people than your average bar whose hours overlap with brunch. Specializing in bitters, the bar relies on a vast stable of the stuff — Whitt estimated at least 70 potable bitters and 30 tincture bitters in one quick scan of the tiny room. But it also specializes in specializing: It takes a certain kind of person who’s ready to drink cocktails at noon, or coffee at 4:00 p.m. on a Sunday, and an even more special person who wants to drink them together.
These aren’t Irish Coffees and correttos, mind you — they’re full-scale, coffee-forward cocktails based on seasonally changing coffees from artisan roasters, mixed with top-shelf booze. “The Flamingo,” for instance, marries Ethiopian Guji coffee with tequila, cocchi rosso and apple bitters. Leave your preconceptions at the door.
Whitt, who also works at nearby coffee-food-drink darling Box Kite, says the marriage of coffee and spirits comes naturally, even if the United States hasn’t caught up to the international world of, for instance, coffee-and-spirits competitions.
“I think that a lot of this started when people were looking at craft coffee and improving it,” says the Pacific Northwest–born barista-bartender. “Hospitality-wise, workflow-wise, coffee took a lot of cues from bartending.”
So do the drinks at Double Buzz — some of which are inspired by the bar’s “regular” cocktail list of bitters-focused concoctions, others by classic cocktails and tiki drinks and others yet from the changing coffees’ own natural qualities. Whitt rotates not only through coffee selections but roasters as well, updating the coffee menu monthly and the roaster every few months. Last fall she brought on Sightglass from San Francisco; past roasters have included Maryland’s Ceremony Coffee and New York’s Irving Farm.
Venture with Whitt into this land: An Avian Accomplice served as a coffee-updated version of the Jungle Bird tiki classic melds juicy, fruity Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee with light and dark rums, Campari and Angostura bitters and a twist. The coffee’s presence is not, as one might guess, submerged — in fact, the menu explicitly calls out those drinks that foreground coffee in their construction. This is a light and tart drink that finishes as fresh as it starts, warmed by rum sweetness but decidedly focused on the coffee.
Another offering, the John Patrick Mason, marries a tangy and slightly vegetal Colombian coffee from Finca Alcatraz with blended Scotch, Averna, Fernet and birch bitters. Whitt’s coffee curation does have a few secrets, of course: Drinks like this one, or the popular Morning Stubble, are particularly harmonious with the flavor profiles of washed Central American coffees, which Whitt orders with regularity. Ethiopian components, on the other hand, can provide a delicate backbone for some lighter-bodied spirits, or for drinks in which floral and berry notes are desired.
Whitt says the program, which celebrates its second anniversary in April, stemmed from practicality. While primarily a bar, Amor y Amargo also sells barware and bitters and wanted to enhance its appeal during, well, daylight hours. Former bartender Natalie Czech, who, too, has a coffee background, created Double Buzz partly to add value to those hours, but also because coffee and bitters have sat side by side in Italy for generations. Why not here, too?
And how do professional barista tools fit into the intimate space at this particular establishment — what with all the bitters and barware already taking up much of the elbow room? Whitt’s arsenal of two electric kettles (designed specifically for pour-over), a burr grinder and two Japanese dripper cones all fit tidily into the rear of the bar — and are stashed away at the end of Double Buzz service just before 5:00 p.m. each Sunday.
If there’s anything the humble set-up testifies to, it’s that one doesn’t really have to build a $500,000 café space to brew coffees subtle and distinct enough to shine in thoughtfully conceived cocktails. Whitt prepares her coffee “Japanese-style” pour-over, which is to say brewed at a concentrated strength over ice, bringing it to just the right temperature for mixing.
And as the ingredients unfold, sometimes layer by layer, from day to night, one thing is perfectly clear: This is one buzz worth doubling down on.
Photo credit: Patrick Kolts