If anyone appreciates the far-ranging field of hospitality, it’s Neta beverage director Cole Schaffer. After cutting his teeth at Student Prince, his family’s 500-seat German restaurant in Massachusetts, he stepped into an externship with China Grill Management that put him in a front of house position at London’s Alain Ducasse. Once back stateside, he continued to tour the restaurant industry via bookkeeping, maitre d’ and bar manager positions before opening CultureFix in 2010, a bar and art gallery on the Lower East Side. This past September he joined the Neta team, where he now oversees the bar program — a collection of small batch spirits, housemade syrups, and bitters meant to surround the restaurant’s sushi and kaiseki-style dishes. Here, we chat with Schaffer about the trickiest ingredient he’s encountered, why sake might surprise you, and the mezcal-esque spirit you should be drinking.
BoozeMenus: How would your regular patrons or colleagues describe your style of bartending?
Cole Schaffer: Unpretentious, approachable and informative. I’m happy to tell you about a drink, explain ingredients, etc.
BM: What did you consider most when creating the drinks list for Neta?
CS: The cocktails are meant to bookend the dining experience at Neta. Guests should start and/or finish their meal with a cocktail. That’s why the cocktails are robust, rather strong and complex in their flavor profile, so each drink can stand on its own. I wanted each cocktail to display intensity on the palate — start off strong tasting and then gradually taper off, yet have a lingering flavor. When it comes to pairing with dishes though, I recommend drinking sake and wine.
BM: Any cool stories behind any of the drinks that you can share with us?
CS: In general, I take inspiration from a multitude of influences when creating the drinks at Neta. When it comes to Japanese ingredients, though, there’s actually a small spectrum of native Japanese ingredients like citrus and herbs that can be used as bar mixers. It’s actually freeing because I can create a list that highlights those Japanese ingredients and really represent Neta, yet still move beyond that and create modern, eclectic cocktails that highlight other types of ingredients.
BM: Which ingredient proved the most difficult to incorporate into a cocktail?
CS: The Wakaba, in which Woody Creek single distilled potato vodka is infused with genmaicha – a mix of green tea and toasted rice.
BM: What should folks know about pairing sake with food?
CS: The truth is that traditionally, Japanese people don’t drink sake with sushi because it’s essentially rice on rice. Sake is made from fermented rice. Sashimi is absolutely eaten with sake, but if you’re eating nigiri or maki rolls, it just becomes too filling. At Neta we recommend pairing sake with our kaiseki-style dishes on the omakase menus and a la carte small plates. A perfect dinner at Neta would start with a cocktail, move onto sake during the first part of our omakase menu and then to white wine, or my favorite sparkling wine like a Champagne, when the sushi course comes. Another thing people should know about pairing sake with food is that dry sake isn’t always best. Some people think of sake like wine in that if they prefer dry white wine, they’ll prefer dry sake as opposed to sweet sake. But in general, I’ve found that when tasting with the diners and introducing different types of sake to our guests at Neta as pairings, they tend to prefer more fruit-forward, medium-bodied sake with our complex dishes.
BM: What is shochu, and what is the biggest difference between Korean soju and Japanese shochu?
CS: I’ve been told this by many people whom I’d consider experts in the field: They’re the same thing! Shochu in the 1980s was a marketing initiative by the Japanese to differentiate their product from soju, which they considered to be inferior. But it’s really a branding difference and there are Korean sojus I like as much, if not more, than Japanese shochus. They are both distillates with a majority of rice and a sugar starter. There is an over-proofed Korean soju that we carry at Neta I really like called Hwayo. It’s considered overproof because it’s 40 percent alcohol as opposed to 30 percent. It’s extremely clean tasting.
BM: You also incorporate ingredients that go way beyond Asia, including raicilla. What is this exactly, and what led to your choice for including it?
CS: Raicilla is a mezcal style spirit, a smoked agave spirit. I use it in the Amai Doku with housemade cherry-tonka bitters and Pur Elderflower liqueur. Raicilla is an amazing, complex spirit that has savory, almost bleu cheese-like notes.
BM: Which cocktail on the menu best reflects your personality?
CS: I tend to lean towards what would be thought of as effeminate drinks, but first and foremost, I want a cocktail that’s complex. I’d go with Neta’s Spirit of the White Owl with Hitachino Brewery’s grain spirit, “Kiuchi No Shizuku,” mixed with Bravo Amaro, yuzu juice, egg whites and house made sancho-yuzu Champagne bitters. It seems like an easygoing feminine drink because it’s a fizz and has the fluffy egg whites, but in actuality it’s in no way mild. You can’t pound these back. It will linger on the palate and really slow you down.
BM: When's the last time you were inspired in your work by a travel experience?
CS: Too long ago! But it was in the Basque region in 2009. It was the whole idea of pintxos and the culture of the pinxtos bar — that you’d go to a bar to drink around 9 or 10pm and aren’t super hungry because you had a huge lunch that you’d slept off, and when you get there, each drink you order comes with these pintxos, these little canapés. I just loved the idea that you can have these pintxos with every drink you order. It’s totally my style of eating and drinking. And it’s not too far off from the Japanese omakase experience in that you’re given these small bites at the counter with your drinks, handed to you by the chef, or in the case of the pinxtos bar, handed to you by the bartender.
By Nicole Schnitzler
(Photos by Michael Tulipan | From Left: Wakaba Cocktail; Cole Schaffer; Spirit of the White Owl Cocktail)