By Kurt Maitland
Amanda Schuster is the Senior Editor in Chief of The Alcohol Professor, author of the book New York Cocktails, a freelance writer and booze-industry social media manager, and has a wealth of knowledge in the spirits field. She is a certified sommelier and former retail spirits and wine buyer for Astor Wine & Spirits, all of which makes her the perfect person to guide us through the NYC cocktail scene.
KM: First, tell our readers a bit about yourself and how you got into cocktails and spirits?
AS: I’ve always had an interest in both, mostly coming from the whisky side. I always considered cocktails the same way I did cuisine: that they had to be prepared well with good ingredients to be worth sipping. But my fascination expanded greatly when I was working at Astor Wine & Spirits in Manhattan, which was a job I got because of my interest in wine, oddly enough. Because I was one of the few people on the floor who expressed real interest in assisting customers with spirits, Bill Kenny, the GM at the time, took me under his wing and introduced me to all the distributors and sent me to events, and I was meeting people like Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz and Jim Meehan at PDT. I became their Assistant Spirits Buyer. This was around 2006/2007. You could say my passion for spirits and cocktails grew right along with the rise of the cocktail renaissance.
KM: What, if anything, do you think makes NYC separate and unique from other cocktail-centric cities like London, Paris and New Orleans?
AS: The only thing I can really say that separates NYC is character. There’s nothing different about the cocktails, really. You can get an amazing Martini or Manhattan in any of those places, not to mention other truly innovative drinks. However, there is nothing like bellying up to a bar in New York City and sipping a drink surrounded by local regulars and having the sort of chats about the city you don’t have in other places. There is something truly… je ne sais New York about drinking cocktails here: the people who make them, the places they are served, even what it takes to get to those places. Walking, the subway, a cab. It’s just its own thing, its own voice, its own accent. Not to mention, the late night culture that simply doesn’t exist in some other cities.
KM: You are well known as a writer in the spirits world, but I believe this is your first book. Can you talk to our readers about the process i.e. how long it took/how long you have you been working on this book, how did you research it, etc?
AS: This is a hilarious question to me. This is indeed my first book but nothing about the process is at all anything that is standard book pitching/writing.
The publisher, Cider Mill Press, already had New Orleans Cocktails and Paris Cocktails in the series. They wanted New York. Somehow along the way someone recommended I be the one to write it, so they pitched it to ME, not the other way around, going through an agent, etc. The catch is that they already had a set-in-stone production date. I had to write it in 6 weeks. That’s right. The entire history of New York City cocktails in 6 weeks! No pressure or anything since it’s my first book, right? I almost didn’t do it. I had so little time to make a decision and no time to put my other projects, like running The Alcohol Professor [website], on hold.
So, I had to write the book in 6 weeks while I also worked pretty much full time. Luckily I had already done so much research for it already through the other work I’d done for so many years and I have many contacts in the industry I’ve met over time. The words were already there either in my head or in other pieces I had written. There was no time to go to all the bars and try the drinks, and was also responsible for much of the photography too. Honestly, the hardest part of this process was getting bartenders from all the bars to sign off on recipes and photos in that short amount of time. And being able to finagle some of the necessary interviews. There were moments I was definitely writing on fumes, lots of all-nighters. It was a true test of friendship for people in my immediate circle.
People have this fantasy of what it is to be a cocktail book writer: having a budget to visit all these cool bars, sip drinks, become friends with all these cool bartenders. My reality was having a very small advance and being chained to a computer with a huge cat wedged between me and a chair cushion, not drinking hardly anything at all except coffee. That is, when it didn’t spill everywhere because my hands were shaking so badly from lack of sleep and too much caffeine.
I do not recommend anyone ever write a book this way! I so wish I’d had more time to research and dig through old recipes, reach out to more establishments and actually go to them. Luckily most of the ones in the book I knew well already and just had to call in some favors.
KM: Even as a longtime fixture on the spirit scene. were there things you learned about NYC while writing/researching this book that surprised you?
AS: This is way more of a brunch town than I ever knew. Also, it’s amazing how many high end cocktail bars go on and on about all their fresh ingredients but then have the shittiest, nastiest, jar of cocktail onions behind the bar. I now have a running list of all the bars that make their own cocktail onions.
KM: What do you look for in a “good” cocktail?
AS: Balanced flavors. Simplicity. But mostly presentation. Nothing ruins a cocktail more for me than impersonal service and indifference, lack of heart.
KM: Are there features/elements that you feel every good cocktail bar (regardless of location) needs to have?
AS: Friendly bartenders, workable volume, comfortable stools AT the bar. For me, the only exception is Raine’s Law Room because the drinks, service, attitude and atmosphere is so great. Otherwise, if I can’t sit at your bar and see my drink being made and engage with other people and there is no love in the drinks making process, I don’t want to be at your bar.
KM: Are there things you wanted to cover but didn’t get a chance to include in this publication?
AS: Please. This is something that keeps me up at night. Too much to name. Especially some fabulous neighborhood bars with real talent and love behind them that deserve attention. Sidecar in Park Slope particularly comes to mind. Will, I am so sorry I left you out!!!
KM: What do you think is the state of the NYC cocktail scene at present? Is it still thriving/growing, reaching a respectable adulthood or something in-between?
AS: The state of the scene is all about survival. Rents are ridiculous. Even if you fill every seat during service it’s still hard to make it work financially. So many wonderful bars are struggling and they shouldn’t be. They’re doing everything right: service, execution of drinks, comfort, character, regulars, yet they are on the brink of closing because they have to come up with a schtick of some kind to make it work like serving food when they never meant to and shouldn’t be focusing on it. It shouldn’t be that way.
That’s why it hurts me when a new and shiny bar that doesn’t deserve it for whatever reason. This city is like a human body – all the stores, restaurants, bars, even things like shoe and hardware stores – they’re like organs and cells and limbs which need to stay busy in order to survive. Some new bars are like a cancer, robbing attention, from the wonderful, established, far better neighborhood bars. I’ll go on record right now and say this city needs exactly NO new bars in most of the places where they exist, particularly the East Village, Williamsburg and Carroll Gardens. Someone mix it up in a more thirsty neighborhood, please.
KM: Finally, what did you want the reader to come away with after reading your book?
AS: A sense of place, some new knowledge and mad respect for this 1.6 lbs beast they have on their shelf that somehow came together as quickly as it did.