Louro beverage director Mayur Subbarao doesn’t take education lightly — one look at his degrees from the London School of Economics and from law school proves it. But it was the two decades he spent studying cocktails that revealed to him that sitting at the bar was as important to taking it. What started as a hobby of at home libation slinging for friends soon grew into drink list creation at the city’s top dining and drinking venues, and his penchant for beverage didn’t stop there. In 2012 he co-founded Bittermens Spirits, a line of artisanal liqueurs, cordials, and vermouths that makes its way into several of his offerings. Here, we chatted with Subbarao about why bitters are akin to spices, what cocktail took him the longest to master, and why it’s important to know what you want — especially if it’s in the form of a Manhattan.
BoozeMenus: How would you describe your approach behind the bar?
Mayur Subbarao: Meticulous. Since the most important elements of bartending are consistency and professionalism of service, I think it is most important to pay attention to details both in terms of the actual mechanics of drink making (mise en place, execution) and interaction with guests. I don't have the avuncular nature or manic charm of some of the best bartenders, but I believe in conducting myself like a professional.
BM: You've worked on some very distinct beverage programs, from the bitters-focused one at Amor y Amargo to the one at punch house favorite Cienfuegos. What did you consider when creating the beverage program for Louro?
MS: First and foremost, the kitchen, both in terms of individual dishes and overall culinary philosophy. Second, the importance of creating a restaurant program rather than trying to be a cocktail bar. I think there is plenty of room for jewel box cocktail establishments or truly focused bars like Amor y Amargo or Mayahuel, but a restaurant bar entails a very different kind of drink set and model. My drinks at Louro are generally less spirit-forward than the ones I would make at a more bar-focused establishment, and I tend to emphasize more bright, herbal, and citrus-bitter flavors.
Finally, while I try to be as aggressively seasonal as possible, I've noticed that guests want the drinks with which they've become familiar; given the often frequent changes in the food program, I try to maintain our most popular drinks as perennials in order to accommodate regular diners.
BM: Many of the cocktails feature products from your Bittermens line. What comes first for you in terms of cocktail creation: The base spirit or the bitters?
MS: Definitely the modifiers, though bitters are by no means necessarily the first modifier that I consider in a drink. For instance, the Winter Old-Fashioned incorporates the cinnamon accents of Bittermens 'Elemakule TIki Bitters and the mix of herbal and warm-spice flavors of the Guillaumette Genepi as well as pear; apple brandy and bourbon were a natural base to use with that flavor mix, but I could have used other spirits. It's what my friend Phil Ward calls the "Mr. Potato Head" theory of cocktails.
BM: How would you compare your thought process behind cocktail creation versus that of product (i.e. bitters/liqueur) creation?
MS: It’s very different. My goal with cocktail creation is to make something eye opening but based on simple rules and relatively few ingredients. With liqueurs, the goal is typically to introduce a new-to-the-world flavor combination; that sounds straightforward but in reality, getting to a particular perceptible flavor profile often requires a complex and sometimes counter-intuitive combination of ingredients.
BM: Which cocktail on the list took the longest to perfect?
MS: The Hemingway Royale, largely because it's an exercise in subtle but meaningful differences. The goal is to create a sparkling wine cocktail that has the bitter elements of a Seelbach or Burrah-Peg while capturing the flavors of a classic Hemingway Daiquiri; the Bittermens Citron Sauvage and Boston Bittahs do the heavy lifting that the grapefruit and lime juices in the original drink accomplish. Moving from a citrus-forward shaken cocktail — and a classic, at that — to a stirred sparking-wine cocktail is a lot of steps, but hopefully worth it!
BM: What should people know about bitters and what they contribute to a cocktail?
MS: The best way to think about bitters is as your spice rack (aromatic bitters) and condiment fridge (potable bitters). They accomplish the same thing with respect to cocktails; in the same way in which that chicken in your fridge can turn into a rustic Southern skillet-fried bird or a spicy Sichuan Chongqing number, the bottle of whiskey on your bar can turn into a variety of different beverages.
BM: How do you find yourself heightening flavor profiles while continuing to honor the classics?
MS: I think it's important to remind people that if you want a Manhattan, you should just damn well go ahead and order a Manhattan rather than needing to have the bartender steer you to a new drink; obviously that means it's important to have bartenders trained on proper execution of the classics.
In most cases, if I go through the effort of putting a drink on the menu, it's going to be a radical departure from a classic flavor profile; I'm not trying to create eighteen different variants on a classic on the menu. I think bartender's choice is a better venue for that format.
BM: Where do you find inspiration?
MS: Sometimes at bars run by more creative folks than myself. Quite often, in the case of Louro, in Dave's remarkable panoply of preserved fruits, vegetables, and flowers as well as what's in the walk-in that day. Obviously, a particular flavor that jumps out at me from a liqueur or vermouth is likely to spark interest in doing something with that product.
BM: What's your go-to cocktail on any given night?
MS: In a quality cocktail bar: A daiquiri. Otherwise not a cocktail — Campari and soda or a beer are more likely.
BM: What cocktail ingredient could you not live or work without?
MS: Does rum count?
By Nicole Schnitzler